Or: Why I’m not scared about the state of content marketing

Content is king, right? Actually, there’s a fair bit of discussion going on in marketing and business circles about how content marketing is actually ruining the Internet. Pieces like this one from the Harvard Business Review, for instance, paint a picture of the practice as, at best, ineffective, and at worst one that’s making the Internet a less effective medium for sharing ideas, conducting research and connecting with people. That’s a pretty scathing indictment. It sure sounds something I’d like to distance myself from.

Or take this diatribe against the supposed drink-the-Kool-Aid culture of inbound king Hubspot, written by journalist-turned-ordinary-citizen Dan Lyons, that appeared in Fortune Magazine. While it mainly focuses on an over-the-top startup culture seeking to fashion work as a never-ending flight from anything that looks, smells or even feels like real, actual work (Infinite Jest meets HBO’s Silicon Valley, in Lyon’s retelling), Lyons has a pretty bleak outlook on content marketing’s overall objectives as well. “Buy our software: Sell more stuff,” is how he describes HubSpot’s mission. Again, not exactly the impact a young(ish) media professional is trying to make on the world.

So am I up to my eyeballs in disillusionment with content marketing? Do I spend sleepless nights pondering the social utility, or lack thereof, of the industry that I’ve entered into? No, not really. And that’s for reasons beyond the obvious irony of Lyons entering the startup fray in order to create content (a book) that he presumably hopes people will buy.

No, in the industries in which I work, people are always looking to buy. Damn good thing, too. Otherwise, hospitals wouldn’t be built, factories wouldn’t be fireproofed, bridges wouldn’t be protected from corrosion and quality control wouldn’t be conducted as well as it could be. No, companies in my industry were always going to buy (and, contra-Dan Lyons, are usually only making a few large purchasing decisions per year, not gobbling up “stuff”). I just try to use content to influence who’s involved in those transactions. And HubSpot provides a platform for me to do that. In that regard, it reminds me a lot of the old saying that technologies are morally neutral until they are applied.

So the question remains: Do I believe that content marketing can be conducted in an honest, ethical way that actually contributes to the social utility of the Internet rather than detracting from it? Damn right I do. And that, without further ado, is what leads me to introduce the single greatest piece of content marketing ever created.

Utility is king

Grilling-guide

Here it is.

The Weber Grill Guide PDF in all its glory. Rarely do I fire up the (alas, gas) grill anymore without this big beautiful piece of branded content pulled up on my phone or tablet. Allow your eyes to adjust to its brilliance for as long as needed, but then let’s take a look at the details so I can attempt to justify such a lofty claim. *

  • It’s simple- a five-page PDF, each introduced by the same 147 words of content.
  • It’s succinct- There are books upon books on the subject of backyard grilling. I’m looking at one beautifully bounded example on my shelf right now. It runs to 432 pages, including the index. But our little PDF intro copy comes with two rules of thumb: grill these cuts on direct heat and those cuts off of it. That’s the sort of advice you can keep in your brain’s back pocket.
  • It’s authoritative- “Cooking times for beef and lamb use the USDA’s definition of medium doneness unless otherwise noted.” For me, I’d rather you just slowly walk the cow past the grill on its way to my plate, but at least I have a trustworthy baseline from which to start. The appeal to primary and authoritative sources always does wonders for branded content.
  • It’s useful- This is the big one. The be-all and end-all. The sine qua non. This is the feature that keeps me consulting it every time I fire up the grill. It’s a graphically intuitive way to ballpark times for all the meats and veggies I’m likely to be cooking up on a given day. And that’s usually far more interesting to me than some lengthy tome on the art and aesthetics of cooking with outdoor ovens.

Tools like this grill guide from Weber are the reason I don’t fear for the content marketing industry or my place in it. Because this is what I strive to create for my clients. Hell, it would be a dream to create something this useful. Because this is the kind of content that can actually fundamentally change a business by helping it to become associated with more than just a product. Even Apple, a company Lyons has written about a fair bit himself, didn’t become the cultural phenomenon it did just by selling stuff. It got to that point by convincing people that it produces the kind of useful tools that creative people need to become their best, most productive selves. So while it’s true that, in my line of work, it may look more like an album of spec sheets, a tank linings comparison guide or an infographic explainer for some new EPA rules, that’s not really the point. The point is that, whatever’s meant by “content,” it had damn well better be useful.

Rather than contributing to the Internet becoming a cacophonous and shady back-alley bazaar with a screaming salesman around every corner, we can all hope to cut through the clutter with real tools and information that actually help the people we’re trying to reach. If content is king, we need a coup. Those of us this business should take it upon ourselves to stop playing herd ball, step back, and think about how we can be helping our clients and their customers. If we do that, content marketing will be just fine.

*Kyle Fiehler received no compensation, monetary or otherwise, from Weber Grills for the writing of this piece

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