Content marketing’s echo chamber
Is content marketing doomed to go the way of the traditional agency model? Not if we align our priorities with those of our customers, says columnist Patrick Armitage.
The content marketing industry has a problem. And if it’s not careful, it could go the way of the traditional advertising industry.
If you’re reading this, odds are you work in content marketing. You either create content on behalf of clients or develop content in-house. You present content marketing best practices, set strategy and help colleagues or customers become better content marketers.
Why should content marketers care about the demise of the traditional advertising agency model?
To understand content marketing’s problem, we need to trace the trajectory of traditional advertising agencies, from their inception to reception and current degradation (a link to yet another think piece predicting advertising agencies’ demise).
Advertising agencies’ inception
Volney Palmer is often credited with opening the first advertising agency in Philadelphia in 1841–42. As printing took off, so did newspapers (roughly 2,000 in circulation at the time).
Nascent advertising agents/agencies were initially resellers of print space — buying newspaper space at a discount and reselling that space at a premium.
Palmer became the first to not only resell print space, but also offer the management, production, development and fulfillment of purchased print space on behalf of his clients.
Advertising agencies’ reception
The industry grew from Palmer to the glamorous dramatizations of the advertising world by shows like “Mad Men.” Movies romanticize the ad agency lifestyle as evidenced by “What Women Want” or “How to Lose a Guy in 10 Days.” These are not great movies by any means, but man, they made agency life look awesome!
Young, affluent college graduates flocked to agencies, growing the industry to larger and larger heights. As the agency world grew, a cottage industry of member organizations, awards, “Best Of” lists and “Who’s Who of Advertising” articles started growing, as well. Agencies became enamored of their own branding.
And for some, award-winning creative work trumped quantifiable, measurable sales and ROI. Meta publications like AdWeek and AdAge sprouted up. Advertising agencies were now competing for the attention of their peers instead of customers. This self-congratulatory culture came at the expense of their clients and slowly started eroding client confidence.
What’s more, while agencies were picking up print advertising awards and increasing their hourly rates, they didn’t see the internet revolution coming.
Advertising agencies’ degradation
The internet has democratized how advertising is created, analyzed and measured. Today, one person can create, package, place and measure the efficacy of an “ad” without involving an agency. New media like Snapchat don’t require gussied-up production values to be successful. Buzzwords like “authenticity” ring truer when messages and communication aren’t overproduced and artfully crafted by the silent hand of a big agency.
The value of agencies was gradually undermined by analytics and data. If agencies can’t measure their value to clients, clients start looking elsewhere or within their own organizations.
With limited access to client CRMs, sales numbers and web traffic, agencies still struggle to fully measure the effectiveness of their work. And with clients unwilling to give full access to data, they’re starting to take the analytics (and creative) in-house.
So, what’s content marketing’s problem?
Content marketing’s issue is similar to that of the advertising agency, but on an accelerated timeline. Content marketing experts have become infatuated with their own content marketing genius. We’ve created a cottage industry of meta-content marketing: content marketers writing about content marketing so that other content marketers can read it. Rinse. Repeat.
And while we’re getting high on our own supply, we’re ignoring our customers.
Promoting your brand vs. helping your customers
We (meaning me and the team at BlogMutt) fell into this trap of feeling the need to self-promote because everyone else in the content marketing space was doing it. And besides, we wanted to get the word out about our company. We spent precious marketing dollars paying an outside agency to help promote BlogMutt’s brand and our CEO through guest posting and speaking opportunities.
I can only speak from my experience at BlogMutt. But I think our experience is symptomatic of a larger problem in the content marketing world: the need to be vetted, accepted and acknowledged by our content marketing peers instead of our customers.
We spent a lot of our time, money and energy to get our voice and brand included in all the usual websites for content marketing tips, tricks, best practices and so on. We wanted our name and brand to be synonymous with thought leaders and stewards of content marketing’s best practices.
The “Aha!” moment? When we listened to our customers
But we also talk to a lot of our customers. And the truth is this: Our customers don’t read these sites, and I imagine yours don’t, either. Our customers typically have a need, search for that need, find us and inquire.
That’s the problem with the content marketing cottage industry of experts. We’re telling people who already know about content marketing about… well, content marketing.
We found ourselves contributing to content marketing’s echo chamber.
In our quest to ingratiate ourselves within the community of other content marketing experts, we lost sight of our core audience. Indeed, we were talking to the wrong audience entirely.
Customers don’t care about awards
The realization hit me hard when I considered entering BlogMutt for one notable website’s content marketing awards… only to find out that one entry costs a couple of hundred dollars.
Let’s say we did enter. And we won. Does our customer care? Does our customer even know we entered and/or won?
No. Our customer is busy — swamped, in fact. She doesn’t have the time to read content marketing industry websites or even acknowledge some award we won (much less hear about it). She’s a small business owner. Or an entrepreneur. Or she’s in the creative department of an agency up against a deadline.
It’s the same thing that’s gone on within the advertising industry for decades. Agencies enter to win agency awards so that they can dress up, go to catered events with other agency types, drink cocktails, eat finger foods and pat themselves on the back.
Meanwhile, their customer — a marketing manager working a 12-hour day at a Fortune 500 company — is trying to hit revenue targets. She’ll take results over awards all day, every day. And when she’s got a few free minutes to spare? It’s not going to be spent visiting a site to brush up on SEO or content best practices (it’s likely personal email, Facebook, Instagram or her digital distraction du jour).
The content marketing industry should consider the traditional advertising agency story as a cautionary tale. When I was at HubSpot’s Inbound 2015, socializing with other content marketers and waiting for Aziz Ansari to come onstage, I foresaw the content marketing industry making the same mistakes as the traditional advertising industry.
It’s great being a part of the content marketing industry. But at the end of the day, our priority is, and always will be, our customer. Customer results matter. Recognition doesn’t.
I thought we were helping our customers by writing for content marketing industry sites, but our customers aren’t there. They’re way too busy putting out fires — day in, day out. And it’s our responsibility to create content that helps them out when they need us, where they need us.
Back to priorities
I don’t think advertising agencies are dying. But I do believe that the traditional agency model is dying. Nimble, flexible agencies are starting to specialize and outsource or crowdsource low-margin work.
If you’re a content marketer reading this, consider the demise of the agency model, and stay vigilant. Don’t lose sight of the customer or get caught flat-footed when the next big thing comes along. Because it will come along. The question is, are your priorities aligned with the priorities of your customers?