Did Crap come true? How to fight the content marketing deluge
It’s five years since we published Crap: Why The Biggest Threat to Content Marketing Is Content Marketing (embedded at the bottom of this post). In my last Crappiversary post, I talked about the impact that the piece had on Velocity and about the lessons we learned from it.
In the final one (promise), 40 Reasons Good People Make Crap Content, I try to figure out WHY so many smart, talented people still make so much crap (it’s more feel-good than it sounds).
In this one, I want to see whether the predictions outlined in Crap came true, if its advice holds up and, if not, what the hell we can do about it now.
Did it happen?
The central prediction in Crap was pretty simple (and not especially clever or brave): that when content marketing went mainstream it wouldn’t work so well anymore.
We weren’t the first to worry about this and we sure as hell won’t be the last. (In 2014, Mark Schaeffer hit a major home run on a similar theme with his Content Shock post. In it, he said we’d just passed a critical point beyond which the amount of content in the world exceeds our ability to read it all. I disagreed with the science but could hardly argue with the sentiment.)
So let’s look at the main ‘sky is falling’ statements made in Crap, one neurotic whinge at a time:
The days of easy wins from content marketing would soon come to an end.
Yeah, that happened. In most markets, it’s not enough to just do content marketing (everyone is doing content marketing). Today, you have to excel at content marketing.
When the web was new, the first company in a market to have a website enjoyed a real advantage. Today, a website isn’t an advantage. It’s the price of entry. Not having one will kill you. Having one? No big deal. Unless it’s great.
Same with content marketing. You can’t not do it (who the hell would want content-free marketing?). But just doing it is no big deal anymore. You have to do it better than the other guys.
Must work harder.
We’d all soon be buried in shitty content and that this would ruin the discipline for all of us.
Well, the first part kind of happened: as buyers, we’re inundated with offers of content that claims to help us do our jobs better.
But are we actually ‘buried’ in content? Not really, because we won’t allow ourselves to be buried. We simply get more selective. Buyers are besieged by content offers, but they’re accepting fewer of those offers.
Five years ago, a new ebook from, say, Marketo or Eloqua or Hubspot on, say, analytics or lead scoring or email deliverability was a fresh thing. A valuable thing. It might well have been the only piece on the subject—and it was free. Compared to brochures and case studies and data sheets, this was a breath of fresh air.
Today, an ebook from a vendor can go either way. It might be helpful, authoritative and well-written . But it’s just as likely to be a collection of leftover ideas, obvious advice and self-serving analysis (ending in the surprising conclusion that the best course of action is to invest in the solutions of the company whose logo is on the front—Eureka!).
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Our prospects would start to raise the Marketing Defense Systems that this weird, new approach coaxed them into lowering.
Yuh-huh. That did happen.
Content marketing was so incredibly successful because it broke most of the major conventions that marketing had been built on: it started with the buyer not the brand; it was helpful instead of hard-sell; it delivered value instead of interrupting value.
Done well, content marketing was marketing that didn’t look, sound and smell like marketing. It was different. Unexpected. Interesting. Empathetic. So people leaned in and gave it their attention.
Today, content marketing has dissolved into marketing and has developed its own set of conventions. Most of it (not the best) looks and smells like marketing again, so buyers are again deploying their Marketing Defense Systems to fend it off. If we want them to lower the barriers, we need to earn that.
Must work harder.
The content bell curve
Looking at the content created in the last five years, how much of it is total crap?
Not a lot, actually. Like almost all other human endeavor, content quality falls into a bell curve. My AI-enabled fake-statometer has determined that about 4% is amazing. About 6% is utter shite. And about 90% falls somewhere in-between. Credible but nothing to make you jump up on your desk and belt out La Marseillaise. (Spontaneous French National Anthem Renditions—SFNARs—are a critical KPI for members of the Content Marketing Surrealist group on LinkedIn).
Marketing is full of smart, professional people who learn fast. When content marketing arrived, we all jumped on to the learning curve and started to figure this thing out. (That’s still happening and it’s still one of the most rewarding parts of this work).
To learn about it, marketers looked around and imitated what they saw. They didn’t necessarily imitate the best content marketing, they just imitated things that were content marketing. “See that hamburger-centric infographic? Let’s do an omelette-based one.”
The result wasn’t total crap. In some ways, it was worse: it was mediocre.
(If we’re going to steal—and I, for one, am— let’s steal from the very best.)
Five years on and we’re looking at a LOT of mediocre content. Because—and this is the part that hurts—the teams that created it weren’t even aiming for great. They were aiming for the mean. For credible. For something that would survive the slings and sabres of all those internal ‘stakeholders’. And they hit the target. (SFX: pfffffft…)
The bar keeps rising.
The problem with aiming for the mean is this: the mean keeps moving. Rising.
As a discipline, content marketing has matured incredibly quickly. Last year’s Content Marketing World was as different from the 2013 event as a primary school art fair is from the Venice Biennale. The list of conference tracks from CM World 2017 (not sessions, tracks) tells the story:
Content Creation • Demand Generation • Social Media • Content Strategy • Tools & Technology • Sales • Advanced Measurement • Email • Intelligent Content • Native/Interactive • Process & Workflow • Content Distribution • Performance/ROI • Findabiity • Multi-channel • Visual Storytelling • B2B • Conversion • Global Strategy…
This a discipline that’s inventing and iterating and advancing on twenty different fronts, all at the same time. Last Wednesday’s average is next Tuesday’s piss-poor.
One more prediction from Crap:
Most marketers would see diminishing returns from their content marketing efforts.
Happened (to most, but not all of us). The CMI/Marketing Profs annual surveys of the last few years show a discipline that’s becoming a bit disillusioned by content marketing. We’ve passed the peak of the hype curve and are settling into the fabled Trough of Disillusionment. (Don’t worry, it’s only up from there.)
The inevitable backlash has started and, like most backlashes, it blames the entire discipline for its worst practitioners (The CMI/Profs surveys show that those most disappointed with content marketing are the ones without a documented content strategy.) (D’oh!).
Our brand new wand wasn’t magic after all.
Attention is a big ask. It has to be earned. And, today, earning attention costs more than five years ago. We have to invest more in the content itself just to compete on any given topic. And—unless we’ve built an audience eager to receive our next Chalk Talk—we have to spend a lot more to get that content discovered by the right people.
Now that the social platforms have squeezed out organic reach in favour of paid advertising, we can’t just tell our ‘followers’ about our latest ebook. Only 1-3% of them will see the tweet. (Turns out, Twitter and Facebook were in it for the money. And turns out our ‘followers’ were never really following us. Who knew?).
To get all that ‘inbound’ interest we now have to get good at outbound. We have to spend money: either long-term, by building our own audience or short-term, by renting someone else’s.
What about the Crap advice?
If the central predictions in Crap came true, the central piece of advice still holds, too. To defy the diminishing returns from content marketing going mainstream we all have to do one thing: build a great content brand.
A great content brand is a killer advantage in any market. It tells its audiences that if this piece comes from that company, it will be worth their time. It will be smart, informative, entertaining, fun, helpful or all of the above.
Weirdly, every marketer knows how valuable that would be. But great content brands are still incredibly rare (far less common, even, than great product brands).
I’m sitting here struggling to think of any in B2B (a fragrant blend of modesty and look-in-the-mirror honesty forbids citing our clients here). Maybe GE? Definitely a16z.
(Shame-faced aside: B2C is swimming in great content brands: they’re invariably the leaders in every sector from running shoes and raincoats to cream cheese and cycling shorts. Why there should be such a B2X gulf is a topic for another blog.).
Great content brands don’t happen by accident. They always reflect the underlying convictions of the companies behind them, that:
- Every piece of content, even the lowliest BOFU data sheet, shouts brand messages. And every experience with our customers and prospects is an important opportunity.
- When we honour their experience and value their time, they are more likely to come back, welcome us into their Inbox or click on our bait.
- When we don’t, we deserve what we get: the disappointing metrics of the ‘me-too’ merchant.
Over time, great content brands build loyal, high-quality audiences of like-minded people. And that kind of audience is one of the most important assets ever to not appear on a balance sheet. It’s worth its weight in Bitcoin (on one of its good days).
That’s why Joe Pulizzi and Robert Rose tell us that the first job of every content marketer is to build our own audiences.
Building a great content brand: the Crap advice
Crap suggested Six Tips for building great content brands. Do they hold up? Mixed bag:
- Be the buyer – Not really debatable: empathy is the foundation of everything great in marketing (and probably in life).
- Be authoritative. Stay in your sweet spot. – Never bad advice but not exactly a silver bullet. (Still, lots of brands stray from theirs).
- Be strategic – True but too obvious to call out any more.
- Be prolific – Well, prolific enough. But not so prolific you’re churning out mush.
- Be passionate – Duh. (Actually caring about the content’s topic is still rare, though).
- Be tough on yourself. – More true than ever: laziness in content marketing is so ubiquitous you’d think someone out there is actually teaching it.
So, okay, these six nuggets may have been helpful when content marketing was still taking baby steps; but now that it’s a gangly teenager, they feel a bit… tired.
Looking forward: a few big themes
So if Crap stumbled on a geist that happened to reflect the marketing zeit, what would the equivalent piece say today? What’s the burning challenge for content marketers right now?
It may not be as exciting as overthrowing the old order, writing bold Manifestos and inventing a whole new discipline. But today’s challenge is just as hard. Maybe even harder. Because the enemy is us.
For me, today’s big challenge for content marketers comes down to this: resisting the force of gravity that’s pulling the discipline down towards a corporate process defined and constrained by ‘best practices’ (the kind that Jay Acunzo decries so eloquently in his Unthinkable podcast).
This battle against gravity pops up in a lot of ways, presenting us all with new challenges and opportunities. Like these (forgive my preachiness and obviousness. I really do believe this stuff and just don’t see enough of it out there):
Figure out what ‘better’ content means
We know we can’t just do content marketing, we have to do it better than our competitors and everyone else bidding for the attention of the people we’re trying to reach.
Trouble is, the word ‘better’ isn’t a very helpful guide to winning such a daunting competition. What does ‘better content’ even mean?
Unfortunately, the answer sounds banal as hell: make relevant, timely, useful content. Start with the audience’s needs and work backwards. Get closer to your prospects. Be empathetic. Generous. Helpful. Authentic. Aim high. Yadda-yadda-yadda.
It’s not that the advice is bad. It’s just that it’s been said a thousand times—and it’s way, way harder than it sounds. Especially in the context of a busy, pressurized marketing department trying to do far too many things.
The good news is that aiming for great instead of churning out Velveeta® brand cheese-food is also way more fun. Making ‘that’ll do’ content is easy. Trying to make outstanding content that slam-dunks its goals and incites mobs to march on Rome is the kind of challenge worth turning off Netflix for (and building a career on).
Phase Two of the content revolution—this phase—is where we all start to grapple with what really resonates with audiences. I can’t think of a more interesting or exciting challenge.
Thought experiment: what would happen if you took the budget and resources and time that you’ve allocated for your next 5-10 pieces of content, and poured it all into one, impossible, difficult, ambitious, amazing piece.
I suspect that you’d get far more than a 5-10x uplift over all those easier pieces. Might be 100x. Might even be 1000x. That’s good business.
Working much harder and investing much more in significantly fewer pieces may be the best approach for many B2B brands. Even better if you can supplement the home runs with a steady cadence of high-quality blog posts or a super-helpful video series (like Moz Whiteboard Fridays).
InVision produced an outstanding documentary called Design Disruptors. I’m sure it took 80-340 times more effort than an ebook on the same topic. But it was 8,000 times more effective.
(The pieces on Account Based Marketing we helped midwife for Engagio run anywhere from 120 to 163 pages long. Jon Miller is way too smart to invest in such slow, difficult, expensive pieces if they didn’t generate serious pipeline—significantly more than he’d get from a series of easier-to-produce-but-far-less-definitive pieces.)
In the last five years, most marketing teams have become pretty good at making credible, professional content. The process has become grooved.
But a groove is always in danger of turning into a rut. And, unless you work for the Ditch Witch Trencher Company, great content doesn’t come from ruts.
The big challenge for content marketers today is to resist the cozy call of the comfort zone.
Proven processes, streamlined assembly lines, and well-worked-out workflows are great for manufacturing motorbikes and mudguards. But they also systematically stifle innovation and actively prevent inspiring content.
As more and more people have the word ‘content’ on their business cards, we’re in danger of over-systematizing content marketing—something that happened to old-school PR (with notable exceptions).
At Velocity, we consistently preach and sometimes practice the idea of a ring-fenced budget for content experiments.
We’ve seen far too often that safe, predictable ideas will always suck the budget away from cool-but-scary ones.—unless you commit to a protected budget pool, earmarked for experimentation.
The trick to content experiments is to get all your stakeholders to enter into the experimental mindset with you. To make sure everyone knows that failure is not an unlikely, unexpected or unacceptable outcome. And to design your experiments so that you can fail fairly quickly and cheaply (and pocket the learning).
Yes, we all know we can do another white paper on issue X. But what would the same story look like as an interpretive dance or kazoo cantata? (Okay, probably pretty stupid: pick better experiments).
GE’s science fiction podcast, The Message, could only have started as an experiment. No one knew it would get 1.5 million listens in its first two weeks and hit #1 on iTunes. But someone had a twinkle that it just might.
Flex new formats
Gutenberg has been dead for 550 years (almost to the day as I write this). Why is it that so much marketing content wouldn’t even raise one of his bushy, medieval eyebrows?
He worked in lead type. We work in protocol-powered pixels. Surely, we can find new ways to tell stories that aren’t inherently page-based.
We’re big on multi-media extravaganzas like Snow Fall by the ever-innovating New York Times. Or exciting, sexy, scrolling stories like their piece on social media cheaters, The Follower Factory. Or, what the hell, a choir imitating a thunderstorm. And we like groping around the edges of storytelling, with new digital formats like Velocity Strings.
It’s time to amplify your great stories with formats that surprise and delight your audience. That’s what our recent String talks about: The New Media Message: Why Innovation Stories Deserve Innovative Formats.
Go higher (also known as deeper)
B2B marketing teams are getting better and better at demand-generation content—the kind that populates nurture flows and accelerates purchase journeys.
But B2B marketers are really bad at brand-level content—the kind that celebrates who you are and what you believe in. The kind that talks about why you do what you do. (We wrote about that in this Simon Sinek-inspired post).
Nearly 40 years ago, International Paper did a great campaign (before it was called content marketing) featuring great writers giving advice on The Power of the Printed Word. The Kurt Vonnegut one looked like this:
Wait. Forty years ago? A paper company talking about the power of language instead of about… paper? Yes, and I still remember it forty years later.
Last year, Xerox (with Y&R) did a brilliant, ambitious series called Set The Page Free, enlisting 14 world-famous writers to talk about work and writing and collaboration. Really entertaining videos. A collaborative book. A dedicated site. I now know so much more about why Xerox does what it does—and I like them infinitely more because of it. (Discolosure: a Velocity… client but we didn’t do that one. Dang).
This is what B2B brands should be doing today: brand-level content that celebrates what you believe in—your why—working together with all that content about what and how you do it.
Content marketing teams have so much to do, we want each piece to cover as broad an area as possible. A piece that ‘covers’ three personas instead of one sounds like good value (until you realize that it didn’t actually touch any of them).
But in a post-diluvian content world, relevance lives in tiny niches. We need to explore content that serves smaller audiences. When we hit a winning approach, we can worry about scaling up that success. But let’s not let workload fears stop us from getting specific.
Informatica (a V client) produced The Salesforce Manager’s Guide to Verifying Customer Data as well as a more general piece. Their solution validates customer data across a huge range of platforms, not just Salesforce. Why limit the audience? To maximize relevance for people who live and breathe Salesforce. (The specific piece significantly out-performed the general one).
Slow the hell down
At Velocity, the best content marketing we do tends to be the pieces that force us to slow down and think. But the default setting of most agencies and client-side teams is ‘faster’.
That’s a shame, because your target prospects won’t ever know—much less care—that you published their ebook on time. But they will now whether or not it made them think or feel anything.
Ann Handley has been preaching the value of Slow Marketing for years. But the world just keeps proving that going faster is a pretty reliable way to find yourself standing still.
Get a small team to a quiet place for half a day. Add pizza. Stand back.
Marketers are too nice. We stick with our team and our suppliers even if they’ve proven that they’re just okay at all this.
Great writing tends to come from great writers. Amazing design from amazing designers. The best animation from the best animators.
See the pattern here?
Too many marketing teams settle for people who are good at what they do. A way better route to great work is to find and work with great people.
Yes, they’re hard to find. Yes, they’re busy. Yes, they cost more. Yes, they’re more likely to be a pain in the arse (a function of caring about their work). But every piece of great content can be traced back to someone with a real talent for telling stories in fresh, original ways. Find them and sacrifice a lot to work with them.
Bring your stakeholders along
This may be the most important imperative for content marketers who have fires in their bellies (so important, we’re about to release a big piece on it—leave a comment below, saying ‘Send me that thing on stakeholders’ and we’ll send it to you when it’s published):
It’s no good having great ideas, powerful strategies and innovative tactics if your CEO or Head of Sales or VP of Product or Brand Czar aren’t on board.
I used to think that aligning stakeholders was a major obstacle to doing my job. I now understand that this is my job. And it’s your job too.
Succeed at it and you’ll fly. Assume it will take care of itself—that everyone in your company will bow down before a clearly wonderful idea—and you’ll flop.
Today (and this may be as close as I get to a bottom line) doing great content marketing is about driving change in your organization.
Proactive, lean-in, evangelical mobilizers will win the next era of content marketing. Process wonks, creative snowflakes and strategic geniuses who under-invest in bringing along their stakeholders… are heading for a brick wall.
In merciful conclusion
Five years ago, there was an elephant in the room: our exciting new thing was going mainstream and it would change everything.
Today, the elephant in the room is the lack of elephants. Our challenge is no longer to storm the battlements of traditional marketing, throwing out the Mad Men and installing Joe Pulizzi as pope. It’s simply to work harder to do this hard thing better.
Everyone knows that the content of marketing is content. Now the real work starts.
Our challenge today is a hundred smaller battles in the service of a few core ideas that haven’t changed: asking for someone’s attention is a big ask; getting it is a privilege; rewarding it is a duty.
Forgetting this is the straight, low, easy road… to crap.