How Effective Is Content Marketing?
Posted by Dan Matthews on Forbes
It seems only yesterday the world was discussing how brands could shape public opinion through social media. Now they are having the same discussions – with a similar mixture of rightfulness and wrongfulness – about content marketing.
The theory behind content marketing is quite straightforward: people like good content, so why not use it as an advertising vehicle? Why not feed them all that good stuff to read and watch but lace it with a subtle plug? It’s not a new trick but the fragmentation of media and lowering of barriers to entry means a lot more people are doing it than before.
As with social media it’s not the theory that’s controversial, it’s the execution. Smaller brands that might be much better off taking out a full-page ad and shouting BUY OUR STUFF have diverted money into what they think is a subtler, cleverer, more subliminal and more lasting medium to deliver The Message.
Big numbers, if not sales
What isn’t controversial is that content marketing has become big business. Research in the UK by the Content Marketing Association (CMA) shows that 60 per cent of marketers use branded content and that these reserve about 20 per cent of their budget for carrying it out, compared with only 14 per cent for TV, 11 per cent online and 10 per cent display.
Half said they would increase content marketing budgets this year regardless of whether their budgets went up generally. When asked why, respondents’ most popular answers were that it was good for brand building and long-term customer engagement – the jury was out on whether it helped acquire customers directly.
The argument propping up content marketing is that it is better to be the content than to sit next to a page of copy in a magazine, be sandwiched between two halves of a TV programme or squished to the side of a webpage. It is better to be the thing that people watch than the thing that people skip past or use as a convenient tea or loo break.
This is a reasonable-enough argument, but content marketing is fraught with numerous complications for smaller players in particular. Big brands, for the most part, are freer to experiment and are liable to succeed because they have more money, stamina and patience to get it right.
Trial and error
One problem common to all new fads in advertising is that it takes a long time to work out what actually works and what doesn’t. Pre-roll advertising is a case in point. We used to think that people had short attention spans online and so would skip films longer than a few minutes, so the ads that preceded them had to be blink-and-you’ll-miss-it productions. Today, brands know that if the ad is good enough it can run as long as it likes.
The upshot is companies that sell shoes, cars and food products are now also making movies for consumers to watch online. If the content is good enough, so the theory goes, you can get people to watch/read/listen. This realisation is what allowed content marketing to flourish, but is it the finished deal, or does it have some more evolving to do?
A strong piece of research by The Big Shot, a media agency based in London, suggests that in many cases there is still work to be done in this area. The first surprise from the findings comes with the opening question. When asked whether they had come across a piece of branded content before 41 per cent of people answered ‘no’.
Are we to believe that these people have slalomed around the media landscape somehow skirting ads? It would be like dodging raindrops in a thunderstorm. Maybe nearly half the population don’t have a TV or read anything more modern than a Penguin Classic? It’s more likely that brands have duped them into believing they were consuming content, when really it was content marketing.
If the second scenario is true then the marketing industry might see it as a victory for creativity. It is; but it’s not a victory for advertising. It raises the question whether there is any point creating a fine piece of work if more than four in 10 viewers don’t realise they are being advertised to.
The research further found that of the people capable of identifying content marketing when they see it, 28 per cent had never acted on it by, for example, liking the brand on Facebook, following it on Twitter TWTR -0.26%, visiting the website or going to a shop on the high street.
The pitfalls continue: more than 70 per cent of respondents said that poorly produced content would in their view impact negatively on the brand, yet 31 per cent said they would be no more likely to buy from a brand even if they liked what they saw.
And when asked what word they would use to describe most of the branded content they had seen hitherto, 42 per cent said “irrelevant” and 13 per cent said “rubbish”, compared with just under 30 per cent saying it was on the whole “funny” and eight per cent saying it was “moving”.
In other words more than half of the 59 per cent of people who can identify content marketing think it’s a bad thing.
Why is this? Because people dislike advertising. It is why the BBC gets four times as many viewers during the World Cup final as ITV despite the latter’s exhaustive investment people, pretty graphics and crafted segues; viewers just don’t want their entertainment to be interrupted.
So making the marketing and the content one and the same is a great idea on one hand and an unremittingly bad one on the other. The key to getting around this problem is quality. Quality is much more important here than in display and TV advertising (we can all think of terrible ads that have led to huge sales).
If you can make the advert as compelling as the content, then the ad becomes the content and people will watch. But be careful. As we have seen quality marketing cannot come at the expense of the message. Any plug must be subtle enough not to get in the way of people’s enjoyment but blatant enough to let people know who’s selling what.
It’s spider’s web-thin tightrope that will be too much for most creative agencies to handle. Getting it wrong is a total waste of money, so only the brave, big-budgeted and tirelessly creative need apply. The rest should stick to screaming ads.on .