Content marketing – innovation or back to the future?

Image courtesy of Stuart Miles /

Image courtesy of Stuart Miles /

October 15, 2013 – For markets and strategic communicators, content marketing is the rage these days. It is the promise of a bolder, brighter future as organizations engage with audiences (or, more prosaically, as companies sell to customers). But is it a real innovation or have we seen this before?

Ask the people of Imperial Oil, a Canadian affiliate of petroleum giant ExxonMobil, and they will smile. In 1917 Imperial Oil created the Imperial Oil Review. Originally designed for employees, it evolved into a well-respected review of developments in the petroleum industry. Independence and openness were hallmarks. In some editions of the IOR the words “Imperial Oil” were barely noticeable.

Experts from industry, as well as academics, government officials, and even members of civil society could be found in the pages of the Review. Over time, it became a bible of the industry, counted upon to deliver objective, analytical information about the country’s petroleum industry. It just happened to be published by a major oil company.

Today, Imperial maintains the review, saying it present “views and ideas on a broad range of Canadian and petroleum-industry topics.” The focus has returned more to mentioning and promoting Imperial Oil’s activities, marketed under the Esso brand. The original idea, however, remains relevant to content marketers everywhere – talk about your organization or your industry by talking first about the issues it faces and the solutions it provides.

The World Bank (full disclosure, I worked there for 13 years) also takes this approach. Communications traditionally celebrated World Bank plans and successes with news releases promoting multi-million (or billion) dollar projects and programs to fight poverty in developing countries.

Today, the focus is more on highlighting development challenges, examining their causes and possible solutions. The Bank presents itself as one of several solutions providers, acknowledging that partnership in “issue management” is essential to success.

This is what content marketing is all about – having your firm or organization occupy public relations space with corporate content that is less about boosting sales and more about boosting awareness and understanding.

Or, as the Content Marketing Institute puts it, “content marketing is the art of communicating with your customers and prospects without selling. It is non-interruption marketing. Instead of pitching your products or services, you are delivering information that makes your buyer more intelligent. The essence of this content strategy is the belief that if we, as businesses, deliver consistent, ongoing valuable information to buyers, they ultimately reward us with their business and loyalty.”

So, is content marketing all that new? Not really, but does it matter? What counts is what works. What seems to work these days is less shameless self-promotion (Miley and Kim aside) and more treating those with an interest in your firm or organization as intelligent people with a genuine interest in your products and services. Then, listen to them and let them decide how much they want to engage with you (or, buy from you). You might be surprised.



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