The content delusion: why almost all content marketing strategies are a waste of time and money

This excellent piece by Mark Higginson has galvanised me to write this post. I have done many posts previously on this, but they have tended to be too long, too short or just dealing with a specific aspect. So here it is – my shot at the definitive post that punctures the content delusion.

1. Consumers don’t want it

Find me the consumer who is saying “what I really want right now is another piece of content from my favourite brand”. That consumer does not exist. Ask consumers what they want from brands and they will certainly give you a list – but content will not be on that list. Don’t believe me here, believe the global PR agency, Edelman. They asked consumers what they wanted from brands and they came up with a list of 8 things. In essence what consumers were saying is “we want information (not content), we want responses, we want answers to questions, we want you to listen to us and give us an opportunity to be heard, we want you to demonstrate to us that you actually strand for something other than marketing b*** s**t.

2. The value creation model is fundamentally flawed

Let’s look the theory first. We have an industry that has been around in excess of 500 years that specialises in turning content into cash. This is the publishing and media industry. The model this industry has developed for doing this most efficiently involves creating revenue in two ways: subscription/purchase or advertising. Neither of these options are available to brand ‘publishers’ and in any case, this model is dying on its feet. So, as a toothpaste brand, if you think you can do a better job at creating value from content than the guys who have been doing it for 500 years, without recourse to the two most effective tools these guys have developed and in the face of an economic environment within which the ability to create value from content is collapsing – go ahead: make my day (and clean my teeth).

Now for the practice: it just doesn’t scale. The ability to create cash from content is dependent on the ability to build an audience for that content. But audiences are not native features of the social digital space, it is very hard to build an audience in social media. This means that you may be able to ‘reach’ people with your content, you may even be able to reach enough people to say you are achieving ‘cost effective reach’, but no matter how cost effective it might be, it will almost certainly struggle to move the needle against any sensible business metric, such as increasing sales or improving brand affinity metrics. This is for two reasons: first, you are probably reaching only a tiny fraction of your audience (even if you are reaching them cost effectively); second you are not reaching them with a piece of content specifically designed to build sales or brand affinity metrics. Instead you are reaching them with stuff that tells them how to make cups out of coloured pencils (sorry Coke, I always use this one, but cups from crayons? Why?)

3. It is yesterday’s response to today’s problem

The media environment within which marketing developed is a distribution environment. The medium itself is expensive, which is why we need to reach audiences, rather than individuals. The marketing challenge has therefore been all about channel and message (content), measured by reach and frequency. The social digital environment is different. It is a connection environment, not a distribution environment. If you care to take a look at how people (consumers) are using the social digital space, it is all about connections. It is not a world of the audience, it is a world of the individual. Facebook was not designed as a platform to distribute messages to a billion people, it was designed to help geeks get girlfriends.

In a connection environment, you create value through behaviour identification and response, not channel and message. You are never going to reach that many people at any one moment in time and even if you could, you are not going to be able to create relationships with them of any significant value. In a connection environment you create value by having a very small number of relationships (at any one moment in time), but by making those relationships hugely more valuable than anything you could create by pushing bits of content at people. No matter how ‘engaging’ a piece of content is, it is no-where nearly as engaging as an organisation that listens and responds to you when you decide you want to be listened and responded to (see earlier points re Edelman’s findings).

Channel and message, reach and frequency – those are the old challenges and content evolved as a way of meeting those challenges. The new challenge is behaviour identification and response – and content just can’t rise to this challenge.

4. It is not the right answer, but it is the answer we all want

If you are facing a new problem and you don’t know what to do about it, you will do one of three things: you will either do what everyone else is doing, what some expert tells you to do or whatever looks the easiest and cheapest thing to do. Usually these all work out to be the same thing. Content is that thing. Rather than face up to the difficult challenges inherent in being the sort of brand Edleman has shown us you need to be, it is much easier to sign a cheque for the agency and get them to produce a whole load of content, while chucking a load of money at Facebook or Twitter to then promote that content so that it stands a half decent chance of reaching enough people to be worthwhile. Your agency is happy, Facebook is happy, you are happy because you have solved the difficult ‘social media’ problem. Everyone is happy (except your consumers) who are either bored or totally indifferent.

You just don’t need a content strategy, you need an information management process that ensures your consumers are getting answers to questions in real-time (i.e. consumers time, not brand publication time). Marketing is fast becoming a real time management process. The new consumer touchpoint strategy is not about who people are and where they are (channels they are in), but what they are doing (right now). The consumers you need to ‘reach’ will identify themselves by their behaviour – hence why the challenge is behaviour identification and response. In this situation content is almost never going to be the right response. It is also why mobile is important – because a mobile is the device most closely aligned to real-time behaviour and, through things such as augmented reality and algorithmic insertion, can be made even more so. Mobile is not a channel, that is simply an old-fashioned media planner’s way of looking at it, a mobile is actually a behaviour detection device. Channels are dead along with the CONTent they once CONTained.


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