An honest look at content marketing

by Tom Albrighton 4 February 2013 Content marketing, Digital and social

Remember when social media was going to transform the way we sell? A few years ago, we started hearing how ‘everything’ had changed, and marketing would never be the same again. TV and ‘interruptive’ ads were out; Facebook and ‘permission marketing’ were in.

Caption: ‘The Present Day’. And it hasn’t quite worked out that way. TV is more powerful than ever, and plenty of big firms are moving their marketing spend away from social. If the bubble hasn’t burst, it’s certainly deflating – if bubbles can deflate. And, at the risk of being unbearably smug (a first for this blog, of course), some of us were predicting that a while ago.

Social media hasn’t gone away as a tool for what is usually termed ‘brand-building’ or ‘customer engagement’. But when it comes to actually shifting product, the shine has definitely come off.

We need a new saviour. Step forward content marketing – without doubt, the single hottest trend for digital in 2013. (Read what industry experts predict for it here.)

I’m sure many writers like me (the old ones, in other words) have regarded the meteoric rise of content marketing with a wry smile. It’s strange to see something you’ve been doing for aeons suddenly trumpeted as the Next Big Thing. Like a Bay City Rollers fan stubbornly wearing tartan until it comes into fashion again, I’ve spent my freelance life encouraging people to invest in quality content.

Of course, I’m not complaining – like any marketing pro, I welcome any buzzword that makes it easier for me to upsell the client. But like all old hands, I also know that the devil is in the detail. And that’s why I wanted to put together a few questions to ask yourself before you launch your content marketing campaign.

Do you know who your content is for?

When I started in book publishing, the word ‘content’ was unheard of. We used old-fashioned words like ‘text’, ‘galleys’ and ‘transparencies’. But before we even thought about talking to an author or a photographer, we had a crystal-clear idea of who was going to buy the book.

No market, no project. It was as simple as that. And that’s what the hundreds of wannabe authors sending us their manuscripts could never understand. Yes, it’s a good idea. Yes, it will work well as a book. It might even sell a few copies. But if it wouldn’t sell enough copies for us to turn a profit, the only place it was gonna be printed was the dot-matrix in the author’s spare room.

In paper publishing, high development and print costs mean high barriers to entry. Online, they’re far lower. And that means you can start pumping out content without the slightest idea of who it’s for, how it helps them or why they should read it. But just as you wouldn’t make any money with pointless books, so you won’t convert any prospects with directionless content.

Will people see your content?

In order to figure in your prospect’s buying process, your content needs to be found. In advertising terms, it needs reach. That means people either need to search it out, or be pushed towards it some other way (such as social media).

SEO is hard, and getting harder. There are a lot of sites out there. Most firms now understand SEO at some level, even though some still cling to dodgy tactics. Generic terms are fiercely competitive, while once-deserted long-tail terms have long been colonised. No ethical SEO will guarantee their results upfront, because there are so many unknowns.

mountain

Will your stuff rise to the top, or get buried beneath the mountain of content?

If you want people to find your content via search engines, make sure you plan the journey before you set off – and be realistic about resources too.

Alternatively, if you want your content to be shared socially, you have no alternative but to make it exceptionally good. We’ll come to that shortly.

Assuming your content can be found, will it cut through everything else out there? Most subjects have been covered many times, making it almost impossible to create something really unique. What’s more, the vogue for content marketing is going to generate a torrent of, for want of a better word, crap, making cut-through even harder to achieve.

If you add to the mountain of content, will you end up on top or buried at the bottom? And is your view based on analysis, or just confidence?

The worst-case scenario here is that you produce content that nobody sees. While you might be able to fix that by relaunching or repurposing the content in a new way, you will still have wasted resource.

Can you make your content good enough?

Obviously, you want people to like your content. First and foremost, you want them to associate your brand with a positive experience; that is one of the key aims of content marketing.

But you also want them, if possible, to share that experience through social networks, so that the popularity of your content grows organically and (ideally) becomes self-supporting. And because social sharing counts are used by Google as an index of quality, social popularity feeds into SEO, making it doubly desirable.

It’s important to be realistic about the value you actually offer through content. Given your market and business model, can you actually write something that will help people?

The ‘sweet spot’ is where you can translate valuable knowledge you already have into quality content at minimal cost. In other words, you need to turn authority into audience.

The how-to videos produced by eSpares and published on YouTube are an excellent example: they feature eSpares’ own staff explaining how to repair domestic appliances, often with parts that can be bought from the company itself.

The company uses email to drive traffic to its videos too, which allows it to position the content as a ‘convincer’ for an eye-catching promotion contained in the same email:

espares email


It’s great stuff, but it represents a very happy convergence of brand, product, personnel and media channels. Not everyone will be in the same position. Some ‘distress purchase’ brands, by their very nature, will always find it difficult to produce ‘engaging’ content – Anusol and Rentokil are the two examples I always use. Even if your brand isn’t associated with horror or embarrassment, it still might find it hard to build a bridge from its home turf to the audience’s natural areas of interest.

Remember: audience first. See your content from outside, not inside. Be honest with yourself about interest, appeal and shareability. If you can, ask a potential customer to look at your stuff – and listen to what they say.

If you can, you should be entertaining as well as useful. That doesn’t mean bolting lame gags or jazzy design on to something inherently dull. It means communicating the core message itself in an entertaining way. I can’t really say any more than that – you can either do this or you can’t. And if you can’t, you need to hire someone who can. Which brings us to…

Are you ready to pay for it?

If content is king, why dress him in rags?

In my experience, people’s enthusiasm about ‘quality’ content rarely translates into enthusiasm about paying a decent price for it.

It’s strange, really. A gourmet wouldn’t expect his sirloin to come cheap; nor would a dandy expect to get his tailored suit for pennies. All else being equal, you get what you pay for.

Sadly, quantity still tends to outweigh quality, with far too much lowest-common-denominator content cluttering up the web. That irks me aesthetically, but also commercially – because I know it isn’t delivering any benefit to the firms who published it.

Content marketing isn’t carpet-bombing. It’s sniping. Although it can seem scary, it can often be more effective to put all your eggs in one basket and develop one killer piece of content, rather than trying to hedge your bets or cover all bases.

Quality costs. Late in 2011, I published this throwaway infographic. External design fees and my own time (costed at my day rate) probably came to about £250. Result: 52 Tweets, eight Facebook shares and a page 3 ranking for a useless term (‘infographic of infographics’).

The next time I did an infographic, I did it right. Including my own opportunity cost, the investment was well into four figures. Result: 321 tweets, 244 Facebook shares, at least 20 keyword-relevant backlinks (and counting) and the #1 position for ‘copywriting infographic’ (as I write).

The point is that I could have done a hundred second-rate infographics, or a thousand. They’d never have delivered much benefit, either separately or in combination. You need the courage to back your best ideas – or, sometimes, to go with your instincts about what will be popular. Otherwise, you’ll never win big in content marketing.

Are you prepared to stand out?

Closely related to quality is the issue of uniqueness. As I’ve explained, offering genuinely unique coverage in a saturated medium is hard and may be impossible. So the only way to stand out may be by adopting a striking attitude or tone of voice.

‘No problem,’ you say. But again, the devil is in the detail. The stronger your opinions, the more divisive your content. That could mean that you alienate a proportion of your prospects, associates or peers – even as you delight the rest. Are you ready for that?

Can you keep it up?

Stop sniggering at the back. What I mean is, can you sustain the level of quality that you’ve set yourself? And have you got the strategic focus to build a coherent, well-structured body of content where each piece works to reinforce the next?

Time is always against you. By the time you produce your 20th piece of content, the first will be an embarrassment – I guarantee it. The best you can do is create a plan and stick to it as closely as possible.

Will your content sell?

Let’s assume you get over all the hurdles I’ve outlined so far. You create high-quality content, it stands out, it gets found, and it gets shared. But will it then convert interest to sales?

Answering that question means understanding the customer journey – not in the abstract, but in the specific case of your products or services. How can your content fit into the customer’s most likely journey to a purchase or enquiry?

You might not have the time or resource to answer that question definitively. But it’s still worth thinking about. Ask yourself: how would I behave if I were buying this? How would this content help me? And would the content necessarily lead to a sale?

The eSpares videos I cited above are, I believe, an excellent example of high-quality corporate content. Yet they also indicate the perilously thin strand that links content to conversion, and the crucial difference between selling content and selling product.

Let’s say that once the user’s finished viewing the how-to guide above, they do indeed want to buy a seal for their Neff oven door. They can’t do it on YouTube, so they need to visit another site. And they can just as easily stick ‘Neff oven door seal’ into Google Shopping as go and find it at eSpares. (OK, Google might still direct them to eSpares, depending on SEO, but it might not. And eSpares might not be the cheapest buying option.)

Basically, content marketing is a leap of faith: eSpares needs to hope that it establishes enough authority with its content to make the reader choose it for a purchase. In contrast to ‘traditional’ advertising, where content, call to action and purchase are closely united, content marketing introduces a crucial distance between the message and the desired reaction. In a way, it’s the online cousin to ‘brand-building’ offline advertising that isn’t explicitly linked to a particular product or promotion. You trust the reader to join the dots and take the desired action when the time comes.

The Wikipedia page on content marketing makes interesting reading. Here’s the key paragraph:

By embedding information that refers to the brand… persuasion occurs because the media consumer’s experience with the content is positive, and so becomes associated with a positive experience with a brand.

Crucially, this point is not linked to any third-party authority that can back it up (which, strictly speaking, is a violation of Wikipedia’s editorial policy). And, in my view, that’s because ‘persuasion occurs’ is a theory rather than a provable reality. In most cases, it’s difficult or impossible to establish a link between someone reading your content and making a purchase. Google ‘content marketing case studies’ and you’ll see what I mean.

That’s not to say that content marketing has no effect. It’s just that that its effect is indirect and hard to measure. ‘No more so than traditional advertising,’ you might say. So let’s look at the contrasts in more detail.

Would you be better off just advertising?

I wouldn’t blame you if you didn’t want to grasp the nettle of ‘traditional’ advertising. The stats are deeply discouraging – as Dave Trott says, a whopping 90% of ads aren’t noticed or remembered. Compared to creating a champion ad that can punch its way into the top 10%, trotting out a few how-to guides is a walk in the park.

Unfortunately, the journey is tough whichever route you choose. As Howard Luck Gossage said, ‘People read what interests them, and sometimes it’s an ad.’ Updating him for the digital era, we might add that sometimes it’s a YouTube video, or an online article. The point is that customer interest is capricious, uncontrollable and channel-agnostic, cutting across whatever neat categories marketers might want to draw.

Whether you call it interest, connection, engagement or anything else, the eternal principle is the same. You must dramatise the key benefit of the product and link it to people’s concerns. If you do that, sales will follow.

The distinction between ‘permission’ marketing and other types is based on technicalities rather than any deep truth. Whatever channel you’re using, and whatever the mechanics of the interaction, you can’t communicate with someone – let alone persuade them – without their permission. They can ignore your TV ad, or they can click away from your site, or they can decide not to read your white paper.

What matters is quality, not means of delivery. And just as you can’t compensate for weak creative by throwing media spend at an ad campaign, so you can’t expect your content to magically engage customers just because it’s offered on a ‘permission’ basis.

In fact, there’s a contradiction at the heart of ‘permission marketing’. What you seek permission for is not actually marketing, but something else; something that’s arguably deceitful, because your ultimate motivation is still to close a sale. At some point, you have to drop the mask and get your sell on.

Too often, the permission approach rests on bad faith. We imagine that audiences are blind to our motives until we reveal them. We expect them to act in ways that we never would ourselves (yes, QR codes, I’m looking at you). We kid ourselves that they won’t notice they’re being manipulated. We cater to their freedom to choose on one level, but expect them to react in mechanistic ways on another.

A case in point is the myriad online articles on ‘how to choose a copywriter’ written by copywriters. (Here’s one I made earlier.) These are classic early-stage content marketing – SEO-oriented, ostensibly helpful, nominally authoritative. But who were we fooling? Why on earth would anyone trust content based on such naked self-interest?

At the end of the day, it might be more honest just to hit your prospects with an ad. You hire a writer either way. Why not pay them to persuade rather than manipulate?

Summing up

I hope I’ve shown that content marketing is far from being a magic bullet. There are many obstacles on the way to success, including issues of online prominence, content quality, uniqueness, commercial effectiveness and, above all, benefits in relation to costs.

However, please don’t infer that content marketing is completely pointless. I’m not saying ‘don’t get into content marketing’. I’m just advising you to get into it with your eyes open – and do it right.

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  • Sophie S-B

    ‘Horror’ and ‘embarrassment’ – my 2 preferred brand messages.

    Great points on content coherence and structure – the most difficult bits.

  • http://twitter.com/NickCanDo can-do comms

    Great post. (As ever.) The resilience of TV should never be underestimated. Years ago, I was part of a Euro-tour promoting the benefits of “integrated” marketing – the buzz-term back then. Strong presentations, warm feedback and… ZERO buy-in! In FMCG-land, TV (and on-pack) shifts boxes. Until alternative content/media strategies can provide a better ROI, big brands are always going to be tempted by those guarantees.

  • tomalbrighton

    Thanks Sophie. I’m sure Rentokil and Anusol have workshopped those two into something more aspirational like ‘reassurance’ and ‘comfort’ respectively…

  • tomalbrighton

    Thanks Nick. I guess for big brands it’s not an either/or. And a little bit of content probably looks cheap next to a TV campaign. I’d be more concerned for a smaller brand looking to abandon ‘traditional’ ads in favour of content without thinking through the implications.

  • Doug Kessler

    Terrific post. Had to be said. No, content marketing isn’t a magic bullet.
    But, done properly, I think it’s more than a leap of faith.

    If you’re producing something your prospects really value, it doesn’t feel like as big a leap as rejecting this important tactic just because it’s a runaway bandwagon.

    ‘Why would anyone trust content based on self-interest?’ is the essential question here.

    The only answer can be, “Because you’ve worked hard to put your prospect’s needs above your agenda — at least for the duration of the piece. And you’ve been transparent about your agenda. And still produced something with credibility and authority.’

  • http://twitter.com/Angpang Angela Montague

    Excellent post, you nailed it.

  • Rich

    Hmm, on “How to Choose a Copywriter” written by a copywriter… as a potential customer, I would approach it with skepticism, as you say – but I think people have a knack for detecting and valuing authenticity + integrity. If you genuinely want to help people and also want to sell, and are honest about both, then putting that into a “How to Choose…” post is going to come over well.

    Content marketing works when you work it, i.e. when you realise that what works best is actually *wanting* to serve, as well as sell. That’s probably a fundamental principle of business, although manipulation can and will always work, I’m sure.

    IMO companies like AppSumo come across like that – real desire to both serve and sell, and honest about both – and their success speaks for itself.

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  • http://twitter.com/tuvainteractive Tuva Interactive

    Great article, Tom, and you are spot on I think. I think a lot of the objection to the term content marketing is because it really isn’t new. But from our perspective, it really serves a purpose when talking to our clients and they ask about “doing” social media, and it gives us a way to change the discussion. It makes them focus on relevancy, value and thought leadership instead of just publishing a bunch of useless stuff on Facebook.

    A lot of our clients are B2B, and they have good subject matter experts that can be engaged to create good content. And as you say, the goal is to keep that engagement going for the long haul, with the right strategy and tactics to develop and audience and keep them interested.