Content Marketing: A Tale of Two Definitions

Isn't it interesting how different people can look at the same thing yet have significantly different perceptions. We have heard many times about "glass half-full" versus "glass half-empty" to describe people's outlook on a situation or issue. The takeaway from the glass analogy is that what is real is what you perceive. The glass is at once half full and half empty; which half you choose to focus on is up to you.

Content as Message
This post is not about glasses of any degree of fullness, but the analogy came to mind as I read an article about the Interactive Advertising Bureau's efforts to set industry standards for the practice of content marketing. The starting point for the AIB initiative was to establish a definition for content marketing. The definition developed is:

"Content marketing is the marketing technique creating and distributing relevant and valuable content to attract, acquire and engage a clearly defined and understood target audience to provide useful, educational, or entertaining information on its own merit without a call to action." 

The IAB definition of content marketing seems to focus on the practice as being about message creation and delivery. The message can be useful, educational, or entertaining, but it better not try to do anything more than that! The condition placed at the end, "without a call to action" is interesting. It is as if the AIB wants to disassociate "content" from "marketing." One cannot help but think about the limitations of most media advertising- many ads can inform or entertain but are incapable of motivating the audience to take action. If the AIB definition of advertising is embraced, marketers may find content marketing to be this generation's 30-second TV commercial in terms of effectiveness in moving the sales needle.

Content as Strategy
If the AIB definition of content marketing rings a bell, it may be because you have seen a large chunk of it somewhere else... on the website of the Content Marketing Institute. When asked, "What is Content Marketing?" the CMI says:

"Content marketing is a marketing technique 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." 

To say that the AIB and CMI differ on the purpose of content marketing is an understatement. The AIB suggests content marketing avoid engaging the audience in a call to action at all costs. CMI says that is exactly why you use content marketing- to motivate the audience to take some kind of action. The CMI definition acknowledges that for marketing to be effective a person ultimately has to make a decision to engage in a behavior. Otherwise, we have succeeded in informing or entertaining and nothing else. Content marketing is used strategically to prompt needed audience responses throughout the sales funnel.

A Vote for Action
It is interesting that the AIB definition of content marketing borrows heavily from the CMI definition but distances itself when it comes to expectations of audience action. A plethora of impotent marketing exists already; watering down content marketing by discouraging calls to action would only add to the problem. Please note what the CMI does not say about content marketing- it is not all about selling product. Instead, content marketing should be about the audience- their stories, their needs, and how to help them meet their needs... and not about your product. Content marketing stands to be a game changer, but not if it misses a unique opportunity to engage audiences to take action (download, subscribe, call, visit, refer, follow, and yes, even buy).