“We’ve got case studies on our site. We do content marketing.”

     “We’ve got an explainer video. That’s content marketing.”

     “Our content marketing is webinars.”

These all fit the broad-as-a-barn-door definition of content marketing.

And that’s a problem?

Well, yes. Just as the question ‘are you really living?’ applies differently if you’re asked by an adrenalin junkie or an A&E doctor, we’re struck by a definition problem.

Some marketers become content marketers, but many just redefine what they’ve always been doing as content marketing.

A CMO reads an Econsultancy post on content marketing, gets hot under the collar and orders his trusty lieutenants: “Get busy on this content marketing thing!” The lieutenants look at the directive, then look at the pile of case studies, decks and social media updates on their plates and – voilà! – rename a column on their spreadsheets. Now they’re doing content marketing in a big way. The dishes are done, man!

This is the cynical extreme. Most B2B businesses probably are doing veritable content marketing; they produce the occasional white paper, or pay a research firm to churn out a survey, and then push this to a lead-gen company or publisher to generate leads.

That is certainly content marketing. Much of the time it’s just pretty terrible.

We’re not in need of a new definition; after all, we still call SEO ‘SEO’ despite the fact that everyone’s more or less doing it (and it’s changed considerably over the last ten years). We may, however, want to narrow down what we mean by doing content marketing well.

I’ll come back to that.

Should 95% of marketers be doing content marketing?

I was recently talking to an expert on digital marketing who, when I pointed out some tactics that can help companies that were seeing poor results from their content marketing, asked: “When do you just decide it’s not worth it?”

Part of me wanted to reply “companies see far worse results from their display advertising campaigns and you don’t see them deciding never to advertise again, do you?”, but I didn’t. It’s the Weight Watchers paradox: It’s not the product; it’s the application of it.

But even content marketing champions would do well to wonder whether it’s a good fit for everyone. That is, how can we answer the question: When does content marketing make sense? And when does it not make sense?

What are we asking for, when we’re asking to do content marketing?

In one of the thousands of memorable scenes from The Departed, undercover boss Martin Sheen tells young cop freshman Leonardo Di Caprio “we deal in deception here. But what we don’t deal in is self-deception”.

If you say you’re going to invest in content marketing, or invest more in content marketing, then you’d better damn well have a good idea of what you’re asking for. And you’d better be determined to deliver on it. And it’d better be something different from what you’ve been doing before.

I can state this with equanimity: If you think content marketing is a box to be ticked, you will fail. Full stop.

When marketers step up to management to make the case for content marketing, the case should be a good one, but it should be a damn difficult one to make. You should incite questions like:

“You want us to sink our precious money into producing words and pictures that don’t talk about us, our products or services? You want to invest big sums in rich content that we will then give away, for nothing? You’re telling us that – if people come to our site to get this content – we should not sell to them? (Are you out of your gourd?)”

I have a niggling fear. It is this: Marketers, wary of these sensible questions, choose not to really make the case for content marketing. I fear that they jump right over those core challenges and jump directly to benefits.

  • We will generate XXX leads every quarter.
  • We will bring XXX new people to our site, XXX into our funnel, nurture XX% into conversions within six months and make every one of our salespeople into heroes.

These marketers fail to challenge their stakeholders’ ideas of what good marketing is. And they never really get buy-in to do something different.

Why it sucks not to do the big ask thing

Here’s the problem with failing to do that: You fail to determine whether you should actually do content marketing.

I’m convinced that, if your executive team doesn’t get the chance to ask the tough questions, and if they don’t convince themselves (with a little help) that it makes sense to proceed with content marketing anyway, no worthwhile content marketing will ever come of that company.

You see, marketers shouldn’t shortcut their stakeholders’ opportunity to bite off the biggest challenge of content marketing. If you don’t fight for (and they don’t give you) the green light to do content marketing that says “yes” to all of the questions I mentioned above, you’re not going to feel licensed to make the bold calls that great content marketing requires.

– You’ll cave in to all those people demanding you squeeze sales pitches in to your content.

– You’ll abandon every campaign that doesn’t yield leads right away.

– You won’t have the internal support to do the things for which your market will love you (but which have no other intrinsic value).

This endeavor demands boldness, not servility. JFK did not ask the American public to fund a multi-billion dollar scheme to invent Velcro, Tang and disposable diapers. No, he told Americans that they were going to the moon.

The question of whether a given company will succeed with content marketing, I feel, is less an issue of product type, market size, price or channel, and more an issue of whether its management can understand the principles that drive content marketing and give it the backing and freedom marketers need to make it happen.

Testimony from the Content Marketer of the Year

Joe Chernov, last year’s Content Marketer of the Year, did very many things right in the tenure at Eloqua that led to his award, but his recent tweet about it was telling:

Chernov tweet
To succeed at content marketing, a marketer has to look his boss, and their boss(es), in the eye and say “I know it looks insane to you. It should. But you’ve got to believe me, and you’ve got to give me money to do it right.”

Say it. And get the nod. It’ll motivate you to no end. And if you don’t get the nod, leave it. Go where they’ll let you do it right. Because if they don’t trust you now, they never will. And you’ll never get to do content marketing right there.

When does content marketing make sense? When you get buy-in to do it. Proper buy-in.

Joe Chernov, along with a few other content marketing luminaries, will discuss the issue of convincing internal stakeholders to do content marketing next week. We’ll see if they concur.

Lunar milestones

If buying into content marketing’s a leap of faith, and management’s leapt, there’s no way back. But they’re going to want to know if it’s being done well, and make changes so it does do well, if changes are necessary. Content marketers should want that too.

How do you know if you’re doing it well?

This brings this essay back to the beginning. If 95% of marketers are doing content marketing but the vast majority of them aren’t doing it well, we should be able to identify how they are not good in more than a purely subjective manner.

What kind of metrics should we see from good content marketing?

•    Start by building a long list of people you respect in your field – preferably ones who tweet, or blog, or speak or share stuff. If you’re slowly getting more mentions, shares or referrals from them, you’re succeeding at the big task.

•    Examine how other people share your content too – both volume and quality. These should both steadily increase.

•    Look at a very clever little metric that allows you to see when people share your content, but who never visited your site. That is, by tagging links, you can identify when people share your content that was first shared with them (but not via you). Call it indirect attribution.

The grand finale

Here’s the takeaway: Only do content marketing if you’re committed (and you get commitment) to do the kind of content marketing that makes normal business types nervous.

Once you’ve got that, you’re 100,000% more likely to do content marketing well. Demonstrably well. Because that’ll be the only way.

(And I don’t think 95% of marketers are doing that today. Far from it.)