When you’re trying to get buy-in for your content marketing program, there are a number of questions you absolutely need to prepare for. Such as: What are the risks involved? If you do some research, you’ll find an abundance of information on the benefits of content marketing, but very little on risks and risk mitigation.
So let’s tackle this.
When I look at risks, I see two types. This first type is the ‘pitfall’. This is when you try to do things right, but you make mistakes, as people do. These risks are by no means always easy to avoid, but when you know they’re there, you at least can prepare yourself.
The second type is what I call a risk ‘proper’: things that might happen even when you manage to circumvent most or all of the pitfalls. You can also prepare for those, but they are harder to control.
I’ve listed 5 pitfalls, and 2 risks ‘proper’. If you can add any, please do so!
Buckle up, it’s a bit of a longer ride than usual!
Five pitfalls of content marketing
Inconsistency can occur at three levels, at the very minimum: messaging, tone of voice/imagery and schedule. If your content is inconsistent in either or all of those, you will at best confuse your target audience, and at worst get them to dislike or distrust you. A few examples:
Inconsistent messaging: if you say A in marketing, you can’t say B in sales. Your messaging should be consistent, from your top-of-funnel content to your sales conversations (and beyond). This seems obvious, but we all know there’s a constant disconnect between marketing and sales.
Inconsistent tone of voice/imagery: not following the brand guidelines can cause serious backlash (google ‘brand fails’ if you want examples). Be extremely cautious with comedy. The line between ‘haha’ comedy and bad taste is razor-sharp thin. The guys and gals at Velocity wrote an awesome blog post on humor in B2B marketing. Their point: lots of reasons not to do it.
Inconsistent schedule: if you shout from the rooftops that you’re launching a newsletter/podcast/whatever, which you will update every one/two/whatever weeks, stick to it. If you’re not sure you can hold that up for 95% of the time, then don’t announce it as such. Because you will break your promise to an audience whose trust you’re trying to gain.
Irrelevancy occurs when you’re sending the wrong message to the wrong person and/or via the wrong channel and/or at the wrong moment. Basically it means you did not do the work. This is how crap content – i.e. content that is DOA – is made. Most people already have a hard time choosing which awesome content they want to consume. It’s not as if they have extra bandwidth to consume mediocre or bad content, just because it comes from you.
Most people already have a hard time choosing which awesome content they want to consume. It’s not as if they have extra bandwidth to consume mediocre or bad content, just because it comes from you.
Another danger of becoming irrelevant is repeating the same pony trick over and over. This can be your own trick (something you once did and that was wildly successful) or somebody else’s trick, which you’re copying. Doug Kessler of Velocity has this to say on the topic: “Brands are failing in content marketing by creating ‘me too’ content instead of ‘wow’ content; by committing random, isolated acts of content, instead of executing well-considered strategies.”
Overpromise and underdeliver: you’re doing it before you know it. And for a myriad of reasons: because you’re enthusiastic, because you’re not in a position to say ‘no’ or you don’t know how, because you don’t have a plan, so everything is the plan etc.
Underestimating the workload happens constantly in content marketing. Marketeers do it, and the business side of an organization does it as well. They see the tip of the iceberg (“please create this whitepaper”) and not the mountain underneath (briefing, concept, intake, desktop research, copy, correction, proofreading, translation, design, photography, DTP, landing page, keyword research, paid activation, project management, …).
Remember the good-fast-cheap mantra? This is displayed on the wall in many agencies. You need your (internal or external) client to pick two, because they can’t have all three. What’s fast and cheap won’t be good. What’s fast and good won’t be cheap. What’s cheap and good won’t be fast. We’re all constantly pushed into the ‘good-fast-cheap’ area, but that’s where the unicorns live.
4: NOT BUILDING AN AUDIENCE
People who are familiar with the work of the content marketing experts Robert Rose and Joe Pulizzi know that in content marketing (done well, that is) the audience is the asset. “The most valuable asset marketers manage is the subscribed audience,” says Rose in this blog post. He even goes as far as saying that a new role – that of Audience Strategist – is called for in organizations who want to do content marketing right. Wow.
Joe Pulizzi puts it as follows: “What we really want is an audience who trusts us, who values our communication and we’ll move that customer along at a later point toward our product or service and profit from that.” [my italics]. If you expect one awesome piece of content to generate a bunch of sales-ready leads, you’re in for a surprise: it doesn’t work that way. How it does work, is expertly explained in this Whiteboard Friday video, which I urge you to watch (or you can read about it here).
In other worlds: be insanely relevant to your audience first: focus on building a non-commercial relationship and work relentlessly on earning trust. The sale can – and often will – come later. To the patient come the spoils. There’s this saying in Dutch which, translated literally, says: “Trust arrives on foot, and leaves on horseback.” Gaining trust is a slow process, which takes time and a number of iterations. Losing trust happens in the blink of an eye.
5: USING DATA WRONG
Every content marketer knows that, with a little creativity, you can often tweak data to say whatever you want it to say. But if you want to learn, that’s not what you do. Now, even with the best of intentions, you might still end up using data the wrong way, or drawing the wrong conclusions.
When the data set is too limited, for instance, and the conclusions you draw are premature at best. Lack of focus typically reduces actionable data. Also be careful with mixing up causation with correlation. The difference is clear with a simple and concrete example, but much less clear when it becomes more abstract.
Let’s start with the concrete example: up until around 1880, people believed bad odor caused illness, because the sick usually smelled unpleasant. That is: until the existence of germs was discovered. The relation between sickness and bad smell is one of correlation – they occur at the same time, but one is not caused by the other. The relation between germs and sickness, and germs and bad odor, is one of causation. Germs cause illness, and bad smell.
Now let’s take a simple marketing example. Let’s say you changed the day you send out your email newsletter: from Friday to Thursday. Ever since, the data shows an increase in unsubscribes. Does that mean that these unsubscribes are caused by the new send date? Maybe, maybe not. Maybe the topics you posted on Thursdays were less compelling. Maybe you hired a new copywriter. Maybe you changed subject line or title. Maybe …
Every content marketer knows that, with a little creativity, you can often tweak data to say whatever you want it to say. But if you want to learn, that’s not what you do.
Until you have proven that X is caused by Y for sure – and that is usually done through careful A/B testing, where you change one variable at a time – the relation is one of correlation. In a very edifying blog post by Archana Madhavan on Amplify, Moz founder Rand Fishkin is quoted as having defined correlation as something that “can help you predict what will happen. But finding the ‘cause’ of something means you can change it.”
Two risks ‘proper’
I have mentioned it a number of times before: the absolutely biggest risk in content marketing is not a lack of quality, but a lack of perseverance. Content marketing is the long game, where the spoils (= monetizing) come after you’ve built a loyal audience. Patience and perseverance are the 2 things which are missing in most content marketing programs, as I argue here.
And that is exactly why, while you are slowly but steadily building that audience, you can’t and shouldn’t stop doing whatever it is you do (from cold calling to running campaigns) to bring in business. Don’t expect your content marketing program to deliver a bunch of sales ready leads pronto. This is exactly what Rand Fishkin is warning you about in the video I mentioned above.
While you are slowly but steadily building that audience, you can’t and shouldn’t stop doing whatever it is you do (from cold calling to running campaigns) to bring in business.
So why bother investing in content if it takes up so much time and effort, and is so slow in delivering ROI? Several reasons. One: Outbound tactics are getting less and less effective. Second: if your competitors are delivering value through content (and they are or will), where does that leave you? And third: once you’ve built an audience that trusts you and loves your brand, you can sell them pretty much everything you want (see Red Bull, Hubspot, Salesforce).
2: GETTING HIJACKED
When things go well, people usually want in. Even the people who were on the fence until then. Especially the people who were on the fence until then. The danger of success is being hijacked – i.e. smothered – by it. As in: more people wanting more content faster. But that’s not how content works: there is no magic button or fast track or shortcut. It’s a lot of work, period.
Kevin Lund phrased it expertly in this blog: “What can go wrong? A lot. When a fledgling strategy nobody initially cared about suddenly brings eyeballs and customers to your company, internal dynamics can change. There may be heightened interest in content marketing, a desire to expand the approach to other areas of the organization, or even impatience to see wins stack up faster.”
When things go well, people usually want in. Even the people who were on the fence until then. Especially the people who were on the fence until then.
Lund goes on to address several ways in which you, as a content marketer, can be hijacked and what you can do to make sure it doesn’t happen. One: make sure that content marketing is the right strategy to address whatever problem these newly enthusiastic colleagues want solved. Because maybe content marketing is not the right thing to do for them.
Be transparent, evangelize (content is not a quick fix!), facilitate workshops, educate people. Be stringent about what you will and can take on. Make sure that, when you create content, it is always aligned to your content marketing mission statement. Pace yourself: slowly but surely. Ask for extra resources if you need to.
But never ever become the content vending machine.
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