(originally published in Kitsap Business Journal)
Content marketing rose as the darling concept of digital marketing in the last couple of years, sending many companies scrambling to join the growing trend of serving up content first and advertising last or maybe not at all. Also dubbed brand journalism and brand storytelling, the concept is turning on its head the question of what, exactly, is the core competency for a corporation that previously offered, say, soft beverages. Or credit cards. Or perhaps shoes.
We are, of course, talking about Coca Cola, American Express and Nike. Or are we?
Remember when blogs became hot and “everyone is a publisher” was the new mantra? In the world of business, now every brand and its brother is a media company, or at least striving to be. Content marketing is the new black.
Just ask Coca Cola, which employs full-time journalists and scores of freelancers to provide original content for its website, dubbed Coca Cola Journey. Ask Startbucks, which created an online media portal long before brand journalism became the term du jour. Or ask Red Bull, whose digitally distributed magazine, Red Bulletin, reportedly has millions of subscribers worldwide.
What exactly is content marketing? To put it in simplest terms, it’s marketing a product or service by providing useful and interesting content — and not always about the company’s latest and greatest. In fact, only occasionally about the company. Essentially, it’s a way to build a following without the constant “buy me!” or “act now!” techniques of marketing days of yore. It’s really an extension of what social media has been asking of brands: Don’t bother with the impressive annual report or the beautifully crafted sales copy. Be useful and interesting if not entertaining.
The idea of brand storytelling, of course, is not new. It’s at least as old as John Deer’s The Furrow magazine (born in 1895) and Jell-O’s first recipe book.
But in the digital marketing era, when lines between journalism, public relations and marketing are blurred (and native advertising is growing as a promising income source for traditional media publishers), editorial content produced by businesses big and small is becoming the norm.
Consumers are allegedly starved for content (whether they have any more time for it or not), or at least fed up with advertising (even with the more cunning kind, behavioral-based). And who doesn’t love a good story?
Here’s one example. A January YouTube video (which received 10.5 million views in its first two weeks) tells the emotional story of Seattle Seahawk Derrick Coleman. Despite being death since age 3, he worked against the odds to become a professional football player, an NFL champion. At the end of the one-minute story about his journey, the words “trust the power within” flash on the screen, followed by the Duracell logo. Beautiful story. So what if it’s really an ad for a battery maker? The video is inspirational and engaging. Duracell is merely footing the bill.
Content, of course, doesn’t come cheap, especially good content — and good content is imperative in order to compete for eyeballs, considering the overabundance that’s being produced. And for small businesses, it’s not practical if not impossible to keep small editorial departments on board.
But it can be done on a shoestring. Just look at Missouri Star Quilt Co. The small family business became the go-to online fabric shop by spending very little on marketing and instead offering tutorials on its YouTube channel and tips on its blog. The business exploded in just two years and now ships hundreds of packages daily all over the world.
For small businesses, content marketing may sound intimidating but it doesn’t need to be. Small-business leaders are already passionate about their products and services, they just need to share that passion without explicitly peddling their wares. They’re already experts in their fields, they just need to put that expertise in writing, so to speak. And it doesn’t always need to be original stuff — it can be as simple as curating other people’s great content and providing a forum for conversation.
Not everyone is a natural storyteller, but learning a few storytelling tricks is not rocket science. What’s important is using content marketing as a tool for the right reasons and not for the doing’s sake. There’s enough digital drivel out there — no need to add to the pile just because the “experts” said so. It’s one instance when “just do it” is not the best advice.