Content marketing, or CM for short, is currently the new new thing in marketing. Its big idea is that fresh, informative content – blog posts, eBooks, infographics, memes, video – will attract customers, build your brand, and ultimately results in sales leads and actual sales.
And it will be easy. Or at least doable.
And it will be cheap. Or at least cheaper than advertising.
And it will work.
Or so they say.
The cognoscenti have hyped us before, haven’t they? Remember when just having a website would be enough? Or when pay-per-click advertising was cheap and effective? Or when a Facebook page would magically attract customers for free?
Are they hyping us again?
Is CM really the latest and greatest? Or is it just old wine in new bottles? The latest fad to go frantic and then fade away?
Don’t get me wrong. I am actually pro-content, and pro-marketing. But as a card-carrying Silicon Valley, post-boom, post-bust surviving ex-journalist, I’m always skeptical of every new trend, no matter how latest and greatest it might seem.
Content Marketing. Is it real? Is it important? Can it work?
There are a lot of blog posts out there about CM. There are many wonderful books. There’s even a great conference called Content Marketing World (which I just attended). They’ll all give you the positive side of CM.
Again, don’t get me wrong. I do believe in content and in marketing.
In this blog post, however, I want to focus on something different: the paradoxes and pitfalls of content marketing.
A Working Definition of Content Marketing
Before we dive in, we need a working definition. Here’s mine:
Content Marketing is the production of Internet content such as blog posts or images or videos designed to not only attract and educate potential customers but also to generate inbound Web traffic, improve brand awareness, and/or create inbound sales leads or eCommerce sales.
Content Marketing, in short, is producing content that is not only useful to users but effective as a marketing tactic to improve the bottom line.
For the official definition from the Content Marketing Institute, visit http://goo.gl/SD2Cx7.
Paradoxes & Pitfalls of Content Marketing
Now we have a working definition.
Check out the hype.
The hype about CM is all around you – just Google ‘Content Marketing’ (https://goo.gl/1OgZmN) check out the Content Marketing Institute at http://contentmarketinginstitute.com/, attend Content Marketing World at http://goo.gl/SnN9hp (which I just did), or browse Amazon (http://goo.gl/r9rqFw) for the deluge of hypester (not to be confused with hipster) books on the topic.
Hype, hype, hype, hype, hype…
Here’s the essence of what they say:
And do it soon or be left behind!
I personally am waiting for the Content Marketing rapture (https://goo.gl/6TCsyG), when all the smart Content Marketers are sucked up into Content Marketing heaven, leaving all of us practical types behind to continue on with the hard and messy task of marketing in the real world.
If you think about it, content marketing might be just a fancy new term for creating informative and helpful content that will attract (and hopefully) convert customers.
Old wine in a new bottle.
Oops. I know the Content Marketing industry would rather have us all believe that it’s something 100% new…
Oh and oops. Easier said than done, aye there’s the rub.
Don’t get me wrong. Call it what you will, but content marketing is incredibly important and you had better get good at it (soon) or you will be left behind.
If you want to ponder some of the paradoxes and pitfalls, here’s my list –
Paradox No. 1: It’s New and It’s Not New (at the Same Time)
Paradox No. 1 is pretty much covered in my introductory thoughts above. The paradox is that CM is kinda new and kinda old, and your job as a marketer is to figure out what’s really new and what’s just old wine in a new bottle.
Meet the new boss same as the old boss, the same but different.
Takeaway: figure out what’s new (and what’s not) in this “content marketing” thing, and leverage what’s truly new to be a better marketer.
Paradox No. 2: Authenticity vs. ROI
Let’s face reality.
Content that is produced by a vendor about a vendor faces an unavoidable conflict of interest. Vendors love themselves and their products and are not always forthcoming about the negatives.
Customers are necessarily skeptical:
Is the vendor telling the truth, the whole truth, and nothing but the truth?
Is the vendor being objective, or just “selling” me with some tilted propaganda pretending to be true?
As the content on the Internet swamps their desktops, tablets, and smart phones, consumers are getting better and better at distinguishing between truthiness (https://goo.gl/wraIiL) and truth. They want accurate, objective information on topics that matter to them “before the buy.”
Yet content marketing is about producing (when you really get down to it) self-serving content. A little duplicitous, a little disingenuous, even.
Yes, it can be useful.
Yes, it can be true.
Yes, it can be informative.
But it also has to serve the ultimate purpose of marketing: support sales.
So how can you be “authentic” (objective and informative) yet still be true to your marketing job of nurturing sales leads and more sales?
Aye, there’s the rub. The Paradox No 2 of content marketing.
When you produce content for your businesses, you have a goal (attract more customers) and a conflict of interest (don’t talk about competitors, don’t identify your weaknesses).
The more that your content is non-authentic (enticing customers to buy your stuff), the less customers (and search engines and social media influencers) believe it.
The more it is authentic (honest and objective, for example by including your competitors and their websites in your wonderful blog post about the pain points addressed by your product, admitting to the negatives in your product), the less it achieves your marketing objective of obtaining sales leads and sales.
Takeaway: Thread the needle between authenticity and the need for ROI. (I did not say that content marketing was easy!)
Paradox No. 3: Quantity vs. Quality
Your content should be both high quality and high quantity.
Yes, of course.
But let’s get real.
Homemade ice cream is better than store-bought ice cream just as custom-made cookies, craft beers, and artisan coffee is better than the stuff produced at scale you can buy for cheap at WalMart.
Before you know it your hand-crafted artisan burger has become a Big Mac. Billions and billions served (just not that good).
Oops. Content quality does seem to conflict with your pressing marketing need to churn out more and more and more and more and more and more quantity.
Aye, there’s the rub.
What’s worse: the customer faces a similar paradox: the Internet is getting more and more cluttered by the minute! Facebook generates 4 million posts per minute; Instagram generates 1.7 million likes per minute; Twitter generates 347,222 tweets per minute; and YouTube generates 300 hours of new video per minute (Source: http://goo.gl/TE1o9j).
The sheer quantity of content is getting in the way of the findability of high quality content. (Yet another paradox: collectively we content producers are big producers of all the clutter that makes our own content harder to find. We’re sorta kinda responsible for our own problem).
So you’ve not only got to create great content, you’ve got to get it in front of increasingly harried, and over-marketed-to customers.
Takeaway. Work to produce better quality content yet at higher volumes (more quantity). Do both in order to succeed. Don’t be McDonald’s. Be In-and-Out burger.
Paradox No. 4: Education vs. Transaction
Any good marketer understands the sales funnel, as in AIDA: Awareness, Interest, Desire, Action.
First, customers search for educational information. To take an example, let’s assume your customer is a serious runner and his knee hurts. He might search Google for “knee pain” to educate himself on the causes and remedies of knee pain. He might watch some informative YouTube videos on proper stretching for the knees before running, etc. etc. He’s in “education mode.”
However, once his knee has hurt for several months, and he’s tried all the easy remedies, and perhaps even gone to see his primary care physician… he might realize he is ready for knee surgery. So then he starts doing transactional searches such as “best knee surgeons in San Francisco” as well as asking trusted friends and family members for recommendations on Facebook. He’s in “transaction mode” – ready to engage in a buy.
Here’s the rub. On the one hand, there are many more searches for early stage educational needs, but on the other hand the money is in the late-stage, transactional I-am-ready-to-buy searches. This is as true on social media as it is on search.
The volume (quantity) is in the educational stuff but the value (quality) is in the I-am-ready-to-buy transactional stuff.
The paradox is that content marketing asks us to produce quality content that addresses the educational needs of the early stage. Yet, at that stage a) the customer wants objective, impartial information (not just about us, but about all competitive choices) and b) he or she isn’t really ready to buy. So we’re doing a lot of work to produce early stage content, content that might even help our competitors, yet the leads or sales we snag are few and far between.
Yikes! The paradox and pitfall here is if you create a lot of early stage educational content, you might have a lot of satisfied readers (or viewers on YouTube) but they aren’t necessarily going to become buyers. All your hard work for little or nothing!
Takeaway. Look for “sweet spots” where your content is educational enough to attract potential customers yet transactional enough to be able to convert them to genuine sales leads or even initial sales. (Easier said than done… I know).
Paradox No. 5: Production vs. Promotion
“Build a better mousetrap and the world will build a road to your door,” or if you’re a Kevin Costner fan, “Build it and they will come.”
Much of the hype of content marketing has at its foundation this fallacy. Write it, and they’ll find it.
We’d never tell the production department at our company that producing a good product is sufficient, would we? After all, our job at marketers exists because simply producing things is not good enough to sell things.
So why in the heck when it comes to Content Marketing would we be so stupid as to believe that simply writing great content will be sufficient for it to be found and consumed?
That might have been true in the less cluttered world of 1999, but not in today’s 2015 world of SEO post-Panda, and post-Penguin and Social Media post Facebook’s algorithm updates that all but destroyed organic reach.
You gotta not only write great content, you gotta promote it.
But most of us are spending 80% of our blood, sweat, tears, and dollars on the production of content and less than 20% (a good deal less than 20%) on promotion.
It’s a pitfall of CM: just produce it, and it will be found.
Nope, not so, not true.
The reality is that you probably need to spend something like 50% or even 60% of your budget on promotion because promoting your content (via SEO, via traditional PR outreach, via influencer marketing, and (gasp!) via advertising) can be more important than producing it. It’s not always the best content that wins: it’s the findable content.
Takeaway. Convince your boss (or whoever controls your budget) to think differently about production and promotion. You gotta produce, and you gotta promote.
Paradox No. 6: the Tragedy of Discovery
If you’re a fisherman or a fisherwoman, you’ve probably had a favorite fishing hole. And if you’re competitive, you’ve probably not shared that favorite fishing hole with your buddies. You kept it a secret, didn’t you?
Why? Because once the fishing hole is discovered, it gets overfished. And it loses its utility to you.
Content Marketing, like AdWords, the Google Display Network, SEO tactics like press releases, or Facebook organic reach are all like favorite fishing holes. Once discovered by everyone, they provoke a counter-reaction by the provider and/or they get overfished and lose their utility.
When new they work. When discovered they don’t (or become a heckuva lot harder).
Content Marketing is at that inflection point. Everyone is discovering it. Everyone is beginning to use it, and the smart people are discovering the nexus between just authentic enough and just salesy enough to work (and that includes paying influencers to endorse products). The tragedy is that Content Marketing, a tactic that works pretty well now, is quickly being discovered and won’t work well forever. Or it will get harder.
This is even more true for CM mechanisms of promotion such as influencer marketing, native advertising, infeed units, and recommendation widgets. They are all being quickly discovered and overutilized.
If you don’t do Content Marketing soon, don’t access these new promotion mechanisms soon, you’ll miss the boat.
And so, we’ve come to the last paradox: the tragedy of discovery. Unless you get on the Content Marketing bandwagon soon, by the time you join it, it will be too late.
Takeaway. Content Marketing is the new new thing. Learn it and do it quickly.
The next new new thing? How the heck should I know?
Learn more about Jason McDonald, or subscribe to “free stuff” on SEO, Social Media, and AdWords at https://jm-seo.org/free.