content amplificationContent Marketing

Why content marketing wins. Sorry, FT

By November 10, 2015 No Comments

Content (or social, or digital) marketing is king, according to everyone in the industry for the last few years – which is great for us, because that’s what we do. But it seems not everyone is convinced. Do they have a point?

Last week the Financial Times published an article entitled ‘How the Mad Men lost the plot’ which sent a few shock waves through the advertising and marketing industries. The author Ian Leslie, also an advertising strategist, purports his revelation that TV advertising is as alive and effective as it was in its ‘80s and ‘90s heyday, and says that companies pursuing digital engagement with their customers through creative, targeted content are wasting their time. As you might imagine, I don’t agree.

To be honest I was inclined to dismiss it as another advertiser hankering for the good ol’ days. But then I received several, let’s say ‘playfully confrontational’ emails asking me, if I disagreed, to state my case. And what can I say? I’m happy to respond.

Back in the day

The author puts forward the case that digital and social media marketing don’t help to increase loyalty or sales for (big B2C) brands. He says that digital/social engagement campaigns don’t work where TV does, advocating a return to big production TV ads, which were more fun and led to the kind of emotional connections that sold stuff.

I think the author is probably right that these campaigns worked well in their day – although it’s worth pointing out that exactly what works and what doesn’t has always been difficult to prove. As John Wanamaker famously said in the early 20th century:

“Half the money I spend on advertising is wasted; I just don’t know which half.”

I’m afraid there’s really no proof that the TV ads of yester-year work where digital campaigns cannot. What is true is that the digital economy is already taking big bites out of TV.

In any case, like it or not, marketing and advertising has changed. It’s changed from ‘push’ to ‘pull’. What this means is that everyone has much, much more choice than in the ‘80s and ‘90s. Audiences select what they want to read, watch and even create by themselves.

This makes everything from news publishing to TV advertising infinitely harder, not easier. How can anyone really know what their target market is reading or watching at any given time?

More to the point, are they even watching the same stuff? Back in the ‘80s we were. We were all watching Dallas and The A-Team on the same channels at the same time. I don’t need to tell you that nowadays we are almost certainly not.

You and I might both be John Lewis customers, but I’m either watching The Good Wife or The Affair on Sky Atlantic, while you’re watching House of Cards on Netflix or some Amazon Prime original series that I’ve never even heard of let alone had a passing interest in. There is so much choice, choice that is so fragmented, it’s impossible to tell.

I mean, I don’t know about you, but I haven’t watched a TV advert in years. I fast forward through them. Why? Because I can.

We as marketers fundamentally have to work harder

The self-selection process

Now, I never set out to make this a competition – I actually think online marketing and advertising should be helping each other out, amplifying each other – but in the spirit of the game, it’s for the above reasons that content marketing emerges the winner. And here’s how:

Content marketing is a ‘pull’ style of communication; it allows people to self-select information about the products and services they are interested in – that resonates with their needs – in the same way they select their news sources and choose what TV shows to watch. It’s a style of marketing that fits in with the way we do things now.

I’ll agree to a point with the author that the ‘holy grail’ of achieving brand engagement via social media is perhaps a little misguided. People don’t necessarily want to talk to their favourite brands on a regular basis about the brand itself, although social channels are useful for customer service conversations. But I do believe that people want some kind of a relationship.

Brand messaging is important

When I say ‘relationship’ I’m not talking about whispering sweet nothings. Principally, people want to know that the brands they get involved with share their values and concerns. It’s the reason that so many brands put sustainability and environmental mindfulness front and centre of their messaging; with the baby boomers on their way out of the workplace, these are things that resonate the most with the generation X and the millennial generations, who are, day by day, occupying larger and larger parts of not just your audience, but your workforce, too. These things matter to people – to customers, to employees, and to investors – and companies know this.

Brand messaging IS important. Get it wrong, and you might alienate a hearty chunk of your audience, disengage your staff, lose potential talented new recruits, or miss out on funding because an investor simply doesn’t agree with your outlook.

Furthermore, to quote the FT story:

“What if you were to invent a way of getting light buyers to recall your brand just as they are about to choose? …You’d need a form of content requiring negligible mental effort to process: one which comes in bite-sized chunks, but which is still capable of moving and delighting. It turns out there is an app for that: the TV ad.”

True, to a point. But it turns out there’s a better app for that: digital. Advertiser Exterion Media recently published research that states 92% of Christmas shoppers will check their phones while in-store before making a buying decision this year. So what’s better than getting light buyers to recall your brand just as they’re about to choose? A TV ad they watched last night, or the wealth of information that’s scrolling down their screen right then and there?

I have another slight issue with the FT’s story: it only relates to large B2C brands. I’m sure that emotional or funny TV ads and poster campaigns are still effective tools for those types of brands – although I’d maintain it would be dangerous for a large B2C brand to dismiss the digital stuff if they want to remain competitive – but what about all the other types of brands and messages out there? Do the B2B companies, the start-ups, the financial services, or the agencies benefit from big budget TV advertising? Or does digital creativity offer them the chance to be outstanding, to connect with their customers more meaningfully, and give them that competitive edge?

Content needs to be created in a way that allows people to self-select and choose to watch

This is how we do it

Our 21st century world today is more complicated than it was in the ‘80s. Audiences are more complex, far savvier and far more fragmented. They self-select the information they want and it stands to reason that the information an individual selects will, if even on a superficial level, resonate with their personal needs and values.

That’s not to say that Mr Leslie’s statements are without any merit, not at all. I think there is room for the whizz-bang, super-creative, emotional glittery bits that are the forte of the ad man within the content marketing mix; an obvious place is on a brand’s YouTube channel (which is a another TV-challenging platform) and indeed that happens a lot, often coinciding with a television campaign. But that sort of content needs to be created in a way that allows people to self-select and choose to watch, rather than having it shoved in their faces. This means that we as marketers fundamentally have to work harder.

Lest we forget, digital marketing on the whole is still in its infancy. Is there room for improvement? Absolutely. Is it useless? Please! This is the way the world communicates now. It’s incumbent upon us to produce content that our audience is genuinely interested in. The dog days of dictating what people should watch are, I’m afraid, over. Get involved, because it’s a mad man that chooses to get left behind.

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