Be careful what you wish for: things to consider before boarding the content marketing bandwagon

  • Content marketing
  • August 4, 2014
  • David MacGregor
Be careful what you wish for: things to consider before boarding the content marketing bandwagon

The reason buzz words are called buzz words and not phffftttt words is that they set the hive in motion. The collective response, the heat and noise insulate individuals from critical thinking.

You must have heard about it by now. Content marketing is the next big thing. It must be, there are conferences about it (though, given that you are not reading this in real time, it may well have been the last big thing. Big things come along like buses these days). 

I must confess, I was an early exponent of ‘content’. It seemed an exciting opportunity to connect and engage with consumers. Why not use the convergence of free distribution, low cost/high value production techniques and better broadband to tell stories that aren’t constrained by the oppressive economics of legacy media?

In the past, 30-second commercials were the most efficient way of connecting with people. Big audiences plonked in front of Shortland Street, Coronation Street or Melrose Place and viewers accepted that the intrusion of ads meant their favourite shows were free. 

In absolute terms the cost was high. There was a barrier to entry, but it was also acknowledged that, in some categories, TV advertising was table stakes. If you wanted a supermarket listing then your trade presenter had to have at least a bogus picture of a TV media buy. 

Brands have seen the opportunity to shake themselves free of the tyranny of paid media. Why not create your own channel? Why not make your own shows? Why not create a rambling dissertation on how your leather goods are hand crafted, all shot in glorious HD by a budding DP with nothing more than a DSLR and some nice focus pulling? Or you could take the opportunity to simply extend the duration of your ad, a six-and-a-half-minute director’s cut (actually, don’t cut anything).

The problem with owning a channel is that you then have to fill it. A river without water is just a ditch. So you will become preoccupied with the sorts of things that newspapers and magazines have long struggled with: finding interesting things to talk about. Some topics are inherently interesting, but others aren’t at all—or, rather, they aren’t to sane consumers. Most of us don’t want to have active relationships with everyday products. We just want them to do what they say on the box. I don’t need an e-book or a sponsored movie to help me choose a replacement battery for my smoke detectors. Just remind me that daylight saving is coming and that it’s time to check the battery. Thanks Energizer, see you next year. 

The wonderful thing about paid media is that magazines, like the fine journal you are reading at this very moment, invest a small fortune in winkling out interesting and relevant stories, then sharing the cost between all of the advertisers and you. It can be trusted because it is independent and is produced to a high standard because the cost is amortised. One of the issues with content marketing is that it’s either too good and lacks the urgency and topicality of news media, because it has been crafted to an advertising standard, or it’s inferior because it is part of a programme that hasn’t been properly invested in.

Like anything in the world of marketing communications there is material that is done very well—which tends to be in a minority. And the rest? Unloved and ignored. As people are exposed to more of a torrent of stuff from brands masquerading as something more important than it really is, or worse, trying to deceive and pretend it is independent or ‘third party’, then people are going to react. 

How? I suspect they will retreat to watching their favourite TV shows and reading their favourite publications and accepting that good old-fashioned ads (done well) are preferable to the alternatives that expect too much of them. We all have an ‘engagement’ budget. Right now I am engaged with getting my stovetop coffee pot to pour without dribbling. 

Maybe I’m becoming something of a fundamentalist, but the job of advertising is to help sell stuff. I accept that hard sell isn’t going to work for a brand like Red Bull, so going out to the margins (of space) makes a whole lot more sense than it does for a more pedestrian brand. But I would counsel caution to marketers who are tempted to become swept up in the content marketing craze. Once you jump on that hamster wheel, make sure it produces more energy than it consumes.

  • David MacGregor is the founder of MacGregor Media.
  • This column was originally published in the July/August issue of NZ Marketing.

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