Though it may not be true that content marketing is itself advertising, major trends impacting either aspect of marketing are relevant to marketers in both worlds.
As such, I’ve been listening closely to the overwhelming volume of recent negative news impacting the advertising world – how ads slow site speed, how ad-blocking is gaining popularity, how bots may be inflating the reported impact of advertising, and how native ads are not being received well (here’s the 1 min version of anti-native ad sentiment).
What is a concerned marketer to do in face of this information?
The Potential Evolution(s) of Advertising
If the status quo continues (more on that below), then advertisers will continue to work as hunters following audience migration patterns.
Audiences unwilling to pay for content will endure ads until they can’t any longer, then move to the next medium that promises ad-free content, stick with it until they realize that it isn’t ad-free the ads have merely taken a different form, move to the next medium, repeat, ad nauseam.
This will be damaging to participating brands and publishers, as they will be viewed as complicit with seemingly deceptive ad tactics. I imagine this won’t be permanently damaging to brands, as audiences weren’t really paying attention to their ads anyway. Publishers would lose in this scenario though.
It is possible, instead, that advertising would follow a similar course as content marketing, striving to entertain and/or inform target audiences rather than promote to them.
The primary criticism against native advertising is that it is difficult to identify as advertising, the primary criticism against traditional advertising is that it is disruptive- so how do you advertise in a way that’s neither deceptive in its apparent relevance nor disruptive by its clear irrelevance?
With content marketing, you are taking the gamble that the great content you’re providing for free (or in return for an email address) will earn you permission from your audience to continue to communicate with them. Then, when the timing is right for them to purchase your product or service, you are at the top of their mind (and have been for a while). They already know you and they already trust you.
In this scenario, your audience knows where the ad comes from and knows why you’re providing it. There’s no small “sponsored content” disclaimer necessary, because you want your audience to know where that great content came from.
The Abundance of Marketing Content
That said, the content marketing world is already suffering from an oversaturation of content (I would even argue an oversaturation of good content- that’s not to say that the ratio of crap content to good content isn’t 10+:1, just that even creating really good content is not necessarily a differentiator anymore).
If advertisers were to follow a content marketing approach, they might need to update their medium as well as their message to win attention.
It seems as if Google is making it easy for advertising to move in that direction with video ads in search results, so perhaps that is ultimately what will happen.
Interactive online content is certainly the burgeoning differentiator for content marketing – video search results doesn’t seem so far a stretch for advertising.
Distributing Content Comes Down to: Who Will Pay?
Ultimately these recent issues in advertising boil down to a question of: who is willing to pay for content?
If users will pay for content, they will be able to avoid ads.
If users are unwilling to pay for access to content, then advertisers will pick up the bill but will force viewers/readers/listeners to sit through some of their promotional material as well. If you ever sat through a sales pitch in exchange for free breakfast or a gift card, you know precisely what this feels like.
Demian Farnworth at Rainmaker/Copyblogger discussed this at length earlier this month, but here’s my summary of the situation:
Users have been trying to avoid this dilemma (don’t want to pay for content but don’t want to be forced to consume ads) by implementing ad-blocking software. These tools hide not only banner ads but also ads generated by media players (e.g. YouTube’s video platform).
The problem is: creating and distributing content is not free.
If users will not pay for access and advertisers do not feel that they are getting their money’s worth out of traditional advertising, content creators are stuck finding alternative means of funding their work. Thusly, native advertising is born.
If content creators can’t support themselves from subscriptions nor from advertising, they aren’t going to stick around (or someone else will find a way to monetize their audience’s attention and/or good will and sustain the content creator’s work in that way).
So Where’s the Opportunity for Effective Content Marketing?
For any number of reasons, you (or your client) may not like the taste of the “advertising is/is becoming content marketing” Kool-Aid. Where does that leave you?
Investing in advertising is increasingly problematic – as noted at the beginning of this article, ads slow site speed, have potentially inaccurate, overstated effectiveness due to bots, and are susceptible to ad-blocking software. Native advertising, a seemingly logical solution to these problems, is already generating backlash.
Despite all of this, zero-ing out ad spend is often simply not feasible. But, shifting a percentage of budget allocated for advertising to other marketing activities that have fewer impediments to success might be a more realistic goal.
Whether that takes the form of a casual, “top rim of the funnel” email list, a bigger commitment to influencer marketing, or something else entirely – in a world increasingly hostile to advertising, marketers need to find better ways of effectively promoting their campaigns without damaging their brands (or wasting large chunks of their budgets) in the process.
Whatever you decide to pursue instead of advertising, just be mindful of the fact that you want to be genuinely relevant rather than disruptive or deceptive, and that you are competing in a very noisy space.