Sometimes content is not the answer. A content marketing fail.

sometimes content marketing isn't the answer

To a man with a hammer, everything looks like a nail (one of the main reasons men with hammers never get invited back to glass-blowing exhibitions).

And to a content marketer, every marketing challenge is an eBook-shaped hole.
Plagued by low awareness?  You need some content for that.
Turning into the Page Three girl of Google? Crank out some content.
Considered a ‘Thought Follower’ in your industry? You need content for that, mate.
Arriving at the Social Media party empty-handed? Bottle up some content and ring that doorbell.
But as marketers discover the power of content for driving results in search, social, outbound, lead gen and thought leadership, there’s a risk that we’ll use it even when it’s not the best tactic.

We were guilty of this recently, working for a client I won’t name (because it might embarrass them and because they might sue us for malpractice). Here’s the story:

A cautionary tale

The client came to us with a problem: they had a fantastic thing to offer to their existing customer base (an awesome piece of free software that helped customers get way more value from their products).

We learned all about it and said, “You need content. Content will attract your customers to engage on this issue and then we can show how this great software can help them.”

So we did some content. Two eBooks. Really good eBooks all about the issues addressed by the client’s awesome software.

Customers downloaded the eBooks in their thousands, said they really liked them and shared them in social media and user group forums.

At the same time, we also ran some ads on a few of the client’s high-traffic pages and sent out some emails to their database. Seemed a shame not to.

Guess what: the ads and emails drove WAY more uptake of the awesome software than the eBooks did.

Content marketing had failed and old-school, interruption-based, broadcast-style marketing had succeeded.

Whoah. That’s not supposed to happen. Content is supposed to be the best way to do everything right?

At Velocity, we like to think of ourselves as empirical marketers. We love the art of marketing but we bow down to the science. So when these disturbing results came in, we did what most reputable scientists do when faced with results they don’t want. We changed the subject.

But the facts kind of gnawed away at us. And the client developed an annoying habit of mentioning it in every meeting (kidding: they were exceedingly gracious and just as puzzled as we were). So we decided that, while repression and denial were working pretty well for us, we should try considering the facts.

Why content marketing failed

Here were the facts:

  • The client’s awesome software really was awesome – it really helped customers do their jobs better
  • It was also free – to anyone with a customer account
  • And easy to find and use – a click away

In short: the client had a great offer. On top of that, the target audience was known to us – they were existing customers. We had their email addresses. We knew what products they owned. We knew where they went for help.

We didn’t see it then, but it seems so clear now: content was one way of getting customers to try the awesome software (it did, after all, drive some uptake); but it wasn’t the shortest way.

This was one of those times in marketing when the simple, obvious, unsophisticated route really was the best. The client had a great offer for an almost captive audience. The right strategy was simply to tell it and get the hell out of the way.

Just telling their customers about the awesome offer was quicker, cheaper and more effective. (I know: ouch, right?)

So what did we do? We did what every agency does when confronted with its own failure. We post-rationalised as if our lives depended on it.

Some post-rationalisation

Strap on your tap-dancing shoes and remember: use your arms. Here we go:

The content did lots of other great things for the client beyond just driving uptake of the awesome software.
So what if software uptake was the stated goal? Our brilliant content also raised awareness of the issues addressed by the awesome software. And positioned the client as a company that cared about its customers. And gave them something to share in social media (something other than a link to the awesome software, which probably would have been, um, better).

“Our content was ‘top of the funnel’. Eventually, when they’re ready, people who downloaded it will use the awesome software.
Maybe. Maybe not. We sure hope so. Time will tell.

“The content lives on long after the ads and emails have died.
Now that one is true. Content is an evergreen asset. Ads and emails are like yodels without the echo. Our content was the tortoise, the crass ads (which we also produced) were the hare. (Any other metaphors we can mix in here?).

“The content will keep generating search traffic for years.
Similar to the above but when you’re post-rationalising, you sometimes need to spread your case out a bit.

“Look over there! A flying eggplant!
When all else fails, even the most zealous post-rationaliser just needs to get out of the room.

The moral of the story.

This humiliating but enlightening episode has taught us one thing: that no single tactic – not even the mighty content marketing – is right for every situation.

Maybe two things: just because you’re clutching the world’s coolest hammer, doesn’t mean every brief is a nail.

But wait! An ingenious alternative interpretation that lets us all retain our dignity and adhere to Content Marketing scripture:

How about this:

When you think about it, the client’s awesome software was itself content. It harnessed the client’s expertise to help people do their jobs better.

So our mistake was thinking the only way to promote content is more content, which, if it were true, would mean content marketing agencies like Velocity are on to the world’s greatest Ponzi scheme.

No, the ads and emails offering the free software were content marketing after all. And it worked.

See? There’s nothing it can’t do.

Comments

I’ve been under the weather for weeks and this post made me laugh out loud. Thanks for that!

Never underestimate the power of advertising. It’s still the shortest road to fame and fortune (and target audience action) for a lot of clients–b2b and consumer both. A single well-done ad in a dinosaur print vehicle (the Times business section, WSJ, FT, for instance) can produce amazing results. The trick to that is, 98% of ad folks are just about incapable of doing a single well-done ad that will make the target sit up and say, ‘I want to know more about this, this is interesting.’

Meanwhile, content does what content does and only content can really do. And it never hurts, even if the situation in question wasn’t a nail.

Loved this post. It’s so refreshing to see an agency openly accept that they’re not perfect, sets you guys apart in the content marketing firmament.

I think failure (even though this ultimately was really a success) should form part of the marketing mix, it provides far more insight for the reader than the thousands of cookie-cutter articles out there.

Thanks so much for your insightful post, Doug.

Content marketing is a great answer but sometimes the problem asks another question – like what’s the best solution?

Honesty is always the best policy, love it.

It just shows that we’re all playing a new game that we’re getting to grips with, but we haven’t quite read the instructions fully (don’t get me wrong, this isn’t a bad thing).

Cheers

Mark

Hey guys, fun read! However, I can’t help but poke fun at the logic itself.

The argument:

1.) Sometimes content marketing isn’t the best tactic – here’s some content explaining how
2.) One of our campaigns featured an eBook that didn’t perform the same way our other content did
3.) Guess what?! We sent the other content to existing customers who already loved the brand
4.) Oh you’re still reading our article? We forgot the point of our argument
5.) Everything is content and content marketing actually does work, all of the time – give us money

At one point I agree with you, that no single tactic – not even the mighty content marketing – is right for every situation. That’s why it is good to have multiple options in your hand.

It’s very easy to stay in the mindset that content is always the best answer. You had a very unique situation and client, but the content produced will still be able to act as an asset going forward.

How did the client handle the situation? Were you completely honest with them that content was not the answer in their case?

    The client handled it well — because, between the advertising and the content, we got the job done. And they agreed that the software itself was content. Over time, the content pieces did some good things, so I know they got good value. But we all learned something too.

    @Jason — Yep, kinda convoluted. But I think you got it!

Best part of this post is that last paragraph. Jason says it well too: “Everything is content and content marketing actually does work, all of the time” 🙂

Great post Doug.

[…] chasm between customer and feature by adding unnecessary padding. Doug Kessler of Velocity Partners has written about one such example: when releasing a new tool to his client’s existing customers, his team used […]

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