Five reasons content marketing has become pay to play

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How the free ride ended for brands looking to communicate via digital channels

There’s no doubt that the Internet has changed marketing tactics forever. Players like YouTube, Facebook, Twitter and Apple (and Instagram and Vine and Snapchat and whatever comes next) have given advertisers entirely new ways to communicate ... and communicate they have. Indeed, the mere idea of entering the hearts and minds of engaged consumers via their shiny devices and friendly social activity drew unmeasured rapture from brands both large and small.

Marketing had become fun again, and distribution opportunities seemed limitless. That is, until brands noticed an if-a-tree-fell-in-the-forest problem, and they were suddenly being asked to pay to be seen by their own "fans." Today, the app store and YouTube are cluttered, content studios and secondary video channels are everywhere, and effective content marketing comes with a price. Here’s why.

1. Because Wall Street said so.

Media owners realized that – instead of giving content away for "free" – they could charge to distribute it. Facebook led the way by evolving from what felt like an endlessly expansive distribution model to one where a brand would have to invest to have any hope of capturing attention. Most marketers have decided that the targeting is good enough to make such an investment worth it. Distributing content proved to be a lucrative business that sends market caps soaring, and Wall Street and Sand Hill Road want more.

And despite some fresh grousing, there’s little reason to believe that the company’s new plan to penalize self-promotional organic content from brands will reduce marketer interest, at least in the short- to mid-term.

2. It’s "organic," and that makes brands feel good.

Sure, you can still buy ads, but you can also (pay to) distribute content that feels like a natural part of what the consumer is already reading or viewing. Some will argue that such "native content" runs afoul of the line between church and state but, for better or worse, fewer and fewer people seem concerned.  

And to reduce the barrier to entry, many publishers will create content for you. Buzzfeed is defined in most meetings as, "You know, those guys that produce posts like, ‘Top 10 Things This Widget Can Do!’ " Buzzfeed doesn’t have ads on its site, and it doesn’t need them. Advertisers sponsor content aligned with the stories they want to tell. Buzzfeed makes money, users get fewer ads and more content and brands get greater relevance. It’s a win for everyone.

Recently, P&G started running a campaign on Buzzfeed called #NYTough.  It’s a good example of how Buzzfeed can activate an audience on behalf of a (paying) brand.

3. Mobile needs content.

Despite the introduction of bigger and better devices, the size of your screen can negatively impact even the best advertising. Therefore, as mobile usage grew, so did the need to find better ways to monetize it. Content is ideal because it’s not beholden to an ad size, it loads quickly and it’s part of a feed. Even with the larger iPhone 6 Plus, it’s hard to imagine a day when people will welcome ads intruding on their experience on a device as personal as their phone. And getting them to click? Punch the Monkey ruined that possibility a long time ago.

4. You’ll fail otherwise.

Unless you are a naked Miley Cyrus, creating "great" content in the hope that people will find is a failing proposition. Of all the online branded content created last year, 50 percent of it was viewed less than 1,000 times. I’m OK with that because creating content tied to powerful distribution that works in conjunction with an advertising campaign is a lot more interesting than just creating a video, but brands must understand that this is what it takes.

On the flipside, the most shared piece of content of all time was Shakira and Activia’s La La La. It worked because it was launched into the perfect storm of the World Cup media frenzy and had all the necessary components from celebrity to a good cause (hence a reason to share it). For most, however, lightening in a bottle is not a strategy.

5. It works, and it’s worth it.

Seventy percent of Internet users want to learn about products through content rather than via traditional advertisements (according to Inc.), so – as long as content marketing can effectively tell brand stories while breaking through and providing value – no one is going to give it to you for free. Nor should they.

So now what, you ask? Realize that content cannot be created in a silo; it requires careful planning, beginning with an in-depth audit of your entire communications ecosystem. Only then can you begin to see how and where content marketing fits into your marketing plan, and select the distribution and content strategies most likely to achieve your objectives.

Mark Fortner is the Head of Innovation at MediaCom, The Content + Connections Agency.

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