If you read the headline and squirmed a little in your seat, chances are you’re part of the “content struggle contingent,” that group of would-be content marketing practitioners who knows they should be engaged in content marketing but remains stuck in neutral when it comes to doing something that adds value to for their prospects and existing customers. You’re doing content for content’s sake.
The Right Kind of Content is Hard
Yet, if the latest research is any indication, you have plenty of company. A recent study conducted by Forrester Research in partnership with the Online Marketing Institute and the Business Marketing Association found that B2B content marketers are not only struggling mightily to produce content, but they are also woefully lacking in the ability to create content that resonates with their core audience as well.
Fully 87% of the 113 marketers polled for the study find producing content that engages buyers to be a major challenge. To those of us who have been engaged in the practice of content marketing for some time now, that figure is surprising, but not startling. But consider this: Of those same marketers, some 51% consider their content marketing efforts mature—that is, they see themselves as doing a solid job in relation to what their competitors are doing.
“While creating great content is something even the best marketers and agencies toil over, we feel that this disconnect reveals a more fundamental problem with content marketing today,” writes the researchers in “Compare Your B2B Content Marketing Maturity.”
The researchers use the word “disconnect,” but I think they are being too kind. I think it’s delusion. No matter how talented their staffs are, how can any company or agency expect to create meaningful, resonant content without first making a commitment to understanding their prospects, including the types of information they normally consume and engage with, in addition to identifying those places they frequent to find such information?
In some ways, as the research further reveals, content marketing is becoming a failed practice primarily owing to content marketers intransigence at being willing to discern what works, then refining those efforts as the move forward.
Content Marketers Have Plenty Of Work To Do
While the entire study is valuable, the area that drew my attention, and elicited the greatest amount of sadness, centered around how well content marketers thought they were doing in relation to how well they are actually doing.
Your eyes are not deceiving you. Only 4% of the respondents would be categorized as doing content marketing effectively.
Content executors. Take stock of current practices and see what’s working. With the longest road ahead of them, marketers in this first stage of maturity should audit online and offline content and ask sales and customers what they find useful and why. Review downloads, shares, and views—or get this data if you don’t have it—and correlate this with your qualitative feedback to assess weakness and gaps in your content.
Aspiring editors. The majority of B2B marketers surveyed are not as mature as they think. Most are in the early stages of assembling a content strategy and executing against it. While practices are often inconsistent or not fully embraced across the organization, these marketers are laying the foundation upon which to build an editorial point of view that gives buyers something that they find useful and valuable.
Proactive publishers. Almost two out of five B2B marketers we surveyed have graduated from aspirational to practical, having developed a consistent approach to content planning, production, and publication. They have clearly defined their best practices around creating content, the practices are well understood across the organization, and they follow them most of the time.
Content masters. At the far end of the spectrum, only 4% of those we surveyed are true masters of content marketing. They have formal editorial oversight and documented processes in place, incorporate customer issues and feedback into their content plans, invest in technology to help cross-functional teams leverage key themes, and can demonstrate the impact that the content creation activity has on their
It’s easy to dismiss these failing grades as the result of content marketing being so new. Maybe many of you are thinking, “What do you expect? To do content marketing right takes time, not just resources.”
I don’t buy it. Let’s call a spade a spade. Marketers jumped into content marketing well before they were ready and with flawed, incomplete plans, then when the results they desired weren’t fast in coming, many have looked to jump ship and call the effort a failure. Think that’s being harsh? Riddle me this: How many marketers do you know who began with a plan of attack that includes content strategy? Not content marketing strategy. Content strategy. <crickets> The answer is very, very few. As I have written before, content marketing, like so many other areas of life, is filled with folks/companies who want to do something often before they learn how to do it well.
Yes, content marketing takes time, but consistent success will only come about when we lead with the strategy, not implementation.
Content Marketers Must Rise Above The Noise
The sheer volume of content being produced daily makes it incredibly difficult for any one brand to get heard consistently. And the noise is approaching a cacophony daily, no matter the vertical your company serves. The way to get heard and define relevance for your brand is to do content marketing better and more consistently than the competition. That process begins, however, with marketers caring enough about their customers to produce the content the latter wants, needs and begins to actively seek.
Unfortunately, as this study elucidates, there are not many brands playing in this sandbox.
The researchers singled out three reasons content marketing isn’t producing the expected results.
Focus on producing content simply to fill channels. Marketers’ content efforts center on outbound campaigns that tell buyers what they should buy. Sixty-two percent admit to producing content on a campaign-by-campaign basis, a practice that fails to address how buyers experience this content over time. And 47% said that they focus primarily on creating content for distribution channels like their company website, online advertising, email, and social media. Another 16% mainly develop sales materials and collateral, and 12% said that their content chiefly helps prospects understand and navigate their offerings. Altogether, this data shows an acute focus on acquisition that practically ignores the rest of the buyer’s journey.
Downplay the importance of content as marketing’s main job. At its core, marketing is about communication, and content is the principal way that marketers communicate to the market. However, a startling 72% of our respondents said that less than half of their marketing staff plays a primary role in content marketing today. When marketers don’t recognize that their charter is to produce content buyers want, then content marketing quickly degrades to talking about products, features, and what the company has to offer.
Struggle to link content activity to business value. While almost all marketers say that content marketing is important, an overwhelming 85% admit that it is only somewhat effective—or less so—at moving the needle on generating revenue, retaining customers, or winning customers’ long-term loyalty. In fact, when we asked survey respondents to look back at the past 12 months and rate the effectiveness of their content marketing efforts, only 14% gave their content practices high marks for delivering value back to the business.
As many of us have known for some time now, a huge part of the problem is mistaking activity for efficacy and engagement, as illustrated in the graph below:
The Content Struggle Is Real
On the plane ride home from Mozcon, a sentence popped into my head that applies here: “The content struggle is real.” I coined the term after having numerous conversations with marketers during the event who talked of the difficulty in producing content that adds value to the bottom line. My words to those marketers was “You’re thinking of content all wrong.”
Content shouldn’t be created for your business to sell more products or services; content should be created to meet the needs of prospects and existing clients.
The more we think of serving and not selling, the better off we’ll be, and the sooner we’ll realize the true potential of content marketing.
This line of thinking is buttressed by the study’s findings:
To run campaigns that guide buyers through their purchase journey, marketing must produce more content to fuel lead-to-revenue systems and engage prospects in a valuable exchange of information. B2B marketers have more work to do to deliver this type of value consistently, because our survey shows that their content production should better:
Highlight how services help customers become successful. Prospective buyers want to know how your products or services will help them. Learning how you’ve helped other buyers just like them demonstrates this capability. Marketing execs need to refocus their team’s efforts in this direction. While 71% of respondents say that their content frequently features case studies or customer stories, only 3% admit that they’ve made this a primary focus of their efforts.
Include more forward-leaning insights that buyers can turn into action. New ideas and provocative points of view show buyers that you understand the market and how emerging trends affect their business. They also help create those high-level conversations that catch the eye of prospective C-suite clients. However, developing content focused on features and functions leaves little time to craft these forward-leaning insights. In our survey, only 12% of respondents make publishing research and perspectives the main focus of their content marketing, and no one said that they engage external experts to validate those ideas.
Build relationships beyond closing a deal. Great content expresses ideas, shares best practices, and delivers insight that builds long-term loyalty among highly fickle and empowered buyers. Facing tighter budgets and more demands on resources, marketers keep the focus on acquisition instead and let communications with their current customers languish. While more than three- quarters of respondents say that they frequently communicate to their customer base, only 5% make this a priority, proving that this trend is difficult to resist.
The message in all of this is not “content marketers suck” or “content marketers suck but don’t realize it.” Rather, the real message is “content marketers have a ways to go to be successful, but some of them are on the right path.”
This blog provides a snapshot of the study, which I suggest you read. There are several important areas I do not touch on here.
I’m eager to learn your thoughts about this research as well. I think it contains a number of important insights that the entire content marketing community can profit from. Keep your eyes on the AuthorityLabs website, for we’ll be providing a more nuanced, in-depth look at many of the aspects listed above in the coming weeks and months.
(A huge shout-out to NewsCred for bringing my attention to this story.)