The term content marketing is having a buzzy moment that reminds me of the height of the SEO craze. Search for “content marketing” on LinkedIn and you will find companies desperate to hire content marketing professionals – lots of them. However, many businesses don’t even understand what content marketing is, never mind how to do it effectively.
This latter point is a fact, not an opinion. According to the Content Marketing Institute’s 2016 Content Marketing Benchmarks, Budgets, and Trends research, only 30% of B2B companies rate themselves effective at content marketing. That represents a drop from 38% the prior year.
A drop? People are supposed to get better, not worse, at something as they do more of it, and there’s no denying companies are doing more content marketing.
What's going on?
The problem is that people are packing so much activity, so many functions into the suitcase of content marketing that it’s bursting at the seams and becoming a beat-up, broken down, leaky suitcase – one that can’t do its job of carrying a business’ reputation to new heights. In fact, as Joe Pulizzi of the Content Marketing Institute writes, many companies are now entering the "trough of disillusionment" with regard to content marketing. (You'll recall the trough comes right after the "peak of expectations," and before the "slope of enlightenment," in Gartner's famous model for trends.)
Here's how the Content Marketing Institute defines content marketing:
"Content marketing is a strategic marketing approach focused on creating and distributing valuable, relevant, and consistent content to attract and retain a clearly-defined audience — and, ultimately, to drive profitable customer action."
Take out some adjectives and you get, “Content marketing is an approach to create and distribute content to attract and retain an audience and get them to spend money.” That's a pretty useful summary of what many companies want to do, but doesn’t stress the many distinct tasks necessary to achieve the business goal.
Imagine, for example, if the term food marketing was used to describe the process a restaurant uses to plan a menu, cook food, and attract customers (using tools including, but not limited to, a website, social media, paid search, and online and print advertising). Those are all distinct tasks. If you packed them all into one suitcase, and asked one person to take care of food marketing, how could the restaurant do everything well?
But that’s what business is doing by defining content marketing to include tasks ranging from the planning and cooking of the content– the writing, editing, and designing – to the promotion required to attract eyeballs. The content marketing suitcase has also been packed with website design, social media promotion, email marketing, paid search, and related tasks. These are all important jobs related to content. You can’t ignore or shortchange any of them. But you have to recognize that they’re different.
For example, if your company creates great content, but can’t promote it, no one will read it. That does you no good. If your company does a great job at promotion, but creates rotten content that fails to resonate with readers, that’s not going to do you any good either.
Great content without great marketing will fail, and great marketing without great content will fail just as fast, if not faster.
But, as in the early days of SEO mania, some companies are looking for quick wins, throwing everything together as a sort of test of content marketing’s efficacy. That may involve a few blogs self-published on the website, some white papers, or a study based on a Survey Monkey-type online survey. They throw a bunch of inexpensive content at the wall to see what will stick, figuring they will build only on what works, without spending too much time, money, or thought up front.
Readers, however, are not dummies. They don’t respond to mediocre content.
"The reasons why marketers are disillusioned with content marketing are varied," Pulizzi says. "Companies focus on campaigns instead of ongoing programs, publish content that’s brand-focused rather than audience-focused, or produce content that’s undifferentiated in any way."
Sound familiar? That advice about common mistakes matches up with advice Bloom Group recommends to clients about thought leadership content.
When the Bloom Group works with clients to create thought leadership programs for individuals and firms, we unpack the suitcase. First, we advise them to focus on an overall content strategy (what customer problems do you want to own to become known as an expert). Then (and only then) comes content development (creating content focused on a customer problem, showcasing a unique and novel point of view). Lastly there’s content marketing (the promotion of the content, and of the expert).
It’s important that our clients understand what we mean – and don’t mean – when we say content marketing. And if you manage or shape content at your company, it's important you help your colleagues understand. You're going to have to explain carefully that a successful content strategy involves all three activities -- planning, development, and marketing – and all deserve time and attention.
And you may find yourself explaining the same thing several times. As in the early days of SEO, snake oil peddlers have set up shop online, telling people they can slap up a blog and see amazing content marketing results in seven easy steps. (Maybe even flat abs, too.) You know better. So pick up a lighter suitcase and tell it like it is.