Remember “bait-and-switch” marketing? That’s when the company baits you with a particular deal, hooks you and reels you in all the way up to the point of sale, only to reveal that the deal isn’t actually available. Do companies still do that?

“The last unit was just sold,” you’re told. “How about this instead?” And then you’re rushed into a purchase decision before you notice that they’re pushing an overpriced piece of junk on you.

When I was younger I once got taken with a bait-and-switch. A car dealership’s newspaper ad said zero percent financing for new cars on the lot, but after I had taken the test drive and haggled on price, the salesperson let me know the bad news. “Darn it,” he sighed. “That ad was a mistake.” The loan offer is only for these other models. They could still get me a pretty good financing deal, though.

I let myself get swept along, ended up signing on for 4 percent, and 60 months later when I finished those payments, I was still cursing the name of that dealership and of the manufacturer they represented, and I was disgusted with myself every time I got in the car.

I didn’t become a customer for life, in case you’re wondering.

Hopefully I personally am a little less easily manipulated these days, but even if I’m not, consumers are generally better informed and more empowered now. And marketing in general is evolving to respond to this changing balance of power. Now the table stakes for good marketing is offering lots of advice and information to potential customers before they ever make their interest known to the seller.

The consistency problem in content marketing

Producing content consistently and, preferably, at a high volume, has become a business imperative. But it’s difficult to maintain volume and consistency, and as a result we’re seeing a new trend that I call “clickbait-and-switch marketing.”

This particular tactic is when the content strategy is sound on everything except the actual content creation.

  • Keywords have been researched.
  • Target customers have been profiled.
  • The SEO is engineered with the tolerances of a fine Swiss watch.
  • There is a plan for distribution and promotion.

Most of all, the headline has been supremely well crafted for maximum attraction. It dares you not to click it. It promises to provide the answer to exactly the business problem that has been keeping up at night. So you click it, and . . .

. . . you find a dispiriting page of superficial fluff making you wish you’d never been suckered into clicking on it.

The article you arrive at looks like content marketing, because it doesn’t have any sales pitches in it, which seems cool. Content marketing isn’t supposed to be salesy, right? And it’s about the topic it announces.

But it doesn’t say anything substantive, and content marketing, if it has any meaning it all, requires taking the time to develop valuable information or insight.

My rule of thumb is that if it doesn’t have a high utility quotient — saying something that the target customer didn’t know before and that they will get a lot of value from — then it’s just promotion in blog form.

Or worse, a waste of time that is dragging your brand down.

You say “clickbait” like it’s a bad thing!

There’s nothing wrong with seductive headlines. I’ll click on “Five Cute Animals That Take Therapy to Whole New Level” like anyone else. (That one is on Upworthy today as I write this.) And I know clicking that headline isn’t the best use of my time.

But imagine how big a waste of time it would feel like if I clicked and there weren’t actually any cute animals on the other end. It would be internet chaos!

Clickbait isn’t the problem. It’s the “and switch” part of the equation that we have too much of. Too many content marketing projects are premised on dangling something that there is no plan in place to actually deliver.

The most pernicious form of the clickbait-and-switch is the “how to” article, particularly in business or management categories, that doesn’t tell the reader how to do anything that isn’t blazingly obvious — at least to anyone with any experience.

Instead, the article will be cluttered with gems like, “research your options” or “communicate.” Or they use a circular logic where the first step to tackling the problem is to remember that the problem is important.

What’s causing junky content marketing?

I suspect the real explanation for the clickbait-and-switch is that the projects depend on the work of inexperienced, low-wage marketing associates — or their equivalent from freelance marketplaces.

That’s a fine a solution to the quantity problem. I use early career professionals and freelancers myself.

But without the guidance of a hands-on managing editor, then those writers are going to produce what they know, which is often something like the stunning revelation that you should “consider the pros and cons” of the problem at hand, stretched out to fill the word quota.

Related reading: The Digital Marketing Skills Gap

That’s not thought leadership, it’s not doing anything to truly help the visitor and it’s not making a positive impression for the brand. It’s putting traffic metrics ahead of conversion metrics.

You know it when you see it

There’s a growing sense that the internet is becoming diluted with this kind of superficial and uninformed content marketing effort. Here’s a test you can perform to see what I mean:

  1.    Chose a subject that is interesting or important to you and that you want to learn more about.
  2.    Set up a Google alert with the relevant keywords.
  3.    Read the digest that comes to you every day with new content on that subject, and click on the headlines that really interest you.
  4.    See how many days it takes before you decide that this is a waste of your time.

If you’re like me, you pretty quickly train yourself not to expect much of the material coming to you each day.

Have we reached “peak attention”?

What’s the impact of clickbait-and-switch marketing? It’s conceivable we’re heading toward what I call “peak attention,”which is when we’ve finally exhausted the supply of customer interest.

In the meantime, many people are increasingly annoyed with this tactic. Recently, I have came across several threads on Quora with exasperated titles like “Should we create an AdBlock for content marketing?” Another one asks, “Why is content marketing bad for humanity?”

Some people are starting to react to content marketing like it’s spam. But it’s worse, because they’ve been suckered into giving their attention to it rather than just being interrupted.

Related reading: How Good Content Marketing Balances the Generic and the Specific

But I genuinely think this creates an opportunity for brands to win with content marketing. If you don’t waste people’s time and deliver what you promise, you’re bound to look better by comparison. The brands that help visitors learn about something that was important to them will stand out over the long term. They will get not just traffic but also positive impressions and conversions.

How to avoid being a clickbait-and-switch marketer

I actually don’t think the clickbait-and-switch is an intentional strategy the way the traditional bait-and-switch is. I assume the leaders of these content marketing projects would like to be publishing high-quality thought leadership.

They get to this point by putting the cart before the horse and then falling into a rut. They get clear on their outputs — X# of blog posts per month — before they’re clear on their outcomes. Then they spread the limited resources they have very thinly to get those outputs, and momentum takes over.

It always comes down to resources, doesn’t it? The unhappy truth is that quality takes time, which takes money, and there’s never going to be as much as you need to do it by the book.

Efficiencies are possible, but there is no SaaS or publishing platform out there that will magically fill every article you write with new information and original insight.

The trick is to economize without false economy. Naturally, I’m biased because strategy, planning and a thoughtful editorial process are what I’m selling here, but I learned over many years as a freelance copywriter that my clients were disappointed when they economized on those.

Economizing on the writing itself can work if someone has ownership of developing a clear project, with clear outcome goals, clear editorial standards to get there and a clear process to achieve it. Without those things, any kind of marketing project will stumble. That’s how I started getting into the strategy and managing editor functions myself.

My strong advice when you are greenlighting your content project is to think about who owns the strategy and editing process. If you find that you’ve thrown outputs expectations at someone whose plate is already full, and without giving them a mandate to develop an outcomes-focused project, then think again. You’re asking them to put the cart before the horse and setting them up to deliver more traffic than meaningful results.

You may not be able to give your team the budget or time that either of you wants, but make sure that what you do give them devotes as much to content planning as it does to content production. Otherwise, you’re asking for traffic instead of thought leadership, and that’s inviting the clickbait-and-switch to creep in.