Don’t expect a digital blood-bath: content marketing is unlikely to replace advertising

Content marketing V advertisingExpecting an advertising ‘blood bath’ is as unrealistic as expecting a media without advertising, says Jon Stubley. But one thing is for sure marketers need to get better at marketing their marketing.

The always entertaining Shane Smith, co-founder and CEO of Vice Media has been making industry headlines again in the last few weeks, warning the market to ‘expect a blood bath’ in digital media in the coming year.

Smith has been vocal in his opinion that the future of media is destined to be increasingly free of traditional advertising – and much more about branded content.

“Young people have grown up with ad-free content,” the Vice Media co-founder and CEO said in a recent conversation with Unilever marketing and communications chief Keith Weed, “and so visionary brands are saying, ‘I get that, and we’re going to interweave and be part of the process.’”

Brands that don’t excel at branded content “are going to be left in the dust.”

Yeah. No.


Gartner’s Hype Cycle

Yeah in that content marketing is of course a bigger part of the mix for many companies. It has already made it to the peak of inflated expectations in Gartner’s eponymous Hype Cycle and on the slide into the trough of disillusionment.

Companies like the aforementioned Vice along with its sometime nemesis Gawker are certainly raking in the dollars from branded and sponsored content streams -and the Red Bulls of the world are a case study in content-first brands.

But are we going to see a world without traditional ads in the post ‘blood-bath’ world? I’d say no. And this is why.

Red Bull content creation homepage

Red Bull has become a king of content creation

Not all brands are created equal

Red Bull has been so successful at creating sports content that it’s been described as a media company that happens to make an energy drink, boosted further by its recent content deal with Reuters. But for every Red Bull, there is a brand that is less aesthetically aligned with a potential content stream.

If you make toilet paper, you are unlikely ever to be described as a ‘media company’ that happens to make toilet paper (and I’m studiously avoiding making a cheap gag about execrable cable content at this juncture).

orange is the new black netfix new york times collaboration

Homepage screen of Netfix and New York Times’ Orange is the New Black collaboration

Can’t scale the content marketing peak

You need to throw a lot of resources at content marketing if you are going to do it effectively. If you have deep pockets then there are some fantastic examples out there. The New York Times-Netflix collaboration around the topic of women inmates, which subtly promoted a new season of Orange Is the New Black is a notable example.

For those with smaller pockets, however, it is hard to scale to get broader reach. Yes, you can own your own channels (e.g. an Instagram account, a Youtube channel, a dedicated website), but the fact remains that if you build it (content), they (consumers) won’t necessarily come.

Outbrain,  Facebook promoted posts and a glut of specialist content distribution companies can do some of the heavy-lifting, but you have to have a half decent content play in the first place for a real audience.

Producing great content is bloody hard

That. Producing properly engaging content is hard. Really bloody hard – and you don’t have to trawl the web too far before you find great examples of poor content.

Finding the right talent to write and/or produce it can be both a challenge and an expense. And it can also be a strange dynamic when working journalists are commissioned, as discussed at a recent panel in Singapore by Mashable’s Asia editor, who noted that it made writers feel schizophrenic.

As a journalist writing branded content "feels shitty"

Mashable Asia editor: “As a journalist writing branded content feels shitty”

We know that it is a challenge for marketing teams in Australia with the Content Management Institute’s 2016 research finding that 69% of Australian marketers believe producing engaging content is their biggest challenge.

Further, whilst 55% say their organisations are clear on what an effective or successful content marketing program looks like, just 28% of the Australian overall sample says their organisation’s is effective.

The bottom line is that in the brave new world of branded content, marketers have to be skilled at, essentially, marketing their marketing – and we don’t seem to be there yet.

All that said, I’m not disputing the fact that digital media models are, at best in flux and at worst, in crisis.

Put simply, what has worked for brands in the past five years isn’t going to work five years hence – or even next year.

It needs to be, and is in the process of being, re-imagined. I expect to see huge advances in mobile video, people-based marketing, in-image advertising and real time creativity. Change is most definitely coming but the idea of an ad-free future is, to my mind, greatly exaggerated.

Jon Stubley is vice president of sales, ANZ, at GumGum


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