A review of Killing Marketing: How innovative businesses are turning marketing cost into profit
By Joe Pulizzi and Robert Rose
Around 15 years ago, there were companies going around town killing custom publishing. Their sales pitch was always, “I can produce your magazine for you for free, and fund it by selling ads.” That was the promise—marketing doesn’t have to be a cost. You can create value from content marketing with a beautiful, glossy magazine.
It worked a treat at first. These companies stole clients from existing publishers and even picked up a few that hadn’t published any magazines before. The magazines often looked great too (there are a lot of very talented art directors in Australia).
It made life trickier for the rest of us, though. We started fielding questions in pitch meetings like, “Why don’t you pay us to produce our magazine?”
I remembered those companies when I got my copy of Killing Marketing. It’s the latest book from US content marketing gurus Joe Pulizzi and Robert Rose (we’ll call them P&R because it’s quicker to type). These two are the John Lennon and Paul McCartney of content marketing. The Tony Stark and Steve Rogers of the profession. They were the inspiration for me (along with thousands of others) to embrace the practice.
But then I looked at the sub-head on the cover: “How innovative businesses are turning marketing cost into profit”. And I thought, Nooooo—we’re going back to the bad-old-days! Don’t do it!
Because one by one, those custom publishing companies imploded. When they couldn’t sell ads in the magazines, they stopped publishing as frequently. Clients rightly asked what had happened to their glossy marketing strategy. When told the ads weren’t coming in, clients pulled out of custom publishing altogether. It created a terrible vibe around the industry. Many concluded that custom publishing (and content marketing) didn’t work.
I personally believe that a lot of antipathy towards content marketing stems from those days. We still run across marketers who say they tried content back then, and it just doesn’t work. When we ask more questions, they often reveal they published a custom magazine, but had closed it when they couldn’t fund it through advertising revenue.
How to not create value from content marketing
At first glance, Killing Marketing seems to make the same promise. Well, let’s be blunt: they are making the same promise. However, P&R’s argument is more nuanced, and smarter. They’re not selling the fantasy of cost-free marketing.
That fantasy remains the great dream of many companies. They look at the stats from the latest campaign. They dream that those marketing costs disappear. But that they still manage to magically find customers. This isn’t going to happen, and it isn’t what P&R are suggesting either.
Instead, they start with the premise that the way you currently think about marketing—as a financial cost tied to a product category—might be wrong. That’s a big call for many companies.
When you start (or start working in) your business, you start with the product or service. Then you identify the market you’re selling to. Then you spend a shedload of cash trying to find a way to get in front of that audience.
So the marketing function in any business is not about the products that business sells. It’s more about the audience that buys them. The marketing team have the task of finding that audience. Then they must get sales messages in front of them.
But which sales message, exactly?
The audience as an asset
The core message P&R offer is that audience can actually be an asset for your business. In the same way your stock, and your staff, and your premises all are.
Many of the examples they draw upon in the book are the familiar ones. Think Red Bull and Kraft and The Chicken Whisperer. You would have seen them before. They are all good stories, even if you read them and think, There’s no way my boss will let me build a media company like that inside the marketing department. But for all the differences between the various examples, they all share a common trait. They all built audiences as stand-alone assets, then found other ways to make money from those audiences.
The insight P&R offer is that if you build an audience as an asset, you don’t need to push that audience through a sales funnel. When many of us produce our documented content strategies, we spend a fair bit of time thinking about how to move people through the sales funnel. To push them from the awareness stage to the consideration stage, then to purchase, then loyalty.
They’re saying, ‘Create that content–but don’t see the value as only existing at the end of that funnel’. If you own the audience, you can explore other ways of making money from them. In fact, you can damage this valuable asset by building it, then trying to force it to act in a particular way.
So Killing Marketing is not about doing marketing for free. It’s about using the tools and budget available to a marketing department to build something the business never had before. Your business may have customers, but customers are not an audience. Some of your customers never plan to do business with you again. So don’t waste your marketing budget on them. Others think you’re the best thing since sliced bread. Why aren’t you spending more money on them and people like them?
Do you want to be a media company?
It’s easy to misread the message in Killing Marketing as being “you should become a media company”. Because P&R do say that. The traditional business model for a media company is to build audiences, then sell access to those audiences to advertisers.
If you look at the majority of media companies, who have been struggling since the GFC, that’s not an appealing thought. Being a media company sucks. Don’t believe me? Go ask a journalist who is about to lose their job.
But P&R are suggesting you should treat the marketing function within your company as a machine for building audiences. You want to do what a media company does. That will cost you, as will any attempt to build any asset. You don’t build assets for free. No-one does.
In the book, they detail a number of ways that asset can then be used to either generate alternative streams of revenue or to manage costs. They might be by running events (which attract sponsorship). Or helping other non-competing firms talk to your audience through their own advertising. Or it may be through market research through analysing the data you have on existing audiences (not existing customers). Having your own audience, for example, may lead to cheaper R&D costs, because you develop new products led by existing demand. Not all strategies will work for your business. But the chapter does offer inspiration for ways you can think about using that asset.
You will need more than the inspiration, of course. To realise the value of your audience, the marketing department would have to work with other departments, and with outside groups or contractors. It won’t ever be free. But it will result in more sustainable, customer-led businesses.
The difference between free and profitable
Killing Marketing is suggesting the same ultimate goal that the guy I talked about at the beginning was suggesting. The ultimate promise is marketing that is at least cost-neutral, and possibly profitable. But unlike those companies offering to do custom published magazines and fund them through advertising, P&R aren’t promising marketing that’s free.
They were never building audiences. Just bleeding someone else’s customers. Killing Marketing is worth a read if only to understand the difference between those two things. And the difference between free marketing, and cost-neutral or profitable marketing.