There has been an enormous wave of interest in Content Marketing in recent years. We’ve climbed to the top of Gartner’s Hype Cycle –- the “peak of inflated expectations.”
Or, perhaps, we are dropping down into “the trough of disillusionment.”
“I predict this industry will get worse before it gets better,” contends Joe Pulizzi, head of the Content Marketing Institute. “With a flood of practitioners from all sides (many of them lacking a clear understanding of Content Marketing), there will be a deluge of really, really bad content.”
To understand what’s happening, it helps to consider the advice that many Content Marketing consultants and agencies are proffering to their clients.
Quite often, they are pitching a concept that can be referred to as a Content Grid. The idea is that different personas (or constituents) should be mapped against a series of decision stages. (Want added complexity? You might even put industry verticals on a third axis. Now you've got a Content Cube.)
You then are supposed to take your grid (cube) and begin populating it with content objects of various kinds.
But here’s the problem: this approach is ultimately paralyzing –- and, increasingly, demoralizing. You quickly realize you have a lot of work to do to fill out the grid. You get immersed in an endless series of tasks to feed an insatiable engine of awareness and demand generation: Where’s the white paper? The e-book? The viral video? The podcast? The info graphic? How about those blog posts?
Indeed, proponents of all this grid-grinding aspire to see “the right content created for the right customer at the right buying stage in the right package.” It’s as if they intend to anticipate every possible buying need or decision and address it with the relevant content artifact. Just let buyers diagnose and solve their own complex problems.
No doubt, this approach creates lots of work for agencies. It’s a full employment scheme. But what about the outcome for the client? It seems, increasingly, that strategy gets overtaken by tactics. Content production becomes an end in itself. It becomes unclear how the content that’s produced is truly facilitating buying decisions –- or setting the stage for effective sales conversations.
You begin to experience Content Gridlock.
Not only is it extremely costly and difficult to create (and maintain) this volume of content, it’s even harder to make it compelling. Expectations then begin to eclipse content production capabilities. Social media and demand gen specialists start calling out for powerful content that simply is not forthcoming.
The stuff that is being pumped out is hardly provocative, insightful or worthy of being called thought leadership. In fact, the problem is further exacerbated when sales conversations bear no resemblance to the material produced by marketing.
And, should the results of awareness and demand campaigns prove disappointing relative to the content production investment, the credibility of Content Marketing is called into question. And this is where the backlash begins.
But it doesn’t need to be this way.
Indeed, research from the ITSMA finds that today’s IT buyers value the same forms of content across all content stages. Most specifically, they place great value on industry research and analysis, proof points (case studies, ROI/TCO, etc.) and industry/business best practices.
The takeaway is that companies gain most by investing in core content that is extremely relevant as opposed to lots of content that is of marginal value.
Julie Schwartz, senior vice president of research and thought leadership at the ITSMA, agrees that marketers need to get off the Content Grid. “I think content creators have to think more about the questions that people have as they go through the buying process and what content is needed to answer those questions,” she says.
Most importantly, buyers need to understand why they would want to change and what new directions they might take. That’s why it’s critical to have a compelling point of view -– an insightful and unifying perspective that challenges current thinking and provides context for making a buying decision in the first place.
You need a Signature Story that anticipates the key questions that will emerge in the buyer’s journey. Among them: Why should I pay attention? Why should I change? Why should I act now? Why is this solution relevant? Why might you be the right solution provider?
So consider this alternative to today’s grid-grinding:
- Design Your Signature Story. Recognize that you can produce a overarching and unifying story that addresses the key questions of many decision influencers at many stages of a decision. You want to widen your prospect’s field of view -– not narrow or constrain it by thinking in terms of discrete chunks of content. Understand that it is the story’s dramatic elements -– most especially, the striking contrasts between problem and solution, breakdown and breakthrough –- that will initially engage your prospects and provide context for an ongoing conversation. Your Signature Story provides an expansive view –- inviting your buyer to see themselves at the heart of this narrative, heroically addressing their purpose and pursuing their objectives.
- Engage Both Selling and Marketing Teams in Signature Story Development. Your point of view or Signature Story cannot be created in a vacuum -- or in an isolated silo. Instead you need consensus and commitment among the people responsible for carrying your story forward. They should collaboratively participate in story development. You can’t simply hire a stable of writers to write on behalf of everyone else. You won’t create a unified (and unifying) point of view this way. You won’t create conviction among those entrusted to engage prospects, close deals and grow the business.
- Leverage Your Signature Story Across Channels and Buying Decision Stages. Once you've developed a core, consensus-driven point of view, you can leverage it many times and in many ways. This is how you maximize the return on your positioning and messaging investment. You incorporate your point of view into your PR and social media efforts. You infuse it into your demand gen and sales enablement initiatives. It's reinforced on your web site and on partner portals. But don’t obsess over media or content types. Pick a few and focus. Test and learn. Don’t overcomplicate the endeavor. Just ensure your story addresses the key questions likely to arise in the course of a buying journey.
Finally, don’t expect a Content Marketing effort to do all the work. You have to guide your buyers through the decision process -- and your sales team has an active role to play as both problem identifiers and problem solvers. While content can strike up conversations, content does not replace conversation -– at least not when you are engaged in a high value, high stakes sale.