A Content Marketing Debate

The Edge - U2 360 Tour
Image by Peter Hutchkins

The coupling of the words “content” and “marketing” creates a debate centering on the differences between publishing and selling.

By its very nature, marketing is a function of sales.

As such marketing communications activities, regardless of form — search, email, publicity (on behalf of a company), content creation, social, events, etc. — all represent activities to engage people in a sales process OR support brand reputation, which in turn, increases the likelihood of further sales, recruitment or investment later in time.

I can see why content purists, particularly those with a journalism background, flip their fricking lids at the very phrasing of “content marketing.” After all, they publish quality content.

It’s also easy to see why traditional marketers writhe at the description of a very general tactic as a strategy. Some folks criticize the Edge for writing hit songs with only three chords. In the end, I don’t begrudge the Edge his success with U2, so I won’t slight a successful content marketer either.

But these diverse professions and views don’t really disagree. Great marketing sells, and in that sense a synergy exists. Let me explain.

Great Content Acts Simply

Fausto Wolff - brazilian writer
Image by Christine Carriconde

They say great salespeople don’t sell.

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.

If content serves stakeholders from a corporate editorial mission standpoint and offers fresh viewpoints, it should achieve its marketing goals, too. Meaning the content will help sell (unless your product suffers, which is a much larger issue).

Quality content informs or entertains, and builds value. It leaves a reader feeling educated about their decision, and understanding what the brand represents. What people are really getting angry about is shoddy content marketing quality, another debate in its own right.

Of course, content marketing likely contains or is on the same web page as a prominent call-to-action. At the same time, I don’t think heavy handed selling really works, online or offline, verbally or via content.

Really, this content marketing argument debates copy writing in its many forms. And in that sense, this is a very old conversation.

Content marketing puts a new name on an old discipline, making it more accessible to other professions (PR, social, interactive) without having to accept advertising’s baggage.

In ten years, I’m sure it will be called something else.

You say tom-ay-to, I say tom-ah-to. Now go write!

What do you think?


  • “I can see why content purists, particularly those with a journalism background, flip their fricking lids at the very phrasing of “content marketing.” After all, they publish quality content.”

    Yep. You nailed it there….lots of former journos who got laid off and now find themselves struggling with this, it’s like they went to the dark side.

  • I don’t like the term because it sounds like gibberish to me. What we are doing is story telling and it is no different than what has gone on for thousands of years.

    If we are trying to sell it is a matter of listening to the prospect/customer’s story about what they need and then sharing your story about how your product/service solves their particular problem.

    • i agree, but I think the term content marketing is a step on the way back to storytelling. Certainly beats pure marketing, or even advertising.

      • I don’t think content marketing and storytelling are the same thing at all. Not even close. Stories can either be useful anecdotes that help us understand things, or they are lies. Content can be a book of lists, a blog of tips, or a whitepaper on “how to” whatever. There maybe lies in those, but certainly not stories.

        • Well, we’re all entitled to our opinions. Good content tells a compelling story, in my opinion. It’s a choice by the content creator to be lame and talk in business speak, or engage its audience in a more personal style.

          • Ha! Love that comment. My mantra. Ditch the business speak and communicate your ideas so anyone can understand them. Now, that’s tough. Try it in the architecture & design industry.

        • A whitepaper on how to whatever is still the story of how do to whatever that whitepaper is.

          • Just can’t see it that way; I hear whitepaper and I think about the instructions that came with my first digital watch. Admittedly some instructions are better than others. I hear storytelling and I’m looking around for a book by Stephen Cosgrove. Serendipity!

          • Says the guy who said the future of PR is content marketing on his blog last night. :P

          • Wow. I’m for content marketing, Mr. Livingston. I’m just not prepared to draw a parallel to Beowolf recitals! ;-)

    • I think we’re doomed to this one. But there is not another term for it that all of the marketing disciplines will accept. Thus I think we’re stuck.

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  • I never took to the word “content” for this usage, but I haven’t come up with anything better. I think we all to some extent struggle with the change from the marketers and publishers controlling the media, to what we have now, with everyone controlling their own media choices to a much greater degree, and everyone being able to publish. It feels like we’ve been here forever, but really we’re still in interactive’s infancy. Uh… maybe toddlership.

    • I agree with this, particularly if you consider blogging is really just 10+ years old. We have no idea what this means and how to use these tools en masse. It’s almost like the 19th century when printing presses first became cheap, and there were multiple newspapers in each town, except exponentially accessible.

  • The art lies in being able to see and understand both perspectives. So that we can pivot + figure out how not to alienate the tom-ay-to folks – while bridging the gap w/ the tom-ah-to’s. I totally get why content purists hate the term. But I also see why marketing needs to fuse with content in order to create value. And storytelling is a huge part of the equation.

    The problem is that many people aren’t doing the storytelling right. They’re either 1) being forced to churn out content about a topic they don’t care about or 2) as CPenn writes, on an editorial calendar where they must deliver (similar to point 1 with more urgency). This reeks of inauthenticity. Which then wreaks havoc on content marketing as a whole.

    The story and the value you deliver should come naturally. This, in turn, sells itself.

    • I would agree with Chris that burning people through a rigorous schedule does eventually create vapor. We need substantive down time to rest. It’s one of the reasons why I don’t publish everyday.

      However, bridging as you say is a great way to get those extra resources. Because employing the content purists can make a great difference. Anyway, thank you for your comment, jessica.

      Sorry about the Giants. Okay, maybe not.

  • I *hate* the “thang” that content marketing has become. I keep coming back to the same two points. To wit:

    1. Marketing has always ALWAYS required content. Saying “content marketing” is like saying Writing Written Words. It’s both repetitive and redundant. What is marketing if it does *not* have content? “Hi, here is my ad —-> …… Awesome, huh? Probably an over-simplification, but that’s the way I feel about it.

    2. If the purpose of “content marketing” is non-transactional, as many have argued, can we really call it “marketing”? I would not immediately say yes. Is not marketing ultimately intended to help drive sales? I mean, I realize this is shocking, but mostly companies want to sell stuff so they can make money. I feel like I’m taking crazy pills.

    But really, I don’t think the term “content marketing” would bother me as much if it had not become such a “thing.” There are now entire organizations, companies, blogs, “experts” and more dedicated solely to this thing of content marketing. The posts are all starting to read the same. “How to use content marketing to…” “How to generate ideas…” “How to use content marketing to not measure ROI at all.” It just starts to sound like so much static to me.

    Other than that, I have nothing to say about this subject :)

    • Speaking Spoken Syllables! There! LOL, I totally agree with 1.

      On 2, I think branding and marketing communications activities is not always transactional, and can be reputation-building and brand-oriented in scope. It can simply focus on customer service and community relations as well.

      I do agree with the larger debate that has arisen that content marketing has become a tired term fast. So did personal branding, so did web 2.0. We as marketers can’t help but beat these terms into the mud. I give it another year.

    • Yes, but not all content is written words. There are photos, illustrations, videos, and audio content as well.

      It’s not just limited to the written word. That’s why the best content marketers are good writers, but not all writers are good content marketers.

  • This reminds me of my many debates with friends in art school and with my musician friends. There are those who will not be satisfied until something has a name. That’s not art until it’s post-modern transcendental urban street found art. That’s not music until it’s jazz pop urban fusion. I say let the namers name and let the creators create. If it helps someone understand what I’m talking about if I call it content marketing, well, then so be it. Either way, it’s nothing new as you say. I think you paragraph about what sales is really sums it up well. As always, great post and well said!

    • Thanks, I do find the debate to be a bit pedantic in nature. Kind of like why I hate sweat cream mashed potatoes as compared to garlic mashed potatoes. Oh well, at least we’re not talking about RT best practices. Thanks for the visit, Jon-Mikel!

  • Being gen Y, the concept of free content that points to quality products is the only way to go. I don’t get how people establish trust through traditional marketing. Seems I am too used to internet savy audience who have more complex needs and are far deeper researchers on the topic, than the regular passive information consumer of the old school media. Bear in mind that I am on internet since 1996, and I’ve seen tons of marketing over the span of last 15+ years. Content marketing is the only form of marketing that “sold me”. Referals from my influencers and friends would sway me into buying something. Commercial ad by itself, never.

  • Whenever someone takes the line that content marketing is the new marketing panacea, I always point them back to the John Deere Company’s custom publication that they’ve been sending to farmers since the late 1890s. The content of that publication over the years covered advances in farming technologies, disease treatment, new seed strains, etc – under the John Deere banner. It was never a pitch or advertorial – just honest, useful content to the audience that would, one day, need to buy equipment. John Deere had the one up on their competition.

    Does this construct a narrative (i.e tell a story) about the company’s values, culture, and mission? I’d argue that, yes, it does – but not in a particularly overt way.

    Clear as mud, right?

    • Great discussion Geoff!

      I look at it a similar way Jason. I think content marketing is just another version of the foot in the door technique. It’s the difference in the old days between the door-to-door salesperson who said, “Would you like to see our new line of irons” and the one who said, “I’d like to leave you this pamphlet on ten ways to extend the life of your iron.” The latter would stop by a few weeks later to see if they had read the pamphlet, etc.

      If used right, CM provides value and starts a conversation. Where it goes after that, well.. that’s called “sales.”

      • Wow, Disqus is doing strange things to my gravatar! Or should I say, your gravatar.

      • Aye – and what content ultimately does is strengthen reputation, build brand narrative and nurture prospects. Doesn’t matter whether it’s a white paper or a snappily produced video. The goal is implicitly the same. :)

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  • Oh, that kind of “content.” All this time, I thought “content” marketing referred to “happy” marketing. My bad. :)

    • Joy joy! LOL. Hope you are doing well, Mel!

    • I’m fascinated by the responses to this post, particularly the violent reactions it’s evoked on the part of some readers. I can’t see the problem with it myself and think it helps to generate some very creative stuff, particularly content of the story-telling variety. But I like Mel’s definition best and will henceforth always think of it as joyful marketing – because it’s a lot more fun than plain old ads,


  • Some words tend to stick whether they are an accurate description of their subject or not. I just move with the flow. Lots of people still hate the term “social media” of course.

    • I agree. And we’ve both seen enough evolutions to know there’s always another buzz word waiting. 2.0 anyone?

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  • Yes! Um…not much else to say. Every day I hear a new word and then I learn not to listen. Basically, I am of the mind set of ignoring the label and following what works for a client. They don’t care about the buzz words anyway, but what will grow their business. Might as well explain it in a language they can understand.

  • Thanks for this Geoff…with all the comments here I feel like I missed the party.

    The only thing I’d like to add to this conversation is a bit on “why” content marketing evolved into the term for this very old discipline. I’ve been using the term for about a decade now…but I’ve tried them all, from brand journalism to custom publishing to custom media to 20 others. Content marketing is the one term that we were able to use that made CMOs take notice. None of the other terms made a difference.

    So, let the haters about the term come out…that’s okay. I get it. It’s here right now because it “fits” into the world of the senior marketing executive. If we can get more companies to create valuable and useful information for the world versus more ads, then I’m all for it.

    Thanks again Geoff…keep up the great work.

    • Oh…I forgot…loved your book with Gini!

    • Thanks for the insights, Joe. It does make sense, and I think you have to do what CMOs want. Generally, as I mentioned elsewhere, the debate is a bit pedantic, but hey, what are we going to do?

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