That quote is probably the single most important thing to remember in marketing. Numerous business books have now convinced us that traditional advertising is passé. It’s all about the consumer now. They’re in control. As the user-revolution gathered steam, beginning with the TV remote and culminating in today’s multi-screen, multi-media, multi-channel free-for-all environment, the ad industry has slowly, reluctantly began to give up control of its messages hoping that by putting it in consumers’ hands it might help. We’ve tried casting real people in ads. We’ve allowed comments on our products to be published publicly. We’ve tried outsourcing-by-crowdsourcing the creative process. We’ve tried pretending to be Joe Consumer while ‘seeding’ our message in social media. The jury is still largely out as to whether any of these approaches worked much better than the old one. Something might go viral and get a boatload of clicks, but translating that to sales has been as allusive has tying recall rates for prime-time 30′s to actual purchase. This has always struck me as ironic given how the Internet was first positioned as the most measurable medium in history. Today, a lot of the metrics being showcased online seem as soft as the awareness measures used to justify TV commercials.
Today our industry’s latest confection is ‘Content Marketing’, a buzzword that has spawned new job titles, new companies, new gurus and new books say nothing for becoming the veneer of choice for ad agencies trying to reestablish their relevance in a changed world.
The pitch is mind numbingly simple: “No one reads ads anymore! You need a content marketing strategy! Content is, after all, king on the Internet!”
There is some truth to this. Advertising is something we all have resigned ourselves to accept as part of life. We’ll occasionally share funny videos with some enthusiasm but basically we take advertising with a grain of salt expecting it to be both intrusive and exaggerated. It may not be as powerful as it once was, but good ol’ advertising still works – it just takes more of it – at higher prices – to get the job done.
Here’s the real problem, though; as brands rush to get into the content business they miss one critical point: Just because you call it “content” doesn’t make it something people want. In fact, in a world where any information is available with a few taps or clicks, we can have all the content we want, and often find ourselves with more than we can handle. It’s a basic of economics, something in plentiful demand has lower value – and content is certainly plentiful.
Broadly speaking, people don’t want content any more than they want advertising. If a subject doesn’t interest them, they’re not going to choose it no matter how its disguised. And honestly, a lot of brand-generated content is poor quality, inward-looking, naval-gazing dreck. Do we really think anyone cares about the science behind the absorption rate of paper towels? And on the other end of the spectrum, if you drop your brand into a really terrific piece of film – based on borrowed interest – will people remember the film or your brand?
That brand-generated contents is often sub-par isn’t surprising considering most brands aren’t in the publishing business (which, incidentally, is a very tough industry). But, like social media itself, there’s a certain degree of satisfaction that comes just from putting it out there. We check a box in our heads that says our message went out (and we can then assume, conveniently, that it’s being heard). As marketers we’re often content just to feel the sense of accomplishment that comes from publishing anything.
But as Gossage noted, it doesn’t work that way. You can talk all you want, but if you don’t know what makes someone listen, you’re just making noise.
So Content Marketing doesn’t solve any problems. The problem to be solved is figuring out what about a brand is interesting, to whom, and at what time. Once you know that, and the media of choice of the people you’re trying to reach, then you have a chance. This is nothing short of soul searching from the company’s standpoint. As employees of a company, brand managers have a lot of vested interest in the products they oversee. They wake up and work hundreds of hours a year. They walk, talk, eat and sleep these brands making it easy to forget most people don’t share their interest as deeply (if at all).
If you work for a brand in a category that isn’t all that interesting – one that people don’t seek out – you might struggle with content marketing even as you fool yourself into thinking you’re making a connection. Even if you do work in a brand with lifestyle attributes that are appealing, you may easily mistake passion for the lifestyle with passion for the product. It’s the rare product category that creates that level of passion.
Companies like Red Bull have figured it out though. Their category is inherently uninteresting. No one spends much time pondering sugar water. So Red Bull doesn’t talk about their product. They talk about the kind of people who consume it. Those people are interesting. What they do is interesting. And most importantly, there are a lot of people who like to think of themselves as being like the people Red Bull talks about. In this sense, they aren’t making a lifestyle appeal but rather digging down and aligning with our individual narcissism.
And again, to Gossage’s point, if there’s one thing the social media era has taught us, it’s that we’re all quite interested in one topic – ourselves.
That’s something to take to the bank.