Understandably, many people are skeptical of the idea that by putting out a lot of content for free you can influence buyers and grow revenue. I see arguments on this subject flying thick on sites like Quora all the time.
Oftentimes, reasonable questions about the benefits of content marketing are leaped on with defensive ferocity by many of us invested in this field.
But, truth be told, I can see two really good reasons to be skeptical.
1. There’s a lot of crap out there flying the flag of content marketing.
If you’re like me, when you develop a new interest or have a subject you need to get up to speed on, you follow a bunch of people on Twitter supposedly expert on that subject and start clicking on some of the links they share.
And then you start to get really depressed, because so much of it is a waste of time.
You wouldn’t be influenced by this junk. I wouldn’t be influenced by it. You can’t imagine that it’s doing the brand any good. It’s tempting to conclude that content marketing is some kind of con.
I call these articles “clickbait-and-switch” marketing. It’s giving a poor impression about what this method is all about.
But that’s alright. I sincerely believe that the more marketers are carelessly churning out junk, the more that the stuff that truly establishes authority, expertise and thought leadership will stand out and be appreciated by your target market.
2. The evidence that it works is thin.
Measurement is a pain in the butt, and when you put a bunch of writers, editors and illustrators on the case, we tend to put the analytics down at the bottom of the to-do list. My colleague calls that analysis paralysis. But the evidence is growing, and I’ll get into that later.
Most of the arguments in favor of content marketing works fall into three major categories . . .
You can go by the anecdotes
There is a lot of anecdotal evidence out there that content marketing works. Many business leaders swear it was a key part of their success.
There is a big misconception that content marketing doesn’t drive sales. But if it didn’t work well, none of my companies would exist. –Neil Patel of KISSMetrics, Crazy Egg and Quick Sprout
From neighborhood guides and interactive economic impact studies, content has always been at the heart of our marketing activities. – Dennis Goedegebuure, former Head of SEO at Airbnb
Content has been our golden goose without a doubt. It came to us purely out of necessity. We’re a revenue funded company. How do we compete against these massive storied brands like Dow Jones and Thompson who take you to a Yankees game or take you to a nice dinner? We couldn’t do any of that. So we accidentally started doing these research briefs. We finally realized this is like a magical channel for us. We’re getting close to a thousand trial signups a month just on our content. – Anand Sanwal, CEO and Co-Founder of CB Insights via Growth Everywhere podcast
You can look at what leaders in the field are doing
Surveys of CMOs and brand managers in all kinds of sectors show that they are committed to spending more time and money on this method. Maybe they’re all way off base, but this is a pretty accomplished group of people. Unless they’re all operating under a mass delusion, this suggests there’s real value in content marketing.
- “78% of CMOs think see content is the future of marketing.” via Demand Metric
- Coca Cola no longer relies on traditional ad agencies for creative ideas, instead taking a collaborative approach to storytelling and content creation, according to its global advertising strategy head. -via Marketing Week
- 76 percent of surveyed marketing professional expect to create more content in 2016, and 51 percent say they will increase spending. -via Content Marketing Institute
You can go by the case studies
Many companies have been using content marketing for several years, and their individual experiences often get written up as case studies.
Even though it is targeting a very specific market niche . . . SuperOffice is challenged by having to compete with very large enterprise companies such as Salesforce and Microsoft . . . . SuperOffice’s content strategy reached across multiple marketing channels and tactics, including search engine optimization, social media, email and content marketing . . . . This approach increased organic traffic 97% and organic leads 43%. – via MarketingSherpa
[Eloqua increased customer engagement: 21 percent increase in views of the demo (which is their primary indicator for purchase); 12 percent increase in pageviews on Eloqua.com; 14 percent decreased bounce rate; . . . . More than 2,000 registrations; more than 500 qualified leads – best campaign all quarter. – via Content Marketing Institute
Compare the results of three months of plodding to three months of posting content regularly . . . . From November 1 – January 31st [Speak On Cruises] had 1,439 unique visitors. Of those visitors 279 went to the contact form = 19.4%. And more than 100 of those filled the form in and hit send. -via SearchEngineJournal
You can go by the emperical evidence that it works
The empirical evidence that content marketing works isn’t totally missing. For example:
- A survey of Roper Public Affairs & Corporate Communications on consumer attitudes found that 61% of consumers feel better about and are more likely to buy from a company that delivers custom content.
- Hubspot’s The State of Inbound Marketing 2011 found that 57% of marketers have succeed with new customer acquisition through blogging, and inbound tactics save 13% in cost-per-lead. -via Hubspot
Some overlooked arguments
That adds up to a lot of persuasive data and illustrations of how content marketing can work when it is thoughtful, planned and strategic. (Which it very often isn’t.)
I think some arguments in favor of this method are being overlooked, though.
1. When it doesn’t work, you know it.
Suppose hypothetically that content marketing was a dud. Imagine that you do everything by the book, publishing highly valuable content, put it out consistently, and then promote it heavily, and that the results are bupkis.
Then you you would know that.
And that’s a big advantage over other marketing methods. Everything in digital formats is measurable, so if a blog post generates a grand total of 0 leads and 0 dollars, you know. The same can’t be said with any confidence about tv ads, direct mail, billboards, etc.
Don’t get me wrong. I believe those things also work and are an important part of the whole for most companies. Fortune 500 companies buying Super Bowl ads generally aren’t run by dummies. (There are famous cases of delusion like the spending by dot.com companies in the 1999 and 2000 Super Bowl games that were at the end of their burn rate, but that foolishness wasn’t really limited to marketing.)
But, though traditional methods like tv ads, direct mail and billboards provide a value, you can’t point to which ads are generating which purchase decisions.
As the old saying goes, “Half the money I spend on advertising is wasted. The trouble is, I don’t know which half.” That’s why even Fortune 500 CMOs are desperate for new and more effective ways to reach their customers.
Another way to think about this is that with analog marketing tactics, including advertising, you can infer causality. And that inference can be strongly persuasive, but it is less likely that you can attribute a particular sale to a particular ad.
You never know which box of cereal was bought because of exposure to the ad and which box just jumped off the shelf and into the cart for reasons you can’t measure.
With digital marketing tactics, including content marketing, making that clear attribution is possible for any business. You can know which individual clicked the social media post or the blog headline and then went on to buy the product.
2. Even if content marketing isn’t working, it’s an asset you keep ownership of and can improve upon.
The same can’t be said of purchased media. When an ad airs, it’s gone. When the contract with your billboard company ends, they take the billboards down, and you have nothing to show for it. Even if you could learn that it didn’t work or only sort of worked, you don’t have an asset to build on.
With content marketing, you are building a platform with assets that you own. If you discover those assets are not working, you can revise them and try again.
That’s less than ideal, obviously, but it offers more options to learn, adjust and improve than traditional marketing tactics.
3. You don’t really have any better choices.
The economic and demographic trends are all against trying to compete with traditional marketing tactics.
The mediums are being commoditized, and they are becoming less effective. Buyers are more resistant to advertising, so it takes more and more money to make less of an impression with the target customers, which makes them more resistant, etc.
The best way for a startup to compete for attention without the media budget of a Fortune 500 company is to earn attention by giving their target customers a reason to come to them.