The Rise and Fall of Content Marketing  

One of the first projects I worked on for Something Digital was the initial launch of ShopBazaar, a collaboration between Hearst Digital and 40 or so designers. Conceived of as a content-to-commerce play, ShopBazaar sought to leverage Harper’s Bazaar content to sell a range of apparel. In reality, it didn’t have any content beyond basic product descriptions. (That changed over time; today fashionistas can buy individual items highlighted in recent editions of Harper’s Bazaar.)

That was back in 2012. By 2014, every marketer in the country quoted Bill Gates, proclaiming that content is king. Content marketing kicked into high gear as brands hired agencies and writers to tell their brand stories. Today, a mere six years later, pundits are offering listicles of all the reasons why content marketing is dead.

What happened?

Intuitively, content marketing makes sense. Every customer wants to know a brand’s story, why its founders founded the company. When it works it works really well. Take Daily Harvest, a DTC food delivery brand that started out selling the makings for smoothies to customers. With just one product to sell, Daily Harvest could tell unique stories to each customer persona: an easy way for moms to get their kids to eat more vegetables, a healthy meal replacement option for dieters, a power shot for serious athletes, and so on.  (By the way, we talk about this persona-based storytelling in our Health & Beauty eBook.)

Daily Harvest isn’t alone. Nearly all DTC brands with a single product to sell excel at content marketing. These are young companies who founded a company because they saw a need for a new product in a particular category. For instance, Fritz Frames was founded by Heidi Hertel, a mother who found it difficult to find glasses for her kids so she decided to start a company to print 3-D frames. Dressmaker Christy Dawn, sickened by the waste in the fashion industry, sells clothes made from upcycled fabrics. It’s easy to see how such companies have powerful stories to tell and can attract a segment of consumers who share their values. (If you want to hear more about these founders, check out our Merchant to Merchant podcast, Your Vibe Attracts Your Vibe.)

What’s more, when a customer finds, say, Daily Harvest, as a result of Googling “healthy meal replacements,” Daily Harvest knows her interests and can talk to her from that point of view going forward. It’s the start of a personalized consumer journey, and it represents the best of what content marketing can do for a brand and its relationship with a customer.

But what happens when a company matures and expands into new categories? Daily Harvest now offers harvest bowls, flatbreads, soups, oat bowls, chia bowls, bites and lattes. Telling unique stories for multiple personas becomes exponentially harder, very time consuming, and, well, generic out of necessity. It’s exhausting to write all those stories. Daily Harvest is running TV commercials now and I’m sorry to say they’re kind of bland. There’s nothing that speaks to me, a consumer interested in an extra boost of nutrition when I’m about to go on a long run or grueling bike ride.

And that’s a key lesson in content marketing: it’s highly effective for newer brands with just one or two products but gets a lot harder as a company matures and expands its product catalog. In an effort to generate the same volume of content, quality suffers. The content is no longer as effective in attracting new customers because it becomes a little less relevant to specific personas.

Another reason why content marketing becomes less effective for companies is that it’s no longer fresh. Every brand, even those going back a hundred years, was founded in response to a market trend, fad or event. But fads and trends come and go, and the origin story is no longer relevant to today’s customer. The truth is, brands need to reinvent themselves in order to stay relevant with the consumer. If you don’t reinvent, you won’t have compelling content to use to reach and engage new consumers. And this, in my opinion is why I believe pundits are not entirely right when they say content marketing is dead: content isn’t dead, brand innovation is lagging.

Customers Still Want Stories

Please don’t think I’m advocating any brand abandons its content initiatives. Content is still king. In fact, less than a year ago I wrote a three-part content marketing blog post series because I believe that all brands should talk to their customers.

Customers still want to hear your brand story. They still want to know you’re raison d’etre, especially now that so many consumers are shopping their values. Consumer generated content is a great way to tell your brand story. In part two of the content marketing series, I discuss how your customers may understand your brand story better than you, as they know exactly why they chose your brand over all others.

Of course, freshness and relevance becomes a challenge with user generated content. After a while your customers will say the same things over and over again, and it can cease to be useful or relevant to prospects. This raises a bigger issue: How do marketers keep storytelling alive and well in a smarter, and more effective way?

Brand Ambassadors

Interestingly, we are seeing a reemergence of affiliate and influencer marketing. Brands are looking for representatives who can tell their brand stories in an authentic way to the market (authentic in that the representative doesn’t take the sale and so has less incentive in making one). Only don’t call these people “influencers,” as that term is now tarnished. Consumers are aware that influencers are paid to promote a product, which makes their endorsement suspect.

Brand ambassadors, on the other hand, love a brand and want to see it succeed. They promote it to their friends and family on social media for no other reason than they love its products. These are the perfect people to help you enrich your content strategy. If you want to see a brand that leveraged this strategy successfully look no further than Rothy’s when it was first launched.

So, is content marketing really on its way out? I would argue that the fall of content marketing is really just a reallocation or reinvestment in influencer marketing, which, at its heart, is just another slice of content marketing.

Phillip Jackson

A multi-instrumentalist, Phillip is an avid collector of vintage guitars, keyboards and amplifiers and has a home studio located in West Palm Beach.