The claims made
What exactly is content marketing? It would appear to mean whatever the advocate or practitioner wants it to mean. It is clearly seen as being part of marketing communications, particularly social media, although its most fervent champions seem to see it as a contemporary challenger to marketing itself. The twist to content marketing is that communication will be executed in a less direct, oblique way by capturing the audience’s interest. This is held out to be a new approach to marketing, when, firstly, it has actually been practised for as long as marketing has; secondly, it is not marketing anyway – just a small part of it.
In April 2014 Marketing magazine posed the question ‘Do brands now need a distinct head of content alongside a traditional lead marketer?’, thus seemingly identifying content marketing as a strategic consideration of equal weight to the whole of the rest of marketing – the brand strategy, the marketing strategy, the marketing mix, and all the other elements of the marketing communications mix. Without too much exaggeration, it might be as useful, however, to pose the question as to whether there should be a head of press releases, door drops or telemarketing. Nevertheless, a number of the Marketing Society members quizzed believed it to be a sensible suggestion.
Content marketing even has its own institute – the Content Marketing Institute. Its explanation of content marketing begins by saying: “Traditional marketing is becoming less and less effective by the minute; as a forward-thinking marketer, you know there has to be a better way.” Apart from the rather platitudinous and patronising tone, it is clear that marketing is being taken to equate to marketing communications, thus betraying a basic misunderstanding of the fundamental concept.
‘Content marketing’ has something in common with the term ‘digital marketing’ in that it cuts across previous marketing frameworks. However, the latter term encompasses the whole of the marketing mix, offering additional opportunities for all the 7Ps in addition to those previously provided in the offline world. Content marketing, conversely, is only concerned with one element of the marketing mix – the promotion ‘P’, or marcoms – and it is largely simply a rebadging of what has always been an intrinsic part of marketing. It is understood by some to include paid-for media – in other words, advertising (and possibly direct marketing), but it is more generally taken to include just owned and earned media.
There is a long-established term for the comms tool that includes owned and earned media, however: PR (Public Relations). Brands have been providing ‘content’ for 100 years or more. Food brands have always offered recipe collateral. At the turn of the 19th into the 20th century, Michelin introduced its maps and guides to encourage motorists to venture out of Paris more often, thus increasing their tyre wear. PR agencies have always provided ‘content’ for clients, alongside the development of press releases, in the form of books, brochures, video, audio, event content, speech writing, advertorials (more commonly called ‘native advertising’ these days), etc. The CIM (Chartered Institute of Marketing) Marketing Expert resource appropriately shows content marketing as being a subset of PR.
Content marketing is taken to ‘own’ storytelling, as though this was a new discovery. Yet storytelling has been at the heart of much brand-building over the years, be it via media advertising, PR or other channels. Procter & Gamble created the soap opera in the 1930s. The Nescafé Gold Blend couple advertising in the 1980s attracted more than 30m viewers, wanting to see them finally kiss. Similarly, journalists are not interested in creating a piece from a press release unless there is a ‘story’ there.
There is a similar tendency for the advocates of content marketing to restate the building blocks of marketing, laid down by the giants of marketing years ago – such as Theodore Levitt in 1960 – as though they were revealing something new and specific to the tool. In late 2020 we were advised that “In the years to come, marketers are going to start creating more content that’s truly created in the mindset of putting themselves in the shoes of others”.
So why has the term ‘content marketing’ become so conspicuous in recent years? The advent of the internet has provided an almost infinite space to be filled, and many agencies have rushed to find clients willing to fund the creation of more and more content to fill it. But that is not the foundation of a strategy: it’s putting the cart before the horse. Like every other element of the communications toolkit, an overall comms strategy, derived in turn from a marketing strategy, is required; content is not a strategy of itself, but one possible element of a marketing comms strategy. That it will need a strategy, if it is to be used as a tool, is not in doubt, but it is operating at a more tactical level.
The explosion of content in recent years has resulted in a massive overload of content clutter, audience ennui and a strain on their attention. The sheer volume of content alone is likely to defeat the objectives that have been set for most initiatives, as the default action for most consumers becomes ‘delete’.
A solution to a problem that never existed has been created by the content marketers. Nicola Kemp, in Marketing Magazine, memorably wrote “…if the content-marketing industry were a guest at a party, there is a good chance that it would be the kind of shouty, attention-seeking person who wouldn’t receive an invitation the second time around.”
There is, without doubt, a potentially large benefit to be derived from good content creation through sharing on social media, although this is just a supercharged version of traditional word of mouth. The downside, however, is demonstrated by what was probably the apogee of inappropriate content marketing: the automated download of U2’s latest album to 500 million iTunes users around the world in 2014. That it prompted a massive backlash on social media, and a spur to investigations into the Irish-connected tax affairs of both Apple and the band, is testimony to the risk of hubris awaiting over-enthusiastic content marketers.
Getting the context right
A parallel development to the rise of content marketing has been the supposed redefinition of what push and pull marketing mean. Conventionally, pull marketing has been driven by the recognition that brands need customers that want to buy from them and that have become motivated to try the product or service, or convinced enough to repurchase, by the brand-building efforts of the company. This includes the use of most of the marcoms mix, but particularly the emotion-building potential of broadcast advertising (and cinema), as well as other advertising media and PR. Push, conversely, is concerned with achieving short-term sales. Now, however, content marketing advocates force all forms of advertising into the ‘push’ box, with content conveniently being left as the primary vehicle for pull marketing. It would seem that many of the world’s most valuable brands, testimony to the years of media advertising that built them, and the consequent fame that enhanced them, are not allowed to introduce doubt to the new definition.
Content, in whatever form it takes, needs to be useful, informative, entertaining, or valuable in some way, not annoying drivel. It needs to be led by the overall brand strategy, alongside all the other elements of the marketing and marcoms mix. The fact there are many more channels and much more media space to fill these days, should be neither here nor there – yet gullible clients may be led by agencies to believe that more and more of the stuff needs to be churned out to fulfil some misconceived ‘content strategy’. Marketers should, rather, stick to the basics – yes, there are some new and potentially interesting media and channel choices available these days, but start with the overall strategic objectives for the brand and the needs of the customer – speak when you have something worth saying.
In preparing the marketing plan don’t be misled into thinking that there is something called ‘content marketing’ that sits alongside all the other elements of the marketing mix. That way confusion lies.
Further discussion of this topic is welcomed.
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