By Joe Pulizzi published March 2, 2013

6 Ways the Content Marketing Backlash is Getting it Wrong

content marketing backlashAs regular CMI readers know, nearly all of our posts are originals. Yet, sometimes when we find a diamond in the rough that adds to the conversation on content marketing, we will repurpose someone else’s post.

Well, I had the opportunity a few days ago to read this post courtesy of Doug Kessler at Velocity Partners (UK). Frankly, this post is a keeper. All of the issues that marketers and business owners bring up about the term and practice of content marketing are covered by Doug in this piece. This is exactly the type of content that is going to continue to push us forward as an industry. Doug: My sincere thanks.

Enjoy the post!  — Joe Pulizzi, Founder, Content Marketing Institute

 

If every action has an equal and opposite reaction, we’re due for a MASSIVE backlash against content marketing.

It’s already started. More and more bloggers are finally getting fed up with all the hype and are pushing back. A recent post by Neil Hopkins (Interacter) is a case in point. It’s called “Content marketing is nothing more than the Emperor’s new clothes,” which pretty much sums up what most of the new batch of whistleblowers are so mad about.

It’s not the thing itself that is getting everyone so upset, it’s the hype.

This is a weird moment for me because I tend to be the guy who likes to stick a pin in the over-inflated. I’m a card-carrying hater and I especially enjoy hating the very things that everybody else has agreed to love. Group-think triggers my aversion to anything resembling a Nuremberg Rally, Red Scare, Witch Hunt or Chelsea Football crowd. So it’s distinctly uncomfortable to find myself riding on a bandwagon when the people throwing rotten tomatoes at it look so much like me.

In his post, Neil trots out the Google Trends graph showing the dramatic increase in mentions of the term ‘content marketing.’ If you’ve ever seen a hockey stick, you’ll recognise it. He also brings in the CMI’s definition of content marketing and the Wikipedia history.  His conclusion: “Every time I hear the phrase ‘Content Marketing,’ I want to scream until I puke.” (Given the Google chart, it’s a mystery how poor Neil keeps any food down at all).

So even though I have to suppress an urge to join the hecklers, I am a content marketer and I feel I ought to defend the discipline. With that in mind, here’s a summary of the arguments I’ve heard against content marketing. In each case, I hope to show that the argument is not with content marketing at all: it’s with some other obnoxious phenomenon that has attached itself to our fair art.

So here are the main objections:

“Content marketing is not new.”

No, it’s not. Wikipedia (and Joe Pulizzi) traces it back to the John Deere magazine, The Furrow, published in 1895 (I’m sure that wasn’t the first example but it’s often cited as such and I can’t be arsed to track down an earlier one).

The first piece of content marketing I ever noticed was the excellent “Power of the Written Word” campaign by International Paper in the ’80s. (1980s, wise guy). (You can download the PDFs from Lawrence Berstein’s post on the Info Marketing blog).  So I’m well aware it’s not a new thing.

But did anyone ever say it was new? What’s new is that now it has a name and the name has gone viral in an especially annoying way for those of us who do it for a living.

Of course content marketing is not new. But the web and social media have given it a whole new life. Now anyone can play. And that’s kind of new.

“Content marketing is over-hyped.”

Of course it is. Nothing has all the magical powers that the Cult of CM attributes to it. But is that the fault of the discipline?

If hype rendered its object worthless, then Madonna would be washing dishes in a New Jersey diner. It’s not HER fault that a zillion zombies decided all at once to accept unchallenged the reported sightings of her talent. Okay, bad example. That is her fault.

But it’s not content marketing’s fault that it’s become the buzzword-du-jour for marketers everywhere.

The Internet itself was said to be over-hyped during the bubble days. As it turns out, all that hyperbole turned out to be understatement. The Internet really did change everything. Despite the hype not because of it.

So, yes, content marketing is over-hyped. But that will settle down when the next big thing comes along. (My money’s on Slinkies.) (They WALK. DOWN. STAIRS.).

“Content marketing is a stupid name.”

Yeah, it really is. ‘Content’ is a dumb word. It means something like ‘that which is in a container.’ Really helpful.

But once you get over that part, ‘content marketing’ is kind of descriptive. It’s marketing that uses content instead of just babble about product features.

So a new name will no-doubt come along. ‘Cloud’ used to be ‘Software-as-a-Service,’ which used to be ‘Application Service Provision’ — the thing didn’t go away, it just burned through a few names.

“Content marketing is just another word for marketing.”

Well, not really. There is plenty of marketing that is not content marketing. Only the loosest definition of content marketing would include the movie billboard, perfume ad or “10% Off for Valentine’s Day!” email shot.

Just before screaming until he puked, Neil Hopkins said that, “Every bit of tat given away by brands at trade shows or consumer sampling sessions could be termed content marketing.” No, Neil, that would be termed ‘bad marketing.’

Content marketing is a specific discipline within the wide, tawdry pageant that is marketing. It’s just eating up more and more of the budget (because it works).

I admit that the prospect of ‘content-free’ marketing is not a pretty one, but I’ll rest my case on this one.

“Content marketing is a fad.”

This kind of goes with the ‘over-hyped’ objection but it’s a bit different because it implies that content marketing will, one day soon, go away.

I really can’t see that happening.

What I can see happening is that content marketing will become the price of entry in most markets rather than the differentiator it is today. So it will become much harder to use content to leap out of the similarly-content-spewing pack. We moaned about this in our recent Slideshare rant called, “Crap: why the biggest threat to content marketing is content marketing.”

But we never concluded that content marketing will die.

How could using your expertise to help your prospects do their jobs ever be a bad idea?

No, it’s here to stay — it’ll just mature from ‘Shiny New Idea’ to ‘Marketing Staple.’

“Content marketing is a lie.”

This one does worry me. Especially because the only place I’ve ever heard this argument is in my own head.

Content marketing is a lie because it pretends that there isn’t a hidden agenda when there is one: to sell stuff. The content in content marketing tries hard to sound neutral. To make like Fox News and pretend to be ‘Fair and Balanced’ (pause for guffaw). But it isn’t. It’s selling a world view that was designed to lead the reader to the door of the brand that produced the content.

Ouch.

Okay, here’s my dignity-saving post-rationalisation: The best content marketing does not hide its agenda. It’s totally open about it. It just puts aside its sales agenda for long enough to bring some genuine value to the target audience (in the hope that prospects will like you more because of it).

This touches on the fear that dare not speak its name: the fear that we’re all really just in the business of producing advertorials. Or infomercials (pause to run off and shower). But for now, I’ll overcome this objection with the well-worn rebuttal, “I know you are but what am I?” backed up by a chorus of “Sticks and stones will break my bones but words will never hurt me.” (A sing-song so annoying it always triggers a hunt for a handy stick or stone.)

So that’s my defense against the inevitable, predictably shrill, Content Marketing Backlash.

The haters aren’t really rejecting content marketing. They’re rejecting blind hype, crappy names, bad content marketing and ignorance of marketing history. All worthy of approbation, if not hate. But nothing to do with the responsible, professional, humble practice of content marketing.

A sampling of the recent Backlash posts

Not all are anti-CM, but they do share a suspicion that it’s not all it’s cracked up to be:

Interacter’s “Emperor’s New Clothes” post.

Positive Marketing, Why content marketing sucks.: “Longer term, Content Marketing, as we know it today is doomed. As always with marketing, differentiation, authenticity and innovation will win out.”  (This suggests that you must choose to make great products or do content marketing. But they’re not mutually exclusive. Do both.)

Geoff Livigstone, Customer experience trumps content marketing: Geoff says, “As a primary strategy content marketing is over-hyped. Instead, brands should focus on customer experience marketing.” (Feels like a buzzword-for-buzzword swap to me…)

And Geoff again with The Content Marketing Debate: “Content marketing puts a new name on an old discipline, making it more accessible to other professions… In 10 years, I’m sure it will be called something else.” (In 10 years, bacon will be called something else.)

 15 Buzzwords to Stop Using by Veronica Maria Jarsky on Marketing Profs — guess who appears on the list.

Laura Ramos on the Forrester blog: Which comes first, content marketing or thought leadership?: “Four key trends converging on business-to-business marketers are driving interest in, and failure with, content marketing.” (Good points, actually.)

Christopher S. Penn, How to Fix the Sad State of Content Marketing: “Content marketing. It was the darling of the marketing world in 2012, but it’s fallen on hard times lately.”  (I should fall on such hard times.)

Stephen Downes of the QBrand Blog posted The trouble with content marketing: “Content marketing” is not a new kind of marketing. At best, it’s about some new communication tools; at worst, it’s putting the cart before the horse.” He also says content marketing is emphatically not a strategy. (Not sure about that — but I always get confused between strategies and tactics.)

Tom Albrighton, An honest look at content marketing: “It’s strange to see something you’ve been doing for aeons suddenly trumpeted as the Next Big Thing.”

Learn more about what content marketing is — and what it isn’t — from Doug Kessler when he presents at Content Marketing World, September 9–12, 2013. Register now to reserve your spot. 

Image via Shutterstock.com

Author: Joe Pulizzi

Joe Pulizzi considers himself the poster boy for content marketing. Founder of the Content Marketing Institute, Joe evangelizes content marketing around the world through keynotes, articles, tweets and his books, Managing Content Marketing and Get Content Get Customers. Joe's latest book is Epic Content Marketing (McGraw-Hill). If you want to get on his good side, send him something orange. For more on Joe, check out his personal site or follow him on Twitter @JoePulizzi.

Other posts by Joe Pulizzi

  • http://www.facebook.com/people/Hagar-Kelly/1174097378 Hagar Kelly

    Everything is content – videos, text, flyers on telephone poles – and all that communication is to sell or promote something, from attendance, to an idea or viewpoint.
    Content marketing is another “buzzword” for plain ol’ communcation; to say “it will die” is as ludicrous as saying “the whole world will take a vow of slience today”.

    I’m agreeing with you; what’s made the term ugly is its justification for so much bad copywriting and worse “info-articles”. LIke a bracelet dunked in heavy paint, it’s tainted by association – but as soon as it’s changed its name, will be shiny and new again.

    And keep right on working in the meantime, no matter what you call it.

  • http://twitter.com/TraceySand Tracey Sandilands

    Reminds me of project management. In the old days, we struck a committee and did something. Now it’s a science that people have made a fortune out of, with certification available and timelines etc. Just a different name and a bit more red tape, though

  • PeterJ42

    Look at the bigger picture. In the old days the sales person put the product in context. He told stories around it, matched it with the buyer’s needs and brought life to the features and benefits. Ideally he created a compelling story and carried everyone to a sale on the back of it.
    In a “marketing makes leads for sales” scenario, Content has to do that job. Articles outline the problem, the reasons for choice, even build fear of loss and keep up with the competition scenarios. They build desire, influence the influencers and cover off other vendors. If content marketing is well done – and it rarely is – it can be very powerful.
    But buyers don’t play this game any more. They have a much higher awareness, often gained totally outside of any formal buying cycle, of what they want and why. They have a network of trusted sources and influencers and vendors who haven’t done the work to be trusted are pretty much ignored.
    Vendors who are authentic and customer focused, have a compelling story to tell and who take the time to build relationships outside of a buying process will always do well with content marketing. But when it is a quick paragraph then an exhortation to “buy our product” it will fail – and along the way make it harder for the good stuff to stand out.

  • ravekrishna

    Doug, great article! Loved the way you presented what the world thought in tandem with your inner ones! My personal gripe is the slogan – Content is king. If I hear one more article (Mea Culpa in the past!) that celebrates this, I promise to join the hecklers. And eat my new clothes! Thanks again…

  • http://profiles.google.com/trevorr77 Trevor Rasmussen

    I don’t think its the discipline that they think is going to die…its the typical backlash over anything that just grows too big. People turn on it. Happens with movies, music, and many other pop culture phenomenons. I remember when Titanic came out. ALL I heard about for weeks was how amazing it was and how its the best ever and how DiCaprio is so incredible. I wanted to vomit…so I skipped the movie. I didn’t want to contribute to the craziness that had become Titanic. I did later see it on DVD and it was a good movie but it was never able to live up to the great hype machine that killed it for me. I think that is what is happening here. Everywhere you look in marketing right now its content marketing this and content marketing is that. We are talking about content being king and people who aren’t in that are (and even some who are) are thinking “enough is enough”. I don’t think its going away but I do think its being overhyped some.

    Content is one piece of an orchestrated marketing plan, just like social media, email, and other aspects. Its not king but it might be the quarterback of the team…if your content sucks the rest of the marketing plan is going to fail. If its great and the plan does well the content pieces are going to get the glory just like the QB would.

  • Andrea Bridges-Smith

    I can’t begin to tell you how enjoyable this article was to read. Bravo, Doug. If we ever meet in person, I’m buying you a beer.

  • Gordon Graham

    Great article. I can’t see any end to “content marketing” by whatever name it takes on in the future. I agree with Doug that providing prospects with useful information will become the basic cost-of-entry to any market for any B2B product. Since the web disintermediated sales people, buyers can now do their own searches. And what comes up when they search? CONTENT.

  • Kathleen_Booth

    GREAT post! I’ve been wondering how long it would take before the haters gained share of voice in the media. I do agree with Doug however that giving customers and prospects useful information that they need will never get old. As an example, I run a marketing agency and the old way of thinking would have meant that I wouldn’t share my trade secrets (templates I use, processes I follow, etc.). Once I started learning about content marketing and the real value behind it (establishing trust by stopping selling and starting to help), I began giving all this info away for free (well, unless you consider asking someone to share their email address to be a “cost”). As soon as I began to do this, the number of visits to our site skyrocketed, and so did the volume of emails I began to receive from people thanking me for the helpful information. There is just no way that this is wrong!

  • Kristin Austin

    I LOVED this post. Made me laugh. Anyone who’s been around a while has seen all this before (minus the hype).

  • http://twitter.com/tuvainteractive Tuva Interactive

    I think the rise of the term of content marketing is a direct result of a backlash against really poor social media execution. It helps me to get my clients to focus on publishing useful, interesting and relevant articles, videos, etc. instead of drivel. It doesn’t matter what you call, but content marketing as a concept is incredibly useful in that sense.

  • TheJedisGrandpa

    Most certainly much good for thought…

  • TheJedisGrandpa

    Hmmm – I meant ‘food for thought’..Hey what do you expect – I’m an April Fool Baby.

  • Long Island Marketing Company

    Yes it has become a buzz word. I think the criticism stems from some companies just being incompetent in its use. If your posts have little value to your target reader then you shouldn’t be posting. Just because you are on instagram doesn’t make you a professional photographer. Same works for this. Just because you have a blog doesn’t make you an author.

  • Yasin Aydin

    Love this, I’ve heard all of the objections. The most current and persistent is ‘yh but content marketing is the same as any other marketing’- ouch!

    “Every bit of tat given away by brands at trade shows or consumer sampling sessions could be termed content marketing.” No, Neil, that would be termed ‘bad marketing.” AGREED!

  • http://www.facebook.com/profile.php?id=736541410 Therese Pope

    Great article, Joe. I tend to disagree with “content marketing is a lie.” I can see why you included it though. If you are providing people with real, valuable information and people actually learn something from the content you share, I don’t think that’s lying. Yes, you want to draw in prospects and readership with your content but not everyone who reads your content will buy your product or service. Obviously, that’s your hope but I see content marketing as a way to build upon and strengthen your online rep. The sales funnel can be slow-moving and and even if a person who reads your content doesn’t buy what you sell, they might tell other people about your services or product — might pass along your blog or tweets, etc. to another person who might be interested. I find myself sharing information with friends and colleagues and vice-versa who I know would like a certain product or service. So I don’t see content marketing as a lie unless you write and promote blatantly untruthful claims about your products or services or plagiarize your content.

  • http://www.ronvanpeursem.com/ Ron VanPeursem

    Joe, thanks for finding and amplifying Doug’s voice here. I would have missed it at Velocity, but found it here. His analysis of the problem is excellent, and I also found the comment thread, both at his site, and yours here, to be a great addition to the whole discussion.

    Now that a couple weeks have gone by, I’m going to try to revive the discussion of this topic at my blog, where I summarize the article. Thanks! (See it at:
    http://ronvanpeursem.com/2013/03/content-marketing-hype-not-helping/)

  • http://www.impacthiringsolutions.com/ Barry Deutsch

    I agree it’s an over-hyped phrase in the blogging-digital marketing consulting space because everyone is talking about it now. I’ve been content marketing for at least 15 years to drive the vast majority of my results – back in the day we called it drip nurturing emails – which evolved to automated autoresponder campaigns using email – which morphed into content marketing through social media primarily.

    In my coaching practice teaching others how to use content marketing in the sales cycle, I find that very few people – beyond the large brands (even then it’s questionable) – really understand how to do it well, ranging from law firms to local landscape companies. The vast majority of small-medium size businesses not focused in on-line selling, (including consultants, service providers, coaches, consultants, and speakers) don’t understand it, don’t use it, have no idea where to start.

    I’m still amazed by how many companies continue to be stuck in a 1970s model of cold-calling as their primary sales/lead generation tactic. Through leveraging content marketing, I’ve been able to establish myself in the niches I work in as a thought-leader, SME, and “go-to” person for advice. I don’t think I’ve “sold” something in a long time. Usually I just wait for the phone to ring – and it rings a lot based on my content marketing.

    My personal perception on this issue is that the “haters” – those giving the backlash – are the ones who are not using it, don’t know how to use it, or have not figured out how to drive results through it efficiently. It works well for me. It works in a wide variety of industries and channels – take Marcus Sheridan as an example for residential pool installation.

    I do think we are still at a stage of infancy in the life cycle of using content marketing for lead generation, lead nurturing, and relationship building. I don’t think outside of the on-line marketing world we’re remotely close to a saturation level. In fact, I’d go so far as to say this tactic will not be widely accepted and implemented for another 5-6 years minimum. For example, if drip nurturing using email was a great method 15 plus years ago to distribute content to your prospects/customers, why have so few companies adopted using tools like icontact or constant contact?

    To the “haters”, my response would be come back after you’ve actually effectively implemented content marketing, and just try to give it a “backlash.”

    Barry Deutsch

    IMPACT Hiring Solutions