Content Marketing is the New Junk Mail

This may be unpopular.

Everyone seems to be talking about Content Marketing and Inbound Marketing, the central ideas of which seem to be littering the world’s servers with potentially useful information (like blog posts) in the hope that the trail of digital breadcrumbs leads people back to the author’s widget business.

The rationale of this approach seems to be strongly aligned with a particular view of social media as an opportunity to demonstrate how brilliant we all are without bluntly stating that we’re all brilliant. I suppose it’s more “media” than “social”.

Content Marketing is seen as a move away from the mythical days of advertising which was apparently designed to ram nothing but “buy my stuff” down people’s throats (a view of advertising I happen to disagree with). Now we’ve made it to “I’m clever. Buy my stuff”, which may or may not be viewed as progress.

The problem with Content Marketing is exactly the same as the problem with Junk Mail. It has the potential to litter the world with lots and lots of stuff that has no relevance to most people. The easier it gets to produce content the easier it gets to clog up the internet with it.

So, which of the million articles about the basics of using Pinterest should I read? The more there are, the more I’m likely to decide none of them. Which is a shame, because I rather like Pinterest. The daunting task of trawling through everything that’s been written is far more time-consuming than working it out for myself.

I always understood good marketing to be about problem-solving. Content Marketing doesn’t seem to be about that. Content Marketing seems to be about cracking a nut with a sledgehammer. And now we’re all tripping over sledgehammers. Content Marketing seems to go against the person-to-person foundations of the social web. It’s another broadcast platform, when we have the tools for something much better.

So, for me the most dangerous thing about Content Marketing is the name, Content Marketing. It makes the whole purpose a constant drive to produce content, when the real purpose of marketing should be to reach out to people, help them, give them things of value, create experiences and, yes, encourage them to buy your stuff. We all need good content but identifying and serving individual needs should be paramount. I think we should invest our efforts in that. What do you think?

  1. I am just waiting for the day when the earch engines decide that too much content marketing is considered a penalty if the content is traceable back to the site it is marketing to. This is in the same vein as to why Pinterest worries me. Not the concept, but the execution. Pinterest is a wonderful idea that will most likely be ruined by SEOs and other people in the marketing community. It is a link farm waiting to happen because Internet marketers tend to beat any good idea into the ground.

  2. Content Marketing is dangerous whenever it results in an emphasis on volume and frequency over quality and relevance. Smart people in the content strategy community – allied to CM, but different – are increasingly showing how counter-productive that approach is. You are actually likely to see better conversion from reducing the volume of content you publish. It’s your Pinterest point: customers can find the relevant stuff faster when there’s less of it. But this also requires companies to invest resources in creating good quality content, ideally hiring copywriters and editors to create it for them. This inevitably falls victim to ‘snake oil’ content marketers selling the easier, cheaper formula of low-quality volume content.

    Jeff’s right that a lot of this is driven by SEO and the mantra that more content, more often is they way to keep Google happy. Ranking higher on Google is such a hot button for business – understandably – that it’s difficult to argue for a “less is more” approach. Reading between the lines of recent Google announcements, it seems they are moving in the direction of valuing quality over volume: hence moves to penalise content farms etc… Remains to be seen how that actually works out in practice. Would be great to see some small biz sites with a limited amount of great content beat the content whores.

    Of course, this is all pointing a finger at content marketing done badly. Done well, with proper resources, content marketing creates a ‘just right’ amount of quality content, backed up by great customer engagement through social channels. Unfortunately that’s a lot harder and more time intensive than blasting out another “Top Ten…” link bait post.

    • I think your last point is exactly where Simon hit the nail on the head. It’s the use of “Marketing” that has led some bad marketers to think it’s all about hitting people with a veritable blast pattern of less-than-good content no one will ever read or care about. I think the biggest problem in all of it is that people care too much about the search engines (and I think this is partly the search engines fault) and less about the people they are marketing to, which has never been a sustainable model and a waste of resources.

      Maybe a name change would help, maybe it wouldn’t. It would be nice if this could be corrected before it simply becomes another penalty in the eyes of Google and the other search engines.

  3. ADK said:

    A good article but I wonder if it doesn’t take into consideration that the Internet is for everyone, whether they are content dumpers or not or whether they have commercial objectives which brings in the likes of SEO etc. But what I do get from the post is the fact that we are even more inundated with crap on the web. The recent Penguin update by Google was one step in assuring that such things didn’t happen and that Googles service of providing relevant quality information was trying to content with the issue. Perhaps this is dawn of a new search theory such as subject specific search engines that can measure better quality content based on certain merits and values. What they are I don’t know but we do know that content is king, and what might not be valuable to you may be valuable to someone else, and this means that we may never find a solution to the problem you describe.

  4. Thanks for all the comments. I do agree that there are so many ways to abuse content marketing and that, yes, done right, good content is a worthwhile investment. And, of course, people are also free to use the web in whichever way they choose. But there’s a bit of a Prisoner’s Dilemma problem here. Ultimately, if we continue to focus on generating content as a strategy, there will continue to be a race to produce as much content as possible. This will ultimately prove to be an expensive and completely futile path as the web gets to a saturation point that benefits neither customers not marketers.

  5. I’m pretty sure we passed the content saturation point some time ago – certainly if the quality of the stuff posted to LinkedIn Groups is anything to go by. In truth we are all mad for publishing. From tweets and status updates to cute cat videos, to companies creating complex content marketing campaigns, we are creating vastly more content than can ever be meaningfully consumed. Lazy, uninspiring, strategy-free content marketing exacerbates that, but it’s not the root cause nor sole culprit. In truth, it’s the very nature of the web that it has never been easier to create and share content. This is both wonderous and terrifying in equal measure.

    I’m not sure content marketing is actually the problem. I think the problem is the lazy way many companies adopt any new Big Thing in online marketing, which whatever breed of ‘guru’ is fashionable this year have sold them as the easy answer to their marketing problems. “All you need is a blog/Facebook page/Twitter profile/Pinterest account/more content.” As this is usually a way to avoid the hard work of developing strategy, they also avoid the hard work elements of the Big Thing and go for the easy, lazy, thought-free approaches. So content marketing is reduced to a matter of generating volume, just as social media strategy is reduced to chasing follower numbers. This doesn’t mean either content or social media marketing are worthless. It’s just that lots of people do them badly because they don’t get it.

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