It’s time for the content marketing conversation to evolve

It can feel like content marketers are running out of things to say – here’s what we should be talking about

July 26, 2018

It’s time for the content marketing conversation to evolve

There’s a moment in awkward conversations when you realise the person you’re speaking to isn’t really engaged with the moment. They’re just repeating the same old anecdotes, catchphrases and opinions as if on autopilot. You’ve heard it all before – but they don’t seem to care.

At times recently, it feels to me like the conversation around content marketing is entering this kind of awkward territory. And I’ll be honest with you: just like plenty of other people giving keynotes and writing blog posts, I feel like I’ve been part of the problem. Content marketers keep giving the same advice, pointing out the same examples of best practice, preaching the same crowd-pleasing mantras as if nothing has changed in the last five years. That can’t be right.

It’s time we acknowledged that we operate in the most dynamic media environment ever, targeting audiences whose habits and thinking processes are changing at an extraordinary rate, and that like every other area of marketing, we need to move forward. Steve Rayson of Buzzsumo is fond of saying that what worked for you last year as a content marketer, probably won’t work for you this year. He’s right.

Content marketing’s growing pains
Content marketing is entering its teenage period – and as we all know, that involves a lot of potentially difficult adjustments. For the first time, life is a lot less simple – and a lot less certain. You’ve got to start questioning things, in order to figure out who you really are.

Technically speaking, content marketing may be one of the oldest forms of marketing out there (Johnson & Johnson, John Deere and Michelin were all excelling at it by 1900), but the concept of content marketing as we understand it today is far, far younger. When Seth Godin famously declared, in 2008, that “content marketing is the only marketing left,” the definition of content marketing was still very much up for grabs. He’d barely even heard the phrase before – and his definition of content marketing was actually very different to that of many content marketers.

The Content Marketing Institute launched two years later, in 2010, as part of a movement that was seeking to put some structure around the concept and best practice of content marketing. Fast forward to today and the institute’s Benchmarks, budgets and trends report shows 91% of B2B marketers using content marketing as part of their strategy. That’s a very rapid rise. And it hasn’t allowed time for the content marketing conversation to evolve alongside the actual practice of it. We’ve been so busy defining content marketing, rolling out evidence of effectiveness and defending its value to businesses that we haven’t spent enough time discussing how content marketing itself is changing. We haven’t paused to question whether the things we were saying in 2008, 2010 or 2013 (when content marketing really hit the big time) still apply today. If we’re to move our discipline forward and keep it fresh and relevant, then we need to address that.

Separating the architecture from the execution
We could take a lead from how thinking around marketing itself evolves over time. Marketing is a social science with commercial consequences. As a science it has certain foundational laws that stay pretty much fixed. Marketing today may use platforms, techniques and technologies that nobody had heard of two decades ago, but it still revolves around product, pricing, distribution and promotion. It still involves the understanding and segmenting of markets, the positioning of brands, and the development of value propositions. These elements provide the architecture of marketing and marketing strategies. They enable marketers to make effective use of all the different executional opportunities that arise while still remaining focused on how to deliver value for customers and growth for a business. The best marketers always know the difference between the architecture of marketing, which changes very little, and the execution of marketing, which can change a lot.

We’ve reached a stage in the short life of modern content marketing when we need to start doing the same. We need to figure out what’s really fundamental to what we do, and what’s just a tactic or technique that’s worked brilliantly in the past but might not necessarily work in the future. We need to build our conversation around a shared understanding of those fundamentals, but not around the same endlessly repeated tactics. And we need to be honest with ourselves about what’s really a pillar of content marketing – and what’s just a buzzy concept that everyone happens to be jumping on at a given moment in time.

What doesn’t change in content marketing
I’m going to put my stake in the ground here, and set out what I see as the content marketing architecture – the bit of the DNA that doesn’t change, but which everything else evolves around.

Content marketing will always involve the carefully considered exchange of valuable content for valuable engagement, with a commitment to measuring that value. That was my argument in a post I wrote at the start of this year, and I’m sticking to it. It’s this value exchange that gives content a claim to be a part of marketing strategy, not just another fly-by-night executional tactic or another form of advertising. To me, it’s the foundational principle of what we do.

This carefully considered value exchange gives rise to other elements that are always going to be a part of content marketing as well, even though the way we approach those elements will inevitably change. We’ll always need to be able to capture attention and reward it if we want that attention on a sustained basis. We’ll always need to consider carefully how we balance working and non-working spend: the investment we make in putting value into content and the investment we make in putting that content in front of people. We’ll need to balance relevance with novelty. We’ll need to adapt content to different stages of buyer journeys, and we’ll need to keep exploring, tracking and demonstrating the ways in which content contributes to business growth. Whether we’re pitching for humans’ attention directly, or increasingly having to figure out how to appeal to algorithms as well, these things won’t change. However, our approach to them is already hugely different to the approach we were taking just five years ago.

What does change – everything else
Once we’ve defined what’s fundamental to content marketing we can start focusing attention on what’s repeatedly up for reinvention – which is pretty much everything else. I think warning signs should be flashing in our brains if we keep talking about tactics and techniques from five years ago as if they are some sort of unchanging framework for good content marketing. We have to keep challenging these ideas to see if they are still relevant. That’s what really drives fresh thinking, and equips us to keep standing out, engaging and delivering value.

I believe that there are three areas where we have to commit to moving the conversation forward – three types of received wisdom that have been directing what we say for longer than they should. This includes tactics and techniques that have driven great results for me in the past, but which I know will deliver diminishing returns if I don’t evolve my approach to them.

Content marketing philosophy that still doesn’t mean anything
The first type of content marketing wisdom that we need to move on from are the profound-sounding philosophical concepts that really resonate with audiences when we drop them into keynotes or panel discussions – but which don’t actually mean anything.

I confess: I’ve stood up in public and spoken about the need for “purpose” in content marketing, or the need to be “authentic” in the content that we create. I’ve written blog posts about how such purposefulness and authenticity help to drive more effective content marketing. But if you asked me to tell you what purposeful or authentic content actually looks like, and what makes it different from purposeless or inauthentic content, then I think I would struggle. These concepts are just too vague to constitute good content marketing advice – or make a meaningful contribution to strategy. They could mean pretty much anything and often do. And since we haven’t been able to define them, we need to move on from discussing them. I promise never to tell a content marketer that they need to be more authentic or purposeful – unless I’m able to specify exactly what that means in practice.

The same old success stories
Don’t get me wrong: I found Red Bull’s Stratos project as exciting and inspiring as the next marketer. I loved it when Warby Parker started pushing the boundaries of what content marketing could involve and creating a great challenger brand positioning in the process. But both of these stalwart content marketing success stories took place over six years ago! That’s a different era in terms of the media landscape, technology platforms and the workings of human attention. And for that reason, we need to stop talking about them.

The problem with pointing to the same historical examples is that they are less and less relevant to content marketers grappling with the challenges of a ‘Content Shock’ era: immense pressure on resources, competition to stand out, a need to manage businesses’ expectations and set sensible KPIs. Those campaigns that I mentioned owed a huge amount of their success to the confidence marketers could have that content would spread organically and generate mass awareness. That doesn’t really apply today in the same way that it did back in 2012 – and that’s why these success stories aren’t all that helpful for content marketers to aspire to.

If we’re going to talk about old examples of content marketing, then we need to be careful to distinguish between the architectural elements, which could still apply to content strategies today, and the executional elements that were entirely of their time. Red Bull had ambition and credibility that came from a long-term content programme (not to mention lots of extreme sports sponsorships). Warby Parker developed a brilliant, differentiating tone and applied it across lots of different touchpoints. Those are things we can learn from, but the way we apply those lessons would be wholly different in today’s media environment.

The same old stats
I’ve written posts before complaining about stats that content marketers throw around without questioning where they come from – but even a fascinating, well-sourced and insightful stat becomes potentially misleading over time. Stats that helped to illuminate the way B2B buyers made decisions in 2014 aren’t going to help anybody develop an informed content marketing for 2018.

I’m challenging myself to only use data points from the last 18 months – and if I ever use a stat older than that, I promise to make a specific case as to why it’s still relevant. Fresh data and insights should be an engine moving content marketing forward. When data points move in directions that we don’t like, we shouldn’t ignore them. Let’s take them on, ask the hard questions they raise and evolve our approach in response. We shouldn’t be cherry picking the facts to fit what we’ve been saying for years – we should be updating what we say to reflect the changing facts on the ground.

The tactics that it’s time to move on from
I’ve spent a lot of time in the past giving keynotes about the value of ‘Big Rock’ content assets and ‘slicing the Thanksgiving Turkey’ to extract maximum value from the content you create. The Big Rock approach to content marketing drove LinkedIn’s Sophisticated Marketer series of eBook guides that helped us take ownership of the conversation around marketing on LinkedIn. They’ve been hugely successful. But does that mean that I and my team should keep rolling out those eBooks just because they’ve worked so well in the past? Does it mean I should keep telling other content marketers to start out with the same strategy I started out with five years ago? It doesn’t.

We evolved our approach to the Sophisticated Marketer brand, because we knew that continuing to do the same things would inevitably deliver diminishing returns. That’s why we’ve developed podcasts, webinars, TV shows and a printed magazine. It’s why our ‘turkey slices’ are now as likely to take the form of video outtakes as Infographics. We’ve adapted our approach whenever we’ve seen our audience’s content habits and preferences start to change – or whenever we’ve started to suspect that there was a content format we were overlooking. It’s our ability to keep the Sophisticated Marketer concept fresh that helped us to win Best Content Marketing Multi-Year Program at the Content Marketing Awards this year. That was a huge honour – and we couldn’t have earned it without challenging ourselves to keep moving forward.

Part of that evolution involved moving away from a rigid content publishing timetable that specified how many blog posts we published each week, and how often we needed to push out new content to our audiences. If you want to invest in creating valuable content in different formats, you often need to take more time over it – and leverage your budget differently by creating less of it. We’ve varied the pace of our content and prioritised value over frequency, and driven far more return on our investment as a result.

We’ve changed the way that we promote content too. We used to play up the creative concept behind our eBooks and invest in launching them as loudly as possible. But in a media environment where everyone shouts for attention, this isn’t always the best approach. B2B audiences are increasingly suspicious of content that’s packaged creatively but has no real value inside. Launching quietly can be just as effective an approach as launching loud – especially when you’re working more closely with sales teams on how you introduce your content to your audience.

Earlier this year, our sales colleagues asked my team to produce a content asset about marketing on LinkedIn that “stripped out all of the creative stuff” and just “gave it to people straight.” We could have told them that we were marketers, we knew what we were doing, and our bells-and-whistles approach to launching content had always worked in the past. But instead, we took on board what they said and created a Read Me series of guides that concentrated on simply giving our audience the straight facts about advertising on LinkedIn. It’s now well on its way to being our most successful content marketing asset ever.

When I talk about the Sophisticated Marketer franchise now, I talk far less in terms of Big Rocks and turkey slices, and far more about the importance of exploring different formats, and finding different ways to signal the value of your content using them. These have become far more important to our content marketing strategy than a rigid framework of creating one big asset and then continually leveraging it. I’ve put away all those slides about how you should package and promote content, how often you should publish content each week – and what types of content you should publish on different days. These executional elements of content marketing need to change – they’re not set in stone. Acknowledging as much will give us a lot more to talk about as a discipline – and it will enable far more creative and varied approaches.

Content marketers are ignoring the big challenges to content marketing
Challenging ourselves is one way to keep the content marketing conversation fresh. However, it’s equally important to engage with challenges from elsewhere. It’s true that some of the criticisms of content marketing are plain misinformed or the result of people being deliberately controversial to try and make a quick name for themselves, but some are the result of genuine concerns and frustrations. Ignoring them all and adopting an ‘us against them’ mentality that divides content marketing believers from non-believers doesn’t help move the conversation forward.

When people claim that content marketing isn’t a strategy, it’s important to unpick what they mean. That way, we can answer the points they make, and we can also challenge ourselves to ensure that content marketing strategies are genuinely strategic. When people cite data to show that lots of content marketing isn’t effective, it’s important to take that conversation forward, ask why, differentiate between effective and ineffective approaches, and start talking in a meaningful way about the challenges and how to overcome them. When marketers express frustration about the challenges of demonstrating ROI for content, or finding metrics that seem relevant to the C-suite, we need to engage properly with the question that’s being asked, and not just recycle the same advice about how to cut costs, or get more value from the content you’ve already produced.

How to keep the content marketing conversation moving forward
I think the key to evolving any area of marketing is a commitment to challenging your own thinking. That takes confidence – but modern content marketing has now been around long enough for that confidence to start shining through. We’ve proved that content has a valuable role to play in B2B marketing strategies. We’re able to track and identify the contribution that it makes throughout the funnel. We’re seeing content marketing driving greater sales and marketing alignment, helping organisations to become more responsive to changing customer journeys, and becoming part of growth culture for businesses. All of this should give us more of an appetite for exploring how the role of content is evolving. We’ve got lots of good things to talk about – and we’ve got no need to keep repeating ourselves.