Content Marketing Conundrum

Last week I wrote a news item that covered the announcement of a new content-marketing unit for AC Business Media.

The unit would marshal all of that B2B media company’s market knowledge and journalism expertise on behalf of its advertising clients to create marketing messaging that employs the storytelling conventions of journalism. In other words, it would take the format of an article — a feature, a case study, a profile, a news item, a Q&A, and more.

It’s been shown repeatedly in studies that marketing that uses a journalistic format is very effective. The approach confers credibility, accessibility and trust. It’s perfect for research or thought leadership. It's focused not on what the marketer has to sell, but information of value to the reader.



Delivery options are varied as well: newsletter and website in-line ads, white papers, microsites, special sections.

Generally there’s back-end functionality to generate leads for the client. I’ve personally sold dozens of content-marketing programs over the years, and personally written many of them. I’m happy to report my clients were almost always happy with the outcome.

But the true test is whether the client renews for more. And that doesn’t always happen. I think that’s because media companies haven’t done a good enough, or a consistent enough, job in the creation and presentation of content marketing.

Some of it is pretty cool. I like how Axios produces content marketing that looks like its own distinct journalism style, which it calls  “smart brevity.” I like how Politico’s newsletters say their journalism efforts are “presented by” the client. Then there are unobtrusive ads offered as “A message from” the client. And BuzzFeed, of course, produces actual BuzzFeed content for its advertisers.

But the truth is, we often overpromise and under-deliver. Content marketing requires intensive coordination among the various media-company departments. Content teams have to create the editorial. Marketing teams have to ensure it’s promoted effectively—effectively enough to generate traffic and leads. Tech teams have to create a seamless UI. All these elements are challenging to begin with, and all require intense focus and planning.

The challenge is that most of the time, all these teams already have full-time jobs, and most media companies simply don’t -- or can’t -- put dedicated, specialized resources on this work. It sounds great on paper, until distracted internal teams have to pull it off.

And then there’s the labeling. Journalism ethics require that content marketing, however much it’s disguised as organic content, must be labeled as sponsored. That’s obviously appropriate, but when readers see the label, they automatically assume they’re being pitched. And unless they’re specifically shopping for a given product, they’re biased against it. They skip over it unless it’s extraordinarily well thought out. That leads to low engagement -- which in turn leads to fewer leads, and unhappy clients.

Content marketing needs to be meticulously planned, carefully gamed out, closely measured for outcomes. But the truth is that it’s often a side job for the media company teams that produce it. That fact, whether those companies choose to acknowledge it, is frequently a recipe for poor execution and unhappy marketers.

Which is why the AC Business Media initiative is interesting. The company’s announcement did not address whether there would be dedicated staff, but establishing a separate unit might be a step in the right direction.

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