Newfangled works with independent agencies to create lead development web platforms for their clients.

Newfangled works with independent agencies to create lead development web platforms for their clients.

Why Content?

I spend a lot of time creating content, talking about content, and creating content about creating content. So much so that the word content is hard for me to even say without feeling a little weird about it. Say any word enough and it begins to lose meaning. Sometimes I feel as if I'm trapped within a slightly-bigger-than-me-sized content bubble, that I've lost any objectivity when it comes to what it means to create content and understand how it operates in the world. That may or may not be true. But despite the disorientation that is sometimes at the heart of the content experience, I can see that content has taught me a thing or two.

Content requires planning, investment, systems and management, teamwork, and time. That much is obvious. But it also requires self-awareness, curiosity, patience, restraint, perseverance and humility. You may not initially bring those qualities to your content, but eventually, you will come out with them.

I'd like to assume that you're already persuaded that adopting a content marketing strategy is the best way for a firm like yours to make its expertise known. Are you? If not, consider that your firm could be like thousands of others that in the last several years have shifted their marketing focus from push to pull, saving enormous sums on staffing miserable cold-callers, deadtree advertising, and potentially even millions more on otherwise demonstrating their capabilities by doing work on spec (commonly known as the RFP—for more information on why RFPs are evil, see Blair Enns).

Content marketing isn't a trend, it's the result of a logical progression of ideas, beginning with the "flattening" power of the internet and maintained by another power: our collective, earnest desire to prove our expertise to those who need and are willing to pay for it, and to waste as little time in the process as humanly possible. When not abused—where pretense outweighs capability, or noise exceeds signal—it is truly the most efficient means of connecting those who ask with those who answer.

And yet, another abuse is when we assume content marketing as a default strategy. For agencies especially, the first caveat to keep in mind is that while content may work for you, it may not always be the best approach for your client.

There are, in fact, plenty of instances in which the written content model is undeniably inadequate. With a few exceptions, most consumer products are not easily marketed with text. Typically, consumers prefer to let products "speak for themselves" in use and research their performance in reviews—which, of course, are found in abundant supply on the web—rather than defer to what the maker has to say about his wares. In most cases, our aversion to being sold is so strong that it leads us to struggle to believe the seller even when we believe in the value of his product! Those in the healthcare industry may also perceive reasons to take up content strategies of their own, but often locality and emergency are the primary factors in a consumer’s choice of care providers, rather than researched, advance consideration. Similarly, utility-type services—plumbers, electricians, mechanics, cleaners, etc.—are more likely to be selected on the basis of what is nearby, immediately available, and affordable than any pitch a blog or newsletter may provide. That isn’t to say that some form of content shouldn’t occupy a piece of the overall marketing strategy; there may be opportunities to use audio, video, and social media that could be quite effective, while not being the lead marketing initiative.

On the other hand, there are instances in which written content marketing works quite well. At the product end of the business spectrum, those manufactured for businesses, rather than consumers, are typically heavily researched by buyers—who make active use of search engines to do so—before purchase. Case studies, white papers, blog posts, and other articles can satisfy the researcher’s need for sharable, decision-reinforcing information, especially if they are enabling a buying decision that will ultimately be made by someone else. And obviously, the same dynamic exists within any “knowledge industry” service. For professionals in design, advertising, marketing, public relations, law, or finance, the essential intangibility of their expertise must be carefully described in-depth in diverse ways to qualify the specific nature of what they do and for whom they are best suited to do it.

I list these considerations in order to point out that our role as strategic advisors to our clients is not to promote the latest marketing practices, but to diagnose their needs and prescribe the best solution. Even if that ends up being an "old school" approach. Content marketing, though essential to the success of some enterprises, will not be the best fit for others. Naturally, our own fraught experience in employing content marketing for ourselves may be instructive of that point as well.


Christopher Butler | February 6, 2012 11:50 AM
Sergey: Thanks for the compliment!

Jon: Very, very noisy! Thanks for the link.

Elizabeth: You're spot on there. Having an editor, whether formally or informally (i.e. someone other than you to read over what you've written before it's published) is essential. But editing on a deeper level, as you describe, is even better: someone who understands you and your ideas so that they can help you to better communicate them.

Amber: Sure it can. There are some "firms" that are essentially one person that handle content strategy just as well as we do. The only difference might be in the amount of content created, the frequency, or the variety of formats that can be implemented. But the core concept driving content marketing—that it's about describing your expertise for those in need of it—can scale anywhere from one person to much larger corporations.

Thanks, everyone, for reading and commenting!
Amber James | January 31, 2012 7:47 PM
Hi Christopher,

As a new reader to all things content marketing, I appreciate your article immensely.

And as a freelance copywriter, I'm wondering if the content strategy for a firm can be converted onto a miniature scale for a one-woman show like mine. Or would the strategy require a completely different approach?

Thanks again for all the work you put into this article.

Elizabeth | January 30, 2012 12:25 PM
Great article. A lot of people will benefit from your experience. Regarding your last section about contributors who don't feel confident writing -- that's why an editor is such a good idea. As long as other employees share their ideas and expertise, the editor can write or assign a writer. It takes far less time for a writer to interview a subject matter expert and then craft a piece than for a non-writer to stew over a hated task and then hand in something that will probably need extensive editing anyway.
An editor can also spot ideas that non-writers don't recognize, so it's important for the editor to mix with employees throughout the company and hear what they have to say: content by walkabout.
Jon Yoffie | January 27, 2012 11:30 PM
As more companies adopt content and inbound marketing, it's bound to start getting pretty noisy out there. Do it well, or, "Just publish"? Easy decision, not an easy process. Great post.
Sergey M Silaev | January 27, 2012 5:33 PM
Quite difficult for me but I understood the essence)). Beautifully written, thank you.

Think, read one more time..
Christopher Butler | January 27, 2012 8:56 AM
Thanks, everyone, for reading this and taking the time to leave a comment!

Bill: There certainly is. In fact, I'm going to follow this newsletter up next month with a "sequel" of sorts that addresses your questions. As a preview, though, I'm going to outline a four-stage approach to content strategy that allows firms to ease into something that will be effective and consistent.

JJ: My answers aren't going to be great: I'm often my own editor, though I often run these articles by my colleagues at Newfangled, as well as a few other friends who I trust to tell me when I'm not being clear, when I'm not being concise enough, or any other problem. I also do the illustrations for all but just a few of these articles (incidentally, I just wrote a blog post giving a behind-the-scenes look at what went into writing this article, as well as creating the imagery. You'll see some of the rough draft images, if you're interested). I'll occasionally get relief from Justin Kerr, Newfangled's Creative Director, though. He did the illustration for last January's piece on persona development, which, coincidentally, was also a suited man on a yellow background.

Steve: I think the adjustments you're describing are sound. Keep me posted on how it goes—I'll be interested to hear.
Steve Kieselstein | January 26, 2012 5:18 PM
Great and (painfully for us) timely article Chris, thank you.

Our content strategy, put in place last year, did center on a blog and a newsletter. We wrote a lot less than we would have liked, yet found it took up a lot more time than we expected. We had a firm meeting during January to try to figure out why. Our conclusions: too many starts and stops, resulting from key-person (me) bottlenecks; a too-complicated review and editing procedure; and over-ambition in attempting what should have been shorter, one-idea blog posts. Trying this year to learn from our mistakes.

I will admit this: ego aside, when it comes to the firm's entire image, it is very, very difficult to delegate decision-making even when you are comfortable with the people on your team. You feel like if there is anything you should be deciding, this is it.
Chris Sholler | January 26, 2012 12:33 PM
Good stuff and great advice, especially on biting off more than you can chew when getting started with content marketing. It can get exhausting quickly if you don't consider your limitations and resources.

Leban Hyde | January 26, 2012 12:08 PM

Another great read. I appreciate your word of caution on burn-out. It does oftentimes feel like we are all racing from one venue to another to churn out content. Starting small and building out is definitely a lot more productive (and easier to measure).

Eric Torres | January 26, 2012 11:50 AM
I really like the images, woow simple and attractive.
The Fiver of Content, i totally agree !

Thanks !!
Tom Lanen | January 26, 2012 10:52 AM
Well-stated Chris, and timely.
Jonsie | January 26, 2012 9:18 AM
very much on point. thanks for sharing.
JJ | January 26, 2012 9:13 AM
Love it. Very helpful stuff!

Two questions:

Who is your editor?

Who does the illustrations (who is your art director)?
Bill Rossiere | January 26, 2012 9:08 AM
Chris, fantastic piece.

Content is an abused term and it's great to see someone bringing some clarity to what it should mean to all of us. Would love to see a plan or framework for how to handle content so that we don't fall victim to your "gluttony at the buffet" problem. I get how centralizing mgmt of it will help, but is there any more structure you can recommend?

Thanks again for your thoughts.
alexa | January 24, 2012 8:28 PM
thanks for another must-read. I detest hearing the usual "content is king" stuff, but you're pov on this is definitely for real.

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