About a year ago, I published a post arguing that B2B marketers need to set realistic expectations for their content marketing efforts. This turned out to be our most widely-read post in 2017. The main theme of my post was that content marketing performance depends on several factors and that some of those factors are beyond marketers' control.
The annual content marketing surveys by the Content Marketing Institute and MarketingProfs have consistently shown that doing the right things in the right ways will have a major impact on content marketing success. But it's equally true that content marketing performance is affected by competitive forces that are beyond any company's control. For example, the amount of content available to potential buyers has increased dramatically, and this makes it harder for any company to consistently produce content that will capture buyer attention and win mindshare.
For the past couple of years, some marketing pundits have been using content sharing data to argue that content marketing has lost some of its punch and may not continue to be a viable strategy for some companies. For example, a 2016 study by Beckon found that the amount of content published by brands had tripled in the previous year, but that customer engagement had remained flat. Beckon also found that just 5% of the total content garnered 90% of the total customer engagements, meaning that 19 out of 20 content pieces generated little engagement.
Last November, Steve Rayson, the director of content research company BuzzSumo, wrote a guest post for Mark Schaefer's blog that analyzed recent trends in content publication and content sharing on social networks. His analysis found that as the volume of content published about a topic increases, there is a decline in the average engagement in terms of social shares. Rayson wrote, "Declining content engagement as publication volumes increase over time appears to be a common pattern."
While it's worthwhile for marketers to understand current trends in social content sharing, this type of data provides only limited insight regarding the effectiveness of content marketing, particularly in a B2B context. Here's why.
Most content sharing metrics only capture the number of times a piece of content is shared on public social networks such as Facebook, LinkedIn, and Twitter. Therefore, these metrics will often understate the level of actual content sharing. In 2014, research by RadiumOne found that 69% of all content sharing globally takes place via private digital communication tools such as e-mail and instant messaging - what is typically called "dark social" sharing.
The RadiumOne research focused on consumers, but other research has found that private content sharing is even more prevalent among business buyers. As the following table shows, respondents in Demand Gen Report's annual content preferences surveys have consistently identified e-mail as the top channel for sharing business-related content with colleagues and business connections.
Not only do social sharing metrics often understate the actual amount of content sharing, they also don't provide a reliable indication of content engagement. Recent research by Chartbeat found that the correlation between social shares and content engagement is very weak. Also consider this. When a businessperson privately shares business-related content with his or her work colleagues, the engagement with that content is likely to be quite high. So typical social sharing metrics are even less effective at capturing content engagement in a B2B setting.
The bottom line is that social sharing metrics provide an incomplete picture of content marketing effectiveness. As a B2B marketer, one of your primary objectives is to entice your target audience to consume your content. If your content is widely shared across social networks, that may (or may not) boost the consumption of your content. However, the absence of social sharing doesn't necessarily mean that your content isn't being consumed by - and having an impact on - your target audience.
Top image courtesy of Nan Palmero via Flickr CC.