The Jargon Monster Cometh: What Is Content Marketing, REALLY?

I'd like you to meet someone.

This is the Jargon Monster.

And he is a jerk.

I'd like you to meet someone else...

This is the Naked Little Truth.

He's naked. Also, he always tells the truth. (I know, I know, he should have a less confusing name...)

The best part of the NLT's truth-telling is that it's always delivered in plain English, for us all to understand with our plain English-thinking brains. Instantly. Easily. No corporate dictionary needed.

Now, as you might guess, the Jargon Monster hates the Naked Little Truth, because the NLT is constantly trying to undermine him. He can't help it. He's just biologically wired to reveal the truth in all its naked glory. He doesn't have anything against the Jargon Monster on a personal level. But the Jargon Monster? He has a lot against the NLT, and with him, it's personal.

You see, the Jargon Monster is a byproduct of someone else's agenda. He's set loose on the world by a business or an individual with something to sell, whether a product, a service, or their thoughts and perceived influence. And when it's set free on the world, the Jargon Monster does what Jargon Monsters do...


If you've worked in marketing, you've become quite familiar with the Jargon Monster. And over the last six or seven years, you've probably seen him sprinting around your office screaming the same thing:

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Naturally, we can't help but stress out about this. I mean, there's a monster loose in our office shouting at us. So we start panic-adopting new approaches, new technologies, and new channels, all without thinking or creating a strategy or realizing why we should be doing this in the first place. That's because "this" was delivered to us in a language that normies (non-marketing people) can't actually understand.

Have we ever stopped to wonder what the heck the Jargon Monster is screaming? When you really think about it: What IS content marketing?

I know we've tried to define it for years, but it still feels like the Jargon Monster has his teeth sunk deeply into the definitions we use.

So how do you pry him off?

You could try to slow him down long enough to speak with him, maybe by inviting him to an All-Hands meeting (the favorite meeting of all Jargon Monsters) or by offering him a corner office (his natural habitat). But even if we successfully pinned him down, he's not likely to loosen his grip or offer any clarity.

After all, he's biologically wired to confuse us. He doesn't mean it. He has no ulterior motivates. But the people who sent him? They definitely do. They want to sell you something, or else they just want to sound smart and be the go-to definition of record. So they try to sound complex and scary. And nothing in the world is better at sounding complex and scary than the Jargon Monster. 

So he deceives us into thinking he's really smart, when in reality, he's not saying anything of value whatsoever:

(Fun fact: That's somebody's actual definition of content marketing. If I don't make it through the rest of this post, just know it's because I've hurled myself through a window.)

But despite all this confusion, there's still hope. All that racket from the Jargon Monster tends to attract the Naked Little Truth out from where he's been hiding.

Ever so gradually, the NLT begins to reveal himself. He slowly assesses the situation. He takes a moment. He watches the Jargon Monster, who, thanks to the success he's had in convincing others he's smart, is now so overconfident that he's just sprinting around your office shouting:

The Naked Little Truth doesn't rush into things yet, however. He's too busy studying the best of the best and making sense of why they're doing content marketing at all.

So the NLT browses AmEx's content on OPEN Forum. He sees how they're focused on helping small businesses operate well. "Hmm, that sounds familiar, almost like their products," he thinks.

He watches The LEGO Movie and understands how it teaches kids that no matter who they are, they can build special things if they put their mind to it. "Like I used to do with their toys!" he says.

He heads to the countryside, where he marvels at how long The Furrow magazine by John Deere has served "those linked to the land," as their mission states. "That's funny. I wonder if they realize their equipment serves that same mission," he ponders.

He watches Wistia's videos make business video easy and fun to create and market. "These things help me do more with video," he says. "Isn't that their product's objective too?"

He then heads to a nearby coffee shop to listen to GE's hit podcast, The Message. "I'm a sucker for imaginative stories about people's work in technology," he explained. "Wait, what's GE's slogan again?"

(It's "Imagination at Work" -- a spot-on assumption by the NLT. He's a sharp dude. A naked dude. But a sharp dude nonetheless.)

And after all of this -- after hearing the complexities spewed by the Jargon Monster, after reading things and watching things and listening to things and interacting with things all dubbed "content marketing," the Naked Little Truth shuffles over to us, looks us right in the eye, and in all his naked little glory, he says:

"Content marketing is just solving the same customer problems as your product but through media you create and distribute."

Simple. Elegant. And of course ... the truth.

Think of it this way: Why does a company exist at all? It's not "to make money." It's to solve a problem or fulfill a desire for a customer. Making money is a sign that you're successfully solving a customer's problems (or, unfortunately for some, that you're good at tricking others into thinking you're doing that well).

So, if a company exists to solve a problem, whether practical ("I need more site traffic!" or "I need a quick, healthy dinner option!") or emotional ("I want to feel inspired to attack the day!" or "I want to feel more confident!") ... then why do products and services exist? Simple...

Products and services are vehicles to deliver solutions to customers.

Yanno what else does that exact same thing? Content.

All great content marketers act as problem solvers for their customers. What do they want? What do they need? Where are they struggling? What do they like? These top practitioners and leaders in our field ignore the noise and focus on one thing: How can our content better serve our customers?

"Content marketing is just solving the same customer problems as your product, through media you create and distribute."

The end. Roll credits. Don’t even stick around for afterwards, because there is no teaser — there’s no need for a sequel. Definition, over. Execution, beginning.

So many confusing things perpetuated by the Jargon Monster go away if you just focus on what the Naked Little Truth is telling us. For instance...

SALES: Good content marketing turns every sell into an upsell, if you define it this way. You're already starting to solve a prospect's problems when they consume your content, so you can say to them, "Oh by the way, the best way to solve that problem? Buy our product." Whether you're Red Bull's consumers getting energized by watching a video or Product Hunt's users listening to maker stories on a podcast, the product aligns perfectly and arguably addresses your need or desire better.

(PS: The NLT's definition of content marketing isn't about only talking about the product. This is about occupying the same intellectual or emotional plane for your customer as that product. AmEx helps SMBs in more things than finances and point-of-sale with OPEN Forum. Wistia talks about making videos, but their software is for hosting, marketing, and analytics. It's important not to confuse selling a product with solving problems.)

EDITORIAL: Trying to decide between ideas to publish? Pick the ideas that actually solve a customer's problems. (Maybe customers don't care who you just hired -- don't write it!) Need to pick the right format to use? Pick formats best suited for delivering the information that will solve that problem. (Maybe a slide template is more helpful than a text article -- create it!) Wondering how long a blog post should be? Stop writing when you feel the piece has solved that problem well. (Maybe it takes 300 words or maybe it takes 3,000 words -- all you can say with certainty is that it definitely takes an "it depends" amount of words.)

BRAINSTORMING: Are you incorporating customers into your process at all? Can you talk to sales and support to do so? Can you find ONE customer and spend 20 stinkin' minutes this month with them, asking about their problems instead of about your product? Suddenly, you're not only prolific, but relevant every time. And if that brainstorm meeting starts to fail, you can reset by asking one simple question. (Do I even need to spell it out?) - "How does this solve our customer's problems?"

COMPANY VS. CUSTOMER CENTRICITY: Having trouble doing things for the company versus for the customer? Though they shouldn't conflict, they often do -- when you listen to the Jargon Monster instead of the NLT. But solving customer problems really well will build you a bigger audience, convert you more subscribers, leads, customers, and loyal fans. Funny how that works, if only you start with the right mentality.

Through all of this, it's important to ignore the noise for just a moment, think about the very first principles behind our work, and keep things simple. Complexity is not your friend.

If necessity is the mother of invention, complexity is just a real mother. 

Most definitions of content marketing come from the Jargon Monster. Most are dense, lengthy, and unclear. THIS DOES NOT MAKE THEM SMART OR SAGE!

If you can't instantly understand a definition after reading it just once, it's garbage. Definitions are definitely, by definition, supposed to be definitional. They're supposed to be "a statement of the exact meaning of a word." (That phrase comes directly from a thought leader named Dick Shenary.)

Definitions should be something you can grasp quickly, then move on to acting. They should be the ultimate source of clarity on a word or phrase -- not a source of further confusion.

Unfortunately, just one look at most definitions of content marketing, and you'll know ... nothing.

Even more unfortunately, we can't seem to avoid this problem and lack of clarity. Whenever something new arises, people rush to put labels on them to serve their own agenda or view of the world. Many start in a good place, but their definitions just aren't base enough. They don't reach the fundamentals of the thing.

But defining a new business concept, while perhaps easily brushed aside as too inside baseball or as bogus attempts at thought leadership, actually does matter. They help us have coherent, productive conversations. They help us make sense of technology and tactics and techniques in that greater context. They mold industries and careers.

Definitions are really, really important.

"Content marketing is just solving the same customer problems as your product, through media you create and distribute."

This can serve as a sort of North Star to guide you. It can give you that necessary, constant perspective on things.

And speaking of perspective: If we as content marketers could only cut through the clutter to better understand why we exist, why we do this at all, we'd find more success than we'd ever imagined possible. If we could only step back from all the jargon, we might understand that this Naked Little Truth is, well, not really so little after all...

Images courtesy of The Oatmeal.


This post's "One Different Thing" = The monsters

^ What is this? ^

Content marketing would be a much better industry for both practitioners and audiences if we tried to do just one subtle new thing in each piece we created, rather than churn out more copycat junk. It's a small thing to try that could make a big difference. Read more about the One Different Thing challenge.

Posted on January 3, 2016 .