The Problem With Content Marketing Today

The Problem With Content Marketing Today

samuel scott marketing festival

This is a talk I gave in Prague. See the deck.

A summary:

The problem with content marketing today is that everyone from media companies to agencies to consumer brands has become a publisher who is filling the web with stuff that is 99% useless and ignored. We need to do better partly because the word “content” itself has become meaningless.

All too often, 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 because the word “content” means nothing precise, specific, or useful. To be successful content marketers in the future, we need an entirely different approach based on the traditional marcom process that very few marketers discuss anymore.

The full text:

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 30 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.

So, in that context, I will explore the “content” craze that we have seen over the past 10 years and argue that we can create better content by actually stopping our use of the word “content.”

A summary: The problem with content marketing today is that everyone from media companies to agencies to consumer brands has become a publisher who is filling the web with stuff that is 99% useless and ignored. We need to do better partly because the word “content” itself has become meaningless.

All too often, 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 because the word “content” means nothing precise, specific, or useful anymore. To be successful content marketers in the future, we need an entirely different approach based on the traditional marcom process that very few marketers discuss anymore.

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, cheaply and easily. But if you are a business that sells a product or service — rather than the media itself — is that a good idea?

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.

First, advertising is not dead. It’s not even mostly dead. Anyone who says differently is selling something. 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 in 2018, that loss increased to $64 million. The company always talks about its revenue but never about its losses.

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. HubSpot might be the WeWork of the marketing software industry. But so many marketers want to be like them, and I have no idea why.

You see, 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.

To study the results, I once created a list of blog posts in order of leads produced. It looked something like this, but only a lot longer. Obviously, I cannot give the actual information from the private company.

Only a few at the top resulted in any significant benefit. And what did they 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 at the bottom — which were published just to publish something to spread around the Internet to get clicks – were a complete waste of time and money.

Now, in general, the results of such “content marketing” typically follows the pattern of a long-tail curve. For many companies — and especially consumer brands — most such material is useless.

So, unless you are an actual media company – rather than a consumer brand or software producer that pretends to be one – you can safely stop a lot of ‘content’ production and think more tactically. When so-called “content marketing” does work, it is through the use of traditional marcom tactics under the guise of that new buzzword. More on that in a bit.

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.

Here’s how I would summarize the problem.

To borrow that classic phrase from 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.

The Red Bull Stratos jump, a publicity stunt, is “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.” 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.

Why is it that an ad on TV is “advertising,” but the same ad placed online somehow becomes “content”? I have a guess. Online 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 marcom. 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.” This is all just content.

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. That is why whenever someone asks me about “content” or “content strategy,” I first ask them to define what they mean by the word “content.” I’ve heard 50 different people mean 50 different things when they say the word.

“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 comes from clarity of thought. A lack of precision comes from sloppy thinking and terrible marcom plans.

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 Ernest Hemingway a “content creator”?

So, forget about so-called “content marketing” for now. Use the traditional process to create your “content” 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 problem with much “content marketing” is that marketers start all the way here at the end. They immediately think about what to put on blogs or social media or whatever long before they even think 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 don’t know because 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.

So, let’s start at tactics.

In the promotion mix, there is a set of five 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 individuals. 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 marketing 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.

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.

Personal selling is just that — human beings talking directly to other human beings. It is typically our best marcom tactic, but it is usually the most expensive one as well.

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.

Advertising. It builds brands among a mass audience and is creative, but it can flop. It is memorable but sometimes expensive. It provides massive reach but is not directly trackable.

Direct response. It’s cheap but boring. It’s easily adjustable but never memorable. It’s trackable but annoying.

Now, over the past 20 years, online marketing has gone all-in on direct marketing. Most online ads today are actually direct response and not advertising. Ad tech such as Google and Facebook is all the rage, but those platforms are largely just new ways to do direct marketing.

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 promotional tactic does not change simply because the channel changes.

And marketers need to stop asking for the “ROI” of something when we mean “benefit.” ROI is a finance term, not a marcom one.

Each tactic has specific metrics. Advertising metrics include purchase intent and top of mind awareness. Direct response is leads and sales. PR is brand sentiment and reach. Personal selling is leads and sales. SEO is organic traffic and rankings.

We also need to stop talking about “engagement.” It is a useless metric for anything. Use the appropriate tactical metrics 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, the thing to do at the beginning of a marcom plan 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.

Here’s something guidance to help you decide. Marcom tactics generally do one of two things: build brands among a mass audience or get sales and leads among a targeted audience.

To build long-term brands, you need campaigns with broad reach and mental availability that are driven by emotion. For direct response and sales activation, you need campaigns that target the people lowest in the funnel with rational information and communicate physical availability.

And it’s especially important to note that many in the B2B and online worlds think only about the right and never about the left.

Here is a metaphor.

Direct response is picking the fruit — those people have grown, are ripe, are down in the funnel, and ready to buy. Brand building is watering the tree so that more fruit will grow in the future. As Rory Sutherland has said, direct response tells people what to do so they will buy today, and brand advertising tells people what to think so they will buy tomorrow.

And here is how different tactical spends work. Every time that you do a direct response or sales activation campaign over PPC or social media, you will see a quick spike in leads or revenue — the line in yellow. But you always hit an upper limit. You don’t see the results of brand advertising — the line in brown — for months or even a year or two.

When you add the two lines together, you will see how both brand advertising and direct response together lead to the best long-term results because direct response brings quick but small results while advertising brings slow but large results. Why is that? Remember: company valuations — real ones, not those for high-tech startups, are based on future cash flows, not present cash flows.

So, you need to build a brand for the long term and get sales in the short term. To do that, the IPA in the UK found that the best tactical media spend allocation on average is 60% to brand and 40% to direct response and sales activation.

But it does vary a lot based on the industry. The best mix in financial services, for example, is 80 / 20 for brand. But it’s more even and opposite in B2B — 54 / 46 for activation.

And here is one of the best brand-building ads I have ever seen.

So, after you know your tactical plan, it is time to create a media plan.

Of course, not all media is created equal. Some channels are better at doing certain things than others. Let’s take a look.

The age-old advertising question: Is it better to show an ad once to two people or twice to one person? The best research yesterday and today has always concluded that the answer is the former. Each additional time that a person sees an ad, the persuasive power decreases. It has a diminishing effect. Reach is much more important than frequency and is the primary way that brands grow.

So, reach is important. The obvious solution must be to throw money everywhere online and offline, right? After all, most studies show that greater benefits come with the use of more channels. See the left.

If only it were that easy — first, your budgets are not infinite. Second, interest in products rapidly declines and annoyance increases when people see an online display ad, for example, more than twice. See the right. And remember the difference between gross reach and net reach. If I see something on TV and Facebook, the gross reach is two but the net reach is one. The greatest brand growth comes from increasing net reach. And that is one of the main problems in media planning: maximizing net reach while avoiding duplication. If anyone can solve that, you will be a very reach — sorry, rich — person.

Now, after you decide upon a prioritized tactical mix, it is time to create a prioritized media mix. 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 the tactics. After all, every channel has positives and negatives. Not all impressions are created equal.

Marcom planning is the decision of which tactics and channels to use — and which ones not to use. 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.

Here is the IPA’s plot of how different types of media perform. At one end, sponsorships are not good for immediate activation but they deliver the greatest long-term brand effects. Online video, news coverage, TV, and radio are similar. But closer to the activation end of the spectrum, we see print media inserts, SMS, e-mail, paid search, and social media.

Here is a similar map from the company Analytic Partners. Short-term efficiency is the X axis, and long-term efficiency is the Y axis. But remember that efficiency is not the same as effectiveness.

Analytic Partners also shows whether a given media is best for short-term or long-term results. Short-term is red. Long-term is blue.

So, how should combine your tactical plan and media mix? In general, I agree with Nielsen’s new CMO Report, which found that traditional media is best for brand building at the top of the funnel, and online media is best for direct response and sales activation at the bottom of the funnel. But do keep in mind that the difference for every industry, company, and brand will be in the details and specific media plans. 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.

Now, here are some industry-based thoughts. Companies or people who are selling something always say that their thing is the solution to any problem. PR agencies will always advocate for PR. HubSpot will always say that content marketing and e-mail marketing is the answer to everything. If all you have is a hammer, then every problem indeed looks like a nail. But media companies are different from people and agencies. People and agencies are different from tech companies. And tech companies are different from consumer brands. The business models that are most effective in each are not the same.

For companies like the BBC or Netflix, the media is the product. So they should create more media. People and agencies sell expertise, so they should produce informational reports to prove their knowledge or to sell to clients. Why do you think Gary Vee tells people to create constant content on social media talking to audiences over video like he does? It does helps people to become Gary Vee clones — but it does not sell more beer, mustard, or dishwashing soap. What sells people is not the same as what sells brands.

Tech companies sell software, not media. Consumer brands sell consumer products, not media. For these two types of industries, so-called content marketing is increasingly useless. Overall, those industries should keep focused on the traditional marcom process. Marcom does not change that much because human beings do not change that much.

But if I could summarize with one thought, it would be this: While everyone wants immediate sales and leads today, we must never forget that long-term brand building will lead to the greatest long-term results in any context. Marketers today focus so much on how to transmit and target content that they never think anymore about how to create good ads.

After all, ladies and gentlemen: What is the best way to sell more razor blades in the long term? Creating multitudes of generic content widgets? Or, to bring this talk full circle, building a brand with the Venus ad of today?

Thanks for reading! Follow me on Twitter and see my marketing speaker page to have me visit your conference or company.

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