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SEVERAL years ago when I was at an e-book conference in New York, I attended a talk given by an industry analyst who told a roomful of authors and publishers that in the near future: “Your competition is not going to be just each other but also consumer brands.”

She went on to explain that big corporations, especially those which provide goods or services to consumers, are starting to invest in content because that’s the new form of marketing that companies are embracing.

That was several years ago. Today, content marketing has taken the US by storm and almost every major consumer-centric corporation has some kind of content marketing initiative, be it a blog, online magazine, e-book series, podcast or a series of online videos.

Just as the analyst predicted, content has indeed become the hot new approach to marketing. And this is quite a radical change from the way marketing has been done for decades.

So, what is content marketing, exactly? In a nutshell, it is about the use of content for the purpose of marketing and branding. And it’s different from advertising or public relations in three profound ways.

Firstly, advertising or public relations campaigns have a start and end date for the campaign. With content marketing, it’s an ongoing thing, a continuing narrative.

Secondly, unlike advertising — considered a “push” approach in which information is presented to consumers in the hope of catching their attention — content marketing is consider a “pull” approach which rely on consumers seeking out the content. It’s a more immersive experience.

Thirdly, unlike advertising, which appears in media channels, content marketing materials appear on a company’s own channels, such as its website or social media pages.

It should be mentioned that content marketing is seen as an additional form of marketing and not as a replacement for traditional advertising. In other words, it’s something that companies are using to complement their advertising strategies.

THE APPROACH

While advertising’s approach is to capture attention, content marketing’s approach is to provide materials that educate, enlighten and entertain consumers. And the best types of content marketing materials are the ones that can go viral over social media.

An obvious question is what type of content should a company offer? A natural type of content would be information that can be derived from the company’s domain expertise. For example, a car company could produce videos on safe driving or car maintenance. A diaper company can produce articles about baby care. A sauce or ingredients company could produce an e-cookbook of recipes.

It’s important though that the content does not hard-sell the company’s products or services. In fact, it shouldn’t even be doing any soft-selling. Content marketing is about exposing consumers to a brand’s message through the use of genuinely appealing content.

A really good example of content marketing (or “branded content” as some might call it) is BMW’s series of short films titled The Hire released on the Internet in 2001 and 2002. Each of the eight films was about 10 minutes long and featured famous directors and actors. The films featured BMW cars but the story was not about the cars per se. They had interesting plots and consumers loved them. In a span of four years, the series garnered over 100 million views. It’s hard to imagine BMW getting anywhere close to that kind of viewership if the videos had been advertisements.

GENERATING CONTENT

The next question is how do companies generate such content? Advertising agencies are experts at producing advertisements but they are not publishers. They are used to producing short content designed to attract attention. They are not used to producing long-form narratives. So ad agencies are really not the best places to go for content marketing.

In the US, because content marketing is already established there are plenty of content marketing agencies whose expertise is precisely to produce content marketing materials. Usually they are staffed with writers and editors who do not come from the advertising industry but from journalism.

Some corporations engaged in content marketing have even started to hire former journalists. Journalists are ideal for producing content because that is what they are trained to do. They know how to gather information and craft an interesting and compelling narrative out of the material they gather in a way that will appeal to the general public.

Content marketing has taken root in the US and it’s no longer a hard-sell for companies to invest in innovative content for marketing and branding purposes. In Malaysia, it’s a different story. Few companies are engaged in this although there is some evidence that it’s starting to happen.

CATCHING ON

The other day, while I was browsing through my Facebook feed, I came across some sponsored content about Malaysian “super food”, courtesy of an insurance company. True to the content marketing ethos, the article was all about healthy food and there was no hard or soft-selling of any insurance products within the article.

I was intrigued enough by it to be “pulled” into the company’s website where I found related content, also about healthy eating. These were all real articles with useful information. Of course I was fully aware of the company’s brand though, since the article was housed on its own website. So, some local companies are beginning to get it. I do think it will take a while for content marketing to become a trend here. Local companies are used to the concept of advertising and public relations. They are not used to investing in content, which traditionally does not have a marketing function.

And when they do test the waters of content marketing, I’m pretty certain that more than a few will not be able to resist the temptation of incorporating some sales messages into the content they offer. That would be a mistake as it would turn off consumers who will see it as fake content.

Remember, content marketing is not about peddling products. It’s about generating useful, interesting and appealing content that consumers will enjoy. The fact that it’s sponsored (with the company’s branding on it) is fine. Just don’t try to disguise advertising as content.

Just as how other digital marketing trends eventually found their way to our shores, I’m certain that in due time content marketing will become all the rage here too.

One thing’s for sure, like blogs and social media, content marketing is not a fad. It’s a revolution in the way products and services are being marketed and local companies would do well to start taking notice of it.

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