Saturday, January 7, 2017

Why It's Time to Reset Expectations for Content Marketing


Mark Ritson, a marketing professor at the Melbourne Business School in Australia, recently published a column at Marketing Week titled "Is content marketing a load of bollocks?" As you might expect, the column created quite a stir in the content marketing world.

Professor Ritson makes two arguments in his column. First, he contends that content marketing isn't really different from "regular" marketing communications. And second, he argues that most of the content produced by content marketers is ineffective. He writes, "A study by software firm Beckon recently revealed that although the amount of content being marketed has tripled in the past year, there has been no increase in engagement. Just 5% of the total content produced generated 90% of the customer engagement meaning that 19 out of 20 pieces of content marketing have little if any impact."

It shouldn't be surprising that most content marketing advocates don't share Professor Ritson's view. Most proponents of content marketing will readily acknowledge that content marketing efforts are often ineffective, but they argue that's because many companies aren't doing content marketing correctly. They contend that many companies are still producing bad content, or are haphazardly creating content without having a sound content marketing strategy. Supporters argue that content marketing is effective when it's done the right way.

Recent research provides support for both points of view. The Beckon study cited by Mark Ritson echos the findings of earlier research by TrackMaven, which also found that content volume is increasing while content engagement is decreasing.

On the other hand, the 2017 B2B content marketing survey by the Content Marketing Institute and MarketingProfs (published a few weeks ago) found that doing the right things in the right ways will have a major impact on content marketing success. In this research, survey respondents who rated their company's content marketing efforts as extremely or very successful were also more likely to say that their company:

  • Has a documented content marketing strategy
  • Is extremely or very committed to content marketing
  • Is clear on what an effective/successful content marketing program looks like
  • Measures content marketing ROI
The reality is, marketing leaders can do a great deal to improve their odds of achieving success with content marketing. But it's equally true that the ability of any company to achieve content marketing success is also affected by competitive forces that are beyond the company's control.

In a post published in January of last year, I argued that content marketing success would be harder to achieve in 2016 for three reasons:
  • The amount of content available to potential buyers has increased dramatically, and the competition for buyer attention has become more intense.
  • The growing use of content marketing best practices tends to make content marketing programs look alike, which makes differentiation more difficult.
  • While companies are still producing a lot of bad content, there's also a growing volume of good content available in the marketplace, which allows potential buyers to be more choosy about the content they consume. This makes it more challenging to consistently produce content that will win mindshare.
These competitive forces are more potent today than they were a year ago, which means that achieving content marketing success will only become more challenging.

It addition, increasing competition in the content marketplace means that marketing and business leaders must have realistic expectations for what content marketing can achieve. The important question for B2B marketers is:  Will a well-conceived and well-executed content marketing program be more effective at driving profitable revenue growth for my company than alternative marketing methods? For most B2B companies - particularly those that offer complex and/or expensive products or services - the answer to this question will almost certainly be yes.

The 2015 version of Gartner's Hype Cycle for Digital Marketing showed content marketing on the decline - having passed the peak of inflated expectations and beginning the slide toward the trough of disillusionment. The 2016 version of the hype cycle put content marketing even closer to the trough of disillusionment, which suggests that content marketing is in for a couple more years of rough sailing.

But what's really important is that once content marketing passes through the trough of disillusionment, it will emerge onto a slope of enlightenment and move toward the plateau of productivity where marketers will have a realistic view of what content marketing can accomplish and what is truly required to build effective content marketing programs.

Illustration courtesy of DigitalRalph via Flickr CC.

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