Alex Steer

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The dangers of content marketing

937 words

How many digital agency pitches have you seen recently that started with some Big Scary Trends? Trends like the adoption rate of smartphones, or QR codes, or augmented reality, or geolocation, or microblogging, or the latest social network. Trends about media fragmentation or time spent online, telling you that your audience is falling away into a maze of channels, and paying less and less attention to messages from brands. Trends that would make any marketer nervous.

The Big Scary Trend is a staple of modern digital agency pitching. They’re designed to leave you with the impression that the marketing environment is increasingly out of your control, to leave you with that dizzying sensation that convinces you that your existing agency relationships (with ‘traditional’ agencies) are completely unequipped to deal with the baffling, scary, complicated and breakneck world of digital. So you’d better sign that contract.

And once you’ve signed, what’s the answer? More and more, the answer that comes back from digital agencies is ‘content marketing’. All businesses, however they generate their profits, must spend their marketing budgets producing ever greater quantities of content and publishing it to an ever-growing range of digital channels. It’s no longer enough for a soap-powder company to engage consumers with a product truth and an emotional connection. Now, it seems every business must also develop a large-scale publishing sideline and run it out of the marketing department, in the mere hope of grabbing some tiny sliver of a consumer’s attention for long enough to create an impression that might, one day, lead to them buying some soap powder.

But hang on. Is this really the inevitable future of marketing, in which the value-to-effort ratio falls through the floor in the face of inattentive, hostile and distant customers? Or is all this Big Scary Trends stuff, in fact, just bad client service? Shouldn’t agencies, with access to an increasingly powerful range of analytical tools, be first of all advising their clients on how to get those ratios back under control – in other words, how to get value for money?

The content marketing explosion

At risk of sounding like one of those pitches, this is what happens if you graph Google searches for ‘content marketing’ over the last few years. Google trends for content marketing

Content marketing is itself a Big Scary Trend. Searches for it have rocketed in the past year and especially since the start of 2012, a sure sign of a phenomenon hitting the marketing mainstream. Brands now have Chief Content Officers and content strategies, and 61% of marketers plan to spend more on content marketing over the next year (according to the Content Marketing Institute).

It’s true that online content can deliver value for brands and businesses, and drive efficient reach in social channels where advertising-type messaging might not gain traction. But it’s also hugely time-consuming and expensive – and an increasingly crowded field. Businesses can burn through huge amounts of marketing budget creating branded content they hope will stand out, while all their competitors are doing the same, and flooding the web with content that (let’s be honest) will rarely compare favourably to the output of publishers or TV companies. When we’re all producing content, the returns on your content will diminish fast.

The right content, not more content

New media channels do pose new challenges for advertising and marketing. Branded messages now compete for attention not just with other ads but with TV shows, newspaper articles, and home videos of cats playing the keyboard – with all the riches of the web. In an open field, no brand stands a chance. No wonder the ‘make all the content you can’ approach can feel like the answer.

I'm lucky enough to work somewhere (Fabric Worldwide) that believes the opposite. Brands should create only as much digital content as they absolutely have to, to reach the right consumers with the right stimuli in the right channels at the right time. That means that every digital marketing strategy should start, not with a Big Scary Trend or a shiny new channel, but with a clear business objective, a robust and consistent view of target audiences’ needs and behaviours, and client/agency relationships that are strong and honest enough to ensure you’re all working towards a common goal of delivering efficient marketing-driven growth.

Looked at this way, content marketing isn’t a terrifying new world of increased effort and diminishing returns. It’s simply marketing: in new forms and in new channels, but with the same clarity of purpose and rigour of measurement. As for the task of choosing agency partners, marketers should still be looking for the great client service, strategic counsel and creative thinking that they can rely on in the long run. These skills should be joined with the technology and data expertise needed to find customer insights, deliver campaigns and measure effectiveness consistently across the growing digital landscape.

The future of digital marketing isn’t about churning out more and more work and living in fear of Big Scary Trends. It’s about reliable partnerships with great marketing technologists who can make the complex simple, and help you act on opportunities faster.

# Alex Steer (08/03/2012)