Content Marketing Isn’t a Marathon—It’s a Relay Race

“Content marketing is a marathon.” In the content marketing community, this phrase is our version of “there’s no place like home.” Say it enough times, at enough conferences, and all of our problems will go away.

Or maybe not.

Great content marketing can absolutely deliver compounding returns over time, building loyal audiences likely to buy more from a brand. But even if a CMO agrees with this idea, she may not be inclined to implement it. Why? Because marketing leaders have little incentive to play the long game.

The CMO’s Dilemma

According to research from Spencer Stuart, an executive search and consulting firm, the average CMO tenure lasts just 42 months—less than half the average tenure of the average CEO. Many fail to even make it that long.

In the vast majority of cases I’ve seen, the CEO brings in a CMO to solve an immediate and dire business need. As a result, CMOs face pressure the second they step in the door.

“If you are CEO and you tried a game plan and it’s not working, what do you do?” Greg Welch, a consultant who helped conduct the research, told the Wall Street Journal. “You change the playbook and change the players.”

But if you’re a new CMO, what should you do when you’re chosen as the new player?

A) Push all of your chips in on audience-centric content marketing—a practice with the potential to transform your brand’s relationships with people in the long run, even if it delivers an unpredictable impact on revenue in the first 12 months?


B) Bet your chips on direct response advertising and lead-gen tactics, which will deliver predictable, mediocre results?

For CMOs worried about a quick-trigger firing that’ll knock them out of the C-Suite for good, it’s hard to blame them for picking the safe answer. Which is why content marketers need to focus their attention on more than marketing departments, and change their approach to content marketing strategy.

The path to content marketing success

Look at the most successful content marketing programs, and you’ll see a common theme: executive buy-in.

Marriott, Amex, GE, Red Bull—all the content programs that marketers worship are fueled by CEO support that protects the marketing team from needing to chase short-term results. Startups are often much better at building content marketing programs than larger competitors because of this freedom. Founders in it for the long haul support content initiatives; managers and directors brought in from the outside don’t always have that perspective.

So is all doomed for companies that don’t have built-in support? Definitely not. As a content strategist, I’ve found a few simple ways to change the way we pitch and implement content marketing.

1. Start small, but don’t half-ass it

Marketing leaders with tenuous job security don’t have to bet everything on content. But they also can’t just give it lip service, throwing a few posts on a blog in a vain attempt to stay on trend.

Instead, start with one particular line of business or product. Create a content strategy that will help you build relationships with one particular persona. Then establish clear KPIs that track both how you’re building the relationship (return visits, time spent with content, shares, newsletter signups) and the actions they take once you’ve earned their trust (visiting product pages, requesting demos, talking to sales).

You need to track the growth of these metrics over time to tell the true story. With the right data, you can effectively optimize how you create content and distribute it throughout the customer journey.

This is a common approach we take with our clients at Contently. When other lines of business see the results, they want in on the fun. Investment increases year over year.

2. Market your content with paid media

A strange thing happens when brands invest in content marketing—people forget the marketing part. Content programs still require marketing fundamentals—like using paid media to get content in front of your target audience.

The biggest reason content marketing programs fail in the first year is people don’t set aside a budget to distribute their content on platforms like Facebook, LinkedIn, Instagram, and Outbrain.

3. Evangelize to the rest of the C-Suite and other teams

When you set up a content marketing program in this fashion, don’t hold onto the results like they’re a secret. Find opportunities to talk about the program at company-wide meetings and prepare reports for executives outside of the marketing team. Even if the CEO doesn’t pay immediate attention, other departments such as HR and sales will want to explore how content can help them get superior results.

Ultimately, most successful content marketing programs won’t look like a marathon. Instead, they’ll resemble a relay race.

Image by Braden Collum for Unsplash

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