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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.


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