In part one of this series, in which I attempt to demystify modern marketing for my mom, I tackled what I do for a living. Naturally, that led to some interesting follow-up questions from my mom Julia including this one:
Dear Martha, I am a bit confused about what you mean by content…. What is it? What the heck is a white paper? Are there other colors of paper?
Here in part two, I’ll do my best to answer by covering the following:
- What is content?
- What is content marketing?
- What are content types?
- The difference between first-party and third-party content
- A B2C example of content marketing
So here goes….
Hi Mom! Great questions. First let’s talk about what content is and why companies are increasingly using it in their marketing strategies.
The sellers of the world know that buyers today, especially those looking to make a large purchase, do a lot of research online before they are ready to buy. There is a wide variety of information available online that buyers turn to in order to educate themselves before making a purchase.
Content is an umbrella term
When I refer to “content,” I’m talking about the informative materials that buyers might consult online in their research. It refers to all the different types of materials that are produced by the organizations that want to sell you something and also by individuals or groups that offer their expert opinions to the world including reviewers, analysts and other consumers. This information can be presented in a variety of formats including videos, white papers, eBooks, infographics, case studies, how-to guides, articles, blog posts (like this one!) and, yes, even “white papers.”
Why content matters to modern marketers
Content is a very powerful tool for marketers today. When we talk about content marketing, we’re referring to any marketing activity that involves the creation and sharing of these informational materials with the goal of educating, influencing, acquiring and retaining customers. The reason content marketing is the word du jour for marketers today is that it represents a shift in how companies go about reaching their buyers. Whereas marketers used to produce content that was mostly about their own products and services (data sheets, spec sheets and brochures), marketers now focus less of product sales pitches and more on sharing solutions and establishing themselves as credible sources of expertise in a specific area.
A real-world example of content marketing
Let’s say you’re thinking about buying a new car. Before you ever set foot in the dealership, you’ll probably go online and do your research, right? You do your homework because you want to be a smart buyer and to make a smart purchase. In order to do that, you need to educate yourself so you can feel good about your decision.
Well, this isn’t a surprise to car companies. They know their potential buyers are soaking up all the information available online as part of their purchase process. Because so much of this buyer self-education happens digitally before you walk through the doors of the dealership, the car companies naturally have an interest in what you read and watch online. That’s why they spend a large portion of their marketing budget creating educational materials so that they can guide you through the early stages of your buying process.
As I mentioned earlier, content can come in many different formats. In our car example, you may watch a video that shows you all the shiny new features of this year’s new hybrid model or you may be more interested in reading an online brochure about the safety features of the vehicle. The car companies themselves produce these types of materials. We call this first-party content.
But you as a buyer are smart. You know that the creator of the content you’re reading (the car company) wants to sell you something. So to balance out your research, you want to know what other people think. You want to know what the experts think. So you look for educational material that is not published by the car company itself but by reviewers and other consumers who have driven the vehicle you’re interested in. The marketers at the car company refer to this type of content as ‘third-party content’ because they did not write it themselves.
If the third-party content presents the car company and its product in a favourable way then it can be quite valuable for the car company. This is especially true when it comes from a credible source like a well-known car expert. The car company may share this third-party content online or through social media to make sure that potential buyers can see it. So a company’s content marketing strategy usually encompasses both first-party and third-party content – materials they produce and materials produced by others. Third-party content might be earned or paid: Earned means the car company wasn’t involved in its production (other than maybe providing a car for an expert to test drive), whereas paid means that the company retained an expert to produce a more or less objective and arms-length report, review or appraisal of their product.
Now about that “white paper”…
While there are other colours of paper in the B2B marketing world (and we talk more about electronic formats than paper nowadays anyway!), the term “white paper” has been widely adopted by B2B marketers. It refers to a persuasive, authoritative, in-depth report on a specific topic. Usually it presents a problem that a buyer faces in their business and then proposes a solution. White papers are distinguished from “brochures” and other glossier types of marketing content by their length and also their format, which tends to be pretty plain. The idea is that these are serious, factual and credible documents that you should pay attention to, not marketing “fluff.”
To be honest, I had no idea where the term “white paper” came from originally. It was just one of those buzz words you pick up in the digital B2B marketing world. But I do my homework too. I looked it up and learned that the word “white paper” is quite an old term that was first used in politics, where it referred to a legislative document that explained and supported a particular political solution. In fact, the term white paper originated in government with the Churchill White Paper of 1922.
See, Mom, now we are both learning!