The Best Content Myth

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Featured image by yosuke muroye.

I wrote a post a couple months ago called watching the Content Marketing Trend Fade to Black that received a lot of attention, mostly positive. Some of the feedback included rebuttals (like this podcast from the Content Marketing Institute), which have to be anticipated when you write a post like that.

This post addresses the two most popular rebuttals: 1) content is not going away; and, 2) the best content always wins, which I will call “The Best Content Myth.”

Let’s handle the first one as it comes from an incorrect interpretation of the original post. There is a difference between content itself as created by both everyday citizens and marketers, and the content marketing trend. The post clearly deals with dwindling enthusiasm for the marketing industry trend, and states that content itself will only continue to grow albeit under different trend monikers and buzz words. So, I actually agree with rebuttal one, and always did.

Rebuttal number two is a much more dangerous myth. Many marketers believe that if they create great content, then they will succeed. The best content always wins, they say. This is not true, and frankly never has been.

I’ll go a step further: Even if you have socially validated content (i.e. popular online) it still may not succeed in generating marketing outcomes. Attention is not ROI. Attention can help build brand, sometimes. But even Super Bowl ads — arguably the most sure-fire way to garner tons of attention for your content — do not guarantee a successful result.

It’s important to understand why the best content does not win. Otherwise, you will build many beautiful things that will remain unused.

The Blood Meridian Case Study

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Cormac McCarthy is widely recognized as a great American author, and Blood Meridian is considered his masterpiece, a savage novel that spits up the conventional western myth in dystopian fashion. Published in 1985, Blood Meridian is often listed as one of the top 20 novels of the 20th century.

But the book did not sell. At least, not until Cormac McCarthy’s later commercial successes like All the Pretty Horses (1992) and The Road (2006). In fact, at first it only sold 1200 copies in hardback. Instead a more commercial western novel released that year — Larry McMurtry’s Lonesome Dove — won the hearts and minds of American readers.

After the Border Trilogy and the movies that ensured, Blood Meridian enjoyed pull-through sales and wider recognition for its incredible story. But even after the lift brought about by those powerful coattails, the novel is much more of literary success than a commercial one.

Blood Meridian epitomizes best content not winning in business. To be clear, business is about sales. Comparing western to western, Blood Meridian reads like a fricking Ferrari next to the safe yet lovable Lonesome Dove, a Honda Accord of novels. That’s not to belittle a Honda Accord, or McMurtry’s Pulitizer Prize winning best-seller. But time has proven Blood Meridian to be the all-time critical masterpiece of the two novels, while Lonesome Dove is the commercial winner hands-down.

Why did this happen? One word: Distribution.

McMurtry was an established author with a reputation for good works like the Last Picture Show (1966) and Terms of Endearment (1975). As a result, Loneseome Dove was well distributed much like an unproven Stephen King novel would be well distributed and reviewed today.

On the other hand, McCarthy had some literary successes, but was not a proven commercial quantity. In fact, in 1992 — before the publication of his first commercial success All the Pretty Horses — an article in the New York Times noted that none of his novels published to that point had sold more than 5,000 hardcover copies.

Once commercial success arrived, so did distribution and reviews as well his own Pulitzer Prize for The Road. But none of McCarthy’s books have been as highly regarded as Blood Meridian.

The “Yeah, Buts”

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Yeah, but that was in the 80s before the Web, social media, and email. Now with social media good content can rise to the top.

No, it’s not that easy. Anyone who has had any success online knows that it takes distribution. Distribution through your site, through a cultivated community that shares your information, through your own networks, through a sizeable email list(s) that actually opens your emails, through influencers and media that share your story, through native ads, and on and on. Content must be shared and delivered.

Yeah, but when I focus and write great content it always performs better than my mediocre content.

Of course it does. A ripe tomato tastes better than one that is spoiling. I would even agree that if you don’t create at least above average content, your effort will fail before it even starts. There is just too much noise out there!

But does a secondary player or unknown person’s outstanding content perform anywhere near as well as a market leader’s above average content? No, that’s because distribution is as important, if not more important than ever before. The amount of posts and related content is flat-out overwhelming now. It’s almost impossible to rely on the best content to rise to the top. People are increasingly looking for trusted sources — even algorithms in networks like Facebook, LinkedIn and Twitter — to tell them what’s important, rather than seeking out the best content possible.

Yeah, but I know a company that has great content, and they are getting incredible double digit returns on new leads and revenue.

Show me a good content marketing effort, and I’ll show you an organized distribution strategy. In fact, I’ll also show you a relevant product and service offering, and brand that people are at least moderately interested in. But in the minds of some digital media mavens, the success belongs to the content. In many ways, that’s like giving credit for a great dish prepared at a restaurant to the superior saucier working in the kitchen. Much more goes into the entire dish and restaurant experience.

The Hard Reality of Increasing Content Glut

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This is my real beef with best content myth and the overall great creative meme. You can write the Eiffel Tower of blog posts, but it will fail if no one sees it. Increasingly, less people share content. Half of all posts get shared eight times or less, 75% get shared less than 40 times.

That’s because there’s more and more content. This decline is affecting everybody, even top content creators as evidenced by the above chart from Buzzsumo.

Mary Meeker’s annual Internet trends report shows a 20+% increase in Internet traffic year-over-year. It also shows a 75% year-over-year increase in consumer generated shares. ALl of these increases equal more noise year-over-year.

Yet, while the average amount of content dramatically increases every year, the actual time people spend online is not increasing that much. We are talking about single digit growth. You can only spread the peanut butter so far. This is the very embodiment of content shock.

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The time shortage also provides the raison d’etre for why data and analytics have become necessary. Data drives successes now. Intelligence online shows you who is amplifying content and how to reach them. Of course, with data you can understand whether or not your brand is increasing its positive equity online. It shows you where customers are. Data can help you to identify which prospects best match your customer profile, and how to intentionally focus your efforts on them. You can use it to build the programmatic triggers based on algorithms to serve the right content (inbound or online) at the right time.

I don’t think this is a great secret. Analytics has always been mentioned as the underpinning of great content and distribution.

Yet if you read the case studies of great content these days, data and distribution are usually not mentioned. And these are case studies published by well-established content marketing authorities. This is how myths get perpetuated. I guarantee you that if you pried under the covers, every great content success uses analytics to optimize its content, and has excellent established distribution channels, earned, owned and paid. Most use marketing automation tools, too.

Winning is much more about the mechanics than the great content chefs would lead you to believe.

I remember speaking with my friends at Navy Federal last fall about their content. They saw a 14% jump in inquiries based on a content campaign via social media. Because of the increase in volume, they moved to enterprise grade social media management solutions and analytics tools to monitor conversations, log service interactions, and measure the impact of these conversations. They ended up optimizing their efforts and focusing on the channels and tactics that were driving the most customer interactions. The financial results justified further investment.
 
The content was very good. The optimization and tailoring was even better.

Concluding Remarks

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More and more companies deploy content marketing tactics now. Yes, you can have the Inbound Marketing success that the Neil Patels of the world profess. But it takes a hell of a lot more than just great content.

Make no bones about it, the best content needs amplification. Stakeholders are inundated with messages, updates, ads, and other forms of content, both corporate and peer-to-peer.

From a corporate standpoint, content is a product. It serves a stakeholder. Without the data to become precise not only in distribution, but also in targeting and content creation to actually resonate with the stakeholders that matter, that content will not be found.

To succeed, marketers need to go beyond content marketing. They need to create marketing ecosystems that blend precision targeting, product marketing, engagement, branding, distribution and yes, content.

So, no offense to the best content crowd, but your 10 out of 10 stars quality blog post with little distribution won’t perform anywhere near as well as one might think. Good content will be read and shared as much because of distribution as quality.

Good is good enough, but even the good will dwindle with ever-increasing content volumes. Precision and discipline driven by data are the answers, not just creating “the best content.” On to the next unicorn.

What do you think?

  • http://www.businessesGROW.com/blog Mark W Schaefer

    I cannot believe this is still a debate anywhere. There is no credible marketer or content creator alive who can sincerely believe that great content is a guarantee of any kind of success. PS Cormac McCarthy is my favorite author.

    • geofflivingston

      McCarthy is so amazing. Yeah, I find it shocking myself. Could not believe I was catching those remarks on Twitter and other places.

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  • http://www.abstractedge.com Scott Paley

    Spot on. I’d posit there’s a law of diminishing returns on content quality. Above a certain “good enough for the targeted audience” level, you’ll get a better return if you focus on distribution than on improving the quality of the content itself.

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