Content Marketing: Cash Cow or Magic Beans?

[November 29, 2011] 

One of the ongoing hot topics in digital space is “Content Marketing,” a discipline that’s been around long enough to have an institute, and everything. The promise of the premise is that brands can establish themselves as thought leaders on a topic of immediate relevance to their product, service or image. In light of that, it might be better to think of this category as “Thought Leader Marketing.” After all, there’s no direct relationship between the amount of content you generate and the likelihood you’ll achieve rockstar-guru status.

Nor is it enough to crank out reprints of the obvious. For example, while the overall strategy adopted by American Express in its Open Forum is sound, an article providing generic tips for small business owners does little to enhance the company’s image. We expect more from this venerable brand than a glib once-over about market segmentation. Worse, the example the author uses, PepsiCo, hardly provides a model for a Cincinnati locksmith or a Tallahassee remodeling company.

As fluff, the article fails to deliver value, relying on namedropping (Pepsi) and marketing jargon (segmentation) to stand in for substance. It’s not, of course, that the advice isn’t sound. But we expect American Express to tell us something about the topic we don’t already know—not suggestions a business owner could get from the local Chamber of Commerce or About.com—let alone a community college business school degree program.

Take a position—preferably not lying down.
Like a vast percentage of what passes for advice in digital space, articles like this are less about thought leadership, or even content, than about space filling. And nowhere is “Abhor a Vacuum” Marketing more prevalent than when the topic is nutrition. The empty calories that fill out a recent article from Campbell’s Web site is one of hundreds of examples. “Eat smaller portions,” such articles say, and “keep a food diary.” With cogent, actionable advice like that, it’s a wonder more Americans aren’t thin as a rail and fit as a fiddle.

And, of course, the last thing we can expect from Campbell’s is a thought provoking essay about the fat, salt and sugar at the heart of the food addiction debate—a topic that crops up in any discussion of the American obesity epidemic. Does Campbell’s think the phrase “food addiction” is overblown? A thought leader would make its position clear, and not only when called to task by the NIH.

Gimmicks of the Golden Age.
Given the damage to a brand’s image caused by such contentless content, I’m afraid this situation confirms my worst fears, borne out by years of experience. While brands love to talk about the importance of content, they either can’t recognize it when they see it, or are terrified of actually saying anything definitive.

Added to that is the widespread belief that, despite the popularity of the Kindle, we are well into an age of voluntary Fahrenheit 451ism—even if what we experience now is more like book-ignoring than book-burning. Yet even if it could be proved that nobody reads, shouldn’t we reasonably expect the “infographics” or video that replace traditional essays to contain more than recycled summaries of last year’s sound bites?

Otherwise, “Content Marketing” is simply another gimmicky holdover from the glory days of direct mail—when thecoup de grace of empty value gestures was sending customers a pencil monogrammed with their names. Like the magic beans of European folklore, mechanical marketing ploys based on the spewing out of empty words are a sham—whose only purpose is to justify a consultant’s paycheck or an institute’s membership fees.


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Mark Laporta

Writer, Creative Consultant
New York, NY




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