You never hear marketers say, “You know what? There isn’t enough quality content marketing out there. We’re really selling ourselves short.”
The truth is that we are selling ourselves short, but not by failing to produce enough material.
The place where content marketing misses the point is not production of content, but production of meaningful content.
All-you-can-eat, but it’s empty calories
Today, anyone can make a website, post to Twitter or Instagram or publish an ebook. From a creative standpoint, that’s great news because it means those who are creating good content can get it out into the world.
From a marketing standpoint, that’s not so good because it means there’s a whole lot of less-than-good content out there as well.
As Robert McGuire says of this kind of overly generic content, “It could have been for anybody; it could have been written by anybody.” The result is a plethora of content that doesn’t mean anything to most people. And as we all know, content has to be meaningful for it to engage audiences.
I’d love to say that this abundance of generic content is limited to individuals, but businesses are the biggest offenders. It seems that a hundred years’ worth of authoritative and informative advertising dug deeper into our psyches than we may have realized, leaving some marketing leaders to default to uninspired, meaningless content that fits with the overly generic content Robert is talking about.
The answer is the same as that which has driven societal and cultural changes since the beginning of time: we learn a new philosophy. We change the way we think about content.
Sharing brand values to build quality content marketing
We already know content has to engage the audiences it’s intended for. But we don’t want to simply engage them with a product or service. We want to engage them with our brands.
As the power of authority advertising wanes, people have become more socially aware. It’s important to them to know that they are working with brands that share values similar to theirs. If your brand content only focuses on how successful your products are or how much savings it can offer, that won’t say much to your audience.
Robert pointed me to his friend Pete Sena’s article that captures this well. Sena of the innovation design firm Digital Surgeons argues in VentureBeat that “product innovation by itself won’t give you a lasting lift” because eventually gets commoditized like a toaster. Only brand building creates a lasting lift.
People want to know that a company is about more than just dollars and cents. Take, for example, IBM’s habit on Twitter of celebrating their support for creativity rather than celebrating their solutions. That example doesn’t explicitly market anything. What it does is promote brand values they want to be known for, specifically collaboration and creativity. When an IBM customer sees this tweet, they don’t think, “Yes, but what are you selling?” They think, “Yes, that’s the sort of company I want to do business with.”
United Health Group, parent to United Healthcare, actually started a whole Twitter handle dedicated to demonstrating their commitment to corporate social responsibility. They understand that, in a world where health care costs are a mounting frustration for so many Americans, they’d better do something meaningful to stand out among their competitors.
Build brands, not campaigns
Part of the “new philosophy” is that we stop thinking about marketing as campaign-centric with quick returns and instead think of it as brand-centric.
Joe Lazauskas, Editor In Chief at Contently, wrote an article last year that addresses this new philosophy. With traditional advertising, a product, idea or capability is meant to inspire a new campaign aimed specifically at selling whatever that product, idea or capability is.
But it’s the brand more than the product that you want people coming back to. (Google+ probably wouldn’t even still be around if it didn’t have the Google brand attached.) Don’t create a library of half-baked content for a single campaign and then only use a fraction of it.
Instead, Lazauskas advises, use content pillars, created from the inside out so that your content works together and builds a recurring audience. Content that promotes products alone can’t do that.
In a post on Marketo, Jonathan John takes a look at the finding in Content Marketing Institute’s annual benchmark report that nearly half of B2B marketers say their greatest challenge is creating engaging content. Why? Because, John says, the content is narrowly focused on the product instead of being holistically focused on the brand.
He goes on to suggest ways to ensure your content is brand-centric. The most important of these is the last, which is to create content that reflects your brand’s values.
Value your creative talent
Brand values aren’t just for the consumer. They play a huge part in the talent companies attract and retain. And since creatives are the driving force behind content, it stands to reason that a brand should invest in and value creative talent.
Lazauskas goes into greater detail, but essentially his point is that creatives need to be seen as part of the revenue-generating segment of any brand whose marketing strategy is heavily content-driven.
If you hire amateur creative talent for an amateur price, you’re going to get amateur work, and that’s going to be tough to market against the quality of the content already out there. Similarly, if you hire a great creative but stymy them with process flows and approval chains, you’re not going to get the same return you’d get if you let your creatives be creative.
I’ve worked at plenty of shops that were happy to throw money at sales and product marketing managers because they are seen as “profit centers” while creatives are seen as “cost centers” and have to fight for a living wage. The reality is, design and editorial talent are revenue generating. They aren’t client-facing most of the time (though even that is changing), but without their creative work, content marketing couldn’t exist, or at least, it wouldn’t be very effective.
Creatives are well aware of this and often happy to tell the world when they’ve found a company that values them. Hire a creative at a fair wage and allow them to be creative, and it’s almost a guarantee that they will plaster that message all over their social media and beyond. Suddenly, brand values are making a huge impact both inside and outside the business.
Investment is risk — embrace it
A lot of what this comes down to is risk. Being brand-centric, paying for top creative talent, having brand values people can relate to — these are scary ideas for brands that have been caught up applying traditional marketing ideas to content marketing practices.
Businesses, especially in the wake of the recession, are hesitant to take risks. And it is good business to take as little risk as possible. But it’s bad business if risk aversion leaves you with closets of meaningless content.
The phrase, “you get what you pay for” comes to mind. Yes, there are some cost-saving benefits to putting all your eggs in the owned media channels basket and low-balling talent and creating campaign-centric content that doesn’t engage as much as it announces, but what is the ROI on all of that?
Probably not much. Certainly not as much as it would be if we were willing to undertake more risk. You can’t get a return on investment if you don’t make a real investment in the first place — and investment is risk, by definition.
But smart investing leads to revenue. Invest your money in quality talent, invest your time in creating a brand identity that people want to relate to, increase your spend on paid channels, and most of all, show some patience on the return. Remember that content marketing is a marathon, not a sprint. Those who are too eager coming out of the gates will be left behind.
If you build it, make it meaningful
If all you do is build it, they probably won’t come. But if you make it meaningful and relevant, they’ll show up with friends. And if you engage them, they’ll all be talking about what a stellar party you throw. If we start to think the way our customers think instead of the way we want them to think, content marketing will organically become more meaningful and most importantly, so will our brands.
J.G.C. Wise is a memoirist, essayist, blogger and freelance copywriter whose specializations and interests include higher education, healthcare practices, human resources and living organ donation. You can read his work at www.jgcwise.com.