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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.


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. 

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