Content Strategy

How to Challenge Unrealistic Content Marketing Expectations—Without Backing Down on Its Effectiveness

By Kyle Harper on July 10, 2018

So the word seems to be out about content.

A marketing approach that even just a decade ago was gathering its footing is now fully grown and building a web that is absolutely flooded with content every second. Today, the effectiveness of content marketing isn't so much in question as it is misunderstood. And this can be hugely disheartening for marketers who want to deploy deep, engaging campaigns, only to receive resources and direction from leadership that's entirely out of sync with the needs of a content effort.

The most recent survey of B2B content marketers by the Content Marketing Institute found that a persistent 43 percent of businesses with content teams are only "somewhat committed" or less to the effort. Likewise, the study reported that a staggering 53 percent of surveyed businesses had a small or one-person content marketing team to support the entire organization, and 38 percent of teams believed their organizations didn't have realistic expectations about what they could achieve. Many of the other metrics the study revealed were very positive for content marketing's outlook in 2018-which must be all the more frustrating for those working with the roughly one-third of businesses that don't seem to have gotten up to speed with their competitors and compatriots.

Defining a vision and setting effective expectations is key for starting a new content marketing effort and removing obstacles that are getting in the way of your brand's growth-here are some key ways to do just that for your whole content marketing process.

Setting Goals and (Healthy) Expectations

tailor measuring clothes

Image attribution: Luo Ping

It's often helpful when setting content marketing goals for the first time to remember what other tactics marketers have at their disposal: namely digital and traditional advertising as a means to close a short gap between expenditure and results. These tactics tend to be very action oriented, typically pushing audiences a hop-skip towards lead intakes and purchasing decisions.

These are the first two marketing habits you'll want to tackle when broaching the case for content.

In the content versus advertising discussion, you'll want to redefine what "value" looks like for content marketing. Sure, ads can give you an immediate return of some kind that looks nice in quarterly reporting, but with two key caveats: Growth will always require additional spend, and the moment you stop spending the returns go away. Content, on the other hand, can be presented as an asset or long-term investment.

There likely won't be an immediate and massive change to your audience behavior when your content goes live. You'll likely need a few months to start seeing the compounding growth that content is so excellent at driving. This long-term payoff needs to be clear with your leadership up front, and ideally you'll want to establish some kind of a timeline to ensure you have the starting runway necessary to get your strategy working.

But having extra time alone won't be enough. If your content marketing is reviewed and weighed in the same way your team has measured advertising in the past, you'll be setting your content on the back foot for demonstrating value. As early as possible, try to commit to (and document) the key goals and metrics your content should serve. Driving directly attributable leads might not be a fair metric early on, but measures like saved ad spend or steadily improving keyword SERPs can paint a much more fair and actionable narrative about what your content is accomplishing.

Being Honest About Production

So you've hopefully been successful in laying out the possible successes and returns that a realistic content strategy can offer. This is good, because you're now about to ask for the resources you actually need to make that happen-and for new content acolytes there may be some sticker shock.

Content marketing comes in all shapes and sizes, and often the flashiest media formats like video are the first requests from stakeholders. Explaining that high-quality video typically takes more than an intern with an iPhone isn't always easy, however.

colorful work desk

Image attribution: Chris Adamus

There are two considerations to get across when setting content marketing goals for your production pipeline.

The first and most key idea is that cadence and consistency are what win the content marketing game-not massive, one-off projects. This means your content budgeting shouldn't fall under an exploratory or discretionary reserve. It needs to be a regular monthly expenditure that supports the overhead, resources, and possibly outsourcing necessary to get your content engine chugging along without interruption.

Does this mean your brand needs to be cranking out video content daily? Thankfully not. The second consideration to communicate to your company is that, while demand for enhanced content assets and formats continues to grow, simpler formats like blogs and newsletters are still pulling most of the weight for brands today. Rather than jumping headlong into high-commitment projects, push for a production mix that you can consistently keep stable and then iterate from there.

Publication Isn't a Popularity Contest

runner lacing shoe

Image attribution: Alexander Redl

You're so close at this point. Your leadership has been exceptionally attentive and patient. But now you have content in hand, and in the quiet corners of your conference room presentation you can hear the faint whisper of the content marketer's least favorite word: "viral."

Social media is amazing. It brings together billions of people across the world to share everything from breaking news to countless cat photos. However, it is very unlikely that social will make your B2B tech consulting brand or niche B2C product an overnight sensation. This vision of overnight viral success shouldn't be the goal or measure of your publication efforts, and it's best to quash this or similar ideas pretty early on in the conversation.

Today, more than ever, the web is absolutely saturated with new and recycled content. It's why we've seen interaction with socially shared content nearly halve since 2015. It's also why you likely can't think of a "viral" brand that found a sustainable way to maintain their week of fame. Distraction is rampant, and attention is at a premium. In response, our audiences want to find new spaces where they can rely on the authority of what they're reading. Influencers are often touted as a shortcut to getting through this noise, but this strategy comes with its own set of concerns. Aside from the fact that influencer marketing ties your brand's authority to a third party, most brands approach influencers like another form of advertising-which is fundamentally counter to what you should be trying to accomplish with your content marketing engine.

Instead, walk your stakeholders through a different vision for either an on-site content hub that steadily brings in new traffic to your home domain, or perhaps an off-domain content home that builds out a unique voice and loyal audience for your brand to serve. Whichever approach you choose, it can certainly be supported by social efforts, email, or any number of other outlets and tactics your company is already comfortable with, so long as the focus remains on steady audience building rather than meteoric viral coverage.

If your team isn't picking up on a theme by this point, it might be helpful to just say it: Great content is a marathon, not a sprint. This is the most foundational idea that you'll need your organization to buy into if you want to realize the effectiveness of content marketing. Forcing the conversation about setting content marketing goals, metrics, and expectations may not be easy, but it will save you and your team an enormous amount of work over the hopefully long lifetime of your effort.

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Kyle Harper

Kyle Harper is a writer, editor, and marketer who is passionate about creative projects and the industries that support them. He is a human who writes things. He also writes about things, around things, for things, and because of things. He's worked with brands like Hasbro, Spotify, Tostitos, and the Wall Street Journal, as well as a bunch of cool startups. The hardest job he's ever taken was the best man speech for his brother's wedding. No challenge is too great or too small. No word is unimportant. Behind every project is a story. What's yours?