Why Content Marketing Fails

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Content marketing seems to be the meme du jour. What’s most striking about this conversation remains the blind eye most bloggers have to the majority of corporate blogs, micro messages, and content initiatives that fail. According to the Content Marketing Institute, only 40% of content marketers feel their efforts are successful, and consumers have been less bullish, with only 14% trusting corporate blogs in recent years.

Yes, there’s an issue of strategy and best practices. The resources and “how to produce” online content argument that most online communicators discuss are accurate. Yet, after a while it gets beyond technique and capacity. The reason most organizational content fails lies in the fact that they are marketing initiatives.

It’s marketing! People don’t want marketing schtick! Consider that amongst today’s youth aged 12-17, only 6% are interested in interacting with brands on Facebook (source: Forrester). Further, marketers’ rush to add hoards of followers to establish credibility has flown in the face of what peer-to-peer trust is all about, and thus many of these “big accounts” lack the influence they desire (source: eMarketer).

People don’t really want marketing in any form of social media, much less content! They don’t want it in their social games. They don’t want it on Facebook. They don’t want it in the content that they read.

This is a timeless issue that dates back to newsletters and press releases, the predecessors of online content. Marketers that produce marketing schtick bore people to death. This decades old misstep finds its basis in two key failures: 1) Not understanding stakeholders and 2) Sacrificing information quality to push marketing goals. Organizational selfishness — short-sighted, unintentional or purposeful — kills content. As a result performance suffers.

No one wants their content to fail. In many ways, reversing this very common problem requires a change in ethos. Marketers need to create compelling content — specifically, interesting and factual stories. They need to adapt best practices from the journalism field, and bridge the gap between corporate interest and market needs for valuable information.

In that sense, Clay Shirky was right: Everyone Is a Media Producer. Creating compelling content begins with understanding the fundamental shift and interconnection between the Fourth and Fifth Estates. The influx of millions of new content creators, most of them lying in the niche communities of the long tail has increased demand for online eyeballs. This in turn creates an increasing sense of information overload anxiety for readers who have to choose from a wide variety of traditional media, new media from professional content creators, corporate and nonprofit produced content, and yes, amateur media.

This produces incredibly competitive content markets! Right now only 20% of marketers believe that corporate sources are perceived to be more valuable than traditional media (source: Content Marketing Institute). How will companies and nonprofits differentiate in such a field?

Success requires evolution and becoming better storytellers. This does not mean just pulling heart strings. Tell the truth! Deliver facts, show deeper insights into the value your organization creates. Learn media best practices and how to deliver a story in a compelling fashion. Create content that works in or includes a variety of media. Or if stakeholders have demonstrated interest in your initial efforts, diversify with mobile and traditional media products.

Point being, it’s time to stop treating content like marketing, and start developing media as a product for stakeholders. Shockingly, they may actually be interested in it. That’s what journalists and media producers do (even the embedded corporate and nonprofit ones)… Produce worthwhile content.


  • Geoff gives a new spin on a truth we all know. SM is not juts a new platform to broadcast from. You have to understand the needs of your customer and you have to engage. If you broadcast you are lost. The new customer is looking for authentic and personal communication.

    • Yet no matter how many times we beat the drum, the same answers are not enough… Marketers are lazy I think.

  • I’d be remiss if I didn’t also echo the phrase from Tom Foremski — “Every Company is a Media Company.”

  • Marketers will exploit and incidentally ruin any channel available. Content is no different. Too many marketers write for SEO rankings and not the humans who they intend to read said content.

    Since you’re going to produce content anyway, why not produce great content?

    • The good apples are the rare ones in the marketing barrel, no? Hope you are doing well, Chris!

      • This hating on marketing… I assume you guys are PR guys- I take this as just guys defining their profession against another… otherwise it doesn’t make much sense.

        • I am a marketer. There is a reason marketers hate the industry. Only 5% of marketers actually give a rat’s ass about the customer. The other 95% are out for a buck.

          Just look at the sorry state of social media experts/gurus/ninjas/jedis/mavens. We do this to ourselves. It is self inflicted. We need to step up before we become the red headed step child of the business world.

        • You keep trying to put other people in a different box than your definition of marketing, when we all market and agree the state of the industry is deplorable.

  • This is great. There’s nothing wrong with marketing though. Marketing is understanding your audience and getting them the right message about how you can help them.

    • Hmm, if marketing was good, why does everyone hate it?

      • Everyone doesn’t hate it. Prove that everyone hates it. People don’t like BAD marketing and BAD advertising. People don’t like BAD anything except bad 80’s hair metal.

        • Um, I dropped plenty of stats here. How about you prove that they like it. And splitting hairs over Good and Bad, doesn’t change the picture in consumers’ minds… They don’t like the dog food.

          • I can prove everyone doesn’t hate it: I like it. There you go.

            You’re a smart guy and not a troll, AFAIK, so I think we’re working with different definitions of marketing. Here’s one from the AMA: “Marketing is the activity, set of institutions, and processes for creating, communicating, delivering, and exchanging offerings that have value for customers, clients, partners, and society at large.”

            Like it or not, you are using a blog to market yourself and your forthcoming book…

          • Re Book, Blog, events, direct marketing to market myself: Doesn’t mean I am in denial about the state of the industry. BTW, I’ve won three awards from the AMA.

  • The key to good content is that it needs to provide the reader with some sort of value. Nobody will bother to read anything if there is no benefit. Content needs to be engaging and written for the target audience.

  • So true. Storytelling. Being interesting. Providing value. All so often overlooked as brands want to use a blog to sell more stuff to more people. And they wonder why they fail. Me, I love a great story. Excellent work, GL.

    • Short sightedness, self centeredness and laziness are the problems here, I am convinced. It’s the human condition. Happy birthday, Shelly!

  • Geoff – As always, a well-thought out post. Interestingly enough, what we find is that even when organizations do produce useful/compelling content, they typically stumble on the marketing portion of the equation. In other words, the limited number that do produce the solid brand of content that you refer to fail to get that content in the hands (or on the screens of) the maximum amount of people that ARE interested in that content.

    • Double whammy, so the left foot does work, but the right foot doesn’t. Just goes to show you marketing isn’t easy!

  • Geoff, you are correct in your observation, and that in part due to your experience as a PR professional. Many marketers are not correctly trained in PR profession; their last writing class may have been a core undergraduate course, and they probably have not had proper media training.

    And that extrapolates into a Marketing Department – many white papers, blogs, website content, e-newsletters etc. are produced without budget for a true technical writer (even being a co-working developer or engineer does not make one a “technical writer”) or editorial review and are not part of a strategic plan or editorial calendar.

    Nevertheless, at least for the B2B world, various flavors of content are important because that content may be the only way for an organizational buyer to become aware of a solution for a challenge that they are having. So your admonition is right on target – Marketers, produce worthwhile content – because like you, buyers have little time to sort through the same old marketing garbage and need solutions, not branding and lip service.

    • I wish I could say that PR people were better at this than true marketers, but I am afraid I would be lying. I totally agree that levels of content are necessary and thus as someone gets deeper into the cycle they will be more product/service centric. That’s where such content belongs, though! It’s all about time and being useful as you say. Thanks for the comment, Joe!

  • Geoff – this post illustrates an point that I have been championing for a while now: that organizations need to focus less on brand/image promotion and more on cause/story promotion. People don’t care so much about content FROM organization/company A, but they may care to read content ABOUT issue B. As you and others point out the key shift in thinking is about creating value for your supporters. While it may be easier than ever for organizations to simply produce content, with the overwhelming amount of information out there it may just be harder than ever for marketers to create compelling and engaging content.

    • We need better content really, and so ease has created more, but not better. So now the era of quality must begin! Thanks for commenting, Dave!

  • Thanks for post. It’s interesting for me.

  • Great post. I think the issue here is trust and source credibility, something that has to be earned, especially when objectivity is in question. But I disagree at least with your headline and possibly your premise: Sumner Redstone had it right, and “content is still king.”


    • Hey Ian. Content is king is a big generalization. 14% of the time it is. The other 86%it isn’t. Survey says.

      • They survey says 14% trust corporate blogs. Not the same thing at all. Thaks again for the post.

        • Happy to have this debate. Only 14% trust corporate blogs which is the primary vehicle for social content marketing. 86% don’t. Corporate content is not king.

  • Geoff, Hello
    As the directional flow of marketing continues to turn it seems that the companies that transform into Branded Media will lead the pack. The core business itself must be something worthy of talking about, and companies with something interesting, and of value are able to craft branded media successfully. It is the dog product, that lacks anything compelling that are most troubled. Marketers have never been able to fix a broken product offering, but much less now that ever before.

  • Geoff, Hello
    As the directional flow of marketing continues to turn it seems that the companies that transform into Branded Media will lead the pack. The core business itself must be something worthy of talking about, and companies with something interesting, and of value are able to craft branded media successfully. It is the dog product, that lacks anything compelling that are most troubled. Marketers have never been able to fix a broken product offering, but much less now that ever before.

  • I am a home remodel contractor. I have tried many expensive venues to promote my business (yellow pages, shows, etc) and always got enough business just to cover cost of advertising. I have been considering starting a DIY blog and promote it via FB, Twitter, email to clients, etc. The blog will not advocate hiring my biz, rather it will be a weekly, trendy, inspirational blog to encourage people to paint, tile, do basic repairs etc… I don’t want people to view my biz as just another biz trying to push a product, rather a biz that is creative and genuinely caring and helpful. Hopefully people will feel like they know me a bit better by reading the blog and will be comfortable contacting me or referring friends for large projects (i.e. bath/kitchen remodels & home building). Sort of like watching Mike Holmes on HGTV makes you want to hire him for your next project.

    Feed back would be appreciated. Good idea. Bad idea. Suggestions?

  • You know, this perception that content is marketING rather than marketABLE is borne of the idea that marketing and content are the same thing. It’s one of those things that’s obvious to people who teach people how to be seen – that content has to be made for human consumption. This will be a good place to point people to who aren’t getting that shading of meaning.

    • Organizations should really treat content like a product for customers. If they do that, it would likely become much more useful. I hope you are doing well, Tinu.

  • Storytelling. It’s a craft and as old as time (like me ha ha) One can have all the SEO, strategists, consultants, experts, gurus, banana fana faux fannas … one wants. If it’s not compelling, you lose em’ … What I find interesting is how people talk about “storytelling” now like it’s a new discovery. Don’t even think about storytelling unless it’s compelling, as to a photojournalist, don’t even think about making images that aren’t compelling. So I guess I don’t understand why everyone is making anything that requires good content so complicated. Fourth and/or Fifth Estates … journalism as a craft, marketing as a business, corporate or non-profits … write good shit. PERIOD!

    • Geoff I failed to mention how much I liked your post and agree :-) I also wanted to share an interesting survey Content Is Key for Brand Strategies, « The Outbrain Blog http://bit.ly/dZfMc0

      • Thanks for sharing this link, Deb. I really appreciate it. I think people are generally lazy and just want the get, not the give, and thus this ageless conundrum. And so, the beat continues… And we continue to argue for better practices. It’s an ageless tug of war.

  • You had me at “Produce worthwhile content.” Ok, so that was at the end of your post

    I could not agree with you more. Though I see a danger in things turning to a textbook feel. Things are so well written and told that there is no creative shell around them to draw in the consumer in.

    So it is a balance between good strategy and understanding your audience then building and crafting content that is so compelling that your consumer wants more, or is will to at least give you a try! But most often its “spaghetti” approach, throw it at the wall and when it is ready it will stick”. It is little wonder why we all hate marking..

    Thanks again!

  • Point well taken. We’d be ostracized from the social circuit if our in-person conversations always wound back to a sales pitch. The same is true online. To your points, I’d like to add that we should write content for people, not search engines. Too much emphasis on keywords and spiders makes for full reading and is, in effect, just marketing again.

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    […] Content marketing seems to be the meme du jour. What’s most striking about this conversation remains the blind eye most bloggers have to the majority of corporate blogs, micro messages, and content initiatives that fail. According to the Content Marketing Institute.. Continue reading via geofflivingston.com, here. […]

  • Thoughtful post Geoff. On the 40% figure from CMI, I think part of that is companies not having any idea how to measure and value content within larger initiatives. Most companies are unsure about the effectiveness of all aspects of their communications (as many studies have shown) because they don’t know how to measure any of it.

    I disagree with the premise that people are predisposed to hating marketing. Great marketing (especially advertising) delights people. This KLM program where they had a live in-air dance party on a flight is great stuff. http://bit.ly/hC1BEi

    The problem isn’t that people hate marketing. It’s that marketers MAKE people hate marketing because the vast, vast majority of it is crap. Not crap in the flat-out offensive way, but crap in the lazy, unfocused, irrelevant way.

    The biggest problem with most content marketing is that companies don’t know why they’re making content, for whom, and/or how that content actually enriches the lives of customers or prospects in any way. They just believe that more is better, so get out the shovel. It’s just words or pictures farming.

    There’s two types of content that work:

    – Content that answers the questions of prospects (very strong B2B play, especially when you map it specifically to steps in the conversion funnel, and most definitely if the content isn’t totally company-created but rather comes from other customers)

    – Content that informs, delights, humanizes the company in an authentic way, building kinship that translates into purchase intent. Red Wing Shoes did that very well with their recent videos: http://bit.ly/ekhzW4

    But in either case, it has to be good. And that’s not about production values. It’s about relevancy and context. And companies are not adept at understanding that to sell stuff eventually with content, you have to NOT sell stuff today with content. It’s often counter-intuitive, which is why companies are still surprised when their blog that is only about product “attributes” and stilted testimonials doesn’t make the cash register ring.

    • And thank you for a thoughtful comment. I’d still disagree on the people love marketing bit. I think marketers eat their own dog food way too much. Ask any normal person if they like marketing and I think you’ll find yourself having to explain why they are wrong. Just like you are here.

      The reality is most people do not ask to be marketed to… And in such cases where they do ask for it, they have a genuine interest in the topic, thus permission marketing. The reality is that most people simply tolerate it to get the free content they want, or worse because they have to take the metro, drive that road, or use that urinal. This is the old Jack Trout/Al Ries premise behind Positioning. The overcrowded fight for the consumers’ mind.

      When we assume that people don’t want our marketing, and that content needs to serve a purpose, a value of some sort — informative , entertaining, etc.as your two classifications aptly point out — or it will fail, then we have a fighting chance to serve communities with meaningful communications. Until that recognition happens…. Well, it’s a tough media environment.

      Again, thank you for your comment. While not completely agreeing, you can see I liked it.

  • Hi Geoff,

    I agree that marketers could learn more from journalism and storytelling, and as always, I like how your post gets me thinking. In my thinking, here’s what I’m pondering: Is it content marketing that fails? Or, how people currently perceive, strategize, and execute their “content?” For example, starting off on the wrong foot from the get-go by calling it “content” vs. “stories” for instance.

    Appreciate your added thoughts (and hope all is well!)


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