For many engaged in business, the term “content marketing” is this sort-of nebulous thing that everybody says you should be doing.

But you don’t really know why, or how, or even what it is.

Don’t feel alone. Even the experts don’t totally agree on a definition.

Content Marketing Institute (CMI), a global content marketing and education organization, reached out to content marketing experts to get their definitions. The consensus? It depends on quite a few things.

Here’s CMI’s formal definition: “Content marketing is a strategic marketing approach focused on creating and distributing valuable, relevant, and consistent content to attract and retain a clearly-defined audience, and ultimately, to drive profitable customer action.”

Does that clear it up for you? Probably not.

This (also from CMI) might help put it in context: “Basically, content marketing is the art of communicating with your customers and prospects without selling.”

The general idea is that instead of pitching products or services, you’re delivering information that is relevant to your current and potential customers.

Ultimately, the goal is that customers will support and develop a business relationship with you, because they value the information they’ve come to depend on you to deliver.

Think of your local Lowe’s or Home Depot. You’ve got a project going on, say you’re remodeling your bathroom, and you go to the Lowe’s website in search of a new faucet for your vanity.

When you type “bathroom faucets” into the search box, Lowe’s not only delivers product information and sale dates, but it also gives you a link to a video that teaches you how to install a faucet.

That’s content marketing. Lowe’s wants to be your home improvement expert, and in the process, they hope you’ll shop with them, too. The whole purpose of it is to make your content useful and helpful for the users.

The Why of Content Marketing

Content marketing has emerged as an answer to the decline of effective traditional advertising. We no longer watch commercials.

We DVR and fast-forward. We don’t read newspapers. We listen to ad-free playlists or podcasts.

We no longer engage with business through traditional channels. Content marketing attempts to transcend that by engaging over ideas rather than product.

Content marketing is essentially relationship marketing. People are looking for experts, tips, ideas, training, and content marketing provides it. When it’s good, it creates relationships and customer loyalty.

Jeni’s Ice Cream is a much beloved favorite founded in Columbus, Ohio. In 2015, Jeni’s was hit by a listeria outbreak that closed all of its stores, voluntarily, for nearly a month and forced it to recall all of its products and dump 265 tons of ice cream.

Columbus customers papered store windows with post-it love notes and inundated Jeni’s Twitter feed with support.

In January, Jeni’s released its annual report and enumerated the loss, including the number of swabs it took as part of its new monitoring program.

But the number that was most important, from a content marketing perspective, is this, which concluded the report: “Unquantifiable, the amount of love you gave when we needed it most.”

Again, the why of content marketing is because it creates relationships that lead to sales and loyalty.

The How of Content Marketing

It’s important to know that content marketing changes by target, meaning the focus of Business to Business (B2B) content marketing is different than  Business to Customer (B2C).  Don’t confuse content marketing with link building.

The types of content marketing used by businesses is practically endless and ever-growing, but here’s a list: social media, video, print magazines, digital magazines, product packaging, e-newsletters, microsites, multichannel, websites, blogs, podcasts, infographics, apps, resources centers, events, and user generated content (USG).

According to CMI, 86 percent of B2B marketers use content marketing to gain customer interest and loyalty. Obviously, B2B content marketing is focused on creating relationships with their audience, other businesses.

Here’s an example: Firerock is a company that manufactures pre-engineered masonry products for contractors and home builders. Firerock uses visual content on its Pinterest page to spotlight its products in action.

The company uses Pinterest’s location tool to tag photos of outdoor examples so people can see the actual work, as well.

The lines between what divides B2B and B2C content are blurring. A company that sells medical equipment to hospitals and doctor’s offices may also sell to individuals, yet they’ll reach them via different channels.

While the B2B arm of the company might use white papers and blogs, the B2C arm might focus more on social media and video.

About 76 percent of B2C organizations use content marketing for lead generation, relationship building and increasing sales.

Taco Bell and many other companies are using Periscope to live-stream content, in part because it keeps them engaged long after a tweet or post.

Content marketing is a fast, effective and ever-changing tool to engage and interact with your customers and it’s important to keep up.

For a look at what to expect in 2016, here’s an infographic (yes, it’s content marketing).