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Can Content Marketing Replace Advertising?

content marketingJohn ringIn the content marketing world, brands will only reap what they sow, writes John Ring.

Let’s face it, as marketers there’s something quite attractive about the idea of content marketing replacing advertising.

Firstly, it’s nice to think we can attract new customers to our brands and maintain ongoing relationships with them without relying on expensive TV or print advertising campaigns. And, in many ways, successful content marketing campaigns allow us to be the authors of our own success, literally.

There’s also the fact that modern content marketing provides metrics that advertisers would have killed for in times gone by. The most they could once hope for was questionable information gleaned from questionnaires and test groups. This meant we were left relying on assumptions about the interests and preferences of audiences, and guesswork as to what demographic made up this audience. Because we can now measure the consumption of the content we produce, we’re no longer groping in the dark.

The ability to see who has interacted with our brand content – and how and when this interaction took place – allows us to collect data not just about these interactions but also the individuals involved. This helps us to build content marketing campaigns that use automation, reach potential customers across a variety of platforms and give us valuable information about buying patterns, which in turn helps to build more effective content marketing (and advertising) campaigns. Sounds fantastic, doesn’t it? But is the prospect of advertising being completely replaced by content marketing really likely? Let’s ponder that thought.

Yes, the tide is turning

Forget TV viewing figures and print circulation statistics, content metrics are now giving us a more accurate picture of brand reach and in many cases, a far better return on investment. It’s not all about the numbers though. For years we’ve been reading warnings about consumers switching off to advertising – they’ve tuned out of TV ads, they are increasingly using ad blockers online and they’re extra picky about who they allow into their inbox. Brands are having to up their game to ensure their message gets through.

The recognition of the importance of content marketing signals our acceptance of the changes in media consumption. As TV watchers head online, they’re skipping the traditional ad breaks. Even newspaper readers are beginning to access online publications through alternative platforms such as Facebook. And, in the world of outdoor advertising, recent advances with e-paper products are likely to fuel the already noticeable trend for more interactive displays.

Although the fashion business has long been dominated by expensive ads in glossy magazines, the likes of net-a-porter has paved the way for change by becoming a first-choice destination for fashion news and trends. The once-stodgy Burberry brand has transformed itself into the darling of digital content marketing and this is trickling down to mass market brands. Topman has just announced that it is setting up its own newsroom to ensure it has a consistent supply of trend-worthy videos. Even London Fashion Week now has live streaming, allowing fashion fans to cut out the media middleman and watch the shows from their own sofa.

No, we’re not quite there yet

In his excellent piece for the Harvard Business Review, Branding in the Age of Social Media, Douglas Holt states: “Once audiences could opt out of ads, it became harder for brands to buy fame.” He’s hit the nail on the head there but that’s not quite the full picture. Holt goes on to explain that while brands are keen to master the power of content marketing, some of the biggest brands aren’t there yet and audiences themselves have a huge role to play in determining how things pan out.

Discussing Coca Cola’s massive content marketing commitment, announced to huge fanfare in 2011, Holt points out that when it comes to YouTube subscribers and visitors to their content hub, Coca Cola is being trounced by vloggers who have built audiences hungry for authentic content.

Does this mean it’s game over for content marketing and brands? Of course not, but it does mean that advertising is still relevant – both as a supplementary strategy and as a means of working with online influencers. Content marketing is one way to fight the big switch-off but it’s one that works well when supported by other marketing and advertising strategies, including influencer partnerships.

It’s also worth considering that some of the best traditional advertising in recent years has taken on a strong storytelling format in order to help build brand affinity. Think about the annual Christmas ads run by British retailer John Lewis. Much-anticipated at this stage, they pull on the heartstrings, appealing not just to TV audiences but clocking up six figure views on YouTube as well.

Brands reap what they sow

Not only is there room for advertising and content marketing to work in tandem, they have done so for decades – albeit without the digital focus.

Some of the earliest content marketing came from an unlikely source. The US company John Deere, a purveyor of ploughs – and later, tractors – became a household name in the 1800s thanks to the brand’s educational approach.

In 1895 the company began publishing an agricultural magazine, The Furrow, to introduce farmers to new products and technology. This wasn’t simply a catalogue showing off the company’s wares; rather it was the agrarian version of Rolling Stone. A genuinely useful publication full of farming tips, it showed customers how certain products could change the way they did business.

The message that remains relevant is, of course, that usefulness must remain at the core of content marketing strategies. While more and more brands are keen to jump on board with content as a marketing strategy, they need to remember that quality and a genuine customer focus help breed success. Because in the field of content marketing, brands reap what they sow.

John Ring is managing director of TinderPoint.

First published in Irish Marketing Journal (May 2016)© to order back issues please call 016611660

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