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How to Position Content Marketing’s Value in an Ad-Saturated World

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I often wonder if other content marketers also suffer from Thanksgiving Guest Syndrome.

It’s a familiar condition even if you’ve never heard that particular term before. It’s when you go to a family gathering—like Thanksgiving—and are asked what you’re doing for a living these days. With a smile and a glint in your eye, you fly into explaining content marketing’s value, the basics of SEO, how you’re changing the way brands interact with consumers. It’s only when you look down to your phone to pull up that graphic of your perfect keyword strategy for the upcoming holiday season that your second aunt or third cousin twice removed mumbles something about needing to refresh their drink and slips away.

Content marketing is an elegant if complex approach to digital marketing that makes intuitive sense when you’re in the thick of it. But coming from the outside, it can all look like more trouble than it’s worth—especially weighed against the comforting familiarity of advertising.

For many of us, that Thanksgiving Guest Syndrome frustration we feel when struggling to explain the many different parts of the content marketing space affects how we communicate with managers and marketing leadership within our companies. We see more budget and manpower devoted to advertising tactics every day, despite growing expense and slower audience reach.

But what if content marketers could position our work in such a way that our brands understand its value in our completely ad-saturated world?

Notebook with cartoon images about business

Image attribution: Raw Pixel

Two Channels, One Problem

Even given the slightly dire outlook for digital advertising, it’s no wonder that in a rapidly changing marketing ecosystem, CMOs are looking to expand their advertising budgets in the coming year. According to a Nielsen survey of CMOs from June 2018, 82 percent of respondents reported their intention to raise digital advertising budgets over the next 12 months. Further, respondents reported an average expected increase of 49 percent to their budgets.

The reasoning here is two-fold. First, businesses with running ad campaigns that are driving leads or converting visitors are going to resist turning off or backing down from a channel that seems to be working for them. Naturally they don’t want to give up something that’s familiar, doesn’t break regularly, and that their brand knows.

The second reason to stay with advertising once your brand’s skin is in the game is a bit more implicit. Digital ad markets are competitive and rapid. Talk to any ad agency account manager, and they’ll explain the importance of “audience warming” and “spooling up.” There is a tactical suggestion that after winning a measure of hold in your market, backing down from spend will mean giving up crucial ground you can’t recover. Turn off the spend entirely, and you turn off awareness, traffic, and leads entirely as well.

With so much spend on the table, it should come as no surprise as well that these CMOs expressed concern about performance and attribution. Around 81 percent of surveyed CMOs cited performance tracking as important and believed media spenders needed to step up on tracking performance.

However, ask similar marketing leaders about content marketing, and the story you hear is very similar, but less optimistic.

According to a recent study from Zazzle Media, content marketing now comprises on average about 23 percent of marketing budgets. Further, a strong 82 percent majority reported expecting to increase content marketing spend in the coming year, with another 60 percent reporting that they believed content marketing to be absolutely key to their marketing.

So what’s the concern?

In terms of obstacles, two of the three cited difficulties by respondents had to do with resources: 52 percent said that keeping up with content production was a struggle, while 43 percent cited budget constraints as their biggest hurdle. While there are ways to make your production funnel more efficient, there’s only so much your team can do without the proper resources: A lack of understanding of content marketing results in reduced resources, which leads to outcomes that seem to validate leadership’s distrust in the first place.

The third concern? Performance tracking, just like digital advertising, with 42 percent of respondents citing ROI tracking as a primary concern. This is a perennial concern for content marketers who have to constantly reframe ROI conversations for colleagues who are used to seeing neat rows of ad spend associated with clean goal conversions—conversions that tacitly leave out the nurturing role that content played along the way.

So if content marketing value is going to be raised up in your organization in such a way that earns you additional resources for your digital marketing spend, what has to change?

woman looking at phone

Image attribution: Bruce Mars

Addiction versus Assets

To position content marketing as valuable in today’s ad markets, you have to solve for two questions: Why is media spend better allocated to content, and how will you measure your results to prove it?

Where I like to start with these conversations is with attribution happening on the ad side. Many—if not most—brands today are reliant on last-touch attribution. This is a huge boon for advertising, as ads frequently drive attributed traffic that is nurtured by non-attributed material on your site (i.e. content) that then later converts. So your SEM manager will proudly show you the tables with cost per lead and cost per acquisition, all tied back to ads you’ve been running.

Two things have to be considered in these cases however. First, how can you be sure a conversion only touched that one ad before taking an action?

As a conservative thought exercise, ask your management to look at your CPL and CPA and then assume that in actuality most or all of your visitors were served two ads—not one—before converting. Doubling all of your costs across the board may not be an accurate measure, but it should illustrate a large shortcoming of this type of advertising: What appears cheap may not be as affordable as you think.

This then leads to the most crucial second point. What happens if you turn it all off?

Well—nothing.

All of your traffic, engagement, and activity stops. In this, advertising presents itself more as an addiction than a tactic. It requires upkeep to operate, without a guarantee of improved efficiency over time.

But all of this isn’t the case for content marketing. The more your site’s content hub grows, the more organic pull you have on search. Following this logic, the more material you have to share organically in email and over social channels, the more efficient you become over time. Sure, more resources and spend gives your team more bandwidth to perform, but if the budget is cut a year later, your existing content will still drive organic traffic and engagement. In this way, content should be considered more of an investment than an advertisement, an asset instead of an addiction.

If content marketers are going to remain relevant and valuable into the future, there are certainly technical and tactical hurdles we have to address. Likewise, our marketing leadership needs to understand that as advertising tries to pull brands into more spend for less return, content marketing offers an alternative route that promises compounding value over time, without the media spend strings attached.

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Featured image attribution: FirmBee

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Kyle Harper is a writer, editor, and marketer who is passionate about creative projects and the industries that support them. He is a human who writes things. He also writes about things, around things, for things, and because of things. He's worked with brands like Hasbro, Spotify, Tostitos, and the Wall Street Journal, as well as a bunch of cool startups. The hardest job he's ever taken was the best man speech for his brother's wedding. No challenge is too great or too small. No word is unimportant. Behind every project is a story. What's yours?

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