The Difference Between Content Marketing and Custom Content

Inplace #2

ADOTAS – I am at the extremely well-attended Content Marketing World — the first conference of its kind here in Cleveland (from Junta42), and I am picking at one of the four different macaroni and cheese combinations they are offering tonight at the Rock & Roll Hall of Fame (that seems like a lot to me, but what do I know.)

I fall into a dinner conversation with a gentleman from a traditional B2B magazine publisher who is a speaker and sponsor at the event.

“We just launched our content marketing division last year,” he says confidently.

“Oh?” I say. “You never did custom content before? I would have thought you would have.”

I spent a few years at B2B giant Reed Elsevier and, like many publishers (especially in the B2B space), Reed had a custom content business that was typically run as a one-off – using most of the same resources and processes as the content business.

“Oh, no, we have done custom content for years,” the magazine man says.

There is an obvious follow-up question here, but I don’t want to put him on the spot. I can’t help myself, so casually as possible, I ask…

“So, then what do you see as the difference between content marketing and custom content?”

He pauses. A few folks stop their conversations and start listening –  yup, I have put him on the spot. I actually had never considered the issue myself until just now.

“Well, nothing really I guess,” he replies. “I think they just keep changing the name. It used to be Custom Publishing, then it was Custom Content, and now it is Content Marketing.”

He smiles weakly — and a little bit later he leaves to take a call.

Quite a few of the companies here at Content Marketing World are from the traditional publishing world: PR Newswire, Wolters Kluwer, Penton, Cygnus, etc.  For many of them, “Content Marketing” may indeed be just another word for “Custom Content,” a business that is run on the side for brands. But I don’t think that is the whole story; if it were, this conference wouldn’t be nearly so well attended.

In my view, there is a simple and fundamental difference between Content Marketing and Custom Content: one is internal, one is external.

Custom Content — pioneered by folks like Pohly & Pohly over 50 years ago with the airline magazine — was typically the creation of content meant to build an affinity with your existing audience. This content would reinforce the brand, communicate the value of the product and create new opportunities. Custom Content is the creation of  “branded content” for a customer. And, for the most part, custom content is created for the client to communicate with their own existing customers.

There is some overlap, but Content Marketing for the most part is a different beast. Content Marketing is predominantly outward facing — it is about creating content that will attract *new* customers for brands. It can be branded content, but it can also be simply “brand-relevant” content that attracts an audience.

The Content Marketing trend started with white papers, but has crossed over into blogs and social media. In fact, for some brands P&G (soap operas were actually an early anomalous example of content marketing), content marketing is starting to look like a much more successful method of creating online engagement than advertising. Hence the popularity of the new Content Marketing World conference I am attending.

What does all of this mean? Brands or firms who are looking to be content marketers will have to overcome all of the same challenges as publishers. They not only have to create great content, but also have to figure out how to attract and reach an audience. And guess what? They will likely be in direct competition with publishers over who is going to build a direct relationship with the audience.

I draw two conclusions: first, Content Marketing is going to be a lot harder than Custom Content to do well. Brands who want to be content marketers will have to understand and use a much wider array of expertise and disciplines including: social media, search optimization, paid and earned media, distribution and community building.

Second, there will be blood. Inevitably, content marketing creates a conflict with publishers over who owns the audience, the writers and the content. Brands may not find that traditional publishers are going to be so keen on helping put themselves out of business.

One thing is for sure: this is a very different business than custom content.