This blog post tells some personal stories and takes you a bit back in time. In case you don’t feel like fully reading it, prefer the rules of short copy and want to read the conclusions first then this is for you: we are killing content marketing and are making the same old mistakes we always have. So, if you care about your budget and your customers read this.

In 2001, I acted as the administrator of a small company, called WebWare. It was acquired by my then employer and basically had a local portal, a good e-newsletter and some content in its portfolio. My employer and the original founders of the company, who still had a stake in it, asked me to come up with a plan. I was active in media, online publishing and digital marketing strategies at that time and didn’t have to think long about the way forward of that small business. I had them redesign the logo so the first ‘W’ looked like a crown and the baseline simply became ‘content is king’. We would specialize ourselves in online content (no one used the umbrella term content marketing yet).

Content is still the ugly duckling – especially good content

Looking back at it, the whole idea of ‘content is king’ of course was stupid but as always you have to see things in perspective. In those days digital marketing was basically about building websites, sending emails, measuring what happened and of course search and display advertising. However, everyone overlooked content.

I was obsessed with content since long before. Not for the sake of it but because I discovered what it could do if you looked at what people want and seek, even in the most complex go-to-market scenarios: helping resellers sell using the right (back then printed) content. And it always killed me to see that businesses and large organizations often spent millions to build heavy websites with the latest state-of-the-art technology while forgetting to take into account what – prospective – customers were looking for and what they wanted to read or find on those websites. The whole process was upside-down and budgets to make websites (and the access to the content they contained) user-friendly, relevant and efficient were close to zero. In fact, they still are close to zero, obsessed as we are by reach.

Of course content is not king. But we needed to make a clear statement: ‘stop making websites no one will ever visit as you don’t give a damn about your potential customers’. In fact, I could shout similar things today: ‘don’t think that putting some high-profile mavens after a password-protected blog equals community marketing’. I don’t even want to talk about who or what is king. If you don’t know by now that marketing is about finding the best route between customer needs/preferences and revenue, you really should consider a career move. This simple fact hasn’t changed. Only the mix of touchpoints and channels, buying behavior and the steps from needs and preferences to conversions are continuously changing. Now we have to include factors such as social, mobile, etc.

But deep down nothing has changed. And sometimes I wonder if I should laugh or cry to see that all of the sudden social media pundits are becoming content marketing advocates and discovering good old marketing stuff such as conversion and touchpoints or contact moments. Some just don’t call it conversion but stick a very expensive fluffy label on it. And some present it to the world as the next big thing. ‘Look at what I came up with: social and conversion’ (applause). Yet, let’s be positive: finally they start to understand that marketing has something to do with integration and customer-centricity. Hurray.

From content marketing to marketing content

Still reading? OK, here comes the main course. In 2009/2010 I interviewed and met Joe Pulizzi and the year after that I was happy to help him carry out the message called content marketing, as an editor of the European version of Chief Content Officer, the publication of Joe’s Content Marketing Institute.

Joe knew what he was talking about and he still does. The importance of content WITH THE CUSTOMER AND REVENUE IN MIND and within the context of individuals and cross-channel touch points was loud, clear and obvious.

Content was still treated as an ugly duckling because the bottom-line and needs of customers just didn’t get into the thick heads of many marketers thinking about new strategies in ivory tower board rooms. In fact, content is still treated as an ugly duckling. Have you seen how companies writing mediocre content for a few dimes and with nearly no understanding of the businesses they are hired by (and thus also the customers of these businesses) are popping up? Have you noticed how all the sudden your company is getting a nifty social media software or an advanced marketing automation software that sits there and is utterly underused because no one has considered the content needs? You know what I am talking about and you know it’s true.

It gets worse. The attention for content marketing has exploded. It’s at least as hot an umbrella term as social media marketing (and now that HubSpot offers email features, inbound marketing will fade away soon). What’s the result of that explosion besides the fact that the value of good content is underrated and underpaid (in case you doubt: good means efficient and relevant)? That we are living in a nightmare whereby we have started marketing content instead of using content for marketing.

The price of the success of content marketing

You want to know some of the consequences? Here you go:

  • Buyers are drowning in a tsunami of stupid, irrelevant and totally unoriginal content. Moreover, they keep getting it in the same old boring formats they don’t want anymore and have to do the same old things to get access to it. The least we can do is respect the intelligence of people, be that tidy bit creative and make clear what we have to offer. I guess it depends on the industry as well but from where I stand I see a lot of crap that is written purely from a sharing and SEO perspective and far away from the content buyers want.
  • You have to be a rocket scientist to find a decent piece of informational content and isn’t just a repetition of the same crap you’ve read elsewhere twenty times. Do the test. Try to find something really relevant and intelligent about any marketing topic. It’s a swamp of tips, tricks and the same tips and tricks (and other nonsense). Disclaimer: this in no way means I consider my blog posts to be better: you still decide.
  • We get swamped by often useless and boring visual ‘creations’ that work because we live in a ‘snack culture’ and are told visual content works. Infographics that are hiding facts and showing what their creators want to show, anyone? Of course, visual works. And so do words. But who do you want it to work for? And what do you stand for? We can adopt numerous more content marketing ‘formats’ and ‘techniques’ but can we start with what matters fo customers and business goals first instead of repurposing like maniacs or innovating just for the sake of it (unless innovation is what you sell maybe)?
  • Our inboxes are bursting with invitations for webinars, new eBooks and absolutely crappy documents. The more we get them, the less we want them. Especially as they all look the same. And if we dare registering for one, someone at the other side mistakes our interest in the content with us being a sales-ready lead (phone call coming….). I guess that if this happens in our industry, it will happen in other (B2B) markets as well.
  • Every single social channel that used be fun at some point is rapidly overwhelmed by stinking repetitive content, adapted to the channel and format, but utterly ruining all the fun (Instagram, Pinterest?). We broadcast all the time until it becomes boring.

Is this always the case? No. Am I thinking a bit black and white? Yes. True, some smart marketers look at their customers and touchpoints first and then start asking what content is needed to get from A to B (yes, to get there, these days we often need to pass by C, D and E as well). However, most are just fighting over the mass, popularity and reach mania. So I reserve myself the right to shout we are increasingly doing it wrong just as in 2001 I shouted that content is king.

My content marketing prediction 2013: many content formats will lose their credibility

Of course you want to ‘be found’ but here is my prediction: if we continue like this the value of several content marketing ‘formats’ or content sources will take a deep dive in the list of what and who buyers trust during their buying journey. Forget the create and share mentality for a while and do me one favor.

Just ask yourself what content you need. Don’t know?

So what is the content you need?

  • First of all the content you need to be relevant for your customers, generate revenue and keep your customers (before we even start talking advocacy).
  • What your customer wants to know to make an informed decision and assist him in taking this decision (make it easy).
  • The content the customer needs to fulfil his goals and you need for your most important business goals before, during and after the buy (touchpoints!).
  • What helps you voice your story in an authentic way towards your – prospective – customer’s circles of trust (OK, you can use words such as influence and whatever leadership here, for once, although I prefer advisorship and credibility).
  • The content you need for other personas and people that do not enter directly in a pure commercial relationship with your business such as media, partners, investors, etc.
  • Content for other marketing purposes such as moving from customers to loyal customers, customer service, branding (yes, that matters) and beyond.

It should be so obvious that we don’t focus on the creation and distribution of content the way we do today with an increasing focus on ‘mass’ and the marketing of the content as such. And it should be equally obvious that the content we do need has to be so much more than the mediocre and cheap stuff we often serve.

I bet that a large percentage of the content you create makes no sense at all when you honestly ask yourself these questions. And I bet that you miss a large percentage of the content you(r) customers look for across the key touchpoints.