How to Fight Through Marketing's Buzzword Cycle

By Shane Snow | 3.20.18

Just about every time I get interviewed about content marketing, I can count on getting this one question: What's your definition of content marketing?


On the face of it, this is a fine question. But the question and its frequency belie an underlying issue that content marketing faces. And this underlying issue, I'm convinced, makes the difference between long-term, sustainable marketing success and what I call “roll of the dice” marketing.


The following diagram illustrates this:

Any time a shiny new thing emerges in marketing, this pattern occurs: Someone discovers a marketing trend that works—copywriting, email marketing, SEO, content marketing, whatever. The early practitioners generally seek to understand the principles behind this trend to figure out when and why it works. They become the “thought leaders” who practice and also teach others about it.


Many marketers pay attention to the thought leaders and get to work. They share their success, become case studies, grow their businesses, etc.


But then the bastardization happens. Opportunists jump on the trend to shoehorn in what they sell. Sometimes this feels innocent enough, such as when an ad copywriting agency pivots to call itself a “content marketing agency,” even though it still just continues to do what it’s always done. But sometimes it's more nefarious and misleading.


Either way, it amounts to peeing in a pool. After a while, the pool has so much pee in it that we want to stop swimming.


This is why I’ve been hearing more and more marketers say they’re sick of the term “content marketing.” It’s also the reason I'm not worried. What we refer to today as content marketing is what we used to call custom publishing yesterday. But content marketing isn't going away. It would have gone away a long time ago if it wasn't based on the foundational human principle that stories bring people together, help them remember, and make them care.


Over the past few years, a lot of folks have recognized content marketing’s massive value and piled onto the trend. Thought leaders and thought followers constantly talk about it. And a lot of these people have used it to transform their businesses. But we also have the adjacent folks co-opting the trend. Everyone has a stake in reframing content marketing as whatever it is they sell. And that's why There. Are. A. Billion. Posts. About. The. Definition. Of. Content. Marketing. Out. There. Now.


In reality, CEOs and marketing leaders don’t need to care about the exact definition of content marketing. What they need to understand are the principles behind it, like the fact that great stories and education help us build relationships with audiences and customers. By continuously focusing on the outcomes rather than the term itself, we'll be able to adapt to whatever buzzword the market throws at us next.

About the Author

Shane Snow is a science and business journalist and a cofounder of Contently, one of Inc's fastest growing companies and Crain's and Ad Age's best places to work in America. His writing has appeared in The New Yorker, Wired, The Washington Post, Fast Company, Time, and GQ. His first book, Smartcuts, has made him a highly sought-after speaker around the world on innovation and lateral thinking.

Find Shane on LinkedIn and @shanesnow