Is Content Marketing A Sustainable Marketing Strategy?

Last week at content marketing world, I was asked to moderate a panel with two very distinguished experts in the content marketing space.

The panelists were Mark Schaefer and Marcus Sheridan. And our session was  titled “Is The Death Of Content Marketing Imminent?”

So first, the context. On January 6th, Mark Schaefer wrote a post on his popular {Grow} site called “Content Shock: Why Content Marketing Is Not A Sustainable Strategy.” He used his theory to support the statement that content marketing isn’t sustainable. And predictably, that got a few people worked up.

So let’s give Mark some credit. The post was shared thousands of times, generated hundreds of comments, and follow-up posts (you can now add this one). And was widely discussed in certain content marketing circles (see more on that below) from that point forward.

One of the articles in response, was Marcus Sheridan’s “The Big Flaw With Content Shock” published a couple of weeks later.

And that set up the showdown we had on the stage last week. To be fair, Mark and Marcus are good friends and the exchange was entirely respectful.

Is Content Marketing Even A “Thing?”

I opened with the pretext that just 3-4 years ago, we were asking if content marketing was even a “thing.”

We thought it was a thing, we knew social media was a thing. We knew the internet was a thing. We knew the mobile internet was a thing.

But those are all just pipes. Content is the oil! It’s the fuel that flows over each new set of pipes and that ignites connections between people and even brands. Always has. Always will.

So ok, content marketing is a thing. And thanks to Joe Pulizzi and his amazing team at Content Marketing Institute, it is an orange thing.

Content Marketing Is All The Marketing That’s Left

(One of my favorite quotes from Seth Godin.)

Since the first Content Marketing World conference, we evolved from asking if it is indeed a thing, to how do we get started, how do we create effective content marketing strategies, and this year, to how do we measure results.

Brian Clark from Copyblogger commented that if content marketing was not sustainable, then “advertising should have been dead years ago!” Come on! That is an awesome quote too.

I believe so strongly in content marketing that I bet my career on it. I believe content marketing is saving marketing.

So while Mark is a super smart guy, and good friends can disagree and debate the merits of content shock, my issue was the statement he used in his title suggesting that content marketing was not a sustainable strategy. I think I know what Mark really meant. And we’ll get to that below.

The Myth Of Information Overload

But first, let’s talk about the historical precedence of the crock of shyte that is the information overload theory. I imagine the 2nd day after we emerged from caves, one caveman grunting to the other that there was just too much new stimulii for him to go on. Luckily for us, he did go on.

This theory really is nothing new. In my research, I found that Roman historian Seneca thought there was too much crappy information in his world for people to handle. So he responded by creating more, in the form of some of the greatest documentation of the history of mankind.

18th century French philosopher Diderot proclaimed that there was an overwhelming mass of dreadful books. So he responded by becoming the editor of an encyclopedia, and a dictionary, and whole bunch of other stuff.

In 1970, Alvin Toffler wrote the book “Future Shock” in which he coined the term “information overload” as the “social paralysis” that results from having more information available to us than we can process.

Information overload is widely believed, and in some cases proven to be a myth. It is overly simplistic but it appeals to our natural human instinct to feel overwhelmed by change and to want to exert complete control over our environments.

The Echo Chamber

Sonia Simone made one the best points about content shock in her article when she points out that the majority of this conversation on content shock is happening among consultants and writers and strategists. But it is NOT happening inside marketing organizations. Why?

Because brands know their content sucks. They know their marketing is largely ineffective. They know their messages are largely ignored. And they know that they can do better.

0.5% of the content on the average website drives more than 50% of the traffic. Some studies suggest that more than 50% and as high as 70% of marketing content created by brands goes completely unused. We are almost literally just burning money with the budgets we get to create content. So while some people are worried about the myth of information overload and so called “content shock,” most brands are just hoping to see the content they created get used at all.

Hey, change is hard. Marketing is a tough racket. And so most marketers do what their bosses ask them to do. Sell. More. Shit. But they aren’t concerned with content shock.

So What Is Content Shock?

In the panel, Mark described this notion that more and more information is being created at increasing rates:

  • The entire volume of the internet is doubling every few years.
  • The organic reach of each piece of content is declining.
  • Our attention spans are shorter.
  • The time we have available to consume content is now at a limit.

And guess what? All of this is true. I pressed Mark on the historical claims of information overload and asked “why now?” He blew off the historical claims but said that the main reason now was the moment of content shock for certain industries and niches was mainly because the early adopters have already moved in. And our available time is finite. We have reached our limit.

What Is The Flaw With Content Shock?

Marcus talked about how he just has a different definition of content marketing than “creating content.” He believes that a successful business will always be the ones that help their audience the most and in the best and most relevant way (he used the word “teach” which is pretty awesome.)

He also talked about how human beings are spending much of their time reading Buzzfeed lists and laughing at silly animated gifs. But that when we are ready to buy, we will look for the best, most relevant information on that product.

Mark replied that it is exactly this challenge that confirms we are in content shock because this realization is causing an arms race where only the biggest, most well-funded companies will win.

However, you could say that about any era, and any innovation and yet somehow, every year we see new companies emerge, new innovations and new growth-hacking improvements to the way we reach our new customers.

What We Should Have Been Talking About

I think the quote below from Rhonda sums it up best.

Now that I can agree with. There is always an early-mover advantage. Content Marketing is no different. Marcus Sheridan has made it really tough for anyone to compete with him. Schaefer has made it nearly impossible for anyone to own the term content shock. And good for him.

But are we in content shock? Nope.

Is content marketing a sustainable business strategy? It is the only sustainable marketing strategy to drive new business.

What’s the real problem we were talking about? Volume. And poor quality.

What’s the solution? I call it the “Gerry McGuire manifesto” solution: fewer clients, better relationships.

Quality simply does not mean you have to spend incremental dollars to see a return every time. ROI is possible even for smaller companies.

Mark’s argument is mainly flawed because it assumes all content is a widget. That all content created by anybody is created for everybody. And that good ideas are ubiquitous. The world will always find room for great stories, told really well.

Kevin Spacey taught us that in his closing keynote. And that is why content marketing will continue to grow. There are also a ton of articles out there including these 24 expert views on content marketing. Feel free to explore all the opposing views. And let me know what you think in the comments below.

Photo thanks to Tom Treanor.

Michael Brenner

Michael Brenner  is a Top CMO, Content Marketing and Digital Marketing Influencer, an international keynote speaker, author of "Mean People Suck" and "The Content Formula" and he is the CEO and Founder of Marketing Insider Group, a leading Content Marketing Agency . He has worked in leadership positions in sales and marketing for global brands like SAP and Nielsen, as well as for thriving startups. Today, Michael helps build successful content marketing programs for leading brands and startups alike. Subscribe here for regular updates.

10 thoughts on “Is Content Marketing A Sustainable Marketing Strategy?

  1. When I was a kid, I was an avid reader of Enid Blyton. No other form of content- other books, cartoons or movies could have competed for my attention when a copy of Famous Five was lying on the table.

    Now, however, I reserve the same sort of attention for Neil Gaiman. Or Seth Godin. Or Douglas Adams. If you stick a copy of Enid Blyton in my face I would politely tell you, “Later.”

    This is why I can’t get behind Mark’s theory of content shock and arms race. Different people have different needs at the same time, and the same person will have different needs at different times.

    If content shock was real musicians would have long stopped creating music, authors would have locked up their typewriters and as for Hollywood, they would have set up malls on studio lots

  2. Yes! Wonderful article! For this alone I would thank you: “Mark’s argument is mainly flawed because it assumes all content is a widget. That all content created by anybody is created for everybody.” (But the rest is wonderful as well!)

    Jay Baer seems to be operating under the same misunderstanding as well (see his very flawed definition of reliable reach), and I think he and other voices are regrettably contributing to a disappointing move away from what is in the end the most important thing of all (after quality content itself!), and that is: targeting. Subtle, nuanced, disciplined, intelligent, dynamic, rigorous targeting.

    Yes, there is a great deal of content out there, and yes, people can become overloaded, and yes, that can contribute to a sort of apathy and atrophy, but intelligent targeting reverses this malady by its responsiveness, it attention, its sensitivity. Great content alone is not enough no, but great content, intelligently delivered, to the appropriate destination, packaged appropriately, will continue to delight and engage.

    Mainly, cheers for a lovely article! A pleasure to share …


    Christopher Watkins
    Social Media Manager
    fisher VISTA / HRmarketer

    1. Thanks Christopher, you do bring up a great point. The best content is the information that meets MY needs, when and how I need it. Personalization, targeting and even offering relevant offers were one of the biggest optimizations we were making to the SAP content hub I managed. And we saw huge gains in the effectiveness when we deployed those approaches.

  3. I’m not sure how you can agree with Rhonda’s comment and disagree with me. What do you think I am saying? That content is going to “stop?” No, that is not what I am saying. My message is, and has been, that we need to be honest about the rules of engagement and the economics of content. The days of “cover the world with content” are over, at least in some niches, and the price to compete is going up.

    The specific example I used on the panel was organic Facebook reach. In an enviroment when we have too much content and limited ability to consume, our buisnesses must now either produce even more spectacular content (at a price) or we must pay Facebook to show up. That is the inevitable result of content shock, not only on Facebook but everywhere. Marketing is hard and will be getting harder. In fact, this type of arms race might not be a sustainable for some businesses (like a competitor of Marcus’s!). That is my simple, logical, undeniable message and it is hard to understand why people sensationalize it beyond that. I guess it makes good press.

    In response to Bhaskar, Content Shock is great for consumers. You have more quality and more choice. My point is from the perspective of business trying to compete in an increasingly information dense world.

    1. Thanks Mark, I appreciate your comment and want to emphasize that I think you started a great conversation that I suspect will continue.

      “Marketing is hard and getting harder” is certainly a conclusion I can get behind. And I am a huge supporter of anything that challenges the business to create better content (even if for higher costs) and helps consumers.

  4. The more I read this article the more I think that the word “Content” is creating the confusion:

    – a disturbing pop-up ad is a piece of content
    – a well craft article from a large brand, but neither personal not authentic is content
    – a RT from a person I trust of the same article is another piece of content
    – a “you’re dog picture is so cute” on the FB wall of a prospective client is a piece of content too.

    The problem with content and content marketing is not so much volume. It is more relevance and distribution.

    I guess one-to-millions, mass marketing/ mass content marketing is what Mark is referring to and yes, the distribution mechanism for this type of content does not scale . The idea that brands should become media … at a time where newspapers and TVs are preparing to die is a wrong idea.

    I’m also in full agreement with Christopher Watkins. Content is the only mean people have to influence others and build relations. If not content what else? telepathy marketing?

    What strikes me is that people still measure content quantitatively and not qualitatively.
    If personalization and relevance is the key, why measuring overall # of mentions?

    The only mentions that matter are the one from your target audience. The rest is noise. It is actually worse than noise.

    If your content is retweeted or broadcasted by someone who is not relevant, I would argue that value of your content is lowered and you get negative ROI.

    Let’s take an example:
    1- I am a fan of Seth Godin and I highly respect his opinion and content.
    2- When you Michael quote Seth in your blog post. This increases my trust in Seth content, (and in yours too)
    3- Let’s say I got a RT from a Seth blog post from Justin Bieber … the perceived value of the content is reduced.

    Same effect if someone keep on retweeting the same article. I have friends doing that and selling solutions to do this too. I may probably have done it myself but it’s wrong.

    The third time I see the exact same piece of content obviously retweeted from a machine, I feel disengage and I am losing trust.
    Was this article recycled over and over for the last 6 months? in what context was it written? When I enjoy the first version I was tricked?

    The goal is to create thought leadership thru relationship and relevant content and the only distribution that “may scale” is leveraging the network and relevant endorsements.

    1. Thanks Dominique, I think you are right. We need the right content in the right context on the right channel at the right time to the right person. I believe technology will continue to help us improve our targeting. In the end I think it makes sense to start with all the waste (advertising, content marketing, outbound) and start to remove the waste by making sure business communication matches (and helps) the buyer journey move to an outcomes that helps both the buyer and the seller.

  5. Hi Michael,

    Just stumbled upon this post that discusses several key points made by each and every one of you. I’d like to bring up two of them that I’ve also bumped into time and again.

    1. Perhaps the biggest being the terms content and content marketing. Like Dominique said, it’s not the same to all people, which results in a lot of confusion. And the two are very different, as you know.

    2. I agree with Christopher Watkins and others. In this digital world, content is the only means you have to influence, inspire, and build relationships, from blog posts, to tweets, to videos, reports, etc.

    Now the difference and where the confusion lies. Content can encompass any form of digital communication. It’s the big picture.

    Content Marketing is a targeted, specialized form of content that takes communication to a new, deeper level. People will always be looking for new content to educate, help them make decisions and entertain themselves.
    Of course content marketing makes content and marketing much more difficult. It requires planning, change, and a new mindset too. But as we’ve seen, it can reap greater long- term rewards for both your customer and your company. Like Marcus succeeded in doing.

    I’ve been working on a way to make content marketing easier to identify, understand, create, and get better results – a Content Check List. Each item has several criteria within it to check off. If it doesn’t meet this checklist you’re missing something. I call it the Center Strategy. Here is a quick peek.

    The mission/purpose is to keep your customer at the CENTER of your content by including these 7 components.

    Ask these questions.
    Does your content marketing:
    1. Connect
    It’s the key = Your WHY. Targeted to a specific audience’s beliefs, desires, and needs (essentially, not for everyone).
    2. Engage
    Get your ideal audience’s attention to want to absorb it.
    3. Nurture
    Get those people to come back for more as they make their buying decisions.
    4. Trust
    Shows credibility and gets people to feel good about what they’re seeing, reading, and learning.
    (Automated Re-Tweeting the same article- like Dominique was talking about removes trust.)
    5. Educate – Teaches people things they didn’t know. (Like Marcus did.)
    6. Repackage – This is all about finding the “right station”. The right context, the right channel, the right time, the right person.
    Repackage content in forms that your ideal audience consumes and where and when they consume it. People need to see the same things several times in different ways.

    7. P.S. (All content in content marketing should have some
    sort of call to action to guide people along and to support business goals.)
    Plan to create a successful content network that incorporates all of the above. It supports people with similar beliefs and helps inspire customers and stakeholders to take profitable action.

    Create a plan to distribute and share your content so that the right people at the right time get to see it.

    I believe content marketing should encompass all these factors to avoid the mass content and content waste. It’s customizable (different things may work for different companies), and it’s easy to remember. It’s what makes content marketing so special and focuses on the Customer.

    It’s an important post. Thanks Michael.

    1. Thanks so much Deb. I am totally going to use that in my next workshop (with credit of course). I think you are right. The definition is important and a big part of the problem. I have also tried to address this in some recent posts but nothing as succinct as your steps. Thanks!

  6. You are welcome. Happy to share it with someone who understands. There’s a lot of work out there that needs to be done. We are all learning new things and making changes everyday.

    I’ve been researching and working on this for a little while now. The description above is just a quick intro. I have an infographic, an eBook that goes more in-depth (even examples from SAP), articles, blog posts as categories in my fairly new blog, and a column in a digital publication. Now starting to work on a SlideShare. I even introduce something I call The Triangle of Engagement since engaging content has been one of the top 3 challenges for several years now.

    If you would like more info I’d love to talk. There is so much that needs to be shared. Maybe we could work together on this. If you’d like message me on LinkedIn or send me an email.
    In the end it’s really about making people feel good about making the right choices.

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