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Trough of Disillusionment: the Content Marketing Backlash

by Frank Strong

If content marketing was a technology, Gartner might say it has entered the “trough of disillusionment.”  Ironic that even while those that point out the flaws, they will also continue to embrace the concept in practice.

What started as a charge against the dark result of a system, became a system in need of desperate repair, emerged as an analysis of a debate and settled nearly to where it was placed before it had started.

I have no intention of moving the debate; I’m merely going to state what’s I see from the trenches.

Is there a lot of lousy content on the web?  You bet.  Are good content ideas at a premium and bad content ideas plentiful?  No doubt.  Should we toss the entire concept aside and wait for the next wave to ride?  I don’t think so.

And I don’t think so because I don’t believe content marketing is a fad, I believe it represents an actual evolution: content marketing is the new branding.  This is reflective of the fact that people are distracted, nose-in-the-phone busy, and do not have the attention span for interruptions.  It has become increasingly harder, and vastly more expensive, to buy people’s attention.

Instead we have to earn their attention and content marketing is the path to that end.  Moreover, some very sizable companies, with reputations for marketing excellence, are pouring resources into the concept.

Marketers need to look no further than Adobe, which has grown the site CMO.com from a niche list of curated links, to a venerable news site with original reporting and analysis.  Coca-Cola, for example, has transformed its entire website into an online magazine.  Red Bull, has largely marketed its business with earned and shared media, rendered in the form of content.

Red Bull didn’t take long to find an edgier niche than the competition for its brand. Between extreme sports and alternative music, the energy drink brand found its wings in alternative lifestyle content, snagging market share that Pepsi’s pop focus leaves in its wake. The content finds a home on the brand’s website, providing fodder for social media channels and driving a powerful branding mechanism.


Content marketing is new

Yes, content marketing is actually new. The the digital marketing natives will object to this notion and for sure, there are elements of content marketing to traditional marketing techniques; yes, ads are content, news releases are content, websites are content.  However, the same way the dynamic web has dramatically increased the speed, ease and capability to publish one’s views accelerated the adoption of social media and propelled it into the mainstream – it doing the same for content marketing.

A white paper is broken into several blog posts, which is turned into a presentation, which in turn is recorded for a video and all along the way breadcrumbs of content are sprinkled in social networks that fancy status updates and link sharing.   It’s junk to some. It’s re-purposing to others. And it’s content suited to the medium of preference of still others.  Some like text. Some like infographics.  Some like videos.  I like podcasts.

We’ve gone from making primitive content widgets in our basements, to creating sophisticated visuals, graphics and copy, in a streamlined manufacturing process. Sure manufacturing can skim on quality – if like base model cars, we want to compete on price.  Or manufacturing can produce quality – if like luxury cars, we want to compete on style or performance.

We choose our brands with our content.  We can publish volumes of free guides, lists and how-to ebooks, or we can be lead the discussion in our space with new ideas, strong and well reasoned opinions, and now and again, post something fresh and bold.

Both concepts will drive traffic, although with varying patterns, and the question is, which traffic pattern moves the needle for business. That truth is told over time.


Content marketing is the perfect confluence of art and science

Every marketing function wants a piece of the content marketing action.

SEOs will tell us they cannot be effective at driving organic search results without new content; every piece of content published is quite literally like creating another window or door to our business.

PR wants in because it argues content is what it has always created. Increasingly, PR is more and more dependent on compelling content – and the threshold of social media – to earn the interest from the ranks of editorial media. The future of PR is indeed in content.

Branding vies for a seat at the table, because with the advent technologies from DVR to pop-up blocking, it’s becoming easier and easier to avoid the intrusion and interruption of marketing.

Direct marketing is just looking for something that improves metrics; it’s ideal if they can re-purpose existing content rather than create something new.

All of these disciplines are coming together under content.   Content is the perfect confluence of the art and science of which marketing is comprised.  The art is in the creativity, while the science is in the metrics:  SERP, traffic, referrals, click-throughs and conversions.


The bane of lousy content

Ever work real hard on a compelling post only to have no one read it?  Ever slap together a quick list of 10 tips and be surprised at how it zips around the web?

The fact is, lousy content, which I believe often predicates a title of “How to…” or “Ten tips for…” tends to perform well.  There’s a huge demand for basic level content, rendered in the form of digestible tips and take-aways. As the cliche goes, one man’s trash is another’s treasure.

However, these posts usually lack a content strategy as Lisa Barone said, and are easily classified as “shallow content” aimed at answering “an identifiable interest of an identified reader at an identified point in time.”

She’s right of course, content needs direction.  It needs to move upstream.   One-hundred level courses are taught in the Ivy League  schools and community colleges alike; but students, indeed students of content, will get more out of an education if they put more effort into learning; the cost of admission matters less in that respect.


Progression of content marketing

When the web first started getting big, I was in college and recall, after assigned reading, emphatically arguing that the web was different.  We should not, as marketers, merely take our printed brochures and plop them online. This is one of the oldest lessons of the web and I feel we have collectively forgotten it, or at least have reinvented the brochure as a tip list.   It’s content for sure, with the appearance of usefulness, without actually being useful.

I’ve long believed that the magic of PR — if there is magic to it — is the ability to point out the dots but allow others to connect them.  People will believe in ideas when they’ve reached a conclusion on their own.  I’ve also learned by observation, this is also a sales technique, however being a PR person, I’d like to call it an “approach” rather than a “technique.”

And for the record, I’d actually be quite content if fewer people discussed, debated or practiced content marketing…and that’s not because I don’t believe in it.

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