The 10 Commandments of Content Marketing

t’s only a matter of time before some marketing pundit boldly declares this to be the Era of the Boldly Declared Era. Our attempts to make sense of the rapid changes in consumer media consumption have spawned such era-defining labels as “Web 2.0,” “Emerging Media,” “Generation Facebook,” “The Death of Print,” and most recently, “The Splinternet.”

Historically, a mania for naming has been a sure sign of cultural anxiety, and in our industry, it’s a sure sign that marketers are still percolating over the big questions: Will social media take over the world? Will streaming content kill broadcast? Will someone eventually click on a banner ad? Will society finally grind to a halt when there’s nothing left to tweet about besides Twitter?

As an industry, we’re struggling with these questions because we’re stuck in outdated categories. We still think advertising is advertising and social media is something else. In fact, advertising and social media are the same thing: They’re content. We can find answers to the vexing questions of our time the moment we realize that all marketing is content. And at the risk of adding yet another era-defining label to the mix, I want to suggest that the new approach demanded by these rapid changes is something White Horse callscontent marketing.

Content marketing is already occurring; it’s all around us. Marketers that do it well might not even know that they’re doing it because they weren’t burdened by the old way of thinking in the first place. Fortunately, it’s possible to bring a stone tablet down from that mountain and share what works about content marketing. Its 10 commandments are as follows.

Content shall be shareable

Advertising will have its renaissance the moment a majority of marketers care about creating something worth passing on. Consumers don’t trust advertising because it shouts at them. But the broadcast advertisers that top the viral video charts week after week don’t shout — they amuse, entertain, and inspire. If every creative brief in every agency in the land asked, “Why would someone want to pass this on?” then we would have TV ads that don’t make us reach for the TiVo remote and banner ads that can finally make us cry for reasons other than frustration. That’s not just advertising, that’s good content.

Content shall be malleable

I mentioned the Splinternet. Sorry. But it’s true that we’ve got to start paying more attention to how the message fits the medium. It’s hard to do that with advertising, but it’s easy to do it with content. You stop worrying about reusing brand assets and think instead about things like, “Mobile’s great at location-based stuff. What can I give my customer that’s useful based on their location?” Our mania for brand consistency has allowed us to forget that brands are built on trust. And trust is built on relevance. Good content is always relevant.

Content shall be collaborative

Marketers love to let customers into the brand laboratory — as long as they don’t touch anything. We invite consumers to give us their ideas, but how often do we let their creations out of the lab to roam free? Doritos figured out that consumer-generated content was just as good as its own content — maybe better — and so it let consumers create the brand’s Super Bowl ads. From scratch. The only monstrosities to come out of that experiment were the results: Doritos’ ads were the most-favored and most-recalled of the Super Bowl. Oh, and they were the most-shared (see Commandment 1).

Content shall be measurable

Enough with the hand-wringing over ROI. If you can measure how much traffic a given piece of content has driven to your website, you have vastly exceeded the measurability of 95 percent of advertising since its invention. (Actually, 96 percent — we measured it.) When you put content out there — on social networks, on YouTube, on blogs, etc. — you can measure the traffic that comes back. You can even measure what that traffic does next. It takes a bit of work. Notice there is no “Content shall be easy” commandment. But it’s worth it. How do I know it’s worth it? It’s measurable.

Content shall be fearless

If advertising were a personality type, it would be obsessive-compulsive: ritualized, repetitive, controlling, and fearful of change. Content isn’t like that. Content concerns itself with an exchange of ideas, so it morphs and evolves as new ideas are added. Take Starbucks’ fearless crowd-sourcing experiment, — a simple idea engine that shape-shifts its content with every comment and contribution, all adding up to a pretty durable brand proposition that says, “We care what our customers think.”

Content shall invite comment

Most content that we produce for our customers will fail. This is a good thing; our success depends on knowing when things fail, so we can try something else. It’s only a problem if we shut our ears to it. For decades our industry didn’t hear customer feedback outside of the airless environs of the focus group; now we have a chance to get the full, pent-up barrage of feedback in every tweet, YouTube comment, and blog posting that our brands attract. We need to embrace it, monitor it, learn from it, and move on. We’re fearless now, remember?

Content shall start everywhere

Marketing no longer belongs to marketers. For content marketing to succeed, we’re going to need a big tent with room for the PR folks, the product managers, the researchers, the sales staff, and, yes, even the execs. They all have content to contribute, and we can’t do it all ourselves. The marketer’s core expertise will no longer be knowing how to produce marketing content; it’ll be knowing how to channel marketing content in ways that keeps the conversation going. We’re going to need ads, articles, opinions, advice, feedback, and pithy observations in 140 characters or less. And no, you can’t get an intern for that.

Content shall go everywhere

In the beginning, there was the marketing funnel, and the ad impressions did delivereth leads unto the marketing funnel, wherein many were converted. Today, leads bounce all over the place before they ever get sucked into the funnel. They visit blogs, message boards, review sites, and social networks to get the real scoop on the brand. You need content in all of those places. You need to coordinate that content with your marketing funnel and measure its impact. How are you possibly going to get all this done? See Commandment 7.

Content shall be sponsored

It used to be that PR content went to PR outlets and advertising content went to advertising outlets, and the two might nod to each other in the hall as they passed. Not any longer. Publishers are inviting both over to dinner, with package deals that include sponsored content in your area of expertise seated right next to paid advertising. Marketers that haven’t embraced content marketing will blow these deals by phoning in the PR content, or they’ll miss the opportunity entirely.

Content shall be forever

OK, “forever” might be an exaggeration; the planet is 6 billion years old, and today’s marketing content can’t be expected to endure longer than a billion or so years, depending on what happens with Facebook. But that’s a big change because traditionally advertising only lasted as long as you paid for it. Content marketing lives well beyond a campaign because it shows up in archives, on sharing sites like SlideShare and Scribd, on blogs, in tweets, and in content aggregators like Digg and StumbleUpon. It’s the swallowed gum in marketing’s digestive tract, except that the flavor endures.

That’s content marketing, and it’s where White Horse stakes its claim. Like all content marketing, this is an unfinished discussion; others will add and detract, and the end result is outside of our control. We’re good with that. We’re content marketers.