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Does content marketing work? Chances are your CMO heard about it at some conference, or got pitched it by some consultant, and they may green-light it just because they don’t really have the time to consider other options … they’ve got to worry about things like KPIs, ROI, power branding, ad buys, and personas! Unfortunate but true fact of life as a marketer: most decision-makers in marketing could care less about digital marketing, in large part because it isn’t making them as much money as old-school approaches do.
So, again: does content marketing work?
Many will tell you it does, and many of ’em may be right — although beware the metrics they use to justify that. (“Impressions” isn’t ROI.) We do know content marketing has a major supply and demand problem — if everyone’s generating content but a human being’s ability to consume X-amount of content in a day isn’t rising, then, ummm… — and we do know it’s a little bit unclear whether consumers respond to content marketing.
So, one more time: does content marketing work?
It does a lot of the time, but we’re nearing a tipping point for one major reason: everyone’s out there saying the same sh*t.
Does content marketing work? The redundancy problem
This is all going to vary by industry and/or vertical, but let’s bullet point a few words and tell me if you’ve seen them in ‘thought leadership’ pieces and/or blogs of late:
- Millennial Mindset
- When in the day you should make important decisions
- Productivity hacks
- X-number of ways that social media will make you Y-number of dollars
I could go on, but I’ll stop there.
When everyone says the same thing in most every article — which is starting to happen — then ‘content’ or ‘stories’ essentially become ‘digital noise.’ At a certain point, digital noise = the same as advertisements, and then we’re back to the essential problem we started with.
You see, marketing departments have never really understood what ‘content’ is; there’s a huge difference between ‘a story that might resonate with a customer’ and ‘marketing copy.’ When you talk about ‘marketing copy,’ you’re talking about crap like ‘brand guidelines’ and the like. Those concepts are important, yes, but if you were to break down a CMO’s day in terms of how they spend it… there needs to be a lot less on making things sound sales-y and shifting logos on a PDF, and a lot more about finding value-adds for their product or service.
So, again: does content marketing work?
It works — but it needs to be done right.
Does content marketing work? The better approach.
Let’s start by listing what we want to avoid:
- Sales-y copy
- Ad-sounding copy
- Copy that only exists to up-sell something
- Copy that gives a bunch of generic recommendations that sound like bullsh*t after the headline promised a specific growth plan
- Copy that sounds exactly like something someone else wrote 3 days before
- Copy that’s clearly just for the sake of sharing on LinkedIn and grabbing some “impressions”
That’s the no list.
Now … what do we actually want?
- Copy that tells a story
- Copy that tries to educate a consumer
- Copy that a mid-level manager can send to a decision-maker and say “Hey, this was helpful”
- Copy that is clearly based on some keyword research so that its shelf life is fairly long
- Copy that sounds conversational, and not like an ad
- Copy that has some potential ROI to it
Does content marketing work?
It does if you put some thought into it.
Does content marketing work? The issues
If you look at that second list of bullet points above, here’s what unfortunately often happens:
- When a marketing decision-maker hears “tell a story,” he/she thinks “it will be too casual in tone!”
- When a marketing decision-maker hears “educate a consumer,” he/she thinks “But I got targets to hit! No time for that stage!”
- When a marketing decision-maker hears “mid-level manager,” he/she thinks “No way, I’m chasing C-Suiters!”
- When a marketing decision-maker hears “keyword research,” he/she thinks “Eh, I don’t understand that. Headcount is needed!”
- When a marketing decision-maker hears “conversational,” he/she thinks “It might be off-brand!”
- When a marketing decision-maker hears “potential ROI,” he/she thinks “Good, but it better be more than potential!”
Does content marketing work?
Well, the rubber meets the road on ROI and financial metrics — to get higher-level (decision-making) people to care about anything, you usually need to prove that in some way.
But it’s hard, because the real deal with most decision-makers in organizations is that they want to:
- Avoid being seen as incompetent
- Show that their department is valuable and makes money
So to get in bed with something you (a) don’t understand and (b) has only potential ROI is tough for a lot of CMO types.
Does content marketing work? Why is everyone saying the same sh*t?
This one is pretty easy, and I can tell you a lot of personal stories about it — but I’ll limit that for the time being.
In essence, it comes down to this: in organizations, the people with the most relevant knowledge for the marketplace (the experts) are usually very busy with a lot of different commitments around the industry and inside the organization. They’re also often not good writers, because they speak about the topic at hand at a different level.
So what companies do is hire an inbound agency, or a freelancer — hey, hire me baby! — and pay them relative peanuts (agencies make a bit more) to craft some type of ‘thought leadership’ strategy.
Chances are, though, that the content writers and editors on the agency team aren’t experts in whatever the client does.
So they’ll often ask the client for access to the experts.
“Jim? No! Jim is way too busy to worry about our marketing.”
So Content Writer Bob has to write like he’s Jim … but because he lacks the functional knowledge of Jim, he Googles around the topic, only reads the first page of results, and creates the same sh*t that every other agency and freelancer is pushing out.
This is where ‘does content marketing work?’ meets ‘The Temple of Busy,’ and it’s a major content marketing problem we never discuss.
The other reason everyone is saying the same sh*t, of course, is laziness.
And the third reason everyone is saying the same sh*t? Companies are actually terrible at understanding their own value or how to communicate that. Hence, 50+ years of advertising — where being sleek and sexy matter more than any true message. Ah, America!
So, does content marketing work?
In any business, and in every aspect of said business, you need to find ways to align strategy and execution.
Content marketing is the same way.
You start with strategy, namely:
- Why are we doing this?
- What are our goals here?
- How will we know when we’ve hit those goals?
Then you move to execution, namely:
- Who will do this for us?
- What resources will they need?
- How much of a priority and how accessible will we be during the process?
- When will we check in?
- How will they know if KPIs are being met?
When strategy and execution align, you hit results.
When strategy and execution are silos or done in a vacuum, you run a bunch of $90K and below employees around in circles for a couple of months then call an all-hands and talk about how great it is that everyone’s been working so hard.
Used to have an expression at one of my old jobs:
Are you chasing targets, or TOTFs?
What does this mean?
Targets = real, actual work focused on clear priorities
TOTFs = turds over the fence, i.e. putting out fires or rushing around solving no-context, no-priority problems
You can spend your day doing a mix of each, or all of either. Many people chase TOTFs all day.
When you write the same sh*t as everyone else, that’s chasing TOTFs.
When you do content marketing right and focus on the key questions and a different voice or tone, that’s chasing targets.
Which one would you prefer?
My name’s Ted Bauer; I blog here regularly and you can learn about hiring me for freelance and contract gigs as well. You can also subscribe to my newsletter.
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