On the limited value of branded content

Those who have read our book Outside-In Marketing: Using Big Data to Guide Your Content Marketing know we approach the problem of content marketing head on. Here is my definition of the problem of content marketing:

Systematically overwhelming your audience by pushing brand messages on them faster than they are willing to keep up.

The problem stems from a common issue: Companies don’t do content marketing from a clear content strategy, leading to what Mark Schaefer calls content shock. Content shock is what happens in your audience when they are so overwhelmed by the volume of your content that it actually does more harm than good.

We think the practice of content marketing can be very valuable to companies, and the whole book is about how to do it without creating content shock. To help us understand the depth and breath of the problem, we interviewed three skeptics of content marketing for the book: Schaefer, Ben Edwards, and Kristina Halvorson.

Though the interviews helped us understand the skepticism, they did not resolve the conflict we had with the skeptics. None of them could understand why we were promoting the practice of content marketing when it is so fraught with failure.

Fortunately, the interviews printed in the book are not the last word on the subject. I’ve been having an ongoing discussion with Kristina on Twitter, and I think we made a breakthrough together. Here is an abridged view of the conversation:

Turns out, our conflict was about how we define content marketing. She defines content marketing as necessarily involving branded content. I get where she’s coming from: to date, in the practice of content marketing, companies primarily develop and push branded content on unwilling audiences and promote it through social media.

Mike and I take a much broader view of content marketing, which involves mostly unbranded content with some branded content presented in context. Companies fail at content marketing because they focus on pushing branded content on unwilling audiences rather than on pulling willing audiences to useful experiences that answer their unbranded questions, and folding in branded content only when they are ready.

What is wrong with branded content?

There’s nothing inherently wrong with branded content. It just doesn’t work particularly well at the beginning of the conversation. The main problem with branded content is not the content itself, but the medium. The digital medium is so distributed and disorganized, it makes it very difficult to tell brand stories. In print and other offline media, the publisher is in control of the story. When you open a book, for example, you read it end to end, ceding the control of the story to the writer. Once you start reading the book, you are a captive audience.

Audiences in digital are not captive; they’re self directed and impatient to get on with their journeys—their stories. In digital, the reader (or user) is in control of the story. They don’t typically start their journeys by looking for brands. They start their journeys by looking for solutions to their problems. And they piece their journeys together at multiple sites from multiple providers. They don’t always search for information, but enough do to make search the best way to understand their intentions at each stage in their journeys.

Search query analysis is a representative sample of audience intent. The vast majority of queries are unbranded. In our analysis, 95 percent of search demand is unbranded. Our audience asks a lot of big-picture questions in their queries. E.g., “What is business intelligence?” or “How do I integrate intelligence into my business?” or the like. Except in cases of iconic brands like Watson, users tend to only type brand names into their queries when they are closer to purchase. It is one of the signals we look for in understanding how queries indicate where prospects are in their buyer journeys.

Brands that lead with unbranded information build content marketing experiences that work. They only fold brand names in when prospects are ready. In B2C brands, this might be fairly early in the process, as the journey can be quick. But in B2B, it’s typically long, with a team of people collaborating on their due diligence. In B2B, about 80 percent of the sales cycle is unbranded.

If you lead with branded content and focus on telling your brand stories, you won’t connect with prospects well at all. You might connect with clients who are already familiar with your brands. Prospects will never find or engage with your carefully crafted brand stories because they won’t be looking for them. Pushing branded content on unwilling prospects only serves to annoy them, and leads to negative brand experiences. It does more harm than good.

What is branded content good for?

On May 22, IBM launched a new brand platform: you to the power of IBM.

Comparable in scope to e-business and Smarter Planet, the platform will revolutionize the way we think about the 106-year-old company that continually reinvents itself to stay relevant.

I had the good fortune of attending the launch event for the new platform in IBM’s Astor Place offices. In the event, IBM SVP of Marketing and Communications Jon Iwata and IBM CMO Michelle Peluso described the new platform in ways to which I cannot do justice here. Please visit the you to the power of IBM page for that.

Instead I want to focus on how brand platforms show us the limits of digital. To paraphrase:

Our clients and prospects won’t search for this new platform, because it didn’t exist until now.

When I heard them talk about the platform, it occurred to me that you don’t launch a new brand platform like this through digital channels. Digital channels are for helping people find stuff they already know about, through the search keywords and social connections they are familiar with. If they don’t know it exists, they will never find it in digital.

Predictably, the campaign started with print and outdoor ads. Since the audience doesn’t search for the message in digital, you have to bring the message to them where they live and work. Eventually, when they are aware of the campaign from offline means, they will start to look for the messages in digital. But you don’t lead with digital to build a new brand platform.

In a sense, launching a new brand platform is the epitome of inside-out marketing. You push messages on largely unaware audiences hoping to influence hearts and minds. There is nothing wrong with this approach. It is the heritage of the marketing discipline. When a brand needs to start the conversation from a whole new perspective, it is the only way.

Brand health can have immeasurable influence on purchasing, when clients and prospects are ready to engage with branded content. The primary way you build brand health in digital is through excellent customer experiences with unbranded content. Of course, you have to know when to serve them branded content to create great customer experiences. And you can’t close the deal unless you can tell good brand stories when prospects are close to purchase. That’s the primary role of branded content in digital: the closer.

In my Biznology webinar on the topic of Outside-In Marketing, an attendee asked if you could do outside-in marketing and inside-out marketing together. I said that you could, but you must do it carefully in digital. In digital, you have to lead with what your clients and prospects are looking for and condition the conversation towards your brands. Getting them comfortable enough with your branded content to do business with you is one definition of winning. But, if you lead with branded content, and they are unaware of your brands, they will never find your branded messages.

The more difficult challenge with integrating outside-in and inside-out marketing is knowing how to weave the unbranded and branded messages together without creating content shock. We write at length about that in the book. It turns out it’s a hard problem. There are good reasons to keep some of the marketing artifacts separate. But those you do want to integrate are well worth the effort.

Biznology Editorial Team

Biznology is a digital magazine and learning platform that focuses on the intersection of business and technology to help business leaders make smarter decisions for today, tomorrow – and prepare them for what’s next. Biznology covers a range of topics that are top of mind for 21st century leaders dedicated to improving, changing and ultimately transforming their organizations for the future.

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