Content marketing – beyond the hype

contentwordcloudHype surrounding content marketing reached fever pitch in 2014. Heralded as the saviour of everything from digital display advertising to the 30 second spot, was there really any substance behind the content marketing spin?

If you talk to ten digital marketers, you’ll get ten different definitions of content marketing – we were all too busy relabeling whatever we did as content marketing to make much sense. But at its heart, content marketing is simple – it’s the use of publishing channels as opposed to advertising channels to achieve marketing goals. It’s about publishing YouTube content as opposed to advertising on YouTube; it’s about publishing apps, games and magazines as opposed to advertising in them.

Content marketing embraced a new macho mindset in marketing; real marketers don’t pay for audiences, they win them. 90% of consumer brands and 92% of business-to-business brands became converts to the content cause, spending $44bn on publishing content. These have been led with high profile ‘content spectaculars’ from big brands; the space-diving, sales-driving ‘Stratos’ live YouTube event from Red Bull; Unilever rocking the digital world with a massively popular feel-good short film ‘Dove Real Beauty Sketches’; and an ageing but buff Muscles from Brussels, Jean-Claude Van Damme on YouTube doing a full side splits between two reversing trucks for Volvo.

Content marketing was not only touted as the future of marketing creative, but also as the saviour of display advertising. Native content – advertising disguised as editorial content – made a neat ninja move to side-step the embarrassing fact that statistically speaking, we are now more likely to be struck by lightning today than click on a display ad. So if audiences won’t click around the content, be the content. And native advertising, formally known as the lowly advertorial, was reborn with big media companies selling editorial space for marketing content – Yahoo, The New York Times, The Economist, Forbes, Time, The Atlantic, The Huffington Post… And big brand owners – Unilever, Nestlé, Pepsi, BMW – started buying.

But there was one major problem with content marketing, based on simple mathematics. With brands contributing to the doubling of content on the web every few months, the amount of online content competing for attention has fast become – to all practical intents and purposes – infinite. But human attention is definitely not infinite; it is very finite. Any finite number divided by infinity is zero, and therefore the average attention captured by content marketing must trend to zero.

The only stop-gap solution available to marketers was to spend more of ever-more expensive content spectaculars that not only had to compete for attention with each other but with the best of Hollywood, HBO and the Huffington Post.

So did content clutter mean that the content marketing craze was just another short-term fad in the faddish world of digital marketing? Not necessarily. There is an alternative to content spectaculars; and native content. And that is to bake content into your product or service.

Take, for example, the latest generation of fitness bands from Fitbit, Jawbone and Nike. These exercise trackers are all exercises in pure content marketing; they generate content that is real-time, helpful and personal. For these products, content is integrated into the product; it’s not about the beauty of a Dove ad or the biceps or Van Damme, it’s about your beauty and biceps. By generating content, connected devices create shareable experiences worthy of buying and sharing. For Nike’s early FuelBand experiment, this virality resulted in an 18% sales jump for its equipment division.

Or take Domino’s Pizza; the fast food chain recently baked entertaining digital content into its pizzas – or rather pizza boxes – and sold out of pizzas across Japan. Simply point a smartphone at a Domino’s pizza box and one of Japan’s biggest popstars, Hatsune Miku – a virtual anime idol living in holograph form – appears on your screen and plays a personal concert for you. Here again, content is integrated into the product experience.

Even retailers, so long the laggards in digital marketing, are now incorporating digital content into their own product – the in-store retail experience. Through smartphone apps, digital screens and tablet stations, brands such as Burberry and Apple are reinventing retail with digital experiences that are both helpful and entertaining. Once more, content is integrated into the experience.

Such a vision of content marketing, where content becomes part of the product experience, is neither a craze nor a fad; it is the very essence of marketing excellence. Not interruptive messaging, but value delivery. Through digital content, brands can make their products and services better – more helpful, more entertaining – and more profitable. That’s why the future of content marketing is neither the content spectacular nor native content; the future of content marketing is the product.

Dr Paul Marsden, consumer psychologist at the Syzygy Group