Marketing Strategy / Opinion

“Content marketing” is nothing more than the Emperor’s New Clothes


Content Marketing is being presented as the Shiny New Thing.

Predictably, companies, brands and MBA marketers come flocking.

It’s the new way to acquire customers!

It’s the must-have strategy of the season.

It’s making me a little more bilious with every iteration.  I’m going to show you why.

You can’t move for blog posts about Content Marketing these days.

Or recruitment postings for Content Marketing producers/managers/creators.

In the space of six months, it’s become the de rigeur thing that every business must do.

I mean, just look at this graph taken from Google Trend for the term ‘content marketing’:

cmtrendThat’s a lot of search interest.

Now compare this to the Google Trend result just for ‘marketing’:

trend

That makes Content Marketing a Shiny New Thing, doesn’t it? Of course it doesn’t.

Let’s consult the definition provided by the Content Marketing Institute to give us a basis for the rest of this post:

Content marketing is a marketing technique of creating and distributing relevant and valuable content to attract, acquire, and engage a clearly defined and understood target audience – with the objective of driving profitable customer action.

Sounds very a la mode, non?

Now, let’s consult that font of all knowledge, Wikipedia. Scroll down the article a bit, to the  A History of Content Marketing section:

1895 – John Deere launches their magazine, The Furrow, providing information to farmers on how to become more profitable. The magazine, considered the first custom publication, is a success and is still in circulation today, reaching 1.5 million readers in 40 countries in 12 different languages.

1900 – Published in France, Michelin develops the Michelin guides, offering drivers information on auto maintenance, accommodations, and other travel tips. 35,000 copies were distributed for free in this first edition. Eventually, the company began selling these books, yet the publication set a precedent for both informative guides and content marketing distribution.

1904 – Jell-O salesmen go door-to-door, distributing their cookbook for free. Touting the desert as a versatile food, the company sees its sales rise to over $1 million by 1906.

I’d also argue that cigarette cards are one of the earliest forms of Content Marketing with a history that can be traced back to at least 1885.

Items such as pin holders have been around since the early-mid 1800s, apparently.

Hell, the original ‘Soap Opera’ radio dramas were a content marketing vehicle (but I’ll bet their originators didn’t call them that).

I could go on.

But woah! Wait up! Pin holders? Cigarette cards? They’re not content marketing, are they?

Go back to the Content Marketing Institute’s definition  – I think you’ll find that they are.

In fact, every bit of tat given away by brands at trade shows or consumer sampling sessions could be termed content marketing.

Of course, we’re now in a post consumer-tat world.

We don’t give away cigarette cards because we can share hilarious videos of kitties.

We don’t bother trying to make our print adverts into social objects because we can get thousands of impressions for a snarky comment on Twitter.

The fundamental purpose of ‘content’ hasn’t changed is 200+ years.

And that purpose can best be summarised in a question:

How do we increase our visibility with our consumers and get them to become advocates for our product, buying more product more often themselves and connecting others around them with our product?

Once upon a time, it was a printed magazine, a recipe book or a cigarette card (which was only made possible, incidentally, because of a leap-forward in print technology which allowed smaller colour images to be printed quickly and cheaply).

Now, it’s the YouTube ‘How To’ video, the White Paper, the Twitter update strategy or Facebook competition tactic.

It’s the ‘content’ which fits 140 characters or an email.

What we’re actually in the middle of is a modal shift.

Content marketing is hundreds of years old.

But we’re in the technological age where cost-of-entry has plummeted to the level that anyone with an iPhone can Vine the hell out of mug of coffee and call it content.

Speed of distribution is no longer an issue, unless you’re slow off the mark and are thus just a Johnny-Come-Lately.

Speed of creation has never been faster.

And with this comes the lemming-like advance into the ‘new’ territory which must be strategised to death (or at least until the next Shiny New Thing comes along).

We’re in the midst of Brand As Publisher age, and of course, people feel the need to strategise what they’ve always done to fit new channels – letting the channel dictate the effort where as the effort should actually be dictated by the content itself, and then remixed into the channels.

Being honest, the whole thing makes me feel slightly sick.  And every time I hear the phrase “Content Marketing”, I want to scream until I puke.

This is what you need to do.

Stop what you’re doing with Content Marketing right now.

Put it down, step away.

Ask yourself these questions:

Why am I creating a new Content Marketing strategy when I’ve already got a marketing strategy?

Why am I not creating a marketing strategy which incorporates brand positioning tools (white papers, blog posts) or consumer attraction tools (How To videos, cool videos, collectible POGs) as part of the holistic whole?

Why am I making a Shiny New Thing out of a strategic/tactical device which has been in use for two centuries?

Once you understand the answer to these questions, you’ll have a much stronger, more integrated and logical overall marketing strategy which will serve you so much better than jumping on the latest consumer bandwagon and giving yourself another, completely unnecessary, headache…

Neil Hopkins is a Marketing and Branding Theorist at heart, and a Marketing Communications Manager by day. His blog – interacter – is the primary location he shares insight and information relating to marketing, branding and advertising strategy.
You can follow Neil on Twitter, circle him (like an escaped bull) on Google+ or track him down in any number of other ways.

Featured image comes from tobi.mattingly on Flickr

20 thoughts on ““Content marketing” is nothing more than the Emperor’s New Clothes

  1. Hmm. I agree to a point. The thing about the modern view of content marketing that your post doesn’t acknowledge is that it doesn’t mean content that is funny, beautiful, shocking or memorable or entices you to buy in these ways. It means content that is USEFUL and that entices you to buy something RELATED to the free content (not a later paid-for iteration of the free service like the Michelin guides) because it wins trust and positions the expert as competent. This is relatively new and only possible because of the publishing revolution that is the Internet. It works. I buy everything from trainers to contact lenses to holidays these days based on the seller giving me free help with related interests.

    Thought-provoking post as usual! Good work!

    • Thanks for the input, Mr T!

      I agree about the utility of certain content types, which I alluded to (but perhaps didn’t expand on) with the references to How To guides etc.

      I still don’t think that this is new – cf the John Deere magazine, supermarket freebie magazines, in-store product demonstrations etc which are all analogue versions of the digital world that you so rightly say is transforming communications.

      However, I cling fast to my point that all of this should be within a holistic marketing plan and not an adjunct…

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  8. I read this and agreed with everything you said except the suggestion that “Content Marketing” shouldn’t be embraced as it is being. I think the fact that a whole bunch of people want to spend a lot more hours researching and deepening a well on the overall marketing landscape is great for those of us who know how to use the water from those wells to water the crops up above. The detail and metrics coming out of this means I have far more resource to pull on for my clients than I used to. So instead of stepping away from the ‘new knowledge’ available I think I may just ride this trend with a view to further educating my clients as we go in search of more innovation and the new shiny things that inevitably tell their stories with greater aplomb. Was the Kindle bad because it advanced the book? No. Am I still reading books? Yes. Do I also now read a Kindle? Yes. Should I step away from the Kindle because it is just reading as it’s always been with one or two new things? No. After all, every new thing is really just a new way of talking about an old thing (as you so eloquently pointed out) and so why not ride the wave, get stoked about it, and then paddle back in for more? I do think though, that there will be fly-by-nights, low-blows, cheap-tricks and snake-oil salesmen and they are what I’d be more mindful of than someone who’s really happy with a new piece of enlightenment that just might be the angle they need to fulfil their dreams. (I think I may have just written a thesarusicle here. That’s basically everything you said but with different words.)

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