Content marketing has attracted a lot of attention in recent years; however, it's not a new concept. As far back as the 1930s Shell employed the likes of Paul Nash and Sir John Betjeman to write, edit and illustrate a series of UK travel guidebooks to encourage people to explore the country in their new cars (an activity for which they would of course need more fuel). Even in the early days of broadcast television in the 1950s, the close link between content and brands developed by radio soap operas in the 1930s remained. In the UK at least, by the 1970s for a number of regulatory and commercial reasons advertising and content had gone their separate ways. Adverts ‘interrupted’ or ‘bookended’ content that had been commissioned by broadcasters. And while there were some subtle and not-so-subtle feedback loops in the system, content producers and advertisers remained pretty separate in their aims and approaches. Attention could be bought and sold, and as long as the content provided by the broadcaster attracted the right audience then it didn't matter.

However, in a new social media environment characterised by more consumer choice and control the interruptive model is no longer as effective as it once was, in particular when it comes to reaching younger and more influential demographics. In addition, everyone, from individuals to brands, has access to the Internet, which is, amongst other things, a massive, open content distribution platform. Anyone with a small amount of budget and skill can create and disseminate content to a global audience.

Arguably, it's sportswear companies have been at the forefront of content marketing over the last 5 years, in part, because their audiences were early Internet adopters and the Internet was a platform that gave them global reach, but also because brands like Nike had embraced brand story-telling as an approach in the pre-Internet era - an approach that translates easily to content marketing.

In fact this strategy has been so successful for companies like surfwear manufacturer Billabong that Scott Wallace, the then Vice-president of New Media and Strategic Partnerships announced a couple of years ago that:

“we're turning into a media company as well as a clothing company.”

Christopher Bailey the creative director of Burberry recently echoed a similar sentiment:

“We are now as much a media-content company as we are a design company, because it's all part of the overall experience.”

And it's not just clothing companies. Oxfam recently announced that when it comes to fundraising, face-to-face strategies are increasingly being replaced by digital content and social networking strategies.

So arguably, in the new social media age, everyone, including companies, non-profits and individuals should conduct themselves as media companies.

What is content?

But what is content? Actually, it's not that easy to define. It's not just as simple as ‘messages that aren't advertising’, because the best adverts are content. So, for example, people chose to spend time watching television commercials like the Darth Vader kid and the Old Spice Guy on You Tube because they're good content. Even Google ad words can be viewed as content because they offer utility to those searching for a ‘garden shed for sale’, for example. Their context adds value to the content they contain.

In his article on content marketing, The Content Republic, Faris Yakob defines content as ‘messages that people choose to spend time with’. This means that one way or another, content has to be ‘good’ or high quality. And while that's not an especially useful observation it is worth noting that in the main the marketing and advertising industries have, in the past, relied upon other people to create good content. And while some advertising is content in it's own right, most is not. This is because there was no great incentive to create great advertising which only created a marginal competitive advantage for most organisations when compared with media spend.

This means that if you make a game or any other piece of content you want to use to attract an audience, it has to be high quality - after all you are competing with professional games producers for your audience's time, why would they spend time with a poorly made Flash ‘brand experience’ when they could be playing Call of Duty or World of Warcraft?

Creating quality content takes time, effort and money, and there are some brands that will find it hard to create compelling content. However, even high quality content is not a panacea.

The Attention Economy and the limits of content marketing

It wasn't so long ago that we lived in a media environment in the UK with 3 TV channels that didn't broadcast anything for large parts of the day. In other words content was scare. Now it's not. What's scarce is attention.

Herbert Simon was arguably the first person to write about the attention economy:

“…in an information-rich world, the wealth of information means a dearth of something else: a scarcity of whatever it is that information consumes. What information consumes is rather obvious: it consumes the attention of its recipients. Hence a wealth of information creates a poverty of attention and a need to allocate that attention efficiently among the overabundance of information sources that might consume it”

The two roles of content

Despite the fact that content has to be high quality and attention is scarce, content is a key part of any social media campaign.

In our experience, content fulfils two separate roles in successful social media campaigns. These are related to the levels of participation discussed earlier.

  1. Detailed content adds depth to a campaign
  2. Short form content adds reach

In-depth and long-form content is often used to encourage participation and short-form content that is often used to ‘cross the chasm’ - i.e. it is content that is propagated by influencers to the mass market that spreads the message more broadly.

It is therefore important to understand whether the content you are creating is about depth or reach. Ideally a campaign should offer different types of content, that allow for different levels of engagement.

This is perhaps best exemplified by Volkswagen's Fun Theory campaign which won a Titanium CyberLion at Cannes in 2010.

The core of the campaign was based around a Fun Theory blog where participants could upload ideas about how to make everyday life more fun. This required conceptual thought and some ability to express this thought in words and pictures. There were a few hundred entries, many of which were of high quality. People could vote and comment on the ideas. There was a relatively small $2,500 prize for the winner who also got to see their idea (for a Speed Camera Lottery) put into action. The content on the blog was user-generated, relatively in-depth and required a higher level of engagement.

However, it was the short shareable YouTube videos of the making of these concepts that gave the campaign reach. The Piano Stairs video alone has over 15 million views on YouTube alone (the reach of this and other videos across other platforms is much greater).

So the long-form content gave depth for the small number of participants. The short-form content gave reach to the campaign attracting the much greater number of passive consumers of content who would never take part.

User generated content

There's an enormous amount of very popular user-generated content on the web. However, user-generated-content is not, in and of itself, inherently more shareable than professionally produced content - so for example video of users participating in a brand experience is most likely of interest to them and their immediate friends, however, it will not necessarily provide reach. (This does not apply to reviews and recommendations which, as we've seen, are inherently more trusted than advertising).

In our experience it tends to be communities that generate significant amounts of user generated content. The usual campaign window simply does not allow for the time it takes to build any online community. This means that for the purposes of a social media campaign, user-generated content is more about providing depth rather than reach.

Keep it simple

Whatever the medium, format or type of content people tend to want to share short content experiences on the web. So for example simple images can have a great deal more reach than complex Flash experiences. Images are the staple of content sharing platforms like Facebook, Tumblr and Instagram. Flash is, in the main not a great platform for content sharing (with the possible exception of games).

The web is a global medium and while English is of course the lingua franca of our age, good images need no translation (this is another reason for the success of the Piano Stairs video for the Fun Theory - the video is easily understood without any text that needs to be translated).

And this is a view shared by Randi Zuckerberg (who was until recently marketing director of Facebook).

“My #1 tip to businesses who want to grow their Facebook Presence requires no additional work - it's simply to include a photo with every post. A picture truly is worth a thousand words, and if you have a global brand, a photo needs no translation.”

Content delivers value after the campaign ends

Content drives organic traffic through search (SEO) and other social channels (SMO) long after campaigns are finished. Advertising doesn't do this, attention runs out when the media budget is spent (unless it is of course particularly good and becomes a piece of content in its own right).