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.