The term, “content marketing,” is both one of the most well-understood use cases for writing in business—a good source of jobs directly related to writing—and still often one of the most poorly defined, mis-applied, and problematic initiatives for businesses. Former Animalz CEO Devin Bramhall describes this in her public resignation announcement at LinkedIn:
“I became CEO of Animalz to evolve Content Marketing, which I believe has plateaued in B2B Saas. Despite more tools, platforms, and types of content, our obsession with measuring prevents the necessary creative risks that produce outsized impact. We’ve also adopted a reductive concept of community. It’s become a buzzword, not a human endeavor. Audiences are PEOPLE, not just algorithms, and the internet isn’t always the best way to serve them… This is my biggest regret and thus it remains my mission. I want to transform content marketing from what it has become – a tool for growth – into a pillar of growth centered on community, creativity, and helpfulness.”
The companies that win are the ones that develop a marketing practice the way Bramhall describes it: community, creativity, and helpfulness are core to the business.
By contrast, many of today’s content marketing practices are impatient, calculative, and transactional. They work, until they don’t anymore; until the moment the marketing team realizes that customer LTV isn’t growing, a competitor makes a breakthrough with a much more interesting angle (think Wealthsimple’s Money Diaries), or that its SEO awareness didn’t actually turn into revenue. When a need to cut budget arises, the content marketing team is gone.
Still, these are all just symptoms; the whole point is, the business approached content purely as promotional marketing (i.e., “building a content marketing machine”)—without any spirit, vision, or energy. Nobody wants another content marketing machine; everybody has problems they want help with.
Some companies that get it right: The Creative Independent, WePresent, and Glimmer. These publications were not content marketing, they were more like independent publications that happened to be owned by organizations—Kickstarter, Wetransfer, and Glitch. Airbnb got it right the first time with Pineapple. Momofuku got it right with Lucky Peach. Andreessen Horowitz with Future.
Every company is a creative company. Ironically, corporate engineering blogs and employer brand communications (with recruiting as a business case) seem to get it right more often than content marketing blogs do—not because marketers don’t know what they’re doing, but because the incentives and emphasis isn’t on direct attribution and results.
Rather, as any savvy engineer knows, the best way to recruit software engineers is to share the work, technical insights, mistakes made, and insights from stories. Software engineers are also notoriously sensitive and allergic to marketing—so any engineering blog that has even a whiff of transactional marketing intention will lose credibility.
Leaders and companies are starting to get better at articulating what they really mean when they talk about “content marketing.” There’s talk of building media companies or media arms:
Content only partially achieves its potential when it’s practiced as an instrument for marketing. Teams can unlock the potential of content when they view it as a product—or a practice—and manage it like one as well.
Some quick ideas: Make wonderful work. Do service journalism for the people you want to talk to. Interview the experts in the team, and demonstrate their expertise.
Let marketing take care of SEO, let design take care of copywriting, and let leadership develop a culture of creativity and expression throughout the organization.
Content marketing isn’t going anywhere, of course. Multi-million dollar budgets that need to be spent by the end of the year in order to get renewed for the next; but it’s time to spend it better.
Take some risks. Invest in creativity. Leave an impression that you can’t buy.