One of my predictions for 2015 was that it would be the year that content about content marketing would surpass all other forms of content.
I stand by that and am doing my part to make it true with this very article. But if you look at the Google Search Trends, 2013 was the growth year, and 2014 and 2015 (according to Google's projections) will be a plateau of interest in content marketing.
This suggests that the idea has achieved some kind of maturity. That content marketing has become a thing. Newsrooms have been set up, processes developed, editorial staff from our ailing media brethren poached and repurposed. All of which means it's time to begin to challenge it, like all conventions.
Content became the current solution célèbre to the great fragmentation problem.
To whit, there is a great superfluity of media channels, thanks to digital compression and technology. Attention is spread ever thinner across more options. Advertising is having a hard time demonstrating its golden era impact, which relied on highly concentrated amounts of attention. So, in order to earn attention, brands began to develop content, as opposed to advertising.
Content is something people choose to consume, advertising is something you pay people to consume. They occasionally, overlap, but rarely, because people don't really like being actively sold to, even when 'in market', and content, by definition, needs to provide end user value in and of itself.
So there is an inherent tension in the idea of content marketing – we have two masters. Content is about creating value for the end user, whereas marketing has another goal, beyond that, creating value for the brand. This tension between church and state could be felt in the closing of Verizon's tech news site SugarString after just two months. Allegedly, it had told its writers that they could not cover net neutrality and espionage issues in which Verizon is deeply involved.
As Howard Gossage put it: "People don't read ads – they read what interests them, and sometimes it is an ad." We've always tried to make our advertising as appealing as possible, but ultimately relied on the media to create the opportunities to be seen. In fact, it could be argued that content and advertising work in fundamentally different ways. We aren't entirely sure how advertising works, but the classic IPA dataBANK meta-analysis (Binet And Field) suggests that "the most effective advertisements of all are those with little or no rational content".
So, without wanting to be too contentious, you could argue that advertising is the opposite of content. Just because the apparatus of production looks similar, it doesn't mean they are the same thing.
All this brand content, of course, increases the total amount of content, with which it is competing, which increases the great fragmentation. Herein lies another concern, since brands have begun to create content in earnest in the most competitive attention marketing the world has ever known. Petabytes of it are being created every picosecond, by the media industrial complex, other brands and every person on social platforms.
New model content companies such as BuzzFeed take the position that it's not really the content that's important per se. It's the social exchange that content allows. We use content to communicate with each other inside the stream.
We know content marketing is not a new idea. The Michelin Guide was invented to sell tires. The Guinness Book of World Records to sell beer. Another element that is lost when we trot out these examples, which brings me to my final point, is that both were rapidly turned into standalone businesses with products people pay for.
This is because making content that people want to consume, continuously, is really hard. (Ask the editor, right Colin?). It's a hit-driven business and 'Nobody knows anything'.
So, if a brand is going to embrace content, it needs to commit significant time and resources and assume that some things will fail to make much impact. Next month, we can look at some other things brands can do in this content-rich environment.
For now, just ponder, just what is all this content being contained in?