Baseball cards began as content marketing around the turn of the 20th Century. Kids in 1910 were probably the same as me, saving their pennies and hoping to find a Ty Cobb or Honus Wagner all-star card, which today are worth tens of thousands of dollars. Baseball cards were brilliant marketing vehicles to sell chewing gum and (for adults) cigarettes too. The cigarette and gum companies were looking for creative, non-traditional ways to stimulate sales, and thus the baseball card was invented, to the delight of generations of kids.
The radio and television soap opera was another pioneering content marketing idea -- aimed at women-at-home, who presumably would tune in for dramatic stories about the complicated lives of rich, attractive folk for the price of being bombarded with soap powder commercials. The soap powder companies actually sponsored these daytime dramas, giving them the name they still bear. Hey, we all want our colors to be bright and clean, and we all want good stories -- though I'm not exactly in the soap opera demographic.
The basic idea behind content marketing, which stands in stark comparison to "interruption" marketing (such as TV commercials that interrupt the content you actually want to see) is that you can engage target audiences with great content and engaging stories. By providing strong and usable content that keeps target audiences coming back, you can deepen the relationship between the content consumer and the brand that sponsors that content. This, at the most basic level, is content marketing.
Why is content marketing the present and future of customer engagement? Because people won't tolerate the "hard sell," which places focus on the product and the brand instead of the wants of the consumer. People don't care that a sales person or company needs to sell products to meet their monthly/quarterly/annual sales targets. Today's customer wants a more personalized relationship with a brand. Brands need to become like friends who have something to offer. The pushy, demanding friend isn't a friend for very long.
This has everything to do with content marketing. You engage people, who are all potential purchasers of something, by offering them things they want. Not by interrupting them in getting the things they want (like good television drama). People will actually pay hard-earned money to avoid commercials, whether online or on TV. That tells you all you need to know about the "effectiveness" of interruption marketing. What do today's consumers want from brands? Understanding, an ear willing to listen and sympathize, someone willing to help when needed.
Engaging potential consumers through great content has the benefit of actually getting the attention of consumers. And getting attention is harder and harder in today's world of seemingly-infinite data. People don't want data or sales-y pitches (however creative), they want stories that connect with their needs, their emotions, their problems, their aspirations, their everyday lives. Content marketing, if done well, is people-centric.
The challenge of doing content marketing is in the content itself. Content marketers like me, who often call ourselves "brand storytellers," "digital content providers," or "digital storytellers," try to engage our target audiences. It's more about engaging, connecting, and less about selling product. Do my business clients expect to use great content to convert prospects into customers? The answer is yes, but knowing this doesn't help me engage audiences around content.
Providing great content is about understanding your target audience at a human level, knowing what drives them (their hopes), what concerns them (their worries), and what, in short, offers meaning to their lives. Good content marketers know that it's a service job, which means helping. Providing something new helps. Offering a solution to a complicated problem helps. Making people think or laugh helps, or giving them a story or example that might inspire them.
I'm still learning what content marketing is, but these are some of the thoughts I have. Care to share yours?