What comes after content marketing? Here are four ideas.

big data

I’ve been thinking and writing a lot about the evolving role of content in the marketing world — from the challenges of the “physics” of social media marketing, to Coke’s bold vision for a content-based marketing strategy.

My friend Mitch Joel has also been pondering this topic. In a post entitled The Content Crash, Mitch states that the field has simply “become a pumping ground for a marketing message. Very few (companies) are thinking about utilitarianism marketing and even fewer are thinking about the overall experience.”

Content is advertising?

But here is the line in Mitch’s post that stung me: “It is my belief, that content is the new advertising.”

Wait a minute. People HATE advertising. Does this mean that people are increasingly hating our content too?

Advertising is a paid interruption in an otherwise pleasant stream of content. Is content becoming an unpleasant interruption in our lives, too?  With this native advertising trend of craftily embedding paid messages in “free” content, are the lines hopelessly blurred so that content marketing is suspicious and meaningless? Are content marketers the new snake oil shills?

Mitch contends that for content — sponsored or otherwise — to work, it must be exceedingly useful. So what does that mean? What could a possible game plan be to become the signal instead of the noise in this overly-crowded space?

Here are four possible scenarios in a “post content marketing” environment.

Radical trust

It seems that when bloggers reach critical audience mass, most succumb to the temptation of taking money to pump paper shredders, luggage, weight loss programs or any other product willing to exchange a fast buck for audience trust. Once you cross that line, your content becomes an ad, not something that is exceedingly useful.

Here is a chart that I believes graphically demonstrates the impact of turning your content into an advertisement — the Alexa traffic rank of a blogger who began aggressively monetizing their blog through sponsored posts in 2011:

sponsored posts

In just 18 months, the popular site has dropped from position 5,000 to 30,000. Other key metrics such as reach and pageviews have similarly dropped off the cliff. Of course this is just one data point and we can’t necessarily make a conclusion about absolute cause and effect, but I think a strong hypothesis is that this blog is hemorrhaging because it is no longer a trusted source of content. It is an infomercial.

I think one possible lesson as we look to the future is to create a content environment of radical trust. Once you become an ad, you can never go back. I think this chart demonstrates the business case for trust.

Content that learns

In Don Tapscott’s fine book Grown Up Digital, he makes the case that the Net Generation puts a huge premium on customization.

The Baby Boomers take technology for what it is and hope it works. Net Geners make the technology theirs. They want options.  They love to customize, and even the option to customize makes a product more attractive.

Why would they want your news stream when they can create their own? How do we enable our content consumers to determine HOW, WHEN and WHAT they receive from us?

While we have rudimentary forms of aggregation available to us — by topic, by keyword, by author, for example — we need to create self-aware content that conforms to the immediate needs of our customers.

This is happening to a large degree with display ads.  If you type an email in the gmail platform, the sidebar ads may change to reflect the topic you are writing about. Spooky when it comes to ads, but immensely useful when it comes to content. Although we are collecting vast amounts of information about our customers, we have yet to unleash it in a way that is relevant for a moment in time.

An example: A reader of {grow} has just visited Stanford Smith’s blog and searched about blogging fundamentals. When she comes to {grow} she is offered a suggestion of similar topics, in addition to the latest news from my site.  Or perhaps readers help the process along by choosing the precise topics they want to see and the hourly, daily, or weekly level of delivery for those topics.

Content that pays

I think we are on the cusp of seeing a merging between content marketing and the gamification trend.  Why not reward your most loyal readers with badges and award levels after completing certain tasks? A frequent flyer program for content.

Would you like to receive a Platinum Reward Level on {grow} after so many comments, shares or page views?  I am already seeing some sites that are creating Foursquare-style badges and leaderboards for participating in site activities.

As it becomes harder and harder to cut through the web’s information density, isn’t it logical that companies  would start paying you to view their information?

Making the leap to something entirely new

We are probably 24 months away from the augmented reality revolution. The Internet, and content, will surround us like the air that we breathe. There will be an opportunity to create content in an entirely different way — in three dimensions, in the moment of need, on voice command.  Blogs, podcasts and even videos may seem old-fashioned.  There will be a huge advantages and opportunities for the pioneers of this entirely new vision of content.

Beyond “overwhelming”

Here’s a dirty secret of content marketing. Today it is possible to win the inbound lead battle simply by being first and overwhelming, a trend I characterized last year as the content arms race. You don’t have to be great. You don’t even have to be good. And to some extent it is even possible to fake your way to the top.  But that can’t last.  The market will adjust. Something has to emerge that will trump strategies based on sponsored posts, social proof, and commodity content.

I’ve provided four scenarios but what are your ideas?  How are you going to move your brand beyond the noise and become the signal?

Illustration courtesy BigStock.com

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  • As with everything that was meant to be ‘different’ becomes part of the stream eventually. Content being like advertising sounds strange but if you see what an industry is being put together to support even the smallest company with rewriting software and content syndication, it’s not coming as a surprise.

    I’ve been following a masterclass blogging from Nisandeh Neta. And one of the things that struck me most was this: what you miss the most, you should give first. My point is: we were taught to be a publisher in the last years. But if everyone is a publisher, who is then the reader. I think we should turn it around and facilitate and stimulate more the commenting, joining the conversation (first) and based on that pushing the right content in 3D or whatever form it might take.

    Thanks again for a splendid blog. Love your posts. It’s been a constant inspiration to work on my startup blog ‘how to sell services online’.

  • Great observations Pascal. Glad to hear your blog is coming along. Thanks for letting us know about your progress!

  • I started out several times to say something and stopped. I’m not sure what to comment, but I do want to say something. You’re article is a very good mirror of the times. SoSlam, is a community of people who are well beyond the content and are into community. The social in social-media is gone from content online. That’s the contentorial thing, ick! enough!! I read no more than a couple of posts, this is one. After that, I go to the BBC and read there. Mark Harai has an idea that might change things: bloggerbeat.
    To move beyond the noise, and become the signal, hmmm! I like that metaphor. For me, an online/offline community of people around a forum. Something like 5000bc and Sean D’Souza of Psychotactics. But, that’s me.

  • Tom George

    Networks of content, and context will prevail. Everything else is simply noise. The signal to noise ratio right now is just crazy, it’s like 99.9 percent noise and 1 percent signal. Smart people and people who value their time will simply block out the noise and only focus on the one percent, so relationship marketing is next for B2B and B2C. Also companies will need to give major incentives for customers and be super responsive to their customers needs and concerns. Trust is a given, because without trust you really have nothing.

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  • Claudia Licher

    Awards work for some people. It’s a matter of matching your readers to the kind of rewards they prefer. Would that be a badge, or the chance to contribute in an official role?
    As for advertising: even if you’re only promoting your own business, it takes writing skill and great content to keep your blog from looking like a full page ad.

  • Interesting points. I agree that the “social” part is out of social media, which I suppose prompted Mitch’s likening it to advertising. It has been a very interesting thing to watch. As big companies got into the field — bringing their ad agencies along — they did what they do best: advertise. Very interesting dynamic! Thanks for taking your time to comment my friend!

  • Let me build on your point Tom. The challenge i see with that signal to noise ratio, which is correct, is that how does the signal even get FOUND? Tat’s what I mean by the “first and overwhelming” comment. So there is major issue here, I think. At some level I also agree with the relationship point too, although it is not like it used to be. I hate to say “back in the day,” but when I was coming up in business, there was a lot more time for nurturing relationships. Today the first few steps of the sales funnel may occur online — which gets us back to point number one! : )

    Many thanks for adding your wise observations.

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  • How about content that is visual, pithy and can aggregate while swimming through the social streams? Kind of like a trailer for a movie. But, content that is consumed on the go, in a dash…

    After all, how much time and attention span do today’s social fans have to invest in a brand’s podcast, blog post, or even an infographic? As technology moves us into a turbo speed pace, the audience may align these types of content as… books. Content that requires more of an investment to consume.

    Perhaps, they just need a quick brand flash that grabs their attention, captures their mindshare and provokes some emotion.

    Regardless of the marketing media types that will cut through the noise, it must do this: Entertain. Same goes for education.

  • Certainly a valid strategy Andrea. I wrote about that option here, as one of three possible strategies to beat the “physics” of social media. https://www.businessesgrow.com/2012/08/19/how-the-physics-of-social-media-is-killing-your-marketing-strategy/

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  • vniven

    If you buy the argument that mobile devices are the primary platform of the future for online marketing, then check out this Quora thread re. the future of mobile advertising:

    http://www.quora.com/What-is-the-future-of-mobile-advertising

    Some of your ideas are there, plus many others.

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  • Amen to that! As far as rewards, I am always amazed at the number of people who are proud of their electronic Foursquare badge, who knows? May not take much!

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  • I totally agree with the thought that as content enters the mainstream, it is time for us as marketers to look forward to what comes next. Having studied journalism and spent decades working in PR, I find that my knee-jerk reaction is to look for solutions in that field — guest blog posts, media outreach, becoming a regular contributor to a niche publication, etc… The key has always been (and will always be) publishing content and providing solutions that are helpful, actionable and meaty. Period.

    Like you said, the people who jump in first and flood the landscape with their content, good or bad, in any niche are most likely going to see an immediate boost. If their content isn’t authentic or useful, however, they will NOT be able to maintain their foothold.

    I love what you said here –> “Something has to emerge that will trump strategies based on sponsored posts, social proof, and commodity content.” And I have to say, I will continue to read here to get a leg up on what that might be! LOL

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  • Interesting post. I think ‘trust’ might well be the most important feature here. This society has growing trust issues – we didn’t trust our politicians anyway, but we don’t seem to trust any authortive figures anymore, be it police officers, even doctors, and definitely journalists. We can’t even trust the food we eat to be what it says on the label anymore – so no wonder. So trust, the feeling of trust, might well be the most important thing to achieve. I remember well how a magazine I worked for, a well established brand, was outperformed in the news stands by a new title form the same agency printed on cheap paper, with hardly any effort in design or even grammar. Why? Because in its sheer clumsiness, it seemed genuine; raw and unpolished: real. Whereas we were glossy and professional: part of The System I suppose…

    Trust in itself is illusive enough – but it is real, and I wonder how it relates to the other development mentioned: content that learns. I myself don’t feel comfortable at all with any construction that sorts content for me in an automated way. I’ve tried several initatives (sites, newsletters, apps) that promise to deliver ‘only the content I’m interested in’. Problem is I stil get loads of articles that may touch on topics that have my attention, but are not worth the read at all – while at the same time, I have the suspicious feeling (turning into certainty when checked) that I’m missing out on great articles that may be about subjects I didn’t even have an opinion about before.

    Thing is: I don’t trust the selecting mechanism. At best, it’s flawed (like being chased by ads for smartphones for weeks after having purchased a smartphone). At worst, it’s trying to coerce me into reading certain types of articles, certain points of view (‘you may want to read this’ – no, why would you think that? what’s your motive for telling me this?). I just can’t visualise a future where we only have to read or view or consume stuff we like. We’d all be eating McDonalds, drink Coca Cola and watch Disney. Nobody wants that – right…?

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  • Interesting commentary on the link. Thanks!

  • Well then, we’ll be in it together Tara : )

  • Boy that is such a big issue Volkert — that selecting mechanism. I don’t understand how the technology that chooses ads for us is not choosing content for us with the same accuracy. An I think I will always be suspicious, and perhaps disappointed, because I know at the end of the day that content is going to be trying to sell something! Thanks for the superb comment and insight!

  • Tom George

    Thank you Mark, I am certainly no expert, but I tend to think basically that the content, or signal will be found in the network. I think more closed networks are going to become more important as we find ways to block out the noise. I also think within relationship marketing we will just continue to find very subtle ways to foster them. Great piece and thanks for responding to my comment.

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  • Amelia

    Great article! What are some of the sites you’ve seen with the Foursquare-style badges or leader boards? I like the idea, but wonder how you keep it from being overrun by the nutties that comment on everything… maybe that’s just part of it?

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  • Wow, great thought provoking article. You hit the nail on the head. We are in for a giant paradigm shift in how we use and interact with all things digital. My feeling is that, much like this article, more content needs to be cerebrally stimulating and not just another rehash of what’s out there.
    I want to hear/read what someone thinks about what’s coming down the pipe and why. What’s their vision? Make me think.
    Content curation and content marketing is fine, and offers a certain value of course, but as you mentioned this ‘Content Arms Race’ is creating a lot of garbage just to get ‘their content’ out there first.
    What is the endgame? What’s after video, infographics and content marketing?
    Anyway, nice to read something that isn’t just another curated product.
    I’m excited to see what great things Gamification is going to bring.

  • Just a small point.., I believe getting out there will get more important. The more we connect through our various channels on our various devices, the more we get disconnected from each other.
    Shaking hands will become the best way to differentiate yourself from others (of course, backing everything up with content that sticks helps).

  • Thank you for sharing that post with me. As usual, your posts are educational. I learn new perspectives and gain validation on a lot of ideas floating in my head.

    Appreciated.

  • I have seen both Cisco and Caterpillar do this in their blogs and forums.

  • Thanks Michael. I seem to spend a lot of time thinking about this — what is next? Where is next? Who is next? How do they all intersect. It is so interesting! I don’t have the answers, but hopefully I’m asking the right questions! : ) Thanks very much for reading my blog.

  • Interesting. Maybe “you” become the content : ) I like that Rogier!

  • Charlie Ardagh

    I believe Mitch is correct; content is the new advertising. However rather than looking at it from a blogger perspective which is a really interesting in terms of the whole “sell out” scenario once critical mass is reached etc. There is a content marketing/advertising intersection for non blogger type businesses.

    I call it “Socially Validated Advertising” and it relates to promoting content that an audience have indicated as interesting using social network indicators such as “likes”, “shares” etc. and advertising this content with promoted tweets or promoted posts and similar ad formats. I wrote a blog on it here if you are interested. http://bit.ly/YZoHKF

  • To me, it looks like successful online marketers will focus on constantly more narrow niches. That’s the only way to being the signal. And then you don’t need to worry about being better than everyone else, just useful.

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  • This article has gotten under my skin these past days. I commented below on the trust-issue and the fact that it does seems to be in conflict with the ‘content that learns’ solution. The thing is, it seems to me most marketing strategies revolve around the idea of making the consumer do something he/she doesn’t really want to do. The main premise seems to be that products or services cannot sell themselves – so we have to somehow inflate them, overexpose them, to get them noticed and sold.

    There may be some truth in there, but there’s also a fundamental flaw. Most products start out for another reason that just ‘making money’. Someone, somewhere, believed it would be a great solution for a very real problem. Now, if that person was wrong, marketing can make people believe otherwise – up to a point, and I think that point is just about to be reached. But if that person was right, than that is the very real and truthfull (if not only) message you need to get out.

    As an editor, I receive loads of ‘blogs posts’, persumably written by company hotshots, but in reality written by their marketing teams or agencies. They usually lack any original thought or opinion, but repeat common truths copied from other thought leaders or address ideas believed to be popular among the target audience. When asked why I refuse to publish them, I tell them this: there must be someone out there in your company who still knows where you started, what you wanted to achieve, what set you apart from the others. Give me that person, because what I and my audience want to know is this: what makes you tick? If you can’t, I have to assume what makes you tick is something you do not want me to hear. That silent message in itself is bad marketing.

    First, show your audience you’re real and serious about your business. Once you’ve established that respectful relationship, you have a ground to talk business. Nowadays (though I’m honestly not sure if that has changed so very much), people want to deal with people they like (good), respect (better) and trust (priceless). Once you have that, you’ll have an edge over any competitor.

    (On Coca Cola: their Icebear campaign gets them to be liked and maybe even respected – but it won’t gain them trust, because frankly, there’s no real connection between a coke and an icebear, is there?)

  • Intellectually and strategically, I agree with you. Emotionally, it is hard for me to focus on a niche. There is just too much to be interested in. : )

  • Volkert, this comment is a real gift. A great blog post in its own right. I share your view that 99% of the blog “pitches” that come across my desk are clueless and desperate.

    On the Coke thing, I give them credit. They have made a prodcut that never changes relevant, generation after generation. They have found lots of new ways to “open happiness” and hey, we’re talking about their commercial! : )

    Thanks again for the absolutely superb comment. I am so happy I got under your skin!

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  • I think social curation might be something we should pay attention to. There’s isn’t a lot written about it (as far as I know), but looking at the successes of Pinterest and Wanelo you can tell that there’s something big happening in there. These are perfect examples of companies where there isn’t any noise in terms of too much content/text/ads, yet people can find exactly what they like or want. It’s easy and efficient to use for people, and that’s what we love. I heard Rich Brooks say today: “Quality is in the eye of your ideal client”. That’s a great way to put it.

  • Curation is certainly a viable strategy but it is certainly nothing new. I think it has a chance to cut through the noise if there is a value-add in there somewhere. If you are really an expert providing the very best content, then yes, I think that is worthwhile but if you are just cutting and pasting other people’s work then it probably won;t stand out in the long-term. Thanks for the great addition to the conversation Veronica!

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  • Very telling Alexa rankings after the attempt to monetize that blog!

    I’m still in audience building mode, so I am focusing my energy on splitting my content between my own blog and guest posting on other blogs with great reputations. I did move to a self-hosted solution, so I could customize the experience…again, hoping to improve the readers’ experience, so they want to come back for more. That also supports a better mix of content: blog posts, video, photos, dynamic lists, etc.

    It becomes a huge advantage when you build the community enough that it “lives on” in the comment section of your blog (and using Disqus or Livefyre helps “gamify” a bit). Then you start getting some nice user-generated content that adds variety, and your blog becomes a “destination site” for people to put on their weekly calendars.

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  • Mark, I think the answer is rooted in your first book. That technology changes is a given — I think it was Gary V who said that the platforms (or content marketing, for that matter) we see now is just a reflection of the current state of evolution of marketing on the internet. THe platforms and tools will evolve, but I think that the differentiator will not changec… we will always need to be able to make a human, personal connection to the people behind the brand. Be very useful, yes … trustworthy, yes … and human.

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  • b2bspecialist

    Brian, sounds like a good strategy re: splitting content between your own blog and guest posting on other blogs with great reputations. I’m wondering how are you able to discern whether the blog has a great reputation?

  • Besides items like Alexa rankings, and perhaps “badges” from reputable sources regarding blog rank, I focus mostly on “my own eyes” test. Is the content good…sometimes provocative without ever being truly polarizing? Does it have an active community of commenters with consistent response from the blog authors? Can I find people in my own social circle, who I trust and respect, who support (through shares/comments) or author those blogs?

  • Laura Rivera

    Radical trust and “content that learns” can be in conflict–but they don’t have to be.
    I remember writing a heartfelt Gmail to my sister about my dissolving marriage, only to have the sidebar ads blare at me, “IS HE CHEATING ON YOU? FIND OUT NOW!”
    Yuck. I felt violated, and I don’t trust Gmail one bit.
    Yet I don’t mind when Amazon suggests books about parenting a child on the autism spectrum based on my previous purchases. It could be a sensitive topic, having a child with autism, yet I don’t mind them elbowing in on the conversation like a nosy aunt saying, “Here, read this!” In fact, I appreciate it. I trust it.
    Maybe it is because when I go to Amazon’s website, I know I’m in a store and expect to be sold to. Maybe it’s because so many of the recommendations are good!
    Just wanted to point out that the coin has two sides.
    Thanks for an interesting conversation!

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  • Holly McIlwain

    I’m not sure about “grow” badges, but no doubt I’ll be earning a bunch, because I do love reading “grow.” I try to not use the word, “overwhelmed,” because it’s like, “can’t,” but the speed is of change in social media is tremendous. Makes getting into it easy, because when you learn the current game, your in as good a position as peeps who have been playing it for a few years. Like jumping onto a moving freight train. What is the name of the company/blog illustrated in the traffic trend chart? Thanks y’all.

  • Good article Mark.

    There are a few sites I followed regularly until they changed the primary purpose of their sites from giving & educating with affiliate ads to primarily an affiliate marketing site with repurposed content.

    Thanks for continuing to share & educate Mark.

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  • Kitty Kilian

    I agree, too, Volker. Now Mark, where in your opinion does advertising start? Using FB ads to boost your list? Giving free webinars to boost your list? Giving free podcasts to boost your list?

    What I mean is: where does one, as a blogger, start to become an ad?

    And do you think the same about this in 2015 as you did in 2013? Do you, Volker?

  • Karina Tarin

    As ever, a thought-provoking article Mark. However, one thing struck me. I don’t hate all advertising. OK, so I do hate *most* advertising, but not all. Some of it is so useful, thought-provoking, surprising or beautiful that it’s a delight (one thing I miss now that I mostly watch on-demand TV here in the UK is the Guinness ads!). That’s the same with content. So in terms of SEO, “overwhelming” might currently be winning, but in terms of trust, recommendation and who we choose to follow and associate ourselves with, surely quality is still a significant player? So I’m betting on the radical trust option 🙂

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