What Is Content Marketing?

Content Marketing Definition

Graphic Design by Lynn Langmade

The Definition of Content Marketing

Because this is my inaugural blog post, and I’m going to be spending a great deal of time on this blog writing about content marketing and marketing in general, I thought it might be a good idea to define content marketing and why it’s effective So, what is content marketing?

I should begin by saying that when people ask me what I do and I say, “content marketing,” people in the business world almost always look at me confused. The confusion used to surprise me because I’ve been doing “content” for so long that I’ve forgotten that for many people it’s still a foreign concept. They usually say something like, “Oh you design websites or create web pages?” And my answer to that question is always yes and no. Of course I “do” websites and web pages, but content encompasses so much more than that. I’ll go into detail as to exactly what it encompasses a little later on in this post. So, if you’re generally confused about what this whole “content marketing” thing is, I hope it’s comforting to know that you’re not alone and that it’s actually a pretty simple concept.

Now, if people have heard of content marketing, they often think erroneously that it’s a synonym for inbound marketing or demand generation. But it’s not. Content marketing is just one of many inbound marketing methodologies. Content marketing is also different from demand generation in the sense that demand generation often relies on content created by content marketers, but it doesn’t have to. Like inbound marketing, demand generation uses “pull” techniques, as opposed to “push” techniques, to attract visitors to a site or digital asset—essentially generating “demand” for content that will bring a potential customer or a “lead” to the website where they can eventually buy or perform a desired action.  

What Is Content Marketing?

While the description above gets us closer to what content marketing actually is, I think it might be more helpful to formally define the concept. Content Marketing Definition: According to Joe Pulizzi, the CEO of Content Marketing Institute, who popularized or mainstreamed the concept, Content Marketing is “the marketing and business process for 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.” Pulizzi goes on to suggest that it’s really about the difference between renting media and owning it. In the old days, for example, businesses had to rely on media gatekeepers and pay to rent advertising space. With the increasing digitization of marketing, the ability of companies to produce and publish their own media or content at scale, and the advances in media technology that allow audiences to download, play, and share content rapidly, companies began to rely less and less on traditional media and essentially became media companies in their own right. In other words, they stopped “buying” media and began to produce it. Or at least that’s how it worked in the early days of content marketing, you know, way back in 2010 before a gazillion content marketing agencies sprouted up trying to disembowel the content marketing revolution. Ironically companies are now paying agencies to create media so they can own it rather than rent it ;) This media is what we now refer to as “content.” In fact, I might argue that in today’s digital marketplace, every company must become a media company or become obsolete.  

What Is Content? 

But before we can provide a rigorous definition of content marketing, we have to answer the question “What is Content?” Again, if people look at me confused when I tell them I do content marketing, they are even more confused when I discuss content itself. I remember giving a company town-hall presentation about our content marketing initiative, and everyone in the audience had these horrific looks on their faces. So I took the opportunity to ask them, “Okay, who can tell me what content is?” Silence. I waited a minute or two, but no one felt confident enough to define it.

So I said, “Is a web page content?”

Everyone nodded vigorously.

“Is an ebook content?”

They mostly nodded.

“How about an app?”

Nobody nodded.

“What about movie or quiz?”

Again, no one replied. 

So I filled the silence: “Content is anything that provides value.”

After this Socratic dialogue, we spent some time discussing what value was and how you’d know “value” when you saw it. For me, this is probably the “art” of content marketing. Great content marketers just know how to bottle . . . package up value for their audience, and being able to identify value or create it isn’t something you can learn or do by formula. It's honestly a very rare talent. For me, at the bare minimum, I identify value as anything that is intrinsically useful or helpful for an audience. And I mean anything. The best content marketers have an uncanny ability to recognize value in the mundane and develop truly original ways to package utility for their audience.

However, if you want to go beyond good content and create amazing content that will truly “delight” your audience, your content needs to do more than provide value. As Benjamin Franklin, the original content marketer once claimed, it needs to be “useful and entertaining.” That's right, content needs to be both. And as I contend in my own content philosophy, I think it also needs to be “inspirational” to engage a buyer and compel a conversion. 

The Advantages of Pull Versus Push Technique

It is this "value" that shifts the entire dynamic between a marketer and their audience. Traditional marketing, what we often refer to as “interruption marketing,” pushed out advertisements to its audience without asking permission. These advertisements, what we call “push tactics,” provided little value to the audience, were overtly commercial, and benefited the marketer or business only. Similarly, push marketing as a method is about taking the product/solution to the customer. Some examples of push marketing include:

  1. Door to door sales
  2. Traditional advertising
  3. Direct mail
  4. Trade Shows
  5. Point of sales displays or on-site demos

In contrast, pull technique aims to get the prospect or customer to come to you. It's all about attracting your audience. Some examples of pull tactics are:

  1. Branding
  2. Public Relations
  3. Word-of-Mouth & Referrals
  4. Customer Relationship Management

The best example of the difference between push and pull marketing is the difference between traditional advertising and PR: Advertising is what you pay for; publicity is what you pray for. Marketing thought leader, Guy Kawasaki, further elaborates on this trope in his work:

 “Do you know what the difference is between PR and advertising? Advertising is when you say how great you are. PR is when other people say how great you are. PR is better.”

While Kawasaki provides a hint of the differences between advertising and PR, CMI co-founder, Robert Rose, has crafted one of the most compelling and user-friendly definitions of content marketing based upon the dichotomy between PR and Advertising, which he adapted from Henry James’s seminal work of literary criticism, The Art of the Novel -- the difference between showing versus telling:


 "Traditional marketing and advertising is telling the world you’re a rock star. Content marketing is showing the world you are one.”

But the most practical definition has been provided by James O'Brian of Contently: "The idea central to content marketing is that a brand must give something valuable to get something valuable in return. Instead of the commercial, be the show. Instead of the banner ad, be the feature story."

In other words, content marketing is just one more pull tactic in a larger “inbound” strategy marketers can use to get a prospect to come you, and it’s proven to be one of the most effective tactics of all time. 

Why Content Marketing? Is it Effective?

Just how effective is content marketing? Below are a few content marketing statistics that showcase the power of content marketing:

  •  72% of marketers say branded content is more effective than advertising
  •  The average cost to generate a lead through inbound marketing ($143) is < half the average for outbound marketing ($373)
  • SEO leads are eight times more likely to close into customers than outbound leads.
  •  B2B companies with blogs generate 67% more leads per month on average than non-blogging firms
  •  Interesting content is a top 3 reason people follow brands on social media
  • Clicks from shared content are 5 times more likely to result in a purchase

Why Is Content Marketing So Effective Compared to Traditional Pull Techniques?

To truly grasp why content marketing is so effective we need to understand that due to increasing digitization, buyers are more educated than they were 20 years ago or even 10 years ago. Before the internet, sales had all of the information a prospect needed to make a buying decision. Between the datasheet and the sales demo, it was sales who had control over information needed to make a purchase. We used to call this the “sales cycle.”

That all changed with the advent of Customer 2.0 or the “educated buyer.” Prospects are now empowered to conduct research about a product before they ever contact Sales. By the time they finally contact Sales, they have already made their decision. In fact, recent research indicates that 80% of purchase decisions are made without vendor contact at all and this percentage is only growing. According to Jerry Rackley, Chief Analyst at DemandMetric, “buyers are self-educating far deeper into the sales cycle than they once did.” So companies that are not developing and distributing information to help a prospect conduct product research—i.e., not doing content—are losing opportunities to influence their prospect in their buying decisions. In short, they are missing opportunities and losing revenue.

Marketing is now responsible for as much as 70% of the funnel, and by developing helpful content, content marketers are able to exert an unprecedented level of influence on the educated buyer. By developing useful content that will help guide a buyer toward a purchase decision, content marketers not only educate a buyer, but also help to establish the much-needed trust between a prospect and a business. It is this amazing ability to both educate a buyer and provide critical trust that makes content marketing arguably the most powerful marketing methodology currently in practice. 

My Definition(s) of Content Marketing

So what is content marketing after all? Because there exists no single definition that fully encompasses content marketing, I think we need to stop trying to come up with a single definition and instead develop a definition “set” that will provide a more complete picture of content marketing. To that end, I’ve developed three definitions below that I think provide the best working definition "set" for people learning about this discipline. However, don’t be surprised if this definition set continues to evolve ;) 

Practical Definition: Content marketing is the persistent practice of attracting prospects by developing and distributing genuinely helpful, customer-centric content to educate and guide buyers to a purchase decision.
Theoretical Definition: Content Marketing is the art of telling a compelling story that converts your audience and inspires advocacy. 
Aspirational Definition: Content Marketing is a marketing revolution that empowers marketers to stop interrupting their audiences and start providing real value. 

How would you define Content Marketing? Leave a comment below and tell me how you would define it. :)

Want to learn more insider tips for making the most out of your content? Sign up for blog updates from Lynn Langmade Content Marketing to stay on target!