Remember the good old days when a CMO could build a roster for his digital marketing team and fill it with search gurus and social media ninjas?

It wasn’t that long ago, but back then marketing was obsessed with channels, and more specifically, how ads could best be inserted into each of those channels.

Today, we operate in a converged media space. What we once thought of as a series of separate channels (paid, earned and owned) are really one big channel, and consumers, who see thousands of brand impressions a day, can’t remember where those impressions occurred.

While that might be troubling for an advertising model, the truth is that we live in a world dominated by content marketing. That means consumers don’t care where they find their content, and you shouldn't either, because what really matters is quality of your content operation — not the channel.

Not So Fragmented

It’s easy to talk about the “fragmented media landscape,” especially for marketers who came of age before the Internet, back when there were only three TV networks and print and radio were still essential. From that perspective, today’s media landscape does look fragmented. But looks can be deceiving. Content takes many forms, but online consumers consume content in one of three contexts -- paid, earned or owned.

A consumer is either going to engage with your ad (paid), visit your website or social media profiles (owned) or find you on a property operated by a third-party such as a news site (earned). For our purposes, earned and owned can be grouped together.

Even if you insist on keeping them separate, you’re looking at a total of three sectors, which means fragmentation really isn’t the right word. But let’s put the definition question aside. What you really want to know is which channel matters the most, right? After all, all marketers worth their salt want to put the most money and resources into the most important channel.

Well, as it turns out, earned and owned beat the pants off of paid, and it’s not even close. About a year ago, we analyzed 310 million website visits. Our research showed that a mere six percent of those visits came from paid media.

Organic search, in contrast, accounted for 47 percent of all visits. But our biggest takeaway was that 94 percent of all visits came from sources that a brand didn’t have to pay for. In other words, there really is only one large channel, and it’s the combination of what can be either earned or owned.

Reach your audience

You’ve probably seen a lot of articles out there that claim to give you the secret to content marketing. Some say video is the future. Others insist great storytelling is the key ingredient behind effective content marketing. Then there are the articles that insist that all a brand needs to do is think like a publisher, as if that mindset is easy to adopt and 100 percent full-proof.

But while all of these insights can be useful, they ultimately fall flat because they take one-sized fits all approach when the reality is that what works for one brand isn’t going to work for all brands. Even worse, the one-sized fits all approach fail to consider what the consumer wants.

  • Do they want video? Sure. Online video is popular, and according to Cisco it could account for 69 percent of all Internet traffic by 2017.
  • Do consumers want great storytelling? Sure. We all like great stories, assuming we’re in the mood for a story.
  • Do consumers want you to think like a publisher? Honestly, I doubt any consumer has given any serious thought to whether or not brands should think like publishers, let alone what it might mean to adopt that mindset.

So what do consumers really want? Utility.

Consumers want to consume useful content. That’s it.

If you create content that your audience finds useful, they’ll consume it. If you create content that’s self-serving, they’ll ignore it.

They’ll ignore that self-serving content in any form -- whether earned, owned, or even paid. It’s the utility that is the key difference between an ad and content. An ad has utility for the brand; content has utility for the consumer. And the more in tune you are with what consumers really want, the greater the likelihood that consumers will find your content, especially if you map that content to each phase of the buyer’s journey.

What Defines Useful Content?

Recently, Cannes recognized a handful of brands in the category of content marketing.

One of the honorees was Chipotle, which created an Oscar-caliber short called “Scarecrow” that garnered more than 12 million views on YouTube and leveraged a ton of earned media. But the content of the film itself -- there’s a strong anti factory farming message -- is the real utility because the message speaks to a broader category of people who are interested in food production, as opposed to the narrower group of people who happen to be in the market for quick serve burrito.

Honda’s “Project Drive-In” was another honoree. Rather than jamming a car ad down anyone’s throat, Honda created content around something that car owners would care about -- the decline of the drive-in theater. Again, it’s about how the brand can play a part in the larger, relevant conversation.

Chipotle is not a client (although Honda is), but both are just good examples of quality content marketing. But they’re also expensive examples, which is why I think it’s important to understand that brands can also create highly useful content without a Hollywood budget.

If you Google “Stand up paddleboarding,” the first thing you’ll see, ahead of the Wikipedia entry, is an article about the sport on REI’s website. (Full disclosure: REI is a Conductor client).

The article is actually part of the brand’s “Learn at REI” series, and the idea is to own the conversation around sports like paddleboarding, rather than buying only the traffic that’s in the market for a paddleboard.

Now, you might ask why REI, which sells paddleboards, prefers to put its resources toward owning the conversation when they could just buy traffic that’s likely to convert to a sale? It’s because participating in that larger conversation is REI’s best chance to give the consumer what they want (information about paddleboarding) and bond that consumer to the brand, so that when they do go shopping for a paddleboard, they seek out REI.

There's No Scale Button

Can you scale earned and owned media? It’s a great question that I hear a lot from CMOs. The answer is yes, but it’s not as easy as increasing your media buy. Paid media, after all, is supposed to be easy. You can just buy it. Earned and owned media are different. They take work. And to scale in the earned/owned media space you need to:

  • Find the opportunities
  • Measure those opportunities
  • Prioritize your opportunities
  • Execute
  • Optimize
  • Repeat

Those are the bullet points, anyway. Each brand will need to create a process as part of a larger content strategy. But the big takeaway should be that a content strategy isn’t a solution for optimizing the six percent of traffic you get through paid media, it’s about engaging with the 94 percent of traffic that comes from free and earned. That’s where the consumers are, and that’s where your brand needs to be.