How content marketing is different yet similar to advertising

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Google currently shows millions of results for the search term ‘content marketing’. Many of them provide useful tips and hacks on how startups, especially the bootstrapped or early-stage ones, can use content marketing to drive organic growth. Over the last few years, the ‘shiny new toy’ syndrome has resulted in virtually every new platform (Snapchat, Instagram) hailed as the next big thing for marketers and contnet marketing is a term bandied about in that context. But is it a hitherto-unknown discipline or process? Is it vastly different from traditional marketing & advertising?

Businesses need marketing. There are several tools within that discipline or craft – advertising is one of them. Over the years, the media, platforms and tools through which marketing objectives are met have evolved. In this context, ‘digital marketing’ or ‘content marketing’ are artifical as they connote that there is ‘marketing’ and then these. Such a separation, as if these are outside the ambit of marketing, add to the mistaken belief that these are totally new discoveries. But are they? In my view, the fundamentals of marketing and marketing communications have remained unchanged for centuries and will remain so. This is primarily becasue they both deal with human instincts and emotions which have remained the same for eons.

Bill Bernbach quotes

Yes, times have changed. The media environment, technologies and platforms have changed vastly in just a few years. Some of the key changes include:

– high media clutter and proliferation of new platforms
– lot more scope for the average consumer to shut out commercial messaging
– ability of the consumer to respond directly in some form on brand communication [likes, comments, shares]

In this context, content marketing is positioned as a discipline which aims to share useful, relevant or entertaining content to create brand preference. And I guess native advertising is part of such content when it is presented in a format similar to editorial content.

Advertising aims to create brand prefernce or a sale through communication which is relevant and entertaining. So how is content marketing different? In my content marketing is differs from traditional advertising in that it relies on a slow burn approach without an overt brand sell in every piece of communication, in order to create brand prefernce over time. Advertising doesn’t have that luxury – every piece of communication has to be centred around the brand in relation to the conusmer. In content marketing, every piece of contnet is centred around the category relevant to the consumer with the brand in the background. The best example I can think of is the contnet put out by Buffer and Hubspot over the years. If they were to create traditional advertising, we would have seen spots urging us to sign up for their paid services. But the route they have taken is hard one – giving away valuable tips & advice on topics which are relevant to their audience. In return, they have your profile, permission to communicate often and an opportunity to sell their premium products at an opportune time.  

The strategy hinges on the belief that because of all the love they shower on the consumer by sharing relevant content, the consumer’s goodwill towards the brand will be high when it asks for a sale, increasing the chances of success. I have been at the receiving end of some aggressive selling by HubSpot to sign up for their marketing automation software. I reckon I was far more receptive to the sales push because of the positive residual imagery of the brand delivered through their content.  It is similar to creating brand awareness through likeable or entertaining advertising for a brand – created in the hope that when the purchase occasion arises the consumer will prefer that brand over competition. Of course, other factors like pricing, retail experience & distribution come into play but the fundamental principle is the same.

The lead time between capturing the consumer profile (for newsletters) and an actual sale can be very long in such cases. However, the brand has to still relentlessly create and share good contnet, virtually expecting nothing in return. This ‘giving’ nature of brands is where content marketing differs from traditional advertising. Does it mean that content marketing is a chartiable activity with no role for the brand creating it and a brand messaging should not be woven into it? Absolutely not. The masters of this approach of striking a fine balance between entertaining content which is hardwired to the brand’s promise (and creates brand affinity) is GE. Their own content assets – be it the website, microsites like GE Reports or their social media activity are geared to drive forward the company philosophy of ‘Imagination at Work’. Yet, the content is presented in such a manner that it takes advantage of the characteristics of each platform in an entertaining way.

In Part 2 of this article, I will share thoughts on how the fundamentals of advertising can be applied to contnet marketing, especially for startups. Thoughts, views? Do comment in. 

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