Mark Ritson: Is content marketing a load of bollocks?

The emergence of content marketing as a separate discipline has distracted marketers from their real job of communicating with customers and selling stuff.

When I was about 12 I had a very good friend who lived a few doors down called Richard. One day he came up to me after school and very excitedly announced that he had a secret to tell me. After much stage whispering and dramatic pauses he told me about a tramp living out on the outskirts of our village who he had got to know and who was relying on him to bring him food. If I wanted, I could supply some of the food and come out with him the next evening to meet “Stig”.

Very excited and unconcerned about the slightly dodgy ramifications of meeting a dirty old man in a cave (it was 1982 after all) I stole some Wagon Wheels and half a loaf of bread and cycled furiously to Richard’s to set off on our quest. On the 30-minute ride he regaled me with tales of Stig and various escapades.

When we finally got to “Stig’s cave” it went pear-shaped immediately. There was no sign of Stig and even a 12-year-old could quickly deduce that no one had ever spent any time in the small exposed cave in question. I turned to Richard who shrugged his shoulders and admitted he’d made the whole thing up to do something “exciting”. All the way home on my bike I said not one word to him. I was mad with Richard but, worse, I just felt like a total and utter plonker for believing any of it in the first place.

That cold, empty feeling I had on my Chopper in 1982 cycling down School Brow is exactly how I feel about content marketing. I know there is an institute, lots of online guides on best practice and even grown-ups who do this for a living but I just can’t quite see the need for it.

It’s not that I don’t see the value of what content marketing does. I just don’t see how it’s any different from what we were already doing. Even content marketers cite examples from 1895 (John Deer’s customer magazine) and P&G inventing the soap opera in the 1930s as examples of early content marketing innovations. Both are amazing marketing tactics but I see them as examples of direct mail and nascent advertising respectively, not something in need of a new name.

It doesn’t help that all the definitions of content marketing I read just seem to describe marketing communications. Or that all the concepts associated with content marketing like “curation” (using other people’s content), “core assets” (the content) and “intelligent content” (really rich content) all seem to be blindingly obvious and kind of, well, made up by a teenager.

It’s all too easy to dismiss new approaches through Fogeyism or brute negativity. But each and every time I delve into the world of content marketing I come out feeling like a 12-year-old version of myself looking for imaginary tramps. And people I respect like Bob Hoffman – the Ad Contrarian – are significantly more cynical. For Hoffman content marketing is “a meaningless term invented by bullshit artists to add gravitas to mundane marketing activities”.

More enlightened digital souls like Mark Higginson from Twenty Thousand Leagues are also skeptical. He recently noted that most content marketing approaches may create content but they rarely, if ever, achieve either the resonance or return that they need to justify their existence. He challenged content marketers to nominate 100 successful examples of their art and is still waiting for a response.

Higginson’s point may be the killer blow for content marketing. Because even if it does deserve to exist as a truly distinctive form of marketing communications (and I’m not convinced) it’s currently in deep shit because of that age old marketing scourge; clutter. A study by software firm Beckon recently revealed that although the amount of content being marketed has tripled in the past year, there has been no increase in engagement. Just 5% of the total content produced generated 90% of the consumer engagement meaning that 19 out of 20 pieces of content marketing have little if any impact.

“Given how much brands are spending on content creation, this stat is worrying,” Beckon CEO Jennifer Zeszut exaplined last week. “And while we don’t like raining on the content parade, it does feel good to be a source of truth for the performance side of these marketing trends, and provide perspective to marketers everywhere who crave data and not anecdotes.” Hear hear.

The problem appears to be content marketers who, in a modern version of marketing myopia, seem to think that their reason for existence is to create content, rather than communicate with clients and sell stuff. Beckon noted examples where a single brand was responsible for 50,000 separate pieces of content in one year. With more content marketers producing more content despite an abject lack of further engagement from consumers, the content of the Beckon report bodes ill for the industry.

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Comments
  • Chris Leadley 12 Oct 2016 at 8:36 am

    But isn’t this article in it’s own right ‘content’…

    • Samuel Scott - @samueljscott 12 Oct 2016 at 11:19 am

      That’s the whole point. “Content” and “content marketing” mean nothing precise or useful. Anything and everything that is created and distributed in a marketing or PR campaign is “content.” It’s a generic, useless term.

      It’s much more useful to be more precise and say whether something is an “advertisement” or “by-lined article” or “sales collateral” or “publicity campaign” or whatever. To collect all of this together as mere “content” ignores the best practices of these tactics as well as the times when and when NOT to use them.

      • Chris Leadley 12 Oct 2016 at 11:48 am

        Yep, completely agree. “Content Marketing” has always been around in the form of brochures, advertorials etc. It is now an over used term for material that appears on the internet and, as it has been pointed out elsewhere, it seems a lot of it is produced just for the sake of having “content”.

  • Pohnjin 12 Oct 2016 at 8:53 am

    As mentioned, this article is ‘content’ in its own right. Lots of content marketing is bollocks, and is nothing different to what marketers have been doing for many years. Having said that, it’s never a bad thing to educate potential customers about what you do. ‘Content’ has just become one of those overused buzzwords like ‘brand awareness’. You can tell a lot about people from how they use phrases like those.

  • Nick Wright 12 Oct 2016 at 9:08 am

    And another one: ‘Native advertising’ = advertorial

    • Ashley Friedlein 12 Oct 2016 at 4:21 pm

      Not really..? Or not just? Advertorial is usually ‘content’ (typically an article) that you pay to have appear as though editorial but labelled in some way as sponsored or paid for. Native advertising is any format that is bespoke/custom to the platform it is on e.g. Google paid search ads, Twitter promoted tweets, Snapchat Stories, LinkedIn sponsored stories. Conceptually similar perhaps but executionally very different.

  • Zbiggy 12 Oct 2016 at 10:14 am

    For a one word response to your headline “Yep!”

  • John Robins 12 Oct 2016 at 10:32 am

    A rose by any other name. Lets face it most advertising and marketing executives love to feel that they are at the forefront of new thinking and new techniques but more often than not nothing is really that new, so all that can be done is just give something a new hip name, put a spin on it and then you can sound like you know more than the next guy.

  • Jim Hodgkins 12 Oct 2016 at 10:59 am

    Great points and some of the pioneering CPG content of soaps and setting up radio stations in US were truly pioneering, but with high investment and long lead times. I guess what changed is that content is now distributed digitally very cheaply with short lead times and the ability of outliers to go massively viral encourages all to have a go – making it more attractive – and by the laws of economics, proliferating, as supply exceeds demand.

  • newriverm 12 Oct 2016 at 11:14 am

    Excellent article, Prof Mark, I could have written it myself except I don’t have the ‘Stig’ metaphor. Now can you please do a similar hatchet job on ‘Inbound marketing’ as that’s another anodyne phrase covering existing activities which is utter bollocks too.

    • m ritson 12 Oct 2016 at 12:04 pm

      No more tramps left in the school days back catalog alas.

  • Jamie Smith 12 Oct 2016 at 11:20 am

    It’s kinda like trying to attribute the value to a column in a newspaper to why you buy it.
    Are you – Mark Ritson – the reason that people sign up to the MW newsletter? No (sorry). However, your contribution is a supplementary thing that can improve the experience for the engaged user as you’re an expert in your field and give food for thought.

    Also, it’s an easier way of explaining the whole SEO process to clients who don’t get it, breaking the service down into the different areas.

  • Jackie Clode-Dickens 12 Oct 2016 at 11:21 am

    But surely if this was the case, there would be no marketing disciplines? It’s all just Marketing?

    • Samuel Scott - @samueljscott 12 Oct 2016 at 11:23 am

      All marketing and communications activities consist of this: a sender creates a message, the message is placed into a piece of “content,” and then the content is transmitted over a channel to a receiver.

      That process occurs within a discipline (or framework or something) such as advertising or publicity or direct marketing. There is no specific thing as “content marketing” because all marketing uses “content.”

  • Pete Austin 12 Oct 2016 at 11:39 am

    Why people think content marketing marketing works…
    (1) Your marketing material only works if people see it.
    (2) The more you write, the more likely a search will find some of it.
    (3) “Writing more stuff” = content marketing.

    • Samuel Scott - @samueljscott 12 Oct 2016 at 11:48 am

      “Writing more stuff” is content marketing? No wonder 90% of it is crap. It’s alway been about quality, not quantity.

      You sound like a certain well-known “content producer” that tried to sell me 1,000 blog posts at $60 a pop. The quality was laughable. If you assembly-line the creation of marketing collateral, you’ll get crap.

      • Tibi Tibi 12 Oct 2016 at 3:24 pm

        Spot on! Standardized intellectual work, adaptive (or smart), but also cheap and with over-night results. Everybody wants it standardized, we can’t seem to resist uncertainty anymore, it’s killing us… especially the capitalist, he can’t stand not having the very precise forecast of what’s going to happen with this money the next month, the next quarter, in the next market, in the next decade…

  • David Howlett 12 Oct 2016 at 2:19 pm

    I think there’s a certain hypocrisy going on here. Marketing is (partly) about understanding the requirements of our times and adapting all aspects of the offer to fit those changing requirements. For me both content marketing and inbound marketing provide evidence of our own appreciation that marketing has needed to adapt to a world with a more competitive supply-side in every market than we have had before. So, the relatively straightforward act of enticing purchase with an expensive 30 second ad campaign to drive trial is a thing of the past. Marketing does have to work harder to get the trial, and to retain the new customer’s loyalty in the face of ever-growing competition. So – the concepts of “content” and “inbound” marketing do place emphasis on parts of what has, admittedly, always been in the marketing toolkit. It’s not a case of the content and inbound proponents dissing traditional marketing theory. It’s simply a case refocusing it with a few new buzzwords that draw attention to particular aspects. What’s wrong with that? It’s no excuse for bad content marketing (which exists for sure), but there’s lazy and misguided people everywhere and I don’t see that as an argument against the logic of a legitimate marketing tool.

  • Steve Jex 12 Oct 2016 at 2:30 pm

    Content marketing, i.e. that which is carried out by a Content Marketer, is just a label created to help the HR department recruit people and actually understand what it is they’re supposed to do – so that they can sack them if they don’t do it.
    Seriously, the point is being missed by many of the those responding to this latest piece of Ritson content marketing. The reason it is important and needs to get special treatment is because Google says so. The Panda algorithm update in 2011 and ever since made it clear that poor quality sites, i.e. those with poor and/or “thin” content would not be ranked as highly as those with a lot of good quality content. It’s quantity and quality that’s required. If traffic from search engines is important to you then you need a Content Marketer.

  • Tibi Tibi 12 Oct 2016 at 2:32 pm

    It’s easy and all clear. It’s a made up bullshit, by some guys that wanted to legitimate some sort of activity they’d do, in order to artificially create value on top of it and SELL it. Content marketing has been marketed, packed, priced, coated in value and…they want money for it. Either as external providers, or internal employees. It’s a made up justification. But hey, we’re doing that with so many products and service. We’re even reinventing the most basic objects, like knives, aren’t we? Where we can’t explain a new functional benefit of something we sell, we make up other sorts of values for spoiled idiots….see fashion trends, even food-nutrition beliefs/trends. Come on, everybody, mankind is making bullshit up…year after year, age after age…we’re just keeping the circus going. Show must go on, right? 😉

  • Doug Kessler 12 Oct 2016 at 3:20 pm

    The contrarian view is always valuable — marketing needs people to call bullshit on bullshit. But in this case, it’s all just too BORING to get heated up about.

    The arguments here, while well-presented, are just… so… OLD.

    Any content marketer can drag out the old defenses again – there are plenty.
    And anyone can present hundreds of successful content-driven marketing examples. They are everywhere.

    But me? I’ve got way better things to do.

    The easiest thing in the world is to condemn a discipline by pointing to its worst practitioners. In the case of content marketing, there are thousands and thousands of mediocre examples to choose from. Everyone’s learning. There’s a lot of crap out there and a lot of hype.

    But to characterise the new incarnation of content marketing as just the same, 150-year-old thing with a fancy name is to ignore SO much.

    Of course, the fundamentals of marketing never change, because people never change.

    But this kind of fogeyism is lazy. If you want an education on what content marketing really is and why it matters… Google it.

    I’m too tired to rise to the challenge.

    • Ashley Friedlein 12 Oct 2016 at 3:46 pm

      I agree. I’ve posted a long reply, linking to your site among others, but it hasn’t yet appeared here yet. Can’t get the staff these days 😉

    • markhgn 13 Oct 2016 at 9:56 am

      I’m afraid the juvenile ‘I’m too bored to refute your argument’ defence is unconvincing at best, especially as Doug clearly managed to overcome his listlessness in order to leave a lengthy comment.

      The factors underpinning the attempt to make ‘content marketing’ a thing are many, not least agencies who would at one time have built a one-off corporate website or campaign ‘microsite’ seizing the opportunity to get clients on expensive retainers to produce countless articles no one reads.

      This is compounded by a sector awash with writers and ex-journalists who are clinging to the ‘brands as publishers’ trend like a life raft in a storm. The vested interests are huge which is why people get so upset when anyone has the temerity to question whether this is either successful or a genuinely separate discipline. See ‘Content Strategist’ / ‘Chief Content Officer’ — heaven help us!

      If “anyone can present hundreds of successful content-driven marketing examples” then why not be the someone who does? I’ve never seen a data-backed list but I have heard a lot of unsubstantiated anecdotes from people who sell ‘content marketing’.

    • DanielHochuli 14 Oct 2016 at 9:40 am

      Nice one Doug, that is why I’ve posted a long reply defending content marketing (on your behalf, of course!)
      I agree, a simple Google search can explain why the method is powerful. The old trope that it doesn’t work because most people do it poorly is tiresome and mute.

  • Chad Pollitt 12 Oct 2016 at 9:52 pm

    Interesting point of view, indeed, and in many regards I agree. That said, there’s one very valuable aspect of all of this that’s left out. The difference between yesterday’s marketing vs. “content marketing” primarily resides in the time, energy, effort and budget spent between the top, middle and bottom of the buyer’s journey.

    In yesterday’s marketing brands did indeed produce content. However, the priorities on the production and distribution of said content looked more like an upside down funnel — the complete opposite of what the buyer’s journey looks like. Marketers were producing mostly bottom to mid-funnel content and in many cases only produced it.

    Content marketing merely flips the funnel the way it’s supposed to be and produces equilibrium between what a brand wants to communicate and what a prospective buyer wants to see.

    That’s it. . . that’s why today’s marketing w/ content is called “content marketing.” It recognizes the need for equilibrium and delivers on the need.

    • m ritson 13 Oct 2016 at 4:51 am

      Nice. Like it.

      • Stacey Danheiser 14 Oct 2016 at 12:54 am

        Yes! This seems to be a recurring theme in marketing – there really is “nothing new under the sun”. We just give the same tactics or approach a different label or enhance the old ways a bit.

  • Camillus O'Brien 13 Oct 2016 at 9:08 am

    Hard to disagree with you and vey well put.

  • Toni Hunter 13 Oct 2016 at 9:51 am

    Thank you for your well thought out and comprehensive reply, I very much enjoyed reading it.

  • Toni Hunter 13 Oct 2016 at 9:52 am

    I concur

  • Scouserphil 13 Oct 2016 at 2:22 pm

    Digital marketing, content marketing, inbound marketing – isn’t all of this BS simply a massive re-branding effort on the part of agencies in a reaction to continuously being told they need to re-invent themselves to stay current? Classic head fake. S**t. We’re being told we’re no longer relevant, let’s make up some stuff so it sounds shiny and new.

    • DanielHochuli 14 Oct 2016 at 9:53 am

      Nah mate, they are all completely different methods that target different audiences and require different ways to measure success. Digital marketing is completely different to content marketing. Lazy marketers assume its all the same, because they can’t keep up with the changing digital marketing landscape and so stick their head in the sand and call it all a ‘classic head fake’.
      What they should be doing instead is educating themselves on the methods and how they work. It’s not some agency conspiracy to be re-invent the same thing. It’s just smarter marketers understanding that there are different ways to advertise and market to acheive their goals.

  • Paul Bailey 13 Oct 2016 at 3:42 pm

    ‘As Sun Tzu said “Strategy without tactics is the slowest route to victory. Tactics without strategy is the noise before defeat.” Replace the last 3 words with bollocks and you have your answer.’

    If I replace the last 3 words with bollocks I get, ‘Tactics without strategy is the bollocks.’ Isn’t something being ‘the bollocks’ a good thing? 🙂

    • Chad Pollitt 13 Oct 2016 at 3:46 pm

      Sun Tzu also said, “Victorious warriors win first and then go to war, while defeated warriors go to war first and then seek to win.” AKA — strategy. . . 🙂

  • Anthony L 13 Oct 2016 at 4:06 pm

    I think Mark is scratching the surface of an even larger issue at hand. So many organizations and “marketing” professionals are making a lot of tactical moves, but strategy always seems to be absent. Content marketing works when it is in alignment with an organizations marketing funnel strategy. It is especially effective for lead nurturing in the B2B space. However short term sales pressure, reactive or siloed marketing departments and poorly chosen KPI’s prevent the format from reaching it’s full potential.

    • Claudio Simone 13 Oct 2016 at 7:58 pm

      Couldn’t have said it better myself. I think it only becomes useful from driven insight about your target audience.

  • Chris J Arnold 13 Oct 2016 at 10:16 pm

    I agree with Mark. I have yet to see any evidence that done by so called specialist marketing content agencies it works. Content does work but that which is produced by professionals – publishers, TV production companies, radio stations…etc – people who make content for a living and have done for decades. Marketing agencies, and especially PR/digital/social media agencies, have jumped on a money making band wagon to dupe dumb clients into thinking they actually know what they are doing and can do it better than the professionals. That’s a bit like watching those idiots on the Apprentice make TV ads- it’s always terrible. My advice to any client is to turn off the hype, switch on the brain and take a critical look at WHY they want content, WHAT they think it will deliver and HOW they intend to measure success? And if they still do, hire a professional. The other factor is, even if people are engaged by content doesn’t mean they are going to buy anything. I love Mark’s column (a UK Bob Hoffman – blunt and honest) but I have no plans to hire him.

  • Chris J Arnold 13 Oct 2016 at 10:16 pm

    What exactly is the science behind the hype?

  • Rich Woof 8 Nov 2016 at 2:08 pm

    What about B2B? Is it any different to “content marketing” in B2C? In my B2B experience content without a call-to-buy (as it might include CTAs to even more content) is seen as a one-of-many steps a prospect needs to consume to move them along their buying journey. If that buying journey isn’t carefully defined then a kind of scattergun approach to content production can occur, often resulting in mediocre content proliferation with little thought to how it actually gets a person to buy. A key difference in B2B is that purchase is a collective decision, potentially involving individuals from different departments. This is where context and relevance become even more important.

  • Anam 22 Nov 2016 at 12:10 pm

    I don’t think content marketing is unnecessary, it’s just not being done properly. Brands create content for the sake of looking active / attracting traffic than they do to actually engage and communicate anything meaningful – hence all the regurgitated content you get. Or they have a great angle but it’s not explored properly.

  • Jim Thompson 14 Dec 2016 at 5:36 am

    Mark Riston is marketing to you and building a business and profile via his content which includes this article – call it what you like but therein lies the bollocks

  • Matt Dowd 19 Dec 2016 at 12:06 pm

    It seems that most people don’t understand what content marketing is. By your standards it is any content created by a marketer. This is not the case. A marketer can create brochures, catalogues, emails, advertising, PR and any other number of DIRECTLY PROMOTIONAL assets which would traditionally be called content. Content marketing is about generating relevant, useful and valuable assets which ARE NOT DIRECTLY PROMOTIONAL such as articles, blog posts etc. Perhaps the term isn’t clear but it doesn’t necessarily represent the sum of the two words. Content marketing has developed as a result of consumers being unwilling to engage with directly promotional material (i.e. opening spam emails) to the same level as they have in the past.

    • Selina Kerr 19 Jan 2017 at 9:47 am

      I have just read this article and lots of interesting comments. I have to say Matt Dowd’s comments sum up content marketing very well. The key issue being you may be able to use the right people for today’s media environment to generate content that engages and excites consumers / customers but that does not necessarily translate into positive brand attribution. I think this partially relates to a capability cap between those who know how to create compelling content (Journalists, producers etc) but lack the ability to consider the role for the brand. High involvement B to B categories have a logical fit with content marketing. Content marketing’s role within a low involvement consumer goods category e.g. Baked Beans, is arguably very different and I believe the brand attribution challenge is even greater. The relevance/scope of content marketing as a differentiated marketing activity is more obvious in some categories than others.

  • Sebastian Franck 13 Feb 2017 at 6:52 pm

    So, re. Matt – the new Mr. Clean Superbowl ad, is that directly promotional? And if not, is it content marketing? Or the Bud one? Hardly any branding, just a pathetic (as in “filled with pathos”) story about German immigration to the US? Very unpromotional. Very waste-of-money-al …

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