It’s time to stop blaming content for your content marketing problems

You keep using that 5% content stat… I don’t think it means what you think it means

November 12, 2016

Editor's Note: This post has been syndicated from the EMEA Marketing Solutions blog.

Data suggesting that lots of brands get content marketing wrong is evidence for the importance of taking the discipline seriously – not questioning its value.

Over the last few weeks, we’ve been treated to a steady stream of headlines proclaiming that “content marketing is up 300% but only 5% of it matters”, questioning whether it’s “marketing truth or marketing hype”, asking “is content marketing bollocks?” It all started with a report released by the data platform Beckon at Ad Week in New York that supposedly busts the all-pervading myth that “brands need to be content machines”, that will apparently “shock” marketers with the fact that

“they’re investing a lot in content creation and it’s not driving more engagement.”

Content is not a shortcut to engagement
There’s just one problem with this sensational finding and the column inches it’s generated from marketing pundits: it’s blindingly obvious. No forward-thinking content marketer believes that content should automatically result in engagement, regardless of its quality and relevance and the strategy behind it. We know that content is often the most effective means of building engagement – but only when it’s done properly. The problem is there are plenty of brands out there not doing it properly. The even bigger problem is that they’ve now got plenty of pundits telling them not to bother.

The current line of criticism treats all branded content as one homogenous strategy that either lives or dies by its average effectiveness numbers. That's ridiculously simplistic. It’s the equivalent of saying that great TV Ads like Guinness Surfers or Cadbury’s Gorilla were actually rubbish since at the same time Daz was running doorstep challenge ads with Danny Baker, Cillit Bang was torturing us with its Barry Scott campaigns, and every other mobile phone brand was pumping out generic pan-European commercials featuring unlikely extreme sport-loving businessmen on skateboards.

Some have even used the Beckon data to argue that content marketing shouldn’t be seen as a separate discipline – that it’s just another tactic that generalist marketers can adopt when it seems to fit their purposes. That line of argument misunderstands the nature of content marketing, the nature of the value it delivers, and the most important differences between effective and ineffective content. It’s entirely the wrong response.

It’s time to start looking at the 5% - not the 95%
The stat we should really be looking at in the Beckon data is the fact that 5% of branded content generates  90% of audience engagement. We could interpret this as meaning that all content marketing is overhyped – or, much more usefully, we could interpret it as meaning that 5% of it is actually very effective – and is giving the brands that produce it a significant competitive advantage over the rest. The question marketers should be asking themselves is not “how did I get suckered into doing content?” but “what’s the difference between that 5% of branded content and the rest?”

The reason most branded content doesn’t work very well, as regularly highlighted in the Benchmark, Budgets and Trends report from the Content Marketing Institute, is that most branded content doesn’t have a strategy for what it’s going to achieve and how it’s going to achieve it. Most content marketing involves ‘Random acts of content’ that are inconsistent, irrelevant to the audiences’ concerns, and don't have either an objective or a KPI attached to them. It’s no wonder that these random acts of content fail.

How specialist content marketers make the difference
Content marketing is complex. It takes place across a constantly shifting landscape (changing Google algorithms, new platforms) that requires dedicated focus and particular skills to keep content connecting with its audiences. It’s not a ‘set it and forget it’ tactic that marketers can leave to one side when they need to focus on events or PR. It needs its own strategy, commitment and headcount.

What truly differentiates content marketing as a role, though, is the specialist set of skills that it requires. Besides copywriting, strategy and creativity, content marketers also require applied technical skills such as data analysis, an understanding of different social platforms and SEO, not to mention the ability to work cross functionally within an organisation. They are a new breed of hybrid marketers, tooled up for the requirements of building a genuine content marketing strategy: conducting gap analysis, identifying customer needs and conversations, developing distribution and measurement strategies – everything required to ensure that every piece of content has a purpose and a plan.

Why content matters more than ever
It’s never been more important to commit to developing and supporting these skills. We talk continuously about the need for a ‘value exchange’ with our audiences – and good, strategic, relevant content is the embodiment of that value exchange. An approach that can build a loyal audience of social media followers or email subscribers that actually want to hear from your brand (rather than resenting being followed around the internet by it) is the holy grail for most marketers right now.

Within B2B, we know that the hand-off between marketing and sales is taking place further and further down the funnel. According to Forrester, as much as 90% of the buyer’s journey may be complete before that buyer reaches out to a salesperson. Content is the only effective way of filling this gap and getting your product or business onto the shortlist of vendors a buyer reaches out to. Marketing is taking over responsibility for far more of the buyer’s journey – and the only valid strategy for a large portion of that journey is content marketing.

Why content doesn’t have to soak up budget
Contrary to the picture that’s often painted by the anti-content brigade, this doesn’t have to break the budget. Effective content doesn’t have to cost so much to produce that you don’t have enough budget left to amplify it effectively. When you have a proper content marketing strategy, you’re able to focus your investment on assets that can keep generating engagement effectively over months or even years. You can balance your ‘working’ and ‘non-working’ spend in a way that delivers quality and originality for your audiences whilst still allowing you to innovate creatively with how you distribute content – and optimise around the approaches that work. In fact, investing in strategic content and the skills required to create it, enables a far more effective balance between paid and earned media. You can sponsor your way to the top of the Google results – but 80% of clicks happen on organic search results, and those organic results can only result from an effective content strategy.

What happens when you get content right
I’m not basing any of this on theory or ‘content marketing hype’ – I’m basing it on an ever-growing line-up of businesses achieving very tangible success through content.

At LinkedIn Marketing Solutions, investment in a small content marketing team and a strategic-led content approach has quadrupled the effectiveness of our own marketing in around 12 months. In fact, 73% of all our marketing qualified leads are driven through content. But ours isn’t the only B2B brand driving measurable results. Take LeadMD, for example: a marketing automation business that invested $5,500 in an eBook and was able to use it to influence or directly source $244,700 in net new business. That’s some return on investment.

Creative awards are increasingly recognising the contribution that content makes to achieving major marketing objectives. How about GE’s The Message (the number 1 podcast in America that took a storytelling approach to raising awareness around soundwaves and human health)? Google’s small business strategy on YouTube? Maersk’s superb visual storytelling on Instagram? ING’s The Next Rembrandt? Volvo Trucks’ Live Test Series featuring Jean Claude Van Damme and the ‘epic split’?

In his Marketing Week column last week, Mark Ritson repeated a demand from Mark Higginson, the Managing Director of Twenty Thousand Leagues, that content marketers should be able to nominate 100 successful examples of their art. Leaving aside whether this makes sense as a request or not (after all, you don't demand that marketers spending money on advertising justify it by listing the 100 greatest TV ads), I’m going to make a start on putting a definitive list together. It’s worth it just to prove that examples of effective content marketing are nothing like as hard to find as the recent coverage has made out. Let’s just say that whenever businesses invest properly in content marketing skills and content marketing strategy they tend to be rewarded.

I’d love to get Mark Ritson on The Sophisticated Marketer’s Podcast to discuss the 100 best content marketing campaigns. I’m sure it would be lively – as any sensible debate on the merits of creative work should be. After all, in my mind, the only really invalid point of view on content marketing is that it doesn’t matter… once we put that one to bed we can get on with supporting people in doing it right.

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