We have been thinking about content marketing, and who should ‘own’ it, and felt it might be helpful to consider content marketing and interactive advertising side by side. Are they the same?  If not, what exactly are the differences between them, and what do they have in common?

Some basic definitions and similarities

The Content Marketing Institute defines content marketing as “a marketing technique of creating and distributing relevant and valuable content to attract, acquire, and engage a clearly defined and understood target audience – with the objective of driving profitable customer action.”

The Journal of Interactive Advertising, in its first edition in 2000, contained a definition of interactive marketing as the “paid and unpaid presentation and promotion of products, services and ideas by an identified sponsor through mediated means involving mutual action between consumers and producers.”. Like traditional advertising, interactive advertising has the clear and understood motive of selling products or services. Its main attraction is that it allows advertising to be much more targeted than was traditionally possible, which theoretically should reduce its cost per sale.

These definitions, then, give us a very clear starting point: both content marketing and interactive advertising are about ‘profitable customer action’. In other words, the desired end-result is that the customer buys the product or service on offer. The other point in common is that both aim to engage the consumer or target audience in some action, whether that is reading the content, and following the call to action, or clicking on the interactive advertisement. Fundamentally, then, content marketing and interactive advertising have the same desired end-point of customer purchase. But how they go achieving that is quite different.

Different processes, same desired outcome

Content marketing is very much about engaging with customers, whether end-users or other business customers. That’s why it’s such a key part of thought leadership, because it’s about developing the conversation and promoting the image of the brand, building up a relationship with the customer. Depending on the precise content, it won’t necessarily directly drive sales. Instead, good content marketing, like thought leadership more generally, will directly engage a group of potential customers in an ongoing conversation about their business problems and the ways in which these might be solved. It’s a way of making sure that you are at the top of your potential customers’ minds when they need something that you can supply. As we noted when discussing who owns thought leadership, we’re used to researching thoroughly before purchase, and building relationships with our favourite brands online in our personal lives, so why would we not do it in our business lives too? Content marketing capitalises on this trend.

Perhaps most crucially for many businesses, sales can’t easily be linked to activity, either of thought leaders or of their target audience. Number of articles posted, number of unique visits to the website, or number of subscribers to the blog are unlikely to bear much relation to sales figures. And while this won’t be popular with those who love to hold people accountable in numerical terms, it doesn’t necessarily mean that it isn’t working.

Interactive advertising, on the other hand, is much more direct, and in many ways, cruder. It can be measured in a sort of ‘pay per click’ type way: number of customers who have clicked on the advertisement, and the number who have then bought. The first tells you how engaging your advertisement is, and the difference between the two, of course, will tell you how good your advertisement is at attracting the right potential customers, and thus give you a measure of your design success. And perhaps the sheer in-your-face crudeness of advertising’s desire to sell makes it easier to ignore if you want to do so.

Slow burn versus instant gratification

While the desired outcome of both content marketing and interactive advertising is the same, the methods and focus of the two are quite different. Content marketing is very much about engaging with customers, with a long-term aim of sales, but only through detailed engagement. A large number of those who engage in this way will never purchase, but the interaction and engagement will enrich both thought leader and potential customer. Interactive advertising, on the other hand, is much closer to the action, and an engagement without purchase is considered  wasted effort. At the same time, the effect on the customer is also quite different. Content marketing demands attention, engagement and brain power. Advertising, however subtle and however interactive, demands that you buy.

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