If a week is a long time in politics, the 12 months since Marketing's last content marketing round table have been a very long time for brands and content agencies. Key trends – from the power of technology to globalisation – continue to develop, but it's clear that content has become an even bigger part of the marketers' lexicon in that time, and a focus of the marketing efforts of many brands, such as Sainsbury's.
Popularity brings its own dangers, however. The experts around the table are keen to stress that in a world where the word content can be misused and misunderstood, getting results from content marketing demands expertise and discipline. It has to be worth it if, as Haymarket Network's Andrew Taplin believes, relevant, authentic content, conceived and generated by experts, will deliver positive business results every time.
What has changed in content marketing in the past 12 months?
Alex Marks: "People are talking about content. Of course, it has always been around, as has creating great content for brands. The skill-set needed to create these things has been there already as well, but it seems that all of a sudden someone has realised this thing is increasingly important. So the first thing you notice is that more and more marketers are talking about it. Consequently, more agencies are saying that they do it.
"It's a bit like social media, in a way. I think what we need to do as an industry is to make clients realise that investment is needed to create great content. It is not just plucked from the air – it takes great journalistic and photographical talent and so on to create pieces of work that are engaging for people. The sector is in a very healthy position. It is not going to go the way that social might, where it goes back to the client again. A lot of what we do feeds the social aspect. If you replace the word content with the word brand, there is actually not a lot of difference."
Julia Hutchison: "It is important that content is talked about a lot more than the platform. Last year we were talking about apps and digital content – it was all about the platform. As an industry we have to get the strategy right and explain what the overall story is about, then talk about why it is being published and how it is distributed. That, going forward, is a good thing for the industry because it puts us up there as strategists."
Helen Ketchin: "I think the difficulty is that everyone is saying they can do content. If you create content out of context, it is not going to be as effective. Even in the most basic of things, such as the design of the website, if you are not involved you might suddenly find you can't actually deliver the content you want to deliver. I think that the challenge for a content marketer is to be at the top table and to be a part of that strategic development phase."
Lucy Naylor: "Historically, contract-publishing agencies have been seen as the agencies that are able to do the story-telling, but traditionally they weren't seen as being able to convert this into sales. This means that advertising agencies and PR agencies have been able to make a land-grab for this content strategy, and I think that everybody needs to work together. All three (types of agency) need to be at the top table from the start of the process, working together."
Simon Kanter: "That's an important point. People understood what we did: we made these nice magazines for clients and they could offer us opportunities every so often. The danger now is that they now don't always understand what business we are in, and the land-grab risk is that it is the people with the most power in agencies already favoured by clients who will make the claim for that land most prominently."
Dafina Keys: "We are where we are because of our own skill-set – and a publishing skill that we have been adapting to become channel-agnostic. I have been amazed about how that leads back to prove ROI and become transactional and driven."
Liz Hatherley: "There is an understanding that content is social media, and it is SEO, and the boundaries are starting to blur. This is good for us because it means that in the creating of the content hub, it is easier in the selling (to brands and clients) because people aren't thinking of social as a silo set activity. It is all under the banner of content now."
How are changes in consumer behaviour affecting content marketing?
Andrew Taplin: "I think technology is enabling, and making the way we deliver more interesting because of this community aspect.
"Whether it is two-screening or working on Twitter, the opportunity is to show that we can talk to those communities in their own language and engage with them. The opportunity now is for those communities to pass on the conversations and become even more involved in them. This has been there since before 12 months ago, but now there is even more of an opportunity from them to get involved in that conversation. All this technology is allowing us to do our jobs even better, and demonstrate the effect a good editorial process can have."
HK: "Consumer behaviour has changed as a result of technology, but consumers can now – and want to – engage with brands on their own terms. Content marketing is about getting more pull content and less about push content, which is why traditional advertising and marketing is used less, and why content is a massive opportunity to give the consumer a reason to engage with your brand, because they will only engage on their own terms."
SK: "The People Management magazine/Chartered Institute of Personnel and Development members are saying we recognise the value of this. Looking at the audience and what they consume, and looking at the magazines people aspire to be (such as Business Week) you can bring together something that has the energy of a Grazia with the intelligence of something like a Business Week – you can make a difference."
"Even across the board, when you look at the digital things we are doing, you see growth – 65% for PM's LinkedIn group since August 2012, for example. All of this – the corollary of producing a magazine for people that they think is more relevant for people in their community – allows them to engage in conversations within that community through the digital channels that you make available, in this instance LinkedIn and Twitter."
LN: "The model of the printed magazine has translated into the model of a digital magazine – it is no different, it is just a different channel or platform. Look at Net-a-Porter: it started producing online catalogues and moved to print, and some people thought this was a backward step. However, the company needed an integrated campaign and print provided that aspect for them."
JH: "Two key trends, and they kind of go together, are recession and attention deficit and engagement. Ironically, content marketing has bucked the trend and is in a good place – it has returned growth to brands. With attention deficit, I wonder if we are talking about Delayed Gratification. It is a gorgeous magazine – in this mad time where there is Twitter, Facebook and so on, here we have this magazine that revisits events of the past three months to see how the news agenda has moved on in the meantime."
AT: "I think the challenge – and we have been discussing this with retailers – is about using print and the way it links with devices such as tablets, where there is the opportunity to click through and buy. It really makes sense, but I think one of the challenges that we must grapple with is demonstrating how we can help them to sell, and how we can be relevant within that."
"Look at Red Bull. It's an energy drink but has an aura about it, built on delivery of its content-marketing strategy. It's not about the product but how it tells a story. The opportunity is there for other brands as well – look at car brands, they have developed a narrative around their products."
LN: "I also think the community-led approach to strategy for brands that are trying to sell something – feeling as though you are having something force-fed down your throat, and the sales message approach – is gone. There is now a feeling that your peers are almost telling you what is a good thing to buy."
"We work with Tesco, and years ago we published a Baby Club magazine that we are now making in a digital form because it was found that 80% of mums have a smartphone, which is a consumer trend. Mums are not flicking through magazines, they are reading on their smartphones and telling everyone else that that is what they are doing."
What are marketers looking for when they understand content marketing can add to brands?
JH: "There is some really interesting B2B stuff. It's a different mindset because budgets are smaller, so content marketing is more relevant or more interesting to them and there's a different ticket price – it's not selling a can of something; it's selling thousands of pounds of services, so I think that's actually what we can learn."
"We don't look at the B2B markets enough. Think of Google, (which publishes a quarterly book for CEOs), and B2B magazines for content marketing and customer publishing are fantastic and truly engaging. Some of the results are amazing and I think we can all collectively learn from what's happening in that space."
AT: "Retail brands are good; other brands fail at it because they do it on the cheap – you really need to throw the kitchen sink at it."
"However, if they want to build a direct relationship with consumers, that is where there is a big reward for the brand. It becomes up to us to explain how we can connect with the communities in a relative way to give them the results they want."
There are real success stories about UK agencies bringing content for brands overseas. Is this a growing trend?
AM: "We need that model, where there are editors in each country and stories are commissioned in those countries. Brands are becoming more interested in that sense because they want to appear international. Certain brands are going to succeed while others will fail behind them."
LH: "Perrier built a website that is like a cultural guide of cities around the word. You select your city and it shows you a guide, and it is very lightly sponsored by Perrier. It doesn't have that much to do with the brand, but, when you realise who is behind it, it has a great influence because it makes you think they understand you.
"They have a great influence in writing articles, and not only by their own team – they are going out and finding people in the real world and they do it globally. If brands do this kind of thing well, they can promote themselves as a global content producer."
Do brands employ more people with content in their roles?
HK: "I think it is about having central control. We are experiencing clients not having this. You have pockets within the company that are producing content, and presenting it in a certain way and publishing it themselves, but they also have several agencies who are claiming they can provide this content strategy and provide content."
"It's the client's initiative to say that I've got to have some central control. With one of our clients we are now setting up an editorial board and saying to some agencies, you're on it, so we have to play nicely."
JH: "The threat and opportunity is that brands increasingly want to own their brand story. I understand my culture, what I do, the history and whether we see that as a threat. I think brands are definitely creating content marketing with content people in-house; the extent to which they do that comes down to us being able to create and engage with that particular person."
What should marketers do to get the most out of content marketing?
SK: "The business of publishing is working and has done so consistently for the past 60 years because the things that we know – and do incredibly well – are driven ultimately by the community of interest, that is to say very highly-skilled practitioners, editors, sub-editors and artists. Also, of course, there is the infrastructure around them that allows them to be able to do it (and do it for brands).
"It is a skill-set that we should be celebrating, going out into the world and saying that it is uniquely ours and something we are very proud of.
"I think that, as an industry, we don't say enough about just how good we are at what we do, and how clever we are. To a certain extent, as we excuse ourselves, we make it more difficult to sell the message that we have to the people."
LH: "People should really be focusing on the US-led approach. Is that user someone watching a video, reading a feature in a magazine or looking in a picture gallery? How do we make sure they get something from this content?"
"It's not about forcing a brand on them, it's about making sure that they have a really good experience, whether they learn something or are entertained by buying some content – the brand engagement naturally follows from that."
LN: "My big dream is that the content-marketing agency actually leads the agency process. The advertising agencies feed in what they see as the brand and we give it flesh and blood. I think traditional advertising is dead and content marketing is alive – and we are in the best place to produce it."
DK: "It's about the skills and expertise, and about how to fill the application of that with whatever channel and whatever point the customer and brand relationship is at. This might sound a bit cheesy, but it's about understanding the value of partnership."
Philip Smith, head of content solutions and studio, Marketing (chair)
Simon Kanter, editorial director, Haymarket Network
Helen Ketchin, marketing director, Forward
Liz Hatherley, editorial manager, Group FMG
Lucy Naylor, editor-in-chief, luxury, Forward
Dan Chester, senior account manager, Marketing
Alex Marks, strategy director, River
Andrew Taplin, managing director, Haymarket Network
Suzanne Bidlake, consultant editor, Marketing
Julia Hutchison, head of content marketing, Group FMG
Dafina Keys, group account director, River
How brands can get the most out of marketing
Content marketing agencies should lead the entire marketing process
"I think that will work better. The advertising industry actually feeds on what they see as the brand's soul - we give it flesh and blood and make it work."
Content needs to be high quality if it is to work in marketing
"Quality content needs to be invested in, that's what customers engage in. If it's not good, the content doesn't matter – it's all about quality. Brands should be investing in and appreciating the quality, because that's what delivers the engagement."
Content cuts through the clutter to consumers
"There is just so much noise out there. To be successful in their long-term engagement with their customers, brands need to build a relationship with them. And the only way they can do that while their customers are confronted with a whole plethora of things they could be doing with their time, has to be to produce something that absolutely chimes in with their interests.
"It is about understanding that community and delivering to that community, and that requires real, genuine expertise. You can't do that in-house without investment."
Content builds credibility for brands
"If you are a UK brand and you want to expand, content marketing needs to be a central part of that expansion. To be able to talk about your product and introduce it in the language of the country it is in, great content is needed to make it credible."
Content and community is king
"Lots of brands are thinking that you can just put the content out there, but you need people to engage with it. Unless that content is relevant to that community, and the person or team creating it is a part of that community, it's just not going to work."
Content needs control and an editor-in-chief
"Every brand needs an editor-in-chief, and that person can then commission all the content and strategies they need."
Read more: Content Marketing Case Studies