Content marketing is not BS

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The rise of digital marketing has seen some marketers hail every shiny new toy as the next big thing – be it 3D printing, social media, branded apps, virtual reality or native advertising. All this has resulted in many pundits calling out, rightly so, much of the BS. The charge against this trend is that everyone gets caught up in jargon and tactical stuff forgetting that the basics of advertising has not changed even today.

“What makes marketers’ obsession with spangly new s**t so annoying is that our discipline does the basics so badly. But my only hope to get marketers interested in doing their job properly is calling the standard approach to marketing strategy a ‘thwackometer 4000’ and presenting it exclusively to marketers via a virtual reality app made on a 3D printer that was originally promoted on Vine.”

Mark Ritson

New advertising is old advertising at heart and as ever, it is more art than science (though a scientific approach plays a role in targeting & media planning). It is always about persuasion – to change behaviour or mindset, which happens to be an art. In this context, social media, branded apps, native advertising etc., are merely tools.

In my view, of the many new ‘tools’ that are available, content marketing is useful and relevant to a certain kind of marketer, especially in the B2B segment. So when some refer to content marketing disparagingly as ‘content sh*t’ I have to disagree.

What is content marketing?

The CMI defines content marketing thus: 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.

One might argue that advertising too is about ‘creating and distributing valuable, relevant, and consistent content’. But there is a distinct difference. In advertising, the brand has to be central to the message, create preference for the brand or the cause it promotes. In short, it is aimed to sell an idea or product. In content marketing, it is fine if brand takes a back seat and the only objective is to provide valuable, relevant content. In short, the aim is to be useful without any overt selling of the brand. I have seen this personally with two brands who do an outstanding job in content marketing: Hubspot and Buffer. Both these brands give away tonnes of useful content almost every day in the marketing & social media domains. Most of their content addresses target audience’s desire to learn about the new marketing tools and are aimed to make their readers get better at their job. The remarkable thing about the content put out by Hubspot and Buffer is that they are free and almost always devoid of a sales plug. Sure, readers are paying for such content indirectly – by parting with their email address (for newsletters) and some usage data. What this does is position these as brands who know a lot about a subject and what’s more, share it with the world…hence, likeable. As another definition at CMI said: traditional marketing and advertising is telling the world you’re a rock star. Content Marketing is showing the world that you are one.

The advantage of this approach is that if and when Hubspot and Buffer make their sales pitch it is likely to be viewed favourably (as was the case with me). Needless to say, this is a long haul, slow burn approach and suited for certain brands, categories and business objectives. In my view, it is right for categories where it is a considered purchase decision (not impulse), high involvement category and scope to learn or imbibe new experiences is high. So travel, B2B, high tech, education are a few categories where such an approach to content marketing works.

The need for content marketing

In my view, traditional advertising – specifically television advertising is still very powerful. Anyone who says otherwise is living in denial. There are several categories across developed and developing markets which can meet their marketing goals perfectly well with mass media advertising, focused on TV. However, a majority of such advertising is plain boring or just run-of-the-mill. Consumers have no way to avoid them except to switch off mentally when seeing such ads. A small percentage of advertising cuts through the clutter and truly connects. In the online world however, it is relatively easier to avoid ads which interrupt whatever a user set out to do. In this context, the poor CTRs of web banners and the fact most of those clicks come from bots is not very surprising. Ads in every form – tweet or Facebook post is easier to avoid in the online world. Content Marketing serves as a viable alternative to some categories by providing content which is relevant and useful.

Content Marketing vs Native Advertising vs Branded Content

With so many terms floating around, often used interchangeably, it is natural to be confused about what is what. Content marketing is created and published on a company’s own asset – the website or blog. Native advertising or branded content (as with the good old advertorial) is placed on third party titles and replicates the environment and tone of voice of that title. The risk with this approach is that it might appear to be cheating the reader unless it is specified clearly that it is a sponsored post of some sort.

The bottom line is that every platform or marketing tool has its pros and cons. A billboard for example is a fleeting medium and cannot be expected to perform like a brochure. Product categories and brands within them have to choose a platform and form factor which is relevant to them from a business perspective. A high-end luxury brand is unlikely to see a bus-back panel as a good fit with its imagery. Similarly, content marketing – the business of creating preference for a brand and then a sale by providing valuable content without an overt sales pitch – is relevant for some categories. It is real and here to stay – definitely not BS.

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