Saying that “content marketing” is the new buzzword in marketing is not news anymore. Every magazine, news source and trade conference will remind you that “content is (the new) king”. What is less clear though is why? Where does it come from? What can content do for my brand/company? And is this a trend that will disappear next year, or a major shift in marketing practices?
My view is that content marketing is the result of major structural changes in the way we communicate, that it is here to stay, and will also transform the future of marketing and advertising as we know it.
First, let me say that this “new” form of marketing is not new. In fact it has been around for more than 60 years. The first type of content marketing appeared on American TV in the 1950’s with the sponsorship of TV series by “soap” brands (such as Procter and Gamble), giving birth to what was called “soap operas”. What is new though is that while sponsoring TV series and radio programs was reserved for a few large (read ‘rich’) brands who could afford the high price tag of TV/radio advertising and production, content marketing today is affordable to almost anyone.
So where did this new “democratic” form of content marketing come from? Well, in a way it spawn from the technology innovations of the last 10 to 15 years, and the impact those innovations had on the distribution and consumption of content by consumers. To make things simple, the apparition of social media networks such as Facebook and Youtube and the explosion of the blogosphere opened free global distribution channels to anyone interested in publishing content such as film, video, articles, animation, photos, news and the like.
At the same time, the multiplication of access points such as desktop computers, laptop, tablets, i-Devices, smart phones, mini-tablets and other portable devices made it possible for billions of consumers to access that content at any time, from anywhere. The tools needed for the production of the content (video cameras, photo cameras, editing platforms, CMS, graphic software, music software, etc.) also became affordable and the barrier to entry to producing and distributing quality content all the sudden disappeared.
So anyone could technically produce its own content, commercials, articles and distribute it worldwide instantaneously. In other words we went from: “only the few” … to: “yes we can!” almost overnight.
What was missing though was the motivation. Why would any company, brand, government or non-profit do that? There is only one valid reason: because the consumer wants it!
Several factors have contributed to the rise of “content marketing” in the new media ecosystem, but none more than the shifting tastes of consumers for a new type of (promotional) content.
First, since the early to mid-2000 (aka medieval times) we have seen a significant loss of credibility for traditional advertising. Consumers have finally grown smart and understood that brands did not necessarily told them the truth in their advertisements (understatement). This also explains the explosion of peers’ recommendations on blogs, specialized product reviews platforms, travel websites, consumer reviews on e-commerce sites, and friends and family recommendations (all sources we trust) as a major sales driver. In other words, consumers do not trust marketers any more, they trust each other.
Second, our minds are bombarded and overloaded with advertising messages: depending on sources we are subjected to anywhere from a low 247 images to a high 20,000 brand messages per day. This means that every brand out there is competing for our attention, a slice of our mind share, and that the war for our attention is on (a war where we are both the “prize” and the “victim”). As a result, our brain has learned to filter every visual, audio and multimedia message and to leave out anything that is not absolutely relevant to us at a given time.
Technology even came to the rescue and smart little devices like Tivo are helping get rid of TV ads altogether. The consequence of this advertising “system overload” is the very low tolerance we have developed for “interruption” marketing – aka the classic TV advertising model – and the growing interest for contextual ads, online retargeting, and other forms of advertising that exploit our interest as expressed at a given time. But I am getting carried away.
Third, consumers are primarily looking for entertainment or even information nowadays, rather than for commercials. One of the basic rules in viral marketing is that consumers do notforward ads, they pass along entertainment. It is ok if the brand or the product is embedded in the content, as long as it makes sense narratively and is not (too) intrusive. In other words advertisers now need to entertain, inform, educate and/or bring added value to the consumer through the content, in order to be able to carry their commercial message along with it.
As a result of the above, online consumer attention span is shorter and it became participative. Because content can now be accessed from anywhere at any time, and sent to friends, particularly from mobile devices, and that there is an (over?) abundance of content, the time devoted to such content for each person is necessarily shorter: from a few seconds to a few minutes maximum. And because consumers always have a choice of other programs, interrupting those programs to force-feed ads into the mind of these consumer is hardly tolerated anymore (by consumers that is – most ad agencies still have to play catch up). If you stop an online program to insert commercials, odds are you will lose your audience immediately because they will click somewhere else in a matter of seconds. So ads come in before the content, and often consumers are offered the option to “skip” them.
So in conclusion we have moved into an ecosystem where consumers demand content marketing because it matches their taste and lifestyle, where any brand can afford to produce that content and distribute it worldwide and where “content marketing” has emerged as an organic response to structural and technological changes in the media and communication world. So how come traditional advertising is still alive and (somehow) kickin…?
Could that be because of the $85 billion+/year that TV advertising generates and the fact that an entire industry depends on maintaining the paradigm unchanged for its very survival…mmmmmhhhh….? The advertising industry version of “too big to fail”?