Content marketing will never work

Content marketing on the web does not work and will not work for brands. Closing your eyes and wanting it to be true won't make it work either.

This is a guest post by Mark Higginson. Mark worked with me for several years at iCrossing heading up the Social Media team. He wrote a similar post on his blog which I found so thought provoking I asked if he could write something similar for Travelblather. Enjoy!


Content marketing on the web does not work and will not work for brands. Closing your eyes and wanting it to be true won't make it work either.

It just costs way too much for a business to create the quality and quantity of content required to win the kind of attention needed to achieve a decent return on the investment.

Certainly not enough to get new visitors to their site and to convert them into sales.

There are currently two in vogue arguments for doing content marketing

First - It creates awareness.

This is intangible; but more to the point, it's also untrue. Attention doesn't work like that on the web.

Attention on the web follows a heavy-tail distribution.


An abrupt curve with just a handful of pieces of content receiving almost all the attention whilst the majority receive next to none. A few winners, lots of losers.

Look at your own analytics data. Focus on the pages that feature original content rather than those that help visitors navigate, such as your home page and booking engine. Plot the top few hundred data points and see what kind of a chart you get. Now divide all those figures by four. This will give the approximate number of people who bothered to read the whole page in each case.

Now try plotting the number of people who completed a goal on each of those pages; the thing that you want each person viewing your content to do next in each case. (You should have set this for each page. Or why else would you be spending vast resources on publishing hundreds of pieces of content?)

The numbers will be tiny for the vast majority of your posts. Perhaps a few will have really gained traction.

Problem is, there is no way of predicting ahead of time which of your posts will do significantly better than the majority. You have to do the lot. This is why this whole approach does not scale, unless of course your entire purpose is to be a content destination.

Take this post: Transforming Your Brand into the Next Media Company

It suggests that brands need to become media companies. It's telling that author Michael Brito uses the New York Times as an example, claiming they publish over 1,500 articles per day. If you were to publish content at anything like the scale needed to compete against these vast content destinations for whom this is their entire business model, you'd be a publisher too, not whatever business it is that you are actually in.

Given the huge problems web publishers are having making this work I'd suggest becoming a 'media company' is a sure way of sinking your business. It's most unlikely you can create advertorial that's going to generate sales off the little attention you will be generating from this kind of editorial content. Content which usually is so far removed from your product or service that it's highly unlikely to drive conversion anyway.

As ever, Baekdal is good on this, making the point that more page views from 'content marketing' activity doesn't usually mean an increase in an outcome you're actually looking for, such as sales, because of the lack of intent behind the visit.

But maybe your content marketing isn't really about awareness?

So Secondly… some say it's about influencing search engines

In this recent post: Content marketing fairy dust the author suggests you need to spend as much resource promoting your content as you do creating it.

He's particularly thinking about promotion to gain links so that your content ranks better in search engines (and as a result pulls in lots of traffic). But it's an interesting concept for the awareness advocates too.

These days the SEO industry can't scale what it does in a safe way (ie one that won't get penalised by Google). This is particularly the case for really competitive terms like say 'car insurance'. Individually negotiating the posting of one piece of content at a time on other people's websites which is a core part of the strategy recommended in the post above is way too time-consuming and costly. But this is what SEO agencies have been reduced to persuading clients to buy into. Guess what. They're also calling this 'content marketing'.

Two definitions - two activities that just don't scale. You need to chuck vast sums of money at both to be successful.

Problem is, there are enough people out there who really, really want to believe in this who are prepared to pay other people to tell them it is true. Just read this to see what I mean. It's Come to This: A Newsroom Devoted to Brands

If marketers are prepared to spend money on display advertising which is full of fakery, then I guess they'll sure as hell throw money at this kind of thing too. As soon as they do, we'll start seeing fake traffic from fake sites to inflate total page view figures as this will no doubt be the big number waved around to reassure everyone that 'success' is being achieved. One thing this activity probably won't do is turn people into customers,

So - If someone is claiming that your business needs to be 'telling stories all of the time' ask them to demonstrate this working for someone else across several hundred posts. Ask them for charts showing page views, comments, shares and backlinks as well as a list of the URLs for you to check. If they actually do 'content marketing' they must have this data. Look at the trends and draw your own conclusions.

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