(This is a talk I gave today at Marketing Festival in Prague.)
Thank you, everyone, for having me here today.
In regards to the video that you just saw combining Venus the 1980s Bananarama song and Venus the later brand of razor blades, I will introduce this talk with one observation.
I do not remember most “content” that I saw yesterday. But 25 years after seeing that TV advertisement, I still want to shave my legs whenever I hear the song Venus. And in case you have not noticed, I’m a guy.
Now, if you will indulge me, a short introduction. In my prior career, I was first a journalist and newspaper editor who later studied and moved into marketing. In my last job, I was director of marketing at a tech company.
Today, I write The Promotion Fix column on marketing and media for The Drum and travel around the world to speak about what I report. I use my dual experiences in journalism and marketing to discuss the marketing industry with the mindset of a neutral reporter. I have nothing to sell except my ideas.
So here, I will explore the “content” craze that we have seen over the past 10 years and argue that “content” is the worst word that the marketing industry has ever invented.
I just hope that here in the home of Franz Kafka, such an opinion will not turn me into a bug and force all of you to kill me.
A summary: People who use the word “content” have no idea what marcom collateral they want to create, no idea why they should produce it, and no idea how they should measure it. The word “content” means nothing precise, specific, or useful. We need an entirely different approach based on the traditional marcom process that very few marketers today seem to have actually studied.
But let’s start at the beginning. Yes, Bill Gates wrote in 1996 that “content is king.”
And what did he mean? That the Internet allowed anyone to become a media company. But if you are selling a product — rather than the media itself — is that profitable? I will argue that it is usually not because media outlets are very different from consumer brands and tech companies. The business models that are most effective in each are not the same at all.
A decade after Bill Gates’ essay, HubSpot declared traditional advertising to be “dead” and said that “inbound marketing” and “content marketing” were the future.
And what did that mean? Basically, publish cheap, informational blog spam, and spread it around the Internet to get clicks. Get the website visitors to give you their email addresses. Spam them until they buy.
But there were just a few problems — besides the fact that pushing ads masquerading as information out onto the Internet and sending out countless e-mails seems a rather “outbound” thing to do.
After journalists, marketers should be the most skeptical people on the planet because we know how to sell stuff. But too often, we fall for whatever marketing software companies say when they are selling us something. HubSpot — which sells an alternative to advertising — told marketers that advertising was dead and “content” was the new thing. And many marketers believed them without question.
But advertising is not dead. It’s not even mostly dead. Total ad spend in the US, for example, continues to grow around 3% every single year.
And why do we even believe HubSpot? HubSpot is not a real, profitable company. HubSpot had been losing $40 million every year using the “content marketing” that the company preaches. But according to the financials from 2018, that net income loss increased to -$64 million last year.
HubSpot, like many startup tech companies, is a gigantic bubble that was designed to lose money, grow into a house of cards, and make rich VCs even more rich through an exit. It is not a real, profitable company. But so many marketers want to be like them, and I have no idea why.
You can have a terrible business model that only loses money. But if you have enough rich VC backers to pour money into your company, you can grow enough top-line revenue to appear successful.
And why is it a waste of money? I once had various high-tech software companies as clients at an agency. Part of my job was to write blog posts that the clients would then spam around the Internet to get clicks and leads.
The results of such “content marketing” followed the pattern of a typical long-tail curve.
The Y axis is the number of customer leads. The X axis is each blog post listed in order from most to fewest leads. Only a few – the 20% in green – resulted in any significant benefit.
And what did the green ones have in common? They were each produced as part of a specific, tactical marcom effort in terms of product advertising, PR campaigns or SEO. The ones in yellow – which were published just to publish something to spread around the Internet to get clicks – were a complete waste of money. Every dollar spent on this is better spent elsewhere.
Unless you are an actual media company – rather than a consumer brand or software producer that pretends to be one – you can safely stop most ‘content’ production.
When so-called “content marketing” works, it is through the use of traditional marcom tactics under the guise of that new buzzword.
But for some reason, many marketers still think about putting something informational on a website and then pushing it around online to get clicks, traffic, conversions, and sales for some related product. But that is neither efficient nor effective.
Marsha Lindsay of BrandWorks University said at EffWeek that there is a “content crisis” because output per brand per channel is up 35% per year but engagement is down 17%.
A new Meaningful Brands survey released by Havas found that 60% of the world’s brands create “content” that is absolutely useless. And because of that, people would not care of 77% of brands disappeared.
Mark Higginson studied the results and posted at Econsultancy that “barring a few outliers, the majority of content published to [brand websites] receives next to no links and goes nowhere, receiving few shares.”
Beckon chief executive Jennifer Zeszut told VentureBeat that “the current wisdom that brands need to be content machines is simply not supported by the data.” Content marketing is up 300%, but only 5% is effective.
To borrow a phrase from the classic film The Good, The Bad, and The Ugly, “When you have to sell, sell. Don’t talk.”
My question: Where is the evidence that busy people in the real world want to get informational material from the mustard, beer, or dishwashing soap brands that they buy? Everyday people do not give a second thought to brands more than the two seconds they use to take them off a shelf in a supermarket.
Now, it’s not that publishing informational material just to include product ads is not profitable. It’s also that the “content” buzzword has spread to refer to any and all marcom.
Blake Davies on the Spin Sucks PR blog said that publicity collateral is “content.”
A speaker at Social Media Week said that “visual content” is the future of advertising — as though TV ads, graphical print ads, and online video ads have never existed.
Andrew Warren-Payner at Econsultancy referred to the Red Bull Stratos jump, a publicity stunt, as “content marketing.”
On the Moz blog, a writer said this brand advertising spot from AT&T is “content marketing.”
Today, the word “content” is being used to refer to any and all marcom that companies transmit online. To say that we should do ‘content marketing’ is about as useful as saying “we should do marcom.” Well, duh. The word “content” is too generic to be useful.
As Linux Journal editor Doc Searls puts it, “content marketing” minimizes the creative process and reduces marcom to the mass production of “widgets” simply to promote accompanying ads.
Former Next Web editor Martin Bryant said it perfectly: “‘Content’ is a word for people who don’t really care what’s produced as long as they can sell it or put ads against it.”
Why is it that an ad on TV is “advertising,” but the same ad placed on a website somehow becomes “content”? I have a guess. Digital marketers are ashamed to use the word “advertisement” because so-called “inbound marketing” and “content marketing” were supposed to kill advertising, and the Internet was supposed to lead to an entirely different type of marketing.
That did not happen.
The same term should be used for the same tactical marcom collateral regardless of where it appears.
But it does not stop there. The word “content” is also being used not only for marcom that promotes products but also for the products themselves.
The product of The New York Times — journalism — is now just “content.”
Radio programming — a product — is also now just “content.”
Netflix TV shows — which is entertainment programming — is also just “content.”
Movies are just “content.”
I can now scan this QR code to get “content.” But what does that even mean?
So, “content” is now anything that anyone puts online for any reason. But it gets even worse. “Content” is now anything that people do in the real world.
At South by Southwest this year, Recode executive editor Kara Swisher’s interviews of famous business people and celebrities were now “content.” Speeches by presenters at conferences are now just “content.”
As this article states, contributed opinion columns in news outlets — which is publicity — are “content.” Catalogues — which are direct sales channels — are “content.”
On Medium, Susan Su wrote that “everything we can read, see, hear, watch, or experience live” is “content.” Seriously? How is that useful in any way?
The word “content” has come to refer to anything and everything that we create for any purpose and for any reason.
But remember: If a word means everything, it means nothing.
“Content” is just whatever is inside of something. It is meaningless. One of the worst mistakes in copywriting is to use the same word over and over again. It’s boring, and it loses the audience.
Precision in language allows for clarity of thought. A lack of precision leads to sloppy thinking and terrible marketing strategies.
So, I have a challenge. Banish the word “content” from your vocabulary. Every time you want to use the word “content,” think more precisely to understand exactly what marcom or product you need to create. And use that word instead.
If you are writing an opinion column for publicity, I know what you mean. If you are sending an email as part of a direct response campaign, I know what you mean. If you are doing a study for PR collateral, I know what you mean. If you are creating a brand advertising spot, I know what you mean. If you are creating informational material to rank in Google search results, I know what you mean.
If you say that you are going to produce “content,” I have no idea what you mean.
Digital marketers need to be precise about what we are doing and use the correct terminology when creating strategies. Only then can we use the best practices within marcom that have been developed over the past century. Only then will we do our best work.
As Greg Satell wrote in the Harvard Business Review:
“We never call anything that’s good “content.” Nobody walks out of a movie they loved and says, “Wow! What great content!” Nobody listens to “content” on their way to work in the morning. Do you think anybody ever called Franz Kafka a “content creator”?
So, forget about so-called “content marketing.” Use this process instead.
After the three product, price, and place Ps in the product marketing mix, we have promotion.
Under promotion, you take the customer-facing research that you should have done at the beginning to inform what tactics will you use, how will you measure them, what channels will you use in your media mix, and what campaigns will you create.
But the fallacy of “content marketing” is that marketers start all the way here at the end. They immediately think about what to produce long before even thinking about the prior steps. And that is why content markers endlessly debate what to produce, where to transmit it, and how to measure it. They are jumping ahead.
In the end, “content marketing” mass produces and distributes anything and everything without any strategic or tactical thought. And that is a waste of money.
In the promotion mix, there is a set of six tactics: advertising, direct marketing, public relations, personal selling, and SEO. Advertising creates mass awareness and builds brands. Direct marketing gets immediate, trackable responses from a specific, targeted group of people. PR is the maintenance of a favorable public image through activities such as media relations. Personal selling is what salespeople do. SEO gets a website found in search.
These tactics work together to achieve various marcom goals. There are pros and cons to every tactic, and there are specific ways to measure each tactic.
If your “content” is not marketing collateral that fits inside one of these boxes, it is a waste of time and money.
The most important thing to do at this stage is to create a prioritized tactical mix. What percentage of your marcom budget will go to each of these tactics? For every company and product, it will be different — and it will depend on the customer-facing research that you did at the beginning.
And now, the tactics. Direct response. It’s cheap but boring. It’s easily adjustable but never memorable. It’s trackable but annoying. The primary metric is ROI — how much money you put in compared to what you get out.
And a lot of “content marketing” is just direct response by another name.
On the left, you have a classic ad that was made by David Ogilvy. Headline, informative text and graphics, and a call to action. On the right, you have a blog post. Headline, informative text and graphics, and a call to action. It’s the same, exact thing.
Now, why is it that we put this in a newspaper and we’re doing ‘direct response advertising’, but if we put this on a company blog, we’re doing ‘content marketing’? The channel and the medium do not determine the creative. The marketing tactic does not change simply because the channel changes.
And now, advertising. It is creative, but it can flop. It is memorable but sometimes expensive. It builds brands but is not directly trackable. The metrics include reach, brand lift, brand recall, and purchase intent.
Everyone knows Dollar Shave Club, but remember this: the company was bought by Unilever for $1 billion largely as a result of its famous first ad that reportedly cost in the low five figures. Creativity does not need to be expensive.
And now, PR. It builds credibility, but you have no control over what reporters will write. It can get natural backlinks for SEO, but PR campaigns take a lot of time. Appearing in credible media outlets builds trust, but trust is not directly trackable or immediately measurable.
The metrics include media impressions and brand sentiment.
Before I became a professional marketing speaker and writer, my last job was being the first director of marketing for a log analysis startup tech company. I got us in TechCrunch — and the following day I saw a surge in website traffic as well as personal interest from potential customers and future investors.
Now, it is impossible to connect the media appearance with the results directly, but not everything that is important in marketing will appear in an analytics dashboard. What is important takes place in peoples’ heads. Most importantly, the appearance in TechCrunch gave credibility to my company because TechCrunch is credible.
And now, SEO. It gets you found in search results, but you are at the mercy of Google’s algorithm. High rankings can provide a lot of traffic over the long term, but you cannot force the issue too much or you will receive a penalty. It helps to fulfill existing demand, but it cannot create demand like advertising does.
The metrics include organic traffic and search rankings.
And for the record, “engagement” is a useless metric for anything. Use the appropriate metrics for the tactics that have always been used. “Likes,” shares, impressions, or retweets on average have no effect on ad recall, brand awareness, or purchase intent.
Use the metrics that, as described, match the tactic you are using — not whatever some analytics platform is designed to measure and tells you it is important to measure. Analytics platforms are machines. They measure only quantity but not quality.
So, how do you prioritize which tactics to use? Well, the first principle to remember is that sales activation and direct response pick the ripe fruit at the bottom of the funnel. Advertising and PR grow more fruit for future picking. Sales activation and direct response tell people what to do so they will buy today. Advertising and PR tell people what to think so they will buy tomorrow.
As Rory Sutherland put it, direct response is efficient at identifying existing customers. Advertising is effective at creating new ones.
For both short-term and long-term results, the best average tactical spend should focus 60% on advertising and PR and 40% on direct response and sales activation.
After all, direct response gets quick but small results. Advertising and PR get future but big results.
Here is the best representation. Direct response and sales activation – what you see in yellow – give the best returns in the short term. You spend some money and get a quick spike. But you always hit a wall. Most of the profit in the future comes from long-term advertising and PR campaigns.
Now, after you decide upon a prioritized tactical mix, it is time to create a prioritized media mix.
Marcom strategy is the decision of which tactics and channels to use — and which ones not to use. As Dave Trott says, strategy is sacrifice. If you try to do everything and be everywhere, you will only lose money — just like HubSpot.
After all, the internet is just a collection of new channels. A company website is just a channel that you can use or not use. A brand advertisement is brand advertising regardless of whether it appears in a newspaper or on YouTube. A publicity stunt is publicity regardless of whether it is broadcast on TV or Facebook. Direct response is direct response regardless of whether you do it over postal mail, email, or PPC ads. And that is why phrases such as “social media marketing” are useless. No one ever said “TV marketing” or “radio marketing.”
You use the customer-facing research to decide which tactics to use. Then, you use the same research to choose over which channels to do it. After all, every channel has positives and negatives. Not all impressions are created equal.
This is a study from Ebiquity. Look at the chart on the right. Marketers think that — after TV — online video and social media are the second-best and third-best channels for advertising. It is not surprising. Think about how many people today just assume without evidence that we should be digital first or digital only.
But look on the left. The evidence actually says that TV, radio, newspapers, and magazines are the four best channels for long-term advertising effectiveness.
And why is that? For all of the digital hype, the average adult in the US spends the majority of his media use every day watching live TV and listening to AM/FM radio. Remember, we marketers are not the market. Normal people who do not work in marketing are very different than we.
Marketers love social media, but most people do not. 93% of marketers use LinkedIn. 14% of normal people do. 81% of marketers use Twitter. 22% of normal people do. And so on.
Further, TV is the channel that builds the most trust in a product. The Internet is the least. So, if you want people to trust your brand, then you may want to consider TV over online.
After all, if digital is so wonderful, then why is Facebook itself doing crisis PR over TV, print, and outdoor rather than using its own ad network?
And when you show the same ad over TV and YouTube, people are three times more likely to remember the company via TV ads.
TV is also the most impactful for the following reasons.
An ad on TV has a greater effect than the same ad on Facebook simply because more people actively view an ad on TV, and the ad takes up 100% of the screen. On Facebook, the ad takes up 10% of the screen and is often ignored because people are busy focusing their attention somewhere else.
Now, on the other side of the coin, TV has its negatives. In terms of what gets the most direct attention, cinema advertising is first because everyone in the audience is just sitting there and staring at a gigantic screen. Print is second. In this metric, TV falls behind digital display ads.
So, here is an example of how adjusting your media mix can affect results. This is another study from Ebiquity finding that on average, greater profits come from increasing investments in TV, radio, and digital video and decreasing spends on print, digital display, and outdoor.
So, what would I suggest that you do? Every company is different, but I agree in general with Nielsen’s recent CMO Report, which found that traditional media in the real world is best for advertising and PR campaigns at the top of the funnel while online media is best for direct response at the bottom of the funnel. I would use that as a starting point.
But please, do not say that you are just creating “content.” It is a terrible word that does nothing for your companies and clients.
Ladies and gentlemen, thank you for your time. If any of your events or companies might like an appearance, I would love to discuss this topic further.
I will leave you with one question: To bring this talk full circle, what is the best way to sell more razor blades in the long term? Is it “content marketing”? Or, is it using the Venus ad of today?