The art of selling-without-selling: Understanding the genre ecologies of content marketing




Spinuzzi, Clay
Wall, Amanda

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The published version of this article is available at: This accepted manuscript is embargoed until July 2019.
Developers hate marketing in general: they hate bullshit, they hate marketing-y words, they hate kitschy things. Being able to think like them and get straight to the point is kind of…it’s not your traditional content marketing, I would say. (Vivien) At the time she was interviewed for this study, Vivien was a product marketing manager at Atlassian, a business-to-business software developer that sells expensive, complex, downloadable software that must be learned, maintained, and upgraded over time. Like the eight other participants in this study, Vivien faced a problem: how do you market a product to someone who hates marketing? The answer is, although not exactly new, newly prevalent in marketing circles. Content marketing involves creating multiple pieces of “content”—that is, multiple instances of multiple genres—that can individually be taken up in multiple activities. The individual pieces of content that Vivien produces (such as a how-to blog post about a product, a press release about new features, a tweet, a landing page) do not overtly sell a product or service. But these pieces of content are linked; together, they form a buyer’s funnel designed to lead the audience to buy that product or service. They sell-without-selling. “Content marketing” is a fuzzy label for an evolving field with nebulous parameters. It is, however, a label that many marketers affix to their practices and that helps to describe a set of widely occurring online marketing practices. While its definition and boundaries are debated (Cohen, 2011; Smith, 2010), content marketing generally refers to a method of marketing a product or service by creating and distributing free informational or entertainment content, especially online. Companies produce blogs, white papers, social media posts, videos, images, websites, microsites, webinars, and other content. This content is designed to be valuable or interesting to consumers on its own merits, so that they will consume it willingly. By distributing such content across a wide variety of platforms, brands are able to build awareness and credibility with their customer base and maintain an ongoing relationship where customers are constantly in contact with the brand, increasing the probability that they will become customers. In the pithy words of marketing writer Stan Smith, content marketing is “storytelling for sales” (2010)—storytelling across multiple genres that can each provide value to consumers. Storytelling is a complex rhetorical task: inventing, writing, distributing, and connecting networks of content in a variety of genres, media, and platforms. Furthermore, content marketers are held accountable for their persuasive efforts by employers and customers. This complex rhetorical work, however, has not been studied much in rhetorical terms or in the professional communication literature. In this article, we undertake an exploratory study of how Vivien and eight other content marketers perform this work. Below, we first review the relevant literature, then describe the first author’s study of content marketing practices. In the findings, we share participants’ stories of creating specific content ecologies: which genres they involve, how content is reused and/or re-represented across genres, how they draw in people from multiple paths, and how they are connected. We illustrate these stories with examples of the work that Vivien and others do. Then we show how the narrative of the “buyer’s funnel” serves as a loose framework for those ecologies and the genres within them. Each piece of content endeavors to persuade the audience to travel to a different piece of content. Finally, we dig into the tension of selling without selling, and how it shows up in participants’ negotiations of genre. This push and pull between providing inherently valuable content and enticing customers to buy helps to create the foundation of these marketers’ work.

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