Is Content The Future Of Marketing?
Content marketing has dominated the industry agenda for the past few years, but are we just seeing the maturing of a new channel, or is this a stage in the transition to an entirely new approach to marketing?
That’s one of the questions addressed by Lazar Dzamic and Justin Kirby in their new book, The Definitive Guide to Strategic Content Marketing: Perspectives, Issues, Challenges and Solutions. Digital Doughnut founder John Horsley caught up with Dzamic recently to talk about the book, the current rift in the industry, and why content points to the future of marketing.
Lazar Dzamic: There are a lot of how-to books about content, but Justin and my personal impression was that the strategic side of the debate - the whole philosophy of content - was missing. So the first thing we wanted to do was visit all the different debates and issues around content marketing. Then while we were doing our research, we realised that we were talking less and less about content as a department, as one particular deliverable, and more about the future of marketing. What are the key dynamics that are shaping how brands and agencies have to think about the next five years and the coming environment they need to operate in? And what impact will that have on their business models, skill sets, how they’re organised, how they make money?
John Horsley: So what does the marketing of the future look it? What are the things that are driving us towards it?
Dzamic: There were ten big takeouts for us from the book. One of the first things we wanted to do is map out the whole content territory, because there is no single universally agreed definition of content marketing.
We found more than 100 attempts to define it, and we’ve put them into five groups. The first is “content as marketing”. These definitions are so broad, you can replace the phrase content marketing with marketing and it still works, so it doesn’t really tell us anything new.
Then we had discipline-based definitions, meaning that agencies in various other disciplines that used to called themselves SEO agencies, for example, or social media marketing agencies, now call themselves content specialists simply because it’s a broader area. It’s more sexy and there’s more money.
Then the third group is consumer-centric definitions, which are closest to the heart of this whole phenomenon, which is pull versus push. Whatever the brand sends out has to deserve the attention of the audience because it’s so much more difficult to buy these days.
The penultimate one is definitions based on the narrative or aesthetic feel. Here we’re talking about more authentic, more helpful things that do not feel, look or sound like traditional advertising.
And finally the fifth group is people who ask whether we need a definition at all because content, particularly Content with a capital C, as philosophy, is an optics we can deploy to look at the world and the modern marketing space. It’s a transitionary phase from traditional marketing based on interruption into the new ways of marketing where brands actually have to deserve consumer attention much more than before.
Horsley: So how does content relate to traditional marketing?
Dzamic: We looked at whether content is perceived as being a better way of doing things than traditional marketing. We looked at the current challenges, and the reasons why content is seen as a potential solution. We looked at the experience economy phenomenon and why creating micro-experiences - designing for time and place - is becoming much more important than before.
Horsley: What impact is this having on the industry?
Dzamic: In another section, we looked at about how content changes the way we all do business. The way creative agencies, for example, are transforming, based on this new philosophy, and the challenges they have working at different operating speeds. They may be making money by doing very slow, very expensive, very emotional messaging production, ie traditional ads. Or they may be making money doing CRM and faster-turnaround SEO. And at the moment it seems to us that there’s a huge rift between the two sides of the industry. On the so-called deep-branding side of the industry, you have the above-the-line beasts who tell emotional stories, and then you’ve got all the other people who are doing touchpoint optimisation. And that rift is creating a lot of problems because people simply do not know how to bridge it. The biggest barrier is probably the historic business models, but there’s also different cultures and skill sets. And having to work at different speeds in one creative agency is now a problem.
At the moment the industry perceives these things as either/or. So the book asks why emotional things have to be expensive to produce, because the YouTubers have shown us you can do great emotional or engaging work in the digital space on a shoestring budget.
And if you look at the other side of the story, when we are optimising for search, why does something useful have to be boring? Nobody says that’s the law. And again it’s very often the optics that are stopping the two sides of the industry working more cohesively together, exactly in the way that the content requires. We call that new approach Empathic Utility; delivering both emotional resonance and intent utility in one moment.
And then we also looked at how the customer journey has become everyone’s game. It’s bridging that chasm between the two camps; above-the-line and below-the-line, because top-of-the-funnel, bottom-of-the-funnel, these terms really don’t mean a lot, because now everybody can play a meaningful role wherever a brand touches the customer. We’re just not used to it, and our business models are not conducive to it.
Horsley: But some businesses are getting it?
Dzamic: Nimble media agencies, CRM agencies, more integrated agencies are getting it. Nimble consultancies like Accenture too, are going downstream to compete with creative agencies they’ve purchased recently. Meanwhile the clever agencies are starting to go upstream, and are competing across the whole of the customer journey. So the book looks at how content works across the customer journey, and how content distribution and context are becoming really important things to understand.
Horsley: What about the anti-content perspective?
Dzamic: The last two sections of the book are dedicated to the dark sides of content. There’s lots of big names who think the whole content hype is crap. When you look at some of the research, it shows that 19 out of 20 pieces of content launched at unsuspecting consumers actually do not produce any engagement whatsoever. And then you realise we’re making exactly the same mistake with content that we made with advertising visuals; we think that we can force people to pay attention and that’s becoming more and more difficult to do.
And then the last chapter is something that I’m particularly proud of. It covers something our industry doesn’t talk about at all, and that’s the ethical aspects. We’ve defined four big areas of ethical challenges that content particularly presents to the creative industries: the opacity of the data manipulation that we know is happening at the moment and that we’ve seen recently with Cambridge Analytica, Facebook and many others; the crumbling separation between advertising and editorial, and the challenges that poses both for trusted media, but also for brands; the empathic media challenge, and datafication of our emotional life, particularly through machine learning and artificial intelligence, and the ways that could be used and abused; and finally the trivialisation of our everyday life, which exploded through television, but now it’s exploded even more in the digital space.
Horsley: Did you notice any trends around sectors or businesses that were excelling in this? For example, I’ve noticed a number of businesses appointing chief experience officers. And those businesses seem to be a little more sophisticated in terms of the customer experience they’re looking to create, their understanding of the customer journey, their understanding of how to create a fantastic dynamic experience, and their handling of data.
Dzamic: I agree with chief experience officers much more than chief content officers. In the book, we do not advocate that content should be a department, we say it should be a philosophy permeating the whole of the organisation. So experience certainly is part of delivering great customer experience across the whole of the customer journey, which makes much more sense.
We haven’t noticed that there are particular categories that are consistently better in delivering this way of thinking. But we did see that there are examples in almost any category of companies who do get it and do it better than the others. It just happens to be newer, younger companies that are not burdened with a whole shebang of existing business models, company history, internal company narratives and company cultures and so on, that seem to be a little better at getting this new way of thinking, and being more nimble and ready to experiment.
Pepsi Max in the UK comes to mind. They moved the whole of their TV budget to YouTube, so YouTube is their primary branding space, and it seems to be working quite well. So it is possible, but it requires a huge change of optics, which is probably one of the most difficult things for any brand to do.
The Definitive Guide to Strategic Content Marketing: Perspectives, Issues, Challenges and Solutions, by Lazar Dzamic and Justin Kirby, is published by Kogan Page.