The Big Content Marketing Fail: How Much Content Do You Need?

How much content do you really needThis blog post tells some personal stories and takes you a bit back in time. In case you don’t feel like fully reading it, prefer the rules of short copy and want to read the conclusions first then this is for you: we are massively killing content marketing and are making the same old mistakes we always have. So, if you care about your budget and your customers read this.

In 2001, I acted as the administrator of a small company , called WebWare. It was acquired by my then employer and basically had a local portal, a good e-newsletter and some content in its portfolio. My employer and the original founders of the company, who still had a stake in it, asked me to come up with a plan. I was active in media, online publishing and digital marketing strategies at that time and didn’t have to think long about the way forward of that small business. I had them redesign the logo so the first ‘W’ looked like a crown and the baseline simply became ‘content is king’. We would specialize ourselves in online content (no one used the umbrella term content marketing yet).

Content is still the ugly duckling – especially good content

Looking back at it, the whole idea of ‘content is king’ of course was stupid but as always you have to see things in perspective. In those days digital marketing was basically about building websites, sending emails, measuring what happened and of course search and display advertising. However, everyone overlooked content.

I was obsessed with content since long before. Not for the sake of it but because I discovered what it could do if you looked at what people want and seek, even in the most complex go-to-market scenarios: helping resellers sell using the right (back then printed) content. And it always killed me to see that businesses and large organizations often spent millions to build heavy websites with the latest state-of-the-art technology while forgetting to take into account what – prospective – customers were looking for and what they wanted to read or find on those websites. The whole process was upside-down and budgets to make websites (and the access to the content they contained) user-friendly, relevant and efficient were close to zero. In fact, they still are close to zero, obsessed as we are by reach.

Of course content is not king. But we needed to make a clear statement: ‘stop making websites no one will ever visit as you don’t give a damn about your potential customers’. In fact, I could shout similar things today: ‘don’t think that putting some high-profile mavens after a password-protected blog equals community marketing’. I don’t even want to talk about who or what is king. If you don’t know by now that marketing is about finding the best route between customer needs/preferences and revenue, you really should consider a career move. This simple fact hasn’t changed. Only the mix of touchpoints and channels, buying behavior and the steps from needs and preferences to conversions are continuously changing. Now we have to include factors such as social, mobile, etc.

But deep down nothing has changed. And sometimes I wonder if I should laugh or cry to see that all of the sudden social media pundits are becoming content marketing advocates and discovering good old marketing stuff such as conversion and touchpoints or contact moments. Some just don’t call it conversion but stick a very expensive fluffy label on it. And some present it to the world as the next big thing. ‘Look at what I came up with: social and conversion’ (applause). Yet, let’s be positive: finally they start to understand that marketing has something to do with integration and customer-centricity. Hurray.

From content marketing to marketing content

Still reading? OK, here comes the main course. In 2009/2010 I interviewed and met Joe Pulizzi (wonder what you think about this post, Joe) and the year after that I was happy to help him carry out the message called content marketing, as an editor of the European version of Chief Content Officer, the publication of Joe’s Content Marketing Institute. Joe knew what he was talking about and he still does. The importance of content WITH THE CUSTOMER AND REVENUE IN MIND and within the context of individuals and cross-channel touch points was loud, clear and obvious.

Content was still treated as an ugly duckling because the bottom-line and needs of customers just didn’t get into the thick heads of many marketers thinking about new strategies in ivory tower board rooms. In fact, content is still treated as an ugly duckling. Have you seen how companies writing mediocre content for a few dimes and with nearly no understanding of the businesses they are hired by (and thus also the customers of these businesses) are popping up? Have you noticed how all the sudden your company is getting a nifty social media software or an advanced marketing automation software that sits there and is utterly underused because no one has considered the content needs? You know what I am talking about and you know it’s true.

It gets worse. The attention for content marketing has exploded. It’s at least as hot an umbrella term as social media marketing (and now that HubSpot offers email features, inbound marketing will fade away soon).  What’s the result of that explosion besides the fact that the value of good content is underrated and underpaid (in case you doubt: good means efficient and relevant)? That we are living in a nightmare whereby we have started marketing content instead of using content for marketing.

The price of the success of content marketing

You want to know some of the consequences? Here you go:

  • Buyers are drowning in a tsunami of stupid, irrelevant and totally unoriginal content. Moreover, they keep getting it in the same old boring formats they don’t want anymore and have to do the same old things to get access to it. The least we can do is respect the intelligence of people, be that tidy bit creative and make clear what we have to offer. I guess it depends on the industry as well but from where I stand I see a lot of crap that is written purely from a sharing and SEO perspective and far away from the content buyers want.
  • You have to be a rocket scientist to find a decent piece of informational content and isn’t just a repetition of the same crap you’ve read elsewhere twenty times. Do the test. Try to find something really relevant and intelligent about any marketing topic. It’s a swamp of tips, tricks and the same tips and tricks (and other nonsense). Disclaimer: this in no way means I consider my blog posts to be better: you still decide.
  • We get swamped by often useless and boring visual ‘creations’ that work because we live in a ‘snack culture’ and are told visual content works. Infographics that are hiding facts and showing what their creators want to show, anyone? Of course, visual works. And so do words. But who do you want it to work for? And what do you stand for? We can adopt numerous more content marketing ‘formats’ and ‘techniques’ but can we start with what matters fo customers and business goals first instead of repurposing like maniacs or innovating just for the sake of it (unless innovation is what you sell maybe)?
  • Our inboxes are bursting with invitations for webinars, new eBooks and absolutely crappy documents. The more we get them, the less we want them. Especially as they all look the same. And if we dare registering for one, someone at the other side mistakes our interest in the content with us being a sales-ready lead (phone call coming….). I guess that if this happens in our industry, it will happen in other (B2B) markets as well.
  • Every single social channel that used be fun at some point is rapidly overwhelmed by stinking repetitive content, adapted to the channel and format, but utterly ruining all the fun (Instagram, Pinterest?). We broadcast all the time until it becomes boring.

Is this always the case? No. Am I thinking a bit black and white? Yes. True, some smart marketers look at their customers and touchpoints first and then start asking what content is needed to get from A to B (yes, to get there, these days we often need to pass by C, D and E as well). However, most are just fighting over the mass, popularity and reach mania. So I reserve myself the right to shout we are increasingly doing it wrong just as in 2001 I shouted that content is king.

My content marketing prediction 2013: many content formats will lose their credibility

Of course you want to ‘be found’ but here is my prediction: if we continue like this the value of several content marketing ‘formats’ or content sources will take a deep dive in the list of what and who buyers trust during their buying journey. Forget the create and share mentality for a while and do me one favor.

Just ask yourself what content you need. Don’t know?

So what is the content you need?

  • First of all the content you need to be relevant for your customers, generate revenue and keep your customers (before we even start talking advocacy).
  • What your customer wants to know to make an informed decision and assist him in taking this decision (make it easy).
  • The content the customer needs to fulfil his goals and you need for your most important business goals before, during and after the buy (touchpoints!).
  • What helps you voice your story in an authentic way towards your – prospective – customer’s circles of trust (OK, you can use words such as influence and whatever leadership here, for once, although I prefer advisorship and credibility).
  • The content you need for other personas and people that do not enter directly in a pure commercial relationship with your business such as media, partners, investors, etc.
  • Content for other marketing purposes such as moving from customers to loyal customers, customer service, branding (yes, that matters) and beyond.

It should be so obvious that we don’t focus on the creation and distribution of content the way we do today with an increasing focus on ‘mass’ and the marketing of the content as such. And it should be equally obvious that the content we do need has to be so much more than the mediocre and cheap stuff we often serve.

I bet that a large percentage of the content you create makes no sense at all when you honestly ask yourself these questions. And I bet that you miss a large percentage of the content you(r) customers look for across the key touchpoints.

As always, feel free to comment.

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  • Tom De Baere

    Great article JP. I feel just the same as you do. Although the massive amount of ‘how to’ content is usefull for some, it only touches upon the mechanics of how to run your marketing. What you describe very well in this post is what really matters : being relevant to your customers and to your business, through content they need to improve their business.

    I have found that the basic step to do that, is to have a structured process to listen to your customers (business) issues across the complete life cycle of your customers,, link those issues to your business strategy, think about the answers you can give them, and then provide the answers in the formats they prefer.

    Thank you again for this great article ! I hope Joe will read it ;-)

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  • J-P De Clerck

    Thanks Tom. And look what I just found in my inbox as if I got the ad to make my point: – it looks like the era of instant fabrication and vomiting content all over the place. It’s still all about ads. Only now we call them social.

    From their homepage: “Pinable Ads help you gain visibility for your brand’s Pinterest content. We promote your Pinterest profile through our network of thousands of blogs, helping your gain additional exposure outside of your existing social network. Pinable Ads automagically updates the content of your ad every time you post. We track views, clicks to your website and shares on Pinterest. Relax… all you have to do is keep posting awesome content”.

    • AJ Ghergich

      Yep I just got the same exact email. People need to stop all this crap and actually produce something of value. Now there is no harm in promoting something you make that is of great value but I think programs like this server to prop up crappy content, not promote great pieces.

      • J-P De Clerck

        I couldn’t agree more. Purpose before promotion. Where’s the content, where’s the customer in the equation? It’s back to good old “what we know”.

    • Chuck Kent

      “Pinable Ads automagically updates the content…” Wow. Automagically. Glad to see copywriters from the 1950s can still get work. :) Oh, and keep up the good ranting.

      • J-P De Clerck

        Thanks Chuck. But try to be constructive now and then as well. Or are rants constructive? Maybe food for some content ;)

        • Chuck Kent

          Well-thought-out rants can be challenging, constructive and highly productive. I don’t mean mere venting or complaining, I mean instructive, informative, shock-people-awake presentations. Social media and content marketing, intertwined worlds to which I am new, already seem as clubby and parochial as any of the traditional marketing silos. So rant on, and encourage others to (judiciously) do it as well as you do.

  • Damian Thompson

    But JP,

    Pinable offers me “My Bliss” and they are the “leader in social media sponsorships”, whatever that means.

    I am a HUGE believer in the power of content, hell I started a boutique content marketing agency. BUT I worry that the snake-oil salesmen are bleeding from Social Media Consulting into Content Marketing Consulting in ever increasing numbers.

    I think the key is more than just listening to your customers, but asking them the TOUGH questions…

    – Who is their real target market?
    – What pain/problem do you truly solve?
    – Do you have anything interesting to say?

    If you can’t answer these questions in a positive manner all of the “21 ways to XYZ” and the “Secrets of ABC” blogposts aren’t going to help you one bit.

    • J-P De Clerck

      Damian, you say what I didn’t want to say as then it would be more than a rant. I indeed see many social media folks move towards the areas of content, conversion and customer-centricity while they often don’t get what it’s about and have no deeper understanding of the questions you really NEED to ask such as the ones you DO ask. That’s the start. There is more. There is branding. There are channels. There is promotion. But now it’s upside-down. They are not all like that. I don’t generalize. But you are right. Finally, we start getting (back) to a more integrated, channel-agnostic and customer-centric view and what do we do? Instead of looking at channels as we did (and still do) all the time (76 tips to use Instagram to whatnot) we know mostly look at the content as such that needs to be sent and shared all over the place. Where is the customer? The ROI? The big picture? “Coming up: 55 ways to xyz” or “How to spread your content via social?” ;)

  • Kristin Zhivago

    Great piece, JP. It reminds me of a story told about Howard Gossage, a brilliant copywriter guy and speaker from back in the day who hated ordinary advertising. He got off a train in farm country with other people, including a woman who commented on the incredible smell from the fertilizer (manure). He told her that the problem with manure is not the manure itself, but the quantity that they tend to use – and went on, in his speeches, to compare that to advertising. In other words, it really starts to stink where there is too much of it. Every medium ever invented becomes too saturated; if everyone only did what their customers really wanted/needed them to do, we could seriously reduce the “stink” problem.

    Anyway, great article.


    • J-P De Clerck

      As usual much appreciated smart words Kristin. Thank you for them. At first, after writing it, I wanted to trash the post as I tend to do when it smells like a rant. Looking at the people who tweeted and shared it and your comment I’m glad I didn’t. Not because of the appreciation but because of the fact it lives and maybe it will be a drop on a hot stove. Love. J-P.

  • Robin Sherman (@Edit_Design)

    The questions to ask:
    How can I make more money? Show me step-by-step.
    How can I save money? Show me step-by-step.
    How can I work more efficiently? Show me step-by-step.
    How can I increase the quality of my product or service? Show me step-by-step.

    What else is there?

    • J-P De Clerck

      True. Maybe: How can I stop p****ng my customers off, ;)

  • Trish Jones

    JP, I learnt about building a business using content via Ken Evoy of SiteSell back in 2002 and I remember a lot of the guru marketers criticising things like “sticky content,” at the time because you just have to go for the conversion. I do have a number of concerns about content marketing (it didn’t have a name when I started doing it back in 2002), one of them is that most of the decent content marketing strategies are geared towards companies and not for the ONtrepreneur (online marketer) and therefore issue number two is that these ONtrepreneurs are learning so called content marketing from those who still have a culture of just make the sale!

    I’m personally putting together a guide for the Solopreneur on how to market with content because I believe there is a disparity between what can be done when you have a team with a bigger budget but what equally needs to be done (but in a different way) when someone is starting out as just one.

    OUr industry is suffering because it’s the same people voicing their opinion of what content marketing should look like, but they attract those that NEED to make money quick and so the “Loudmouths” give them what they think they’re looking for … quick ways to make quick bucks. And it’s got to stop!

    • J-P De Clerck

      I think one of the problems is that you have some clash between traditionally dialog and response-driven marketers (what we used to call below the line) and the more ‘above the line’ specialists. Add to that an army of bloggers and copywriters and nothing makes sense anymore as no one looks at the bigger picture.

  • Sam Reynolds

    Though your piece does come across as a bit of a “rant”, I agree that the concept of “content strategy” is overused, if not blatantly misused. Content for contents sake is not only ineffective, but may actually hinder a customers ability to find what they need, be it a product or a service. Lately, I’ve been seeing a trend towards more is more, where very little thought is given to how content will be generated/maintained or how it ties into sales and/or increased revenue. When it comes to supplemental content I think less is more, where small, well-crafted content chunks, released at an easy pace across the right channels will reap the highest rewards. Customers/Followers should be eagerly awaiting the next installment not fearing the inevitable deluge of information. It seems were good a creating large volumes of content, now we have to work on the “strategic” part.

    • J-P De Clerck

      Thanks, it is indeed a bit of a rant. Nothing wrong with that ;) I think the part on how it ties into sales and revenue (but also service and much more) is crucial indeed. Smart thinking and planning should indeed make it easy for people to find the information they need fast and thus try to avoid clutter. About the ‘releasing at an easy pace across the right channels': yes and no (my 2 cents). I think releasing at our pace is a publishing model. Of course we have campaigns to do (new product launches, promotions, whatever,…) and if we define content in a very broad way, we need to communicate it, right? But I think we shouldn’t overdo it. Especially in B2B for me it’s the customer/buyer that decides on the pace and the when. His actions and signals are triggers. With the increasing use of personalization across channels this starts to happen in B2C as well. So, it’s a mix really. Thanks.

  • James Devin

    “We broadcast all the time until it becomes boring.”

    Amen brother!

    • J-P De Clerck

      Amen indeed!

  • Ryan Skinner

    Even if I’m not sure whether my post about the cutting edge of content marketing was cited as a good thing or bad thing (I’m sensing the latter), I empathize with your viewpoints. There’s a real danger that content and market never meet in any valuable way in many content marketing scenarios.

    Much of my desire to survey new formats of telling a story is simply to identify better ways to communicate to a market. Recording a podcasted interview with an expert in my field seems like a much more valuable thing to an audience than a classic Q&A blog post. Interactive infographics allow users to drill into information, or query it based on their own interests. That’s got to be a good thing.

    But, as you say, if real utility and the interests of customers don’t lie at the heart of your work, then what you’re making (perhaps interesting, perhaps not) is not serving the company that’s driving it.

    • J-P De Clerck

      Hey, Ryan, I liked your post. It’s good to come up with new ways of using content and “serving” it to people in a way they like and that makes their life/experience/task/goal easier and more fun. I love what you do. Time will tell what works. And your conclusion is mine too ;)

  • Brigitte

    Grappig, lijkt wel alsof je in mijn Evernote bij mijn bedenkingen rond content marketing bent gaan spieken. Je bedenkingen omtrent marketing content en vertrekken vanuit de touchpoints van de prospect/klant in het bijzonder. In other words: fully agree!

    • J-P De Clerck

      Die Evernote wil ik wel eens zien. Wie weet geeft hij nog meer ideeën ;) Bedankt voor de comment.

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