I contend that if being seen is a measure of success then there isn’t a single successful brand-run content destination out there worth the resources being invested to keep it afloat.
While we can’t know the number of people seeing a given page without access to privately held analytics data, we can use a proxy for this: links and shares.
It’s an undisputed fact proven by the Barabási–Albert model that the attention received by the strongly interlinked set of pages that form a website follows a long-tail distribution.
A handful of very heavily visited and linked-to pages forms the head, followed by an exceptionally steep drop-off that encompasses the rest, with very little in-between.
If a page has few links it isn’t likely to have either been popular or to become popular again as it isn’t sufficiently embedded in the topology of the web.
Ergo the vast majority of pages that exist on the web have zero value for marketing purposes as they are never seen by large numbers of people.
Odd then that a Google Alert for the term ‘content marketing’ turns up dozens of new posts every day exhorting the virtues of being a brand that publishes.
Odder still that I’ve yet to find a post that demonstrates success with actual numbers; for instance the Content Marketing Institute relies on listicle heavy posts unsupported by verifiable evidence.
By contrast my contention can be easily investigated by using a service such as Ahrefs to look at publicly available data to gauge the level of interaction with a given page.
Reviewing any major brand publishing effort reveals that, barring a few outliers, the majority of content published to these sites receives next to no links and goes nowhere, receiving few shares.
Let’s put it to the test by looking at several different branded content destinations and reviewing how many times posts have been shared to Facebook, Twitter, LinkedIn, Google+ and Pinterest.
Clearly one can dispute this data but what’s important is that Ahrefs collects this consistently.
As such it’s useful for making direct comparisons between pages and sites regardless of whether the overall counts are exactly accurate.
B2C publishing examples
FAB Beauty from L’Oreal, a business with revenues of over £17bn a year and over 78,000 employees, received 1,972 shares for its top post followed by an average of only 66 shares per post for everything subsequent to this.
The referring domain data indicates no one is linking here from elsewhere on the web. This site is dead in the water.
Yet here’s breathless marketer fantasyland commentary from Contently:
FAB Beauty is not a commercially-oriented website aimed at advertising products.
Rather, its purpose is to shed light on the professional beauty industry as a whole and build an audience of loyal readers, which can, in turn, have an impact on driving foot traffic and sales to salons.
Traveler from Marriott, a business with revenues of £9bn a year and 200,000 employees, received 1,915 shares for its top post.
The average for the remaining 319 posts in Ahrefs’ index is 83 shares. Yet the commentary from Contently (who worked on the site) would indicate it’s the second coming: ‘We’re a Media Company Now: Inside Marriott’s Incredible Money-Making Content Studio‘.
David Beebe of Marriott claims:
In its first ninety days, [Marriott Traveler] drove over seventy-two hundred room bookings.
How this was attributed is not properly explained. If we took average room price and length of stay and subtracted costs I wonder if what’s leftover could pay for the ‘content studio’ for ninety days.
Referring to YouTube and the two short films Marriott produced recently, Two Bellmen and French Kiss, we can see from the ‘statistics’ below the videos how views take-off like a rocket then completely flatline.
This is usually indicative that paid promotion is behind any ‘popularity’.
Here’s the rub: you pay to create the content and then you actually have to pay again to get it seen.
The marketing sector’s narrative around earned, owned and paid media is largely a fraud: the ‘most viral video of all time’ may have obtained 75% of its views via paid spend.
Beebe says: “We created content, we created community around it, and then we’re actually driving commerce against it.” I have reasonable doubts about the ‘community’ and ‘commerce’ parts of that statement.
B2B brand publishers
The Engagement Bureau from Mastercard received 3,471 shares for its top post. The average for the rest of the posts in Ahrefs’ index is 42 shares.
This business has revenues of £6.6bn and over 10,000 employees.
Open Forum from American Express is a site that’s been going for a number of years and has had plaudits heaped upon it.
It manages 17,346 shares for its top performing post but averages a mere 200 shares per post across the 1,310 remaining posts in Ahrefs’ index.
I could go on and on.
In the case of each site one or two pieces of content perform significantly better than the rest, but none are exactly stellar performers.
Let’s remember that these are instantly recognisable brands with huge numbers of employees who invest substantial amounts in advertising.
Yet the average amount of sharing occurring is utterly insignificant. This tells us that the claims made by social media and content marketing ‘thought leaders’ about people wanting to ‘engage with brands’ is utterly fanciful.
Percolate says in its case study for Unilever: “The hallmark of a great marketer is one who produces regular, predictable success.”
The only thing regular and predictable about brand publishing for a client is that posts will get fewer shares than the number of people they hired to create them and be seen by fewer people than they employ.
Brands can publish but that doesn’t make them media companies.
By contrast, The Guardian has half a million entries in Ahrefs’ index of content and receives an average of over 77,000 shares across the top 1,000 posts.
The Travel section alone gets 4,500 shares on average across its top 1,000 posts.
For a site like Marriott’s to compete requires an unsustainable level of quantity and quality in terms of content production, followed by an equally unsustainable amount of promotion; however this still wouldn’t guarantee a return.
Real people don’t care about this stuff; certainly not enough to become regular readers.
To publish, or not to publish?
Brands are therefore in a Catch-22. Their sites are at best novelties rather than content destinations in their own right.
If these spaces are little more than holding places for content with the odd popular piece getting shared elsewhere, then all they’re doing is potentially benefiting one of the major social platforms.
Marketers used to talk about ‘driving traffic’ back to a brand’s website from such activity. This doesn’t happen.
If the pages aren’t being viewed they aren’t worth the investment of resources to produce.
The web is a complex network that follows certain rules. What marketing agencies generally don’t understand, or ignore because it doesn’t fit their business model, is that the web consists of niches all the way down.
Each niche, big or small, is dominated by a tiny handful of hubs.
This is highly resistant to any ability to ‘broadcast’ a message and reach a lot of people consistently, quickly, and cost-effectively.
To infiltrate messaging into more than a few niches becomes prohibitively expensive and is usually ignored; display media as a way of doing this performs terribly.
In this winner-takes-all environment where only a few hubs thrive it’s most unlikely any business not solely focused on publishing and promotion could compete for attention.
For this to then be a profitable asset is a virtually insurmountable challenge; despite all those page views The Guardian is losing money.
This post is certain to draw the ire of those with a vested interest in content marketing, so before they start citing the few successful outliers in the comments I’d like to set a bar for anyone who wants to refute what I’ve said.
It’s simply this: if you work for a brand or agency which believes there to be value in these efforts, please compile a list of your top 100 posts from last year that individually received over 1,000 links from more than 100 domains that were shared more than 10,000 times on any combination of social platforms.
Then let us all see the URLs for these posts listed below so we can see what regular and predictable success looks like.