The Big Marketing Shift: Understanding The New Content Marketing World

When I started my career in marketing and advertising in 1985, the world I operated in—and the rules for success– were clear.  The smartest brands spent loads of money on advertising, and then spent more loads on high-priced media to blast their message to consumers (those loads paid for our expensive agency TV Shoots and our nifty client dinners at Montrachet- the ones with the $250 bottles of wine).  The media companies—like TV Networks- functioned as the “connective tissue” between brand advertisers like Sony and Coke and the “target audience” (because what passed for “targeting” in those days was declaring that you wanted to reach the “18-34 demographic”).   If you wanted to tell a whole lot of people that Wendy’s had more beef and the competition only had a big fluffy bun (like my former boss Cliff Freeman did in his epic “Where’s the beef” TV spot), you needed ABC, NBC, CBS and the cable networks to get that message to your potential customers.  And all of it unfolded under the controlled, measured pace of our production timetables, planned campaign launches (because getting all of this done took at least 6 months) and the slow build of reach and frequency shown in our media flow charts.

And then came that darn invention of the Internet and the ensuing (and continuously unfolding) chaos created by the digital media revolution (putting a serious crimp in all those nice client dinners).  

So what changed? The economic cost of communication collapsed, and — as NYU professor Clay Shirky has written—  “Information can now be made globally available, in an unlimited number of perfect copies, at zero marginal cost.” And– I would add– at lightning speed.  In fancy professor speak the internet became the first medium to combine the one-to-many broadcast pattern with a many to many pattern– as well as serving as a platform for all other media (all accelerated by subsequent innovations like social media).  What this means in practical terms is that the former audience of media (those 18-34’s, 35-54’s that passively consumed our blasted ad messages) are now talking to each other and are the producers of media as well as consumers of it.

So now, the lines between the brand, the media company and the group formerly known as the audience (the consumers), are increasingly getting fuzzy.  All three are now producers of content.  And all three are also the distributor of the content.  Smart, cutting edge brands are exploiting this shift to essentially become media companies– taking the old world tactics like special advertorials and putting them on steroids.  Just this month Coke– one of the largest ad spenders in the world– announced that they are building their entire marketing mission around these shifts with their new “Content 2020” initiative.

As part of this revolution, the ability of search engines to surface information rapidly has fundamentally altered the way customers buy.  And now that people share experiences, criticisms and recommendations freely in social spaces, everyone knows that they need to go there first before buying. Whether it’s a consumer looking for a new digital camera or a business shopping  for an enterprise sales force automation system, what can be discovered in digital channels plays a foundational role in whether a product wins or loses. As Chris Koch, a VP with the Information Technology Association, recently said:  “In our research, we’ve consistently seen that two-thirds of buyers prefer to research their buying options themselves rather than waiting for vendors to contact them.  Marketing is most effective at this stage, when buyers want nothing to do with salespeople.  This is when we have the opportunity to build relationships with buyers through measured doses of thought-leadership content”. In addition, Forrester analyst Sean Corcoran recently wrote in his report on how to create an interactive marketing content plan:

“People rely on web content to make purchase decisions.  More than six in 10 US online adults have researched products online in the past three months alone.  Whether it’s a consumer learning about a brand through a shared link on Facebook, watching a product video on YouTube while researching a purchase, or purchasing a favorite brand through a Twitter link, web content drives people through the customer life cycle.”

So how should you as a marketer or advertiser take advantage of this new world? The most basic lesson is to think like a media company. Advertising through paid media is not enough- you need to focus on “earned” media (word of mouth, how visible you are in search and social media) along with “owned” media (your site, blogs, Facebook, Twitter, YouTube channels).

You also need to understand the lightning speed of how content travels through networks, and realize that this is a world where you will need to continuously engage and respond.  The days of sending the insertion order, launching the campaign and heading on vacation are done.

In coming posts I’ll talk more about the steps you can take today to harness the power of these changes to make them work for you.



John’s digital experience dates back over two decades, to before the web was born. He is currently VP Marketing for Advance Digital, and is a regular writer and speaker on topics including Search, Social Media, Content Marketing, Local Media and the Digital Marketing Revolution.

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