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?

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.