Confessions of a Content Marketer

Illustrations by Elena Xausa

Illustrations by Elena Xausa

Asset managers and banks produce an astounding amount of white papers, sponsored content, and “thought leadership.” Here’s how the sausage is made.

Once upon a time there was a position nestled in asset management firms called “writer.” The writer could be found scribbling away in the communications or public relations department, or over in product marketing — someone, after all, had to create those fund brochures.

The writer’s job was to tell the story of a firm to its stakeholders — clients, prospects, investors, potential investors, shareholders, employees, regulators. In writing. On paper.

How did the writer go about creating these documents? The writer solicited information from within the firm, reviewed previous publications to create a consistent tone, researched published materials (where? at the library!), and put pen to paper or fingers to keyboard and did what the writer was hired to do: write.

A draft would then circulate for edits, suggestions, and improvements, be rewritten, get sent off for blessing by the legal department, and go to print. Whether it was actually read by its intended audience could only be supposed.

Those days now seem quaint, perhaps even Dickensian. The Xerox machine, word processor, computer, and fax machine arrived, speeding up the mechanics of writing, editing, formatting, and printing. And then the internet. Because of the internet, today it’s all about content. Bill Gates said it best back in 1996: “Content is King.”

Content is what results from content marketing.

The purpose of writing before content marketing burst onto the scene was to inform. The raison d’être of content is to sell. Writers created stories. Content is more than a story. It is catnip, set out to lure the reader into the inverted triangle marketers call “the funnel.” Its purpose is to attract, engage, and ensnare customers. So what writers create is no longer writing — it is content. In fact, writers are no longer writers. They are content producers.

Content writing is still telling a story. But it’s a story with a different ending.

How do I know this? Once upon a time I was a financial writer.

I wrote annual reports (a process best characterized, to paraphrase Truman Capote, as typing, not writing). And quarterly reports and earnings releases. I wrote newsletters, brochures, white papers, speeches, slide copy (pre- and post-PowerPoint) for banks and investment firms and wealth management groups.

I moved with ease among B2C, B2B, and B2I — business to intermediary — materials for financial advisers, which is to say I ghostwrote materials for them to ship to clients to present as their own work, as if they had the time to put together 45-slide overviews of quarterly financial results. I wrote scripts for earnings conference calls. Yes, Virginia, every word out of the CEO’s and CFO’s mouths was (and, I imagine, still is) on a piece of paper in front of them. It was fun. It paid well. It supported my journalism habit.

The metamorphosis of “writing” into content generation at asset management firms — indeed, across the financial services industry — can be credited to a confluence of events. Bill Wreaks, CEO and chief analyst at the Gramercy Institute, a network of senior financial marketing professionals, identifies two: “The breakdown in trust following 2008 led to the interest in, and then growth of, content marketing as a means of coaxing investors back [to the market] through authentic content. Then the internet made it possible to share that content,” he explains. By “the internet” Wreaks means the advent of social technologies making widespread distribution easy and cheap.

The third piece, notes Susan Etkind, director of content creation at financial consulting firm Prosek Partners, is the ability to pinpoint what type and form of catnip tastes best. In her view, “staying in touch with investors and clients has always been important. What’s changed is that we can now measure what’s working.” Step 1: Strategize. Step 2: Create. Step 3: Measure. Step 4: Lather, rinse, repeat. Bring on the key performance indicators, or KPIs: unique visits, page views, click visits, geographic distribution of readers, mobile readership, average time spent on the page. Was the email even opened? Was the download downloaded? And do these numbers answer the $50 trillion question: What are the business impact and the ROI?

Crisis, digitization, and metrics are the motive, means, and opportunity of content marketing. These catalysts have not only kicked content marketing activities front and center in asset management, but also inspired and nurtured a booming cottage industry of content consultancies vying to step in to help firms fashion fashionable programs and “feed the beast.” A study by Boston-based Back Bay Communications contends that “content marketing [is] nearly ubiquitous among the world’s largest asset managers,” embraced by “a full 88 percent” of its survey sample of the top 200 global money managers. The survey confirms these managers are pumping out videos, market commentaries, white papers, research, webinars, and podcasts at a furious volume and rate. In fact, Back Bay’s report is titled “Feeding the Beast.” The Beast apparently is quite fond of thought leadership, which asset managers say they are churning out on a weekly basis. And this report by Back Bay is not only useful to this story, it is itself a piece of content marketing for Back Bay. It’s positively Pirandellian.

Content marketing, of course, was not born yesterday, nor was it “invented” a mere decade ago by asset management marketing professionals to solve the industry’s trust problem. It’s been around for years, even centuries. A Brief History of Content Marketing, published by the Content Marketing Institute, uses Ben Franklin’s Poor Richard’s Almanack — created in 1732 as a slick piece of promotion for Franklin’s printing business — as the starting point of an entertaining infographic. Which, of course, is content promoting the Content Marketing Institute to content marketers. The science and art of modern-day content marketing are “all about knowing, and then playing to, your audience demographics,” explains Laura Breslaw, chief marketing officer at the Global Association of Risk Professionals and an early adopter of emerging content marketing strategies when she was managing director of financial services marketing at Deloitte.

Driving business development through content strategy is the mission, she says. The content tees up, in marketing parlance, the “customer journey through the funnel.” The art of content marketing is in creating content and adapting it to the distinct needs and behaviors of potential customers. And though “for marketers science has brought more value to their roles,” Breslaw warns that “the metrics aren’t always perfect” and may fail to reflect the true value of the content being measured. In fact, it may not even matter if a target audience doesn’t fully consume the content produced; mere awareness that it’s available may suffice to add value to the brand.

In a crowded, increasingly undifferentiated industry (such as asset management), “the content market is a struggle for engagement,” says Michael Gallery, former managing director of global marketing at Morgan Stanley, where he led a team that oversaw digital marketing, design, branding, and content. “Digitization and delivering content to audiences that want to consume information quickly, in smaller pieces, sets up the question of what to produce in what form and then how to push it out.”


But — and this is a big but — creating meaningful, engaging, relevant, differentiating, compliance-passable, actionable content is no mean trick.

If a firm has figured out that its content competitive advantage is in posting, say, weekly commentary on interest rates on its blog, it’s inevitable that another firm has also figured this out. And maybe another 20 or 50 firms. All of a sudden, content is a commodity. Take, for example, “Investment Insights.” BlackRock, Vanguard, State Street, Fidelity, BNY Mellon, Franklin Templeton, Goldman, Wellington — need I continue? — all offer Insights. Does anyone out there have any Outsights to offer?

I accessed these Insights on these firms’ websites via my laptop, but in truth, I could have stayed seated in my Barcalounger and just asked Amazon’s Alexa. JPMorgan Chase, BlackRock, Vanguard, and Putnam are among the firms offering content through her. Morgan Stanley has gone a step further in laying out the catnip, challenging me to pit my knowledge of financial terminology against Alexa’s via Jargon Buster, a “Jeopardy!”-type game where Alexa provides a market or financial definition and then tells you if you are right in guessing the term (“Nice!”) or not (“That’s all right.”). You get five chances to score, after which she signs off and tells you to come back “tomorrow.”

In the world of content marketing, the opposite of engagement is not disengagement; it’s boredom. Despite the plethora of snazzy ways to take words, massage them, and distribute them, you can’t just put lipstick on boring content. Tucker Slosburg, president of Seattle-based marketing and public relations firm Lyceus Group, notes that “the content that succeeds in today’s marketplace comes from firms that have a voice, an opinion, and something interesting to say.” The key to great content in asset management rises from the ranks — thus organizations where senior strategists, economists, and portfolio managers enjoy communicating about their work and are willing to collaborate with an editor are themselves content assets, Slosburg says. Those firms that “spend half the blogpost or shareholder letter or monthly update reiterating what the S&P did” are missing the point of content marketing — and missing the boat. “Forwarding an opinion or a viewpoint will always be more effective than pushing a message out seeking to prove how smart you are,” Slosburg warns.

Although the infiltration of content marketing into financial services may date back only a decade, it has been hiding in plain sight elsewhere since the early to mid-1980s — in corporate investor relations departments across industries. Think about it: The whole point of creating a separate function to deal with investors is content marketing in a nutshell. Investor relations professionals have for nearly 40 years developed programs to tell the story of their companies through content targeted at their tightly defined audiences — current and prospective sell-side and buy-side analysts and investors.

A visionary in the IR arena was Geraldine Foster, who came up through the ranks of corporate communications in banking and insurance and then landed, in the early 1990s, at Schering-Plough, a company seeking to make its mark in traditional pharma, biotech, and consumer over-the-counter markets. There she built a formidable investor relations machine marketing the company’s stock to its investors by creating relevant and much appreciated content. Foster published a steady stream of materials aimed at fulfilling analysts’ and investors’ information needs: a monthly newsletter, a quarterly review, and useful supplementary materials like scientific glossaries and a comprehensive product pipeline — the first of its kind in the industry tracking the progression of products under development. There was never an iota of PR-speak in any of these.

Twice a year, Foster orchestrated investor conferences — one on the Schering-Plough campus, one in New York City — showcasing the company’s depth of R&D activities and management talent and delivering detailed financial and scientific data. Delicious food was served and swag bags distributed. (You really haven’t lived until you have watched a prominent biotech analyst, with a salary somewhere north of seven figures, cramming his suit pockets with samples of Schering’s over-the-counter products — Dr. Scholl’s Corn Cushions, Coppertone Water Babies sunblock, pink boxes of Correctol.) Foster took every opportunity to spotlight Schering-Plough’s executive team long before the now buzzwordy term “thought leadership” was invented.

As for measurements — they weren’t called “metrics” back then — every evening the stock trading reports were sent over and scrutinized, and reports from a shareholder identification firm on retainer were delivered. Ultimately, the Quotron, until it was replaced by online market data services, told all.

Ironically, the same financial market conditions credited with giving rise to content marketing programs at asset management firms are also to be blamed for the current drought in professional content writers.

So says Maggie Chandler, a longtime recruiter specializing in financial services marketing roles who is currently a senior vice president at Manhattan-based SearchPoint. She confirms that “nobody wants writers anymore. They want ‘content providers,’ and there’s a dearth of experienced younger talent in this area.” This she attributes to hiring freezes during the financial crisis, when editorial operations stopped adding to their ranks and “made do” with existing head counts. She reports that firms are beating the bushes seeking digitally savvy writers who can move seamlessly among media formats — and are also relatively junior, with five to eight years as a target experience range. They’re hard to come by. Adding to the challenge of smoking out candidates, Chandler observes that across financial services the definition of “content strategy” can vary in meaning from sophisticated, strategically mapped out programs to shorthand for “We need more of a digital presence, and our website needs help.”

Still, someone has to write this stuff. It demands actual writing skills, which are not necessarily synonymous with marketing know-how. The actual physical process of content creation at some juncture requires someone to sit in front of a blank screen and write. Over the years positions in the content writing field have been known to be a happy hunting ground for those caught in careers in the once noble, now slipping-rapidly-downhill field of traditional financial journalism. (Two decades ago this was commonly known as “selling out to PR.”) And yes, take an unscientific scroll-down through the LinkedIn profiles of current bearers of titles containing the word “content” at BlackRock, Vanguard, JPMorgan, etc., and contributing to the rank and file of asset management marketing departments you’ll find veterans of venerable publications: Businessweek, Dow Jones, MNI, the wire services — even Institutional Investor. But this tends not to be true of those whose photographs are of fresher faces.

The former-journo-marketers, while perhaps being compensated comparatively handsomely, do have to come to grips with the stark reality that content marketing is not journalism. This requires a significant reorientation. As one person who successfully navigated this path puts it: “I don’t write. I package.” At Columbia University’s Master of Science in Strategic Communication program, instructor Kirsten Plonner trains students in how to “work with companies to help them articulate and differentiate their narrative in a world where everyone is doing and saying the same thing.” This is quite different from what’s going on across the quad at Columbia Journalism School. Plonner, herself a graduate of the communications program, served as director of strategic media and communications at Fidelity and is presently at FiComm Partners.

The 2008 market crisis is over, and the brisk rate of technological innovation promises new ways to create, edit, vet, distribute, and measure content.

Yet there is a shakeup approaching that may result in a radical transformation in the way marketing strategies require words to be written and delivered across organizations of every size, shape, and orientation.

It’s the student-debt-laden, health-care-squeezed, affordable-housing-seeking millennial generation. Attempting to address millennials on their terms (and in their language and via their preferred means of content delivery) is already creating a Y2K-like panic among marketers.

Here’s an entire generation that doesn’t need or want to receive information in formalized language. And it’s not just the hurdle of form that content strategists and providers will have to jump over to lure this generation into the funnel; it’s modern history. The credibility of the financial markets among Gen Xers and millennials has been chipped away at, first by the tech boom-and-bust of 2000, then by the financial crisis.

“We know we have to do something soon,” says one wealth management content provider, “but nobody’s figured out what yet.”

Mary Lowengard was a Contributing Editor at Institutional Investor from 1990 to 2008. Her first freelance content marketing assignment was Investor Relations for Newly Public Companies, published in 1988, commissioned by the Carter Organization to promote its IPO advisory services. But it wasn’t called “content” then — it was called “a book.”