Why Marketing Needs Content

“Content” has become a buzzword, and not just in the marketing space. It’s in my job title, it’s the name of the team that I’ve built, and it’s a word I say and write dozens of times a day to mean a half dozen different things. It’s a marketing term that is so ubiquitous nowadays that it almost seems like it’s lost its meaning. Everything has become known as content, from a tweet to an ebook to a movie. These words you’re reading right now are even part of a piece of content.

But beyond the confines of marketing, content has come to rule the world. Netflix spends billions of dollars every year to make their own content (here being TV shows and movies), and every streaming service is nipping at their heels to create their own immersive shows that will further grow their list of subscribers. Content is what we all spend our time consuming, and it comes in a dizzying multitude of forms. 

For those of us tasked with strategizing the creation of this content, it can feel like we never have enough. I’m sure Ted Sarandos, Netflix’s Chief Content Officer, has pulled his hair out on a few nights, trying to figure out how he can wield the famed algorithm to craft new content that is sure to capture the hearts and imaginations of his vast and hungry audience. 

If the downside of the Netflixation of film and TV is that the great show I loved likely won’t be watched by any of my friends, maybe the upside is that the great show existed at all.

Although maybe Netflix is a great example of a content delivery machine that actually has enough resources and need for new content that even small niche stories are given time to shine, a fact that should in itself be celebrated. The amount of specialty content is truly astounding, and often I’m surprised they even tried to adapt ____ story into a movie or TV show. If the downside of the Netflixation of film and TV is that the great show I loved likely won’t be watched by any of my friends, maybe the upside is that the great show existed at all.

And thanks to the ever-shifting ground that the internet is built on, optimization is never done. Old content must be maintained and updated even while the new stuff gets bolted together on the factory floor. For streaming services, that means re-ordering the episodes of that one divisive season of Arrested Development, or just recutting a whole blockbuster film and releasing it as The Snyder Cut. For marketing, that means fact-checking old blogs and making sure links aren’t sending people to a dead end. In one case for me, it meant swapping a link in a blog that had pointed to the website of someone who happened to be involved in a grisly murder-suicide bit of nastiness.

But it didn’t used to be this way. Before every company was advised to be their own media company by Gary Vaynerchuk, marketing teams used to just…market. Content marketing, when done right, feels like the child of journalism and marketing, some beautiful hybrid that can both inform and convince, consisting of great sentences that can sell a product while imparting undeniable facts.

I would argue that, although the term “content marketing” has only been a well-searched term since roughly May 2014, marketing has always needed content. The old adage “If you don’t like the conversation, change what they’re saying” plays a big role in marketing; what better way to change the conversation than to create a big splashy thing that inspires its own conversation?

If you sell shoes but no one’s talking about your shoes, then you should start talking a lot about what makes your shoes great. People generally hate in-your-face salesmanship, so what’s a sly way to talk more about how cool those shoes are? Let’s hire someone else to talk about them. Let’s create some videos about how neat these things are. Boom, content. Now we’re selling shoes faster than they can get stitched.

And while the insatiable need for more content is definitely a recent trend, the fundamentals of marketing are still mostly unchanged. Sure, brands now try more overtly to entertain you than they did in the past, but advertising has always been a fundamental piece of commerce. An ad that makes you laugh is a successful ad, the same in 2021 as it was in 1921. The difference is that kids nowadays don’t even know what televised commercials are, and the advertising landscape is more fractured and invasive than ever. It’s a (somewhat) natural progression to go from making great ads that will air in between popular TV shows to just creating your own TV show because ads are few and far between.

All of this is to say: Marketing needs content, and it always has, because wielding something of substance is a great way to sell your stuff. In the days of old, an ad on a billboard looked like a pretty logical spend, while today we’ve got Office Max making a show for ABC Family. It’s all marketing, all of it in the same family tree, even if that family keeps getting larger and more diverse.

Is there any end to it? I, like most people, feel some fatigue at the sheer number of great TV shows that are being made. It’s definitely a Halloween night kind of situation, where you sit surrounded by an obscene amount of candy and start to wonder if it might actually be possible to have too much of a good thing. If every brand keeps making progressively better content and trying to steer the conversation with their superb original creations, are any of us even able to spend the appropriate amount of time to enjoy it all?

As a creator myself, I think it’s a pretty wonderful problem to have, and I believe that investing in content is a worthwhile way to put up or shut up about what your brand believes in. A focus on content has led to a rise in activism from brands like Peak Design and Patagonia, and Yeti is pumping out some of the coolest video content anywhere.

Great content is at the core of effective marketing, and storytelling is a tradition so innately human that we’ve been doing it pretty much since before we discovered that fire was a thing. Companies that invest more in expanding their storytelling capabilities can only see more success as they humanize their brand and communicate what it is that makes them unique.

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