The big debate: Is content marketing really nonsense?

After Marketing Week columnist Mark Ritson called into question the validity of content marketing as a discipline, a range of senior marketers have their say.

Travis Rice, Red Bull, Alaska
Red Bull is one brand that famously invests heavily in its own content

Marketing Week columnist Mark Ritson has once again stirred up an intriguing – and at times heated – debate about the fundamentals of marketing strategy. His column last week, ‘Is content marketing a load of bollocks?’, had at the time of writing notched up over 60 comments and plenty of discussion on social media, as Ritson questioned the wisdom of a profession in which ‘content’ is often seen as king.

He notes that content marketing has become a discipline in its own right in recent years, to the extent that there is now “an institute, lots of online guides on best practice and even grown-ups who do this for a living”. Yet he suggests that the term is meaningless because it covers activities that generalist marketers were doing anyway.

“It doesn’t help that all the definitions of content marketing I read just seem to describe marketing communications,” says Ritson. For him, producing customer magazines, blogs or online videos does not warrant a separate term or job title.

“Giving content marketing its own term is recognition it is a separate discipline.”

Blake Cahill, global head of digital and social, Philips

Ritson also questions whether content marketing as it is currently defined is generating a worthwhile return for businesses. He quotes a study by software firm Beckon that recently found that although the amount of content being marketed has tripled in the past year, there has been no increase in engagement.

This has led to a “cluttered” world of content, Ritson suggests, where marketers flood the airwaves with pointless content that fails to cut through with customers. “[Content marketers] seem to think that their reason for existence is to create content, rather than communicate with clients and sell stuff,” he says.

Marketers from a wide range of industries have lined up to agree and disagree with Ritson in equal measure. Blake Cahill, global head of digital and social at Philips, takes issue with Ritson’s interpretation of content marketing, arguing that it is not simply about the production of content but rather “a strategy and long-term approach with its own set of objectives and measurements”.

“Giving content marketing its own separate term is recognition of the fact that it is a separate discipline to others such as advertising and branding; meaning it requires its own specific set of expertise,” he adds. “It’s no better or worse than any other marketing discipline and should be part of a brand’s marketing mix – it shouldn’t replace it.”

Read More: Blake Cahill on the role of content marketing at Philips

However, Marketing Week reader Chris J Arnold expresses agreement with Ritson in the comment section of the article, claiming that content marketing is a “bandwagon” that marketing agencies have jumped on. He also doubts whether there is evidence that proves content marketing’s effectiveness. “Even if people are engaged by content, [it] doesn’t mean they are going to buy anything,” he says.

In its response to Ritson’s column, industry body the Content Marketing Association (CMA) says content marketing “has seen such an explosion of activity and investment” in recent years because of dramatic changes to the way that people consume media.

“Mark doesn’t like the term ‘content marketing’ but if parts of the industry hadn’t focused on this as a specialist area then the adaption of the marketing industry to the changing landscape would surely have been slower,” claims CMA managing director Clare Hill.

She also insists that the industry has a firm grip on standards and ROI, noting that the 104 agencies competing in the International Content Marketing Awards are judged specifically on effectiveness. “The hundreds of entries demonstrate extraordinary ROI and many of the strategies have driven real change,” adds Hill. “Standout examples of this include MediaCom and Time Inc’s work for The British Army, which increased female applicants from 9% to 23%.”

However, the CMA’s latest report on measurement finds that just 50% of marketers believe it is possible to accurately measure the ROI of content marketing. While nearly three quarters (73%) of senior level marketers do class measurement as ‘very important’ to their content marketing strategy, with half dedicating 6% to 15% of their budget to it, 52% are unsure whether a universal metric can be achieved. Nearly a third (29%) are also concerned that budgets will be moved from harder to measure channels if measurement is not made a priority.

Voicing her defence of content marketing, Hill argues that it is vital to building long-term relationships with consumers. “Brands have become publishers and are now becoming media owners – a real disruption to the industry, which is putting owned media at the heart of strategies,” she says.

So where do marketers stand on the debate? Is content marketing a pointless buzz-phrase, or a crucial way of managing changing customer behaviours? Marketing Week spoke to senior marketers in both B2C and B2B businesses to explore these issues further.

Yes – content marketing is bollocks

Kristof Fahy, CMO of Ladbrokes, voiced reservations about the term content marketing two years ago, arguing that everything that a marketer communicates to customers is essentially ‘content’. Responding to Ritson’s column he states that his opinion has not changed and, if anything, has hardened.

“If I look at our business, we have thousands of betting opportunities every week. You could call that content – I call it what we do,” he says. “If I buy ingredients from a supermarket and they show me a video of how to turn those ingredients into something yummy, is that content or is that just a modern day recipe card?”

Fahy agrees with Ritson that “there is a lot of guff spoken about content marketing and engagement” that distracts marketers from their primary job of driving sales and shareholder value. “I’m yet to see something in that [content marketing] mould that has driven huge amounts of sales – it might drive huge amounts of traffic but has it actually driven sales?”

“We have thousands of betting opportunities. You could call that content. I call it what we do.”

Kristof Fahy, CMO, Ladbrokes

Although he notes that many brands produce interesting online content, he believes this is just “a better use of the platforms we already have”. Fahy also agrees that the world has become “cluttered” with marketing content.

“There are thousands of hours of content knocking around – what customer is going to want to navigate through that to find the specific bit that was designed for them?” he asks. “If brands look hard at everything they’ve created, there might be a few things that have hit in decent numbers but I guarantee there is lots of stuff that hasn’t, but no one talks about that.”

On the role of marketing leaders, Fahy believes CMOs “need to get the balance right” by encouraging their teams to experiment with new ideas and platforms while also providing regular “sanity checks” that ensure that all marketing activities are measured against clearly defined targets.

“I’m certainly not a fan of the idea that ‘they’ve got a content team [at our competitor] over there, so we need one too’,” he says. “You end up with a ‘matching the neighbours’ mentality, and that’s when it starts to spiral out of control.”

No – content marketing is essential

Anyone who saw LinkedIn’s Jason Miller speak at the Festival of Marketing earlier this month will have observed a passionate advocate for content marketing and its role as a business growth driver. Miller, who is global content marketing leader for the professional network, disagrees with Ritson’s notion that the discipline is something that generalist marketers were doing anyway. Instead, he believes the rise of content marketing is indicative of wider changes across the profession.

“This is a new breed of a marketer – a hybrid marketer that performs cross-functionally across the organisation,” he says. “The way that brands now distribute content and the role that content plays in demand generation, social and in guiding the buyer through the journey, means that you need a dedicated expert to manage the process.”

LinkedIn is a strong advocate for the role of content marketing in B2B businesses
LinkedIn is a strong advocate for the role of content marketing in B2B businesses

Miller also disagrees with Ritson’s citation of the John Deer customer magazine from 1895 as proof that brands have always been doing content marketing of the kind discussed today. “The John Deer example was a different time and a different context and a much different environment for marketers, so I don’t think it’s fair to compare the two,” he says. “How can you take that example and extrapolate it into today’s hi-tech, fast-moving, cluttered world? I don’t even see the argument to be honest.”

He states that buying cycles have become increasingly drawn out in LinkedIn’s B2B market as customers use online resources to conduct more and more research into products and services. Content, such as blogs and video, play an essential role in establishing LinkedIn as a thought leader in the industry and in engaging with prospects throughout the sales funnel.

“In my team at LinkedIn, 73% of all our marketing qualified leads are driven by content,” he says. “One-third of those come from what we call ‘big rock’ pieces of content – substantial content that is dedicated to answering the questions on our customers’ and prospects’ minds to help them be more effective.”

The future of the debate

It’s clear that there is no shortage of opinions about the future of content marketing – or whether it deserves to have a future at all. Ritson has acknowledged that his column has divided opinion and states that he is willing to be convinced about the need for a separate discipline, despite his many reservations.

As more companies adjust their strategies and restructure their teams to deal with changing market conditions, the debate about content marketing will no doubt continue to rage.

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Comments
  • Peter Altschuler 22 Nov 2016 at 12:28 am

    This is old wine, and the bottles haven’t changed all that much. What has changed is the range of organizations that now believe that targeted, useful information has value for possible customers.

    Anyone in B2B has been developing collateral, sales aids, marketing literature, or any other term you prefer for generations. In the long “considered” sales cycle that’s common in B2B, it’s vital to develop material that addresses the concerns of the multiple people involved in the purchase decision — the initiator, researcher, short lister, evaluator, influencer, recommender, final decision maker, and check signer. The person who wants to know about reliability, maintenance, and integration with existing equipment has different concerns than the person who uses the product, the one who has to amortize its cost, and the man or woman in charge of the budget and employee productivity.

    Informative, instructive, analytical, comparative, and practical articles, reports, charts checklists, case studies, and white papers can persuade and motivate in ways that Sales reps’ pitches often can’t. Yet that breadth is rarely seen in B2C.

    Instead, there are stories that reflect customers’ experience, help them see themselves using or benefitting from the product, and making an emotional (rather than rational) appeal. That’s just good journalism, not a specialized discipline. And any marketer worth his or her salary should understand how to repackage, re-use, and re-format information into multiple media to meet the market’s preferences.

    It’s a context in which content, as a term, is just another way to make something basic sound far more important and specialized. It was already important and specialized, but it wasn’t siloed for a very simple reason — the information that companies use to sell has to have as broad a purview as possible. Otherwise, you’ll wind up with a situation akin to Bob & Ray’s “International House of Toast” skit in which the new franchisee is congratulated by his buddy… until he discovers that the franchise is restricted to purveying only pumpernickel.

    • Sebastian Franck 13 Feb 2017 at 6:56 pm

      Very well put, Peter. I wish all comments were as clear and cogent.

  • Deepak Mankar 31 Dec 2016 at 1:53 am

    Old habits die hard. Marketing and advertising folks have always found new names for old concepts. It’s called “re-positioning”.

  • Tim Chorlton 18 Jan 2017 at 2:15 pm

    I think Content Marketing is a verb rather than a noun. I agree with Peter and his point about B2B having used this technique in some form or other since time began. For me, content marketing is using a combination of channels and software (including tracking codes and remarketing) to primarily find and engage with and audience, with secondary benefits of brand exposure and SEO rank gain. We helped a client generate about £1.2 million for new business leads in four months using content marketing (case study is here – http://www.the-factory.co.uk/portfolio/digital-marketing-case-study-dmn/ ) so when done well, I would say it is definately works (when done well). Simply recycling other people content vai Twitter (which most companies seem to be happy to do) isn’t really that effective. Content needs to be targeted, relevant and syndicated with a background of tools and tracking codes in place to create a pipeline to be effective AND, in my experience, someone also needs to pick up a phone and speak to the leads to really get results (certainly in the B2B areana.

  • Arnon Woolfson 31 Jan 2017 at 10:34 am

    Anyone not believing in content marketing is out of touch with millennials in particular. The biggest issue I believe is marketers interpretation of what ‘content’ is – a mistake I am uncovering a great deal of CMO’s making. It is not making an ad for online consumption…

    Content is undoubtedly the future of marketing. With the ‘right’ content delivered via the ‘right’ channels for the audience, content can engage, build a relationship and more importantly turn your audience into the marketers. Interpreting what ‘content’ means is the key.

    • Gemma Vernon 28 Jul 2017 at 2:26 pm

      There was an interesting article on here the other day that disputes the term ‘millennials’ and suggests this shouldn’t be classed as a market segment in it’s own right; millenials being anyone born from 1980-2000. Therefore we are assuming that all of this demographic have the same interests/consumption habits.

      However, I do agree that content marketing can be used as a powerful marketing tool provided it’s used with the right channels for your brand and as part of a longer term strategy. It helps to build brand awareness and increase engagement, ensuring your brand stays ‘front of mind’ when looking to purchase.

  • Manshu Ydoxy 14 May 2017 at 11:02 am

    Content is king, I fully agree with this commitment. Because content marketing is best way to promote your business.

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