When Content Marketing Goes Wrong

Digital marketing changes constantly and quickly, and as the industry rockets away from pure link-building and SEO, content marketing is taking center stage. From written content to elaborate videos and interactive content, marketing agencies are getting bolder and more creative. At its best, content marketing brings brands and prospective customers together with useful, compelling and shareable content. But at its worst, it’s big-budget spam that forces users to view content they neither need nor want.

SpamOf course, spam is in the eye of the beholder–content tailored for a particular audience isn’t meant to affect every user the same way. But the recent rapid increase in content campaigns threatens to slide from permission marketing into interruption marketing. This kind of saturation will turn users off–and it could translate to lost revenue due to ineffective campaigns and unimpressed customers.

Marketing missteps are made by big and small brands alike, but big brands can afford to lose money on, and learn from, a shoddy campaign. Mid-sized and small brands, however, risk losing both cash and customers after a poorly executed or off-putting content marketing campaign–which could do real, long-lasting damage.

So, which big brands can teach smaller ones what to avoid? The examples are both plentiful and diverse–and although the campaigns below aren’t failures, they all threaten to fall down a slippery slope into a big, sticky pile of interruption marketing.

Escape My Life: Driving a Running Gag

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Comedian Natasha Leggero and The State alumnus Joe Lo Truglio star in Escape My Life, an eight-episode comedy web series about a Hollywood wardrobe designer who receives a free Ford Escape through a product placement program. But Skylar’s free ride comes with a one big string attached: a guy named Barry. In each episode of the series, Barry serves as a walking advertisement for the Escape, following/stalking Skylar and informing her of her car’s features.

With more than 860,000 views on YouTube, Escape My Life is moderately popular. It’s often clever and sometimes hilarious, thanks to its stars and its director Ruben Fleischer. But it’s a shtick that gets old quickly–after all, how many wacky situations can be finessed into what’s essentially one long car commercial?

There’s also the matter of timeliness; Escape My Life is tailored for Ford’s 2013 model, but how many users would be likely to watch the series more than once, or share it with friends thinking about buying a new car in a year or two? Sophisticated content can give brands an edge on their competition, but evergreen content provides more value and for a longer period of time. Ford has the money to spend on elaborate content campaigns like Escape My Life, but a smaller brand couldn’t execute a campaign like this without a large investment and a significant level of risk.

TV to Bing AboutThe CW Show Lineup: Something to Bing About?

How many times have you heard someone refer to tissue as Puffs instead of Kleenex? Probably never. That’s just one of the reasons why shoehorning Microsoft’s search engine Bing into CW’s scripted shows is so awkward.

CW has attempted to make Bing a thing with on-screen tags and conspicuous product placement during shows like Vampire Diaries. By demonstrating the search engine’s usefulness in propelling a plot line forward, Bing gets a cameo on the show and a plug that could lead to viewers in their targeted 18-34 demographic to ditch Google for Bing.

The return on investment, though, might be slow to appear. Using phrases like “I Binged it” in a scripted show ends up looking like nothing more than a desperate attempt to pick a fight with Google–which, depending on the audience, could yield jokes instead of searches. Bing’s market share rose to 16.5 percent in January of this year, but Google still rules the American search engine roost with 67 percent. Targeting the CW’s viewership probably costs Microsoft millions–but it could also cost them users.

Buzzfeed and the Dangers of Sponsored Content

In the past year, viral news site Buzzfeed has exploded in popularity. The endless supply of cute animal videos and random listicles is paired with a crack journalism team that dominated the 2012 presidential election news cycle. It’s an odd combination, but it’s a combination that works–recently valued at $200 million, Buzzfeed’s traffic continues to grow exponentially. Still, the site’s sponsored content advertising model can get hairy when it comes to proper attribution for content.

Buzzfeed’s ad method includes posting content curated by advertising partners. It means that a top ten party song listicle sponsored by an Internet radio service might get tons of views–but none of that content is new or original. Buzzfeed has run afoul of content creators for using content without permission, despite having plenty of money to hire editors and fact checkers. Repurposing content without explicit approval could threaten both the credibility and the revenue stream of an online publication or a brand; and although Buzzfeed is enjoying a growing audience, smaller sites that follow suit could get into trouble very quickly.

Content marketing isn’t the next big thing–it’s already big, and it’s already yielding excellent results for brands that know how to harness its power. But not every content marketing campaign will succeed. Learning to win at content marketing means learning to avoid the mistakes that have been made by brands that can afford a few gaffes. No matter how large your brand or your content marketing campaign, it’s essential to be smart with your resources and your audience. Squandering either one could mean disaster for your brand.

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