The great content marketing swindle

Andy Maslen has been persuading people to think, feel and act differently since 1986, when he first started working as an in-house copywriter.

He is managing director and head copywriter at Sunfish, the writing agency he founded with creative director Jo Kelly in 1996, and the author of five books on copywriting, including the best-sellers Write to Sell and Persuasive Copywriting.

Why content marketers should learn to talk honestly about money

From time to time, I run workshops for freelance copywriters. Not to teach them to write better copy, but how to make better money at it.

I say they need to be able to speak the language of money.

For many (but not all) this suggestion is either incomprehensible or merely reprehensible.

On a larger scale, this unwillingness or inability to understand money lies behind much of the idiocy I see being touted on social media (LinkedIn, I’m looking at you) and elsewhere as marketing “thought leadership”.

Currently, the biggest offenders are those proselytising for “content marketing”.

I recently read this tweet, from a self-proclaimed “content marketing guru”.

“Content marketing is the only long-term decision worth taking for any brand serious about growth.”

Leaving aside the dubious semantics – can a tactic be a decision, long-term or otherwise? – what about the substance of this breathtaking assertion?

Hiring a team of professional sales people won’t work? Or employing an advertising agency? Or acquiring a competitor? Or securing distribution with Tesco? Or building an e-commerce platform?

Nope. All Unilever, Ferrari, The Trump Organisation or Sky must do is give out free nutritional pamphlets, or videos about F1, or real estate guides or blogs about The Walking Dead and their balance sheet will inflate like a hot air balloon, or possibly the ego of that tweet’s author.

Here’s another thought. If “content marketing” really is the be all and end all of corporate growth these days, how come “content marketers” are accepting £50 to write blog posts? Surely such a P&L-transforming activity would earn its writers millions?

What I see is a great asymmetry between the claims made by its boosters and the economics of “content marketing”.

Let’s talk about ROI. Return on investment. This hard-edged financial term of art is bandied about by the “content marketing” community as if it has infinite degrees of meaning.

Mostly they prefer to concentrate on the R.

This, they usually define in vague terms of “engagement” or “reach”. Oddly, the very same measures used by the traditional advertising agencies they so vociferously decry for being out of touch with what “everybody” wants nowadays.

Are these “content marketing” agencies that plug their own snake oil willing to accept payment in the same currency? Why, strangely, no, they are not.

Their clients must pay in cold, hard cash. Where they get it from, the “content marketers” do not care, though I suspect it isn’t from publishing endless infographics.

So we have this imbalance. The client must invest money for “content”, but they must be content to see a return in terms of engagement.

“NO!” I hear “content marketers” cry. “You've totally misunderstood.”

Because what you’re supposed to do is exchange all this amazing “content” for your prospect’s email addresses.

But then what? Do you send them more blog posts or videos?

Don’t be daft!

You send them sales emails, or maybe letters if you've collected their street address. You serve them sales pages or send sales people to visit them.

Which all sounds suspiciously old-fashioned, and the very thing “content marketing” is supposed to replace.

Boiled down to its essentials, “content marketing” is, in fact, merely an exercise in list building.

Nothing more, nothing less.

Actually, yes, less. Because half the people doing it don’t bother to collect email address at all. Who knows where they think their ROI is going to come from?

Even the phrase “content marketing” is a misnomer.

If they could be bothered to read anything beside their own asinine outpourings, “content marketers” would know that any definition of marketing includes the core economic idea that it has something to do with meeting customer needs profitably.

So by its own lights, it already falls short. It would be much more accurate to call it an aspect of the publicity function of the marketing department. A form of advertising, in other words.

Sadly, for most brands, content marketing is a bit like a classic sports car bought by a middle-aged man.

It glitters in the showroom, and appears to promise release from the shackles of that period in life when the tried and tested activities, though efficient and useful, no longer excite.

So he wanders in and, after a quick test drive, hands over his hard-earned cash.

Then, two miles down the road, the shit-eating grin on his face falters, then falls, as a horrid knocking emanates from the transmission six inches beneath his bottom.

Thus begins a series of increasingly lengthy and expensive trips to a specialist mechanic.

After a year or so, the man chops in the classic for a German-engineered coupe which is twice as fast, a thousand times as reliable, drier, warmer and actually gets him where he needs to be.

Done well, giving away information in return for the promise of future revenues is an OK tactical choice as part of a broader marketing strategy.

But it’s worth remembering that information has always existed to help people choose between competing suppliers of goods and services.

There used to be, and still are, editorial reviews from magazines, and, latterly, websites. These have the virtue of being independent of the companies whose stuff is being evaluated.

There are customer reviews. See above.

There is word of mouth. There are books. There are, in fact, many, many different ways a prospective customer can evaluate a company or learn how to do x without having a metre-long diagram served to their iPhone. Even, it must be said, adverts, which from time to time provide a great deal of useful information to a prospective buyer.

Everyone should try giving away stuff in return for customer data. Food companies were sending out free recipe books in the fifties. Novelists now are giving away books in exchange for readers’ emails.

But, please, let’s remember that like salaries, plant, advertising and raw materials, “content” costs money.

It should deliver the same or leave the stage.

AM

Andy Maslen

All by Andy