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What Content Marketing Needs to Rule in the Post-Advertising Age

how to take over advertisingIt has been seven years since digital became social… and media changed forever. We all agree interruption as a marketing strategy is dead.

But adland has largely failed to act on that consensus.

It’s clear that valuable content will ultimately replace traditional ads. But the content marketing business has yet to seize — or even squarely face — the future of advertising. 

To wrest advertising from the cold, dead hands of the traditional agencies, the content industry is going to have to master and improve some basic brand management skills, including branding, strategic planning, media planning, and measurement.

Content-focused agencies can dominate their more traditional — and monolithic — peers, but only if they begin to resemble those ad agencies in some crucial ways.

Most content marketers are not nearly ambitious enough and apparently do not see their potential to take over advertising. On the client side, too many brand marketers apparently do not see how much money they could save — and how really important they could be in their audiences’ lives — if they got serious about joining the ongoing media revolution.

It’s pretty simple: The traditional approach of interrupting the show or the story that attracted your audience is indeed a tactic with diminishing returns. Ads now need to be the show, not the sideshow. Ads must:

  • Attract and hold their own audiences
  • Be valuable content experiences that compel and reward attention
  • Be such compelling content that people will share a brand’s stories with their social networks. Mounds of research prove such peer-to-peer sharing affects behavior some four times more powerfully than brand-to-consumer advertising. (If you doubt it, read the study published in Nature last year about how a single message generated many conversations on Facebook and drew an added 340,000 to the polls.)

“Great armies and navies are always tempted to fight the last war, especially if they won it,” wrote journalist Evan Thomas in a 2008 Newsweek article. Agencies and brand marketers are no different. TV won most of the marketing wars of the last 50 years. But focusing on the size of TV budgets in a digital world is about as useful as focusing on the budget for tanks and bombers in a world of drones and insurgents.

A revelatory study in the Journal of Advertising Research, The Power of Inertia, shows that mindless “aversion to change” continues to lead marketers to consistently make precisely the wrong decisions about how to advertise.

The way the marketing wars are waged was altered radically and irretrievably in 2006, when Facebook opened up to anyone 13 and older (not just college kids) and Twitter launched, spawning an ever-growing variety of social channels. That year, the ecosystem of modern media, already tilting heavily to digital, lurched toward social and digital as the primary media. The result has been ever-compounding audience fragmentation, increasing consumer control of media and, in the words of Derek Thompson in the Atlantic, “a world of smaller screens, shifting ‘windows,’ and no more ads.” (The emphasis is mine.)

Pretty quickly, the opportunities to interrupt people with a traditional paid ad began to narrow sharply. Suddenly, if you wanted a message to get attention, you needed to create a piece of real media with the power to attract and hold its own audience. The best advertising began to shift toward compelling non-ads — non-paid pieces of valuable content that go up on the web, powerfully engage an intended audience, and stimulate sharing across social networks.

This is not about anything as sophomoric as the old “TV is dead” argument. It is a more sophisticated and complex view of media consumption that understands three things:

  • How paid advertising, including TV and digital ads, can effectively assemble a precisely targeted community
  • How the community can be engaged with valuable brand-owned content
  • How the reach and impact of those brand stories can be multiplied nine to 10 times by earned social sharing, lifting effectiveness while lowering cost.

In a digital world where anyone can ignore anything, advertising must be as valuable to an audience as a good book, movie, or news story. It must simultaneously and unambiguously embody the brand that paid for it and measurably advance the brand’s business goals, including getting more people to buy and buy again.

By all rights, content marketing should be the clear solution to this new set of needs. But the truth is that neither the traditional agencies nor the upstart content marketers can provide a unified advertising solution that meets the demands of the digital-first world.

Traditional agencies continue to misunderstand content because they lack the culture to attract good journalists and other storytellers. They misunderstand news and news value even as they rush to establish brand newsrooms. And they remain too single-focused on what the client wants to broadcast, and insufficiently attentive to what the audience needs and wants from media.

On the other hand, content marketers can’t take over from the agencies because they know little of the traditional duties of branding, setting strategy, planning media buys, guaranteeing audience size, or taking ultimate responsibility for the business results.

David Jones, heading the $2.4-billion Havas network, recently told Advertising Age, “[Clients] are saying to us, ‘Nobody’s getting creative, media and digital working together.'” He believes his big competitors can’t deliver such a unified solution. Insiders confirm that not even Jones can get it right, since Havas’ main agencies still lean on TV far too heavily.

On the other hand, hundreds of content specialists have decided to create brand stories without understanding that content alone won’t do the job. These brand content creators include content marketing agencies, traditional publishers (Washington Post is one of the latest entries in the native advertising fad), digital blog networks (Gawker’s Studio@Gawker) and even in-house units at big brands.

None of these content experts has engaged with branding and brand management, media planning, research and strategy or, ultimately, producing the sales results that brands demand.

The sad outcome is that brands continue to rely on traditional TV-first shops to be the lead agencies and control the big ideas. This means the ideas on which brands rely are still largely attention-getting, TV-centric concepts that lack the depth or authority needed to build online stories and sustain conversations.

The ad industry is constantly in search of the elusive “agency of the future.” Over the past several years, my agency has been assembling, testing, and proving a suite of tools and capabilities that marry social and digital content creation (real brand storytelling) with the necessary brand management skills. In the process, we’ve come to believe the agency of the future (and the present) is a hybrid animal we’ll call the content advertising agency. Here are five components I believe are the critical elements of such an agency:

  1. A proprietary narrative branding process that reliably finds a brand’s core narrative, so the agency can craft a brand’s most powerful stories quickly across all platforms — from TV to Twitter.
  2. A sophisticated strategic planning function that merges traditional strategy and market research with social listening and a journalistic approach peculiar to content shops. Such a strategic planning group forges precise insights into brand truths and audience mindsets that will drive powerful differentiation and targeting.
  3. A creative group staffed by real storytellers — journalists, screenwriters, animators, digital designers, and creative technologists. It should include some traditional advertising creatives, but its core is the audience-focused skills of publishing and entertainment.
  4. Digital media planning and buying skills that perform the critical task of efficiently building influential communities by acquiring carefully targeted audiences for brand content online. This is the only way a content ad agency can ensure a brand’s stories will reach a critical mass of the right people. This, in turn, is the only way to achieve predictable results.
  5. An analytics function that measures it all and provides insights and a basis for daily optimization to drive efficiency. 

The object of all this is simple: To replace the traditional ad agency with something better, something far more efficient and effective. Something that lowers the cost of doing business. Something that forms communities with consumers. Something, in short, that actually works in the new media era that has overtaken us all.

The more content organizations that join this work, the quicker the industry will be able to complete the necessary work of replacing a less and less useful form of communication — traditional ads — with something that is far more useful and helpful for both the advertiser and the audience.

Welcome, as I tend to say, to the post-advertising age. 

This article originally appeared in the November 2013 issue of “Chief Content Officer.” Sign up to receive your free subscription to our quarterly magazine.