George Orwell, Animal Farm:

Twelve voices were shouting in anger, and they were all alike. No question, now, what had happened to the faces of the pigs. The creatures outside looked from pig to man, and from man to pig, and from pig to man again; but already it was impossible to say which was which.

Advertising is a waste of money and has been for more than ten years. That’s according to Seth Godin (amongst others), who explains in Permission Marketing:

Is mass marketing due for a cataclysmic shakeout? Absolutely. A new form of marketing is changing the landscape, and it will affect Interruption Marketing as significantly as the automobile affected the makers of buggy whips.

We’re led to believe that content marketing, or inbound marketing or (shudder) native advertising (they all basically mean the same thing) is a now more cost effective option; because the internet provides a free one to one distribution platform, you don’t have to pay for the media, or so the theory goes.

It’s also much more effective. Because we humans are subject to thousands of marketing messages a day, we’ve become much more adept at blocking them out.

We don’t like our entertainment being disrupted by ads, so we switch off when they’re on. By contrast, we seek out content marketing, or give marketers permission to contact us, so we want to engage with it.

The difficult part of content marketing: getting anyone to see it

We’ve never had it so good:

  • Set up a company blog, run magazine-esque content and watch the audience build up (no need to advertise in that magazine).
  • Create your company newsletter and send it to all your loyal subscribers (that’s all four of them).
  • Create a Twitter handle and let the world know what you’re thinking (everyone’s listening).

Some caveats:

  • Creating good stuff that people actually want to read/watch/share is actually pretty hard.
  • Loads of other people in your market are doing the same.
  • No one has previously heard of you and doesn’t really care what you think.

Getting anyone to take any notice of you from a low base is really quite difficult. It always takes a considerable investment of time (sometimes running up to years) for content marketing to give any tangible results.

Even then, it’s pretty difficult to track the ROI of your content marketing investment.

The hidden ‘media’ cost of content marketing: distributing it

The main problem is being noticed in the first place. Marketers love eyeballs. Almost every piece of marketing (particularly content marketing) comes back to ‘how many people saw it?’ In order to get your content seen, you have to spend resources on distributing it.

This might be done for ‘free’ (in media terms), but you will more than likely pay a human to do it. Paradoxically, this human management can be more expensive than media cost.

Getting as many people to see their stuff as possible remains high priority for many marketers. Image via Wikimedia Commons.  

Another way to distribute your content marketing would be to use an automated platform like Taboola, Outbrain, Stumbleupon etc. You upload a list of URLs you want to promote, then pay for their promotion on high trafficked sites.

Apart from the fact that this is advertising, isn’t it? Paying to promote your content on other sites… sounds like advertising to me!

Dharmesh Shah and Brian Halligan in Inbound Marketing:

Marketing used to be about the width of your wallet, now it’s about the width of your brain…

You have to pay for brains, in time or cash, so a big wallet can be pretty handy. If you have a big brain, but can’t spend the time, then you can spend the money to distribute it any way. Or you could pay an agency to do it: your call.

When it comes to getting your stuff seen or used, you almost always still have to pay for it.

We look at the glossy ‘viral’ nature of the Internet and suppose that what we produce demands to be seen and shared – we won’t have to pay for it. But in a world of millions of similar voices, it’s easy to get drowned out.

The first wicked way of advertising – the cost of getting the message seen – is just dressed in a different way.

Content marketing is almost always interruptive

Ever wanted to buy something for a gift and been forced to register for a website, then received email in perpetuity for products you couldn’t care less about?

That’s pretty much everyone who’s ever bought something on the web. My inboxes are littered with so called ‘bacn‘ – the spam that’s apparently not spam – the stuff you sign up to but couldn’t care less about, but don’t unsubscribe to through apathy.

With smart phones, the whole thing has proliferated into a relentless barrage of notifications from almost every app installation.

If only your email inbox wasn’t so full of clutter – you might contact your friends more, not be distracted each time you login or even be more productive at work. It’s interruptive. And then there’s social media: much the same.

I liked a brand page once because I enjoyed one of its posts that my friend shared. I kept doing it. Then when I looked at my feed on Friday to see what my friends might be up to that evening, it was filled with inane memes of happy looking puppies, clapping their hands and shouting in IMPACT FONT ‘IT’S THE WEEKEND!’

My irritation was only slight. I didn’t bother going through the process of unliking the page.

OMG dog meme

Standard Friday afternoon fodder on Facebook. Image via 

Of course, I gave them permission to do this, so it’s not interruption. And with their cute dog pictures, they’re not trying to sell to me, so that’s okay.

A friend has just emailed me a viral of someone twerking before collapsing onto a candle lit table, setting themselves on fire. I was meant to attend to that important email from my boss, but I spent five minutes crying with laughter before sending it to everyone else in the office. Sounds fairly interruptive, at least to my workflow, doesn’t it?

Something is amiss…

And while proponents of inbound marketing, permission marketing and content marketing might be  the heroic pigs booting the evil humans out of the farm, there’s something rather unsettling about the whole thing, particularly when we consider ‘native advertising’, and was rather well summed up by Tom Albrighton in a comment on Velocity Partners:

With permission marketing, you get the audience’s permission to give them content, but not really to market to them. However, your basic agenda is still to sell. So eventually you have to come clean and start pushing benefits.

Hence content marketing is a sort of cognitive bait-and-switch, and ‘a lie’ in the sense that it obscures or omits its own motive. It is based in bad faith or deception in a way that ‘traditional’ advertising isn’t. None of which necessarily means that either type of marketing is more effective than the other.

The pigs are humans, and humans are pigs

So the content marketing revolution is really that – a revolution – all the way back to where we started. We still pay for it to get seen, either in human cost or for automated platforms that do the hard work.

It still interrupts us, usually because we don’t want to spend an evening auditing our mailboxes and social accounts, and because someone messaging us is almost always an interruption.

I often see surveys with items like: only 20% of marketing budgets are spent on content marketing. But what does that mean? The boundaries are incredibly blurred.

Content marketing and advertising clearly aren’t as separated as they’re made out to be. One does not replace the other, and we can stop worrying about the apparent ‘lack of budget’ for content marketing. We’re just dressing it up differently, that’s all.