Content marketing has lost its way – 10 rules to avoid adding to the deluge of ‘stuff’

There has never been a time containing more stuff – it’s a never-ending deluge that gathers pace exponentially. Tom Hyde says that content marketing has lost its way and shares his 10 rules for making content people actually want to spend time with.



It’s such an ambiguous descriptor.

What is it?

Is Jean Claude Van Damme doing the splits on top of two trucks, content?

Is Hamlet content?

Is a Jamie Oliver recipe tweet?

What about Game of Thrones, is that content?

Or a ‘How to’ clip on YouTube?

Or Miley Cyrus’ latest shocking twerking Twitpic?

The answer of course is ‘yes’ to all of the above. Content can be a map, a brand history, an information video, a game, an article, a blog post, an image, a joke, films, vines, a piece of music, a review, the list goes on…which still leaves us none the wiser as to what it actually is, or what a content strategy might look like?

If I were to attempt a definition that describes all the popular examples listed above, I would say they are all culturally resonant artefacts that an audience wants to spend time with. They have been created to be entertaining or enlightening or both. Conceived with an audience in mind, they strive to strike a chord with the masses; which is why content is of the upmost interest to brands, because making things lots of people want to spend time with is a valuable thing when it comes to selling things.

Unfortunately, content in the marketing world does not always live up to this definition, mostly failing to resonate as effectively as Miley Cyrus’ gyrating behind. Somehow content has lost its way, becoming a means to an end, rather than a creative ambition, a panacea, fulfilling marketers’ need to get stuff out there, whether there is an audience for it or not.

And so content has become a word that has become interchangeable with stuff. We live in a world erupting with vast swathes of it. There has never been a time containing more stuff. This is the ignominious ‘Age of Stuff’, if you like, a never-ending deluge that gathers pace exponentially.

Faced with this expanding cosmos of choice and an ever-decreasing attention span, brands have to work harder to capture our imaginations. Content strategy is a byproduct of the escalating challenge to connect. It is a strategy to get your brand seen amongst the deluge. It has been embraced by marketers wholeheartedly because the more content you put out there, the more visible your brand becomes to Google’s search algorithm, the more likely someone will spend some time with your brand… or so the theory goes. So content has become a pragmatic approach to hooking an audience’s interest. Throw a line in with many hooks baited with different types of stuff and hope that a fish or two swims past with that particular stuff-penchant.

And herein lies the problem. Content for the most part has become a strategy rather than a creative endeavour. It’s treated as something to produce cheaply and quickly and get out there. Its objectives are all out of whack, focusing on search rankings rather than brand fame and commercial impact.

Brands are embracing the discipline wholeheartedly because it seems much cheaper and quicker than making telly ads. And as their enthusiasm for stuff intensifies, a multitude of production, media and agency types are eagerly proffering their content-y services. But without the same rigour and craft employed with TVC’s, these cheaper forays into the world of communication risk being windless whistles puffing in a gale.

TV ads are of course also content, but content with a defined role, and clear communication objectives. Like the content examples above they are created to strike a chord amongst the masses and the best ones employ age-old techniques to do just that. It’s called storytelling.

Bill Bernbach once said:

“You can say the right thing about a product and nobody will listen. You’ve got to say it in such a way that people feel it in their gut. Because if they don’t feel it, nothing will happen.”


And this is true of content as much as any traditional advertising. Whether it’s enlightening or entertaining your brand needs to tell stories that people want to spend time with, not a few thousand here and there, but lots of people. Whether it is a ‘How To’ video or a blog post on the creative uses of Velcro, the content needs to be gripping.

We need to stop shot-gunning stuff into the ether and start creating rich story ecosystems made of culturally resonant artifacts that audiences clamber to spend time with; A shift of ambitions, from cheap internet filler, to rich and compelling storytelling.

So next time you are faced with a brief that demands content, or someone in your team suggests making a video, ask yourself these four questions:

  • What is my overarching brand story?
  • How will the content enrich it?
  • What is it about this particular piece of content that will make the masses clamber for it?
  • Is it likely to end up as Internet landfill or Internet cultural gold?


Here are my top 10 rules for making content lots of people want to spend time with:

  1. Be entertaining. No excuses. Even the most information-laden content needs to be delivered in a way that people devour. LinkedIn does this brilliantly with it’s influencer channels packed with insightful articles from luminaries such as Bill Gates, Richard Branson and hundreds of other fascinating people.
  2. A single narrative, many chapters… all building on one epic brand narrative. Once you know your brand belief system there are infinite ways to bring it to life. Dove’s recent Real Beauty Sketches is another chapter of their “Campaign for Real Beauty”, beautifully told.
  3. To be continued… No one enjoys predictable. Create cliffhangers, or suggest there is more to come. We want addicted fans not passing trade. We want them asking what happens next? Heineken naturally uses dramatic tension in many of their stories including Heineken’s Routine Interruptions.
  4. Brand stories are multi dimensional. They now can play across many platforms. Doing this will draw people into an involving ecosystem. Old Spice is a master of this. From its quirky Twitter feed and Instagram Profile, to 4th and Down on YouTube, everything adds to its irreverent brand persona.
  5. Embrace the space. It’s not a matter of long and short form content anymore. Stories can fit in any number of spaces. Tailor them to the format and more importantly the media. Here is an excellent example of a Friskies making good use of Buzzfeed’s schtick for a YouTube audience – Dear Kitten.
  6. A lead role not bit part. The most effective stories from brands make the brand essential to the narrative. Skirting around the fringes does nothing for either side. Feel free to prance around on stage like NSW’s Wine Region’s wines in the comedy – Plonk.
  7. Free your production values. Viewers expectations of production values vary greatly between mediums. Online, it’s about the story and format not gloss and the glamour. Take a look at Will it Blend. Engaging needn’t mean big productions.
  8. Experiment. Try many different ways of regaling your brand story – epic expressions or small vignettes. Some will fly and some will die but the sum of the parts will add up to greater brand fame. None do this better than Redbull. They produce many many pieces of content, all true to their overarching story, and pull it all together on which they have cleverly made into a media channel rather than a salesy website.
  9. Not everything needs a blockbuster budget. #Oreosnackhacks
  10. Be entertaining. No excuses.


So content is here to stay. It’s always been here, but it was once called, art, music, books, film, and TV. We need to remember what makes the best of those compelling, and employ the same passion and focus into the big and small things we create online. Coherent compelling stories that resonate with the masses and with our brands cavorting centre stage.


Tom Hyde is planning director at DDB Melbourne.