How bad strategy is creating a content obesity epidemic

Content has become the answer to a question that no one is asking
Content has become the answer to a question that no one is asking

An obsession with content marketing is tempting some brands to make a lot of noise, even when they have very little to say, writes Nicola Kemp

In the social-media age, it appears that any given piece of marketing communications has now somehow earned the label ‘content’. Indeed,
at some companies, such is the dependency on this ‘content crutch’ that the very word ‘content’ has -replaced the real and pressing need for brands to develop a genuine and creative editorial strategy.

Steve Parker, strategy partner at M&C Saatchi, says there is a risk of content marketing becoming a meaningless term. "Content has become the answer to a question that no one is asking, and the creative process is now redundant," he adds. 

Much of this shift to commoditised content has been driven by marketers’ desire to ‘feed the virtual beast’. As the plethora of social, video and image based networks has risen exponentially, the danger is that marketers are left producing content solely to fill these new spaces, creating little more than virtual hot air powered by hefty agency retainers.

Charlie Cottrell, editorial director at We Are Social, points out that some marketers face a real panic when they establish a presence on a platform then realise that there isn’t actually a reason to be there. "Think about the functionality of the channel in order to best utilise it, and understand the different mindsets your audience are in. The challenge is not just thinking about platforms, but discerning whether you have a right to be there," she advises. 

Content gold rush

Despite these challenges, content has become a key focus for marketers at many of the world’s biggest brands. Matthew Williams, marketing activation director at Cadbury owner Mondelez International, says marketing is increasingly occupying the middle space of advertorial. However, he goes on to warn that if the quality of what you are doing isn’t good enough, consumers will reject it.

One problem with the marketing industry attempting to occupy this middle ground is that, often, brands simply don’t have the right skills for it. Mike Bennett, chief creative officer at ‘invention studio’ and content agency Djinn, believes there is a massive commoditisation issue in an industry that is awash with specialists and self-appointed ‘social-media experts’ dispensing advice. "It’s important to not simply have a knee-jerk reaction to keep up with the latest technology; you need a set of specialist skills or you will end up with fractured and disjointed content," he adds.

While marketers have substantially increased  their investment in creating social-content marketing, Facebook has introduced algorithms that have dramatically reduced brands’ organic reach. Marketers, sold the myth of ‘paid, owned and earned’ media by their agencies, are increasingly having to spend their way into rented spaces such as Facebook. Many believe that it is only a matter of time before Twitter follows suit. In short, the myth of ‘earned content’ is under fire.

Generation rent

In line with this, brands need to adjust their thinking to embrace the true nature of social media and the investment required to thrive in this ‘rented space’. Toto Ellis, head of strategy at advertising agency Droga5, says that where content was once strategy, now it is clutter that often never even reaches consumers. "You don’t own your fans and you cannot guarantee that you will reach them," he says.

While ‘Zuckerberg’s Law’ (the notion that each year consumers will share twice as much content as they did in the previous year) holds true, these -consumers are becoming more selective about what they will and won’t invest their time in.

In fact, 90% of Twitter’s reach occurs within the first two hours, after which people move on to the next thing. If your content doesn’t capture consumers’ imagination in the first few seconds, there is no going back.

Ellis explains: "It is very easy to say that people’s attention spans are shorter on digital, but the fact remains that they have chosen to be bombarded. It’s a global trend, and brands need to work out how to capture consumers’ attention in seconds, in spaces that they don’t own and don’t control."

The shift to brutal simplicity

The uncomfortable truth remains that the proliferation of platforms has left many brands guilty of ‘binge-creating’ when it comes to content. So enamoured are they with their ability to fill an ever-growing array of channels, some marketers are not pausing to ask whether they should.

This strategy is at odds with consumer behaviour. As former Red Bull marketer Huib van Bockel so aptly declared at Marketing’s Start-up State of Mind panel at Advertising Week Europe, marketing today is "like Tinder".

"In one second you decide to engage with that content or swipe it away," he said.

It is clear that many in the content-marketing industry have been loath to adapt to this brutal simplicity. James Kirkham, global head of social and mobile at Leo Burnett, says brands have a tendency to fall back on a traditional broadcasting model, where ‘always on’ is often translated as ‘always speaking’, rather than finding opportune moments. Because of this trend, the industry is in danger of merely talking to itself.

Calendar vs strategy

Many brands are guilty of attempting to attract consumers’ attention all the time. Indeed, if the content-marketing industry were a guest at a party, there is a good chance that it would be the kind of shouty, attention seeking person who wouldn’t receive an invitation the second time around.

Indeed, some agency business models with a focus on content calendars, as opposed to genuine editorial strategies, which simply encourage brands to broadcast at their consumers as opposed to build sustainable communities. 

Ben Stephens, executive chairman at agency Stack, says that in order to make sense of the focus on content, the industry has been guilty of drawing up a content calendar based on the notion that the brand always has something to say. 

"Sadly, this rigid way of thinking has forced many brands into becoming ‘publishers’, when they were never in the publishing business and don’t have enough to say to fill more than a few boxes on our calendar. What on earth happened to speaking when you have something to say?" he asks.

The Oreo effect

Fuelling this content obesity epidemic is a measurement system that makes it more difficult for brands to fail. Many across the industry are adopting a model for content marketing based on fundamentally flawed measurement models. Concentrating on meaningless metrics such as Facebook ‘likes’ or Twitter reach has effectively made ‘success’, in its very bluntest form, a foregone conclusion.

M&C Saatchi’s Parker argues that the ‘Oreo effect’ – obsessing over what is in effect a tactical press ad – is diverting marketers’ attention. "People need to start subjecting social media to greater scrutiny, tracking how it drives sales and shifts -perceptions, and ditch the current fixation with in-the-moment virality," he says.

Marketers must be careful not to confuse capturing the zeitgeist with grabbing the attention of a truly mass-market audience. Often the column inches and plaudits directed at any given social media success are out of step with their long-term impact on a brand’s bottom line. Those marketers and content agencies fixated on achieving their own Oreo moment risk chasing headlines rather than attracting new customers.

Nonetheless, brands face a challenge when it comes to balancing the need for deep engagement with a small pool of loyal fans alongside the pressure to build and sustain huge social communities.

Alan Blair, head of strategy at digital agency Tribal Worldwide London, believes that reach is, in fact a more effective marketing tool than deep
engagement; smart marketers, he says, are embracing this model. 

"Creating so much content for already loyal fans is expensive, so we will see less content, but with a greater purpose," he argues. 

The service gap

When it comes to the economic pressure creating swathes of content, some of the industry’s leading thinkers believe marketers must hone in on providing consumers with a genuine service. "Brands that aren’t focused on solving their customers’ problems are destined to fail," says Josh Graff, senior director at LinkedIn Marketing Solutions. 

According to Graff, such a shift is already in full swing in the business sector. "Sophisticated brands know how to insert themselves into the lives of their audience to help them make better business decisions, keep them up to speed with developments in their industry and provide them with
desirable ways to spend their  free time," he says.

 Alongside this, there is also the opportunity for brands to ride the wave of the eclectic and -exciting switch to the new visual economy. From Instagram to Snapchat, images have become a form of speech in their own right, which presents brands with a
variety of new platforms.

Commercial opportunities

"A few years ago, everyone was talking about brands becoming publishers. Now brands are -becoming broadcasters, but it is highly unlikely that they have the in-house skills required," says Clare Hill, managing director of the Content Marketing Association.  

Instead, Hill believes that brands can capitalise on a democratised media environment to drive direct sales. "When YouTube secures direct purchase, and brands can monitor that, reliance on the traditional broadcasting model will decrease," she adds.

There is no doubt that there are huge commercial opportunities for brands. Nishma Robb, head of marketing, Google UK & Ireland, points out that fashion and beauty blogger Zoella has more subscribers than the top five women’s magazines in the UK put together. "We see huge amounts of branded content, and brands have an opportunity to break beyond the restrictions of the commissioning editor," she says.

However, marketers must collaborate and relinquish control of their brands to truly embrace this. Rebecca Snell, head of marketing and senior director at Lego, says brands need to get more comfortable with not being in control. "Content is king. We already work with bloggers, and that will increase," she adds.

The content obesity epidemic

While it is easy to declare a change in the market from content to discontent, great storytelling remains the thread that ties together some of the best marketing of our generation. At a time when any practitioner can declare themselves an expert in social content, marketers must tread carefully.

As the ways in which consumers read and share content continue to evolve, marketers must be wary of fixating on any single media platform in isolation.

If marketers can learn anything from the rise of YouTube superstars in the light of traditional media’s decline, it is that standing still is not an -option. Neither though is churning out the same old content for new platforms. 

From the launch of formats such as The Pool, an online platform aimed at women, to the cleverly edited and fully shoppable Wardrobe Icons, innovation continues apace. "We will move to a time where [content marketing] isn’t solely about pushing brand messaging, but instead relies on content marketing to enrich people’s lives, augmenting the everyday with something more special," says Leo Burnett’s Kirkham. 

Brands with the courage to step away from their content calendars for long enough to create something genuinely deserving of consumers’ precious time are the ones who will drive this next wave of -content marketing. 

The rise of the ‘Deletist Consumer’

The deluge of content marketing is driving the rise of a new breed of digitally literate consumer with a default position of ‘delete’. According to research from the Aimia Institute, three in four (74%) British consumers say they are receiving too many emails from brands, and one-fifth (19%) say they can’t handle the current volume. 

The research suggests that marketers who feed the virtual beast of social media and email channels with poorly targeted communications are, in fact, alienating consumers.

Seven in ten (69%) Britons are closing down accounts and subscriptions, and ‘unfriending’ companies as a result of poorly targeted communications.

The research suggests that email marketing is becoming akin to a marketing black hole. In 2012, more than a third (35%) of people were deleting text messages and emails from companies, or only reading the title. Today, more than half (58%) of consumers opt out
of most email communications all together, while 69% are closing accounts and subscriptions because they don’t like the communications they are receiving. In addition, 55% have deleted an app because of push notifications.


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