5 Content Marketing Problems That Keep Me Up at Night

When you work at a successful startup, one of the main perks of coming to work is the unbridled bubble of optimism and ambition that covers the whole office while employees chant startup catchphrases: Fail fast and often! Make awesome stuff! Make the world a better place!

That last startup-ism was lampooned last year in an episode of HBO’s Silicon Valley when dozens of startups paraded on stage at TechCrunch Disrupt to explain how they were making the world a better place: through software-defining data centers for cloud computing; through canonical data models that communicate between n-plugs; by revolutionizing the way you report bugs on your mobile platform. It’s a damn perfect parody, as evidenced by the fact that we have our own rah-rah maxim here at Contently: to build a better media world.

The primary reason I came to Contently as editor-in-chief was my belief in this mission—that by giving brands the access to world-class creative talent and powerful software, we could help them become publishers in their own right and tell great stories instead of flooding the web with intrusive advertising. Ultimately, that would mean: a) less shitty ads; b) more great stories; and c) all of my journalist/designer/filmmaker friends getting paid to do what they love.

Two years in, is this a realistic vision? I think so. I’ve seen our own editorial efforts deliver incredible business results for Contently, from cold, hard revenue to brand lift. And I’ve seen Contently clients like Amex, Coca-Cola, GE, and Marriott build internal media companies. I’ve watched the industry become more ambitious, and I’ve seen forward-thinking companies embrace content as the atomic particle that powers and permeates through all of their marketing efforts. I’ve seen journalists and filmmakers get paid well to do great branded work.

But while content marketing has positive momentum, it remains an experimental line item for most brands. It’s hard to do well, which is part of the reason most CMOs think their content is failing. Despite the good vibes, it’s easy to see the industry continuing to fall back on uglier alternatives—like the nearly $15 billion that’ll be spent on programmatic display advertising this year.

A world where intrusive advertising rules is one where no one wins—especially not consumers and content creators. And there are five main issues that keep me up at night, worrying that we’ll slink back into a dark age:

1. The undervaluing of editorial skills

 5 Content Marketing Problems That Keep Me Up at Night

All comics by Martin Kozlowski

The rise of content marketing has led to a lot more editorial positions that have popped up inside brands, which makes sense—you need people to write and edit and come up with ideas for all this content! What’s troubling is how some brands have tried to fill these roles: by trying to turn marketing managers into editors, copywriters into reporters, SEO specialists into content strategists. There seems to be a blind belief that great editorial skills are something you can develop overnight, especially with the help of a few content-ideation and headline-optimization tools.

That belief is insane. Great publications with loyal audiences require remarkable editorial talent. And remarkable editorial talent is still quite cheap. If brands don’t start hiring talented writers, editors, and content strategists, it’s hard to see them competing with the rest of the media world.

(See our guides to hiring here and here.)

2. Prohibitive bureaucracy

 5 Content Marketing Problems That Keep Me Up at Night

When it comes to content, most brands are running a race where their pit crew forces them off the track every lap.

Sure, when you’re creating a 30-second TV spot, you can afford to go through a 12-person approval chain and lengthy legal review. But not when you’re creating content every day. Editors need the freedom to experiment with new formats, different story types, and subjects that push boundaries. It isn’t just the lawyer getting cold feet, but also the brand manager mistakenly trying to force in product plugs, the comms manager killing every interesting quote with corporate banalities, and the VP of marketing who bottlenecks the entire edit calendar because he wants to sign off on everything.

So what does a successful content marketing operation look like? I’ve always been a fan of the model that Seth Godin suggested to me in an interview earlier this year:

I think the most important thing is to have an office that’s not in your building. I think what kills brands who try to be interesting is to have meetings where they’re not saying to senior management, “How can we be more interesting?” Instead, they’re saying, “How can we play this more safely?” That’s not what happens when you want to make a hit TV show or a website that people care about. You need editors, not brand managers, who will push the envelope to make the thing go forward.

So one easy way to do that is to set people up in an office down the street, only visit them once a month, and give them really significant metrics—not about pageviews, but about mattering. And give them the resources—not too much, just enough—to go do work that matters.

That kind of setup might be a little optimistic, but content creators do need some degree of autonomy within a brand if they’re going to succeed. (For another take, see John Hazard’s guide to brand approvals here.)

3. The campaign mindset

 5 Content Marketing Problems That Keep Me Up at Night

While doing research for my monthly “Best of Branded Content” column, I’ve come across tons of impressive one-off brand videos and microsites. The latter can be especially infuriating; these sites are loaded with dozens of articles and then left to die, a taxidermied ornament growing dusty in the corner of the branded content lodge.

All of this content is wasted because many brands are stuck in a campaign mindset. They’ll spend tons of money to create something shiny and awesome with an agency or publisher partner, but once that short-term opportunity ends, they don’t build on that momentum that can lead to a loyal audience over time. All of a brand’s content needs to be part of a cohesive whole, working toward clear goals.

4. Marketers who believe, “If you build it, they will come.”

 5 Content Marketing Problems That Keep Me Up at Night

There’s nothing more depressing than when a content team inside a brand overcomes tons of hurdles, creates some amazing stories, and then gets labeled as a failure because no one saw them.

When launching a branded content campaign, you absolutely need paid distribution for your content. Even if you have a million Facebook followers and a million Twitter followers, only a few thousand people, at most, will see your work.

I’ve seen brands budget hundreds of thousands of dollars on the actual content and then stop spending when it comes time to make sure people see that content. That gameplan is nuts. It’s never been easier to target the right audience for your content—from CMOs to Drake-loving yuccies—as Jordan Teicher detailed in his excellent guide on distribution platforms last week. Outbrain will drive readers from top pubs for $0.30 a click. When we promote a popular post on Facebook, we commonly see a CPC less than $0.10, a figure that drops even further if you’re promoting native videos. After all the trouble you’ve gone through, why the hell wouldn’t you spend $1,000 to put your content in front of 10,000 new people?

The math in favor of paid content distribution is stupidly simple, especially as we move toward a platform-centric universe that’ll serve up hungry audiences to anyone skilled enough to catch their attention. And to take advantage of the system, brands need to start devoting significant chunks of their media budgets to content marketing.

Bonus: Marketers’ ability to show ROI

Ultimately, content marketing will never become more than a side project for most brands if CMOs can’t demonstrate impressive ROI figures to the rest of the c-suite.

Unfortunately, there’s still a myth in the industry that you can’t really tie content to business results. (And if I hear that one more time, I’m going to lose it and run screaming through Content Marketing World in an orange speedo.) As I wrote in my content measurement playbook, it’s very possible to tie content to every stage of pipeline revenue by carefully tracking the impact your content has on the bottom line with marketing and sales automation programs like Salesforce and Marketo. And you can prove brand lift with a shoestring budget. None of this is easy, but if a bunch of English majors like us can figure it out, trust me, you can too.

But the ROI of content will be a mediocre proposition at best if talented people don’t have the freedom to tell great stories and have the resources to get those stories out there. You can’t solve one problem without solving all of them, and I hope we do. After all, when it comes to startup catchphrases, Make the world a banner-ad-infested slum just doesn’t have the same ring to it.

What content marketing issues worry you? Let me know @joelazauskas on Twitter.

Image by Akos Nagy

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