Ten years is a long time. Ten years of blogging? Well, that seemed unfathomable back in 2006, yet, here we are. This week marks my tenth full year of blogging.
Things have changed so much since I began. Back then it was edgy, then it become profitable. Now, it seems passé and marginalized.
In 2006, writing something new and cool excited me. In the 2008-9 range, blogging was majestic, an exhilarating experience that brought attention, notoriety and opportunity. By 2011, it became a grind. Feeding the beast to stay relevant forced me into a daily blogging discipline.
Then after a series of private disappointing events related to my last business book something happened. I stopped giving a damn what other people thought of my blog. Relevancy, topic, edgy, not edgy. It just didn’t matter to me anymore.
Perhaps I realized what a fool I had been.
The Joy of Blogging Returns
I still blogged once a week for a couple of years just to maintain presence, but when this year began I gave myself a gift. The weekly blog, a post I would write so often on Sunday night just to get it published, was an act of drudgery more often than not. There was little business value to it anymore, either.
So I decided to stop, and let myself off the blogging hook. No longer would I write on a schedule for my personal blog. Instead, I write now when the muse strikes me, and time permits. And that seems to be every two to three weeks.
What a relief. Freedom to write when I want to, what I want to.
When I press publish, I smile. The joy of blogging returns.
Forgotten Maybe, But Not Dead Yet
I may be forgotten as a consequence of blogging less, but I’m not dead yet.
Now I still blog elsewhere for other people several times a week. They’re not blogs anymore, not really. I guess because saying what you think is not really marketing. Blogs have to be polished, relevant to target audiences, geared toward the larger customer experienced ecosystem. No, we call them articles now. It’s not the same thing.
Here, when it’s said, it’s meant. It’s a hell of lot less frequent, but there is a genuine authenticity to the blogs that you won’t find on a corporate “brand journal.”
Getting there again was a process. Ten years teaches you if you’re still blogging, it’s because it resolves some sort of creative angst within you. It’s old school. It’s a bonafide antiquated blog, said when it wants to be said.
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
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”
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
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.
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.
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.
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.
Content isn’t going anywhere, but the content marketing trend may be disappearing much quicker than we think. This trend movement more to do with marketers failing to deliver results with general content than the role branded content has on the Internet.
The B2B marketing crowd is moving beyond the content marketing trend and adapting account based marketing. Advertising crowds are adapting real time and programmatic marketing. Both the account-based and programmatic trends use content, but with much more precise data-oriented methods.
And traditional social media and PR types, while using content more for thought leadership and media relations, are seeing greater gains in the influencer marketing realm. This is probably an obvious development as PR has always been better about creating third-party or earned media coverage rather than creating content.
Marketers and PR types have been abusive, chumming the Internet with articles, memes and other content forms to draw inbound traffic. As a result, content has been thrown against all the public walls across the Internet. People turn away from boring content. They don’t trust it, and see through its veneer of “usefulness.”
This happened because most communicators lack the ability and/or the discipline to incorporate data intelligence — e.g. information about what their audiences care about — and create well crafted customized content. The result is a perception that the content marketing trend is waning.
To be clear, content marketing didn’t fail. The marketing and PR industry did. So we’re starting to move on to a new series of trends and buzzwords. And I fully expect the industry to beat those horses into the ground, too.
Content itself will remain and continue its growth online, but instead of being the hot “strategic” touchpoint of digital marketing, it becomes more of a role player. Perhaps that’s better anyway. Like public social media, you can have too much of a good thing.
You could literally say content is everything. But in the end, it is the customer relationships that matter. Content is a means to communicate, and is subservient to that ultimate barometer: Does it help or harm relationships?
Have you read any recent content marketing articles? Today’s articles feature shiny objects to distribute content through (hi, Snapchat and Periscope) and platitudes about impact. Largely trend pieces with statistics, they fail to help marketers grow and become better. Worse, the new account-based marketing trend — which is just hyper-targeted data-driven content marketing — focuses on precision provided by analytics, but not the technique used to create niche content.
To be clear, a marketer’s job is to connect with and compel people; usually, but not always, their customers. To do that, content needs to tell a good story.
In many ways, trends like social media tools and data analysis provide new powers for marketing, much like an electric drill works better than a hand crank. So we have a bunch of marketers walking around with power tools drilling holes in a wall hoping they hit the right spot. Even though they have data and the latest networks, they miss the mark more often than not. They don’t understand the wall and its dimensions. As a result, marketers destroy the wall.
What we have is a data problem. Too much focus on data and trends, not enough on creating compelling content.
To be crystal clear with this post: Data and trends in content marketing are nice. They inform creativity. They do not replace creativity.
Impact Requires a Story
Results in communications are contingent on compelling stakeholder groups — by groups of ten, by the thousands, or entire market segments. Regardless of where the content lies in a company’s user experience, it needs to impact someone’s journey. That is true of the consumer, that is true of the business stakeholder.
Why else would someone act? Buying is an emotional decision. If your content doesn’t create positive emotion for someone — even if it is just allaying fears — then you have a problem.
I love media and how it empowers us to communicate with each other. What I find most interesting is how people use those media forms to connect, and the outcomes these connections create. Why was that Periscope video successful? How did that article help someone come decide to engage with the “build your own” tool on your site? Why did that series of personal case studies increased conversions of your software product?
Stories. Content must tell stories or help people envision their own narrative. The media changes, the methods allow for more precision, there are more distractions now, but once you get someone to try your content, it has to compel them.
How Data Helps Storytelling, But Doesn’t Replace It
Let’s use another analogy: Just because Google Maps can tell you the fastest route, doesn’t mean it can teach you how to drive. Your trip is not guaranteed to be timely, much less safe.
In my mind, data is beautiful. It provides a great deal of research to inform creativity. It points out who the customer is (demographics), what they like, and which media they use. In some cases, it provides insights into their behavior, concerns and interests with a particular brand. What more could a creative want? This information provides the means to create content that moves the stakeholder.
Yet when I am called into situations to analyze why a marketing or communications program isn’t working, I find that the tactics may beed tweaking, the data analysis needs improvement, but generally they are heading in the right direction. No, the problems come down to two primary groups of issues:
1) Lame content: Corporate messages instead of stories, dry style (e.g. it’s safe and uncompelling), antiquated style (for example long text with no rich media), no personal story or connection, no style, etc.
2) Poor distribution: Including lack of email, lack of native ad-spend, non-engaging social media, using the wrong channels, etc.
Poor distribution has always been an issue, and it is becoming an increasingly difficult one. I highly recommend you read Mark Schaefer’s Content Code if this is concerning you.
On the first issue, the actual content continues to be a problem. Style counts for a lot more than you would think. Data can always be used to better steer a communications effort, but the effort must be made. Data alone cannot deliver compelling media.
Storytelling Must Return
Whether you call it creative, design, writing, PR or marketing, we build narratives with customers. There are many, many useful methods of telling stories that have been discussed, and as many ideas out there (this one 2014 post features 200+ blog article approaches) as there are distribution methods:
Some use an advertising approach, using imagery to tell, and words to compel (Think General Electric).
Consider the traditional social media approach of first person experiential tales (Gary Vaynerchuk has to be the best at this in our business).
There’s third person journalistic storytelling (Adobe does this well across all properties).
These brands use available data to inform their storytelling approach and build something compelling to people. It’s not enough to create targeted brochureware for what they believe people need to hear.
Content really needs to interest and then resolve the stakeholder’s raison d’etre. This is French for reason of being. Why are they investing time? The content better fulfill that reason or the brand will lose the prospective customer. This ethos is at the heart of the current user experience trend driving branding and digital design.
Trends come and go, but corporate and marketing communications [oops, content marketing ;)] always lives and dies based on stakeholder response. Response is the ultimate metric that every manager ultimately judges a communications program by. No response means changes are in store, from the micro to the macro.
That is why it is so necessary to build a compelling story that creates response. This is true regardless of purpose: Launch or customer experience, micro account-based level comms or social network-wide (organic and paid). Marketers better tell a good story that the audience relates with instead of highly targeted noise.
Mark Schaefer authored The Content Code to resolve the very real challenges of brands addressing the current digital marketing environment. With a glut of too much content, attention deficit disorder, and murky evolving SEO rules, communicators find their articles, presentations and other information lying fallow. We asked Mark to keynote xPotomac 2015 to shed light on what it takes to resolve these challenges.
The following is an interview conducted with Mark on behalf of xPotomac. Don’t miss his xPotomac keynote on August 27th, which is designed for experienced digital marketers. (register today using the code “Geoff” and get 20% off). And you can buy The Content Code on Amazon. Any typos or errors are mine, not his.
GL: I love that The Content Code is BADASS. How did you come up with this cheeky acronym?
MS: As I was developing the six strategies that became the backbone of the book, I wondered if there was some natural acronym that I could come up with to help people remember the ideas. I wrote the six on a whiteboard and stared them down. BADASS emerged. Probably one of the best moments of my life. Afterall, how many people literally write a BADASS book?
GL:: You mention the importance of sharing or transmission of content as the critical difference between success and failure. Why do most brands struggle to get their content shared?
MS: I don’t think they are aware of the problem. Right now, the marketing conversation is focused on 1) creating content and 2) building an audience. But neither one of those factors matters unless the content MOVES. The content must be seen, be shared. It must connect. The economic value of content that does not move is exactly zero.
The economics of sharing are powerful. Most Americans say their purchase decision is affected by what is shared on the web. The act of sharing content is an intimate experience that creates advocacy for our brands. I am convinced that there is no metric that is more important right now than the sharing of content.
And getting that content to move in an increasingly information-dense world is getting harder and harder to do. This suggests that marketers need to understand how and why content moves. We need to develop an entirely new competency around that factor. And that what The Content Code book is about. I think this is a such a critical topic. We need to change the conversation now.
GL: xPotomac co-founder Shonali Burke is noted as a member of you Alpha Audience. What is “Alpha Audience” and what makes them so important?
MS: So if you’re with me that the sharing of content is both strategically and economically important, the people who actually share your content are truly the bedrock of your business. Those are the people who are actually advocating you through this generous and emotional act of sharing. These are the most important people in your audience — your Alpha Audience.
I used Shonali as an example in the book because she has been an amazing supporter of my content for years. Through her story, I demonstrate the importance of building trust, not traffic, as the cornerstone of a modern marketing strategy.
GL:: In The Content Code, you mention analytics in several areas and it is clear that brand-specific data informs much of your ethos about where to share content. What tips do you have for brands grappling with data analysis?
MS: I can certainly sympathize with those grappling with analytics. Part of the problem is that many analytics packages are not sufficient to manage our marketing efforts today. We are not going to get any earth-shaking insights from looking at averages, mentions, and sentiment. It’s likely that the real value is going to come from the strong small signals from the people who really love you, from measures that can lead you to better content ignition.
Does your analytics plan include a way to discover and nurture your strongest advocates? Probably not. Does it tell you how effective your content is compared to competitors? No. That is a a big disconnect in the marketplace.
I have been working on a new company that can actually measure a brand’s ability to ignite content. We’ve developed a 50-point statistical analysis that quantifies content marketing effectiveness. I think that will help get us at least part of the way there toward more meaningful metrics!
GL: You close the book by recommending that brands build an ignition competency. What does that look like for a brand with several team members?
MS: First, I must say that I’m impressed that you read the book to the end. Thanks for that!
I think it is this simple. If you identify a resource on your team, hand them The Content Code book, and tell them to “do that,” you will have a competitive advantage. No question. Even if a business does a little every month, there will be results.
A focus on content transmission is the new marketing edge and there will be benefits to those who understand that and respond first.
Our keynote this year is author Mark W. Schaefer, who just released The Content Code, which highlights how the marketing world has gone mad. In his new book, Mark challenges communicators to break through information density by thinking about audiences in a new way
The remaining three sessions and their speakers have been selected:
It’s a data driven world, but you still need creative free thinking to succeed. Senior Vice President for Social@Ogilvy Kathy Baird will discuss some lessons she learned at the Burning Man festival as they apply to digital communications.
Next up, Gannett’s Director of Social Media and Engagement Jodi Gersh and Assistant Managing Editor, Video for the Washington Business Journal Jen Nycz-Conner will discuss how digital media continues to impact the way news is developed and shared.
The first millennials are now 35 years old and taking over executive leadership positions. How does the new digital-savvy leadership impact workplace culture. DC-based authors Jamie Notter and Maddie Grant will discuss the concepts discussed in their new book, When Millennials Take Over.
After our lunch break, crisis communications expert and Commcore Consulting Founder Andy Gilman will join xPotomac cofounders Shonali Burke and Geoff Livingston for a digital crisis communications bootcamp. Help resolve a digital crisis live! For those that don’t know Andy, he has counseled clients for 60 Minutes appearances, Congressional hearings, and most notably provided counsel to Johnson & Johnson during the Tylenol 1 crisis and the Government of Canada for the SARS Outbreak.