What’s Led To The Rise Of Content Marketing?

March 14, 2019

The general consensus is that Content Marketing has been around for over a hundred years, with John Deere’s The Furrow often referenced as the original piece of content marketing. However, there are examples that predate The Furrow, including Poor Richard’s Almanac published in 1732 by Pennsylvania’s own Benjamin Franklin to promote his printing business. In fact, you could make an argument that prehistoric cave etchings were a form of Content Marketing, as they captured some how-tos of specific activities, like cooking, hunting, and weapon-making that were fundamental to sustaining life, and documented them for reference by future generations. The Content Marketing Institute has a nice infographic that includes many of the best known and most successful examples.

However, it’s only in the past ten years or so that Content Marketing has really taken off and been embraced by the majority of marketers as a core component of their marketing programs. B2B marketers were the first to make this shift, with American Express’ OPEN Forum, launched in 2007, often pointed to as the gold standard, but consumer brands were not too far behind with Johnson & Johnson, Proctor & Gamble, Coca Cola and Kraft Foods making massive investments into content production as means to connect with consumers.

So what happened and why now? Why is such a significant shift in strategy and reallocation of marketing dollars occurring across all industries and companies, from single entrepreneurs to SMBs to global enterprises? My theory? Content Marketing puts the customer first.

In the late 90’s business were experimenting with advertising on the web. Static “brochure” sites transitioned to increased interactivity, animation and data capture. On site banner ads morphed into even more intrusive rich media and “page take-overs” (shudder) and then retreated into native advertising. The one thing they all had in common was that the content was still all about communicating the benefits of a company’s product or service. It was all brand-centric.

The irony is that at the same time there was a huge shift happening in design theory, specifically web design but also in the broader field of experience design. User Experience (UX) became a field primarily associated with web design despite having been around since the 1940s. It’s core tenet was to design an experience for the user that balanced their needs (specifically the information that they were looking for) with the businesses desire to promote their products or services. User Centered Design (UCD) dictated that a deeper understanding of user’s needs and desires was a prerequisite for designing effective web experiences. Hundreds of hours would be spent performing primary user research, testing all varieties of page types and different navigation hierarchies, in order to optimize a web site’s usability, but the content continued to be primarily about the brand and its benefits. After all, why would a company spend thousands, or even hundreds of thousands, of dollars to create something that didn’t prioritize promoting its products or services?

However, as the number of people online continued to increase, along with the amount of time they spent on their digital devices, the ROI for online advertising headed in the other direction. Users became more and more skilled at ignoring all types of online advertising, often unconsciously, and ad blocking software has become almost ubiquitous. Technology has empowered companies to become significantly better at targeting specific audiences with their marketing messages while simultaneously arming consumers to block those very same messages from ever reaching their screens. (Re)Enter Content Marketing.

The premise of Content Marketing gets to the core of what is most objectionable about advertising. Nobody wants their viewing or listening experience to be interrupted by a message trying to sell them something, with the possible exception of the Super Bowl, which is for many viewers more about the commercials than the game. We chose to consume content, whether it’s watching TV, listening to the radio, reading magazines, scrolling through social media feeds, etc. because we get something of value out of it. The content is entertaining or informative or educational. It’s useful in a way that advertisements are not. Television advertisers figured this out a while ago and set out to find different ways to entertain consumers while pitching their products, with humor being the predominant strategy. Certain commercials like Wendy’s “Where’s The Beef” or Budweiser’s “Wassup” spurred catch phrases that became part of popular culture in and television history and they were effective in building brand affinity and driving sales. However, achieving this level of success is like trying to catch lightning in a bottle and with DVR functionality becoming ubiquitous, fast forwarding through commercials has become almost second nature while the increase in subscription-based streaming services has significantly reduced viewing across ad-supported networks..

The growth of the internet has also driven another fundamental change in how marketers must approach the challenge of customer engagement. The model of the traditional sales funnel (Awareness, Interest, Consideration, Purchase, Loyalty) has been permanently altered. Consumers have exponentially more access to information which makes their behavior much less predictable. They bounce around from top-of-the-funnel (ToF) behavior, like asking “how to” questions, to bottom-of-the-funnel (BoF) actions, like pricing out a specific option, and then back to “where can I find” questions. This non-linear behavior means that marketers have to be much more sophisticated in how they approach helping prospects move through the buying process.

Let’s use buying a car as an example. In the Dark Ages before the internet, you had to visit the dealership to acquire information. You could ask friends and colleagues about their experiences but if you wanted to get a sense of how different models compared, specifications (MPG, horsepower, braking power), available features, color options, pricing, etc. you had to go to the dealership. Once there, you knew you were going to get the hard sell. Car salespeople were trained to do everything possible to keep you from leaving because they knew that once you stepped off the lot the chances of your coming back were slim. So, high-pressure sales tactics were the norm, with all kinds of confusing incentives being offered, not to mention the indecipherable and never-ending paperwork and endless negotiation that you faced once you decided to buy.

Now, in the 21st century, every piece of information you could want is at your fingertips just a click away. You can research hundreds of models, with every variation of options, have access to real-time inventory, see pricing by date, zip code, etc., compare performance and reliability data over extended periods of times and read thousands of reviews written by professionals or other consumers. You can even buy a car and have it delivered to your home without ever interacting with a live person if you choose. So, the traditional sales funnel is non-existent as buyers bounce back and forth, gathering the type of information that was traditionally collected in a very linear fashion. This means that there has been a massive power shift, away from the salesperson to the consumer and a successful sales strategy has to be built around positioning your brand as the best provider of information, aka Content Marketing.

With these changes, more and more marketers are beginning to embrace the concept of customer-centric advertising that prioritizes the audience’s needs and desires. Marketing strategists are realizing that in order to gain attention and drive engagement they must produce content that provides value to the consumer throughout the decision-making process. The relationship between brands and buyers has always been transactional but the roles have switched or, more accurately, they have expanded. Brands now need to become publishers, producing credible, fresh and relevant content, on a consistent basis, that they provide to consumers in exchange for their attention and data on online behavior. Consumers are now expecting brands to be a source of trustworthy information relevant to their category and they expect this information to come free of promotional or salesy tactics, and brands are accommodating.

Examples of customer-centric marketing can now be found in every industry. From auto insurance company esurance giving consumers the ability to obtain quotes from competitors on its site, to REI’s You Tube channel which contains hundreds of videos with tips related to outdoor activities, it appears that marketers have seen the light and are making their customer’s desire for useful and relevant information a priority in their marketing activities. My guess is that this is no trend but rather the first phase of marketers shifting to strategies that reflect the end of the traditional sales funnel. Becoming a trusted source of useful information is a long play. You may not get the short term sale but you’ll likely see a big lift in customer lifetime value and the benefit of customer referrals is a huge multiplier.

Of course, all new opportunities bring their own set of challenges. One of the more complicated issues Content Marketing presents to marketers is how to measure the impact, apply those learnings to future efforts and accurately calculate the return on your Content Marketing investments. I’ll cover this topic in next week’s post. Until then good luck and please hit me up with any questions or topics you’d like to see covered in future posts.

If you have suggestions for future blog topics or would like to learn more about how you can build trust with your customers, please feel free to contact us. We love talking about this stuff. Really!

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