Marketing guru Mark Schaefer sounded the alarm in 2014. The content model will fall apart, he argued. Content supply is exploding, while demand is now relatively flat. An audience once eager for online content now finds it has only so many hours in the day.
There are economic conundrums with content marketing too. “It’s tempting to think of content as a ‘free’ marketing strategy, but it isn’t,” wrote Dan Shewan of Wordstream. As the volume of available content continues to explode, the cost of producing an effective signal heard above the noise steadily grows too. To find an audience, content quality needs to be ever higher. Whether you’re creating content in-house or outsourcing the task, the cost—in both dollars and time—is likely to climb. This graphic puts the choices starkly.
Not only does a viable content model demand quality: It increasingly demands quantity too. Marketing automation is threatening to go beyond identifying a plurality of audience segments towards the dream of individually personalized messaging—going one-on-one with the customer to provide a personalized experience.
The potential for doing that at scale is thrilling. But where’s the benefit if you lack the time, budget, and overall visibility into your content marketing operations, to develop and optimize creative strategies for all those targets?
Mind the Gap
Put these factors together, and you have what we’ve been calling “the creative gap”—the gap between being able to identify and reach individual prospects at scale, and having relevant, high quality content to deliver. Make no mistake, marketing technology has—or should have—a very big stake in this challenge being successfully met. Although adoption of marketing automation has grown rapidly, it’s market penetration is still low; even microscopic (three percent) among non-technology brands. One reason, surely, is that a lot of people can’t figure out what they’d do with the shiny new toy.
Don’t look to this article for a definitive solution to the problem. What we do offer are a series of interlinked approaches which any brand with multiple audiences and multiple products needs to consider. Here’s the bottom line:
- Planning is paramount. Audit your processes and root out wasted effort
- For many businesses, some kind of creative management technology may be a smart investment; especially if you’ve invested in marketing automation already
- Think outside the box when it comes to sourcing content, but take a holistic view of creative across campaigns and channels
- Measure results and optimize.
Now the nitty gritty.
“We’ve gotten very good at a lot of the last-mile processes,” James Gross agreed. “The black box,” he said, “is upstream—and no part of the marketing process should be black box.” Gross is co-founder and President of Percolate, the productivity-focused marketing software vendor, and he was reflecting on marketing’s need for more serious operational disciplines. “It’s a systems problem,” said. Henry Ford’s not just famous for automobiles, but for creating a supply chain system to manufacture them at scale. In the past, Gross said, marketers haven’t needed that kind of system, but with “content growing at an incredible rate,” times have changed.
Start with an audit, he suggests, and root out “unplanned work” (a term of art in manufacturing and IT). There’s a lot of unplanned work going on in marketing—especially around social marketing—and it needs to be systematized. If your content marketing processes still run through email or Excel-type spreadsheets, he said, you have a problem: But replacing them with a dashboard, while a good idea, isn’t the whole answer. “I hear ‘dashboard’ everywhere I go,” he said, “And yes, that’s what we want to build. But first you have to describe and explain every stage of the process.”
Alex Cheeseman also wanted to start upstream. Cheeseman is Global Head of Strategy for the content marketing platform Newscred. A full understanding of “the content to commerce journey” is something which, he said, “has eluded a lot of marketers for a long time. They need to move away from fluffy vanity metrics and start being rigorous about what they do.” It’s very difficult, he said, when parts of the content puzzle sit with different teams within the organization. Like Gross, he called for “operational efficiency.”
Where’s the Value?
Cheeseman identified three main challenges:
- The struggle to put a dollar value against every piece of content—every ad, every page view.
- A lack of trust that content is actually building brand equity—especially in an environment where consumers are blocking ads, and a high proportion of traffic is fraudulent.
- That “everybody is doing content in some shape or form,” leading to a disconnected customer journey.
There’s been a big shift in the way brands think about content in just the last eighteen months, Cheeseman said. “Brands are at the point of asking, what value is it driving for the business?” Demonstrating ROI on content can start to move budgets, Cheeseman said.
I asked if it can also reduce costs by identifying ineffective content strategies. “One hundred percent,” Cheeseman agreed. “The problem we as consumers face is not quantity but quality.” We don’t wish for more content, he pointed out, but for better content. Too many brands are “hitting ‘publish’ with mediocre or me-too vanilla content,” he said. “There’s no point creating content that is less than excellent or not in a nice environment” where people are going to want to consume it.
“Have a framework,” he said. “Take bite-sized pieces and get the machine working.” And aim for “a few great pieces of content.”