What is Content Marketing? Interview with Michael Brenner, CEO of Marketing Insider Group

Author: Linda Kyzar

Creating content is part of just about every marketer’s to-do list. But how do you get from just creating content to executing a content marketing strategy? And - how do you drive engagement to help your content marketing campaign succeed?

I reached out to get the scoop from one of my favorite marketing industry pros, Michael Brenner. Michael is a best selling author, CEO of Marketing Insider Group and keynote speaker at many marketing conferences including Wisconsin's Experience Inbound 2019.

Watch the interview below to learn more about how Michael defines marketing, what marketers get wrong about content marketing, what's working with his own content marketing strategy, and what we can expect from his keynote presentation at Experience Inbound

How do you define marketing?

I actually make a little bit of a joke about it, I like to ask people “If you ask your mom what marketing is what would she say?” I think unfortunately for us in marketing, the answer most people give is “it’s ads.”

People visualize watching the Superbowl and waiting for the next ad, and I think most of us in marketing at one point dreamed about working for one of those big brands and having their big budgets. The sad part is, what I learned in college is that marketing is so much more than advertising and sure advertising can be an effective part of it, but it’s a small part of marketing.

The image I think that best describes marketing is two lines. One from the company to the customer, and the other coming from the customer to the company. Marketing is two-way communication between companies and their customers. Marketing has a marketing problem, if you will, because when you ask most people to define marketing they define advertising which at its best is promotion and at its worst is propaganda.

But marketing is so much more than that. It’s supposed to be a dialog, a conversation and we as marketers have a job to try and redefine what it means and to convince the world outside of marketing what it is and that it can be a force for good.

What are people getting wrong about content marketing?

There is a difference between marketing with content and content marketing, and that’s what I think most people get wrong. If you create an ebook, that’s not content marketing. If you do a podcast once, that’s not content marketing. If you create a brochure, sure that’s a piece of content and it might be a good piece of content, but it’s not content marketing.

So what is content marketing then? There are a couple of things I think are really important to try and define it for people. I find it crazy how much of a surprise this is to people who define themselves as content marketers.

  1. Content marketing requires you to create content on a destination you own. For example, a tweet is not content marketing because you don’t own twitter. A Facebook post is not content marketing because you don’t own Facebook. A YouTube video is not content marketing because you don’t own YouTube.

    BUT, if you take a YouTube video and embed it on your website that you own that’s content marketing.

  2. Frequency drives engagement. You set an appointment with your audience and they expect you to show up. Content marketing requires frequency.

  3. This is maybe a little bit more controversial but I think content marketing can include promotional types of content but the majority of it should be either newsworthy, educational, informational, thought leadership, or research-based. Another way to think of it is to ask “Is it for the customer, or is it for you?”

    The answer should be “The majority of it is for the customer.” If you think about publishers they clearly delineate what’s content and what’s ads. When we do content marketing we need to do the same thing.

So those are the three things I think people tend to get wrong with content marketing.

So when you speak on frequency from a B2B perspective does it change industry to industry?

The joke is 87% of people in B2B marketing are actually people. When you’re B2B you don’t sell to buildings, you sell to people. It’s important to understand Joe and Sally are moms and dads, they have mortgages and cars and they have the same media consumption habits as anyone else. So whether it’s industrial manufacturing, or health care or financial services we’re all marketing to people. And we’re all trying to get ourselves embedded into their brains and into their minds.

So there is sort of a formula that I think applies to everyone and the formula, somewhat controversially, is the more the better. I know you had Jay Accunzo speaking at your conference last year, and Jay and I have a friendly debate on this and we actually land in the same place. The simple answer is in quality vs quantity, the answer is yes. It’s a false choice, pick a frequency whatever it is, and create the best content that you can on that frequency.

What are the biggest takeaways from your book, The Content Formula, on how to measure ROI?

I used to get questions from CMOs who would cross their arms and sit back and ask “What's the ROI of this new content marketing thing?” and I’d ask “What’s the ROI of your marketing overall?”

I’ve asked that exact question to 8 or 9 CMOs and not one of them knew the answer of the top of their head. A couple said they knew it but they would have to check with their team, but more than half actually admitted they didn’t know and there wasn’t someone to go ask. They admitted that they didn’t have the infrastructure in place to actually measure the ROI of their marketing overall.

So one of the things I talk about in the book is not only is content marketing one of the best ways to show ROI in marketing overall, it’s insanely more measurable than most marketing. So the biggest takeaways in the book is its measurable, you can define the ROI and we show you a number of formulas and calculations that can allow anyone to calculate the ROI.

The second one that I think is interesting, now I’m an English major and I graduated college with a love of words not a love of math, so when I looked at the ROI calculations (revenue - investments / investment) I see it as an English major and I noticed something interesting.

Two of the words in that calculation are the same. Those two words are investment. So if you follow the mathematical outcome of that insight, what it means is that if you simply create the same number of revenue or leads from your marketing but do it with less money that’s actually the quickest way to increase your return on investment. Or if you do more with your same budget, then you can increase your return on investment.

Most people think you have to continuously put money into the machine to generate more return, and that’s actually not the case. If we just simply cut out the waste that we see inside our marketing budget then we can see a better return on investment.

So that’s two of the biggest takeaways. One, content marketing is infinitely more measurable. Two, one of the best ways to increase ROI is just to stop doing things that don’t work.

Can you give us some examples from your own content marketing? What’s working?

Yeah, I always try and take my own medicine. When I started right from the very beginning as a content marketing consultant I wanted to make sure I was living what I was preaching. One, I don’t spend any money on my content. I produce content, and I write personally two articles every week. I work with partners who also contribute to my site, five to seven articles a week.

So any results that I get have a return on investment because I’m not spending any money. Now you could argue I’m spending time, and time has value. But I’m getting traffic, I’m getting leads, I’m getting revenue. What’s interesting is that my results go up over time, even though I spend the same amount of time on the content. That’s something I think that’s really important for marketers to understand is that marketing can be a financial asset to your organization. If you commit to that consistent publishing schedule, you can see an increasing rate of return from your marketing. That’s something I’m going to talk more about at Experience Inbound.

You clearly have a great reputation, and you’re well known which plays a role in your content on your site being consumed. That paired with your strategy and emails, how much do you rely on organic search? How much does SEO tie into what you do?

From an analytical point of view, SEO is kind of the father or godfather of content marketing. Before I thought of myself as a content marketer I taught myself SEO and it’s really not rocket science. We need to create our content based on the keywords people are searching for when they go to their browsers. It’s that simple. There is a little bit of dark magic to SEO in trying to figure out what are the keywords and what are the keywords competitively that you can actually rank for and all that kinda stuff. 99.5% of all the traffic that comes to my website is organic, with 0.5% paid. And I’ll tell you a funny little trick on that: I think that Google, I don’t think they’re evil, I do think that Google will never admit to the fact they probably reward people that spend money with them. Maybe I’m wrong, but my paranoid brain thinks that if I spend $200 dollars a month on Google Paid Ads that they will actually give me a little more SEO juice organically. So I spend $200 a month on Google, I spend $100 a month on Facebook, and I spend $100 a month on Twitter. So $400 a month I spend in paid only because I think those three platforms are rewarding their advertisers.

It’s not bragging but sometimes I like to show my clients, there are companies that I work with that are billion-dollar companies, that I get more organic search traffic than. For anyone out there that thinks they don’t have the team, they don’t have the budget, they don’t have the skills to get content marketing right those are the people I love to talk to. You don’t need a big team, you don’t need a huge budget, just the right strategy and a commitment to customer-focused content and I think anyone can achieve those kinds of results over time.

What other marketing quick tips, tricks and hacks can you share with us?

I’ll bring this up in my presentation at Experience Inbound, I think that marketing comes down to a few very simple things.

  1. We need to create content based on the questions people ask of their search engines. That’s basic SEO, look at the keywords people are using and focus on that. What’s interesting about that is it means sometimes you’re going to create content that has nothing to do with your product, and that’s really uncomfortable for executives.

    Sometimes we need to learn to explain that to executives. Here’s an example: One of my clients is in medical manufacturing, and they target radiologists. When we looked at what radiologists search for, we found that many of them are concerned with how much money they get and what’s the typical salary of someone in their position. Radiology salary has nothing to do with medical manufacturing equipment, but we created content about radiology salary because we know that we’re hitting radiologist, their number one target, on the number one concern that they have. We have to be the resource that they come to.

  2. We need to create the content that we know people are reading and sharing. Go to the Google news tab, this is the content that Google actually thinks is newsworthy. It’s not just the ones that have figured out the scientific algorithm for ranking, they are recent and informative articles. Use Google to find what Google considers relevant.

If you do those two things you’re going to start to find increased engagement and traffic on your website.

What about content marketing trends? What should we be looking for in the world of content marketing?

There are always new formats. Podcasts, videos, SnapChat stories, Instagram stories and all that kind of stuff. I do think that brands should always be experimenting with those things. I think that the guiding trend that brands, especially B2B, need to focus on is being more visual.

The written word is the cornerstone of content marketing, and being visual can hard and sometimes very expensive. But being visual doesn’t have to be.

I don’t have the budget or the team to create visual content so I borrow other people’s. What I mean by that is if you guys publish an infographic based on a research study that you spent money on, I might write about that. I’ll embed it and give you credit for it, so I’m basically borrowing it. I call it O.P.P, it’s an 80’s rap reference.

But other people’s property is a great way to do visual content you can’t afford to invest in.

The second trend is just being more human. This is so important in B2B, realizing that brands need to have a personality. We all love brands that have a personality and a purpose. B2B brands really struggle with being human, and their humanity doesn’t always come through on their website. Blogs and content marketing is a great way to bring that personality through.

Just try and be human, try to be real.

What do you find annoying that you see happening in content marketing?

The amount of over promotion. It really just irks me, and I’ve struggled with it my whole career. So I started actually in sales, and what I found was by asking questions to my customers, not just talking at them, I really started to sell stuff. I made fun of those “slimy car salesmen” types, I think that we make fun of marketers who do that too. Don’t be that marketer. Don’t be that brand.

The bottom line is people don’t care about you. You think you have the greatest business in the world and your product is the greatest thing since sliced bread. People don’t care, your product is just serving a need.

My goal in life is to convince marketers that we can have a positive impact in the world, we don’t cheat and lie into the hearts of the people we’re targeting.


In this keynote presentation, Michael Brenner will show you how the future of B2B marketing is about activating the talent and expertise of your entire organization.

  • You’ll learn the simple trick B2B marketers use to push back on the things that we know won’t work.

  • You’ll hear how to take your marketing to the next level and engage your audience through storytelling.

  • And you’ll walk away with a powerful framework you can use to rally the entire organization around the customer.

The Future of Marketing is already here. Get ready to embrace it!

Get your tickets here!

Experience Inbound 2016

Topics: Experience Inbound

About the Author:

Linda is Stream Creative's Marketing Director. She brings 20+ years of digital marketing, with a focus on SEO and inbound marketing strategy. Linda also co-leads Stream's marketing events including Milwaukee's Experience Inbound Marketing Conference.

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