By Joe Pulizzi published May 18, 2013

Next-Wave Content Creation Strategies for the End of the Online Ad Era

Disclaimer: This post discusses what may happen in the future (and may turn out to be dramatically wrong).

end of online ad eraOver the past month of speeches and appearances, I’ve heard two questions more often than any others:

  1. When consumers finally tire of ads on the web (i.e., pre-roll, roadblock ads, basic banners), what will brands do?
  2. Once all brands have started embracing content marketing, what happens then?

What’s interesting is that the answers to these two questions go hand in hand.

When the ads are gone

I’m convinced that there will come a point in my lifetime (I’m 40) when interruptive online ads will no longer be tolerated by consumers. Already, there are millions around the world who sign up and pay for Adblock Plus, and millions more who have installed Google’s Pop-up blocker. One way or another, it won’t be long before online ads go away altogether.

Like it or not, the future of online advertising for brands will involve content in some way — entertaining and/or useful content creation in text, audio, and/ or visual forms. We are already seeing this in native advertising, where advertising spots are transforming into some form of relevant or entertaining content (hopefully). But this is just the start of the massive content marketing trend on the horizon. When it arrives, here are some of the things I see coming with it:

Sponsored content will come of age: Extremely useful or entertaining content created by media companies will soon be offered exclusively through their key partners. This basically means that if consumers want their content, they’ll have to engage (in some manner) with its sponsor. A great example of this is Mother Nature Network. Nearly all of its major content categories are sponsored. For example, its Fitness & Well-Being category (pictured below) is sponsored by Coca-Cola. It integrates a native advertising unit that features Coke content from the brand’s “Coming Together” fitness program.

mother nature network

The content will become the “sell:” Red Bull’s Media House develops as much content as some traditional media companies do. Importantly, almost none of that content involves talking about energy drinks — rather, its content creation is completely focused on targeting readers’ interests (like a media company does). Procter & Gamble has done this with Home Made Simple. AMEX has done this with its OPEN forum. OpenView Venture Partners has done this with its OpenView Labs.

In other words, most brands will finally realize that focusing on their products and services in the majority of their content will get them nowhere, and they will finally succumb to investing in creating meaningful content that people truly want to engage in.

When all brands embrace content marketing

My answer to the question of what happens when all organizations do content marketing? “Well, we are already there!

Every piece of content marketing research, in both the B2B and B2C sectors, finds that approximately nine in 10 marketers employ some form of content marketing. This means that content marketing strategies that were quite effective in the recent past will need to be changed.

Case in point: Marcus Sheridan’s “answer all customer questions on fiberglass pools” marketing strategy worked for him and River Pools & Spas because no one else was doing it at the time. He was truly the first in that industry, and dominated because of it. The same happened to us at CMI, as we and Copyblogger were two of the first to answer marketers’ questions around content marketing.

So, what happens next? Robert Rose believes that brands will need to find their differentiating story to stand out from the competition. In his most recent CMI blog post, Robert stated that only “thoughtful planning and a strong focus on creating differentiating, remarkable content that communicates from a strong point of view will be what separates the rare from the commodity.”

This means that simply answering questions is no longer going to be enough to cut through the clutter.

Once everyone is creating content, what do we do, then?

Even though content marketing has been around for hundreds of years, we are at the beginning of an industry revolution. Those organizations that make a true investment in content marketing strategy and processes will have a clear competitive advantage. As that happens, here are some areas to think about:

Strategy: Yes, 90 percent of businesses produce some form of content marketing, but less than 10 percent have an integrated content strategy. If your organization is among this majority, it’s time to set yourself apart. Start by determining what each of your buyer personas would say is the differentiating value you provide, and use those traits as the basis of your content marketing mission statement. Why will your customers and prospects look to your content for meaning and value? Don’t create any more content until you know the answer to this, from both your customers’ perspective and your own.

Point of view: Does your content sound just like your competitors’? Does it sound like the trade magazine in your industry? If so, you have a problem. Make sure the content you create has a unique point of view that only you can provide. Tell the story differently.

Amazingly useful or entertaining: Do these attributes describe the content you create? If not, think about how you can serve as a true and trusted resource for you customers. Remember, your customers have tons of amazing content at their disposal to help them make buying decisions, so your content must communicate the benefits that come with choosing to engage with yours.

Audience development: Since the dawn of media, the circulation department has been critical in making sure the right audiences were being reached. It was this department’s responsibility to make sure key buyers “opted-in” to receive communications (both print and online) from the media organization.

Do you have someone in your organization focused on both audience acquisition and audience retention? Yes, most of our organizations have marketers focused on acquiring leads to feed into our nurturing programs; but are we really thinking about this in terms of our content strategies? Having someone in the organization truly focused on your subscription efforts will become critical.

What is the key takeaway from all this? Simple: We are seeing marketing departments transform into true publishing operations. Advertising, as we know it in the digital form, will change, sooner rather than later. Brands need to make changes to adjust to this, and those that take this seriously now will have a significant competitive advantage in the future.

Want to learn more about content creation strategies that will give your business a competitive edge? Don’t miss Content Marketing World 2013. Register by May 31 to take advantage of early-bird pricing. 

Cover image via Bigstock

Author: Joe Pulizzi

Joe Pulizzi is the Founder of Content Marketing Institute, a UBM company, the leading education and training organization for content marketing, which includes the largest in-person content marketing event in the world, Content Marketing World. Joe is the winner of the 2014 John Caldwell Lifetime Achievement Award from the Content Council. Joe’s the author of five books, including his latest, Killing Marketing. His third book, Epic Content Marketing was named one of “Five Must Read Business Books of 2013” by Fortune Magazine. If you ever see Joe in person, he’ll be wearing orange. Follow him on Twitter @JoePulizzi.

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  • Barry Feldman

    Well, though I’m an advertising veteran, you haven’t really offended me because I too would love to see them go away. However, you know as well as I do, they won’t. As long as media sells ads, advertisers will buy them. I’m not saying they should, but they will. The price will erode to match the value, but there’ll be no disappearing act. And BTW, if I scroll up, what is it that I find below your opt-in form? Looks a bit like an online display ad (said the reader to the publisher).

    • Joe Pulizzi

      Love this Barry. Yes, we indeed sell advertising, but we are actively thinking about the time when it won’t be an option. If you look at sites like Buzzfeed (right or wrong) more and more of their advertising is sponsored content and general sponsorships. It’s a process.

      Thanks again!

  • Carrie Morgan

    I have to say that I completely disagree – just like web developers have learned to make their sites device responsive and resize based on use – advertisers will quickly go the same route.

    They can’t exist without advertising revenue.

    Platforms may change, advertorial via sponsored content will indeed morph and change, and “free” visibility via digital PR tactics will continue to grow in sophistication just like advertising will – but the need for revenue is never going to disappear.

    Content has already been the soft sell long before it exploded in popularity (byline articles, anyone) and will continue – but as part of the overall mix.

    • Joe Pulizzi

      Hi Carrie…I appreciate the take. Not sure if we are on the same page here. You are correct, these sites can’t exist without advertising-type revenue, but it doesn’t mean that is HAS to be advertising. For example, most of our online revenue is sponsorship, not advertising. That means a mix of content and branding promotion, not just ads. More and more media sites are going this direction because, frankly, readers are ignoring ads. I agree that advertisers are getting smarter about this, but ads work best when they are not ads at all.

  • Daniel

    I agree people dont look at the right rail anymore. If an ad has a logo, its blocked from the person’s consideration completely. Companies like Outbrain, Adblade and Kontera are building content type ads or ads which look like content. This is the new way. Its about communicating a message and getting a response without branding.

  • Ron VanPeursem

    Joe, as the content flood continues growing, your point that we “tell the story differently” and add a unique point of view will become more and more important to understand.

    I’m including your quote on my Friday round-up of “The Best Marketing quotes of the Week”. Check it out (on Friday) on my personal blog!

    • Joe Pulizzi

      Wonderful Ron. Thanks!

  • Ian Westcott

    I am a little on the fence as to whether or not they will vanish entirely. I am an editor for a content driven site that makes a reasonable portion of it’s revenue from online ads.

    There are many internet users these days that have developed almost total immunity to traditional roadblock style ads, but right now they are a means to an end, and as long as they are non invasive (popping up aggressively over the top of your desired content), i think they still have their place.

    Having said that, in my experience content driven promotion is always more powerful, but I would say that wouldn’t i! I really feel that if you produce useful content that addresses the needs of the readership you are targeting, you will find it well received, and more often than not, shared.

    A huge mistake that many companies make is by taking advertorial too literally. Articles can come in with lines to the effect of “Here at , we offer solutions such as…”

    The world of online advertising is certainly in a period of transition, but in my opinion few companies have yet to grasp it with both hands and use it effectively. If you want to be a seen as a friend and assistant of the reader, address their needs, not your own.

    • Joe Pulizzi

      I like the take Ian…I agree, more and more advertising is transforming into sponsored content. Done right, it can work.

      Native advertising, that is truly integrated with the message of the site, can work and is seen as the next frontier for many advertisers. I’m honestly not sure how long that will last.

  • John F. Hunt

    I was almost ready to agree with the obituary for online ads until I saw one on Friday that gave me $4 off admission to a local event. The wife and I went and saved $8. The bigger issue is how much did that advertiser have to pay to get me and others to redeem their banner coupon versus could they have spent that money more wisely enticing me with valuable content which would have had me pay full price and show up at their venue without a financial incentive?

    • Joe Pulizzi

      Hi John…all ads, except for relevant coupons 😉

  • Matthew

    There is another important takeaway from your article. Brands need to align themselves with the right content. And that decision should be based on how the consumer will respond to the pairing. Coca-Cola may feel that sponsoring a fitness and health website is appropriate but anyone who is actually interested in that topic would find that sponsorship appalling. It’s just not a good fit no matter how much the brand wants it to be.

    • Joe Pulizzi

      Hi Matthew…it’s interesting, isn’t it? Coke’s big campaign right now is around full disclosure of the health impacts of their products and use in moderation.

  • MXA

    I think there is a compromise between what we see today and the death of all ads. It’s called “acceptable ads.” Reddit’s community and others helped define it, and the EFF supports it. Do a search for ‘adblock plus and acceptable ads’ and you’ll see there is some real thought behind it.

    • Joe Pulizzi

      Thanks…I’ll do that.

  • Yogesh Goplani

    So may insights in a single post, Joe. You have hit the right note here. I too have the same question: What will be the face of digital advertising? What if majority of the users block ads?

    Well blocking ads takes me to the telecommunication industry. Remember DND Registry? What happened after that? Its not that telemarketing died. It is still alive.

    However, that debate aside, I think its already happening as you mentioned. The thought leaders will surely take a note of this trend and as usual, they will stay on top by altering their marketing campaigns and budgets accordingly.

  • Tod

    Big words for someone whose site pops up an email squeeze pop-up three seconds after the page loads… 🙁

    • Joe Pulizzi

      Hi Tod…would you consider that an ad? We use that as a subscription strategy and it works very well for us.