The lure of cheap content in B2B marketing

An article in MediaWeek on content mills like Demand Media and Seed.com got me thinking about the dangerous lure of cheap content in B2B marketing. The goal of the content mills is to crank out a huge volume of search-oriented content for the web as cheaply as possible and sell advertising against it. Large consumer brands including AT&T, Proctor and Gamble, and General Motors have taken the bait and the model seems to be working. Critics bemoan the implications on multiple levels, including the crowding out of quality editorial and the low wages paid to the freelancers who fill the mills.

The mills themselves are mainly a B2C issue (at least for now!). But the underlying idea of maximizing content with minimum investment is all too common in B2B as well, especially as business marketers scramble to keep up with the accelerating demands of content creation for lead nurturing and social media.

With B2B, the problem is actually two-fold: insufficient investment of time as well as money in the creation of quality content. The money issues are pretty straightforward:

  • Hiring junior marcom staff to produce content when more seasoned experts are really needed
  • Outsourcing content production to the cheapest possible resources knowing that quality will suffer
  • Making do with general-issue collateral when customization for different audiences would be far more effective
  • Short-changing design and rich media when standard-issue text and stock photography scream low-budget to audiences expected to pay top dollar for your products, services, and solutions

The time issues may be even more pernicious:

  • Skimping on research that would back up your arguments
  • Forgoing competitive review despite the need to differentiate
  • Minimizing group review in the rush to meet deadlines
  • Racing through internal communication that could ensure alignment and support

The irony of cheap content, of course, is the high cost in damaged reputation and lost opportunities: "Thought leadership" content that is neither thoughtful nor leading; jargon-filled collateral that fails to connect; customer case studies that read like warmed-over brochures. Or, perhaps most common of all, marketing content that is simply ignored by sales before it even has a chance to reach customers and prospects.

Resisting the lure of cheap content is not easy when budgets are tight and time is even tighter. It means taking more time up front to understand customer needs, map out editorial strategy, and think through the true value in each piece of content. It means saying No when colleagues push for sign-off on poorly written and designed drafts. And it may mean sacrificing quantity for quality -- although investing the time to build more compelling Points of View now will actually make it easier to produce both more and better content down the road.

We all know that competition keeps growing, buyer patience keeps shrinking, and the margin for error is almost zero. In this context, can we really afford cheap content?

Photo credit: FDR Presidential Library

Comments (3)

by
Carson Brackney

These materials are short-term winners and it's often possible to see a decent ROI over a relatively short period. However, established brands really do need to think in terms of reputation protection, as you noted. Additionally, the long-term viability of these techniques--which exist to mine weaknesses in search algorithms--is bleak. Eventually, content quality will matter more than it does now and those pages of belched out content aren't going to yield the desired results. One other thing... I'm not so sure you can put all of these "mills" on equal footing. Some actually do a half-decent job of quality control. Others are complete disasters, though. Carson

by
WB

I fully agree with this post. Too many companies don't map out a cogent editorial strategy prior to jumping into the "we need more content!!" mindset. The result is lackluster content which fails to inspire thought or leadership, to your point. Bravo on pointing this out!

by
Paul

I would argue that most mainstream media has become no more than content mills due to the fast paced environment online. Having purchased news through PR agencies for both industry journals and mainstream media I am highly aware of the junk being published. However in the content business, like with any business, if you are one hour late, you have missed out on the first mover advantage. On a more humorous note, it reminds me a bit of ‘James Bond - Tomorrow Never Dies’ and the media mogul that wanted to create the news to be the world’s leading news outlet. With the tremendous amount of data online it’s all about grabbing the first hits to drive page ranking on google. Get the first flow of readers and then make progressive changes as the article gains traction. This is similar in the IT blogosphere and B2B online journals on market trends. It being fueled by google news ranking, facebook and twitter trends etc... Captivate the audience with a headline and deliver unprocessed garbage and beautify it if it is successful. In my experience a good way to get quality content amongst all the dirt is using social news aggregator websites: reddit.com, slashdot.org etc... The reddit community and its subreddits /r/ provide a lot of quality content with highly engaged discussions. Readers vote up and down articles based upon the quality of the content as well as the discussion. It is important to learn the reddiquette before getting involved though (http://www.reddit.com/help/reddiquette). There are some terribly bad subreddits, but if you choose wisely you can have an extremely good filtering tool and an enlightening discussion. A quick example is reddit.com/r/worldnews (there is one for marketing as well http://www.reddit.com/r/marketing). I think online readers are becoming increasingly adept at spotting poor content, bad logic and content mills regardless of the location online. With the huge success of social news aggregator websites such as reddit and more niche social aggregators such as slashdot.org and social TVs such as TWiT.tv, I am not too concerned with the onslaught of ‘junk’ online. It is as you mention a quick path to self destruction as quality content drives people to you, while poor content drives people away e.g. the death of digg.com as a social news aggregator when they decided to allow advertisers to pay and control the front page content and destroy their smaller communities.