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Throughout my career I have often worked with, or for, organizations in industries where their various audiences questioned why they needed to advertise.

My first experience was in the utility industry. It was an interesting education in marketing for me, actually. Having grown up in a family-owned business and landing a fresh-from-college job with an organization where we worked hard to convince people to buy our products, the utility marketing experience was initially somewhat confusing to me.

The work of the marketing department seemed more like “anti-marketing” to me. We didn’t create communication materials designed to get people to use more energy. In fact, most of our efforts were focused on educating customers about conserving energy — and providing them with the information and tools to do that, often at no cost to them. We also spent significant effort on communicating safety-related messages.

Did we pay to place these messages, e.g. through television, radio, newspaper and billboard placements? Yes. Is that advertising? Well, it often depends on who you ask and the perspective they bring to the conversation.

Advertising is always communication, but communication isn’t always advertising

Consumers tend to feel that any television commercial is an advertisement. I would agree that any organization that communicates in any way with some consumer audience is attempting to better its financial performance in some way.

This is true even of not-for-profit organizations. They still need to “keep the lights on” and have other necessary expenses that allow them to serve their constituencies. They need revenue from various sources to cover these expenses.

Still, the communication that comes to use from organizations like government agencies, foundations and charities and, yes, utilities aren’t always “advertising” in the sense that they are overtly attempting to sell some product or service.

The health care industry is a good example of this. Much as is the case in the energy industry, health care communications are often focused on educating people about how to stay healthy. In essence, the messages are often about how to avoid the need for health care services.

In fact, the concept of primary and preventive care is based on the idea that if we all practice healthy behaviors, and have regular check-ups and screenings, we can hopefully avoid higher-level (and more expensive) needs for health care services in the future.

Here in the Chippewa Valley we’re fortunate to have a wide range of highly-regarded health care organizations and providers to choose from. They, in turn, have a wide (and growing) range of communication channels to choose from. We see and hear their messages communicated in many places — on television, on billboards, in newspapers, and more commonly on the Internet, through social media, etc.

In many cases these organizations are paying to spread these messages. But, while some messages certainly are geared toward having consumers “choose” their services, many messages are focused more on raising awareness of various services, providers and offerings that are available and educating consumers about making good health and lifestyle choices.

Most of us don’t give a whole lot of thought to either our energy providers or our health care providers until something happens (or doesn’t happen) that makes us think of them. When these needs arise, our decisions about what to do next are drawn, to a large degree, from the myriad of messages that have been sent our way — many which we didn’t really pay attention to at the time, or even overtly realize we had seen or heard.

Content marketing isn’t, technically, ‘advertising,’ but it does the same thing

Do all organizations need to advertise? No. Do all organizations need to communicate? Yes. And they need to do so in such a way that what they have to say: reaches their desired audiences; stands out from the masses of other communications from all channels; and educates, informs and sometimes persuades recipients to hold some belief or take some action.

Today’s online communication channels have opened up new, and increasingly effective, means for organizations and individuals to get their messages in front of their audiences. These channels have given rise to a not-necessarily-new, but increasingly effective, means of doing that — content marketing.

Content marketing has become a trendy new term to refer to the use of non-paid (e.g. non-advertising) content to connect with various audiences. It can involve any combination of websites, blog posts, white papers, social media posts, etc., designed to engage an audience and generate positive feelings about the communicator’s products and services.

It has the added value of not appearing, at least overtly, to be advertising. In fact, it may fall more into the traditional PR-related realm of marketing communications since, very often, the communicator is hoping that others will notice and share their messages, expanding their reach exponentially.

The Content Marketing Institute conducts ongoing research on content marketing and recently reported that 92 percent of marketers are now using content marketing and 58 percent of business-to-business (B2B) and 60 percent of business-to-consumer (B2C) marketers are planning to increase their content budgets.

That word “budget” is an important one. Too often there is a tendency to believe that content marketing (like its PR cousin) is “free.” In truth, both carry costs. And yet, unlike traditional advertising, content marketing doesn’t carry that same stigma. In its most effective form it is designed to educate and inform and, only by default, to increase the awareness, preference and sometimes purchase or use of the related product or service.

A mix of media to engage audiences

The growth of content marketing in the 21st century is directly related to the availability of online communication channels which allow communicators to get their messages in front of their audiences without relying on traditional media channels — whether through paid advertising or PR placements.

Yet these new options are not mutually exclusive. Content marketing does not replace either advertising or PR. It just represents another option.

For organizations like utilities and health care providers, content marketing may offer the opportunity to convey messages to consumers in ways that don’t appear to be simply promotional. But it’s likely that they, and other organizations, will still have the need to purchase advertising space in various print, television, radio and outdoor venues.

Whether we call it advertising or marketing or public relations or content marketing, it is all really just communications. And in today’s increasingly segmented communication environment, marketing communicators are both blessed and cursed by the many options they have to get their messages out to their markets.

Linda Pophal of Chippewa Falls is a marketing communication consultant, business journalist and the owner of Strategic Communications, LLC, in Chippewa Falls. She is the author of “The Everything Guide to Customer Engagement” (Adams Media, 2014). Pophal can be reached at 715-723-2395 or at linda@stratcommunications.com.

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(1) comment

KathleenHardee

Thank you for this informative and interesting post. Content marketing occupy an important role in business. Recently I read an article "Developing an Efficient B2B Content Marketing Strategy – 10 Steps" and I think it will be interesting for you too.

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