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Content Marketing Marketing

‘Content’ is the worst word in marketing


By Samuel Scott, The Promotion Fix columnist

April 1, 2019 | 13 min read

This is an edited transcript of a talk that The Drum’s Promotion Fix columnist, Samuel Scott, gave at the recent Marketing Festival in Prague.

'content marketing'

The word content means nothing precise, specific, or useful. We need an entirely different approach based on the traditional marcom process that very few marketers today seem to have actually studied.

But let’s start at the beginning. Yes, Bill Gates wrote in 1996 that “content is king”.

And what did he mean? That the internet allowed anyone to become a media company. But if you are selling a product – rather than the media itself – is that profitable? I will argue that it is usually not because media outlets are very different from consumer brands and tech companies. The business models that are most effective in each are not the same at all.

A decade after Bill Gates’ essay, HubSpot declared traditional advertising to be “dead” and said that “inbound marketing” and “content marketing” were the future.

And what did that mean? Basically, publish cheap, informational blog spam, and spread it around the internet to get clicks. Get the website visitors to give you their email addresses. Spam them until they buy.

But there were just a few problems – besides the fact that pushing information masquerading as ads out onto the internet and sending out countless emails seems a rather “outbound” thing to do.

After journalists, marketers should be the most skeptical people on the planet because we know how to sell stuff. But too often, we fall for whatever marketing software companies say when they are selling us something. HubSpot – which sells an alternative to advertising – told marketers that advertising was dead and “content” was the new thing. And many marketers believed it without question.

But advertising is not dead. It’s not even mostly dead. Total ad spend in the US, for example, continues to grow around 3% every single year.

And why do we even believe HubSpot? HubSpot is not a profitable company. HubSpot had been losing $40m every year using the “content marketing” that the company preaches. But according to the recent financials from 2018, that annual net income loss increased to -$64m last year.

Unless you are an actual media company – rather than a consumer brand or software producer that pretends to be one – you can safely stop most 'content' production. When so-called “content marketing” works, it is through the use of traditional marcom tactics under the guise of that new buzzword.

But for some reason, many marketers still think about putting something informational on a website and then pushing it around online to get clicks, traffic, conversions, and sales for some related product. But that is neither efficient nor effective.

My question: where is the evidence that busy people in the real world want to get informational material from the mustard, beer, or dishwashing soap brands that they buy? Everyday people do not give a second thought to brands more than the two seconds they use to take them off a shelf in a supermarket.

Now, it’s not that publishing informational material just to include product ads is not profitable. Today, the word “content” is being used to refer to any and all marcom that companies transmit online. To say that we should do "content marketing" is about as useful as saying “we should do marcom”. The word “content” is too generic to be useful.

Why is it that an ad on TV is “advertising,” but the same ad placed on a website somehow becomes “content”? I have a guess. Digital marketers are ashamed to use the word “advertisement” because so-called “inbound marketing” and “content marketing” were supposed to kill advertising, and the internet was supposed to lead to an entirely different type of marketing.

That did not happen. The same term should be used for the same tactical marcom collateral regardless of where it appears.

But it does not stop there. The word “content” is also being used not only for marcom that promotes products but also for the products themselves.

The product of The New York Times – journalism – is now just “content”. Radio programming – a product – is also now just “content”. Netflix TV shows – which is entertainment programming – is also just “content”. Movies are just “content”. I can now scan this QR code to get “content”. But what does that even mean?

The word “content” has come to refer to anything and everything that we create for any purpose and for any reason. But remember: if a word means everything, it means nothing.

“Content” is just whatever is inside of something. It is meaningless. One of the worst mistakes in copywriting is to use the same word over and over again. It’s boring, and it loses the audience.

Precision in language allows for clarity of thought. A lack of precision leads to sloppy thinking and terrible marketing strategies.

So, I have a challenge. Banish the word “content” from your vocabulary. Every time you want to use the word “content,” think more precisely to understand exactly what marcom or product you need to create. And use that word instead.

If you are writing an opinion column for publicity, I know what you mean. If you are sending an email as part of a direct response campaign, I know what you mean. If you are doing a study for PR collateral, I know what you mean. If you are creating a brand advertising spot, I know what you mean. If you are creating informational material to rank in Google search results, I know what you mean.

If you say that you are going to produce “content,” I have no idea what you mean.

Digital marketers need to be precise about what we are doing and use the correct terminology when creating strategies. Only then can we use the best practices within marcom that have been developed over the past century. Only then will we do our best work.

So, forget about so-called “content marketing”. Use this process instead.

After the three product, price, and place Ps in the product marketing mix, we have promotion.

Under promotion, you take the customer-facing research that you should have done at the beginning to inform what tactics will you use, how will you measure them, what channels will you use in your media mix, and what campaigns will you create.

But the fallacy of “content marketing” is that marketers start all the way at the end. They immediately think about what to produce long before even thinking about the prior steps. And that is why content markers endlessly debate what to produce, where to transmit it, and how to measure it. They are jumping ahead.

In the end, “content marketing” mass produces and distributes anything and everything without any strategic or tactical thought. And that is a waste of money.

In the promotion mix, there is a set of five tactics: advertising, direct marketing, public relations, personal selling, and SEO. Advertising creates mass awareness and builds brands. Direct marketing gets immediate, trackable responses from a specific, targeted group of people. PR is the maintenance of a favorable public image through activities such as media relations. Personal selling is what salespeople do. SEO gets a website found in search.

These tactics work together to achieve various marketing goals. There are pros and cons to every tactic, and there are specific ways to measure each tactic.

If your “content” is not marketing collateral that fits inside one of these boxes, it is a waste of time and money.

The most important thing to do at this stage is to create a prioritized tactical mix. What percentage of your marcom budget will go to each of these tactics? For every company and product, it will be different – and it will depend on the customer-facing research that you did at the beginning.

And now, the tactics. Direct response. It’s cheap but boring. It’s easily adjustable but never memorable. It’s trackable but annoying. The primary metric is ROI – how much money you put in compared to what you get out.

And a lot of “content marketing” is just direct response by another name.

A classic ad made by David Ogilvy will have a headline, informative text and graphics, and a call to action. A blog post? Headline, informative text and graphics, and a call to action. It’s the same, exact thing.

Now, why is it that we put this in a newspaper and we’re doing 'direct response advertising', but if we put this on a company blog, we’re doing 'content marketing'? The channel and the medium do not determine the creative. The marketing tactic does not change simply because the channel changes.

And now, advertising. It is creative, but it can flop. It is memorable but sometimes expensive. It builds brands but is not directly trackable. The metrics include reach, brand lift, brand recall, and purchase intent.

PR. It builds credibility, but you have no control over what reporters will write. It can get natural backlinks for SEO, but PR campaigns take a lot of time. Appearing in credible media outlets builds trust, but trust is not directly trackable or immediately measurable. The metrics include media impressions and brand sentiment.

SEO. It gets you found in search results, but you are at the mercy of Google’s algorithm. High rankings can provide a lot of traffic over the long term, but you cannot force the issue too much or you will receive a penalty. It helps to fulfill existing demand, but it cannot create demand like advertising does. The metrics include organic traffic and search rankings.

Use the metrics that, as described, match the tactic you are using – not whatever some analytics platform is designed to measure and tells you it is important to measure. Analytics platforms are machines. They measure only quantity but not quality.

So, how do you prioritise which tactics to use? Well, the first principle to remember is that sales activation and direct response pick the ripe fruit at the bottom of the funnel. Advertising and PR grow more fruit for future picking. Sales activation and direct response tell people what to do so they will buy today. Advertising and PR tell people what to think so they will buy tomorrow.

For both short-term and long-term results, the best average tactical spend should focus 60% on advertising and PR and 40% on direct response and sales activation. After all, direct response gets quick but small results. Advertising and PR get future but big results.

Here is the best representation. Direct response and sales activation – what you see in yellow – give the best returns in the short term. You spend some money and get a quick spike. But you always hit a wall. Most of the profit in the future comes from long-term advertising and PR campaigns.

Now, after you decide upon a prioritised tactical mix, it is time to create a prioritised media mix.

Marcom strategy is the decision of which tactics and channels to use – and which ones not to use. As Dave Trott puts it, strategy is sacrifice. If you try to do everything and be everywhere, you will only lose money.

You use the customer-facing research to decide which tactics to use. Then, you use the same research to choose over which channels to do it. After all, every channel has positives and negatives. Not all impressions are created equal.

And why is that? For all of the digital hype, the average adult in the US spends the majority of their media use every day watching live TV and listening to AM/FM radio. Remember, we marketers are not the market.

Marketers love social media, but most people do not. 93% of marketers use LinkedIn. 14% of normal people do. 81% of marketers use Twitter. 22% of normal people do. After all, if digital is so wonderful, then why is Facebook itself doing crisis PR over TV and outdoor campaigns rather than using its own ad network?

So, here is an example of how adjusting your media mix can affect results. This is a study from Ebiquity finding that on average, greater profits come from increasing investments in TV, radio, and digital video and decreasing spends on print, digital display, and outdoor.

So, what would I suggest that you do? Every company is different, but I agree in general with Nielsen’s recent CMO Report, which found that traditional offline media is best for advertising and PR campaigns at the top of the funnel while online media is best for direct response at the bottom of the funnel. I would use that as a starting point.

Just please, do not say that you are just creating “content”. It is a terrible word that does nothing for your companies and clients.

The Promotion Fix is an exclusive biweekly column for The Drum contributed by global keynote marketing speaker Samuel Scott, a former newspaper editor and director of marketing in the high-tech industry. Follow him on Twitter. Scott is based out of Tel Aviv, Israel.

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