Why Content Marketing could be the fool’s gold of the 21st century

Fools Gold

First of all, let’s be clear, maintaining a social media profile with regular tweets is not content marketing, it is just a key part of an intelligent mix. Publishing occasional articles for fun or adding content to your website to keep up to date are all smart things that do not count as content marketing. Creating large volumes of content with the aim of providing useful information to searchers and hopefully generating leads as a result is a better definition of content marketing.

The industry buzz

Talk to any marketer, CMO, small business owner, or wannabee and they will tell you Inbound is the way to go and content marketing is the essence of their inbound strategy.
Content Marketing is fashionable. The CEO sees the headlines and when he asks you about your strategy, you tell him you are focused on Content Marketing. It’s a done deal. Content and native advertising spend has now reached £509m p.a. in the UK.


Ever since Al Reis taught the word about positioning and the big agencies got into gear they  knew that the CEO’s ego was the meat in their sandwich. And what a sandwich. Then Google came along with Pay Per Click and spoiled the party. The same old plan still works with Content Marketing. He loves to have the coolest website and a few buzzwords to mention when the shareholders and the press come to gloat.

The consensus you will perceive for Content Marketing when you use the old Google tool  has a lot more to do with Google’s desire to promote it and the dominance on Google (no coincidence) of a number of huge Content Marketing platforms earning their crust from people like you and I. For now, they have been able to bring back the heady days of big advertising fees with no accountability, but that era is over bar the shouting, you and I need to move on, or better still, never get sucked in to begin with. Search engines need content like coal miners need coal and the business model would never support writing it. Just providing a search service is old news, there’s no money in that.


How and Why did Content Marketing get started?

Advertising overload is the term that keeps coming up and will not go away any time soon. However little sense it makes to some, the price of our free market economy is that around 30% of the cost of every little thing you consume comes from marketing and selling. Not only do you hate the way it interferes in your life, you also pay dearly for it. But who wants the alternative?

To get a message in front of you, despite your antipathy, advertisers will do anything they can get away with. Note I didn’t mention legal. A favourite way, since the first life insurance guy began attending weddings and funerals to find new prospects, is the idea of disguising the advert and presenting it in a social setting when you are relaxed and not expecting a slimy sales guy. That is Content Marketing.
Before you kid yourself that your Content Marketing is really providing a service,  It may be useful, to pinch yourself and read the last sentence again. No you are not any better than any other advertiser or sales guy, you are most likely a crooked advertiser, posing as something else.  I also post content, this content, but on a network where people come to look for such content and I then promote it elsewhere and I stand by its value and offer peer review, but it is still dangerously on or over that line. I have to be honest, but I don’t mind that, life is what it is and I love life the way it is.

The one place where content marketing has real potential and is least used is in informing and retaining existing customers and turning them into referees. If your product requires knowhow and skill or especially, strategy, then you have an opportunity to stay in touch and derive big benefits, but the likelihood is that you invest nothing at all in existing customers and spend all your time chasing new ones.

The age of the freelancer

On many networks it is easy to spot the freelancer stuff apart form the ad agency content. That’s not a disparaging statement just useful for the argument. A huge proportion of the content is there because it can be written in between paying gigs and the perception  is that it costs nothing.

There was a brief period before Social Media discovered dire, stupid annoying algorithms, when we talked to each other, asked advice and helped out in the spirit of the old internet and Usenet. Back then Content Marketing was a different thing and worked in a different way. It rarely found its way onto search engines for example except several pages down the SERPS. Today one of the main drivers for this content is to fool the Google algorithm into displaying it when someone searches for certain keywords.  Thousands of pages linked by terms understood by the algorithm is the most basic requirement for SEO.
Example:  I just searched Google for the “earliest ad agency”, I couldn’t remember the name. I tried various ways of phrasing this and all I got was the identical page after page of Content Marketing by agencies and content departments trying to sell me their wares. Never would I find the answer to my question. The headings were predictable: 23 ways, the top 15, the best 50, etc, etc ad nauseum.
If you research, as I often do for a client, just what it would take to get your content towards the top of the first page, the volume of content alone that you would need probably runs into the thousands of pages plus video, audio et, etc.
The only way this works is to build up steadily over time to establish an Organic presence on the SERP, it can’t be done suddenly with any volume of content.

Return On Investment let’s get it out of the cupboard

ROI is to Content Marketing what garlic is to vampires, they don’t talk about it and they don’t go anywhere near it outside of recessions.

 The simple formula is the return expressed as a percentage of investment



The problem for Marketers is highlighted by the fact that that only a handful out of 37 I talked to about this could make a reasonable guess at the true cost of their content marketing and not one could quantify the returns. One quoted 3700 likes on their Facebook page, which incidentally, his boss was delighted with.
This lack of accountability is not because they are villains, far from it, or even lacking skills and know-how.
The reason is that attribution is a very tough thing to do, even with the know-how, resources, tools and motivation to do it. If you didn’t have to, its hard to imagine anyone tackling attribution willingly.
For these reasons, when people say good things about content marketing, what they are saying is, we do a lot of content marketing and we (our boss) are happy with the overall returns.

When our marketers did a little work on attribution, they found that the orders were coming from all sort of channels including; exhibitions, traditional adverts, PR, customer recommendations, ups-ell, cross-sell and a whole typical marketing mix and marketers are happily attributing their success to Content Marketing.
My personal experience is that even a very modest article by the time it has been edited to reach an acceptable standard and published will have cost anything from a minimum of £700 for say a family firm up to £2000 for a multinational. Then there is the time in monitoring it and responding, to comments as well as promoting it to other networks and all the things that must be done to make it at all worthwhile. People offering to write articles on the cheap use scripts to rehash existing stuff plagiarised elsewhere and it has the opposite to value unless you want to risk black hat SEO.
Then the risk needs quantifying.

Social Media posts can seem trivial because they seem less formal and they are shorter, but don’t be fooled. Only the initial writing time is cheaper and the potential level of engagement can quickly wipe out any savings.  Timing is also crucial.  Furthermore, you really should be overseeing the general voice and personality of the brand as it comes through in not just postings and articles, but even the comments and replies. Most firms, even the most professional have no record of what was posted in the past and it is out of control, potentially illegal, or insensitive, but out there.

When all this time and effort is applied by salaried intelligent employees it adds up to a substantial investment and even when done by a freelancer, she should always consider the potential results from spending the same amount on well-placed targeted advertising and re-marketing.  The same number of hours spent working for a paid client could usually fund very valuable advertising. The message here is, consider the options carefully rather than reading and accepting the headlines on Social Media.


The algorithms are out to get you and they are winning

Facebook has a complex algorithm that is kept secret. Testing tells us certain things about how it operates. The principal as per official press release is that they focus on “Meaningful interactions” . Tests suggest that your posts will only be seen by people who frequently interact with you in two sided communications. Precise details are very difficult to pin down and it changes constantly.
What Facebook users are reporting is that apart from paid ads and boosted posts, they get very low visibility or interaction. Some get abuse for posting commercial stuff in feeds. That is understandable.
The conclusion we reached is that many people post to Facebook pages and that content is hardly ever seen. Up to recently it was possible to hide adverts in apparently social content, but that has now changed.

Linkedin also has an algorithm that decides who will or won’t see your content or even be aware of your existence. Even Follows seem to have lost their mojo.
The focus now is “People you know, talking about the things you care about.” 

They copy form each other, its obvious. Linkedin Posts see very little action and are shown to the same people over again. Unless you ignore all your industry pals and friends and focus only on chatting to strangers who might buy from you, not easy, then your content will be seen by people you would never dream of targeting plus of course spies and all kind of unsavoury sorts, but not a lot of targeted potential customers.

Articles get almost no interest unless you pay for it.

The same story applies with only minor adjustment across the other platforms.

There are no free lunches unfortunately and the numbers of views for most content is in the tens or rarely hundreds with only weak targeting. Few people will tell you they ever won business directly from LinkedIn other than those trying to sell you training or coaching in use of Linkedin. Yes ,it can be used successfully by professional sales-people and the remarketing is powerful when used by a pro, but don’t invest too much in content marketing on this platform. Just have a presence and keep it looking lived in and maybe enjoy staying in touch with colleagues.

Let’s talk Funnels and User Journeys

This is where the tyres meet the road in marketing and here is where you will begin to get some  answers or at least strong hints. There is a world of difference between a big brand and a Freelancer, between a £2m pa and £20bn per annum turnover, between a £200 sale and £2m sale. It is simply not valid in any way whatsoever to just say Content marketing is good, bad or indifferent. It is different for different people in different circumstances.

Ask any professional marketer with a department to run and a sizeable budget and he will have a mix of tactics and strategies to gain attention, to develop awareness of the brand, of product families or products and probably to drive sales or sales enquiries.

The role played by Content Marketing will generally be that of Brand awareness and product awareness. The only data available if it is examined at all will be views, engagement, etc. Hence my friend boasting of a large number of Facebook likes.

He may well be using eCommerce, or exhibits, partners, or even high street stores to convert the interest to firm orders.

Talk to a typical freelancer and he is using his spare time, when he has no paying clients, to produce content in the hope it will demonstrate his prowess and generate an enquiry. She will look embarrassed when you ask her about the figures. That, by the way, is no reflection on her, her ability, or even her writing or marketing skills. It simply is because content will rarely drive conversions and even those with the best intentions get side-tracked, or convinced to buy elsewhere by a clever deal etc.
The Freelancer generally has little strategy for winning the deal, maybe even sometimes for getting engagement and has neither the skills nor resources to drive it to fruition.

Final stage in the journey

To make matters worse, people who are trying to convince themselves about a product are the sort of people who are probably DIY or will want to buy from a big trusted brand, but far less likely to engage the freelancer. His market is seasoned users of freelancers who simply want the right specialism and the right price and availability.
His marketplace is the place  where they come when they have money and an urgent need, not so much the place where they discuss it and day dream about the possibilities i.e. not Content Marketing. Selling anything to people who are not in the market for it is a tough way to build a business and can only be justified after you have maximised returns form genuine need and urgency.

Content to inform a decision

Most marketers would agree that while this is critically important content sitting on landing pages or eCommerce platforms, it does not fit into the natural definition of content marketing.

How to do Digital the right way

The key to Digital is understanding your customer’s User Journeys in sufficient depth to be able to feel empathy with her needs at every turn, pre-empt them and place just  the right messaging in the right place at the right time. By the way, empathy that comes form within is a dangerous illusion, you need real content and connection with real people and you need to combine qualitative research with some numbers (Quant)

By far the cheapest way to drive customers, is to sit back and let the other players inform her about the product, keeping your powder dry apart from a little gentle brand awareness and then pounce with a killer offer when she finally decides to buy. You will right now be losing a lot of potential customers to others doing precisely this, whether by design or by accident and it is without doubt the easy and profitable way to win new business other than from existing customers. This approach will of course, deliver insufficient orders for many and hence they will try to muscle into the buying journey earlier in the process and try to ensure they are under consideration at the buying stage and ideally number one.

For those who run direct sales operations, everything I just wrote is old history of course, because they are past masters at making contact, nurturing, qualifying and either closing the sale or running off to look for a better prospect. Their feedback is direct and powerful, their data is accurate as in today and their feet are firmly on the ground. There is a lot to be learned in principal at least from talking to them as I regularly do, but theirs also, is a unique situation.

Marketing and Sales frameworks as a useful input

Whatever your approach may be, it always pays to follow a number of old-school recommendations.
1. Do enough face-to-face consultation, whether after the fact chats, or formal qualitative engagement to make sure that you really understand their needs, drivers, fears, motivations, emotions and then develop real-life personas that bring them to life on your office wall. Make sure everyone who writes an advert or develops a strategy does so with these personas right in front of them. I once had music stands adapted to hold these framed personas in the creative room.

2. Map out the classic journeys based on all the analytics you have diligently collected form ad platforms, landing pages, website, direct mail, phones etc and verified via qualitative engagement with real customers. Make sure that you appreciate how  they learn and make decisions, the emotions they feel while doing that and what you need to do to steer them to your offering instead of the alternative given their specific persona.

3. Understand in great depth how they perceive your firm and your proposition and how it compares in their minds to the competitors they are likely to be comparing you to and make sure you are clear about why you, in their shoes, would choose your firm and not the others.

If you follow those three rules passionately and diligently, all the rest of the puzzle will start falling into place with remarkable frequency.

Why direct outbound advertising will always work

I was kind of hoping that, without giving any hints, you might have noticed by now that there is a huge flaw in the argument for content marketing. The flaw is simply that you cant make the market any bigger and you can’t buy customer without putting the price up.
The reality is quite different from the perception. You see if you ask an economist he will explain that mood and money supply are the things that make the pie bigger. Advertising can direct activity to different places, but its impact on the size of that pie is very tiny indeed. What I mean is that the market for cheese slices will be the same size tomorrow regardless of how many suppliers or advertisers are after it assuming all alternatives are also being advertised with equal fervour. Hence you are battling for a share of a finite pie.

Yes, it helps to have a nice brand when the final decision is being made, depending on your positioning, but the thing that will move the needle for you is being in the right place at the right time with the right product.
The Advertiser or Marketer who can position right, maintain a trusted name, find that market with laser accuracy and be right there when the customers are ready to buy is the one that will get the business. If you take care of this first, you will rarely have time to worry about anything else. That is why a well-run Digital Ad campaign with intelligent remarketing and an appropriate level of Online Reputation Management and Social presence will always be successful online.

In the digital world people use their phone and or browser to search and research their needs. A user currently in the market for a conservatory will notice and advert or piece on that subject on social media and maybe read it, but otherwise not. The vast majority will look at online reviews and read the top few. These reviews and your star score have a huge impact similar in power to that of a brand and finally if it s a large purchase they will compare suppliers and maybe search for social media discussions.  All of this should emerge in your user journey if you research it diligently. You then need the right material available at each key touch point and have an actively monitored strategy for closing these deals whether a well-oiled shopping cart, or a sales process.


We established from the-get-go that Content Marketing as a concept has outgrown its billing not to mention the physical and mental capacity of its victims but quite a few thousands of percent and we also recognised that not everyone offering expert advice is in fact and expert, or entirely up front about their motivations.

Content Marketing is aimed at capturing the attention of a casually browsing user and establishing a brand connection and trust with the aim of one day in future presenting a proposition and winning a customer or a sale. It is not an outbound marketing tool and is not expected by marketing pros to directly evoke enquiries and orders.

We also talked about the potentially very high cost of Content marketing unless cleverly managed and we also mentioned the risk that is attached to online engagement if not  monitored and managed closely.

Content is a very expensive method for large firms and a very ineffective method for small firms if used for the wrong purpose, i.e. with ill-informed expectations. The risks are also substantial unless you can keep track and stay in control. Even if the above is not a concern, the algorithms will ensure that you don’t have a significant readership either by size or targeting.

Placing content regularly and ensuring it gets some shares on Social Media is however and it is still important to maintain your SEO ranking and to make your social profiles look lived in, but it won’t improve your Doman Authority and if you dare to add more than an occasional outbound link to your website, watch the engagement fall off a cliff.

Paradoxically, content is also a critically important part of the marketing mix for virtually every size of firm. Our advice is to quantify and appreciate its importance to your business and invest exactly the right amount of time and money to achieve the things it needs to achieve in terms of your social presence and brand awareness and learn to use re-marketing, but employ a broad and balanced marketing mix to achieve your overall business aims.

A perfect basic mix for most firms in 2020 should include as a minimum:

1.      A mature analytics approach with easily consumed reports that give you a picture of what is working and what needs improvement and a clear map of user online behaviour.

2.      A 20:20 view of how you compete in your marketplace with your closest competitors.

3.      Deep insight into how your customers shop and how they feel about it.

4.      A top of mind consciousness of why your product or service is popular with your customers.

5.      A lived-in social media profile across the key platforms, regular response to comments and reviews and occasional posts. A small but lively engagement is enough, don’t get hooked on a war to have the most likes, it is not worth it. Follows on the other hand improve reach of your posts.

6.      A minute by minute view of what is said about you around the web, especially on review sites and ability to respond quickly and appropriately to defuse issues or nurture [potential leads.

7.      An average dwell time on your web pages as far above one minute as possible and very fast Time to First Bite TTFB. Users wont wait around.

8.      An advertising campaign to target the people you want to engage with. Ruthless targeting is key. I’d go as far as saying to them “If you are not from ,b, or c  segments don’t click that link”.

9.      Re-marketing across social media and maybe Google too will increase your conversions.

10.   Automated email engagement with good analytics to help you stay in touch.

11.   All that will carry a learning curve so some support is useful and you must take it step by step.

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