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Why content marketing doesn't need to tell a story

Why content marketing doesn't need to tell a story Rebecca Lieb

To effectively create content marketing, you must be a master of storytelling. True? Nope.

Storytelling can indeed be an important, if not critical, element of content marketing. But it's not the be-all, end-all of content marketing strategy. Now, I like a good story as much as the next person. Four of the most magical and riveting words in the English language are "once upon a time." A story is a wonderful way to capture attention and interest. But it's not the only way.

Recently I took part in a panel discussion on "branded content." The proponents of that term asserted that all "branded content" is contingent on a marketer's ability to tell a good story. Certainly content marketing tells plenty of great ones, from classics like Unilever's Dove "Real Beauty" to newcomers like "First Kiss," which (though arguably a stealth campaign for Wren Clothing), was a riveting narrative.

But there are two other types of "branded content." (OK, I dislike that term. It has its roots in print advertorial, which is probably where it picked up the storytelling association. From now on let's just use good, old-fashioned content marketing.) Storytelling plays little, if any, role in these types of content, but both types of brand-generated content can be equally as effective as brand storytelling.

There are three types of brand-created content marketing (as distinct from content not created by a brand, such as user-generated content, ratings, reviews, and aggregated or curated content). The first bucket, content that entertains, is what generally falls into the storytelling camp. Think entertaining videos and other forms of narrative entertainment.

The other two types are educational/informative content and utility content.

Educational/informative content

This type of content is used in B2B or long-sales cycle purchases. Think automotive, consumer electronics, computers, appliances, and consulting services. Much of it centers around how-to's, or what to look for when buying a flat screen TV, child safety seat, or mainframe computer. Different elements of this type of content are often geared to the sales cycle or around educating customers around a new product category.

Educational/informative content can be thought leadership: white papers, opinion pieces, executive or specialist blogs, and new product introductions. It can be instructional (how to use, set-up, activate, and make an informed decision). Or it can cross-sell or upsell additional products and accessories for an existing purchase (e.g., why you might need a new attachment for that lawnmower, or mixer).

Bottom line? This type of content is helpful, useful, instructional, and helps all along the purchase cycle, from awareness through to purchase, brand loyalty, and advocacy.

Utility content

Utility content is utterly devoid of story. It exists to help consumers get something done (e.g., complete a task, provide highly timely or tailored information, or understand a need). Most often, utility content takes the form of an app or a calculator. Ever calculated an interest rate on a bank's website? Looked up calories or a recipe from a brand's database of ingredients? Then you've used utility content.

Because this type of content is app-ified, it's gaining tremendous momentum on mobile devices. Think Better Homes and Gardens' real estate tool. Location aware, it locates nearby properties for sale but also delivers information about average sale prices in the neighborhood, nearby schools, taxes, and other information a home buyer needs to make a purchase decision. Sit or Squat, an app developed by Charmin, is the Yelp of public restrooms, helping people who need to go find the nearest accessible public restroom, complete with ratings and reviews (likelihood of toilet paper, or cleanliness, for example).

In fact, as I write this column in-flight, I'm realizing I just used Delta's app to check in and ascertain my status on the upgrade list (alas, no dice). At the gate, I got a push message from Marriott telling me my room is ready at the other end of my journey.

All of the above is content. All of it is, or can be, branded. Only some of it tells a story. And that's OK.

What's appropriate for your brand, product, or service? Storytelling/entertainment, educational/informative, or utility content? Perhaps just one type of content will do. Perhaps a combination is required for different needs, products, goals, target audiences, etc.

That, dear readers, is where content strategy comes in.

Rebecca Lieb is an analyst, digital advertising/media, for Altimeter Group.

On Twitter? Follow iMedia Connection at @iMediaTweet. Follow Rebecca Lieb at @lieblink and Altimeter Group at @altimetergroup.

Rebecca Lieb has published more research on content marketing than anyone else in the field.  As a strategic adviser, her clients range from start-up to non-profits to Fortune 100 brands and regulated industries. She's worked with brands...

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