Richard Pattinson

In a recent blog post, Forbes contributor Shel Israel took aim at content marketing. Claiming content marketing was more about “message mongering” than conversations, he dismissed the practice of building markets through content as “lame and ineffective.” The comments section at the bottom of the post quickly piled up, with industry leaders such as Joe Pulizzi and Lee Odden voicing their general respect for Shel Israel’s work but highlighting his misunderstanding of content marketing as an approach.

Four weeks later, Shel Israel delivered a disarmingly frank apology, accepting he had misunderstood what content marketing comprised and acknowledging that he himself was the definition of someone who marketed content. Describing a conversation with marketing expert Odden following the publication of his original post, Israel wrote, “The longer we talked, the larger the foot in my mouth felt. In short, Lee persuaded me I was a content marketer although I have never called myself one.”

Israel’s about-turn reflected highly on his integrity both as a thinker and contributor in the content space. It also provided a shot in the arm to content marketing practitioners, and prompted myself and others to reflect on what content marketing actually encompasses and why it matters.

“Utility, Not Noise”

Pierce through the noise with the right content creation plan.Lee Odden put it well in his initial response to Israel’s post. According to Odden, the success of a content marketing strategy is directly related to the intelligence of its construction and the skill with which the content is produced. “The content marketers I know use customer insight, interests, goals and pain points to create editorial plans […] that provide utility, not noise. It’s meaningful storytelling, not just mechanical spray and pray,” he wrote.

Odden is right. As with any content production, keeping your target audience firmly in mind is key to the success of the project. It is also a perennial editorial challenge. Whether you are responsible for marketing at Procter & Gamble or an editor at The New York Times deciding on titles for the coming week, your target customers should be peering over your shoulder (figuratively speaking) at all times.

Before we go any further, it’s worth pointing out that content marketing is hardly new. Individuals, institutions and organizations have used content to market themselves and their products for centuries if not longer. The line between editorial, advertorial and commercial is as thinly drawn as ever. Airlines use in-flight magazines as open platforms to promote their destinations through lively write-ups and vibrant photography. Ad agencies have turned advertisements into commercial art forms. Even traditional literary forms can be viewed within this framework. Shakespeare produced brilliant content that struck a chord with Renaissance audiences, provided him with a livelihood and secured him a higher position in English society than he may have otherwise expected for that age. He gained a foothold in his market.

Great content is inherently marketable and tends to work its magic of its own accord.

In each of these instances, you’re happy to invest that little effort upfront (clicking on the website, switching the channel, picking up the magazine) because you know that good content ultimately pays back double. Geoff Livingston neatly expresses this axiom in a blog post on content marketing referenced by Shel Israel in his original article.It really isn’t rocket science: Great content is inherently marketable and tends to work its magic of its own accord. You become absorbed by a good book or a long-form article in spite of yourself. You lose yourself in the movie documentary even though you never realized you were interested in South America’s history. You were lukewarm about the opening episode of the new TV series, but now you’re hooked.

“They say great salespeople don’t sell,” Livingston writes. “Great salespeople simply provide useful information, value and likable experiences, making a decision an easy and obvious choice to say yes or no. A good salesperson wants you happy, knowing that even if they don’t win a transaction, you’ll remember the overall experience as a positive one, and be more inclined to work with said salesperson or company later in time … Similarly great content informs and/or entertains on a subject.”

So good content sells itself, and by extension reflects positively on the individual or organization responsible for producing it. Such is the basic principle of brand journalism and of content marketing more broadly. Strong content positions the content producer more favorably within the target market, whatever that market might be.

Quality Counts

Which brings us back to the age-old question of how best to produce compelling content. How do we create work that people want to engage with while ensuring a quality that speaks positively of the person or brand associated with the piece?

The Writer and His I look across the Brafton editorial operation, I see the world of content marketing and custom publishing in microcosm. Every day our content marketing strategists, producers and editors are working on content strategies designed to meet and advance our clients’ commercial objectives. Whether it be promoting website conversions, increasing traffic to the site or developing thought leadership within the client’s industry, we not only scope out how to achieve the goal but deliver the content to make it happen.

I have half an eye on Brafton’s publish funnel (the digital equivalent of the old printing press) as I write this column. Right now, our newsroom is delivering custom works to client sites on topics as diverse as data center cooling, the rise in Brent crude futures, the latest ding between Apple and Microsoft in the tablet wars and the Chicago Auto Show. We are delivering short news pieces, long-form articles, how-to’s, features pieces, videos, landing pages, infographics and interview-based works. This is custom publishing under the umbrella of content marketing in full bloom.

Connecting the Dots

So why does content marketing matter? In basic terms, it matters because it has always mattered. Content marketing is an extremely broad endeavor. Even a hard-news report on the latest stock price movements by the Wall Street Journal can be viewed within the context of content marketing. The WSJ – similar to the Financial Times or Bloomberg – has a business model based on attracting people with a material interest in the financial markets. By definition, producing a news report on share price movements is an editorial act that satisfies the WSJ’s commercial strategy and further cements the publication’s identity as a leading voice on market news. In short, it helps to drive the bottom line.

So why does content marketing matter? In basic terms, it matters because it has always mattered. Content marketing is an extremely broad endeavor.

Not that simply producing content into pre-defined silos and then hoping for the best – the “spray and pray” approach Odden alludes to in his comment – is sufficient. One of the big priorities for 2013 will be integrated content: Pieces must be aligned to support an extended and intuitive user experience. Too often online, links on the page provide only tenuous, surface-level connections to the work in hand.

Throughout this year, we will benefit from browsing our own published work as though we were a visitor to the site in question. Do we seamlessly find ourselves moving from one piece of content to the next, or does the experience feel truncated? At what point do we find ourselves in a content dead-zone with nowhere obvious to go? How long is it before we engage in the digital equivalent of putting the magazine down or switching channels?

Online content is light years ahead of where it was five or 10 years ago, and people are consuming more content now than at any time. As such, the challenge remains high for content producers and marketers in creating and coordinating content in increasingly smart ways that feel intuitive to consumers online. The future is bright for content marketing and production. And Shel Israel – among others – appears inclined to agree.