Content Marketing in an Ad-Averse World
“Storytelling is the greatest privilege in the world.”
Anderson Cooper, 2016 Cannes Lions International Festival of Creativity
I grew up steeped in an advertising culture, my brand awareness shaped during the late 1970s and early 1980s. From my earliest days, I hummed along with ad jingles from Coca-Cola (the year I was born) and McDonald’s (the year I became a teenager). Even today, every time I hear the refrain from Stevie Wonder’s “Sunshine of My Life” I immediately add a lilted, “Minute Maid.” Each of these memories evokes a story, in some cases, multiple stories.
But at some point during the 1990s, I began to pay closer attention to the criticisms of advertising culture. Critics claimed consumers were being overwhelmed by interruptive ad impressions at every turn. Driving, listening to the radio, reading newspapers and magazines, and watching television, consumers were exposed to advertising and branding. It became less about storytelling and more about the quantity of exposures and impressions.
By the turn of the century, the pace of advertising criticism accelerated rapidly. The various digital and mobile tools that prevent exposure to ads, things like Ad Blocker, contributed to a sense among digital natives that they ought to have control over what ads and brand messages they were exposed to.
That environment spawned content marketing. At first the shift was subtle—agencies and marketers had to tip toe carefully, trying to figure out what digital and mobile consumers wanted. This subtle shift could be seen in the early proliferation of blogs that purported to answer questions and solve problems for consumers. When this proved fruitful, a broader approach emerged, one that involved gated content, freely-shared content, and mixed-media content.
Today, consumer and marketer attitudes toward advertising continue to diverge. When 83% of marketers believe that traditional advertising is the most effective means of compelling consumer action, but only 47% of consumers say they trust advertising, an opportunity exists for a new approach to bridge the perception gap. Content marketing is starting to occupy more and more of that bridge space.
For those of us in the content marketing industry, the context from which we emerged and in which we operate makes us sensitive to what the consumer and the business customer want. Our reading, research, writing and design choices help us meet them where they are, with customized content they find useful.
The most interesting thing about content marketing, in my opinion, is this customized element. There are a variety of personality types among consumers and business owners, as well as a variety of ways to connect with them all. That allows for individualized storytelling, something content marketers love. We marry that storytelling to modern design tools and principles, offering a polished, visually compelling narrative. We help our readers learn and solve problems.
As those readers come to trust the content we produce for our clients, they enter the traditional marketing/sales funnel. Their position in the funnel is more secure if it was prompted by content than if it was prompted by traditional advertising, because of this trust. This leads to the kind of relationship that not only fulfills traditional marketing needs—acquiring prospects and leads, generating conversions and sales—but also makes brand advocacy on the part of the consumer far more likely over the long term.
By setting our sights on trust, relationships and brand advocacy, content marketers help guide ad-averse consumers toward brands that are useful and relevant. We get to tell stories. Businesses get to sell products. And consumers gain useful information. Everybody wins.