What Is Content Marketing?

What Is Content Marketing?


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No one cares about advertising anymore. Content marketing is king.

We skip ads using our DVR. We buy Netflix on demand. We scroll past the ever-increasing number of ads in our Facebook feed. We don’t like ads, and that’s discouraging for those who are trying to market their product. But, there is hope.

We share blog posts and recommend them to our friends. We comment and discuss the ‘killer’ content that we love.

Getting the word out about our brand, business, product, or organization isn’t impossible, but the methods have surely changed. Content marketing is taking over the world.

What is content marketing?

What is content marketing?

What is Content Marketing?

Advertising is built on  interruptions–taking up 30 seconds of your time during the Super Bowl, or sneaking its way into your social media feeds. No matter when it happens, you probably didn’t ask for it. This is what makes it annoying. Content marketing is different. Content marketing is permission-based.  It’s “marketing” that we freely invite into our lives, and sometimes even share with our friends.

Content marketing is any marketing format that involves the creation and sharing of media and publishing content in order to acquire customers. -WikipediaClick To Tweet

Content marketing is built on the idea that the best way to build trust with our potential customers is to give them something they want. Online, this often translates to helpful content that doesn’t interrupt whatever the visitor is doing, but rather invites them to learn, enjoy, and connect. Good content marketing brings the user to us, rather than forcing ourself in front of the user. This builds trust and loyalty with potential customers. 

The Content Marketing Institute says it more formally: “Content marketing is a marketing technique of creating and distributing relevant and valuable content to attract, acquire, and engage a clearly defined and understood target audience–with the objective of driving profitable customer action.”

While it employs a less “in your face” approach, content marketing is still about results. In fact, it is often more result-driven than its traditional counterpart.

Inbound Marketing

More recently, the term inbound marketing (also Seth Godin’s term, permission marketing) has taken hold as a way to describe the type of marketing that allows customers to come to the brand on their own rather than the brand reaching out to the customer via advertising. This idea is built upon the assumption that if you publish helpful content, the customer will look for the business that is offering the best advice. The best way to understand this is to think about a Google search.

If a customer does a search online for advice on how to grow their garden, what will they find? Chances are, they will receive a list of blog posts and articles offering tips and tricks for gardeners. Because Google prioritizes local results, a local nursery that is offering this type of advice on their blog will rank highly in the search results. For the local nursery, this is an inbound marketing technique–getting the customer to reach out to you first.

It is pretty easy to see that this entire transaction was only made possible because of helpful content that exists because of content marketing.

What Is Content Marketing (Not)?

Sometimes it is easier to think in terms of what something is not rather than what is it. Content marketing is many things, but there are definitely a few things that it is not.

  1. It Is Not About You – This one flies directly in the face of most advertising theories. Ads are always about the company paying for them. With content marketing, we need to take the opposite approach. The content needs to be about our audience.
  2. It Is Not About Your Product – It’s not about our company, but surely it’s about the our product? Nope, it’s not about that either. Content marketing is 100% about helping your customer succeed (using your content). Again, not your product.
  3. It Is Not About Instant Sales Content marketing is a long-term strategy for building customer trust and loyalty to a brand or an idea. It isn’t as concerned with an immediate sale. It knows that sales are earned by building customer trust. After all, you can’t trick anyone into buying anything.
  4. It Is Not About Creativity – Creativity is king for the advertising world, but not content marketing. Content has a bigger mission.

The History Of Content Marketing

Have you ever heard of the The Furrow?

the furrow content marketing history

It is a customer magazine that has been published by the John Deere corporation since 1895. It is widely considered one of the earliest examples of content marketing, and is now available in more than 40 countries and in 12 different languages. As a magazine, it offers its readers regular information (content) about the agricultural industry around the world. It is the perfect companion for anyone that works in agriculture, and more importantly, anyone who might be interested in John Deere tractors.

In recent years, The Furrow has moved online, offering an iPad app and a fully stocked website with a ton of useful content. The Furrow has easily grown beyond “content marketing” and is in many ways an industry staple, along with the brand it represents.

It is easy to see how The Furrow can be used as an example for our own content marketing, but it is not the only example from history.

Early example of content marketing from Michelin Tires.

Early example of content marketing from Michelin Tires.

Another early example of content marketing was a 400-page guide released by Michelin Tires in 1900. It was geared at helping drivers maintain their cars, and covered basic maintenance, accommodations, and other travel tips. After 35,000 copies were distributed for free, the company began selling the books for a profit.

A short time later in 1904, the Jell-O corporation also began using content marketing by distributing free copies of its cookbook , suggesting creative and useful ways to use its own product for cooking. Before this time, Jell-O was basically unknown and unused. After just two years of content marketing, the company saw it sales rise to over $1 million dollars per year.

The history of content marketing is rich, brimming with stories of success. It includes companies like Nike, Sears, Lego, Sherwin Williams, Hasbro and Proctor & Gamble. The idea isn’t new. In fact, it is one of the oldest and best tricks in the marketing playbook.

Scientific Advertising

Claude C. Hopkins, an early advertising pioneer, helped develop content marketing through a strategy that he called “scientific advertising.” Hopkins began by inviting readers of his content-based ads the opportunity to request a free sample of the product. Hopkins didn’t believe in a tagline’s ability to get people to try something new. With helpful content, and a helpful product, he was able to reach customers by reaching them where they were, and more importantly, getting them to come to him.

Content marketing ad by Claude C. Hopkins designed to educated and help the potential buyer.

Content marketing ad by Claude C. Hopkins designed to educate and help the potential buyer.

One of the things that is particularly interesting about Hopkins’s approach is that he not only used content-based ads to reach customers, but also used the product itself as a form of content. This was an early version of true “inbound” marketing at work – getting the customer to come to him rather than interrupting them with advertising.

Argue anything for your own advantage, and people will resist to the limit. But seem unselfishly to consider your customers’ desires, and they will naturally flock to you. – Claude C. HopkinsClick To Tweet

Direct Response Advertising

David Ogilvy is an advertising legend. As a young designer, I was given a copy of his book Ogilvy On Advertising by one of my professors and it literally changed the course of my career. Ogilvy is a no-nonsense kind of ad-man. He demands measurable results, and isn’t swayed by the “creative” side of the advertising profession. As he says it, creativity  “really means originality, the most dangerous word in the lexicon of advertising.”

In his now famous video “We Sell Or Else,” Ogilvy outlines the failures of traditional creative advertising and the measurable and strategic advantages of what he calls direct response advertising. What he describes is a method that includes long copy, personalized mailings, individual measurement and a focus on selling in a way that customers actually care about. He describes something that is very similar to the online-based content marketing that we know and love today.

The Modern Content Marketing Formula

History shows us that content marketing can take many forms. In fact, much of what is considered content marketing today is still taking place in print through things like magazines, books,  pamphlets, and flyers. Each year, however, more and more content marketing efforts are shifting online where users create, share, and distribute content very freely. For the company implementing content marketing, this takes on a simple step-by-step formula.

  1. Create helpful content, written or visual.
  2. Distribute that content, usually via a blog.
  3. Share the content over social networks.
  4. Grow your audience, and deepen their trust.

It is important to emphasize that this formula is not a one-size-fits-all approach, however, and that content market can truly come in many other forms. That said, the formula has been proven to work time and time again and is at the heart of what content marketing is today.

Whole Foods Market

One example of a company doing this well is Whole Foods Market, a Texas-based whole foods supermarket chain with passionate fan base. Through its website, Facebook page, and company blog, Whole Foods Market is constantly creating and distributing content that their customers care about. Some of the content has a direct tie-in to their products like recipes and food preparation tips, and some of it is simply related to things that their customers are passionate about, like environmental issues or information about genetically modified foods.

The company has posted recipes, food preparation tips, infographics, videos, and almost a dictionary of information about food preparation and labeling. Whole Foods Market understands what its customers care about, and has provided ample opportunities for converting potential leads into paying customers through its content marketing efforts.

whole foods content marketing example

Whole Foods Market has garnered more than 1 million Facebook fans and an active community with their content marketing efforts.

The Future Of Content Marketing

Content marketing is a growing trend.

Over the last few years, the art of marketing, online and offline, has changed dramatically. Currently, all trends point to content marketing as the next big way in the online marketing industry. It is trending similar to the social media hype just a few years ago. While the momentum has been slowly building for online-based content marketing, certain changes in the search engine optimization (SEO) industry have been propelling the content marketing industry forward even faster.

content marketing trends

Content marketing is growing strong – up and to the right.

Longer Content = Better Content

Neil Patel, blogger and co-founder of KISSmetrics, has been quoted as saying that “SEO isn’t the same as what it used to be. You can’t just pop up an ugly website, throw up mediocre content, build a few links and expect to rank well.” According to Patel, we actually have to build a good website and fill it to the top with high quality content.

Over the years, SEO has been a staple for many companies as a way to rank high on Google and gain the attention of people, but it has been losing some of its steam lately because of the continuous algorithm updates made by Google and other competing search engines. More and more each day, we are learning that Google strongly prefers long-form content that helps readers more than anything. In the old days we could throw up a page with the right keywords. Now, we need to solve our customer’s problems in order to rank well.

word count content marketing seo

A comparison of average article length and search rank position. Longer = better.

Some compelling evidence can be see in this chart defining Google’s latests trend toward longer blog content. For many popular searches, the top ten results actually offer an average of at least 2,400 words or more. This is a new and alarming trend for someone who is putting the majority of their effort into short-form content or pure SEO tactics.


It also seems that users prefer long-form content as well. There is a direct correlation between the length of the article and the number of links/shares that are made throughout the web.

It is pretty easy to see that Google is making some sort of assumption about the quality of an article based on the length that it offers. One of the things that we will need to be focused on going forward with content marketing is the overall quality and length of our content.

Content Marketers Are Spending More

Another trend in the content marketing industry has been the upward direction of overall spending on the marketing category. The Content Marketing Institute recently released their annual survey results that showed almost all B2B marketers planned to increase their content marketing spending over the next 12 months. This is good news, as it will further propel the trend and discussion about content marketing.

Content Marketing Institute results for 2013 survey.

Content Marketing Institute results for 2013 survey.

More Tactics

As the content marketing train rolls forward, there is also a likely trend toward more and more content marketing mediums. In the same Content Marketing Institute survey mentioned above, B2B content marketers reported that they were using a total of 13 different tactics for their content marekting efforts, a number that is up over the previous year.

content marketing tactics

As content marketing continues to grow in popularity and understanding, more competition will be added to the market, generating more growth in usage. It is also encouraging to see that social media, website articles, and a blogs were all in the top four most popular techniques for content marketing. This reaffirms the ongoing trend toward increasing dollars toward online content marketing.

How To Get Started With Content Marketing

The next time you hear someone ask “what is content marketing,” you have an excellent answer for them. But what are you going to do about it right now? There has never been a more crucial time for an individual brand, company, non-profit, or organization to pick up content marketing. Through the act of creating and sharing helpful content with the world, we build trust and support within our community and turn content prospects into paying customers. With the ever changing landscape online, no one can risk being left off of the content marketing bandwagon.

To get started, there are few quick things that you can do.

  1. Develop A Rollout Plan – If you don’t have a blog or section on your website that you can add articles too, now is the time to get one. If you are going to create and share content you need a place to distribute it. Many of us already have blogs. Now is the time to put it to use.
  2. Get To Know Your Audience – Content marketing is all about reaching your audience in a way that is helpful to them. In order to do this, you need to truly understand your customers.
  3. Plan Out Your Content – Content marketing is much more that simply publishing a blog post. You need to put some thinking and strategy into everything that you do. The best way to do this through the use of a content planning meeting with your team and an editorial calendar plugin.
  4. Rally Around Your Team – Good content marketing is a team effort. Make sure you include all of your team members and keep them engaged in your overall content marketing goals.

Content marketing is a great way to reach your audience with content that they actually want to hear about.

Wouldn’t it be great if your customers constantly came to your front door because of the content that you are publishing? Too often, when we think about online marketing we jump into the more traditional methods like paid advertising and display marketing. Content marketing is changing this. In the future content marketing will become the world’s number one driver of online traffic and sales. The companies that choose to invest now will eventually rule the pack.

About the Author

CoSchedule Co-Founder, blogger, designer, content hacker and serial starter. Also, a firm believer in the do what you love, love what you do philosophy.

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