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The Contrarian Guide to Content Marketing Part I

Posted by Sean Carton | April 28, 2015 | 8:53am

One of the things that the digital marketing industry’s great at is taking old ideas and renaming them so that they seem hip and new. Think that “social media” is new? Folks who lived in the San Francisco Bay Area were posting messages back and forth to each other on the Community Memory system…in 1973. Still trying to wrap your head around email marketing? The first use of electronic communication to send messages advertising a service occurred in 1864 when a dentist in England thought it’d be a good idea to send a mass telegram to politicians advertising his services. Are your designers still trying to figure out how to create effective banner ads? AT&T placed the first banner ad on Wired magazine’s HotWired site back in 1994…more than 20 years ago!

So when we encounter the hype around “content marketing,” many of us who’ve been around the online block more than a few times over the years tend to jadedly roll our eyes. After all, the Ancient Roman government used newsletter-like bulletins posted around cities as a way of communicating with their subjects. Heck, even if you want to strictly-limit your definition of “branded content” to “content being used to market a company’s products and services through mass-produced printed materials,” all you have to do is check out tractor manufacturer John Deere’s The Furrow to see an example of “content marketing” that’s over 100 years old.

But just because the ideas aren’t new doesn’t mean that they’re not still useful. What we call “social media” may not be an entirely new idea, but today’s social media connects close to 2 billion people around the world, making it an incredibly powerful channel for reaching your prospects and customers. While the entire “email marketing” (OK, telegraph) marketing industry may have consisted of only one pioneering dentist back in 1864, today 73% of marketers report that email marketing is “core to their business.” And banner ads have arguably come a long, long way since the first one asked us the radical question “have you ever clicked your mouse right here?”

Content marketing is no different.

Today, 79% of marketers report that they’re using (or moving towards) content marketing as a regular part of their marketing mix.

While B2B marketers are often seen as lagging behind their B2C colleagues, a survey from the Content Marketing Institute found that 91% of B2B marketers are using branded content. Across all sectors, 78% of CMOs surveyed expressed the belief that “custom content” represents “the future of marketing.”

Why so much interest? Simple: it works! Leads generated by organic search (one of the prime benefits of content marketing) have been shown to generate a close rate nearly 15 times higher than other outbound sourced leads. Content marketing taps into the consumer purchasing decision early, long before they’re even thinking about talking to a sales person, boosting the likelihood that brands using content marketing are more likely to “make the list” than brands that aren’t. And in a world where consumers are increasingly distrustful of news media as sources of information, a recent study of consumer trust found that corporate content is one of the most trusted sources of information.

But just because content marketing can be an effective tool in your marketing mix doesn’t mean that you can just slap up some “content” and ride off into the sunset secure in the knowledge that you’ve become a bona fide “content marketer.” Like all marketing tactics, content marketing won’t do anything for your brand if it’s not implemented strategically. The web is littered with “viral” videos that weren’t, and there probably isn’t a single person reading this that hasn’t encountered more than their fair share of ghost blogs, dead Twitter feeds, and zombie Facebook pages last updated sometime during the first Bush administration. While it’s impossible to guarantee that your content marketing process will be effective, it’s a sure bet that a content marketing process without a strategy behind it won’t be.

 

Why You Shouldn’t Do Content Marketing

So…are you ready to get started with content marketing? If so, hold on! Let’s think about this a minute. We didn’t call this “The Contrarian Guide to Content Marketing Strategy” for nothing!

Why “contrarian?” Partially we consider ourselves contrarians because, as we pointed out, “content marketing” isn’t something new. We’ve been around the block before. We can’t help buck the trend that buzzword-izes old ideas. Buzzwords make us grumpy, and our grumpiness can lead us to being a bit contrary. But besides our personality problems, the other reason that we tend to be contrarians is because we have found that going against the grain works. Not only does it help us keep the kind of fresh perspective that leads to fresh ideas, but we also believe that it helps us help our clients generate fresh ideas of their own.

While it might seem counterintuitive, taking a contrarian point of view often leads to better ideas because it helps remove the fear that people have of being wrong.

While many people can feel intimidated in a “brainstorming” meeting because they don’t think that their ideas are good enough, one thing that we’ve noticed (and you probably have, too) is that people rarely have a problem pointing out problems when given the chance. Giving birth to new ideas can cause a lot of anxiety, but shooting down ideas is like –sorry, gotta say it—like shooting fish in a barrel…with a bazooka.

So if we’re going to take the contrarian viewpoint here, we should probably start at the beginning and look at the reasons why you shouldn’t get into content marketing:

  1. It’s a lot of work. In our many years of working in the world of digital communication, one thing we can say with absolute certainty is that nobody ever expects how much work it takes to do content marketing well. Even if you just stick to text-based content, expect to spend between 2-5 hours per 350 word web “page”. Double that if you have to do a lot of research. And 350 words is a pretty short blog post…many experts suggest that blog posts come in at around 1,600 words (under 5 or 6 minutes of reading time). Even if you’re just sticking to Facebook (about 40 characters) or Twitter (ideal length: 71-100 characters), you’re still talking about a substantial amount of time. And that’s just writing: when you include uploading your content into a CMS, promoting your content, responding to comments, etc., it’s not hard to see that the time really ads up. If you’re not prepared to spend the time, don’t do content marketing.
  2. It requires skills that you might not have or don’t want to pay for. Let’s face it: not everyone’s a writer. In fact, according to the National Center for Education Statistics, only about one quarter of high school graduates these days write at the “proficient” or “advanced” level, with most performing at the “basic” or “below basic” levels. Forget about ideas and style…most people can only write at the most basic level!

Of course, not everyone needs to be a writer. Plenty of smart folks are geniuses when it comes to their particular jobs but aren’t very good writers. It’s entirely possible to be a great engineer, mathematician, or computer scientist and suck at writing, just as its possible to be a great writer who can barely figure out how to pop popcorn in a microwave. People have different skill sets. However, just as those of us who barely made it past pre-Calculus in college should have enough sense not to volunteer to design bridges, those who struggle with writing should stay away from writing content to promote their businesses and hire someone who can. If you can’t do it or aren’t willing to pay for it, don’t do it at all.

  1. It requires a sustained, consistent effort. Once you post that first blog post, Facebook update, or tweet, you’re making a commitment to your readers that you’re going to keep going unless you’ve stated otherwise from the start. People expect content on a regular basis and, in the case of the more “immediate” forms of content (blog posts, Facebook updates, tweets, etc.), expect it around once a day if not more. The web is littered with the remains of blogs, Facebook pages, and Twitter feeds that have gone dormant (permanently, in most cases) once their creators realized that they didn’t have the time and/or energy to feed the beast on a regular basis. Worse yet, while you may have a perfectly legitimate reason for letting your regular postings die down, your readers don’t care: to them it just screams that you don’t care about your business. And who wants to do business with someone who doesn’t care?
  2. Its impact can be hard to measure. While it may be easy to toss off enough stats about the benefits of content marketing to sell the idea to the big wigs, it’s often a lot tougher to continue to justify it once they start coming around asking you questions about “ROI” or even question your “KPIs.” One of the greatest benefits of online marketing is its immediacy: send out an email or buy some Google keywords and you’ll know if what you did “works” (at least from the standpoint of direct response metrics) pretty quickly. But content marketing is a long play. It takes time to establish thought leadership or build awareness. Sure, you can measure downloads or pageviews or retweets right away, but that’s not what you’re doing it for: if you’re doing it right it’s because you want to drive numbers like sales, market share, or awareness. It is possible to link your content marketing efforts to those numbers, but it’s often not easy to make the case, especially on a short-term basis.
  3. It can be hard on the ego. Marketing and advertising are typically team sports. A lot of people are involved developing the campaign strategy, creating the ads, designing them, producing them, and getting them out into the media. But if you’re the one writing the content that you’re using in your content marketing program, you’re pretty much putting yourself out there on the front lines. Hopefully you won’t get shot, but it often takes a pretty resilient ego to be able to withstand the slings and arrows of outrageous commenters. Just check out the comments on YouTube some time if you doubt that the Web can be a pretty nasty place.
  4. It may not be a strategic fit for your organization and/or your audience may just not care. Companies ranging from sandwich shops to multinational tech companies have all run highly successful marketing campaigns, but that doesn’t mean it’s right for every company. Unless you (or someone at your organization) are extremely creative, if you’re in a commodity business, a business that fills an extremely small niche, or a necessary (but – let’s face it—boring) business, your target audiences might just not care about the content you put out there. After all, who hasn’t seen a local liquor store, hair salon, or used car dealership with a sign that says “follow us on Twitter” and wondered “why?”

 

If you’re still with us after those objections, content marketing might be right for your organization. But how do you get started? One word: strategy.

Keep reading… The Contrarian Guide to Content Marketing – Part II

 

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