Does content marketing work? It didn’t seem to for the managing director of a large retail chain who was sitting in front of me. Each time I presented him with a new fact, he’d shake his head a little. Every customer testimonial raised a half-smile on his lips. When I was finished, he sat back in his chair and said two words.
I was pitching our content services to him on the recommendation of one of his board members. This guy had been hired to save the company. Sales were tanking. The board wanted new solutions. They had found this new MD and snapped him up because he had long and deep experience as a retail manager. By his own account, he’d done it all, tried everything, and had the answers.
I figured he wasn’t convinced because I’m a pretty crap sales guy. I know that. I’m aware of my limitations. But he was polite enough to explain that he had been down this road before. He had tried content marketing. And it didn’t work.
Who does content marketing work for?
As a tactic, content marketing has been proven to work time and again. So a blanket statement like “content marketing doesn’t work” is a little misleading. It may not have worked for this particular guy.
This is the result of a natural cognitive bias called a ‘base rate fallacy’. When presented with specific information and related general information, people trust the specific. His immediate experience, he assumed, was more true than all the proof I could throw at him about content marketing.
He saw the products he was selling as impulse-buys. People didn’t think about them. They just bought one if they needed one.
Fair enough. Content marketing appears to work better for considered purchases.
The real question is, how much considering are his customers really doing?
How impulsive is an impulse-buy?
In years gone by, we had no way of knowing if a potential customer was sussing us out. That’s why branding became so important to marketers. Spend money to get people to recall our brand, then they’d remember us during the consideration and evaluation phases of the buying process.
Many marketers seem to believe branding works as long as you invest enough in promoting it. But if branding does work, it means the ‘impulsive’ part of an impulse buy is actually quite considered. It’s just that the ‘consideration’ is an emotional attachment to the brand, rather than a rational process of gathering information.
An example of content doing the work of branding
Done right, content marketing and branding can do the same thing at these early stages of the process. Take Red Bull for a familiar example. Red Bull’s success at content marketing is all in that top-of-the-sales-funnel area. Their content is not about the product but is all about creating a consistent emotional journey.
Notice in every Red Bull stunt and video, you have an individual faced with a dangerous challenge. He or she spends the first half of the video setting themselves up to tackle it. Then, among some stirring music, they ascend to the starting point (the mountain, or balloon, or the start of the track). Then you get the shaky GoPro footage of the stunt itself, where the viewer can’t get a grip on whether they are safe or not. Then the conclusion, where the parachute opens, or they cross the finish line.
They’re all about emotional journeys ending in triumph. They get your heart racing.
By happy coincidence, Red Bull claims to achieve the same effect on your heart in their other marketing. Their PR, their product packaging and their other branding ads all talk about it speeding up your heart rate—about ‘giving you wings’.
Where content differs from branding
The only difference between this sort of consideration content and branding? With branding, you have to keep paying for access to the audience. With content, you build your own audience and control access to it.
But you don’t see many direct results from consideration content. You similarly don’t see direct results from branding campaigns.
Those companies that believe content marketing doesn’t work have almost always made the same mistakes. They have either produced consideration content, but not spent any time trying to move the audience they build down a sales funnel. Or they’ve produced evaluation or sales content, and then wondered why they haven’t been able to build an audience.
That managing director who told me content marketing doesn’t work wasn’t going to change his mind. He was an experienced salesperson. In his experience, the only people worth talking to were the ones who had already made up their mind to buy.
He believed with all his heart that his products were impulse buys, because that was the only stage of the sales process he’d ever paid attention to. As an aside, he seemed to think branding was all bullshit too.
While content marketing clearly works well with considered purchases, it can also work with impulse buys. You just need to understand where that ‘consideration’ is happening. Traditionally it’s been the work of branding to create consideration. But content does that more efficiently, because you don’t need to keep paying to access the audience.
You just need to keep talking to them.