Is Content Marketing Now All About Pay to Play?

The signs are out there. The purist approach to content marketing – where relevancy, quality, and an experience customers want is enough to drive traffic, generate leads, motivate engagement and boost sales conversions – has been, officially, tainted.

That doesn’t mean we have to march with our heads hung low back to the ad age. It just means content marketing has got to keep evolving. It’s time to get smarter.

So, Coke got rid of its CMO role last year in a big leadership shake-up, eliminating a lifelong Coca-Cola marketing executive from their staff. This was a guy who championed storytelling.

Even the most hardcore organic content thought leaders like Neil Patel, and Jodi Harris from the Content Marketing Institute, are now discussing the best strategies to use to boost your content marketing reach with what some would consider its antithesis…advertising.

Digital ads on social media. Google PPC advertising. Influencer advertising. The idea is, you’re going to need to up your organization’s ad spend in order to get your content marketing to do what it used to be able to do on its own.

But, what happened to the original, defiantly authentic nature of content marketing?

Change. Content marketing is just adapting. But – there’s more than one way to adapt. Keep in mind, usually, the easiest way isn’t the one that lasts.

Why the Pay to Play Conversation Is Getting Louder

You’re not going against your pureblood content marketing principles by embracing a little advertising. You’re responding to those pesky external changes. The channels themselves have changed – Facebook, LinkedIn, Google – making it harder to get your brand’s content in front of the eyes of your target audience without a little boost from paid ads.

Content marketing is far from being all about pay to play. But it may be worthwhile for some to start playing around with the use of paid options in the content marketing grand plan. Maybe. Ultimately, it depends on what’s right for your organization.

The Case against Content Marketing

Do you have to pay to play? If you already have a healthy lead gen and conversion engine chugging along, why fix something that isn’t broken? But, if you’re seeing your content marketing performance metrics shrivel and you need a short-term solution while you work on improving your content, or your organization is trying to scale your content, you may benefit from some juice.

There are also some voices saying content marketing in itself is not sustainable. Can’t say I agree, but it’s useful to take a look at the arguments.

Mark Schaefer is one of the most respected voices of the “content marketing isn’t sustainable” theory. He’s been sparking the debate for years – these arguments aren’t the result of the relentless Google algorithm changes and the latest sky-is-falling Facebook news. I even moderated a panel at Content Marketing World a few years ago where Mark advocated for unsustainability against Marcus Sheridan, a friend of Mark’s but an ideological adversary when it comes to content marketing.

Here’s a summary of Mark’s argument:

His theory is called ‘Content Shock.’ The idea is that the amount of content will keep increasing, which will make it increasingly more difficult to have consumers’ limited time and energy focused on your brand’s content.

This is where paid methods are becoming more widely adopted as part of some organizations’ content marketing strategies. Instead of focusing on making content better or using creative and innovative ways to build authority and trust, the obvious, relatively low-risk fix is to pay for people’s attention.

Mark does suggest that what will push us out of the Content Shock phase, as he coins it, isn’t necessarily a shift to tons of paid content promotion but rather the emergence of a new era – which he says will be “enabled by augmented reality and wearable tech.”

Which means, content marketers may want to think about investing more into marketing technology – not ads – as a long-term strategy for sustainable, impactful content marketing. After all, modern marketing is about innovating with the rapidly evolving digital times, not running back to where we came from when we get freaked out.

Pay to Play for Sharing Content on Social Media

Marks also makes a valid point concerning the social media leg of your content marketing strategy. There’s an emerging backlash from using social media for content marketing in the relatively simple way most have been practicing. If your social strategy is limited to posting links to your other digital content, you’re going to have to take a more dynamic approach.

  • Social media sites have a duty to users to ensure brands don’t take over, drowning users’ feeds with both organic and paid content.
  • And, these free sites aren’t public services. They are businesses who want to grow. So, they are probably going to increasingly push towards more paid content and thin out the organic marketing content, which we’ve already seen on some social platforms.

As a result, both platform policy changes and algorithm changes have made it more difficult to reach the same audience without paid promotion, in addition to organic content on social media.

Unless you start thinking outside the box with social. There’s a lot more that can be done to engage your audiences:

  • Creating more user-generated campaigns
  • Being a part of Groups and industry conversations
  • Connect directly with followers, answering questions and even asking them – you’ll gather some useful buyer persona data this way as a bonus
  • Interact with other industry experts, not just sharing their content but providing reviews of their work, requesting interviews, collaborating to create content with double the thought leadership
  • Focus on building a community with things like contests, rewards programs, shout-outs, and more live interaction – live video, live interviews, educational webinars, and, of course, leading your brand’s social community offline to be a part of your in-person events and other types of experiential marketing

Don’t Turn Your Back on Good Content

There’s a danger of falling into the “pay to play” hype right now. Paid promotion is always a short-term solution. Get accustomed to relying on it to push your content marketing ROI metrics up, and you won’t have taken the hard road of trying out new tools, innovating with different techniques and technology, and really digging deep into your customer data to truly understand what your customers want and need. You won’t have the opportunity to hone your strategy.

Paid options may be able to help generate a few leads and get more traffic to your website temporarily – this can be a smart strategy for startups or during growth-oriented business phases. But, even the most subtle use of native advertising on social media to get your content out there doesn’t actually build trust. It doesn’t establish your brand as an authority. It doesn’t tell your brand story.

And, sorry Coca-Cola, the story – the heart of your brand’s reason for existing – is the only thing that will authentically resonate with your audience and motivate them to care. That’s what is sustainable. That’s what will compete with the idea of ‘too much information’ and cut through the saturation. That’s what good content marketing is all about.

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michael brenner and liz bedor

Michael Brenner is a globally-recognized keynote speaker, author of The Content Formula and the CEO of Marketing Insider Group. 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 shares his passion on leadership and marketing strategies that deliver customer value and business impact. He is recognized by the Huffington Post as a Top Business Keynote Speaker and a top CMO influencer by Forbes. Please follow him on LinkedIn, Twitter, or Facebook and Subscribe here for regular updates.