Toby Smeeton, managing director of content-marketing agency Sunday, says that ‘content’ has fast become one of the most generic terms in the industry. He adds: "Anybody can tick a box and say they are doing content marketing, but without deep editorial skills and a deep understanding of the brand, you are just adding to the content sludge." Undoubtedly, agencies across multiple disciplines, from traditional advertising to PR and social media, are quick to claim expertise in content. But their editorial skills, and what this content actually consists of, can vary greatly.
Clare Broadbent, chief executive of content-marketing agency Cedar, says that while ‘content’ may be the word on many marketers’ lips, unless that means investing in content powered by a strong idea, there’s a risk that they will simply create more branded clutter, damaging the brand in the process.
"We live in a world where over 100 hours of video are uploaded to YouTube every minute; we do not need more content," she argues. "What we need is smarter content, which is meticulously designed to pull in a defined audience with an idea that really resonates with them. If it doesn’t do that, then it’s not a marketing solution, it’s just white noise."
In some circles a backlash to this white noise is in full effect, as the journalist Amy Westervelt so succinctly pointed out on blogging platform Medium, in a ripple-creating piece ‘Content Used to Be King. Now it’s the Joker’; the content-marketing gold rush has brought with it significant downsides.
Westervelt wrote: "Maybe if we all jump off the ‘content’ bandwagon, publications will stop giving away space to companies. Maybe they’ll start thinking along the lines of ‘Hey, do we really need 30 or more of those stories a day on our site?’ Are these SEO results amounting to any real bottom-line benefit? Is anyone even reading all this stuff? And maybe CEOs and their publicists will stop worrying about establishing themselves as thought-leaders in the media and actually be thought-leaders."
Certainly the term ‘thought leadership’ is one of the most overused and misunderstood in the growing lexicon of content-marketing jargon.
While the increased use of algorithms means that publishers have a growing number of channels to recycle their archives, and even dispense with writers altogether to create stories from raw data alone, this approach has had a limited success. In fact, there are daily examples of the inherent flaws in entrusting your content strategy to an algorithm.
One recent, high-profile, case was US comedy legend Joan Rivers’ Facebook post endorsing the new iPhone 6 on 19 September, despite the fact that she had died two weeks previously. The post was quickly deleted, but not before screenshots were shared widely.
There is no doubt that some brands are guilty of playing a heavy-handed volume game when it comes to content. However, many of the most successful brands in the field believe that the focus must be shifted elsewhere.
Nick Dutch, head of digital at Domino’s Pizza Group, says that the future of content marketing is not about quantity. "Don’t over-value what it means to your business if consumers engage with your content," he warns. "The consumer value is difficult to quantify. Ultimately, when many consumers share your content, it is because it is funny."
Of course, the goal for brands is not to display their prowess at content marketing, but to shift their product. "The Holy Grail [for us] is always selling more pizza," says Dutch. "I would like to find a better way of directly correlating a Facebook interaction with sales, but over the past two years we have placed greater emphasis on social media [and] it has become a bigger influence on sales."
He believes the launch of ‘buy’ buttons and the rise of social commerce could help track how content directly drives consumer sales.
Asking too much
While the continued rise of click-to-buy apps and social commerce offers a greater range of opportunities for content marketers to understand their impact on sales, it also demands more attention from consumers.
However, the threat of ‘content overload’ may have been overhyped. "Every time someone says there’s content overload – and that’s been happening since at least the 17th century – people find ways to get their hands on more content more often," notes Andrew Hirsch, chief executive of content-marketing agency John Brown Media. He believes the number of different sources of content should not be confused with the volume.
"The difference now is [content] is unbundled," he says. "I can take one thing that interests me from one media brand, one from a journalist I trust, another from a friend, three from colleagues, and devour them in a much more efficient way."
Arguments about the risk of content overload aside, there is no doubt that brands are demanding more active participation from their consumers, more often. They ask shoppers not just to buy their products but also to read their magazine, whether in print or online; ‘like’ their advertising or commercial messages on Facebook; even share photos of themselves wearing or using their products.
Rob Newlan, head of Facebook’s creative shop for EMEA, says the democratisation of creativity has increased the pressure on brands to create content that is genuinely valuable to consumers.
"Our role as an industry is to challenge this
value-exchange of time. We need to ask: am I
asking too much? Can I change the way in which
I demand their time?" he says.
Certainly the fallout from the recent partnership between Apple and U2 has placed the notion of permission under the microscope. The technology company, in what many viewed as a spectacular display of corporate arrogance, ‘spammed’ its users by automatically downloading the latest U2 album to their devices – robbing them not just of space in their music libraries, but also of the time it took to delete what quickly seemed to become the world’s least-wanted album.
That promotion notwithstanding, Claire Hill, managing director of the Content Marketing Association, says that consumers now have far more opportunity to opt in. "When previously they didn’t have very much choice, consumers now have a lot more autonomy about what they choose to connect with," she argues. "Consumers are far more savvy than the industry would have us believe."
The never ending end of print
Content marketing is not immune to the challenges of media fragmentation and, as a medium with a historical dependence on print, it faces the same difficulties that afflict traditional publishing.
In a recent post on Medium, US writer and consultant Clay Shirky blasted the traditional press for dragging its heels in the face of unprecedented change. He wrote: "Try to imagine a world where the future of print is unclear. Maybe 25-year-olds will start demanding news from yesterday delivered in an unshareable format once a day. Perhaps advertisers will decide ‘click to buy’ is for wimps. Mobile phones could be a fad. After all, anything could happen with print."
While the future of customer publishing is perhaps not as dire as that of the newspaper industry to which Shirky’s comments allude, the fundamental shifts in consumption habits remain.
A clear opportunity exists for airlines, for example, which, historically, have invested heavily in printed magazines aimed at their uniquely captive audience. However, the advent of in-flight wi-fi offers not only myriad distractions for passengers, but also the opportunity for airlines to cut the expense (and added weight) of its printed baggage.
"In many ways, sitting on a plane, consumers have come to expect a more multimedia experience, and print as a format will be challenged strongly," says Smeeton. "On the one hand you have the pragmatism of airlines seeking to cut the cost of fuel, and then you have the opportunity for new tablet and wi-fi-powered experiences."
Although the idea of print being the fast delivery model for content is dead, its role in content
marketing is evolving. Smeeton explains: "Instead of print being the default delivery mechanism, it has become something more considered and special; a beautifully engineered, tactile product, which can make the reader feel special."
Despite the maturation of content marketing as a discipline, some experts believe that brands still do not truly understand what it is for.
Ben Hooper, content director at ad agency Karmarama, says: "Content marketing is distributed creative, and traditional advertising is controlled creative. To understand and exploit the real benefits of content marketing, brands need people who really understand content and have the right skill-set to deliver."
The future of content marketing will not be a narrative that plays out on a single platform. It will be one that demands that marketers reappraise not just how they might communicate better with their consumers, but also their right to impinge on that most valuable of commodities, people’s time.