Brand publishing is older than most industries but many Australian businesses are still looking for the clear path to content success.
I t’s often said that content marketing is old. Very old. It’s as old as The Furrow, which helped John Deere sell diggers in the 1880s. It’s as old as Michelin publishing a travellers’ restaurant guide to sell tyres in 1900.
Businesses have always sought to gain an edge on their rivals by informing and amusing audiences, with the expectation that customers will like them enough to buy from them later. Nock & Kirby’s hardware store, for instance, had a show on Channel Nine for three decades hosted by “Joe the Gadget Man”. “Bring your money with you” was his catchcry. When the show was pulled off air, 23,000 loyal viewers successfully petitioned for its return.
What has changed is the head-spinning number of ways customers have come within the reach of companies without going through traditional media gatekeepers, such as network television stations. Digital technology allows businesses to be literally in the palms of their potential customers, who devour social media anywhere, everywhere in their billions.
Its “rebirth” as a serious marketing strategy is generally pegged to its use by companies such as Red Bull, which is as famous for its publishing activities as its ability to flog sweet drinks. The push became irresistible once someone put a name on it and formed an institute – Joe Pulizzi’s Content Marketing Institute – which started in the US in 2007. Pulizzi also formulated the established definition for the term: “Content marketing is the strategic marketing approach of creating and distributing valuable, relevant and consistent content to attract and acquire a clearly defined audience – with the objective of driving profitable customer action.”
Content marketing in Australia has struggled to get the traction it appears to have gained in the US and Europe.
Despite gaining respectability and many committed acolytes, content marketing in Australia has struggled to get the traction it appears to have gained in the US and Europe. Reasons offered vary depending on the person being asked the question, although Australians’ natural wariness of “snake-oil salesmen” and being “sold to” has made local business shy to commit fully. Aussies have their antennae up for tactics that are created with a sale in mind… interesting information is one thing but advertising is always advertising.
Content marketing upsets the equilibrium and the orthodoxy. It muddies the already slippery ground between the grassy knolls that are labelled “paid”, “owned” and “rented” media. When done well, some want to call it “branded journalism”. When done badly, it’s far worse than advertising copy. When it’s done at all, marketers don’t really know how to measure its impact. And when it doesn’t get immediate results – if it doesn’t tick the “return on investment” box quickly enough – it gets cut in the next quarterly budget.
Yes, content marketing itself has been a hard sell in Australia. About the same time Australian content business King Content was bought by Isentia for almost $38 million*, which suggested a local industry on the rise, the Content Marketing Institute decided to end its Content Marketing World Sydney event after just three years.
Pulizzi himself doesn’t seem too concerned about the state of Australian content marketing. “I actually think the Australian market is fine,” he says. “It’s a few years behind the United States but there are lots of opportunity. The King Content purchase is big news, and should tell us where the market is going, and that’s higher. The Australian market is challenged with the same things as every other market – focus, strategy, consistency and [offering] real value.”
He said the decision to end the Sydney event was simply down to money. “Our decision to leave was business only. It made more sense to put more effort into our two big North American events.”
Others, however, have suggested that content marketing in Australia has reached a “turning point”. In an opinion piece published by Mumbrella, Cirrus Media’s former content marketing director Matt Rowley (who later became Fairfax Media’s chief revenue officer) said that agencies and consultancies have made it difficult to prove to clients the true value of content.
“Content marketing is changing,” he wrote. “Many have had a chance to try on the Emperor’s new clothes and the draught is noticeable. Like most hot internet trends, digital content marketing is fuelled by the promise of money for nothing; stop paying for media, make your own for free. You can be a brand publisher as publishing on the internet after all, costs pretty much nothing. Until you try it.”
Rowley says making good content is expensive and hard to sustain “if no-one sees it”. “The proposition is still as compelling – engaging a digital hungry ad-dodging audience with content – it’s just clear you need to pay someone with an audience to do it for you.
“Publishers (of which I’m one) with their content production and audiences on tap should be cleaning up. However, up to what turned out to be the last Content Marketing World Sydney this year, the running has been made by consultants, content agencies and distribution platforms (like Outbrain) who together have worked to replicate what publishers should be offering.”
One of the leading lights of content marketing in Australia, Sarah Mitchell of Lush Digital, says it is important that marketers don’t get “swindled” in the search for content-driven success.
“Content marketing is hard,” she wrote in a blog on the Lush Digital website. “It takes grit. You have to give it time to develop and achieve results. Isn’t that true of any undertaking providing exceptional value or high return on investment? The haters are disappointed they didn’t get a quick win. I suspect many of them feel threatened because you can’t buy a better content marketing game. Some of them haven’t been willing to re-skill and hoped a rebranding exercise of their old offering would be sufficient.
“It’s hard to look a customer in the face and admit you haven’t done a great job. It’s probably harder to look in the mirror and admit to yourself you’ve swindled your customers or your employer even if it was unintentional.”
Mitchell, who is also a regular on Lush Digital’s Brand Newsroom podcast, listed 25 ways some people investing in content marketing are being “swindled”, including no strategy and offering content that isn’t original, not very good or not published frequently enough. “Whether it’s happened out of ignorance, laziness or intent, a lot of swindling is going on and it has to stop.”
Done well, so that it’s always useful and relevant, content marketing works. The 2015 Australian content marketing survey by Castleford found almost all (97 per cent) marketers planned to either maintain or increase the time and resources they committed to content marketing in the next financial year and more than three-quarters of c-level execs were either “quite positive” or “very positive” about content marketing. It found that time (45 per cent) and budget (28 per cent) were the major barriers to doing more content marketing.
So there’s no shortage of Australian businesses and organisations willing to commit to content marketing. But just like John Deere and The Furrow, today’s content marketers need to dig in and show some good old-fashioned guts.
Postscript: In October 2017, Isentia killed the King Content brand and got out of the content marketing business. Analysts said the media monitoring company had no feel for the high-touch content business, and was always going to find it difficult to recoup the price it paid in 2015.