In a Harvard Business Review blog post titled The Content Marketing Revolution, the author writes:
“We are in the midst of a historic transformation for brands and companies everywhere — and it centers on content. Nine out of ten organizations are now marketing with content – that is, going beyond the traditional sales pitches and instead enhancing brands by publishing relevant information, ideas, and entertainment that customers will value. The phenomenon of content marketing and brand publishing has unfolded rapidly because it responds to consumer preference. According to the Content Marketing Institute, 70% of people would rather learn about a company via an article than an ad.”
There is at least point of evidence supporting this “phenomenon.” A Marketing Daily article reports that:
“At the end of a Proctor & Gamble quarterly earnings call, P&G’s chief financial officer, Jon Moeller, revealed a striking shift in a core business strategy. Moeller announced that the company ‘thinks it can impress consumers who buy household products such as Head & Shoulders shampoo more effectively by ramping up marketing via social media, mobile, search engines and digital content on the Internet.'”
As the article notes, this is as much remarkable for the fact that this was the CFO–not CMO–talking as for the shift in marketing philosophy.
My take: Content marketing isn’t what it’s cracked up to be. The real revolution in marketing–for products with any degree of consumer consideration–will be activity-based marketing.
First, let’s dismiss the “finding” that “70% of people would rather learn about a company via an article than an ad.”
Of course people are going to say that. No one wants to admit to being influenced by advertising. And a majority of consumers will always say that they make rational, well-informed decisions. Yet when we look at consumers’ actual purchase decisions–from everything from soap to Presidents–we realize that that’s hardly true.
The HBR post claims:
“Brands are no longer merely peddling products; they’re producing, unearthing, and distributing information. And because they do, the corporation becomes not just economically important to society, but intellectually essential as well.”
Intellectually essential? Give me a break. Exactly how does “content” about toilet paper and laundry detergent qualify as “intellectually essential”? If I’ve learned anything about marketing, it’s that some marketers will glorify the latest trend as the end-all be-all, and content marketing is fitting the mold nicely.
Another thing I’ve learned about marketing is that marketers–unlike accountants who have a nice neat little thing called a chart of accounts–have no standard definitions for the terms they throw about. Review the past seven years’ history of “customer engagement” to help prove my assertion.
And so what, exactly, qualifies as content? Is there an agreed-upon definition regarding how much brand-related information is allowed in something called content? No, of course not.
“Content marketing” is merely the evolution of advertising from messages (1960’s thru 1990s) to stories (1990s to present) to content. No matter what you call it, it’s still about persuasion–getting someone to buy your product, or at least, be more favorably disposed to your company and/or product, so they will buy one day.
The results of a study from Demand Metrics goes to lengths to prove that “interactive” content is more effective than “passive” content. The interactivity range of content (and percentage of marketers whose content fits the various segments) were as follows:
|Content Type||% of Respondents|
|Very passive: content produces little or no engagement with the buyer||13%|
|Somewhat passive: content produces slight engagement with the buyer||23|
|Moderate: content produces some level of engagement with the buyer||39|
|Slightly interactive: content produces measurable engagement with the buyer||19|
|Very interactive: content produces highly engaging experience with the buyer||6|
|Source: Demand Metrics, June 2014|
The study goes on to show that 70% of marketers consider interactive content to perform “moderately well” or “very well” on producing conversion, versus 36% who rated passive content in those two rating categories.
A couple of problems here. First, the study found that17% of participants have no content effectiveness measurements in place, and 49% only use basic metrics such as clicks or downloads. So how could they know how effective interactive or passive content really is
Second, if content is “intellectually essential,” as the HBR post claims, then there’s no reason why passive content–which could stimulate thought processes as easily as interactive content–needs to be inferior to so-called interactive content.
This line of reasoning on the part of Demand Metrics does nothing except take us back to the argument over what “engagement” means.
The lack of a common definition of what content is and isn’t isn’t the only thing holding back content marketing from being the “revolution” that HBR claims. The Demand Metrics study also found that
“During their journey from need to purchase, only 25% of buyers reveal their interest to vendors early. 90% of study participants believe that it is somewhat or very important to engage buyers earlier in their journey.”
And therein lies the real reason why content marketing falls short: In and of itself, it does nothing to change the timing of interacting with customers and prospects, it only changes the nature (or maybe I should say “form”) of the message.
The real revolution in marketing (for considered products) is activity-based marketing:
Marketing within the context of an activity being performed by a customer or prospect.
Activity-based marketing doesn’t simply change the nature of messaging, it changes (and, in some cases, creates) the buying or decision journey or process.
USAA’s Auto Circle mobile app is a great example of activity-based marketing. It’s an app that creates, guides, and simplifies not just the car buying experience, but the associated purchases and decisions like car financing and car insurance.
Sites like Edmund’s can provide content to help car shoppers understand the differences between Car A and Car B. But an activity-based marketing app like Auto Circle creates and tracks the entire buying/decision process. Activity-based marketing has a number of benefits. It:
1) Helps marketers understand where a prospective buyer is in the decision journey and what type of message (whether it’s content or something else) is most appropriate. By tracking activities and actions over time through an activity-based marketing app, marketers can collect the (big) data needed to better understand the effectiveness of certain marketing actions at the various points in the consumer journey.
2) Gets marketers involved in the customer’s decision process far earlier than they ever have been in the past. What gets a USAA (in the case of Auto Circle) involved early in the process isn’t content–it’s process. It’s the promise of creating a better, simplified, and more convenient process that gets a prospective car buyer to download the app, and use it to manage their car (and financing and insurance) shopping process.
Bottom line: Marketers can fawn over content marketing all they want. It’s just another stop in the delusionary journey of advertising that makes them believe they’ve got something new to offer. They don’t. Not until they develop activity-based marketing apps, that is.