AMONG THE SHINY, Good-hearted PEOPLE

cmworldconquerersDespite what their logo may suggest, you should know that Content Marketing World is not a futuristic hell planet where the oceans have turned orange and the landmasses a uniform shade of gray. It’s actually an international gathering of content marketers and brands, held each year in downtown Cleveland. You may be expecting some kind of hell planet = Cleveland joke here. The truth is, what I saw of the city was pretty lovely.

Likewise, the people of Content Marketing World are nice, normal, and only a little shinier than the average Clevelanders outside the convention center. As conference attendees this past week, Matt [not pictured], Alex, and I had the privilege of being three of those slightly shinier people, though I, for one, sported my usual bad haircut.

Maybe the phrase “content marketing” scares you. It shouldn’t. If you’ve ever laughed at a Bazooka Joe Bubblegum comic, taken advantage of a shoe-buying guide in a catalog, or appreciated a cool music video, you’ve consumed content marketing without too many adverse effects (assuming you did not chew the bubblegum). Whether that content entertains, instructs, dazzles, or provokes, content marketing is basically the gift that brands give to consumers in exchange for awareness, interest, or even love.

From one speaker to the next, the focus on maximizing value for the audience was a recurring theme.

Kristina Halvorson runs an agency called Brain Traffic that specializes in writing and content strategy. She stressed the importance of content integrity—audience-aware, findable, readable, usable, consistent, and well categorized—so that users and customers can find what they need, when they need it, in a helpful form. Too often, Halvorson said, content is written at the last minute, using untested assumptions. Before you plan content, always ask: Why? For whom? What next?

Rand Fishkin, founder of (and SEO guru behind) software developer Moz, spent his presentation dispelling some of the myths behind content—one of those being that creating useful, valuable content guarantees great search ranking. We need to do more than make great content, he pointed out, but market it so that people actually find it.

Eric Hess is senior programming manager for content marketing at outdoor outfitter, and nation’s largest consumer co-op, REI. Though his presentation “Long-form Content for the Win,” made a case for the viability and reach of longer content (1,500+ words for written content, 3+ minutes for video), it was also a vivid demonstration of how useful and inspiring content of any length can win attention and customers and also stand on its own as meaningful work.

REI’s long-form videos are the opposite of pushy marketing. “Trail Angel,” which Hess featured in his talk, is about the personal and emotional journey of Ponytail Paul, who makes it his personal mission to help out hikers on the Appalachian Trail. It draws you in slowly and beautifully, making a case not so much for REI itself, but for the power of the outdoor experience.

Most meaningfully, the conference made me rethink my own feelings about content marketing. I won’t lie: I find the name a little off-putting, as if someone were trying to sell me a plain, brown box. The truth is that it’s really “generous advertising.” Brands and marketers—probably not all of them, but many of them—really do want to offer you value in exchange for your attention and dollars.

As I revised my idea of content marketing, I thought of more than a few great examples I’ve enjoyed over the years—listed below. What’s at the top of your list?

The Toll House cookie recipe

The recipe for the original chocolate chip cookie—invented by Ruth Wakefield of the Toll House restaurant in Massachusetts—has been printed on packages of Nestle’s chocolate, in one form or another, since 1939. Without Nestlé’s content marketing, would we even know the modern chocolate chip cookie? Not to mention chocolate chip cookie dough ice cream.

Boy’s Life Magazine

I found the articles hit or miss, and I’m now a bit wary of content that’s just for boys—or girls. But as a ten-year-old scout, I got a free subscription. And this was where I first encountered John Christopher’s great Tripods trilogy, in comic form.

PBSkids.org

The PBS Kids lineup of my daughters’ generation—WordGirl, Martha Speaks, Wild Kratts, the Electric Company reboot, and now Odd Squad—are just about the greatest and the smartest in terms of television that instructs while it entertains. The games and activities on the website take the learning a step further, imparting skills and knowledge for voracious minds and offering a little free time for exhausted parents.

McSweeney’s Internet Tendency

Hey, a content marketing strategy disguised as a hilarious daily blog! Though you may know McSweeney’s mainly because of those humorous pieces, they also publish a quarterly literary magazine that’s almost never what you would expect; a bimonthly magazine of interviews, essays, and reviews; and many interesting books that might otherwise get lost in the literary shuffle. But the Internet Tendency serves as their “Internet portal”—a gateway to the printed content. They also run a shipshape nonprofit Pirate Supply Store in San Francisco that tutors kids in writing.

The New Yorker Fiction Podcast

Speaking of great writing, The New Yorker has published more of it than just about any magazine in America. To take advantage of their deep backlist of classic short stories, they host a monthly Fiction Podcast (among other free podcasts) and invite a guest writer to read and discuss a short story they admire from issues past. So you can hear, say, Salvatore Scibona reading Denis Johnson, or Antonya Nelson reading Tom Drury. After the reading, the guest reader talks to fiction editor Deborah Treisman about the story. Perfect for insomniac nights at a quiet hotel in Cleveland.