Why Content Marketing Probably Won't Work For You

One of the most talked-about areas for advertising agencies for 2014 is content marketing, and one of the biggest new titles in town is CCO, Chief Content Officer.

If I ran an ad agency today, I'd be putting quite a bit of weight behind content marketing for a few years. It's a pretty surefire way to make some nice money.  Decent content these days is remarkably cheap to make. It's easy to put your B team on a content marketing strategy and clients seem to be buying this stuff like there is no tomorrow.

But it's a totally doomed area. 

Content marketing is like setting up a small food stand in the middle of a Las Vegas eat-as-much-as-you-can buffet, to an audience that's just eaten. And one that happens to have the world’s finest chefs serving their best dishes for free, while the top fast-food joints do the same.
Content marketing assumes that people are hungry, in a world where every type of food is already abundant and free.

Two things go unspoken in the excitement of content marketing:

1) It's very old. According to Wikipedia, content marketing has been around since the 1890s, when John Deere launched The Furrow magazine, which, according to Wikipedia, provided “information to farmers on how to become more profitable.” And the entire genre of TV show we call soap operas exist because packaged coods companies commissioned them.

2) There has never been a worse time to try it.

We have more, free and better content than ever before.

At any moment in time, I can pretty much choose from any of the best content ever made, often for free.  I can watch one of hundreds of Oscar-winning movies, listen to any piece of music ever recorded, see amazing personal pictures from my family, read any book ever printed, on any device, any time.
We have inviting content everywhere we look.

The job of most content makers is to market their content in such a way that it becomes desirable. My Facebook , Linkedin and Twitter feeds are constant sources of linkbait articles, which are poor content marketed to look tempting. This is like competing against every fast food provider in the world, all providing snackable, incredibly tempting but nonetheless rather unfilling food that leaves a nasty taste in your mouth.

We face more stimuli from more places than ever.

With more media consumption opportunities than ever before, consumers are subjected daily to a virtual carpet-bombing of ads. By 2013, U.S. consumers will be exposed to 15% more ads per day than they were in 2009.

If consumers paid attention to all these ads, they would be paralyzed. 

People are not looking for places to focus their attention, but are instead looking not have their attention stolen.


There will be a very, very small number of brands that are exciting enough, have large enough budgets and good enough teams to make content marketing work.

If you are Red Bull and you make a man fall from space, you can own content marketing.

If you are Go Pro, and you have the ability to make the best extreme footage in the world, you can do well for a period of time.

If you are General Electric, and you commission the most interesting thought leadership in the world, then it may work.

But please, before undertaking content marketing think of these things.

1) Is this content really going to appeal to my target audience? For GE, Go Pro and Red Bull the answer is yes, but this may not be the case for everybody.

2) Is this content the very best content possible? Will someone choose this over any music ever made, or their best friend’s wedding pictures?

3) Is this content ownable by the brand?  If you make laundry detergent, sell groceries, make batteries, cars, jeans, this may not be likely.

If in doubt, pay for the media exposure. A much safer way to do content marketing is brand-funded advertising. This way you can get the best of both worlds with a paid audience and strong editorial control.



17 comments about "Why Content Marketing Probably Won't Work For You".
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  1. Leanne Hoagland-smith from ADVANCED SYSTEMS, May 9, 2014 at 3:41 p.m.

    We are probably going to disagree because using this analogy then why should anyone write a book because the big guys, the well known names have already done so?

    The issue with content marketing is to develop a loyal following within your various communities and then have your community share your content.

    This inbound marketing strategy definitely might be a challenge for those who do not like to write.

    Leanne Hoagland-Smith

  2. Alex Flores from Global Strategy Group, May 9, 2014 at 4:10 p.m.

    Leanne kinda beat me to it. This post suggests people employ the "give up because it's already been done" approach. In the conclusion, I agree with the first point mad "will the content appeal to the target audience?" That's obviously quite important. But points 2 and 3? Nope. Does a technology company like, say, New Relic, need to compete with music and family photos is someone is searching for transaction tracking software for the enterprise? This headline was written like it was coming from a Rupert Murdoch publication... clickbait.

  3. Alex Flores from Global Strategy Group, May 9, 2014 at 4:13 p.m.

    PS - I blame my chubby fingers for the typos above :(

  4. Tom Goodwin from Tomorrow, May 9, 2014 at 4:30 p.m.

    Thanks for your comments, I intend on starting a debate so thank you for your points of view.

    I think writing a book is a great analogy. Half the population think they have a good book in them, yet perhaps one in 100,000 people write and get published and one in a 10 million people make a living from them, fewer still become the celebrities that people want to be like. Yet, our perception is that we can write the next Harry Potter or be John Grisham. We generally look to the successes only and use that as a reason to believe we can succeed.

    We wouldn’t be that happy if our friends or family went all in on being rich and famous from a book, we’d ask them to think if they really have a right to be there, if they should try other things, do they really have something special, even then we’d accept they’d need to be lucky.

    Does it mean we should give up? Not for one second, but we’d be wise to be introspective and to consider it from a massive range of solutions, many of which are way more likely to work.

    How many genuine content marketing success stories have there been? Nike, GE, Red Bull, Go Pro, Will it Blend? How many others have had a lot of money pumped into them to appear more successful than they really were?

  5. Faris Yakob from Genius Steals, May 9, 2014 at 4:34 p.m.

    Hello! Bit polemical but loosely agree with your points, if not the absoluteness of your conclusions.

    Rock ON Fx

  6. Doug Garnett from Atomic Direct, May 9, 2014 at 5:14 p.m.

    What's often missed in this discussion is that content marketing isn't a new idea. It's been around for a very long time between paid article placements, newsletters, sponsored magazines, television shows, product placement, etc... The only thing that's new now is internet distribution, finding it through search or promoting your content contextually. That distribution certainly makes the physical potential seem unlimited... And yet... The key lesson from the past seems to be that it's fundamentally impossible to regularly create the kind of content that can be the foundation of a marketing effort. Icing on the cake? Sometimes. But even then not very often. Thanks for a provocative read, Tom.

  7. Mike Einstein from the Brothers Einstein, May 9, 2014 at 5:19 p.m.

    Take "Why" out of the headline here and my comment is good to go!

  8. Liz Smith from Creative Media Experiences, May 9, 2014 at 5:53 p.m.

    You certainly know how to start a discussion, Tom. What I've found is that content marketing delivers both impact and results when the effort is made to become seamlessly integrated into media programming. This ensures content that is timely, interesting, well-targeted and authentic. Yummy! As you say, it means paying for media exposure. And it requires a good deal of cooperation and smart thinking from all parties. But well worth the effort.

  9. Michael Oddi from Tango Partners, May 9, 2014 at 6:37 p.m.

    Sorry. Don't agree. Good content, bad content, any content stimulates thought, whether you agree or disagree with the author. From a marketing perspective, thoughts stimulate new ideas and strategies as evidenced by the stream of thoughts generated by your article. To me, it's better than watching a bad sitcom, so in that regard it provides content consumers like me with new choices – thought provoking discussions or bad television. Hmm..what should I choose?

  10. Brad Curtis from eZdia, May 9, 2014 at 6:54 p.m.

    Wow! What an awesome load of Crap! ..."Hey, if you plan to really, really suck, don't take any risks or try to improve... You might as well stay home today and hide in the closet!"

    You also completely missed the mark on WHY content marketing is important. Was GOOGLE ever mentioned in this piece? Do you know that 81% of shopping conversions now start at the Google search bar (GE survey I just made up). Think about that for a few minutes and consider a re-write, or maybe you just like lazy marketers that keep paying $9 per click.

    Content marketing is about branding, engagement, authority and Google, Google, Google. To use numbers like Tommy:

    1. Think about Not Sucking!

    2. Think about producing great content. If you own a niche, be brilliant! For example 1-800Contacts should own that category and have tons of great content about contacts, how to wear them, when, what types... glasses too! This drives authority, relevancy and with a few key search terms inserted "The GOOGLE" will find and rank you highly in organic search, where the click is free (after your content investment)... AND has lasting rank value because good content is actually good for your customer & brand, where as buying a link does nothing to increase loyalty or engagment. It actually brings the shoppers who are mostly interested in the best deal!

    3. To be clear, do both. Content at about 30-40% of budget, PPC at about 60-70% of budget... You want sales AND loyalty.

    Now I've been focused on ecommerce, but consider this across you brands and services that don't sell online. Same rules apply, although you can make adjustments... If I'm looking for content on Healthcare, Banking, where to get a pizza, how to select an airplane prop, etc., the better the content (and the sum of its pieces), the better the customer engagement, which drives authority and rank.

    4. THIS IS MUY IMPORTA: Don't suck! Why would you approach anything from that angle?


  11. Tom Goodwin from Tomorrow, May 9, 2014 at 7:10 p.m.

    My point is, that for a much talked about area of marketing, we seem to have remarkably few successes.

    I'd love to see a list of content marketing ploys that have actually worked without large investments to buy clicks behind. Take away those from beloved brands and what do we have left?

    One or two random hits ( Mentos and Diet Coke, Will it Blend, ) and a whole bunch of content that clients paid for clicks. And it's not for a lack of brands trying.

  12. Paul Van winkle from FUNCTION, May 12, 2014 at 10:39 a.m.

    Tom, thank you. Wish I could add to this debate but you've said it. Correctly. Succinctly.

    I'm one who's been beating the drum for 'better messages and stories and more customer-centric content" for three+ decades. It's very hard to do. Why?

    Because, as in the film industry, nobody knows anything....Not one person in the entire ad industry knows for a certainty what's going to work, what "content" audiences will respond to, and which will also turn them into loyal buyers. Every time out it's a guess and, if you're lucky, an educated one.

    Unfortunately, there's a double-whammy taking place: the majority of agency staffs aren't educated in what works, and along with their clients: they're woefully ignorant that they don't know.

    Thanks for having the mettle to frame this discussion honestly. In a world of ribald bullshit and certainty, honesty creates fans. Valuable.

  13. Cameron Burnham from Photobucket Corporation, May 13, 2014 at 11:42 a.m.

    RebelMouse can do this quickly and easily + with existing sources (Owned/Earned/UGC) of content -

  14. Andrew Boer from MovableMedia, May 13, 2014 at 2:43 p.m.


    "Is the content own-able if you sell laundry detergent?... This may not be likely."

    Good point!

    But I just discussed this piece with all my children, and the consensus from the young and the restless is that you are off base. "Tom could be from another world.", they said, and that is a direct quote.

    I wish I could offer you a guiding light here, but as marketers you know, we only have one life to live, and so many days of our lives to deal with poorly considered straw men.

    But in general, hospital food is more nourishing and prepared than this thinly supported argument.

    I surely don't mind if you cast dark shadows on Content Marketing. As sure as the world turns there will alway be some hype in marketing.

    But next time perhaps you might select an example that isn't directly and obviously contradicted by the most successful example of content marketing in the bold and the beautiful history of mankind.

    Sadly the name escapes me...

  15. Andrew Boer from MovableMedia, May 13, 2014 at 2:54 p.m.

    By the way, while you may be right that it will take a while for Content Marketing to get as good or better than Publisher based content, But to me it seems inevitable that it will.

    Most online brands are willing to pay over ten times as much for a users attention than a publisher.

    They will pay around $.20 a click for a unique visitor to their content, where they usually will top out at $20 CPM (.02) for advertising.

    Tell me that economics won't eventually play out, once Nike decides to hire away all of the Runners World writers at twice their going salary.

  16. Seth Dotterer from Conductor, May 13, 2014 at 2:55 p.m.

    The timing of your column is serendipitous considering MediaPost writer Laurie Sullivan just posted her piece, Paid Media Won't Buy Brands Love. It includes our perspective around the concerning addiction to paid advertising, especially in the 'content marketing' space. The question of whether you write or not is probably less important (you need to) than if you're paying to distribute it, or earning that distribution:

    Here's a link if you didn't see it. :

  17. Tom Goodwin from Tomorrow, May 13, 2014 at 3:08 p.m.

    You need to be person centric, not client centric.
    Content marketeers don't compete with publishers, they compete with every single draw on a person's attention span, which when you are on the internet is everything ever made in the history of mankind.

    That's how good or valuable the content needs to be to get traction.

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