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All art, no science: Why content marketing goes wrong

12th Mar 2015
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There are many variables for a content marketing strategy falling by the wayside. With the sheer quantity of content being passed around the web, even the most beautifully written prose or funniest video clip can get lost amongst the digital deluge, leaving marketers scratching their heads to find answers.

And while it might be a fair admission to say there is no panacea for producing successful content on a regular basis, there are a number of tell-tale signs that can help brands ascertain the reasons their content marketing isn’t quite pulling its weight the way they’d hoped.       

1. Poor quality

Clearly, quality plays a huge part in how much success a piece of content has. In many cases, content marketers feel pressured to deliver high volume content strategies in order to appear like they are a larger publishing unit than their customers and prospects might think. But, as Michael Gollender, head of media sales at Taboola states, this isn’t always the most successful method:

“An ongoing supply of good-quality, targeted content is key to content marketing success, but whereas marketers are told they need to act like publishers, becoming a publisher like The Guardian is hard, very hard.

“Companies that don’t have adequate resources, processes and tools rarely see the results they hoped for, since their content simply does not drive a change in consumer perception, knowledge or behaviour.”

A considered, thoughtful approach is vital, especially in cases where a brand is hoping to deliver a viral effect through their content. Perhaps the best example of this is the trend among global retailers of publishing comical ‘sign of the times’ children’s letters that in some way draw attention to their brand.

Done well, like the case in which Sainsbury’s renamed tiger bread ‘giraffe bread’ on written request from a 3 year-old girl, and the positive perception of the brand will remain, regardless of whether the letter is revealed to be a hoax. However, if this is done without careful consideration, like the instance in which a child supposedly wrote a gift list letter to Santa using Amazon URLs rather than toy descriptions, then the response can be more harmful to a brand than if the content hadn’t been produced in the first place.   

“Content marketing has had so much attention over the past year or two that brands are rushing to jump on board and losing sight of what’s important – the quality of what they are sharing,” says Sylvia Jensen, director of EMEA marketing at Oracle Marketing Cloud.

“The truth is that a smaller volume of well curated, relevant content will have a more noted impact than a widespread blast of generic information.”

2. It’s not just about the content

It’s now widely accepted that marketing, as a profession, has shifted from art to science; from being a creative output to a data-driven philosophy largely led by inbound insights. However, one common mistake among content marketers is that the ‘art’ is the crucial element of delivering a successful campaign, and the science is secondary.

“By far the most common mistake is in thinking that a content marketing strategy is only about the content,” says Jamie Toward, head of content for MEC. “Simply put it’s not. Crafting great content is part art and part science and, clearly, it’s a really important part of a content marketing strategy, but so are the technical infrastructures for data capture and manipulation, so are the targeted and optimised distribution techniques that drive content efficiency and so are the processes that make all of these facets work together.

“Marketers need to be really clear that beautiful content that few people see and that has no effectiveness measurement built around it (so that it can be made better in its next iteration), is not valuable content – it’s a dead investment that nobody benefited or learned from.”

Adam Vowles, head of content and outreach at SUSO Digital agrees, but believes that many content marketing strategies fail because the insights about audience and reach aren’t made early enough in advance of production:

“At its core, content marketing is all about using research and data to make educated decisions. To create truly great content there is also an element of risk involved. You must experiment and test. One common mistake is just to copy what has already worked in your industry. It has already been done, therefore your impact and reach will be significantly reduced.”

3. One size doesn’t fit all

The statement that what works in your industry doesn’t necessarily work for you couldn’t be more pertinent in content marketing, and many brands fall foul of the ‘herd of sheep effect’. Building a content marketing strategy around the success of competitors is a sure fire route to underachievement:  

“One of the most commonly made mistakes by marketers when building a content marketing strategy is taking a ‘one size fits all’ approach, assuming tactics which have worked for other brands are bound to work for them,” says Kathryn Dawson, creative director at Strategy Digital.

“Content should be created with specific audiences’ interests in mind, and not simply because the idea is appealing and has been successful elsewhere.”

4. There’s no ‘I’ in content

Dawson also states that another trap marketers tend to fall into is becoming too brand-focused in their approach to content production:   

“Creating content too focused on yourself; your brand, products and related issues is another mistake.  Think more about what will prove interesting to existing and potential customers and address their queries and problems in an engaging, entertaining way. Understanding the buying process and how your content fits with each stage means you can create content that advances people along the buying cycle.”

On this point, content marketing agency, Sticky Content’s Ian Smith, who uses popstars to regularly analogise content marketing successes, and thinks brands could do worse than follow the U2 and Bono school of ‘sticking to the things you know’.

His example is the furore surrounding Apple’s ‘force-feed’ of the U2 album Songs of Innocence, which was pre-loaded into every new iPhone 6 without user agreement and met with widespread disdain.

While the act itself may have been negatively received, Smith points to Bono’s argument that the action was because, “after a few years of falling album sales, the band had decided to revert to writing the kind of  ‘hold your phone aloft-style stadium fillers’ that had made them famous – and Bono wanted everyone to know about it”.

“There is a lot to be said for knowing your areas of content expertise and what your users are expecting from you, and then focusing on delivering on that really well,” says Smith. In other words, focus on the topic areas you are highly regarded, as opposed to focusing on everything with just your own interests in mind.  

“Brands should also try to take an inside-out approach – yes, our ultimate goal is to sell our products, but don’t just write about what you do,” says Sylvia Jensen.

“We often hear about the importance of understanding the customer in order to succeed in content marketing but, while that will always be applicable, it is unlikely you will ever actually be your customer. You’re not ‘in the trenches’ so don’t present yourself as such; you will add more value by empathising with customer pains and suggesting remedies based on your company’s expertise, rather than telling them how to do their job.”

5. Not niche enough

The final point may in essence be a combination of the previous four, but it is also perhaps the most important takeaway that can distinguish good content marketing from bad.

While some brands are lucky enough to be able to commit huge budgets to widespread content marketing campaigns, the majority do not get the same luxury. And in those instances, it’s important to establish a niche and carve out a level of respectability and experise in that area. 

“Consumers are inundated with information and their attention span is ever-shrinking. You are competing for attention with legions of content creators – from family members to mega brands – across a host of channels,” says Michael Gollender. “Even when a brand is “armed” with the best content, if distribution isn’t properly planned, managed and executed, positive returns are unlikely.”

Ian Smith uses the example of US-based swimming pool company River Pools and Spa, which, after struggling to stand out online using standing PPC advertising, decided to write a series of really niche blog posts, showcasing its expertise in advising customers installing home pools.

“With topics like ‘How much is my pool really going to cost?’ and ‘5 reasons why tarp pool covers are a terrible investment’, the blog generated a 120% increase in organic web traffic to the company website, which ultimately led to more than $1.7 million in sales for the once tiny company. All of this came from the technique of really knowing your editorial niche and working it.”

The figures speak for themselves - good content marketing is a means for generating genuine profit, and the River Pools and Spa example proves that smaller and more focused is often the best recipe for success.  

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By LinkedInUser
12th Mar 2015 13:37

All good points, although we have seen some practices with evidence of science (without neglecting the art that makes content attractive and a positive experience). Most of the 'science' I've come across is about targeting (segmenting audiences), the timing, the choice of channel(s) (audience-relevant channel mix), and that ultimate success factor: matching content to well-studied customer needs. 

Where many get it wrong is in exactly the same areas I mentioned above: untargeted scattergun content for an unsegmented wide audience, delivered through the wrong channel and not meeting any particular customer need (or needs imagined by the marketer but not based on any research and analytical insight). 

And, of course, that point in the article where they put too much 'I' in 'content'. Not just being too brand-centric (a lesser sin, but a sin nonetheless), but even pushing specific products! That's a mortal sin: selling is NOT content marketing, stoopid! 

As this form of marketing matures, I like to hope we will be seeing a lot more science and more success stories (than horror stories and 'how-not-to' case studies). And I expect the discipline to be at the heart of the ongoing trend of advertising transformation into desired and voluntarily consumed infotainment content.

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