Content Marketing: Advertising’s Brave New-ish World

Click-through rates are abysmal. Readers are ignoring display ads. But there’s good news: advertising that looks and feels like editorial content is a proven way to engage audiences.

The content marketing era is upon us.

Content marketing might be easiest to define by what it isn’t. Content marketing doesn’t go after an immediate sale, or pitch a customer a product that they’ll purchase the next day. Instead, it’s about creating compelling content: stuff that potential customers want to read and share. The payoff? Something along the lines of brand awareness, brand loyalty, and brand trust—and in a time when Ad Age calls trust “the new currency of commerce,” it’s exactly what some advertisers are looking for.

But content marketing, in one form or another, has been around for a while. To use’s examples: In-flight magazine? Content marketing. Michelin guides? Content marketing. Soap operas? If you were watching (or rather, listening) in the 1930s, you were engaging with content marketing. Today, you can see examples of content marketing hosted on a variety of sites, from The Atlantic to to Buzzfeed.

This is, perhaps counterintuitively, good news for publishers: Media sites are the sensible place for advertisers to promote their content—to get it exposed in the first place. Publishers (especially, nudge nudge, users) know their audiences, and their audiences know what to expect on a publisher’s site. Smart advertisers will create or promote content that appeals to those audiences’ tastes. More often then not, well-placed content marketing will resemble what’s already on a media site, giving readers, listeners, and watchers more of what they’re already looking for—just provided by an advertiser.

That’s not to say content marketing isn’t controversial. Publishers are ethically bound, and “the difference between marketing and editorial content must be transparent,” according to the American Society of Magazine Editors. If an advertiser’s content is designed to be similar to a publisher’s, what does “transparency” entail? How can publishers make that distinction clear?

These are questions without clear answers, as evidenced by the countless “controversies” over sponsored, advertorial, or advertiser-produced content. Think Scientologate was a unique case? Think again. No seriously: think again.

We’re not going to pretend that we’ve got an easy answer. Even the specifics of ASME’s guidelines seem to boil down to the editorial version of “you know it when you see it.” What we do know is that we’ll be watching the content marketing debate closely—we’re pretty sure it’s here to stay.