12 minutes reading time (2366 words)

Justin Kirby: the ‘why’ factor of content

Justin Kirby: the ‘why’ factor of content Justin Kirby

"Content marketing" feels like a new industry based on new terminology, but the reality is anything but. Brands, publishers and people have communicated themselves with engaging content for centuries. But, what exactly is content marketing, how does it differ from other forms of marketing and communication, and should it be treated differently – and if so, why?

The Definitive Guide to Strategic Content Marketing is a new book which aims to address some of the fundamental points around what content marketing is, and is capable of. We caught up with co-author Justin Kirby to ask him about what content marketing is, where it's going, and whether its core principles have changed.


Let's start with that time-old adage... is content king?

JK: Well, that depends on what is meant by 'content'. Everyone in marketing is talking about it, but not everyone is saying the same thing – or even talking about the same thing! That's why Googler turned academic Lazar Dzamic and I decided to write a book that looks at whether the evangelical have finally found the Holy Grail of marketing, or it's just the latest industry hype. 

I don't want to come across like one of those politicians who decide to answer different questions to the ones asked of them, but a key one we were trying to address at the onset was what is 'content'? One way of answering that was to take advice from author and visual thinker Dan Roam about the need to ask better questions about its role: "Whoever best describes the problem is the most likely to solve it".

Having analysed over 70 definitions and got input from 60+ leading academics and industry experts from around the world, we realised that trying to pin it down something that is so fluid and cuts across so many disciplines ends up reducing its scope and potential. That is why we adopted the capital 'C' to denote the principle, as opposed to delivery of content-like stuff. 

It became clear to us quite early on that Content is not so much a solution, but more like a stepping stone or 'placeholder' approach that forms part of marketing's evolution to what's next on the horizon. It's also something that is more akin to those more empathic human-centred design philosophies, rather than a specific discipline that is distinct from other marketing efforts. That realisation set us on a very different path than we'd envisaged when we set out to write the book together. Hopefully, my answers to your questions will give you a flavour of our discoveries and how the game of thrones could be thought about differently.


Have content marketing techniques changed over the years, and how? Are there any 'perennial' strategies and tactics which still ring true?

JK: I think the same question could be asked of marketing, not least when the content variety is just seen as a reinvention of an older tradition. And if what's sought is some quick and dirty tactics then there are tick box lists of '10 content marketing formats every marketer should know and use' aplenty out there.  But, be warned that others have been saying for some time it's the overuse of the usual tactical suspects that's just contributing to the larger percentage of Sturgeon's Law ("90% of everything is crap").

What we were trying to do though was map out that territory and put together a guide like the grandfathers of Content, i.e. Thomas Cook or Michelin. Our focus was on the Why of Content, hence 'Strategic' in the title, rather than the 'how' because that's been overlooked for the most part. If readers are looking for the 'how to' then there's growing library shelf of books already published for them to choose from, as well as those talking about the executional intricacies every day online. Simon Sinek's mantra of "Start with why" just struck us a better place to begin because then much of the 'how?' of Content could be also be answered. And that's why we think our book is unique.


It seems that content monetisation is still hugely problematic for publishers to offer, and the promise of micropayments feels like it may never happen. What are your views on this? Is monetisation still a nightmare?

JK: One of the two chapters that we made freely available online is the publisher's perspective. The other is the client perspective. The format of these two chapters is very different from the others, because they are basically unedited 'verbatims' that help provide a glimpse under the bonnet of the input we sought and received. 

The publisher one mostly features the thoughts of Vince Medeiros, co-founder of TCOLondon who are behind Huck and Little White Lies magazines. He is also a director of the Content Marketing Association and managed to elegantly encapsulate what his peers had also told us about their trials and tribulations. It's worth a read because it gives a very candid account of how business models are being turned on their heads as media owners try and address the, as yet, still unresolved monetisation nightmares you mention. 

Interestingly, I was at a publisher's offices recently and they were talking about pulling the display ads from the print publication because the revenue they generated was so insignificant now that it was becoming a distraction from the other income streams they are chasing. Like others we spoke to, they are diversifying with a portfolio of offerings that still includes print, but also a wider range of customer experiences both on and offline, as well as more agency-like products and services. Unlike traditional agencies, they can bring an audience to the table and also a deeper understanding of the passion points of their audience by actually being immersed in that culture to ensure that they become part of their audience's lives – by being what they are interested in.

It doesn't seem like micropayments are on their priority list, because the topic didn't crop up in my conversations with them or any of those discussions we had with others as part of the research for our book. 


Do you believe that an explosion in channels and media has permitted brands to take a broad (publish everywhere) rather than deep (focus on audience value) approach? Surely not every brand can be on every social platform, even if they think that they should be.

JK: What's interesting about that explosion of channels and media you mention from a marketing perspective is that brands can connect at many more points along their customer's journeys now. I think there is a growing realisation for brands that the question is not 'to be or not to be' at those touchpoints, but more about what they will do that's additive if they are there. That's where what Google and Facebook call Moments That Matter can be helpful way of thinking because it's about identifying the user needs at those moments and working out what experiences you can deliver so you can win at them.

That's the theory anyway, and what we do as part of the book is introduce a new lens for thinking about those experiences more broadly than just a place to publish 'stuff'. We call this the Spectrum of Empathic Utility. At one end is Emotional Resonance and the other is what we call Intent Utility. They are similar to the Emotion and Functional dimensions from Clayton Christensen's jobs-to-be-done innovation framework.

What we say is they are more like slider controls, where it's not about one versus another but about how much of each you mix in depending where you are connecting in people's journeys and what you are trying to achieve by being there. That could be content we consume, but also something more functional that we use, e.g. an app.

At the same time, we suggest that framing those (micro) moments like this might help bridge adland's big divide between brand and performance marketing that in the Content space is often parlayed by pitting the terms Branded Content and Content Marketing against each other. That seems like a false dichotomy to us. The other point we make is that creating an emotional connection with your customers doesn't need Hollywood budgets, movie stars and big-name directors. Likewise, what is useful doesn't have to be boring. 


In terms of commercial models, the US still appears to be blazing a trail, and it feels that content innovation comes out of there almost every week. Do you agree, and what can Europe do about it?

JK: If you are talking about those focused on more editorially-orientated B2B content marketing, and specifically those speaking to the huge number of SMEs over there, then I think that's a fair observation. You only have to look at all those reports published about top content marketing 'influencers', often based on social network analysis tools, to see how many of those listed are from the US.

Whether your observation is as true in B2C is debatable though. For example, Unilever's All Things Hair 'platform' is still a stand out B2C example of how a content 'Hub' was created for their portfolio of relevant brands that pretty much owns that particular 'Help' category. It's also one that now joins the dots of all 5 C's of the brand strategy framework they presented last year, i.e. Customer, Connect, Content, Community and Commerce. 

BUPA is another who seemed to have cracked Content and the thought leadership of their former Global head of Content Matt Alison, who is actually based in Australia, is up there with top content marketing guns in the US. Or what about Red Bull? They are one of only a handful of brands who are heralded as having reached the top of the various content marketing maturity models touted by content marketing gurus. They are an Austrian company, which is in Europe last time I looked. (!)

And if you look at the broader Content territory, because what area of marketing doesn't use it, then Burberry is an example of brand that is not only trailblazing in the space where Content meets Customer Experience (aka Retail 360), but also where advertising and entertainment industries are colliding (i.e. the Branded Content & Entertainment category of the major creative award shows like Cannes, D&AD, One Show, and so on). The more Cultural (content) products emanating out of that latter space is where Europe and other regions around the globe seem to be as innovative as their US counterparts or at least as far as I can see from those winning the top awards. 


How has the changing nature and shape of content marketing changed the way in which brands plan campaigns, in your experience?

JK: Paradoxically, despite the hype surrounding Content, current debates still pretty much run along Brand vs Performance Marketing battles lines. Sadly, that doesn't really progress things much further forward that adland's older big divide between Above and Below the Line!

But there does seem to be a new mindset emerging, which as touched upon above is more empathic and human-centred. We were particularly struck by the ideas of Joe Pine and James Gilmore, who co-wrote The Experience Economy nearly two decades ago now. They talked to us about how experience design is fundamentally designing the time customers spend with you. That designing for time (and place) they talk about and delivering of value is very different from the way that marketing communications is focused on describing value in different ways. It's also more of an iterative process than the linear campaign approach of advertising, and that agility is something that is changing the way brands conduct their marketing. This includes increasingly becoming data-driven and both content and tech-enabled. 

What's, sadly, missing in the adoption of ever more efficient delivery platforms is that much needed more empathic and human-centred mindset. The upshot is a vicious circle where the content-like stuff being churned out ends up becoming part of the very problem it was claimed to solve by encouraging avoidance through ad blocking and migration to ad-free premium content environments like Netflix, Amazon Prime, etc. That might not spell the death of the advertising industrial complex any time soon, but it's prompting major advertisers to accept the need to evolve. 


Does content take a level of prominence within both agencies and clients that is justified? Is it an afterthought, or does it have deserved attention, or something else?

JK: Again, that depends a good deal on who you speak to. For some bigger agency groups, Content is just one of numerous revenue streams. Nothing more, nothing less. For others it now lies at the heart everything they do, allowing them to leapfrog their competitors having been provided with blank canvas to re-write rules/play through blurring lines. Then there are those who place it squarely as a novelty approach that's far from being mainstream. And if you head out further along that axis you reach the rejecters with a manifesto of hard-hitting, and often justified, criticism that ranges from Content being a load of bollocks via being a distraction from the real job of doing marketing to an example of how easy the industry succumbs to its own bullshit.

In short, there is no-consensus but unlike most books about content marketing we actually cover both sides of that debate and pretty much everything in between. If you step back and follow both the money and look at what clients are saying are their most important opportunities and priorities then it's clearly high up on their lists – as evident in Unilever's 5Cs brand strategy framework.

This a blessing and curse for both sides because the customer journey has become anyone's game now by having also become the content journey. That means everyone is in the content game, which has a commoditising effect for those on the supply side and amplifies confusion on the buying side about not only who they commission to create what for whom along those journey but why. We think our book and the Empathic Utility lens we present in it could help with that and perhaps just as importantly show how they can play a better part in our lives and at the societal level.


"The Strategic Guide to Content Marketing" is available to buy now, published by Kogan Page. Imperica readers can get 20% off the cover price by visiting the Kogan Page website and using the discount code AMKCONTENT20 at checkout

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