Earlier this month, when Forrester released their 2018 predictions guide, one prediction in particular piqued marketers’ and advertisers’ interests: a painful “advertising correction” in which CMOs will divert budget away from their usual ad spends.
In Forrester’s own words: “CMOs can’t defend underperforming media spend focused on customer acquisition as churn rates escalate or stand idly by as digital platforms threaten to disintermediate their relationship with customers.” Ouch.
Yet the declining effectiveness of traditional advertising is not exactly a new observation. (Really: Here’s Harvard Business Review in 1990, reporting that more than half of the advertisements they surveyed did not result in increased sales. When that study took place, your faithful correspondent still wore diapers.) So why now? If marketers have been questioning the ROI of advertising for, oh, three decades but ad spend has kept creeping upward every year regardless, why should 2018 be any different?
Image attribution: Mingwei Li
Forrester’s guide doesn’t explain why 2018 will be the tipping point—but if you read between the lines, they appear to be crediting the emergence of technology that will help brands deliver better, more personalized experiences throughout the consumer lifecycle, from brand awareness to new customer acquisition to loyalty and retention.
I don’t question this increased focus on customer experience in the slightest. My individual experience provides plenty of anecdotal evidence: The Content Standard has been covering the intersection of brand storytelling and customer experience more and more over the last year, as well as the technology that makes it possible. But what I—and likely any marketer whose career has “come of age” alongside the rise of digital content—find to be a questionable omission is the role of content marketing.
In fact, I would argue that what has kept the advertising market strong despite its questionable returns has been the historical lack of viable alternatives for reaching consumers. The choice between reaching consumers through traditional, if underperforming, means and not reaching those consumers at all is not much of a choice. But over the last decade, content marketing has finally come into its own as a tested alternative to traditional ad spend. Even the most risk-averse CMOs can look to rigorous research and well-documented best practices to ensure that an investment in content marketing is a smart decision, not an uncertain experiment.
If anything, content marketing subtly underpins the priority shift that Forrester is predicting, and content marketing’s newfound maturity as a marketing discipline is what will enable brands to stem their reliance on traditional advertising in the year to come.
Image attribution: Henri Meilhac
Here’s a look at each of the four areas to which Forrester predicts CMOs will divert their advertising budget in 2018 and the role that content marketing plays for each one.
According to HBR, acquiring new customers costs between five and twenty-five times as much as retaining existing customers. Hidden in that wide range is the undeniable fact that churn is really, really expensive. And there’s a secondary benefit of prioritizing customer retention over acquisition: Satisfied customers are a more trustworthy mouthpiece for your brand than you are (hence our collective preoccupation with influencer marketing).
Pre-digital CX was synonymous with customer service. Was the buying experience pleasant and easy? If the buyer had problems with their purchase, was the company able to address them promptly? Today’s digital-first CX means higher expectations for instantaneous, digitally mediated customer service, as well as many more brand-consumer touchpoints—online communities, regular emails, social sharing, etc.—that create additional value for consumers.
In short, brands that can offer consistent opportunities for consumer engagement, pre- and post-sale, have a significant competitive advantage. Content, in this context, bridges multiple consumer needs: educating consumers throughout their buying decision, addressing common issues (without hours on hold with customer support), showing buyers how to get additional value out of their purchase, connecting them to a community of like-minded consumers, and entertaining and engaging them so they create positive associations with your brand.
Again, retention wins over acquisition for spending-conscious marketers. While this is perhaps the least content-centric of the four areas predicted to soak up diverted ad budget, content can still play a valuable supporting role in meeting customer expectations.
Content Marketing Institute’s Robert Rose has written extensively about how brands can monetize their audiences. While content, like advertising, is usually evaluated in terms of its ability to drive sales, Rose advocates for a broader point of view: content as audience builder. That engaged audience of subscribers does of course generate revenue directly through purchases, but they are also a strategic asset for the business.
In exchange for content they consider to be valuable, subscribed audiences provide valuable information: personal details and demographic information, but also, by way of their content consumption habits, insight into their needs and desires as consumers. Improving loyalty programs is only one way in which these insights can shape business decisions and better serve existing and prospective customers.
Image attribution: Arnold Exconde
Marketers have been concerned with digital platform algorithms since the early days of search engines, but recent news stories (the investigation into foreign interference in the 2016 US presidential election, most notably) have brought to light exactly how influential digital platforms like Facebook, Google, and Twitter are—and how opaque the mechanisms are that power content discovery.
Content, and content discovery in particular, lies at the heart of this spending priority. Either through technology (think ad blockers and streaming services) or sheer habituation (banner blindness, for example), interruptive advertising simply does not reach consumers as well as it did even a generation ago. Brands’ corrective response has been to search for new channels to reach consumers, and with that shift in channel has come a shift in medium from traditional ad types to content that is optimized for discovery and sharing via the digital platforms where consumers are most likely to spend their time. For the uninitiated, this is content marketing in a nutshell.
The difference between this type of content and traditional ads is as much the consumer’s interaction with them as it is their form and substance. The consumer is in control; while the brand can (and should!) create content that takes advantage of the platform and the consumer’s tendencies, it is the consumer, and not the brand, who makes the decision to engage. That Forrester is predicting brands will divert their ad budgets to better understand digital platforms points to brands’ growing comfort yielding control to the consumer—a hopeful sign for content marketers.
A handful of innovative digital properties—Amazon, Netflix, and yes, Facebook—have reoriented users’ expectations about the degree of personalization brands should be able to provide them in their online experiences. In fact, a 2013 study by Janrain and Harris Interactive found that 74% of consumers report frustration when websites serve them content that does not reflect their interests or demographics. Three and a half years—and an eon in technological advancement—later, that number can only have continued to climb.
Much has been written (not least by this publication) about how technology-enabled personalization is revolutionizing marketing as we know it. But what about the consumer experience is being personalized? You guessed it—it’s usually content.
The most visible form of experience personalization is familiar from the e-commerce realm: recommendations. Much like Amazon recommends products based on your shopping history, growing numbers of content-driven websites provide recommended content based on inputs like your browsing history, your individual demographics, and aggregate site trends. Behind the scenes, the most sophisticated marketing technology can use your content consumption habits to inform your entire omnichannel experience, incorporating email nurture and even offline retail experiences. More broadly, off-domain experiences will eventually approach the flexibility of true personalization, with improved targeting capabilities on digital platforms like YouTube or Facebook that enable brands to serve content only to the micro-segments most likely to engage with it.
Image attribution: Denys Nevozhai
Despite Forrester’s gut-wrenching language, this “painful correction” is probably not a death sentence for the advertising industry. In fact, they predict that ad spend will only flatline in 2018, not decrease.
Yet they are pointing to a trend that is more important than a simple reduction in advertising revenue, which is a growing recognition on the part of brands that traditional advertising is not the centerpiece of marketing strategy it once was.
In an interview earlier this year with branded content producer David Beebe, he told me that brands “should be creating content that stops interrupting what consumers are actually interested in and become what they’re interested in.” This vision of the future doesn’t exclude advertising altogether, but it does ask the advertising industry to adapt to a new content consumption model in which the consumer’s desires are paramount. What would the advertising industry look like if they adapted their output to be discovered, consumed, and shared on the customer’s terms?
Actually, it would look a lot like content marketing.
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Featured image attribution: Lindsay Henwood