An oft-cited story in the marketing industry this summer has been the Forrester survey of 113 BtoB marketers in which 51% characterized their content marketing efforts as only “somewhat effective.” That after an earlier Content Marketing Institute survey that found 42% of the content marketers they queried stating that they were effective. (Half full? Half empty?)
Then there was the survey of content consumers by Contently, an organization whose business involves producing the content for content marketing. It found that 54% don’t trust sponsored content. And just for good measure I found another survey by something called BusinessBolts.com that concluded “marketers are seeing massive benefits from content marketing even with minimal effort…”
What does all this tell us? Pretty much nothing. In fact, I would suggest that no matter what hypothesis you proffer you can probably find a professional sounding survey that will confirm it.
Content marketing is the most recent moniker attached to a fairly old practice. Sponsored content used to take the form of advertising sections in newspapers, infomercials on TV or custom publishing. There are new names for the digital age, like content marketing, brand publishing and native advertising. With the new names have come new advocates and new tactics. How many former SEO and social media consultants are now content marketing experts?
But they are not the only ones who want to see this work. Neither the marketing world nor the publishing business has truly survived the transition to a digital media world intact. For years marketers approached the Web with banner ads. Nobody clicks on them and everyone knows it even though they haven’t completely disappeared. Traditional advertising is likewise viewed as declining in value, though one may question whether the value has declined or has it been meager all along and we just needed better measurement tools to realize it.
I don’t need to go into the trials and tribulations of traditional media. They’ve lost readers. They’ve lost revenue. And while a certain percentage of the audience has been recovered online it is a much smaller percentage of the revenue that has been recovered. So the media world hopes sponsored content fills that gap just as the marketer hopes it fills the hole in the efficacy of advertising.
Native advertising is the latest handshake agreement between publishers, who need money, and content providers, who need visibility. The publisher offers access to its audience, the content provider pays for it and they both agree that the stuff won’t look too bad, won’t be blatantly commercial and will somehow fit with the other content. The party that is not privy to this handshake, though, is the reader and it is the audience that eventually will decide whether the sponsored content is welcome, whether they want to see it, or whether it is too blatantly commercial.
Publishers pursuing this path tend to be a little queasy about it. So you see pronouncements about how vigilant they are going to be in labeling sponsored content as just that. But in fact there is a prevailing air of deception about many forms of sponsored content. Ask for a definition of native advertising and you’ll usually hear something about how it is commercial content that looks like the “native” content of the outlet where it is published. In other words, let’s hope the reader can’t really tell the difference.
So will anyone be successful with the new wave of sponsored content?
There is an elite level of premium household-name type brands that will produce some pretty good content and pay a shitload of money to place it on premium sites. Lots of people will see this stuff and both the buyer and seller (not to mention the content marketing consultant) will point to it as an example of how sponsored content can work. That’s nice but it has nothing to do with most companies or organizations and it has nothing to do with modest sized newspapers or periodicals.
I don’t think the sponsored content trend has yet to find its long tail but I think there are opportunities among niche media that have cultivated a very specialized audience. It is much easier in that scenario to identify what might constitute compelling content. If is also much easier for the company that caters to that audience to find their customers there.
I also think it is intriguing to think about whether sponsored content will work with local news. That is a market for which a successful digital business plan has yet to be discovered. (Just ask AOL.) Local media has a very clearly defined audience and usually has no competition. Local businesses are usually not in a position to successfully execute a content marketing campaign. So can local media properties successfully fund their news operation by using the editorial staff to produce sponsored content for their advertisers?
It is also possible that the media will eventually be squeezed out the whole content marketing equation. If the audience for commercial content is driven by search and social rather than by co-mingling under the virtual masthead of a media property, there becomes no need to pay for that placement. Rather success will depend on SEO and social media skills.
So there are ways in which some organizations and some publishers are going to be able to profit from content marketing. But it is not going to be the savior of media outlets trying to recover lost revenue. Nor will it to any large extent retire more traditional marketing and advertising activities.