Updated: February 2023
Years ago, Rand Fishkin addressed what was referred to as the “The Greatest Lie Content Marketing Ever Told”: The belief, held by many who dive into content marketing, that publishing content will quickly result in traffic to their website and/or conversions for their business. Those of us who’ve worked in content strategy and content marketing for any amount of time know this line of thinking very well, for it’s one we encounter often with prospects and clients.
Even today, however, I see this is still prevalent among brands large and small and remains one of the most persistent content marketing problems.
One of the most destructive mindsets in content marketing
Spend as much time as I do reading blogs, listening to webinars or perusing branded content, and it quickly hits you that brands are placing a great deal of emphasis on what producing content can and should do for their businesses.
- Attract and retain customers
- Drive user engagement
- Lower the costs of and barriers to conversions
Sounds reasonable, right?
Things go haywire, however, when there is too much emphasis on the production of content and not enough emphasis on content strategy, which helps determine what content is needed and most valuable for a brand. I’m convinced this is why we see far more talk about content promotion, content amplification, content frequency, content freshness, content recency, content outreach, etc. Marketers are far more comfortable—too comfortable, in fact—with the doing without ensuring what they create has value to the brand of the customer.
We need to start with why: “Why are we doing this?” is the ideal place to begin.
The absence of this line of thinking is ruining content marketing.
To my mind, the image below, borrowed from Wil Reynolds’ Mozcon 2014 presentation, says it all:
Apparently, this is a minority opinion, for when I look around the web, I see a lot of “What should we be doing?” instead. So when we share with brand executives that they need to get into content marketing to grow their businesses and extend reach beyond what traditional ads have done for them in the past, the first questions they typically ask are “What content should we create?” “When do we start?” and “Where should we publish/post?”
For any brand looking to get started in the content game, these are the wrong questions. They are simply the ones we, as marketers, have trained them to ask. One of the first questions brand executives should be asking is “How do I get my business ready for content marketing?”
Believe me, I understand that few us wants this to be the starting point for our content marketing efforts. Certainly not the executives at the brands eager to dive into the fray after seeing competitors enjoy success. And marketers, too, are eager to get their content creation/content promotion/content amplification fix on.
But let’s be honest. You’ve no doubt peeked under the content hoods of dozens and dozens of brands. Can you honestly say they’re ready to jump into content production? If your experiences mirror mine, you’ve viewed many instances of how doing content has created far more problems than it’s solved. It’s evident that a whole lot of “what,” “who,” “how” and “when” went into the process, but there’s little “why” to speak of.
That’s because the strategy behind the creation of the content was largely (if not entirely) ignored.
Content that lack direction does brands more harm than good.
Think about it. When we sit down with directors, vice presidents, CMOs and CEOs who’re looking to begin the content marketing journey, the information typically shared with us is almost always sad:
- Poorly designed websites loaded with keyword-bloated copy
- Technical SEO issues that’ll require months to fix
- Content assets that cost tens of thousands of dollars, but no one outside the company has ever viewed them and few inside the company know where the materials are housed
- Inconsistent brand messaging
- Staff, already stretched too thin, being asked to deliver on the content marketing mandate from the C-Suite
After taking this mess in, how can we, in good conscience, recommend the creation of even more content, even if it is better targeted, matched to personas and in line with the company’s larger goals?
Instead of a content marketing strategy, many brands are in need of a No Creation of Content strategy. “How about we NOT create content for the time being,” were my words to the CEO of a $20 million company. “What do you mean,” asked his CMO, who’d called into the conference room and was listening in via speakerphone. “If you–. Aren’t you here to sell us on content marketing? If not, I’d like to know what else…you have to sell?”
After making her aware I was there at the behest of the CEO, who I knew through a mutual friend, I explained that creating more content wasn’t a good idea. Developing an overarching strategy for the brand was the first step, and in so doing we could assess the current crop of content, seeing if it fits with where the brand is headed, in addition to slowly beginning the process of fixing onsite issues while deciding what additional content should be created.
“You don’t need more content right this second,” I said. “We must first make sure the content you currently have is doing what it’s supposed to do.”
This is an approach I’ve adopted, and one I won’t let go of. It’s akin to the bromide erroneously attributed to the Hippocratic Oath, but for content: “First, do no harm.” Is it an easy sell? Hell no. But if you believe in the work that you do, and you desire to hold on to more of the work that you begin, strategy, not content creation, has to take the lead. Clients get that. I’m hoping marketers and strategists do the same.
Commit to the heavy lifting of content marketing first
Strategy takes time and does pull us away from the sexy work of creating ebooks, segmenting emails, divining amazing graphics, and writing blogs to our heart’s content. But doing the sexy before the necessary is dangerous. In 2009, when I made a commitment to eat better and get back into “college shape,” I sought out the best trainers in the world, via the web, then hired a genius of a strength coach, Eric Cressey, while frequently picking the brains of nutritionists from around the country.
What I came to love about Cressey was his focus on strength as the base for fitness goals and overall health. Want to look better? Be more athletic? Move better? Feel better?
- Do your foam rolling
- Commit to a proper warm up
- Lift heavy weights
- Address your weaknesses
- Eat sufficient amounts of lean protein and a lot leafy veggies
- Drink plenty of water
- Get sufficient sleep
- Take fish oil
But I want bulging biceps, beefy pecs, and tree trunk legs, most guys say. “Commit to getting stronger,” Cressey said, “and the other stuff takes care of itself.” Getting strong isn’t the popular choice, but it works. Most importantly, no matter what your goals are (a) it promotes health and (b) places every lifter closer to their goals. I see content strategy in much the same way.
When I share with brands that they must commit to content strategy to ensure the long-term success of their brand, I get lots of wide eyes and some “Hmms.” But when I explain how it’ll save the brand from some of the past heartaches, they’re all ears. The skeptical CMO I mentioned above was excited to hear how content strategy aligned the content creation process with their business’s overall goals, which made it much, much easier to sell the company on the need for a content strategy roadmap:
- Content audit
- Audience assessment
- Competitive assessment/keyword analysis
- Blog analysis
- Editorial calendar
By the end of the two-hour meeting, she was asking the question I have yet to find an answer for: “Why would [anyone] start down the [path] of content marketing without first having a plan in place to guide them?”
Beats me… Beats me.
This is spot on Ronell. Great post!
I think the challenge is that a lot of clients understand their own stories so well (or think they do) that they assume their marketers should as well. When you’re in-house, I definitely see where this could be a reality but if you’re an external resource – strategy discussion and/or development NEEDS to happen.
You’re also right that the strategy is not an easy sale item. I’ve lost clients for making it a requirement but I’ve also gained the respect of existing clients because of it. For me, I find the analogy surrounding the concept of building a house as a good way to position it. Would you build a house without seeing the property? Would you be able to recommend the square footage without knowing the landscape? Would you recommend three floors without knowing if there could be a basement? Likely, the answer is no… And similar to an architect or a home builder, marketers must stick by their guns in knowing that we cannot serve our clients best without having a lay of the land.
Great post Ronell – You always seem to cover the topics this industry needs to read!