What is content marketing, anyway?
By Tracey Wallace
When I was little, my dream job was to become the Editor-in-Chief of Vogue. I told everyone about it. In fact, my oldest friends from college all remember it as the first thing they learned about me. It was, “very specific,” they’ve said.
The closest I ever made it was an internship at ELLE.com, which was exactly like the movie The Devil Wears Prada, except I didn’t get to go to Paris, or get any cool clothes.
It was supposed to be a four month internship, but I left after three months because someone offered me a paying job. And, I was living in New York City. An unpaid internship, even if it was at Hearst, wasn’t going to cut it for long.
I found myself at Mashable not long after, and was picking up freelance work on the side. The media industry didn’t pay much, and I was struggling to make ends meet. At night, I’d often apply to other jobs before bed, as a way to tell myself that I was at least trying to make some moves.
I ended up getting one of them. It was back in Austin, Texas––which was fine––and paid double my then-salary for what sounded like the exact same job. But, instead of it being for a media company, it was for a tech company.
It was content marketing, not journalism.
They offered to pay for all my moving expenses. I jumped at the opportunity––and was then floored by the ease of the job.
I wrote one story a day, usually about a trending topic in “big data.” There were no editors, no designers, no real process at all. I was done with my work by noon every day, and the CEO was in love with what I wrote.
I got bored, though––fast.
I thought learning how to write well and quickly was a benefit for journalism because you could tell more stories and pick up more pieces. More pieces often meant more money, and at the very least, more opportunities to catch your editor’s eye. In that environment, publishing more pieces was a good thing, and writing well––at speed––was a crucial skill to have.
In content marketing, though, things were different.
The expectations were that I’d produce a single piece of content for the blog, or for the founder in Forbes, once a workday. That was a 3x reduction in the number of daily stories I was writing in the media world in 2014––for 2x the money.
But, I didn’t know what to do with all my extra time at work. So, I started researching my new industry. Turns out, I knew nothing about being a content marketer.
I could write, sure. I could interview, great. But as I looked around at other companies, and started to learn more about content marketing in general, there were clear winners in the industry––and I craved to be on those teams or part of a team at all to learn more about this new field.
That’s when I applied for the job at BigCommerce, and got it. I was going to be the fourth content marketer on a larger team, and I was so excited to learn everything I could from them.
But five days into my new job, everyone on my team got let go, except for me. I didn’t even have the Wordpress password yet.
I wanted to quit, but a co-worker who was in my onboarding class took me out for dinner, and persuaded me otherwise.
“This is a huge opportunity for you. You should take it,” he said.
I didn’t know anything about content marketing, I explained. I could write, and that was about it. That’s when he said that no one ever knows much about what they do, that people learn, and that I would, too. There was no harm in trying.
It was damn good advice, even if it’d take me another year and a half to see any signs of success in my new role.
All of this to say, I was never on a content marketing team until I was managing them. My definition of content marketing is one I made up for myself, through my experience, through my trials and errors, through my burnout, and all the work that goes into coming out of that fog.
So, what is content marketing? Here is how I define it:
Content marketing is the ideation, creation, publication, and distribution of content for marketing purposes*
*marketing purposes vary by organization
The asterix in here is really important. That’s because depending on what your company’s goals are, and the resources allocated to you, your content strategy and tactics will differ.
Moreover, while content marketing can include ideation, creation, publication and distribution––it doesn’t always!
Depending on the size of your organization, some of these things will be more in your control than others. For instance, in larger organizations, distribution via social or email isn’t in your control. The social media team and the lifecycle marketing team have their own calendars, and the blog isn’t always their priority.
Now, I will argue that content marketers always have one thing in their control: SEO as a distribution channel. Yes, even if you have a separate SEO team. I’ll go deeper on this in future newsletters.
How does my definition of content marketing translate into jobs, activities, responsibility and skills?
- Come up with original content ideas for the target audience
- **Note that this does not say that the content marketer comes up with the target audience
- Use SEO principles to maximize content’s reach
- **Content marketers should know enough about SEO to be dangerous, but they are not, and often don’t need to be, SEO experts themselves.
- Collaborate with designers, PR, copyeditors, freelancers and more on content needs and prioritization.
- **This is project management, baby. It’s not just about what you can produce, but how you can work with others to get something bigger and better produced––on time.
- Edit and proofread copy
- **So many content marketing teams do not have editors. Learn to be a good one. There are 3 types of edits. Will have a newsletter on those soon!
- Own reporting for content sessions to site, and conversion rate on /blog (or whatever) pages
- **Get familiar with Google Analytics, and any data dashboard tool your company uses. Yes, even if they say you don’t need to. Content will eventually need to prove it is generating ROI. Get comfortable with the stats now so you can start to make those arguments and prove results sooner.
- Maintain content calendar and consistently publish with predictability
- **This is for project management and for executive visibility. Include all the things the content team is working on here. If they write it / oversee its production, it goes here. This is critical to saying no to sudden projects and protecting your team’s time.
- Manage content quality for readability, accuracy, and engagement
- **This isn’t just about editing. This is about maintenance, too. And overall context. Content should be evergreen, yes, but things change––often. How often will you update content? How can you make sure your content is always reflecting the latest and greatest company POV?
- Project management
- Keyword research
- Basic SEO skills (specific for content marketing)
- Deck building skills (to present and get approval on your big ideas)
- Cross-team collaboration (i.e. the ability to make friends cross-team and earn trust so you can get content across the line everywhere it needs to go).
You’ll notice that social media marketing isn’t anywhere in here. And while it is great if you, as a content marketer, build out your social audience as a way to help promote your content, content marketing and social media marketing are two very different jobs. And should be treated as such.