Let’s talk about content again
Posted on July 22, 2019

Content marketing is increasing in importance but both brands and agencies are getting it wrong. Why? What needs to change for content to start working for brands?

CONTENT. Has there ever been a word with the potential to span so much and yet convey so little? A catch-all that describes various forms of communication and yet is mishandled by brands and agencies on an almost daily basis.

Such mishandling is doing everybody a disservice. According to Cisco, online video content alone will account for 80 per cent of all internet traffic by 2021, with content marketing budgets on the rise across the world. It is estimated that the sector will be worth more than $400 billion by 2021, with the Content Marketing Institute reporting that 57 per cent of business to consumer marketers expect their content marketing budgets to increase in 2019.

The reasons for this rise are varied. Traditional advertising has not only been disrupted, its relevance has been greatly diminished. Audiences are ignoring or blocking ads, just as the variety of devices, channels and platforms at their disposal has multiplied. The latter has led to the need for more content, particularly on social media channels. Add personalised communication and reduced consumer attention spans to the equation and you begin to see why content marketing is on the up.

“Consider it a form of storytelling,” says Laura Roberts, a Dubai-based content marketing consultant. “Content marketing allows you to create a brand narrative that can be used across multiple channels and touchpoints to connect with a consumer on a very real level. It’s not about selling something or shouting about company news; content marketing should be used as a tool to communicate something new and valuable to the consumer.”

Content marketing can work hand-in-hand with direct marketing strategies or tactical campaigns to not only drive awareness and consideration, says Anis Zantout, regional digital director at FP7, but to target specific audiences. It can also give brands an opportunity to establish themselves as an authority on specific topics, thereby earning consumer trust. This in turn helps drive engagement and awareness as well as build loyalty.

  “Content marketing allows you to create a brand narrative that can be used across multiple channels and touchpoints to connect with a consumer on a very real level. It’s not about selling something or shouting about company news; content marketing should be used as a tool to communicate something new and valuable to the consumer.”--Laura Roberts, a Dubai-based content marketing consultant

So why are large quantities of ill-thought-out content still being produced across the region? Why, according to HubSpot, did only one in three respondents to its State of Content Marketing Survey 2019 feel they knew the ‘best way’ to run a content marketing campaign? And why did only 19 per cent say their content marketing was ‘extremely effective’?

The potential answers are instructive. According to Claire England, managing director of John Brown Media, there is a tendency to think audience and distribution first, with a focus on talking to the right people via the right channels and with a desired reach achieved through spend. “This formula-first approach is the legacy of a media-driven market,” she says. “However, what it tends to not pay enough attention to is the quality of the content itself.”

If you know who your key audiences are, where they are and what they like, says England, “but you don’t know what you’re going to say to them (or this is an after-thought) then ultimately these just become missed opportunities”. Similarly, the preoccupation with so-called campaign content – bursts of inconsistent, thematically-driven stories – leads to hot and cold brand health. Delivering content that has no relevancy to your product or service but does have an ‘entertainment value’ also isn’t going to get customers to transact with you.

“In some cases, brands and agencies also work in fragmented set-ups, with a lack of a clear vision or guidance to orchestrate a coherent editorial content strategy to keep the machine running smoothly.”--Anis Zantout, regional digital director at FP7

There is also the persistent belief that content’s remit is simply the production of social media posts; which is hardly surprising considering only 33 per cent of business to consumer marketers have a documented content marketing strategy, according to the Content Marketing Institute.

Both agencies and brands face a number of internal problems too. Fragmented set-ups mean that planning and implementing content marketing strategies in a coordinated manner can be tricky, says Zantout. Ownership may also have to be shared across different departments and agencies (marketing, communications, sales, media, creative and social). “In some cases, brands and agencies also work in fragmented set-ups, with a lack of a clear vision or guidance to orchestrate a coherent editorial content strategy to keep the machine running smoothly,” he says.

As a consequence vast swathes of content is simply being ignored by consumers – content that often doesn’t fit into a brand’s positioning or have a coherent purpose. All of which goes someway to explaining why few brands are reporting decent ROI from content marketing, or even if content is having any impact at all.

For those brands embarking on a content marketing strategy, understanding the business needs and objectives of any content is an absolute priority, says Roberts. “Everything within your content marketing strategy needs to come back to this.”

“The best content strategies start with a simple question – what do I want my customers or potential customers to know about who I am and what I can offer them?” --Claire England, managing director of John Brown Media

Similarly, an effective strategy should have a common vision that is “tied to the brand’s meaningful purpose” and “align with its overall business objectives”, says Zantout. “By setting realistic goals to achieve tactics and their corresponding metrics across the customer journey, a successful strategy should be able to ask three questions right,” he adds. Those questions are: what role does this play in the consumer journey? What does success look like for this strategy? And which metrics most accurately and reliably reflect its performance?

For England, getting content to work effectively means “knowing your current brand perception and how you would like this to evolve or even to be revolutionised”. If a brand knows where it is now and where it would like to be it can build a content strategy around this proposition. “The best content strategies start with a simple question – what do I want my customers or potential customers to know about who I am and what I can offer them?” she says. “It’s important to remember that this isn’t just a question of a commercial transaction but also what you offer within the social construct of emotional connection. But first you need to understand how they view you now, whether in a transaction, interaction or simple awareness. This ambition is then the central driver in the content audit process.”

A combination of data intelligence and human intelligence should form the backbone of what a brand’s story should be, adds England. “Once you have the title of that story it is all about a content plan that uses editorial intelligence and ideation relevancy to create a consistent visual vocabulary and tone of voice that becomes familiar and favoured by your audience,” she says. “Establishing that relationship of familiarity is key, however a great content strategy remains cyclical, ever evolving and always innovating.”

England adds: “The brands and agencies that are getting it right are those who really understand what converged media means in the marketplace. In other words it’s content (and by content we mean any piece of conversation with a customer regardless of its industry tag) that is driven by data, powered by creative excellence and amplified smartly.” 

At the heart of any effective content marketing strategy should lie a content editor who understands the job to be done, believes Zantout. Such a content editor can tap into a holistic ecosystem of content creators and distributors – publishers, social platforms, media partners, agency creators, content creator marketplaces, and influencers.

“Ultimately, there needs to be more buy-in to how content marketing works, and how it can be used, in whatever form – video, written, audio – to speak to the end consumer,” says Roberts. “We need to shift our thinking from quick wins to long term gain, because at the end of the day, this is the only way to unlock value beyond a one-time consumer spend.”

“Building a story-led strategy that is constructed around commercial drivers but intelligently interprets these objectives into customer-centric content is the key to becoming more effective in this crowded landscape,” adds England. “But this requires investment and until brands and businesses understand the value in intelligent content that landscape will continue to be predominantly populated by mediocre and uninspiring spots of siloed stories.”