Maybe you also read Benjy Boxer’s post last week, “Will the Content Marketing Trends Continue? It Depends on Proving Your ROI.”

Let me first say that he’s right: a discipline as resource intensive as content marketing must be held to a higher level of scrutiny. Like any other strategic investment, content marketing programs will face a crisis of confidence if they fail to demonstrate measurable impact on business results.

But while I agree with the premise that it’s time for content marketing to stand up to ROI scrutiny, I believe this post fails to address a crucial point: content marketing is the result of a fundamental dislocation in audience engagement, not yet another swing of the pendulum.

Let me explain.

Boxer says that “although content marketing techniques are prescribed as a new method of telling a brand story, [they’re] really just another iteration of … soft sell advertising …” He describes a cycle forever vacillating between hard and soft selling techniques, which marketers embrace and reject by turns as they dial up and dial down the commercial assertiveness in their brands’ communication frequency.

Boxer offers the example of an excellent soft-sell campaign like Apple’s “The Crazy Ones,” which he suggests generally unleashes something of an irrational exuberance for the soft-selling form. To illustrate, he offers the memorable example of Infinity’s (infamous, unsuccessful) launch of the Q45, which featured gauzy shots of haystacks and sweet little zephyrs rippling across a pond.

It was both beautiful rendered and wholly ineffective.

Apple’s campaign struck a chord with consumers who were reminded what the Apple brand used to stand for. It was a turning point for the company’s rebound, a key moment in their return to great things. But, in the case of the Infinity campaign, consumers struck a contemplative pose, collectively scratched their heads and beat a path to the closest Lexus dealership. The failure of this campaign was proof that sometimes the soft-sell is perhaps a little too indirect to provide consumers with the marching orders they need.

OK, so far, Boxer’s done a fairly good job selling us on the idea that the soft and hard selling philosophies will forever live in diametrical opposition, two ends of the spectrum that enter and exit in alternating cycles, like the hemlines of dresses or the conspicuous display of facial hair.

But here’s why I see today’s “iteration” of soft-selling as far more than the rhythmic sweep of the pendulum: the disaggregation of audiences, the fragmentation of buying journeys and the rise of earned media represent a massive structural shift for marketers that fundamentally requires a softer approach to selling.

This, my friends, is a dislocation; not a fad.

That’s not to say that soft-selling has fundamentally crowded out more direct approaches to engaging customers. And it’s certainly not to say that content marketing is somehow relieved of the ROI burden.

Not by a long shot.

In fact, data-driven marketing techniques make both of these things imminently possible. With the illuminating effect of data, brands can blend hard and soft selling to highest yield—and they can begin to trace the thread between content marketing investments and real business outcomes.

The result is continuous optimization—or what manufacturers might call “smoothing”—of tactics and techniques based on what’s currently engaging audiences and moving the needle for the business.

In the absence of a closed loop, data-driven strategy, brands will continue to endure the thrash of the pendulum, hoping in vain that they’re holding a strong hand on the early side of the right bet. For marketers, the right answer is replace fads with facts where the swing of the pendulum is replaced by a more sophisticated and effective instrument of measurement and strategic direction. 

Stay tuned for much more to come on this topic.

1 Comment
  1. 18 January 2014 at 3:16 pm
    David H Deans says:

    Perhaps in the B2B tech space, it’s a moot point — few doubt that content marketing is here to stay and will advance rapidly.

    Marketing leaders at multinational companies within the tech sector have witnessed the slow but consistent decline of the trade publications that once dominated the business media marketplace .

    The more forward thinking tech vendors have already moved into the apparent editorial void that was created by the traditional trade media exodus, as B2B publishers such as UBM focus more on sponsoring events and less on publishing meaningful editorials.

    That’s why in some tech market segments traditional media buyers and PR agencies are now much less in demand — their legacy trade media outlets are either cutting-back or shuttered. Self-publishing, via corporate blogs and online communities, is the logical alternative.

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