River: The rain happens, content doesn't

Truly great content is created by skilled practitioners. If we lose sight of that, its value in the marketplace will be demeaned, writes Alex Marks.

Alex Marks: strategy director
Alex Marks: strategy director

Can you imagine going to a restaurant and ordering some food? No, actually ordering "food". Then maybe ordering some "drink". The maitre d' would be somewhat bemused, I think.

Perhaps when you go shopping you like to buy some general "clothes"? Ditto the shop assistant.

Your next major purchase might be a "car", or perhaps your Saturday afternoons are spent shouting with thousands of other people at a couple of football teams? Ditto the car salesman and the players, the manager and the crowd. Not to mention the sponsors and the sports pundits.

You don't do these things? Well, maybe I'm missing something, because wherever I turn right now, the marketing world cannot help but speak of "content".

The term is fast becoming ubiquitous; you would think it was something that falls out of the sky, like rain. It isn't – rain "happens", content has to be made, created, designed and built. It has to be crafted, while bearing in mind the commercial and marketing objectives of the brand that it represents. The needs, aspirations and interest level of the target audience have to be considered. Then there's the issue of how the two might best be married up.

Honda: Dream magazine has boosted awareness

If we stop and think for a moment, we should realise that creating content that means something to people requires a huge amount of skill, and quite a bit of time and resources. This is true whether the content is written, spoken, sung, filmed, photographed or played with.

People learn their respective crafts over a long period of time. The skills learnt are applied for mutual, personal, commercial or charitable benefit.

Success rarely happens overnight: we still make the distinction between content creators of merit and those who are still learning their craft.

A similar level of emotional, physical, creative and commercial investment goes into running the restaurant, designing the clothes or managing the football team. If it didn't, you'd feel short-changed, wouldn't you?

The content we create for our clients has been just that – created. To present one type of scenario: someone with a lot of journalistic skill has written something that will resonate strongly with the target reader; creatives have considered the use of colour and imagery, and the page or screen layout that reinforces brand values; designers have considered the structure of the page in relation to the interface device.

At River this process is directed by experienced marketers, mindful of the needs of the client and their customer. It is carried out by talented journalists, designers and tech developers.

When it comes to placing a value upon that content we can look straight to the news-stand, accompanied either by a shouty man in the street or a wooden facsimile on a screen. Content that is prized, valuable and worthwhile has, historically, been paid for. Currently, however, there is a lot available for free, and I will say right now that this is not sustainable. We sometimes forget that the resources available to us are finite. At some point the market will find its level, and there will be winners and losers.

The fact that everyone is talking about content marketing at the moment will, in turn, lead to the creation of more content. Inevitably, it means that a growing number of people will be telling you that they do content marketing. It's a good thing brands have recognised the impact that great content can have on their customer relationships, but it's important to realise that it isn't just about having more content.

There are new practices to be learnt in terms of how we distribute, monetise and measure our work. However, let us not forget what we are distributing, monetising and measuring.

Try replacing the word "content" with the word "brand".

If it is to be taken as seriously as it deserves to be, then perhaps we should say what it is: branded content.

I was watching television at the weekend. I know, what am I like, right? It wasn't even on delay.

I was watching Jurassic Park (my kids like it, okay?) and there is a line delivered by the Jeff Goldblum character that struck me as being relevant to this very situation: "I'll tell you the problem with the power you are using here: it didn't require any discipline to attain it. You read what others had done and you took the next step, you didn't earn the knowledge for yourselves so you take no responsibility for it."

So please, marketers, when you think that you should start "doing some content marketing", stop and think about what that actually means. Consider the expectation that it puts on your brand, and, perhaps most importantly, whose hands you would wish to entrust it to.

Alex Marks, strategy director

Alex has over 17 years' agency and client-side experience across a broad range of clients and sectors, including retail, telecommunications, broadcast and tourism. Before joining River he ran his own business consultancy. Prior to this he worked in a number of senior marketing positions. These included an international role for eBay, where he helped to set up its advertising business, and Microsoft, where he was responsible for UK marketing in its advertising division.

Before that Marks worked at digital media agency i-level, where he was marketing and new business director. He has also worked in traditional media for companies such as Capital Radio, Classic FM and Zenith Media.

He is a published author, as well as a regular commentator, writer and conference speaker on digital marketing issues. He is also a key blogger for The Marketing Society.

Honda Dream magazineHonda's dream magazine


Since 2004, we have worked with Honda to deliver its customer-loyalty magazine, Dream. As the content world evolved to become multichannel, Honda recognised the need to extend the Dream brand to additional platforms and contexts. River was asked to develop a substantial package of digital content.


Honda UK's aims were to increase loyalty and generate advocacy with all Honda customers; drive awareness of the wide range of products via multiple channels; and maintain brand engagement with a consistent tone of voice.


Our approach was a three-stage process. We reviewed the current strategy and the results it generated, then undertook secondary research to assess customer needs and identify potential content. Finally, we produced an integrated content strategy to reach all customers via multiple touchpoints.


Dream, which also aims to increase car sales, has become a brand in its own right, and is now the umbrella for all stories and content shared with customers. Dream stories are shared via a platform that best suits audience requirements and is a truly integrated, multichannel eCRM piece.

  • 50% of readers said that Dream made them think more positively about the Honda brand.
  • 50% of readers have visited the website, and 50% have entered competitions.
  • 20% have enquired about a product.
  • Average open rates of emails stands at 23%, with average click rates of more than 30%.

The new approach is integrated with social media, with email recipients sharing content on Facebook and Twitter.


Read more: Content Marketing Case Studies