The Great Content Marketing Swindle

by Ammon Johns  |  Published 2:11 PM, Thu September 19, 2013


As one of the genuine Old Timers of SEO there are lots of things that bug me. It’s a given. Whether us ‘OG’s are called Pioneers, ‘Old Gangsters’, or ‘First Generation’ SEOs, we all get to spend a little time on a virtual veranda, staring out at what the landscape has become since we pioneered the settlement, and grumble about how ‘the kids today’ don’t get it.

Buzzwords are always a favourite target. Just shiny new names for the same old things we always had, rebranded to take in the gullible into thinking its something new.

Content Marketing is a perfect example.

Content Marketing is Not New

I’m not just pointing out the ridiculous stupidity of the implication that before these last couple of years we were all marketing blank pages. That somehow, before the ‘Content Marketing’ buzz we had no content. No, this is way deeper than that.

Content Marketing is a very old profession.  It came along very soon after the invention of the printing press, right after everyone who wanted a Bible had one and had been taught to read it as their Christian duty.

Content Marketing created such things as ‘the Penny Dreadful‘. Books produced very, very cheaply, and usually of a salacious or exciting nature designed purely to appeal to readers. American readers may better know these types of publication as ‘Dime Novels‘.

Newspapers are content marketing. Magazines and periodicals. The Reader’s Digest. Or if you want the really big-bucks examples, look at Hollywood, and the Television Industry. Billions of dollars and decades of experience.

This was the very purest form of content marketing, where the content itself was the product one was marketing, even when it was largely just a vessel for more commercial marketing, as with ads in magazines, TV ads, product placements, etc.

This brings us neatly to the crux of my displeasure with the empty rhetoric about the term today.

Content Marketing is a term of two parts, and sadly everyone focuses on the former, the content. Probably because while everyone thinks they know what marketing is, what the very word means, the vast majority of people do not. That’s a huge problem.

Content is just the media; Marketing is the point.

Content Marketing is not about promoting your content.

No, really. It isn’t. If you thought for one moment that it was, urgently get a course in Marketing. I’m not saying that as a put-down. I’m pointing out a huge gap in your effectiveness that you can fix, and suggesting you fix it urgently. It will be the smartest thing you do all year. You are not the only person who ever needed to learn this.

Content Marketing is about devising, producing, and using content to market your products or services.

You don’t start Content Marketing from the content. You devise the content strategy, from scratch, around what you are marketing, and what form or forms of content will most effectively do that.

For example, if the Marketing plan needs you to build a brand with particular values, then you would create a content strategy that clearly showed those values.

Let’s get rid of all the fancy, sexy examples. One of the things I hear most is people saying “How do I do Content Marketing around something boring like drills?”. (I used to think that was a pun about boring holes with drills, but apparently they meant it).

So, lets give a few examples of Content Marketing for some un-sexy stuff. Let’s start with slippers.

Now, imagine we need to do a brand awareness campaign about our brand of slippers. And to make it harder, lets say that while our particular slippers are great quality, they aren’t anything revolutionary. These are not slippers that let you climb walls, or that cure arthritis. They are not bluetooth slippers that come when you call, and we don’t have any celebrity wearing them to an award ceremony. (However, save that last idea as a possible publicity stunt for later).

Okay, so brand awareness – making people aware of the brand, but there’s nothing that special about the brand. Tough enough?

Its easy. We start by looking at what content people want. It is not a blog post on the “10 most expensive pairs of slippers ever made”. People want meme-pics, cat videos, and of course, videos of people doing stupid things. People also like to learn amazing facts, but here personal taste comes in more. For mass appeal, the funny stuff works for the most people.

YouTube is hugely popular, and by far the most successful videos are the funny, creative ones. In terms of getting a brand heard of by a massive audience, a funny YouTube video might be just the perfect vessel. So Marketing tells us we should try Video Content. Provided we can produce video content effectively, but we’ll come back to that.

It can be very hard to be funny to order. Especially popular funny where you have to appeal to the masses. We may have to have several attempts before we find one that works, but that’s fine.

Example 1

Most of us do like that cozy feeling of a pair of slippers. I know I do, and not just because I share my home with two children under 10 years old who booby-trap the floor with small Lego bricks, and assorted other oddly shaped make-shift caltrops. Yet somehow slippers are not cool, and we may even feel slightly embarrassed about wearing them… There’s an idea. What if this wasn’t so?

So, our first YouTube video might be a mashup of some old black and white movie scenes, from those old Hollywood days where actors would be seen wearing slippers and a smoking jacket. We need to minimize the clips to acceptable ‘fair use’, but that’s where we’ll cut in our own pseudo hollywood footage close-up on the slippers. And it will be the slippers themselves talking about their glory days, when people were proud to wear them. Before their fall from Grace (Kelly?). Get a good script up, neatly cut in footage on classic scenes, and it could get a lot of attention.

At the very worst, we’ve made a video that didn’t catch on, but that still associated the brand with creative thinking. You are not going to hit a home run every swing. But even your failures can show you have good form. The only way to fail anything is to quit. Anything else just means you haven’t succeeded yet.

Example 2

Maybe cutting in footage is a bit adventurous. Let’s go with a simpler idea of just taking iconic images, photoshopping them, and making a ‘montage’ style video of still images. Staying on the theme of ‘What if we weren’t so embarrassed about slippers’ how about…

The world of the slipper lovers. A world where we don’t hide our beloved slippers in shame, but uphold them with adoration. The Statue of Liberty upholding a slipper instead of a torch, heralding a world where we all have the right to warm comfortable feet. The statue of Lincoln at the Lincoln Memorial in Washington, seated in a nice comfy pair of slippers.

Example 3

Montage a bit too dull for the appeal we want? Could be right. How about we reshoot our version of an iconic movie scene? Doesn’t need to be on location, just a costume and some lines from the script make it instantly recognizable.

You know the scene in “A Fistful of Dollars” where Clint Eastwood’s character arrived in town and the thugs shot at his mule? How about he meant a different kind of ‘mules’? Our character dressed in the iconic poncho and hat, chews his cheroot, and says how they scared his mules … and the camera pans down to his feet, in a nice pair of fluffy backless slippers.

Strapline: “[Our brand] slippers. So comfortable they can make you quite protective”.

Example 4

Okay how about we go for the real viral branding? You know every now and then you come across something that is either the best deadpan humour ever, or is someone seriously nuts, and you can’t quite be sure which? You know how you can’t help but share it, partly because it was so funny, but also to get other opinions on whether its brilliant or nuts? Yeah.

Make a video of “A Day in the Life of a Master Slipper Craftsman”. This Master Slipper Craftsman totally lives and breathes his job. He’s proud of his role and its centuries of tradition. He can recognize any of a thousand types of slipper by the merest touch. Totally geekily obsessive and deadpan serious we get to see a ridiculous obsession, and while we think we get the joke, there’s just that small element of doubt… is it real?

There’s no boring topics, only boring marketing

You can make great content about something as ‘dull’ or un-sexy as slippers.

These are just a few examples. We haven’t even touched upon other forms of content for other marketing objectives. We haven’t pointed out how any of the above could be done in other media (but less effectively) if video wasn’t your strong point.

We haven’t bothered to mention that the Master Slipper Craftsman idea could be an entire microsite. We haven’t talked about developing a Flash or Java game-app that has a cutesy dog fetching slippers – our branded slippers.

We haven’t looked at other Marketing objectives, like brand-building. Sponsoring useful, helpful, meaningful content for the elderly or infirm who may spend more time than most of us in slippers.

The point here, the key takeaway, is that content marketing is regular Marketing, done through content. There has to be thought and understanding of Marketing before the content is worth a damn.

If you treat Content Marketing as something that doesn’t require a Marketing Plan and a good understanding of Marketing, then you will fail.

Because Content is not new. Content is not rare. There are already more pages of content online than you would ever have time to read in your lifetime. There are more hours of video on YouTube than you could ever watch. And the production rate is increasing.

We have clueless charlatans telling us all that Content Marketing is the new SEO, simultaneously proving both that they never knew what SEO actually was, and also that they still don’t know what Marketing actually is.

We have thousands of webmasters believing they must produce more and more content, which means more and more content with less and less quality. A deluge of crap. A torrent of even more “10 things” posts that will only make it harder to make great content stand out, and be trusted.

That, is the great Content Marketing swindle.


Ammon Johns has been a renowned Internet Marketing Consultant since 1997. Originally posting in webmaster forums under the pseudonym 'Black Knight', Ammon is cited as an important mentor for many now well-known figures in SEO such as Rand Fishkin, Bill Slawski, and Will Critchlow.

Ammon Johns is a frequent speaker at several of the main seminars and conferences such as Search Engine Strategies and SMX in the UK, and was one of the people at the very first ever PubCon in London 2001. His role in mentoring, and providing professional consulting to, many other SEOs has lead to him being sometimes called the SEO's SEO.

  • Brian Castell

    Great article I was just thinking about this the other day. The content is a function of the marketing plan, not the plan itself.

    • Ammon Johns

      Absolutely spot-on, Brian. The entire strategy of content is built around the marketing requirement, not vice-versa.

  • Julian Hooks

    Passing this around the office now. Should be a good read to start every ones week on Monday! Definitely took something away from this article, thanks for sharing.

    • Ammon Johns

      Glad you got something good from my article – and thank you so much for commenting to let me know. Sometimes I see lots of sharing of it on twitter, but no comments, and I start wondering if anyone’s actually reading it. :)

  • Kevin Gibbons

    Very good post and hit’s the nail on the head – this part in particular is spot on: “Content Marketing is not about promoting your content.”

    That’s where I see most people going wrong right now, there’s no strategy tied to it – it’s just people promoting content to create a buzz for the sake of it, normally because they’ve been told old-school link building doesn’t work anymore so they’ve moved onto the next thing… That’s actually the opposite of being forward thinking, it’s being re-active to Google instead of thinking ahead.

    Far too many people seem to care too much about what it’s called, which I’ve never understood, but sadly makes it more about the buzz word than an effective marketing strategy. Who cares what it’s called, or anything for that matter – if it works do more of it, if it doesn’t, don’t do it!

    There has to be a clear reason and business strategy behind the content, so you can measure this back to selling extra products or services – otherwise what’s the point?!

    • Ammon Johns

      Hi Kevin, and thanks for commenting (bonus points for ending on an interrobang).

      I agree completely, of course. We used to call that sort of thing the ‘shotgun approach’ or ‘scattergun targeting’ where you simply churn out enough that you hope some of it has to hit the mark. “Throw enough mud and some of it must stick”.

      The only part I’d question is whether this is genuinely a move about reacting to Google, or whether it is more a move by some companies that used to promote services like cheap link-building, and needing something new to offer. (Without actually developing any new skills or understanding, of course).

      I’m thinking I may go further into the issues of names, labels, and skillsets in my next post. It seems to be a topic that deserves some deeper exploration. It’s been on my mind a lot as people have struggled to find new names and definitions for SEO as if Google had made SEO itself a bad product.

      It seems to me that the big issue is how few people, even in a marketing oriented profession, truly understand what marketing is. Of course there are major crossovers between search marketing, inbound marketing, content marketing, and other fields of marketing. They are all the same thing – Marketing – and only the medium or the targeting point is different from one to another.

      I’ll save the rest for a proper length post. Thanks again for the comment. I appreciate all feedback.

  • Don Anastas

    Maybe the term “Content Marketing” is merely a way of demonstrating the importance of content, how to effectively use it as a marketing tool and to make it original. And yes, engaging the site visitor with good graphics, photos and videos that are all relevant to the message and content.

    Your content is too long and extremely condescending. In fact it’s so boring it really does nothing to engage the reader.

    • Ammon Johns

      Hi Don. Thanks for your feedback.

      I’m sorry that you personally found it too long, and I’m really sorry it didn’t engage you enough to make you leave a comment … Oh.

      You know, with well over 100 each of tweets and Google+ interactions, on a blog that’s only been live a month, I’m going to have to disagree with you.

      Yes, its long. My posts tend to be. I don’t do minimum length articles, and I write only when I have stuff to say that I think is worth both saying, and explaining in detail. If that’s not your style then that’s cool. If you are going to read other stuff by me, well, you have been warned – my articles are long, detailed, thoroughly thought out, and explained in ways that hopefully everyone can understand. I’m not about to change that.

  • Steve Bonin

    Very nice, and funny.
    2 brothers booby trapping the floor outside dad’s bedroom door with lego, jacks, and action figures…all the while the Mission Impossible theme is playing. The alarm sounds and the boys scatter and hide. Dad exits the room, wearing slippers, and in great ninja moves misses all the lego bombs save the last one. He steps on it but continues on as if nothing happens.
    Cut to boys – “I knew we shouldn’t have bought him those (brand name) slippers for his birthday”

    • Ammon Johns

      A great example, Steve. I like that one.

  • Doc Sheldon

    Good stuff, Ammon! But then, you rarely disappoint.

    Your point about marketing not being a new concept is well taken. Unfortunately, too many IM folks seem to think it was invented as a means of commercializing the Internet. It’s actually probably slightly older than “the oldest profession”…

    • Ammon Johns

      Thanks, Doc. Yeah, I can certainly see ‘marketing’ as the motivation and thinking *behind* the ‘oldest profession’. The market was there, and someone realized that they could profitably supply it.

  • Christopher Brown

    This is a great reminder of where the focus needs to be. Brought me firmly back on track.

    • Ammon Johns

      Glad to hear it, Christopher. That’s exactly what I wanted this article to do, so thank you.

      It is all too easy to get hung up on chasing positions in search, or attracting visitors, and in doing so, to forget that they have a shopping process that goes through many stages. Too many companies use conversions too rigidly as a metric, so they end up viewing only the last stage as important, disregarding, or even discarding those early stages. But without those early stages, there would be no later ones.

  • Diaz

    Now, this is creative thinking at its best

    • Ammon Johns

      Thank you, Diaz. Glad you enjoyed the read.

      • Diaz

        Its curious how here in Mexico (and in the other spanish-speaking countries like Spain and so) the term “Content Marketing” has been translated as “Marketing DE contenidos” (marketing of content) rather than “Marketing CON contenidos” (marketing with content)… Hmmm.

        • Ammon Johns

          That sounds to me like a great opportunity, Diaz. A way you can both educate (always the ultimate form of ‘branding’ experience) and stand out from the crowd. Because you are right that the wording there is misleading, and will cause more and more people to get the wrong idea of what Content Marketing is meant to be.

          We’ve had much of the same issue all along, of course, with the words “search engine optimization”. Those words are easy to remember, but they do little to clearly communicate precisely what the focus should be. The result has been that a thousand different professionals all have their own definition.

          Some consider that SEO is done if it ranks #1, without believing that whether that converts to actual sales, or how efficiently, is part of their job. Others believe SEO is virtually everything that impacts at any time on marketing to any person who is using search as part of their means of shopping. Most fall somewhere between the extremes.

          I think it would be a very good thing if we always put more thought into the way we label things, worrying more about clarity than how punchy or catchy the words are.

          • Diaz

            Oh, lets not start with the translation of “Search Engine Optimization”… It’s called: “posicionamiento en buscadores” or “posicionamento web” (search engine positioning – web positioning)… which leads to what you wrote:
            “Some consider that SEO is done if it ranks #1, without believing that whether that converts to actual sales, or how efficiently, is part of their job.”

            Anyways, you’ve given me much food for thought… many Thanks Ammon