Content Marketing slides into the Trough of Disillusionment

I just got back from Content Marketing World, our discipline’s annual pilgrimage to Cleveland, Ohio.

I usually do a kind of random, listy round-up of things I took away from the show. No one person could actually summarize the whole event – there are as many Content Marketing World experiences as there are visitors – but in past years, I always enjoyed trying to capture the spirit. (Here’s my CMWorld 2014 roundup and here’s the post about 2013 event. But why the hell would you want to read these in 2015?)

This time I want to talk about one single slide.

(A more impressionistic summary is at the end of this post)

Content Marketing and the Hype Curve

In Joe’s introduction to the event, he put up a picture of the Gartner Hype Cycle, a portrayal of the adoption curve that’s followed by pretty much every successful, disruptive technology.

The generic curve looks like this:

The idea is simple but powerful — and it’s true enough to have stood the test of many, many new technologies on their way to going mainstream. It depicts the four stages of a market’s adoption of new tech, giving each of them a Lord-of-the Rings-type name:

The Peak of Inflated Expectations
When the hype far out-strips the reality and the bandwagon turns into a juggernaut.

The Trough of Disillusionment
When all the people who tried the shiny new thing realize that it’s actually more like a pair of pliers than The Sword of Gorb (or whatever the hell Tolkien was on about).

The Slope of Enlightenment
When people start getting over their disappointment, putting the new thing to work… and getting results.

The Plateau of Productivity
When the thing has gone mainstream – and the world is a better place for it – but it’s now just how you do business. (I picture Bilbo Baggins dragging his furry ass along a tundra, but whatever image works for you).

So Joe puts the curve up there – and then he puts an (orange) dot where he thinks content marketing sits on the curve right now… and I was surprised.

He put us here (he didn’t label his dot, so I took the liberty):

Content Marketing hits the Orange Dot of ‘Oh shit’.

I wasn’t surprised about where the orange dot was – it’s pretty much exactly where I’d put it.

What surprised me was that it was Joe who called it.

Joe is the pope, poster boy and head cheerleader of content marketing. He’s spent the last 5 years midwifing this sucker into the world.

And, to many in the audience, it probably looked like he was saying it has ‘passed peak’.

And he was – in a way. But the peak that we’ve just passed is not the peak of attainment or the peak of effectiveness.  It’s the peak of hype and hyperbole. Of over-claim. Of illusion.

And even though being ‘disillusioned’ sounds like a bad thing, it is, of course a good one: illusions are destructive strategic inputs. Illusions distort. They seduce our ships on to the rocks. Illusions lie.

So getting over the Peak of Disillusionment is really getting over ourselves and realizing that content marketing is not a magic wand but a rich, difficult, complex discipline that only works if it’s combined with the right people and processes – and guided by the right strategy. (I made that orange in Joe’s honour).

A well-worn path

All big new technologies and many non-tech ideas follow the Hype Cycle pattern eerily closely. So if we want to see where Content Marketing is going, we’ve got a road map.

Take CRM (and substitute ‘Content Marketing’ every time I use it).

CRM quickly became the hottest thing in sales & marketing. Everyone had to have it and they had to have it now. (The Peak).

Then companies started deploying it and realized that CRM is way more than a piece of software. It’s a new way of working. And new ways of working involve culture change and process change and people leaving and new people coming in.

And as these early CRM adopters hit the struggles, they reported back to the market, “This stuff doesn’t work! It just sits there! It’s not managing customer relationships at all! The vendors lied!”

Then the herd went into reverse. CRM budgets tightened up. Vendors started renaming what they did to avoid the term CRM. The market had hit the bottom of the Trough.

Meanwhile, a few user companies had started to figure it out. And more and more followed. And the results started coming in. The benefits. The ones who used it well really did see more control of the sales cycle. More accountability. Better alignment between marketing and sales.

As the market for it climbed out of the Trough and started up the less-steep Slope of Enlightenment. CRM wasn’t a dirty word any more.

Today, CRM has bedded down and is working hard in almost every big company and a lot of small ones. It works. It’s growing. It’s mainstream. In a way, it’s kind of no big deal.

(Marketing Automation is going through the same thing – I’d place it almost at the bottom of the trough – maybe even climbing out now.)

So this is the Content Marketing journey we’re on: Up! Down! Up. Up.

The roller coaster

Content marketing has been on the steep climb for the last few years. For those of us wedded to the discipline, it’s been fast, furious and fun.

But I believe Joe is right: things really are about to change.

Many of the companies – perhaps most – will start to become disillusioned with their content marketing investments. Some will pull the plug. Others will cut back sharply, asking their CMOs tougher questions about the real value of all these Infographics and documentary films and ‘owned media’ plays (the questions they probably should have been asking from the start).

All of this will replace the certainty of a drunken market with the doubt of a sober (or hung over) one.

I think Joe was warning us about the coming doubt so that we don’t panic. That we stick to our jobs: the hard work of content marketing.

That we get serious about strategy (as the CMI has been begging us all to do for years) and rigorous about measurement.

And mostly that we stick to our conviction that, done properly, this stuff works. That it’s not the only tactic out there but it’s the one that best matches the new marketing role and the new buyers we’re all trying to talk to.

If the opposite of content marketing is content-free marketing, it’s just not an option.

Keep the reason

By spotting our discipline on the downside of a very steep-looking curve, Joe was saying ‘keep the faith’ (personally, I wouldn’t call it faith, I’d call it rationality – but that’s because I’m a card-carrying Dawkins-ite).

A lot of companies – maybe yours – will start to slow down their content marketing efforts. They’ll (rightly) kill the early programs that aren’t working and (wrongly) pull the plug on those that are about to start working.

If the hype around content marketing was fueled by ‘irrational exuberance’ (the term coined during the inflation phase of the Internet Bubble), the back-swing will also be characterized by a lot of irrationality.

In short, Content Marketing is about to be blamed for the bad performance of its worst practitioners.

In truth, it isn’t the content marketing that’s bad, it’s the lack of strategy, the poor execution or both.

So I expect things are going to get a bit weird and scary for a while.

But if we hang in there together, we’ll emerge from it in good shape. We’ll hit bottom and start climbing.

And when we all look around the aisles and conference rooms of, say, Content Marketing World 2018, we’ll be in a good place. A place where content marketing sits at the heart of marketing strategy, driving and informing almost every part of the plan.

This works.

Stick with it.

Defend it.

But do it well, or you may never get out of the trough.


A mini roundup of Content Marketing World 2015

As always, it was a terrific event, full of serious content about pretty much every aspect of content marketing.

As always it brought together the best in the business – the practitioners, pundits, authors, analysts, brands and agencies that are ploughing this fresh furrow (pace John Deere).

And as always, Joe Pulizzi and the CMI team were amazingly friendly generous, thoughtful, professional, organized and fun. It’s not easy to host 3500 people over four days but these guys make it look easy.

A few cool things:

They made a documentary about all of us – The CMI and Brightcove produced the first documentary about our discipline, called The Story of Content, which I’ve reviewed and embedded in a recent post.

They did Hollywood Squares on the show floor. Actually built the big tic-tac-toe set and stuck people like Jay Baer and Carmen Hill inside it.

CMWorld 2015

They had a room you could lie down and rest in – it was sponsored by NaturePedic and it was fantastic (best bed I’ve ever been on).

NaturePedic at CMWorld 2015

They had an awards show and we didn’t win – actually we’d already won Best Launch of 2015 for our work with Sprint Business (very proud of that). That was announced before the show. But we were up for Best Small Agency of the Year (won by King Content) and Best Project of the Year (won by GSK). Bastards.

On the show floor, I went by the Wright’s Media stand to pick up the Launch of the Year Award (did I mention that?), and they gave me the box. I insisted on my own personal ceremony and this was their kind response:

Screen Shot 2015-09-15 at 16.21.51

(The Wright’s guy looks happier than me).

They had a fantastic party at the Rock & Roll Hall of Fame – I thought the Hall would be a cheesy celebrity-fest. Like a pumped up Hard Rock Cafe. Instead it’s a fantastic museum about the history of rock music, full of really interesting exhibits and well-curated shows. Proper history (and it’s MY history). I loved it. Also, the party was great and there was a bourbon-based BBQ sauce that I actually drank while no one was looking.

CMWorld party at Rock & Roll Hall of Fame

I could go on forever but that hasn’t been a good strategy for me.

So let me just say THANKS to the CMI team again. If anyone out there wants to put on a massive event and wants literally every visitor to resolve to return every year… visit this show and see how it’s done.



Doug…I absolutely fell in love with this post (hope you are okay with that?). I really feel like, because of where we are at in the hype cycle, we will see the greatest failures, but also the greatest success stories of our time in the content marketing industry. Interesting and exciting times ahead.

Thanks so much for being an amazing advocate and friend.


“content marketing is not a magic wand but a rich, difficult, complex discipline that only works if it’s combined with the right people and processes – and guided by the right strategy.”

Our experience is exactly this and indeed we have been saying words along these lines to our clients for a little while. Unfortunately Ohio is a little far for us to come at the moment, hopefully next year we will be able to join you.

Background: We started designing/building our platform around 7 years ago, and to be honest, we did not fully appreciate what we were doing or where we were going at that time. The first iterations of our platform came out around 5 years ago and were quite basic. Today it is a very different story; and have since recognised that what we are actually doing is evolving/building the most effective multi-configuration content marketing platform we possibly can.

Events like this are significant to us as it is where we learn and listen about each and everyones experiences and remember that we are not the only ones passionate about delivering effective CM solutions. I think for us one of the most exciting things happening and that will ultimately lift the curve is the diversity of activities that take place that come under the heading of CM. We are starting to provide services to Golf Tournaments, we are developing dedicated staff communication apps, webcasting and archiving conferences, providing advanced multimedia publishing solutions to name just a few. Allowing marketers to be able to handle all of this through a single management centre and then play out their content indifferent configurations for different audiences is indeed making a big difference.

Definitely in agreement here “keep the faith” and I hope to see you next year 🙂

Doug: I don’t know which I liked better, your endorsement (my word) of Joe’s content marketing industry assessment above or the fun CMWorld summary beneath it. I guess both. It was so nice to actually say hello this year F2F and I found your message about insane honesty refreshing and brave. I hope some of us can actually give it an honest try. Thanks again!

This was a fantastic post, Doug. As a first-time CMWorld attendee, I’ve been struggling to figure out how to best distill 3 days of incredibly value content into a few hundred words and give it all the credence it deserves. I love how you focused on one particular point and really had it stand out – the topic resonate so well with me, and I love the additional commentary you added to what Joe already discussed on stage. Thanks for sharing.

On a side note, your session was the first one I attended at CMWorld and really set the mark for how every other session had to perform. LOVED the content, and I’m busy trying to figure out how to make Insane Honesty work within my own organization (thinking of starting with the employees).

    Thanks Rachael! If you do try Insane Honesty, do send us the example.

Hey Doug, just like Joe love the post as you noticed (and as I love all your posts buddy).

Think there’s another important factor: content marketing is out of control as a term. Does that matter? Yes and no.

We’re seeing the big brands, agencies and media joining the content revolution. We’re seeing native advertising, whether Joe writes it’s not content marketing or not, taking over the debate.

When the really big guys – and I mean the really big guys – start delivering content marketing to their customers you lose control.

Point in case: watch this video on YouTube:

The content revolution (yep, didn’t invent that), with a panel of big guys at last weeks Dmexco in Cologne (where there were over 43,000 visitors) and you’ll know what I mean when the little debate about a Pampers ad starts.

Opinion welcome.

Thanks J-P. Yeah. we need to be ever-vigilant. Just when I think everyone understands what content marketing is, we get stuff like this. It’s so easy to blur the lines…

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