If the PR industry’s experiences managing social media have taught it anything, it is that there will be no clear-cut route to content excellence. Expect plenty of missteps amid an agency environment that will compete as hard for content dollars as it has done for social media spend.

Media buying agencies, for example, already view the opportunity as one they should naturally own. Even if the numbers are usually less attractive than a big TV buy, media houses bring an existing comfort in ROI, particularly on the paid side, allied to the investments many have made in social media skills over the past few years.

“It is much cheaper for us to advertise content than it is to advertise product,” admits Starcom head of social strategy Mat Morrison, who previously led social media for Porter Novelli EMEA. “What Buzzfeed is doing is being clever about how they deliver the traffic. The news is being consumed by people bouncing in and out of Twitter and Facebook, and I can buy my way into Twitter and Facebook better than they can.”

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The PR world's play for content marketing clout
Content in action

Morrison believes that PR agencies can still prosper. “They need to need to stop thinking about creating the content but about marketing the content,” he warns, before rattling off a string of metrics that PR firms had better start paying much more attention to: shares per view, clicks per share and “to a certain extent”, cost per view. “If I get those three right, I’m beginning to get social right and a good earned/paid balance.”

This means waking up to the fact that using social for content exposure has evolved considerably beyond the early days when PR agencies would add a post to Twitter or Facebook promoting a blog, a bylined article or whitepaper. Rather than placing bets that a well-timed tweet will reach the right audiences, paid social affords PR more precise and sophisticated targeting methods.

And now, with companies like Salesforce enabling the integration of social data with CRM databases, highly-targeted content marketing is likely going to become the norm rather than the exception.

The sticking point, however, is whether PR agencies are equipped to jump into paid social opportunities with both comfort and access to budgets.

Meanwhile, the rise of content has not exactly consigned Google to irrelevance. SEO agencies are unlikely to accept a more diminished role, particularly as Google improves its algorithms to reward authentic content, rather than artificial signals.

“We’ve been doing this content marketing, because it was a search play, since before all this buzz about it,” says Distilled CEO Will Critchlow. “All of the things we’ve always wished were true are becoming true. Social tends to get a disproportionate share of senior management attention, but search is a solid and growing driver of real business metrics.”

In particular, Critchlow believes that good SEO firms have the advantage of understanding keyword research - what people are searching for and why. The implications on content creation, he says, are significant.

“There’s no point creating a content calendar based on content for which there’s no demand,” explains Critchlow. “Our experience is that social wins or PR wins can be fleeting. They appear today, make a lot of noise and then die away fast.”

Instead, Critchlow points to eight interactive small business guides his firm has launched for SimplyBusiness.co.uk. The content proved appealing to both the site’s customers and, crucially, was deemed “link-worthy” by high-authority websites, ultimately boosting traffic and improving revenues.

“We tend to view success, ultimately, by driving more business - conversion metrics and e-commerce metrics,” says Critchlow. “We’re looking to our content plays to drive those things more often or drive the shares/links that drive those things. If you define the wrong metrics - ie eyeballs - you might knock them out of the park and still not have brought any benefit to your clients.”

While Critchlow does not see competition as a zero-sum game, he does note that “stereotypically, where PR firms fall down is a lack of attention to technology,” focusing instead on “great buzz that doesn’t bring lasting benefits to the website.”

On top this, publishers, like Forbes and BuzzFeed, are both allies and rivals when it comes to content marketing. Because most media outlets offer content creation with their sponsorship deals, PR agencies may find themselves having to make the case to clients why they -- and not, for instance Forbes -- should be driving content development.

Weber Shandwick’s Chris Perry, meanwhile, thinks that any argument about who “owns” content marketing is as nonsensical as the similar debate that typically surrounds social media. “In the case of content, to do this properly - it borrows in large part from what we’ve done in the PR business. But it also borrows from brand planning, interactive marketing, search,” he points out. “We believe it’s a distinct discipline.”

Clients appear to agree, with research from Outbrain and Econsultancy revealing that a majority of marketers see content marketing becoming its own discipline. Fewer than half of those polled in the study, however, have dedicated content marketing budgets, and less than half of all companies spend more than 20 percent of their marketing budget on content, despite the fact that only 12 percent disagree with the statement that “content marketing is more effective than advertising in driving sales.”

Those findings might remind some of traditional attitudes towards social media, suggesting that content-focused PR firms are right to bet on an upward trend. Not every content marketing platform or tool is likely to prove long-lasting or successful, and the prospect of ‘content pollution’, where brands compete to see who can be more meaningless, is something that should worry everyone. Yet Perry is probably right when he says that the “content environment is a meritocracy now.”

The bigger question, whether enough brands can capitalise on this to their advantage - in the manner of, say, Red Bull or IBM - is something that remains to be seen. Judging by the levels of activity from brands, media and agencies, though, it seems reasonable to conclude that the next generation of content marketers could yet redefine how brands connect with people, bringing obvious opportunities for the PR agencies that serve them.