Content marketing is immune to digital advertising’s cold

While the world of digital advertising is suffering from major trust issues, Edge's Richard Parker believes content marketing shouldn't be tarnished with the same brush.

It feels like there’s a bit of a perfect storm about to hit the online advertising space.

Industry academics and commentators like Byron Sharp, Mark Ritson and Peter Field have for some time been pushing – for different and overlapping reasons – for a re-balancing of media spend away from digital and back to traditional channels in the name of effectiveness.

Ritson is an advocate for traditional advertising channels

Consumers are increasingly turning to adblockers – either because they value a digital environment that isn’t tainted by commercial messages, or because the positive value exchange (their data in exchange for targeted and useful advertising) simply doesn’t stack up.

Against a backdrop of ‘fake news’ and falling trust in brands, multinationals – with Unilever the bellwether – are increasingly making noises about only spending ad dollars on ‘responsible media’.

This is effectively damning YouTube, Facebook et al for their lack of control over content that promotes anger and hate – and whether ads appear against that content.

And as if that wasn’t enough, into these swirling clouds we can add GDPR. The ‘General Data Protection Regulation’ is the biggest piece of European Union data privacy legislation in 20 years.

It seeks to rebalance control of data back toward the individual – with the ‘right to be forgotten’, 72-hour breach reporting, stronger consumer consent and big fines for lack of compliance. And whilst you might think this makes little difference to Aussie businesses, where the EU leads any organisation that wishes to do business with the EU (or EU citizens) follows very quickly, with other nation states playing legislative catch up not too long afterwards.

So, we have a world where consumers have to give consent for you to use their data – even for ad targeting purposes. Where a lack of trust in brands makes that unlikely. Where consumers, in any case, are increasingly blocking ads, whether they’ve given consent or not. And where a crisis in confidence in the big ad platforms, along with a growing consensus that the effectiveness of tightly targeted digital media has been exaggerated, means multinationals are re-directing budgets to more ‘respected’ media. Perfect storm, indeed.

But if the wheels are starting to fall off the digital advertising bus, where does that leave content marketing?

According to the Gartner Hype Cycle for Digital Marketing and Advertising, content marketing is languishing in the ‘trough of disillusionment’ – a place for once-buzzy marketing techniques that have been taken up with child-like enthusiasm and optimism, implemented poorly, and then petulantly cast aside the moment the going gets tough and the next shiny new toy appears on the horizon.

The good news is that, according to Gartner, once practitioners DO work out how to use content marketing properly, it will rise to a ‘plateau of productivity’. The bad news is that it will never attain the dizzying promise of its most hyped point at the ‘peak of inflated expectations’ a couple of years ago.

So how does this fit in with the travails of digital advertising?

Well, for the past couple of years, I’ve been recommending (amongst other things) that marketers integrate their content marketing efforts with their data-driven digital advertising strategy – ie use data and digital media to surface content (in combination with, but differentiated from ‘ad content’) to the right person, in the right place, at the right time. So surely once the data armageddon that GDPR heralds hits us, content marketing will be screwed, right?

Wrong. I actually think that all of the factors behind the crisis facing digital advertising actually play into the hands of content marketing as a discipline, and will help to lift it out of the ‘trough of disillusionment’.

Why? Well firstly, content, when done well, should provide a genuine value exchange for consumers – where the (authentic, high-quality, useful, rewarding) content they get in return for their data actually stacks up in terms of value. Which means that consent is more likely to be given. Ergo, content can become a valuable tool in gaining consent.

And secondly, in a world where third-party channels and publishers are offering unreliable experiences (and unreliable content) to consumers, and may well be using their channels to ask for consent to collect consumer data themselves, it starts to make sense for brands to distance themselves. This could mean increasing use of owned media channels – where brands can control both the content and the way they ask for consent.

Put simply, in a world that has been characterised for a long time by dodgy practice, content feels like an ideal way for brands to start to rebuild trust.

Finally, content marketing tends to be a long-term, brand-building play rather than a short-term promotional play, and so works well in combination with ATL campaigns designed to drive mental availability – helping to unpack complex themes and build brand equity over time, rather than chasing after short-term gains that can so easily erode brand value.

So in conclusion: I don’t think – if you’ll forgive my mixing of metaphors throughout this post – that the illness infecting digital advertising will infect content marketing and lead to its demise.

On the contrary, digital advertising’s troubles will re-invigorate content marketing to ensure it is more vital than ever to the media mix.

Richard Parker is head of strategy at Edge Agency.


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