Content marketing is an elusive beast. When I tell people what I do for a living, they raise at least one quizzical eyebrow.

What that eyebrow is saying is this: “I wish she’d said teacher or mud-wrestler. Possibly arms dealer… anything a bit easier to pin down. Because I have nothing intelligent to say about content marketing. Nothing at all, except ‘Oh, what’s that then?’.”

My quick, down-the-pub explanation is usually: “You know the Sainsbury’s magazine? Like that but I work mostly online.”

What content marketing really is…

That’s a crappy explanation and it does nothing to explain content marketing’s breadth, important cultural contribution – and why it could be great for their business. I should probably stop saying it but even I know that down-the-pub explanations are just hot air to punctuate the pints.

Unwittingly or not, you’ve come across content marketing. The practice – if not the expression – has been around for donkey’s years.

Marketing gurus love to trot out one particular shining torchbearer: tractor manufacturer John Deere’s magazine The Furrow.

That’s partly because the mag is much-loved, was first published in 1895 and is still around today. Little more than advertorial in its early days, The Furrow developed into a lively, useful magazine that puts its readers (in this case farmers) at its heart, rather than John Deere equipment.

But it also gets trotted out because the content marketing gurus are mostly American. The Furrow doesn’t mean much to a UK audience.

Best of the bunch

When it comes to content marketing examples we can relate to on this side of the pond, how about The Guinness Book of Records, the Be-Ro cookbook, the Michelin guides, soap operas and The Lego Movie, to get you started?

All brilliant specimens of ‘content’, created by and around brands, to inform and excite customers – and ultimately to sell more stuff.

I still don’t get it…

The word ‘content’ is part of the problem. It’s vague. What it actually means is blogs, articles, films, videos, live events, books, magazines, guides, talks, social media posts… anything you can dream up that your customers will love and that will make them love your business.

Magazines like this used to be called ‘custom publishing’ or ‘contract publishing’. TV shows were called ‘masthead TV’ and events were ‘brand extension’. Blogs were just blogs and no-one quite knew what they were for.

The term ‘content marketing’ bundles all this activity into one big fat, carefully-targeted whole.

So what can content do for my business?

Put simply, it can target new customers, make existing ones love you, persuade clients to do your marketing for you – and it can sell more stuff.

Advertising is far from dead – it’s still an £19 billion industry in the UK alone. But time-poor, digital-savvy customers can swipe right, click to skip, turn off, turn over, scroll down, ignore the page and opt out all day long.

And anyway, smart, forward-thinking businesses are looking for more than just lots of eyeballs on their logo. They want to talk to their own particular niche and for that niche to actively welcome their marketing, to devote precious time to enjoying it, to tell their friends about it and to share it online.

For SMEs and luxury businesses in particular, this stuff is golden. Content marketing is where you show potential customers why your products may not be the cheapest – but they’re the best. It’s how you prove you understand your clients’ needs and that you’re willing to go out of your way to help them. It’s how you give your brand personality. It’s how you give life to your values – and reach customers who share those values. It’s where you build fun, loyalty and trust.

But is it going to cost me?

Thanks to the digital age, you don’t need vast budgets. These days, every business can (and should) be a publisher and broadcaster. Instead of relying on other people’s media to get your message out, you get to create your own media channels, bolstering your asset with every new post.

So, yeah, it’s a bit like the Sainsbury’s magazine. But it’s a lot more exciting than that.

Image: A Cup of Jo

Image: Oxfam

Image: Joe Haupt


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