The trouble with ‘content marketing’

Stephen Downes
December 11, 2012

This post is by our guest blogger Stephen Downes, a founding member of the Wellmark team. Stephen is currently the Principal of QBrand Consulting, as well as a lecturer in postgraduate courses in marketing and advertising.

I had no idea, but apparently I’ve worked in “content marketing” for more than 20 years. Of course, it wasn’t called that when I started my career in a marketing communications agency specialising in one of the most information-intensive promotional contexts imaginable: marketing prescription pharmaceuticals to GPs and specialists.

No-one mentioned “content marketing” when we pitched, developed and published custom newsletters, journals, symposium proceedings and product monographs on behalf of big pharmaceutical companies.

It wasn’t called “content marketing” when we developed and ran third party-accredited case study programs to support the launch of a new class of drugs, or when I sat in a hotel room at an international congress writing overnight newsletters highlighting the important clinical implications of a new multicentre trial, to be faxed to Australian doctors the next morning.

And it wasn’t called “content marketing” when I ghost wrote opinion pieces for business publications or prepared a CEO’s “From my desk” column for customer newsletters.

But these are all examples of targeted strategic communications designed and executed to meet very clear communication objectives, driven by marketing strategy.

Worryingly, much of what I read about content marketing seems to put the current vogue for “content” way ahead of the “marketing” bit. I’ve seen countless blog posts from content “experts” with “10 Great Ideas for Content” and “Tips for Content”, as though sheer quantity matters more than purpose and relevance. It’s worse still when one of these gurus describes content marketing as a “strategy” in its own right, and claims it’s “cost-effective and easy”… without any evidence. And the content marketing buzz seems to value examples of how to generate content over actual case studies demonstrating true marketing effectiveness and ROI.

I’ve learned over the years to be very wary of any new fad that puts a word in front of “marketing”. Marketing is marketing. Buzzwords, new communications channels and marketing gurus come and go, but the fundamentals of marketing remain. “Content marketing” is not a new kind of marketing. At best, it’s about some new communication tools; at worst, it’s putting the cart before the horse.

And I really dislike the word “content”. It carries connotations of a communications space or void that simply needs to be filled, as though a novelist told her publisher “Here’s my 500-page novel, now I just have to develop the content”. By extension, the people who come up with “content” run the very real risk of being seen as merely “content providers”. There’s nothing inherent in the term “content marketing” that gives the content provider (or “Chief Content Officer” – ugh!) credit for having an understanding of marketing strategy or skills in writing and commercial creativity, or that imbues the content with a specific strategic purpose.

As I’ve suggested above, “content” in marketing is as old as the hills, and not just in areas like pharma marketing. Long before the web and Facebook, FMCG marketers seeking ways to increase the range of customer usage occasions put coupons for recipe books on their packages: every Chocolate Ripple Cake made in the suburbs meant two extra packs of Arnott’s Choc Ripple biscuits sold. Young stamp collectors were encouraged to join the Junior Philatelists’ Club and get the quarterly Stamp News. These are classic examples of what today would be called “content”, but driven by clear objectives that can be linked to real measures of success.

Remember that marketing is about value. If your content doesn’t help you create superior customer value and hence confer competitive advantage, then what’s the point? And if your content is really valued so highly by your customers, then why are you giving it away to your competitors and their customers too?

Moreover, creating and disseminating quality content has real costs or, at the very least, opportunity costs even if you sit at your desk and do it yourself.

Everyone involved in planning, designing, developing and delivering content must know why each piece of content is being created, captured or curated and where it fits strategically. To be more specific, which customers and what customer behaviours is the content intended to influence, and how? And, in a world chock full of content, why should the customer pay attention to yours?

Just because we have new social media to play with doesn’t mean marketers, PR practitioners, “content engineers” or whatever we’re being called this week can ignore the fundamentals of marketing and marketing communications.

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