Major General John Sedgwick was a leading figure in the American Civil War but his final moments highlight the dangers of underestimating your rivals. “They couldn’t hit an elephant at this distance,” he said, just before he was shot and killed by an enemy soldier. Statements like that are just tempting fate, in fairness.

Advertising, too, is being felled by the same underestimation of the enemy.

The idea that content marketing could challenge traditional advertising would once have been unthinkable for many industry leaders. TV, radio, print and billboard ads were the order of the day and content marketing was dismissed as a gimmick by many marketers.

But it’s now a digital world and marketing has had to embrace a whole new reality. The outsiders have taken centre stage and a cold war culture has developed between old school marketers and content marketing upstarts.

In recent years, content marketing has been winning the battle for hearts and minds among B2B and B2C brands. It looks to be winning the battle for relevance as well.

Content marketing is all about harnessing the right content platforms, adapting your content output for specific customers, developing potential leads, and supplementing your content strategy with a responsive approach. And then taking to social media to tell everyone about it. Digital is a natural environment for it.

Experts are predicting that content marketing spend across Europe will double by 2020. It will rise from the €1 billion projected for 2016 to €2.12 billion according to research from Yahoo and Enders Analysis. Follow the money, they say, and the money is being pumped into content.

“The rise of content marketing reflects the increasing media appetite of today’s consumers, and reveals a growing opportunity for publishers, advertisers, and content creators alike,” says Nick Hugh, vice president of EMEA, Yahoo. “Creative, engaging content is needed for success, and when this is coupled with a targeted, scalable solution like native advertising, the potential for greater audience engagement and conversion rockets.”

Cold war flare-ups

The cold war between traditional advertising and content marketing occasionally heats up when one of the industry big guns fires a shot across the bows. Advertising legend John Hegarty recently aimed a broadside at content marketing whippersnappers in an interview but stopped just short of using the phrase “Back in my day...”

The BBH supremo questioned the numbers behind content marketing successes and harked back to advertising’s heyday. He also slayed one of content’s sacred cows when he called the famous Oreo Superbowl tweet a “piece of shit.” You take that back right now, John!

On the flip side, content champions have been predicting the death of advertising for years, as a Wired article from 1994 demonstrates. So why does everyone insist that it’s dying? Commentators have blamed everything from agency convergence in a digital age to the need for consumer-advertiser interaction and a growing immunity to traditional advertising.

Trying to kill off advertising has become a get-out-of-jail card on a slow news day. It’s survived more assassination attempts than Fidel Castro at this stage.

Still, it’s a sign of the times that people are genuinely questioning the long term future of traditional advertising. Not so long ago, this type of talk would have been dismissed as a partisan polemic or attention-seeking nonsense by right-minded marketers.

Content marketing vs traditional advertising. What’s changed?

Modern consumers are a canny bunch who understand the psychology behind advertising. They’ve looked behind the curtain and they’re not impressed. So there’s that.

In addition, the coveted Millennial/Generation Y market is no longer a captive audience for TV and print advertisers. Generation Y is a mobile-first, post-TV generation. And the emerging Generation Z are going to make their predecessors look like Luddites.

Millennials spend their time in social media apps or streaming sites like YouTube, which are easier to target with content marketing. Google has even claimed that YouTube ads were more effective than TV ads in 80% of cases, although they would say that.

Mass broadcast ads are like shouting at someone with a loudspeaker. These days, consumers want to engage in a conversation and they demand to be heard. And brands are now expected to give them the content that they actually want. Content marketing is all about a value exchange so both sides need to get something from the deal.

The attitude to online ads is indicative of people’s resistance to intrusive forms of marketing. Ad blockers are on the rise, with more than one in five (420 million) smartphone users blocking ads on the mobile web.

Ad blocker

A further 200 million are believed to use desktop ad blockers. One report found that 12% of display ads are never seen at all and that 94% of online video viewers skip pre-roll ads before five seconds have passed.

Opinions on ad blocking are divided. There are those who resent having ads imposed on them and those who say that online ads are a necessary evil if you want free internet content. Either way, it’s another sign that how we view advertising is changing.

The immediacy of content marketing allows marketers to employ guerrilla-style tactics that are in striking contrast to the grandstand approach of traditional advertising. This is always-on, responsive marketing. Aside from using a pre-planned content strategy, the platforms used by content marketers mean they can also interact with customers, react to real time events and incorporate user-generated content.

Content marketing is an effective way to reach your audience, and reach an audience that’s targeted using data sets and key metrics. Measuring the effectiveness of advertising has always been tricky. Content marketing offers performance metrics that can be analysed at each stage of the customer journey.

The right people are attracted to useful content and converted using inbound principles. Modern consumers don’t want to be sold something. They do, however, want to do research before a purchase. More than half of B2B buyers rely on content to inform their buying decisions.

It’s all about engagement as opposed to the hard sell. Content assets also live on and have a longer lifespan than one-off campaigns.

Brands can also do content marketing on their own terms, be their own publishers and push out content through social media channels and audience engagement. Major brands like Microsoft, IBM and Coca-Cola are now thinking like publishers and working on customer-focused content. They may very well love their customers but they’re using content marketing because it makes them shedloads of money works.

So is content marketing killing advertising?

Rumours of advertising’s death have been greatly exaggerated but the tide is turning. As digital media has evolved, the audience has evolved with them. That’s left some aspects of traditional advertising looking dated.

Advertising budgets have also been impacted by the shift towards content marketing. In 2015, over a quarter of marketers reduced their advertising budget to fund more digital marketing. A 2016 report found that 51% of B2B organisations and 50% of consumer brands intended to increase their content marketing in the next 12 months.

Old advertising’s dominance has been eroded by new forms of marketing that embrace new trends, new technology and new channels. Content marketing has taken its seat at the top table and it’s going nowhere. Advertising now faces a choice: adapt or die.

The advertising industry has rallied with a renewed reliance on native advertising and branded content. Publishers like BuzzFeed, The Atlantic and Vice have hosted this content. Native ads masquerade as original content and this is one way that advertisers are adopting content tactics to reach audiences.

Irish examples include this chocolate-pushing ode to oddity by The Daily Edge and the Irish Independent’s car-selling piece about chasing the Northern Lights in Donegal. (Does anyone really refer to Donegal as “our Alaska”??).

Mary Meeker’s respected Internet Trends report recently found that US advertising is actually growing, although advertisers were still spending too much on legacy media. Yet Google and Facebook controlled 76% of the market, showing the dominance of online advertising.

Speaking of Facebook, its much-publicised war on ad blockers could yet reap rewards for advertisers. The social media giant isn’t backing down in this fight and you’d be crazy to bet against Zuckerberg and his team in a tech battle.

Advertising is still a force, even if traditional tactics are in decline. However, the Magazine Media Factbook 2016/2017 found that advertising in print in combination with other media adds substantially to brand awareness. That’s an encouraging sign but a reminder that traditional advertising cannot continue to operate in isolation.

Advertising isn’t going to disappear but it’s increasingly becoming a subsidiary part of the content marketing mission. We’ve become a cross-channel content world, with huge swathes of content surrounding every major event or spectacle.

It’s like that old cliche about a tree falling in the woods. How do we know that something really happened if it doesn’t generate countless memes, blogs, videos and social media posts? After all, the most successful traditional TV ads have second lives on the internet - and that's often a true marker of success.

Major General John Sedgwick underestimated his rival but he must have wondered how they made that shot. Respecting what your rival does well is important and a lesson that shouldn’t get lost in this marketing cold war.

Just as the cold war between the US and the USSR led to an arms race, rival approaches within marketing have forced the industry to embrace innovation and find new ways of doing things. The trick now is to incorporate all these approaches and tactics into an overarching strategy that gets the best results for brands and clients.

Want to create get into content marketing?

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