Content Marketing Is Dead. Long Live Context Marketing.

Somewhere between eight and 10 years ago, a collection of innovative thinkers and creators ushered in the era of brand-to-consumer Content Marketing.

Without exaggeration, it changed the marketing landscape forever and represented a new paradigm of advertising that disrupted the traditional model. You couldn’t walk through Cannes, Advertising Week, CES or SxSW without tripping over Content Marketing talks and presentations.

Bookending the Decade of Content

Since that time, there have been many definitions of content marketing, not to mention blog posts, trade publication features, podcasts, tutorials, conferences and books. (My favorite was, and still is, Rebecca Lieb’s Content Marketing: Think Like a Publisher – How to Use Content to Market Online and in Social Media.”) We also saw the rise of specialized agencies and production companies, expanded capabilities within traditional agencies and even the development of in-house content studios within major brand organizations.

The content, itself, started as text-only tweets, Facebook posts and blogs, but quickly evolved as photo and video technology improved, mobile device usage expanded and the competition for user/consumer attention intensified. It lived across platforms, competed with both traditional creative AND media dollars within marketing budgets and even spawned offshoot arms like Influencer Marketing, SEO-led and integrated experiential.

But we are now long past the point of peak saturation – both in usage and exposure of the term, as well as consideration of content marketing within the broader mix. Consumers are exposed to too much content, they’re seeing too much irrelevant content and they’re seeing content at the wrong time.

Therefore, I am officially declaring today the end of Content Marketing Era. OVER. Done. Finito.

(Pause for dramatic effect)

 The King is Dead! Long Live the King!

 I am also declaring today the beginning of the NEXT era of marketing innovation, which we will call Context Marketing.

(Still pausing…)

 Sure, this also just happens to align with my start and end dates over a decade at 360i, the first agency to launch a capability and team dedicated to social and content marketing. But over the years, that core practice evolved into a cornerstone of much larger, more integrated marketing plans. Content WAS king… but context has just assumed the throne!

One of the basic tenets of advertising has always been “fish where the fish are.” Seems simple enough, however one of the first Creative Directors with whom I ever worked at an agency took it one step further. Martin Bihl wrote earlier this year that we must now “fish how the fish want to be caught.” Another way of thinking about it could be the creation, publication and distribution of the right content on the right platform for the right audience at the right time. This requires the right mix of art and science, planning and reactivity.

 This Shouldn’t Be So Hard

Let’s take a practical, recent example. The World Cup is one of the most viewed, most discussed events in the world. It is a social experience that takes place in groups. During several of the matches earlier this summer, a big pharmaceutical company (and related agencies) launched a cross-channel takeover for its erectile dysfunction medication. The branding experience lasted for the full duration of the halftime show, living across the on-air broadcast, its live stream, the Facebook Live stream and promoted posts on Twitter and Google/YouTube. It was not cheap.

If the campaign goals were mass penetration and reach, maybe it worked. But if engagement or consideration were the intent, the campaign missed the mark. How likely would a man living with ED who is getting bombarded with ED messaging while watching the game with friends openly discuss it? What was missing in this equation was the CONTEXT in which the messaging was delivered, not to mention the feelings of the consumer and the social setting.

 Who Owns Context Marketing?

Whether the Context Marketing resolution should be platform-led, agency-led or client-led will likely take some time – and negotiation – to determine. Like everything in our industry, it still starts with research, but going deeper than ever with: Consumer Journeys, social listening, buyer personas, conversion tracking…

But the good news is that the tools required to understand how customers want to be spoken to have never been better, the access to complex data sets is prevalent and unprecedented, the ad targeting capabilities of digital leaders Facebook, Twitter and Google are so effective and efficient and the variety of creative canvases are so rich and diverse. So there are no longer any excuses for wasted impressions. The right owner(s) will figure out how to do it well, but with efficiencies of cost.

Connected Planning and Execution

Tackling business challenges in the next decade requires a fresh approach. Awareness, consideration, intent and conversion are still going to require quality, scale-able, versatile content. Marketers are not only required to understand the needs and wants of their audience, but also to ensure that content reaches the right specific audience segments in ways that maximize engagement and influence. Simply put, if marketers and creatives don’t adapt to speak to customers the way they want to be spoken to – at a particular time, about a particular product, in a particular medium – they will not succeed.

The aforementioned pharmaceutical campaign was likely executed by a disparate, disconnected group of thinkers, planners and creators who are not organized in any central way. The industry-wide disconnect between content/strategy and media/strategy has existed for generations, and is the single biggest source of waste. Very few marketers, let alone companies, are well-versed in both sides of this required integration. Until now, advertisers’ focus has been on the “what,” “where” and “when,” but will increasingly shift to “why” over the next few years (and the “how,” the tactics and tools with which to make it happen). Herein lies another opportunity for brand marketers, agencies, publishers, platforms and data/analytics thought leaders.

The Time is Right

Welcome to the next decade, friends. Shift your mindset from Content Marketing to Context Marketing, because one letter makes a heck of a difference and “X” marks the spot where brand marketers should start digging to find their next treasure. Think about deeper customer segments and recognition, find moments instead of planning them and re-discover the value exchange that we all crave so badly.

But most importantly, don’t be left behind like so many who waited to see if social and content were going to be worthwhile marketing investments. Good luck, have fun and let’s talk again in 10 years.

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