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Content Is Crap And Other Rules For Marketers

2015 November 11
by Greg Satell

Until fairly recently, the options for marketers were relatively limited. Mass media—TV especially—offered the opportunity to reach millions, but only in the form of short ads sandwiched between lots of other stuff. Other tactics, such as trade shows, offered high engagement, but low reach.

Digital technology and social media have offered the best of both worlds—the ability to reach millions of people with high engagement.  Nike videos on YouTube routinely attract more than ten million views. Coke has nearly 100 million followers on Facebook.  Red Bull has its own TV channel.

Yet despite these scattered successes, there is mounting evidence that most marketers’ content efforts are failing. The Content Marketing Institute reports that although most B2B and B2C marketers have some kind of content marketing program, less than 40% find those efforts effective. Clearly, things need to improve. Here are 4 things marketers need to know:

1. Content is Crap

The idea that content is king, in its current usage, comes from a remarkably prescient 1995 essay by Bill Gates in which he called the Internet—still an emerging technology at the time—a marketplace of ideas, experiences, and products. He then proceeded to make failed investments in Encarta, MSN and MSNBC (MSNBC became profitable after he divested).

Think about that. Bill Gates, a man of extraordinary talent and fortune, who succeeded brilliantly in just about anything he has ever done, saw with remarkable accuracy how the future would play out, put his money behind it and failed spectacularly. The problem is that content isn’t king.  Content is crap.

We never call anything that’s good “content.” Nobody walks out of a movie they loved and says, “Wow!  What great content!” Nobody listens to “content” on their way to work in the morning. Do you think anybody ever called Ernest Hemingway a “content creator?” If they did, I bet he would punch ‘em in the nose.

Yet while content—a commodity to be acquired, distributed and leveraged—remains a fiction in the minds of business planners, digital technology has given marketers enormous opportunities to publish and produce. On the one hand, that’s a great thing, because as I noted in Harvard Business Review, marketers can learn a lot from publishers.

Yet the fact remains that publishing is very different from marketing—in some ways the practices are diametrically opposed—so brands who intend to publish successfully need to significantly shift their mental models.

2. You Want To Hold Attention, Not Just Grab It

After decades of creating advertising, many marketers have built up strong skill sets in some content related areas. Most have learned their way around the design studio and the video production set. Many have built up web development and user experience capabilities. So creating engaging content doesn’t seem like it should be much of a challenge.

The problem is that content is not a long-form version of advertising, but an extension of publishing. Marketing campaigns are designed to “cut through the clutter” and grab attention. A witty gecko lizard with a cockney accent, a talking tiger or even just a snappy jingle can raise awareness and sell product. But that’s no longer enough.

Yet today, marketers need to build an ongoing relationship with consumers and that means holding attention, not just grabbing it. To get people to subscribe to a blog, YouTube channel, Facebook or Twitter feed, you need to offer more than a catchy slogan or a clever stunt  Rather, you need to offer a true value exchange.

So brands have to learn how to do publishing right. They need to start with a clear mission and think seriously about the experience they want to create. Success will not come from putting a clever spin on facts, but rather by uncovering powerful stories and telling them well.

3. Optimize For Mission, Not For Metrics

Marketers optimize their campaigns for specific metrics, usually some combination of awareness, sales and advocacy. For the most part, this is a sensible way to go about things. It directs strategy towards action and instills accountability into the process. Businesses understandably want to know that they are getting a solid return on their investment.

Yet it’s also easy to confuse measurement with meaning. For instance, a focus on pageviews often drives marketers and publishers alike to use clickbait headlines. A salacious suggestion or a promise that the reader “won’t believe what happened next” is a sure way to drive traffic to a site and generate data that suggests you’re getting results.

The problem, as BuzzFeed’s Ben Smith has explained, is that publishers who use clickbait headlines are betraying the reader’s trust. They might draw readers to visit, but they won’t see the brand as honest and trustworthy nor will they be likely to return. The best headlines, he argues, are ones that offer a promise to readers and then over-deliver.

Marketers have a variety of metrics to evaluate what they publish and produce, including page views, video views, length of viewing, social media shares, and on and on. Yet none of that will tell you whether you have communicated a clear promise and are delivering on it. Optimize for mission, not for metrics.

4. Publishing Is A Product, Not A Campaign

Marketers launch campaigns for a variety of reasons, like promoting a new product, driving sales for a promotion or picking up their net promoter score. These are all valid objectives and traditional campaigns are well suited to achieving them. Yet as I noted above, publishing offers marketers the ability to hold attention, not just grab it.

That’s especially important in a digital environment because every consumer action related to a campaign can be tracked by competitors, allowing them to retarget customers who show a purchase intent. In effect, if you restrict marketing activity to promotional campaigns, you will end up providing your rivals with a free lead generation service.

Yet publishing is not a promotion. It is more akin to product development. There’s little short term benefit, but over time you can build an audience and establish an ongoing relationship. To do that, marketers need to treat content as a product, not a promotion. That means clearly defining an editorial mission, identifying benchmarks and establishing a clear structure.

Most of all, marketers need to create a compelling experience. That doesn’t happen overnight. For marketers to become successful publishers, we need to look beyond this quarter’s objectives or the next campaign and treat our editorial mission as seriously as we do that of our brands.

– Greg


A previous version of this article appeared in Harvard Business Review


7 Responses leave one →
  1. November 11, 2015

    You start by saying that content is crap.. but at the end of your essay, you build a case around content.

    “Yet today, marketers need to build an ongoing relationship with consumers and that means holding attention, not just grabbing it.”

    In other words.. have good content..

    “Most of all, marketers need to create a compelling experience.”

    once again.. have solid content..

    consumers dont explicitly say “What good content!!” when they are exposed to it.. that would be weird.

    But good content keeps people passionate about the topic.. i.e star wars, youtube sensations, video games.. etc, etc..

    the key is finding what content is considered “good” to your target audience.

    Just wanted to share my thoughts.

  2. November 11, 2015

    Thanks for sharing.

    – Greg

  3. November 16, 2015


    I have to say I totally disagree, I think there is a subtle difference between “content” and building a relationship through translated experience and for that reason, I think there is a valid concept addressed here.

    But…what is funny is that Greg talks about how click bait “might draw readers to visit, but they won’t see the brand as honest and trustworthy nor will they be likely to return.”

    To that I have to say “Content is Crap and Other Rules for Marketers” is an ironic title.

    Overall good stuff, but maybe the fact of the matter is valuable content is not a failure but simply a different game from relationship building when it comes to online marketing.

  4. November 22, 2015

    As ever Greg, an attention grabbing headline yet content that holds the attention to. I guess your past in publishing has stood you in good stead. And your insight in marketing is a blessing to us all. Cheers G will be plagiarising big chunks of this one. J

  5. November 22, 2015

    Thanks Jimi! Great to see you again!

    – Greg

  6. December 25, 2015

    As a niche publisher leveraging content for marketing, I appreciate the irony in your acknowledgement of publishing as a basis for quality brand marketing: “for marketers to become successful publishers…”
    In a flat world, publishers are becoming marketers and marketers are becoming publishers.

  7. December 25, 2015

    Thanks Paul. Have a nice holiday.

    – Greg

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