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How to Fail at Content Marketing

on January 11, 2012

Screwing up at content marketing is one of the easiest things you’ll ever do. In fact, I see far more content marketing failures than I see organizations doing it well. It’s an honest mistake an organization makes. For most, content marketing is new territory and rarely are we good at something the very first time we do it.

I have witnessed and unfortunately been part of many of the following mistakes.  If you’re just starting out with content marketing, you are almost definitely making some of these mistakes. Almost all of my clients have at one time dealt with these issues and in some cases may still be dealing with them.

Hire an ad agency or PR firm

As the communications landscape changes, traditional ad agencies and PR firms have been offering more services to satisfy their clients’ needs, such as content marketing. Seems natural, right? Communications firms know how to write and produce video for marketing purposes, it should be a natural shift to do the same editorially. It’s not.

Unless an ad agency or PR firm already has a staff of former journalists and TV producers, it’s not a natural shift just like it wouldn’t be a natural shift for a journalist to start writing marketing copy.

Yes, ad agencies and PR firms without a seasoned editorial staff can physically create media, but it’s like hiring a general practitioner when you need a specialist. A GP can only sort of help you.

I’m sure I’ll get a lot of heat for this comment as many ad agencies and PR firms are basing a lot of their new business on content marketing. I’m all for that, just as long as they have an experienced staff to do it. That requires hiring people who have worked in traditional journalistic media, not just giving new responsibilities to staffers who don’t have the experience or training. Traditional media is very different from creating ad copy.

Treat content marketing like marketing

This is one of the net results of hiring an ad agency or PR firm to do content marketing. Because their head is so steeped in creating marketing and delivering for the client, it’s very hard to break away from it. Heck “marketing” is in the title of “content marketing” so why not treat it like marketing?

People are forced to watch ads, but they self-select content. If it appears that your content is really marketing in disguise, consumers will sniff it out and avoid it. There are exceptions to this rule such as truly entertaining Superbowl commercials that people like to watch on YouTube.

The core problem is in the name “content marketing.” It sounds insidious. We’re giving you content, but we have an ulterior motive and that’s to market to you. I have used the phrase content marketing to categorize my business, Spark Media Solutions, solely because it’s understood and people use those words when they’re conducting Google searches on the subject. I used to use the synonymous term “custom publishing” but unfortunately it’s become rather dated and only people in the industry know what it means. What I now use, which I think is a more apt title that speaks to the viewpoint and the skills needed is “brand journalism.”

Try content on a limited basis, and give up quickly

I have sadly seen too many examples that I will not show in order to protect the guilty. As I mentioned in a previous article, “Top 10 Things You Didn’t Consider When Developing a Social Media Strategy,” you have to calculate time into your strategy. Rarely do companies have that kind of patience with any communications. It’s understandable that if you spend money you’ll want to see some results for your efforts. The problem is measuring a content marketing campaign is unlike measuring a marketing campaign. Content’s value is cumulative. Initially, you won’t see the results like you would from a pure marketing effort, but over time results will increase, sometimes dramatically.

No magazine built a brand with its first issue. It takes many issues, trial and error, to build an editorial voice, a brand, and a following.

Don’t get involved in social media

Traditional marketing doesn’t require involvement with your audience. It’s something that can be outsourced and you don’t have to get your hands dirty. Not the case with social a social engagement which should be part of any content marketing effort. Unlike most services, this isn’t one that someone can “just do for you.” You need to take a level of responsibility yourself, and that requires building a social presence and that takes time.

Have a narrow view of production

A good number of my initial engagements begin with “We want to make a video” and immediately the first question is “How much does that cost?” Which is the equivalent of asking, “How long is a piece of string?”

In all cases, someone who wants to “make a video” has a bigger problem to solve, and that gets into discussions of strategy and whether this video will be the solution to that strategy. But a greater concern of mine is that if you focus all your efforts on just one video it can get very costly to just create a single item and that means you’re putting a pretty heavy gamble on one single piece of content. Conversely, I’m a big fan of one effort, multiple units of content. For example, instead of going to a conference and producing one video of the event, why not produce multiple videos, articles, photos, a podcast, and maybe also a summary of the event? All of that is going to yield much greater output, make you more visible, and your per unit (video, article, photos, podcasts) costs will be a fraction of that original video you wanted to create.

For more, read “Be the VoiceSM” – Build Your Business by Becoming your Industry’s Thought Leader.

Have extremely high expectations about traffic

This coincides with giving up quickly. I’ve had huge clients for which the employees eat, sleep, and drink the company Kool-Aid. If you’re so steeped in it you lose perspective and think the rest of the world has been itching to hear more about you and once your story gets out there they’re going to be busting down your doors.

It’s not going to happen. Unless you already have a brand with an extreme loyal following, no one cares about you. Everyone cares about themselves.

Believe there’s a direct correlation between site traffic and inbound sales calls

It rarely works that way. Have you ever purchased something solely after reading an article or seeing a video a single time? Probably not, so don’t believe there are some other people out there that do. Direct sales shouldn’t be content marketing’s purpose. That’s the purpose of marketing. Content marketing helps you build greater brand affinity. It plays into many other critical factors, such as:

  • Increasing brand value
  • Increasing audience trust
  • Humanizing your business
  • Connecting with industry influencers
  • Creating assets to be traded via social media
  • Creating assets that are visible in search
  • Increasing the value of your services

The asset itself and the process of creating it is what creates value.

Conclusion: Pay attention to your audience first

Self-centeredness with content production only works for a select few that have already established a powerful brand. For organizations that are just starting out you must always play to your audience. It’s a great rule of thumb. Before you create any piece of content ask yourself, “Why would anyone care about this?” If there isn’t a compelling reason, then move on to another content effort. Remember, unlike traditional marketing, content marketing is user selected. Make something the user wants to select.

Fail, traffic, and cameraman photos courtesy of Shutterstock.


{ 29 comments… read them below or add one }

Scott Plamondon January 11, 2012 at 4:53 pm

Spark, another informative article! I agree with everything and would add that content can powerfully position brands as the experts in their industries. That’s worth its weight in gold when it comes to consumers pushing the buy button.

David Spark January 11, 2012 at 5:01 pm

Thanks Scott. Yes, I realize I could have gone on and on with this one, but it’s long enough as is. When you’re seen as an expert you’re in the driver’s seat when you begin negotiating.

Anonymous January 12, 2012 at 11:15 am

Nice work Mr. Spark. We see a lot of parallels between the unrealistic expectations regarding Content Marketing as we saw with SEO for so long. We’ll see the best brands and companies utilize these techniques and strategies properly and see real, meaningful growth over the long term. 

Sarawriter January 12, 2012 at 11:32 am

Terrific points — especially the one about expectations. From the consumer side, I have bookmarked and continually returned to the same site simply to soak in the excellent content. No, it doesn’t make me place an order right away. But that site is gradually (and inexpensively) building up a level of trust in the company to the point where they will become my “go-to” firm, should I finally need what they are selling.

jzitrin January 12, 2012 at 11:36 am

Quick question. I get your efforts to coin a new term. But I must insist that putting “brand,” or any other apparent bias, in front of “journalism” distorts the later word beyond recognition. Let’s revive “custom publishing,” or coin a new one.

jzitrin January 12, 2012 at 11:37 am

Er… More of a comment than a question!

David Spark January 12, 2012 at 11:50 am

You need to take a look at my other article “Top 9 Unsubstantiated Accusations of Brand Journalism” as that was heavily discussed in the comments.

David Spark January 12, 2012 at 11:51 am

I live for Delicious. I bookmark stuff that I may or may not come back to. Unless I was truly in purchase mode, and we’re talking consumer products, I can’t think of a single time I saw a piece of content and purchased the product. BUT, I have seen content, relayed it to others, and spoken highly about the brand.

David Spark January 12, 2012 at 11:52 am

Thanks. It’s actually not difficult. Here’s the basic formula. Create something that you think your audience would like to read that’s relevant to your business, but not selling your business. This could be a story, a how to, or something else interesting. Nothing more than that.

Jay Palter January 12, 2012 at 1:29 pm

This is a great article. It plainly lays out all the pitfalls of content marketing that any of us might trip over. Except one.

You neglect to mention one of the biggest mistakes of all: thinking YOU need to create and produce ALL of your own content. Curation, sharing and networking of great content is as much a part of any effective content marketing strategy. Plus, it’s a key element in how you build a social network around your content – by sharing others’ content. 

Thanks for the piece.

Cheryl Smithem January 12, 2012 at 1:49 pm

You are right. Content is more about content and less about marketing. Listening first to the shopper and consumer allows the brand to gain insights into consumer needs. Many fail in this endeavor and so mistakenly assume that it’s still all about them, rather than solving a consumer’s need. 

And because content distribution, social media, and search results pages are closely connected businesses need to understand there are few silos.

Great results come from strategy, dedication, and focus on the clear goal. And  you are spot on when you say that it takes time.

Marc de Schweinitz January 12, 2012 at 2:19 pm

The written content here is very useful, but the stock photos are a turnoff. We love original content. Thanks for the great article, nonetheless.

David Spark January 12, 2012 at 3:49 pm

Well, that’s why I have a successful company. Thanks for setting me up. :)

We produce a crazy volume of content for our clients at an efficiency and quality they can’t do for themselves.

David Spark January 12, 2012 at 3:49 pm

Really? I’m a big fan of putting in photos on all articles. Would it have been better to get Creative Commons photos from Flickr, which I do sometimes? What else do you suggest?

Jay Palter January 12, 2012 at 4:55 pm

I’m sure you produce very interesting content for your clients and I might even be interested in knowing more about your content creation services. But that wasn’t the point I was trying to make.

There’s lots of amazing content out there produced by many people. Filtering, contextualizing and delivering other people’s great content to your target audience is an opportunity to deliver brand messaging and add value. 

My point is that curating high-quality content is an essential element of a content marketing strategy and to overlook that fact may be another way to fail.


Anand Patel January 12, 2012 at 5:40 pm

What role do you think content curation plays in content marketing?

David Spark January 12, 2012 at 9:34 pm

Ah, excuse me for my error. Yes, you mentioned curation.

Sure, curation can be a valuable way to build your brand. You can be seen as the hub of a conversation. For example, Rafat Ali created the initial brand of solely through being a metasite on the subject of making money from content.

A little more than a couple years ago I wrote an analyst report about real-time search and mentioned the greatest opportunity was in the area of real-time curated content. While we’re seeing curation now, I still don’t think we’re seeing enough real-time curation.

Check out the report here:

Please keep in mind that it is a couple years old, but the issues in it are still very valid.

David Spark January 12, 2012 at 9:34 pm

See my last response to Jay Palter.

Anand Patel January 12, 2012 at 9:38 pm

Oh yes, sorry didn’t read all the way down :)

David Spark January 12, 2012 at 9:52 pm

Don’t apologize, I just put it there after your comment. :)

Lisa Gallo January 13, 2012 at 10:59 am

I’m in agreement with Marc for the simple fact that the photos are mostly white men. That’s the turn off for me. I’m guessing more than white men are making those errors. :o)

David Spark January 13, 2012 at 12:22 pm

I have a white woman making a mistake. Does that help?

Craig Pearce January 14, 2012 at 8:08 pm

This is an excellent, insightful piece with plenty to like. My only qualification is in regard to PR’s suitability to provide best practice content marketing, um, content, as well as a sound strategic underpinning for content provision.

In the first place, writing is PR’s number one skill. So a PR pro is pretty much a dud if they can’t write good copy, including that suited for content marketing purposes. Secondly, as so much content is used on social media platforms, it should often have a dimension that facilitates or involves dialogue. This dialogue/conversation dimension is inherent to best practice PR (it helps buld reputation and influences the way an organisation operates). So not involving PR in content marketing, simply because it is PR, would be a profound mistake in my view.

David Spark January 14, 2012 at 10:04 pm

I HIGHLY recommend a company does involve PR in any content marketing. In fact, it’s something I recommend to all my clients that don’t have a PR firm.

But, as you know, just because one is good at one type of writing, doesn’t necessarily make one good at other type of writing. There’s plenty of different types of writing that I’M not good at. I argue that creating editorial-based content is NOT the model for PR writing and ad copy, so don’t assume that those organizations have the skills to create this type of content. Your organization and yourself may have tons of experience with journalism and production. If so, then your company would be appropriate. But it’s not the norm.

Marike January 17, 2012 at 5:13 am

Thank you for reconfirming in short the lacking of genuine interest in the target audience. That genuity often shows a mirror of the company identity itself. Good to read

article writing June 3, 2012 at 8:34 pm

LOL, kinda useful output though it’s an opposite guide for content writing marketing.  I love reading through an article that can make men and women think. Also, thank you for allowing for me to comment!

shorlevin June 6, 2012 at 8:39 pm

If you want to quit for content marketing this might be useful.  Spot on with this write-up, I really think this amazing site needs a lot more attention. I’ll probably be back again to read more, thanks for the info!

Shilpi Agarwal September 17, 2013 at 12:20 pm

Great post, true insights. Value of good, relevant content increases over time and results dramatically!

suba suba June 11, 2020 at 3:52 am

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