Benjamin Franklin was one of the original content marketers. Back in 1732, when he published "Poor Richard's Almanack," his purpose was to get people interested in publishing.
Some 283 years later, content sometimes seems to have taken over marketing, to the point that it's surprisingly hard to define or distinguish from many other activities. It arguably encompasses not just branded entertainment and native advertising but in various ways social media, search ads, events, product placement, digital video and much more. In fact, you could make the case that all advertising is content, and vice versa.
Procter & Gamble Global Brand Officer Marc Pritchard, speaking at Cannes in June, described the term "content marketing" as "overused and under-defined," saying he'd prefer to just call it all advertising, based on the Latin root "advert," which is to "turn people toward" your product.
"That's what we do," Mr. Pritchard said. "It's just now the beauty is you have so many ways to express that."
Content marketing comprises $26.5 billion in global spending if you're just counting outside vendors' work for brands, according to PQ Media. It's as much as $144 billion if you measure marketers' own vast, internally generated content activities, like those of Red Bull and its Red Bull Media House. And continued double-digit percentage growth worldwide will push content marketing to $313 billion, all in, by the end of the decade, PQ Media said.
The overall U.S. market for content marketing was more than $67 billion in 2014, according to PQ Media. By way of comparison, the U.S. TV ad market is around $70 billion.
In part, the same things that make content hard to measure or define are fueling the growth because so many constituencies are pushing content marketing.
"One of the biggest drivers of content marketing is the challenge of getting awareness through other traditional channels," said Forrester analyst Ryan Skinner. "Pay-per-click costs have gone up and up. Organic and paid search teams are clamoring for content to improve search visibility. Social teams have been shouting for content. That, combined with people on both PR and media teams wanting to supplement their more traditional roles with valuable content, that draws traffic, interest and attention."
Because everyone has or wants a piece of it, the term becomes so all-encompassing that Mr. Skinner and Forrester won't even venture a stab at quantifying the market.
But for what it's worth, Forrester defines content marketing as "producing, curating and sharing content that is based upon customers' needs and delivers visible value." Realistically, Mr. Skinner said, "It becomes something the marketer has to define for themselves."
If you're looking for someone to credit, or blame, for the term "content marketing," Joe Pulizzi may be your man. As VP of Penton Media's Custom Media Group in the early 2000s, "I started playing around with the term 'content marketing,'" he said. Calling what he did custom publishing, custom media, branded content or custom content never seemed to resonate with chief marketing officers. "I would talk about content marketing, and immediately CMOs would sit up in their chairs."
He left Penton in 2007 and started the Content Marketing Institute, which spawned Chief Content Officer Marketing magazine, the Content Marketing World trade show, books that include "Content Inc." and even a documentary on the history of content marketing. In other words, a lot of content.
Here's Mr. Pulizzi's definition of content marketing: "an approach where instead of distracting our audience with advertising that's not relevant to them, we're going to create valuable, compelling and relevant content on a consistent basis and build an audience over that time in order to see some profitable customer action."
And that profitable action doesn't have to be sales. It could be increased loyalty, advocacy or something else, depending on the strategy. Consider Dynamic Signal, which sells a platform that streamlines "employee advocacy" by making it easier to share employer-generated content quickly across social networks and measure the reach and effectiveness. It counts such companies as Mindshare, Deloitte, SAP and Humana as users.