The DVR just made it so easy. Push advertising was already losing its dominance by the time the DVR came around. Once consumers were given a simple tool with which to skip past traditional advertising, marketers had to start thinking about how to create strategies for motivating customers to want to interact with brands, by offering information to make customers' lives better. And thus was the seed for content marketing planted.
The Content Marketing Institute (CMI) describes content marketing as "a 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." This straightforward definition belies the complexity of creating engaging content at a time when the number of channels through which an organization can reach its customers has exploded.
Additionally, the proven efficacy of content marketing has induced companies of all types and sizes to flood the market with articles, white papers, videos, podcasts, Vines, Facebook posts, and tweets. Content marketing is everywhere, and that is part of the challenge for the industry. As Joe Pulizzi, founder of CMI, says, "Almost every company is doing some form of content marketing now," with a 2012 CMI study showing 93% of B2B marketers engaged in content marketing.
But that doesn't mean they know why they're doing it. A 2013 CMI study found that only 44% of B2B companies have a documented content strategy. "And we know there is a high correlation between having a content strategy in place and succeeding with it," says Pulizzi. Forrester Research analyst Ryan Skinner says, "Content marketing is sort of an Eternal September. A lot of people are continually discovering it and coming into it for the first time."
Besides the difficulty of breaking through and the need for a cohesive and well-articulated strategy, there are other persistent challenges. Pulizzi points to a lack of time, the ability to produce enough content, and the ability to produce content that engages. He says, "We're at the end of the early adoption phase for content marketing, but we still have a long way to go."
THE YEAR IN REVIEW
Skinner points to Oracle's October 2013 acquisition of Compendium, a cloud-based content marketing provider, as a major affirmation that content marketing is here to stay. "When someone developing a modern marketing suite buys a content marketing component, it really says something," Skinner says. "Every company in the content marketing space saw their value double-at least in their heads." Adobe's July 2013 acquisition of Neolane, which provides cross-channel campaign management technology, sent a similar message about the need for integrated content marketing as part of an overall marketing strategy.
Another milestone moment was a shot in the dark. During an unexpected power outage at Super Bowl XLVII in New Orleans in February 2013, Oreo's ad agency tweeted a whimsical ad with a picture of the cookie that said, "You can still dunk in the dark." The ad was retweeted about 15,000 times and liked on Facebook another 20,000 times. Consumer brands and agencies suddenly had a firsthand example of how to think creatively about real-time content marketing.
Native advertising-paid media in which the ad experience mimics the context in which it is found-also continued to grow. Skinner says, "The term has been around for a while, but now there is a lot more money being thrown at it." Results have been mixed-The Atlantic caught flak for including a sponsored story from the Church of Scientology in January 2013 because it so closely resembled the magazine's editorial format. Journalists worry about the degradation of editorial integrity represented by native advertising.
Still, with publishing companies looking for revenue opportunities to offset print advertising losses, native advertising represents an appealing opportunity for content marketers. Julie Fleischer, director of media and consumer engagement at Kraft Foods Group and CMI's 2013 Content Marketer of the Year, says, "The broad adoption of native advertising into business models gives us new places to play and new formats to try."
A LOOK AHEAD
Casting an outsize shadow over content marketing, Google continues to prove both a challenge and an opportunity. The challenge came in October 2013 when the search giant began making secure search the default setting for all users, which meant that helpful content marketing cues in the form of user search terms were replaced with a terse "not provided." One tracking site estimates that nearly 80% of searches are now termed "not provided," up from 4% in April 2012.
"You lose a significant input in the form of the search term that drives traffic to your site," says Skinner. Fleischer says, "Google is giving us a reduced level of opacity, and that will be super challenging for us. It's a huge part of our strategy."
The opportunity comes in the form of the continued evolution of Google's search algorithm, most recently with the August 2013 launch of the Hummingbird algorithm. Pulizzi says, "Hummingbird shows that high quality content matters; that was a huge change on Google's side." Seemingly overnight, Pulizzi adds, "‘SEO content' became ‘content marketing.'"
Fleischer sees the fact that consumers have so many places to go for information as continuing to make it harder for content marketers to break through. "There's a real difficulty in reaching younger consumers," she says. Content marketing that speaks more to experience may be the answer. Skinner points out a successful campaign by Intel called "The Music Experiment," which is an exclusive underground branded concert series targeting young consumers who could win entry to the shows only by engaging with Intel via social media channels. "It checks the boxes of content marketing," Skinner says, "but it goes beyond that."
And as content marketing continues to grow up, metrics and analytics will be on everyone's mind. "We are trying to become a sophisticated, data-driven marketer," Fleischer says, and as more companies follow suit, demand for sophisticated audience listening tools and analytics will follow. Pulizzi thinks this shift is already happening, with IBM, Oracle, and Salesforce.com gaining traction in the space. "Content marketing is a big boy's game now," he says.