February 23, 2012

Why I hate the term ‘content marketing’

Empty stage at Content Marketing World 2011

It used to be called custom publishing, but now it’s just annoying

David SparkIt’s aggravating to knowingly use a term to describe your business, even though it poorly defines what you and the industry does. That’s how I feel about the term “content marketing.” It’s the industry’s current buzz term used to describe the need to create content over advertising in order to engage with customers in social spaces.

Content marketing is nothing new. Prior to the explosion of social media, it was and still is called custom publishing. Most of us experienced it for years every time we picked up a Triptik, map, or tour book from AAA. Or maybe your brokerage firm sent you a magazine offering up advice on how to invest your 401K.

Another new term used to describe custom publishing is brand journalism, and it’s the way I like to describe what my firm, Spark Media Solutions, does. Simply put, companies hire us to be journalists for them. The way we create media is no different than when we’re producing media for traditional media outlets.

We are custom publishers and brand journalists.

What’s wrong with the term ‘content marketing’

I hate the term content marketing for the following reasons:

  • It’s insidious. The relationship says, “Here’s some content for you that you’ll find valuable. But when you’re not looking, we’re going to sell you something.”
  • There is no “marketing.” When you create content to inform and educate, you’re providing answers that may fulfill a step in the sales process, and you may be strengthening trust of your brand, but that’s true of all content. You read a book by a certain author and if you like it you’ll be compelled to purchase and read their next book. Each article in a newspaper must be of a certain quality. If it’s not, you will stop reading and purchasing the newspaper.
  • The name “content marketing” assumes a sales pitch within the content. If there was a sales pitch in the content it would be called “advertising.”

Even though I dislike the term “content marketing,” I begrudgingly use it on my business site and blog. I have no choice. If I want people to understand what it is we do, and to be visible in searches on the topic, I have to use the term everyone else uses to understand our industry.

Am I being too sensitive? Do you agree or disagree with me that “content marketing” poorly describes the industry of businesses becoming their own media networks?

Creative Commons photo credit to ShashiBellamkonda.David Spark, a partner in Socialmedia.biz, helps businesses grow by developing thought leadership through storytelling and covering live events. Contact David by email, follow him on Twitter and Google Plus or leave a comment below.

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19 thoughts on “Why I hate the term ‘content marketing’

  1. I agree. It's kind of like using “Search Engine Optimization” to describe what internet marketers do today, when the field has evolved far beyond search engines. I think the industry as a whole is moving toward “inbound marketing” to provide a more accurate definition. I am not sure what the new term would be for “content marketing.” Perhaps “content generation?”

  2. “Brand journalism” could be even more problematic. I think of journalism as such an altruistic profession, at its best, yet many people have a low opinion of reporters and the media. To juxtapose it with selling, seems like it would have similar issues.

    • There's nothing in the title “brand journalism” that says selling. All it's saying is the editorial voice is from the brand. Why can't a brand have an editorial voice? It's actually exactly what you want, a brand being altruistic in its communications by creating journalism, NOT marketing copy. That's why it's a far more appropriate term.

      • Sorry. No sale! You're pitting two marketers against each other – one with a journalism background – cloaked in ivory tower righteousness; and the other one with a 'hard' marketing background – helping get that product sold using product, price, promotion, place.

        The word 'journalism' has a perception of impartiality, reporting, informing and trust. When you put the word 'brand' in front of it, you immediately blow that up. And forget about trust, which is critical for anyone to do business with you. And from my perspective 'brand journalism' screams of material that is overtly in the guise of advertising. Can you say “advertorial?”

        At least 'content marketing' is an honest term. It's not trying to pretend. It's about material designed to do a number of things – educate, inform, solve a problem, go viral (cross your fingers), move someone to the next step – whatever that is. And that's the point!

        In my opinion, 'brand journalism' is the insidious phrase. You're blatantly shilling, but pretending not to. It sounds like you're uncomfortable with the word 'sales.'

        • Cheryl, before you attack my profession and my definition of it, remember as with the definitions of ALL job descriptions, there's good and bad versions of each. There are good doctors and bad doctors. There are good lawyers and bad lawyers. There are good journalists and bad journalists. And there's also good brand journalists and bad brand journalists. There's nothing in the title “brand journalism” that says marketing or advertising. You are a brand, a company is a brand, and a media outlet is a brand. We're just doing journalism for the company brand. There's nothing that says a company can't have an editorial voice. Media outlets have editorial and marketing voices, so why can't a company also have an editorial voice?

          It becomes BAD brand journalism when it's shoddy or it verges on marketing. From what I've read in your answer you've decided that all brand journalism falls into the category of BAD brand journalism. Please take a look at the work we do at Spark Media Solutions and let me know if you feel the same way.

          The reason I hate content marketing is it has the word marketing in the title and that's not what I'm doing.

          • David, well said. I think generalizations are rarely true.

            One thing I've seen in the past two years is that more companies are taking advantage of the techniques of journalism and social media to communicate more effectively with their customers. To tell their own stories (by themselves or with an outsider's help). It strikes me that that serves everyone's best interests.

      • This is an argument about something that isn't relevant now and hasn't been relevant for 100 years. Every publication and broadcast is about marketing – an attempt to influence thought or action. However, there are journalists producing content and there are marketers producing content. I think there are just as many credible marketers producing content as there are journalists. So, call it whatever you want but let's get past the notion that “journalism” is somehow special or holds a higher office. The only people that still believe that are the people who were influenced by the marketing of a school of journalism at some university.

      • I'm not sure I agree the voice comes from the brand. The key messaging comes from the brand, the voice from the blogger (you). Having it be brand focused may imply there will be marketing involved. I think that's fine, why not? If it is more of an advertorial article, that's probably fine as well as long as the content is still relevant. If people respect your voice, then I don't think it matters.

  3. I guess at the end of the day it doesn't matter what the general public “call it”. It doesn't really change what you do, regardless of what the title is. Id also agree with the top post about the search engine optimization as well. When you do a technical job, things are harder to explain in 2 or 3 words.

    • Hey Jacob; nice response and good points.

      To me, though, what we call this practice matters a whole lot. As much as or more than the act itself.

      Why? Because at an individual level we can assign meanings to whatever sounds we want. But to communicate clearly with others, we need to speak the same language.

      Imagine person A defines a “high five” as a goodwill gesture where two hands meet; person B defines a “high five” as punching the person with their hand raised in the face. Now imagine something good happens and Person A says “high five” and raises his or her hand. Having a shared language is important. Semantics are fundamentally important.

      It may seem difficult to define this practice in 2 or 3 words, but that's only because we haven't done it with this one yet. When we do, and everyone is on the same page — with a shared language — it'll be quite easy to say some term, and have everyone know exactly, precisely what's being discussed.

      For instance, when I'm talking about telecommunication and say “cell tower”, few people will wonder if I'm talking about prisons or Rapunzel. Or consider “academy award” — when you hear this phrase you probably don't wonder “which academy and what award?” Or “management by walking around”, “the Pareto principle”, “Swedish massage”, et al.

      Repetition is the key to defining or redefining a term. And the definition / mental framework for interpreting reality which the definition creates matters A LOT. Consider “entitlement spending” vs. “social security”. Both terms refer to the same things, right? But obviously, they have different connotations, and lead the people who think in those terms down one logical path or another. Now consider “brand journalism” vs. “content marketing” vs. “custom publishing” vs. “propaganda” vs. “advertorials” vs. “transparency” vs. “inbound marketing” vs. “content generation”. These terms frame our understanding and our understanding frames our behavior.

      The words we choose to use matter a lot. A lot, a lot.

  4. Hi David…like you, I've been in this business for a long time. I started using the term “content marketing” back in 2001. The reason I did was because senior level marketers didn't react favorably to any of the other 30 terms for the industry, including brand journalism.

    If you want marketing people to react to a phrase, having “marketing” in it certainly helps. I've said this from the beginning…I never cared what people called our industry, as long as they started to hold to the concept and discipline of content marketing…that brands should think and act more like media companies to attract and retain customers. Stop advertising around the channel…be the channel.

    I know a lot of folks that use brand journalism…I have no problem with it. To me, it's the same as content marketing. The one area that I disagree with your post is that it is ALL marketing…brand journalism, content marketing, whatever you call it, better have a marketing goal attached to it, or what's the purpose? Even very pure brand journalism has some marketing goal behind it. Everything we do as part of content marketing should be helping to attract or retain customers (behavior) in some way.

    Always appreciate your perspective David. Thanks. Probably see you at SXSW.

    • Joe, you were smart to jump on this early and you no doubtedly own that phrase. Google searches prove that. I'm definitely envious of that. My history in it is just about a year shy of yours, but I was still using the old term of custom publishing. But as I soon found out, NO ONE who wasn't in custom publishing knew what the hell it was. So I had to find something new that made sense. I personally was trying to get away from anything that stunk of traditional marketing and advertising as I had spent a lot of time in it and I wasn't a fan. I was more a fan of traditional media. The problem I saw with traditional media is they didn't see the monstrous opportunity of offering the SAME EXACT SERVICES to companies. I saw it and you saw it, and we're doing better for it.

      And yes, I'll be at SXSW.

  5. Absolutely content marketing is the difficult task your content should contain all the answers which the reader likes to ask after reading content, for that you should read whole content first before you post

  6. It's debatable; In order to communicate with your target audience you need to create an effective marketing strategy. HOW you communicate with them, is through your content and the type of content you create, whether it's on your website, Facebook, Twitter Page, Blog whatever.
    Content is so easily accessible in this social media age; therefore to stand out from the crowd, your content needs to be fresh, relevant, creative, captivating and combining all of those elements together, it needs to communicate what you want your brand or company to represent – it's your voice! Make it worth listening too!
    How you market yourself is through your content, how you market your clients, again, is through your content. If a company posts a controversial post on twitter, it has the potential to backfire; is this then content marketing, or a bad publicity stunt?
    Marketing can be seen as an umbrella, and content comes under that umbrella; it's a term which has stuck and has become recognised, therefore how you make use of it, is up to you.
    Here is a blog that delves into how companies can connect through their content..whether that's content marketing or not… it's some form of marketing surely? http://bit.ly/xMq4J5

  7. I totally agree with you David. I guess that “content marketing” is been known to its term due to its popular sayings by some of the experts in doing marketing strategies because it's more good to hear and it really relates for what they are doing. In that case, some of the so called experts as other people says to them, they tend to do and called the content marketing wherein they didn't know already what is exactly the right format for it because in the end they come up in selling an item and not provide a good information for the topic or niche they are talking about and that practice became so popular until now and also the term “content marketing”.

  8. I work for a social media company called Magicbuz where employees from all walks of life give their personal written opinion about the product & company they need to promote on the social media. The people we use in our company to do promotions are not professionally trained journalists, they are just the regular guy in the street giving their honest opinions of the product they are to promote and they will even talk about a possible shortfall of a product but also the positive side of the product. Personally I tend to prefer this approach rather than put a purely positive, objective view out there that is merely the point of view of the company selling the product.

  9. I agree,well said David! One thing I've seen in the past two years is that more companies are taking advantage of the techniques of journalism and social media to communicate more effectively with their customers. To tell their own stories (by themselves or with an outsider's help). It strikes me that that serves everyone's best interests.