Is content marketing a waste of your time and money?

Unless you’ve been living under a rock over the past few years you will have been witness to the surge in brands adopting content marketing strategies. In fact, according to the Content Marketing Institute’s Budgets and Trends report 80% of brands are engaged in content marketing and this is set to increase, with 50% of us planning to spend even more of it in the future.

At the same time however, less than half of us believe that we’re any good at it, and only 79% can successfully track ROI from it.

So in a nutshell, we’re throwing money and resource at something because we feel as though we should, rather than really understanding or seeing value from it. Worse still, despite not being able to see or understand the value, we’re throwing more and more money and time in the pot.

This is madness.

I’ve had a think and IMO, there’s a few reasons why we are all, often blindly, investing in content marketing and these are:

1. It has a low barrier to entry.

For the first time in a while, it’s possible to market a brand without any specialist knowledge. Knowing your way around a CMS, some nice ideas and snappy headlines are all you need to start engaging with consumers. Interns are given the responsibility of defining a brand voice, traditional marketers are navigating their way through a digital purchase path and customer service managers are given some Facebook logins and encouraging smiles.

Content marketing is essentially free and anybody can do it.

2. It builds trust.

Consumers were used to advertising as being a paid interruption, something that had been subsidised to be in-between what they were interested in and, ultimately, there to sell something.

However with content marketing, the marketing is the bit that the consumer is interested in and, being free and informative in nature, consumers are more likely to trust, and engage with, brands they like.

3. Search engines want us to.

The ever irritating quote from Matt Cutts on link building in June 2014 of..

“It’s the case that if you do enough excellent, interesting, useful, funny, compelling stuff […] your links take care of themselves”

..result in lots of brands trying, and often failing, to do excellent, interesting, useful, funny and compelling stuff to earn their places in the search results.

And it’s these very reasons why we’re going wrong.

1. It has a low barrier to entry.

It does. But it shouldn’t.

In the same study, more respondents said that they are struggling to find content marketing professionals this year than they were last year (34% comparatively to 10%). The reason for this has nothing to do with a greater skills gap in more recent years; that’s actually more likely to be the other way round, as people become more experienced over time and more people sharpen their marketing skills to be content focussed. What this is alluding to, I believe, is that more people are starting to recognise that content marketing does require someone with experience, a person who understands analytics, consumer analysis and recognises how content can fit in to a broader marketing strategy. These people are much harder to find than the traditional profile of a content marketer so because people are starting to look for a more experiences skillset, more people are reporting difficult hiring.

34% is still low, however, when 84% are engaging in content marketing. The idea that content marketing is low resource, low effort, low budget is a mistake, and leads to a deluge of mediocre content.

2. It builds trust.

The reason that content marketing was initially thought of as being a good way to engage and connect with your customer was that, given it’s free and informative nature, it was often trusted. However as content marketing becomes more prevalent, and native advertising and advertorials continue to be popular, then once more the defence barriers are going up.

Moz did a nice graph of content marketing saturation saying, essentially, the more content we are exposed to the more reluctant we become to engage.

how-content-fatigue-happens

Though this reluctance is not purely about saturation, it’s that content marketing is, once again, seen as a form of advertising and consequently, people don’t want to contribute.

3. Search engines want us to.

The idea that all brands, regardless of size and niche, can earn lots of high authority links from high authority domains by just being super mega awesome cool is wildly optimistic.

I am not saying it’s impossible, but to make this kind of “excellent, interesting, useful, funny, compelling stuff” requires budgets, interesting topics, original ideas and a strategic outreach plan. All of these things cost money (back to point 1) and requires planning, time and expertise.

Sometimes, just sometimes, a brand will get lucky and hit the content goldmine on a shoestring by accident, earn loads of links and secure top rankings positions, but this is the exception over the rule.

So how do we fix it?

I think we all, first and foremost, need to take a deep breath and reconsider why we do content marketing. If you’re a plug fittings brand struggling to drive engagement on your blog it may well be that people just aren’t that interested in you, and you know, that’s totally cool. Maybe you should be focusing on trade press instead.

We don’t have to do it. It’s not essential. I see small business sites with blogs with years worth of well intended but ultimately mediocre content on them because they were told that’s what they had to do, and it drives nothing. (apart from me mad).

So first, we need to understand why we are investing in content. (Be it blog content, videos, infographics etc).

Is it links? social? traffic? All of these things will require a different strategy. For example, if you’re creating content to drive links then you might want to speak to the bloggers and press you’d be interested in partnering with before creating it to see if they like it.

If it’s social you’re best off doing some analysis on who your Facebook audience are and create something that’s likely to resonate with them.

If it’s traffic then do some keyword research and find some longtail opportunities that you can capture.

The problem we have is that we try and do all three and this dilutes what we do and makes it less powerful. Pick a single objective and go with it, anything else that comes is an added bonus.

Once you’ve picked your single objective that you want your content to achieve, we need to make sure we’re not making the same mistakes we have been in the past.

1. It has a low barrier to entry

Invest properly in your content marketing.

This doesn’t necessarily mean money (though that helps) but if not cold hard cash then the investment has to be in time, people or ideas. For example, if you’re budgets are low, get an experienced content freelancer to help you with idea generation and strategy, which you can then execute. There’s tonnes of different sites and services where you can get high quality design and video content for reasonable prices. (I like 99designs. Also peopleperhour always has high quality professionals across a range of budgets).

2. It builds trust

Content can only build trust if it’s interesting and it can only be interesting if it’s relevant.

To be relevant, it needs to be targeted and to be targeted, you need to know who you’re targeting.

Understanding your audience really is crucial to content marketing success. It allows you to create specific, tailored content that they [your audience] are more likely to like, get influencers on board in advance, be smarter with paid spend and remove some of the guesswork from content ideation.

I’ve done content marketing without having a defined understanding of my audience, and I’ve done it with and the outcome has always, without exception, been better. I have spoken about how to do this before here and here’s a nice article on understanding audience behaviour from email.

3. Search engines want us to

Often a good content marketing campaign will go a long way to improve your organic visibility but it’s essential to remember it’s not the content alone. The build it they will come mentality does not work here. It really isn’t about just creating funny and compelling stuff and waiting for the backlinks to roll in, they won’t.

You need to plan it, outreach it, test it, build it, outreach it, promote it, advertise it and outreach it again. This mistake we’re making is that it is not the size of the content that earns links, it’s what you do with it, as it were.

Backlinko has some great tips on that here.

To summarise, according to the Content Marketing Institute, content marketing is:

“.. a strategic marketing approach focused on creating and distributing valuable, relevant, and consistent content to attract and retain a clearly-defined audience — and, ultimately, to drive profitable customer action.”

In essence, your content marketing has to be:

  • Strategic – there has to be a defined plan that is tailored to fit a longterm aim.
  • Valuable and relevant – you need to understand who your audience are in order to create something valuable and relevant to them.
  • Goal Orientated – you need to be scrutinising your content marketing efforts. Is it really driving anything? Be it long term top of the funnel awareness of direct sales, it has to be adding some value and if  it’s not, bin it and invest your money elsewhere.

About Kirsty Hulse

Kirsty Hulse is Head of SEO Best Practice at Linkdex and has six years experience defining search strategies for some of the world's biggest brands, as well as small E-commerce start ups.