I read a LinkedIn post the other day by someone who was promoting the idea that they could produce “advertising that didn’t look like advertising”. 

I’m not really sure what this is supposed to mean. After all, advertising is advertising. Why try to disguise it? However, what concerned me most about this was that the person concerned called what they are doing “content marketing”.

I’m all for popularising approaches and helping small businesses and inexperienced communicators make a worthwhile contribution to the world of marketing, but the increasing miss-use of terms like this isn’t helping anyone. It’s important that novice communicators at least start their journey with an appreciation of the correct terminology and an idea of what role different communications tools play in a marketing communications strategy.   

I have spent many years building content production teams and developing content strategy for organisations and I know advertising and content are very different animals. People who launch into content marketing with the idea that they are producing advertising are heading for trouble and the stuff they publish may well be giving real content marketers a bad rap.

Understanding content and advertising

Adverting leads with product. It’s objective is to present that product as the solution to a specific problem.

Content helps develop relationships by sharing experiences, thoughts and ideas, with like-minded people. The aim is to seed the feeling of knowing and trusting that brands are built on, by positioning the organisation as an authority with the same ethics, values, beliefs and overall objective in life as the reader. It is left to the reader to decide whether the solutions that organisation offers are the best answer to their need, but the first objective for content is to bring the reader into the brand community.

Know who your content should be aimed at

Targets for content are the people in the six brand community segments common to all brands — investors, partners, suppliers, distributors, employees and customers (or potential customers). Like any other communication, the content message and it’s tone would be tailored to the specific target segment 

Because brands are communities of people who share values, beliefs and a common objective — all of which is set out in the brand model that informs everything the organisation does — trust becomes an essential element in the relationship between stakeholders and brands.

To maintain that trust requires absolute consistency, not only between the words and actions of the brand, but between the individual actions themselves. Consequently although the subject and it’s tone might be tailored to the audience segment, the underlying message must remain the same. 

Consistency — the key to a strong brand

If your underlying message or “brand promise” is for example “Together we will grow” the content should explain how this applies to the target segment. For investors it might represent growth in the value of their investment, for employees it could be development of skills. The investor-targeted content might tell the story of an initiative that has brought a return for the organisation. For employees it might be a celebration of a particular employee’s personal achievement. 

In the digital age, with information being so accessible, the truth will find you out, so, in the case of Bothe advertising and content, honesty is the best policy. Likewise, opaque or misleading promises or statements, or hidden agendas will cast doubt, in the stakeholder’s mind, regarding the authenticity of any claim the brand makes. 

Consumers have become resistant to sales pitches. When that pitch is disguised as advice, entertainment or any other form of, supposedly neutral content the transparency of the brand will be brought into question, which will diminish the trust that has been established to that point in the relationship. 

It is the raison d’être of every business to acquire customers and it is getting increasingly difficult and expensive to do so, so it’s just bad business to do things that have the opposite effect. What’s more, research by Virgin a few years ago, showed the cost of enticing a customer who felt betrayed in this way, back into the community, is one hundred times that of recruiting them in the first place and they are not alone in drawing this kind of conclusion. So any organisation that enters into content strategy believing it to be advertising in disguise, isn’t quite getting it and is treading a very risky path indeed.

I didn’t say it was easy

Content marketing is extremely difficult to get right, but massively valuable when you do. These days it’s the cornerstone of marketing communications, In fact, nearly all the strategies I create these days, build on a content foundation, but I know most organisations who adopt a content-led strategy are wasting large proportions of their investment issuing content that neutralises their other efforts, or contradicts some or all of the principles they otherwise claim their brand imbues.

There is room in every strategy for omni-channel communication. In fact there was a piece published this week on LinkedIn that highlighted how much more successful brands that adopt an omni -channel strategy are, but you need to be very clear what all the different media routes do and that’s where smart marketers show up. 

A smart marketer knows that content isn’t “advertising that doesn’t look like advertising”.

Phil Darby
May 24, 2023

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