Sometimes it bums me out that we’ve become a culture of contrarians.
Whether it’s Black Panther, 3D printing, or strawberry ice cream, there’s nothing so excellent that someone on the internet won’t tell you why you’re wrong for liking it.
So sometimes it’s easy to miss the signals when a genuine problem does develop. And among the usual noise of “the thing you like sucks,” there’s been a fresh spate of articles on content marketing, talking about the “content marketing playbook” not working the way it used to.
Unlike that guy who hated Black Panther (let’s face it, he was just wrong), there’s some substance to this.
But it’s not something to panic over. In fact, it’s something to embrace.
Does content marketing work like it used to?
No. And this should come as a surprise to no one.
If you aren’t familiar with Gartner’s Hype Cycle of Technology, you should be. I won’t walk you through the whole cycle, but content marketing is currently emerging from the “Peak of Inflated Expectations” phase.
Content marketing is simply the principle that your marketing communication should be able to stand on its own. It should be relevant. It should be interesting. It might even be funny, or pull at heartstrings.
Distilled even further, content marketing is the principle that you now need to earn attention, instead of just paying for it.
So why did anyone expect that would be easy?
The Trough of Disillusionment
In Gartner’s model, the Peak of Inflated Expectations is followed by the entertainingly named Trough of Disillusionment.
There’s been a lot of frustrated can-kicking about expensive processes and tactics not working the way they used to. And it’s hard not to notice the sheer and overwhelming volume of mediocre content that floods the web every day. The pile of CRaP gets higher and higher.
Well, now that volume of mediocre content isn’t working as well as it was.
The stupidly easy wins are evaporating. Stupidly easy wins always do.
That means the middle-ground players — not the worst, and not the best — are struggling.
The worst have revenue models that just monetize eyeballs. (How’s that for a creepy phrase?) Cheap clicks on nasty headlines to meaningless content that’s going to be written by robots any day now.
That model won’t work for you unless you are a robot, so let’s put it aside. That leaves mediocre and great.
Before I make the case for great, I want to
rant speak to a few straw man arguments I’ve seen around.
Beware the planet of the straw men
Here are some arguments I’ve seen in recent “content marketing is dead oh no” articles:
“Stop thinking that content marketing is only about blogging.”
Sure, because, um, it’s not 2008? Podcasts, video, visual content, live digital events (like webinars and Facebook Live), SlideShare … that’s all content. (I love Ann Handley’s phrase, “everything the light touches is content.”)
Not just content, but popular content. The kind that millions of people are talking about.
So definitely, if for some reason you thought content marketing was only about blogging, you should stop thinking that.
“Stop insisting on owning your own content.”
This argument holds that we’re being silly for insisting on maintaining a hub of high-quality original content.
Because losing 85 percent of your revenue when Facebook flips its algorithm is so much fun.
Yes, of course we need to publish content on the platforms where people like to hang out. Yes, we’re going to rely, to some extent, on platforms we don’t control. Yes, sometimes it’s hard to get people back to our sites.
Of course you shouldn’t refuse to publish content on Facebook or LinkedIn or Medium. That would be super dumb.
You also shouldn’t fail to adapt your content so it’s relevant to the platform you publish on.
But construct and publish your original content on your own site first. Make it amazing. Then thoughtfully adapt that amazing content to various platforms, to increase your reach and connect with people where they are.
The specific expression of a piece of content — the Facebook Live video, the Instagram-optimized image, the LinkedIn Pulse article — might live or die on those platforms.
But the core creative idea, executed in your own voice with all the craft you can bring, lives on your site. From there, you can repurpose that content as many ways as your imagination will allow, depending on what platforms rise and fall.
That means we don’t use Medium as our primary blog — we write a blog post and export it to Medium.
We don’t use Instagram as our only venue for marketing our art — we have a gorgeous website, and we republish selected compelling images on Insta.
There is no tension with this. Anyone trying to tell you that you have to choose between a third party and your own site is giving you bad advice.
“Content creators have to get more strategic and less creative.”
I think this qualifies as the worst advice I’ve seen this year.
The most brilliant strategy applied to crap will simply get the word out faster about how crappy your content is.
I’m not anti-strategy. I love strategy! Strategy helps you get amazing work in front of tons of people, then moves them toward your business goals.
Strategy is an amazing servant. But it’s a horrible master.
Asking your content strategy tool what kind of content to create is like asking your hammer what kind of house to build.
Life beyond the Trough
Gartner’s hype cycle gives us a pretty good idea of what happens once we get over our disappointment hangover. Gartner calls it the Slope of Enlightenment, and it’s the moment when we start to live in reality again.
There is one way, and only one way, out of our particular Trough of Disillusionment.
Content has to get better.
Which shouldn’t scare anyone. It’s more fun to do great work. It’s more fun to come up with original, fresh, exciting ideas, and execute them really well.
But it scares a lot of large organizations. And I think I know why.
Certain kinds of organizations jump to strategy and technical solutions first, partly because they have to. In a huge organization, every type of work has to be turned into a repeatable process.
And, unless your organization has an extraordinary culture, that comes at the expense of creativity.
Managing creatives is difficult. They’re often shitty at office politics. Ask me how I know.
They make strange jokes and they can never follow the dress code. The other employees think they’re weird. Because … well, they are kind of weird.
Creative people have a hard time in organizations that resemble high school.
So instead, the highly “process-driven” content organization hires people who are just-okay writers, but who look the part of the “team player.”
They create work that’s unoriginal and boring. The true creatives get depressed and leave, or they get really depressed and they stick around even though their good work gets dumbed down until it’s unoriginal and boring.
When content marketing was shiny and new, you could create just-okay content and then use strategy to make up for its weaknesses. But now there’s a giant stifling mass of just-okay content.
When you put creativity first, when you honor the writer, you get the good stuff. You get fresh, brave, original work that excites audiences.
And the analytics, strategy, and tech? They’re used to get the word out about content that actually deserves the attention it’s asking for.
We’re in a jungle, not a blue ocean
It’s exciting to think of a “blue ocean” market (to use Renée Mauborgne and W. Chan Kim’s phrase), where we have no competition. An endless blue expanse where whatever we put out is successful, because no one else is doing it.
But on the planet we actually live on, the only places that lack competition are the places that lack potential customers.
The rest of us live in the jungle. A place teeming with life — with competition, with customers, with rivals, with allies, with potential for risk and potential for glory.
Content marketing, for a little while, gave the illusion of the blue ocean. You could put out work that was, let me just say it, pretty mediocre. And it worked.
“Oh, it’s an infographic!” “Oh, it’s a podcast!” “Oh, it’s a reasonably interesting article with a call to action at the end!”
These are phrases that no one utters anymore.
Content marketing strategy needs to offer something other than “new.”
The opportunity …
So okay, I do think content marketing is getting somewhat harder.
To be more specific, I think it’s getting a lot harder to get anywhere with content that just squeaks by.
To quote the one article I did like on this, by Doug Kessler of Velocity Partners:
“Five years on and we’re looking at a LOT of mediocre content. Because — and this is the part that hurts — the teams that created it weren’t even aiming for great. They were aiming for the mean. For credible.”
Effective content marketing strategy today has to start from one place: radical empathy for the specific audience you are serving.
Then, we create work for them that’s genuinely interesting and useful.
Bring on the brave, original writers. Alternately, start listening to the brave, original writers you already have.
Go ahead and obsess over headline structure or image format or what color the button is … because you want to know what would best serve that audience. What will engage and delight them. What will solve their problems.
Beware the seductive “soul-sucking force of reasonableness” (that’s Chip Heath and Dan Heath’s great phrase from The Power of Moments) and let yourself be unreasonably excellent.
Don’t tell me that your customers would prefer to go back to irrelevant ads that shout at them.
Don’t tell me that there’s some kind of alternative to creating exceptional work that you give a shit about.
Don’t tell me that content marketing is broken or dead if you’re still doing it wrong.