Those of you who have read this column consistently know that I’ve been a vocal advocate for moving marketing past traditional tactics to truly embrace a new ethos, one that puts the audience’s interests ahead of our own. But today I’m here to sound a note of caution. Maybe it’s the upcoming onset of daylight savings time. Maybe I’m just getting grumpy in my old age. Whatever the cause, I’m worried that we are at risk of doing to the new ethos exactly what we did to the old.
But before I talk about content marketing, a little context: I come from the world of journalism, not marketing. My first job was writing obituaries at a daily newspaper in New Jersey, followed by covering cops, courts, and general assignment. From there I went to tech B2B publishing during its peak in the ’90s, then gradually inched my way into what we now call content marketing by way of a 10-year stint at The McKinsey Quarterly. Next came my current role at The Economist. Throughout, I’ve clung to the idea that our job is to build a relationship with readers by putting their interests first. When we get that right, good things follow.
Over the past several years, people like me have told people like you that you need to act more like a publisher. True. Mostly. It’s easy to publish–maybe too easy. Technology has taken down all of the barriers. Whether it is text, video, interactive, or social, the tools are there to make it easy, with no shortage of writing and production help available. What’s harder than acting like a publisher, however, is thinking like a publisher. We see it over and over. Marketers apply an advertising mindset to content and then get frustrated when they fail to build an audience.
I get it. There’s incredible pressure to show results and justify costs. That pressure forces a short-term view. One of the values of thinking like a publisher, however, is the understanding that building an audience–gaining their trust as a credible source–takes time. It rarely comes as the result of a single piece of content or “campaign.”
When you hit the tipping point with a reader–when that person decides what you have to say is truly of value–the relationship can last for years. And with that relationship comes value that goes way beyond a single transaction: loyalty, advocacy, collaboration, and sales. When a reader puts you on his very short list of trusted partners, you can move out of consideration based on price and specs. You move into a different zone, the rarified world of being a true partner. Note what I said: “When a reader puts you on their very short list ...” They choose you; you don’t choose them. The more you push undifferentiated content at them, the less likely they will make that choice.
So I’m worried. I’m worried that rather than honor the relationship, too many marketers are still focused on themselves, not on the needs of their audience. I’m worried that they are flooding the market with me-too content, applying marketing technology to be intrusive rather than timely, or even disguising their content in the hopes of tricking people into reading it. (If ever there was an admission of offering weak content, this is it.)
Did we learn nothing from readers’ rejection of digital advertising? The same technology that has made it easy for marketers to act like a publisher makes it easy for the very people you are trying to reach to tune you out, or worse.
Marketers like you and media people like me are hoping that content marketing is an answer to the decline in efficacy and revenue from advertising. It can be, but our desperation is starting to show. Just as with advertising, readers will easily and happily reject unwanted content–and eventually will learn to ignore all but a very few credible sources. Then what will we do?