The big debate: Is content marketing really nonsense?

October 19th, 2016

After Marketing Week columnist Mark Ritson called into question the validity of content marketing as a discipline, a range of senior marketers have their say.

Marketing Week columnist Mark Ritson has once again stirred up an intriguing – and at times heated – debate about the fundamentals of marketing strategy. His column last week, ‘Is content marketing a load of bollocks?’, had at the time of writing notched up over 60 comments and plenty of discussion on social media, as Ritson questioned the wisdom of a profession in which ‘content’ is often seen as king.

He notes that content marketing has become a discipline in its own right in recent years, to the extent that there is now “an institute, lots of online guides on best practice and even grown-ups who do this for a living”. Yet he suggests that the term is meaningless because it covers activities that generalist marketers were doing anyway.

“It doesn’t help that all the definitions of content marketing I read just seem to describe marketing communications,” says Ritson. For him, producing customer magazines, blogs or online videos does not warrant a separate term or job title.

Ritson also questions whether content marketing as it is currently defined is generating a worthwhile return for businesses. He quotes a study by software firm Beckon that recently found that although the amount of content being marketed has tripled in the past year, there has been no increase in engagement.

This has led to a “cluttered” world of content, Ritson suggests, where marketers flood the airwaves with pointless content that fails to cut through with customers. “[Content marketers] seem to think that their reason for existence is to create content, rather than communicate with clients and sell stuff,” he says.

Marketers from a wide range of industries have lined up to agree and disagree with Ritson in equal measure. Blake Cahill, global head of digital and social at Philips, takes issue with Ritson’s interpretation of content marketing, arguing that it is not simply about the production of content but rather “a strategy and long-term approach with its own set of objectives and measurements”.

“Giving content marketing its own separate term is recognition of the fact that it is a separate discipline to others such as advertising and branding; meaning it requires its own specific set of expertise,” he adds. “It’s no better or worse than any other marketing discipline and should be part of a brand’s marketing mix – it shouldn’t replace it.

However, Marketing Week reader Chris J Arnold expresses agreement with Ritson in the comment section of the article, claiming that content marketing is a “bandwagon” that marketing agencies have jumped on. He also doubts whether there is evidence that proves content marketing’s effectiveness. “Even if people are engaged by content, [it] doesn’t mean they are going to buy anything,” he says.

In its response to Ritson’s column, industry body the Content Marketing Association (CMA) says content marketing “has seen such an explosion of activity and investment” in recent years because of dramatic changes to the way that people consume media.

“Mark doesn’t like the term ‘content marketing’ but if parts of the industry hadn’t focused on this as a specialist area then the adaption of the marketing industry to the changing landscape would surely have been slower,” claims CMA managing director Clare Hill.

She also insists that the industry has a firm grip on standards and ROI, noting that the 104 agencies competing in the International Content Marketing Awards are judged specifically on effectiveness. “The hundreds of entries demonstrate extraordinary ROI and many of the strategies have driven real change,” adds Hill. “Standout examples of this include MediaCom and Time Inc’s work for The British Army, which increased female applicants from 9% to 23%.”

However, the CMA’s latest report on measurement finds that just 50% of marketers believe it is possible to accurately measure the ROI of content marketing. While nearly three quarters (73%) of senior level marketers do class measurement as ‘very important’ to their content marketing strategy, with half dedicating 6% to 15% of their budget to it, 52% are unsure whether a universal metric can be achieved. Nearly a third (29%) are also concerned that budgets will be moved from harder to measure channels if measurement is not made a priority.

Voicing her defence of content marketing, Hill argues that it is vital to building long-term relationships with consumers. “Brands have become publishers and are now becoming media owners – a real disruption to the industry, which is putting owned media at the heart of strategies,” she says.

Read the full article on Marketing Week here.

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