Every April, when the Buying & Selling eContent event gets underway in sunny Arizona, I wonder yet again about the nearly invisible role marketing plays in the econtent industry. Because of our mystery-profession status, what marketers do for an organization is often considered less important than our more tangible cousin: sales. But marketers have only ourselves to blame.

So let’s start with a definition of marketing. Hmmm…Ask a dozen marketers and you get a dozen answers. It’s no wonder we’re misunderstood, we can’t even describe what we do! Some marketers think we’re all about advertising. (Or worse: branding.) But in my opinion, advertising and branding are just small parts of the marketing mix. Other people will talk about the “Four Ps:” product, place, promotion, and price. The problem with this definition is that it skips the customer; if you don’t understand what the market needs first, you can’t possibly put the Ps to work effectively. Too add to the mess, different marketing sub-disciplines exist, including strategic marketing, product marketing, and marketing communications.

OK smarty-pants, you say, what is marketing? I’ll offer a definition by comparing marketing to sales: Sales is getting someone to buy the econtent product you have, while marketing is developing and positioning an econtent product someone will want to buy. Not perfect, but this definition comes close. (And no doubt, sales’ job is a whole lot easier if their potential buyer has a good idea why they might want to buy the product in the first place.)

To make matters even more complicated, in the econtent industry, we’re marketing an intangible; you can’t see and touch this stuff. As such, many lazy or inexperienced marketers tend to focus on the wrong things like user interface or the number of sources or the speed of response. Worse, some only focus on the design, look, feel, and colors of the marketing materials. Or, pass me an aspirin, they obsess over “the brand,” ugh.

Instead of focusing on the peripheral, tangible aspects of econtent, marketing professionals need to start with the customer and an understanding of what they actually do for a living. Nobody wakes up in the morning and says: “I’m going to work today and use econtent services.” No, customers wake up and say things like, “I need to close a big deal in Thailand today,” or “I’ve got to refinance the company’s short-term debt,” or “I need a better way to store data.” If a marketer understands the motivations of the customer first, then they can build an appropriate product to meet the need. And once they know that customer and their needs, they can worry about those pesky Ps in getting the product out into the marketplace.

To put the customer first, everything we say—but particularly the Web site—must be viewed from the customer perspective. No buyer wants to go to a seller in the econtent space and stare at a site that features products (i.e., the product names). Buyers are bewildered when a marketer forces them to choose between their wonderful “econtent widget,” or the even better “econtent widget express plus.” No, sites that focus on products rarely succeed. Instead, buyers want to learn about econtent products and services based on what they do or the problem they need to solve. With this approach, the buyer chooses from links on a Web site such as “econtent services for international salespeople” or “econtent services for database administrators.” They’re sure to reach a set of information or tools designed for them. Then the marketer can effectively move that prospect into the sales cycle.

In my experience, many econtent companies put under-qualified people into senior marketing roles. Our industry has an inordinate number of people in marketing jobs with technology, finance, or MBA-centric backgrounds, and I think that’s why marketing is misunderstood and under-appreciated—our role just isn’t taken seriously as a profession. When senior management thinks marketing is only about corporate colors, then just about any warm body will do.

The skills that make a marketer successful are extremely diverse. A marketer needs to be comfortable working outside the confines of what’s already been done, must be a terrific writer and teacher, possess the ability to think laterally and orthogonally, have selling skills, a designer’s eye, an appreciation for diplomacy, and much more. That’s why many successful professional marketers have funky backgrounds and tend to be liberal arts graduates. But those skills are the opposite of what makes a technology or finance person successful in our industry.

It’s the job of all professional marketers in the econtent space to raise the levels of our profession. We must do excellent work. We must take responsibility to increase revenues for our companies, despite the challenge of communicating the value of the intangible, and we must prove our value every day. Hey, maybe then we can go to Arizona too!