Content marketing as punching bag: deserved or not?

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Nowadays it is common to spot articles bashing ‘content marketing’ as a discipline. The common grouse with such articles is:

– content marketing is just a buzz phrase; it is essentially what was practiced in advertising forever
– the practitioners of this discipline are bullshit artists who thrive on throwing jargon
– most of what passes off as content marketing is noise and does not add much value to a brand by way of sales

Let’s start with the basics: what is content? In 1996, Bill Gates wrote an essay ‘Content is King’ where he states:

“When it comes to an interactive network, such as the Internet, the definition of ‘content’ becomes very wide. For example, computer software is a form of content-an extremely important one, and the one that for Microsoft will remain by far the most important. But the broad opportunities for most companies involve supplying information or entertainment. No company is too small to participate.”

Since then the phrase ‘content is king’ has been used in the context of information or entertainment – largely to do with broadcast or internet media brands. Over the last few years, the word ‘content’ has come to be associated with brands which resulted in ‘branded content’ as a phrase, usually referring to paid-for, sponsored content. Nowadays, ‘content’ has come to encompass TV commercials, web-only films, blog posts, tweets, social media posts – any form of communication put out by a brand. Content marketing, which is combination of creation & distribution, is defined differently by many:

Content marketing is the creation of content with the intention of distributing it, to engage with highly targeted audiences, and attract new customers (and backlinks) in the process.

CMI defines it as:

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.

Mostly, content marketing – at least in the B2B context is about driving traffic to one’s own content:

– Increasing visibility.
– Encouraging backlinks for SEO, and social shares.
– Optimising the website for long tail keywords that are harder to target through the website’s static pages.
– Generating new customers, or clients, or whatever your end goal is

In my words, it would be:

‘The art of creating and distributing communication among the right audience, resulting in positive impact for a brand, either in terms of enhancing reputation or moving a prospect closer to sale’.

That sounds pretty much like advertising, doesn’t it? So is content marketing fundamentally just like advertising? In my view, yes. It is also an invented term, a buzz phrase as it were but that’s to be expected with changing times. Digital Marketing as a term would have meant nothing a decade ago whereas Direct Mail was a common term for decades. The principles which operated in Direct Mail have only taken a new avatar in the context of today’s marketing.

Reader’s Digest was a major practitioner of direct response advertising (specifically direct mail) for selling anything from subscriptions to books to sweepstakes. The techniques used by them were studied, commented upon and hailed as best practices back in the day. In his book, ‘How to Write Sales Letters that Sell: Learn the Secrets of Successful Direct Mail’, the guru of Direct Marketing, Drayton Bird, highlights a couple of such tricks:

Now cut to 2017. Many brands practice the same principles, albeit in a different platform (email) using algorithms to send similar offers. They can be labelled spam and never be seen or opened. But the principle behind it is the same when it was done in traditional marketing. But guess who gets the flak? The spammers of today (rightly so). But back when direct mailers were common, the term used was junk mail. One used to junk many such mailers straight into the dust bin. But because one could not talk about it on the internet or social media back then, the frustrations of such marketing activities could not be shared widely. Today, we can complain about email spam and ‘drip mailers’ thanks to Twitter, Facebook and blogs.

Both with classic direct mail marketing and modern email marketing the success factors are the same: tailoring the right ‘offer’ and message (creative elements) to the right person. Naturally the success rate is low. In classic direct mail, success rate was defined by the response taken – be it a phone call made, a coupon cut & mailed or a cheque written (for subscriptions and donations).In today’s context, the parameters have changed to open rates and CTRs.

Reader’s Digest used to send reminder mailers too for those who did not take action towards an offer the first time around. In traditional direct mail marketing that would have been celebrated as a best practice and the various offers and copywriting techniques would have been celebrated. In today’s such reminder emailers or newsletters is called a drip campaign or ‘nurturing’ which is laughed at for the highfalutin terminology or jargon. Is that fair? Jargon (or language which obfuscates) is not a new phenomenon applicable only to modern marketing. Traditional advertising planners, branding agencies have all indulged in such in the past. When the Pepsi logo was re-designed in 2009, the brand document used language like this:

The vocabulary of truth and simplicity is a reoccurring phenomena in the brand’s history. It communicates the brand in a timeless manner and with an expression of clarity. Pepsi BREATHTAKING builds on this knowledge. True innovation always begins by investigating the historic path. Going back-to-the-roots moves the brand forward as it changes the trajectory of the future.

Point is, bullshit artists or jargon-spewers have been around in marketing & advertising circles (and for sure in other industries too) long before terms like digital marketing or content marketing were invented. And it is not going to stop. Some of the new terms are simply a factor of media evolving. Contextual advertising maybe a relatively new term but topical advertising which ‘used’ the news of the day was common in print advertising. Native advertising which blends in with the editorial content was called ‘advertorial’ in print media. So as media habits evolve and newer platforms and tools emerge, terms will be invented – some (like contextual advertising) will seem to be fair descriptions while some others will sound like bullshit.

Another common point about content marketing is that much of it is said to be noise. I wholeheartedly agree – especially in the B2B segment where the urge to come across as a ‘thought leader’ (every company in a domain wants to be one) drives companies to push out plain-vanilla, boring, aggregated content masquerading as ‘educational content’. Every domain in B2B is filled with ‘How to’ and ‘7 Reasons Why’ articles which are put together by content writers with Google or Wikipedia as their source. The end result is a sea of sameness with just a small percentage shining through as remarkable, memorable, entertaining or useful content. However, this is not something only content marketing is plagued with. The same is true of movies, music, books, journalism – every aspect of popular culture.

‘Ninety percent of everything is crap’.
– Sturgeon’s law

As every B2B brand turns to content marketing, we’re about to be hit by a deluge of crap, said Velocity Partners (a B2B content agency I respect a lot) in…2013.

Advertising as a discipline (and here the emphasis is on traditional channels like television) is considered important in the marketing mix and effective in building brand equity, driving sales. This, despite most of advertising out there going unnoticed as it is plain boring to grab attention. So why is the ‘noise quotient’ of content marketing singled out? In my view, the tendency to ‘jargon-ise’ and turn everything into a number-driven or template driven process (for e.g in disciplines like SEO) evokes ridicule. Moreover, the obsession over meaningless vanity metrics (likes, shares, views) takes away the focus from sales (by creating likability) – which should be the primary focus of any advertising activity. We as an industry forget that content marketing is advertising after all and advertising is persuasion – an art. Some of the practitioners of content marketing are attempting to turn it into a science, a process driven by ‘techniques’ in keyword search, SEO, on-page optimisation and so on – trying to appeal to Google rather than to a human being. For many marketers, their brand is what Google defines it to be. So, driven by fear of losing out in the SERP game, content is ‘gamed’ to rank high in keyword search and score well on page rank, domain authority etc. In such a scenario, creating content is rarely driven by expertise on a subject or an obsession to charm the audience. Naturally, the goal is quantity and not quality – churning out listicles every week.

So are there content marketing campaigns which have delivered? Here are a few (see more here):

Blendtec: The ‘Will It Blend?‘ series of videos from Blendtec represent the best of what marketing is all about in this new media age.

Volvo: the series of web-only films (including the famous ‘Epic Split’) demonstrated the various features of Volvo trucks in an engaging, entertaining manner.

GE: to me, the hallmark of GE’s approach to content marketing has been its usage of each platform to its advantage.

Openview Partners: this VC firm consistently shares insights which would be relevant and useful to entrepreneurs. The focus is sharp: ‘insights, actionable advice & founder interviews aimed at helping you grow your expansion stage software company’.

What’s common to these?

– Content which respects the intelligence of the audience
– Avoiding run of the mill, ‘average’ content and striving to create engaging, entertaining, useful stuff
– Focusing on quality rather than quantity
– Creating content best suited for the platform
– Employing strategies to ensure that the content is discovered and shared (effective distribution)

I am guessing all these have delivered on business results too as the brand owner is unlikely to invest in such content if it does not generate good ROI. In sum I would say that new advertising is old advertising at heart. And just as we don’t brush all of advertising with one stroke (even though a majority of ads are mediocre and sink without a trace) we should not paint all of ‘content marketing’ as useless.

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