F#*k Content Marketing—It’s Time to Start Marketing Your Content

Jamie Shanks
Jamie Shanks

[Note: This article originally appeared in LinkedIn Pulse]

Ah, so I’ve got your attention! Was it because I was leading with one of the biggest marketing buzzwords born in the last 10 years? Or because I dropped an f-bomb to start my headline? Well, either way, you couldn’t resist—and I’m glad you’re reading on! Why? Because we marketers have a major problem that needs to be called out. The problem is this: there are some among us trapped in an outdated mindset, believing that content marketing simply fuels inbound marketing.

But the term content marketing means something to everyone these days. In the last decade, we’ve seen the rise of content marketing as a marketing term, discipline, and even job title. A lot of credit for this goes to the Content Marketing Institute (CMI), which taught marketers that creating content aligned to the interests of their prospects would help to define their audiences.

According to CMI:

“Content marketing is a strategic marketing approach focused on creating and distributing valuable, relevant, and consistent content to attract and retain a clearly defined audience — and, ultimately, to drive profitable customer action.”

Companies like HubSpot led early as best-in-class thought leaders that helped shape the perception of content marketing. They emphasized content creation with the intent of generating inbound interest. And so content marketing took off as something we all naturally wanted to invest in, as a more scalable way to gain mindshare, eyeballs, and revenue.

Google Trends data on relevance over time and the incline of Content Marketing as a term over the last 7 years.

Fast Forward to 2018

Recently, I was on a briefing call with Phyllis Davidson, Research Director at SiriusDecisions. She had her own definition for content marketing:

“Content marketing is a subset of inbound marketing activities that attract and drive topical authority and engagement with target audiences and strengthen an organization’s overall digital footprint… This footprint is achieved via gains in search engine authority and social media visibility and engagement.”

I quickly challenged her definition, explaining that although inbound efforts are important, the most successful companies are increasingly leveraging content at all stages of the buyer journey, not just the top of the funnel. Sure, content can help drive inbound traffic and generate leads, but as marketers, we’re increasingly realizing it can be used throughout the entire customer lifecycle.

In our ensuing conversation, Phyllis coined what I consider the definitive marketing statement of the year. It’s what every marketer should aspire to in 2018: “We need to start marketing our content.”

SiriusDecisions resurfaced this insight in a recent Research Brief:

“Unfortunately, many organizations mistakenly consider marketing content and content marketing to be the same thing. In reality, marketing content is the entire catalogue of content used to fuel the end-to-end marketing engine, while content marketing is a distinct discipline that blends search engine optimization, content strategy, digital marketing and editorial expertise to create authority around a family of topics… If it is not increasing inbound traffic and engagement, marketing content is not content marketing.”

Content Marketing Was Stolen

I went home that night and couldn’t stop thinking about how we got here. And, more importantly, what needs to happen to shift the focus from content creation to using our content across the entire organization.

I woke up the next morning and directed our marketing team to review our messaging, update our homepage, and change our event signage. “F#*k content marketing,” I told them, “It’s time to start marketing our content!” In the week that followed, my good friend Ann Handley of MarketingProfs, once she’d understood my intention, helped me to refine the messaging.

At first, my team was afraid—they were petrified! Seriously, the concern from my marketing team was whether this call to action would offend content marketers. Trust me. That’s the last thing I intended to do! My point was not that we need to stop creating content, but that the discipline of content marketing had to transcend content creation and inbound marketing for it to demand further investment. The problem is that too many organizations believe their investment in content marketing ends when the “publish” button is clicked.

A Little History

Let’s return to CMI, who provided us with the definition as we know it today. When Joe Pulizzi, founder at CMI, started to teach us that content marketing was not just an opportunity, but a requirement for modern B2B marketers, we all had to adapt quickly. Seemingly overnight, we had to reinvent ourselves, moving from a strategy focused on product marketing campaigns to leading with thought-provoking content and conversations. This was no easy challenge. Many compared this shift with having to launch in-house newsroom editorial teams that embodied the characteristics of media companies. Of course, media companies had decades to figure that out.

To the rescue came a slew of processes, people, and technology to help strategize and execute on content marketing. But given the challenge at hand, they were all naturally focused on solving for content creation. Agencies were born (or morphed) to be content creators, journalists moved from media giants to become brand authors, and thought-leaders like Jason Miller gave us frameworks to scale content creation. As you can imagine, platforms were created to capitalize on this sizeable new opportunity.

Out of the gate, a number of tech offerings would try to position themselves as content marketing platforms of record. Companies like Kapost and DivvyHQ came to solve content planning, while Newscred and Skyword solved for outsourcing content creation at scale, while marketer-friendly tools like SnapApp helped with interactive content. The funny thing is that each of these groups do very different things when it comes to content creation, but they all tried to position themselves as content marketing solutions or platforms.

Regardless of which of the solutions you required above (and you very well may need a few), I believe it’s fair to say that we did ourselves no favours in the early days. It’s easy to see how the discipline of content marketing began to be associated with content creation.

When We Solve a Problem, We Often Create Another

I remember a conversation with my Uberflip co-founder roughly six years ago. We were very excited about the buzz that content marketing was generating and we wanted to start a company that would empower marketers. We briefly considered creating an authoring tool to leverage the hype described above, but to be candid, we felt we were a bit late to the game. Other tech companies were already well on their way.

So we took a step back and asked: “What will happen when people figure out how to create all this content? Then what?” The questions prompted others: “What would marketers do with all that content? How will they know if it’s working? Who else other than marketing will want to leverage that content?”

As a marketer, I saw the need for a platform to help people like me encourage the use of content across the organization and throughout the buyer journey, with a focus on creating engaging content experiences.

Our expectation was that “content marketing” as a term would expand to cover this need. But it hasn’t. And for most organizations, it remains simply a subset of inbound marketing, tied to content creation, and meant to drive authority and engagement. But even when executed well, content marketing defined as such is not enough to achieve B2B content success.

Certainly, the more sophisticated content marketers among us have already moved on to repurposing, optimizing, and strategically deploying content in a very sophisticated way. They would agree that the current definition is no longer workable.

And so today I officially wave the white flag, take a knee, and offer in peace the term content marketing to the creators, the tools, and the people who rock the title content marketer. But f#*k it. We can’t stop here. I’m confident that content marketers don’t want it to end here, either.

Putting Our Content to Use

In the week that followed my conversation with Phyllis, I reached out to a number of marketing leaders for further insights. I especially loved Jay Baer’s take. In his response, he wrote: “The existence of content is no longer a guarantee of any success whatsoever. It goes back to what I talked about in [the New York Times bestseller] Youtility, that you have to market your marketing.” Ah, there it is!

Let’s look at one of the most basic ways to measure the return on content efforts and investment: pageviews. Our data shows that the more often our customers place their content into streams, the more views their content will earn. It’s not rocket science, but it has interesting implications!

The problem is that many orgs expect the content marketers to champion the use of the content they create. This is where we begin to fail. To best leverage your content, we need to get the entire marketing team, and eventually the entire org, to start marketing with your content.

How to Start Marketing Through the Content Experience

The undeniable popularity and widespread uptake of content marketing points to its effectiveness. However, content isn’t only effective in the strict inbound sense. Content should satisfy the entire buyer journey—from awareness, to engagement, to lead generation, to sales enablement, and even to customer success.

So how do we achieve this? Where can our content be used? And how do we ensure it’s leveraged at every opportunity? One of my go-to illustrations when I speak to marketers is the wheel below, which my team has dubbed The Conex (Content Experience) Wheel. It illustrates how marketers can use content to  nurture prospects and engage customers with content at various stages of the life cycle.

The Conex Wheel

The way we think about content is changing. Content no longer lives exclusively in the marketer’s domain. If you take a look at companies who are benefiting from content, they share one trait in common. They are taking advantage of their entire catalog to fuel their end-to-end marketing engine.

As you work your way outward from the center of the wheel, you’ll recognize stages of the buyer journey, with the ways we can embrace content mapped to each stage. On the outer ring of the wheel are the different departments, who typically draw upon content resources. Understanding why and how content satisfies the entire buyer journey is the easy part, and creating content to better satisfy the journey is an important first step.

Simply creating the content, however, isn’t enough. Organizations must be able to easily leverage this content for more than one purpose and one campaign in order to satisfy the buyer journey. Here’s a look at five ideas for how content can drive different parts of the customer lifecycle and who typically owns it.

Idea #1: Content Can Fuel Inbound

As mentioned earlier, companies like HubSpot proved the case of content. The power of content to educate (combined with the way that Google favors regular updates) justified regular content creation (especially as a means for audiences to engage with your brand outside of a simple transaction). This pushes the need to get content on your site(s) so that it can be discovered by your target audiences.

Who Owns It?

It’s typically not IT or your web team. Indeed, your marketing team needs to control the content if you expect them to make the jump from content marketing to marketing your content. At Uberflip, we’ve created a dedicated Content Experience Team, while other organizations place ownership of marketing content on digital, social, and / or demand generation teams.

Use Case

Check out this example by Alight, on how they have managed to get content on their site, indexed for search, but also organized for their different buyers in HR & Financial Solutions, Health & Wellness, and Consumer Experience.

Idea #2: Content Brings the ABM Approach to Life

ABM (Account-Based Marketing) is another buzzword with many definitions. However, my friend Steve Watt defined it best: “It’s a sustained, coordinated, strategic approach to identifying, engaging, closing, and growing the accounts that we know we should win.” Although some call the ABM model the flip of inbound, one element that they have in common is content. Indeed, personalized content has a very obvious and impactful role in engaging with target accounts.

Who Owns It?

Marketing! The key to a successful ABM strategy is the practitioner’s ability to personalize the content experience at scale. Because they possess the greatest insights into target accounts, the marketing team (typically demand generation) is in the best position to arm reps with ways to leverage content as the sales team works them through the funnel.

Use Case

Snowflake, for example, has managed to create a targeted stream of content for specific accounts in order to engage their accounts toward the bottom of the funnel. In this case, search engine marketing isn’t warranted. The marketing team markets this content through direct email and retargeted ads that link to a “stream” of curated content. The image below gives some context to what you could try:

Idea #3: Marketing With Content Requires Team Matrices

Indeed, a marketing department’s approach influences how content is utilized throughout the organization. Here, I’ve learned a lot from our VP Marketing, who has always encouraged a matrixed approach to align stakeholders on how we take content to market for specific campaigns or programs. Are your sales and success teams turning to Google to find your content? That’s a sign that you’re not aligned!

Who Owns It?

That’s a loaded question! It really depends on the part of the Conex Wheel above on which you’re focused. Take, as an example, the ability to use content after your prospect has converted to customer and you’ve refocused your goal on advocacy. In this case, you likely want a mix of representation from success, sales and marketing at the table, but marketing should take the lead.

Use Case

Check out this example by our own team where we leveraged customer stories tied to our EXPY awards this past year to create a content experience that appealed to both current and prospective customers. This required collaboration between various members of the aforementioned teams.

I can’t tell you the number of times I’ve showed the Conex Wheel to a CMO who said something like, “I now fully comprehend what content can do for our company.” Please feel free to download this image and leverage or tweak for your buyer journey. Once you have a framework like this, you’ll be able to start marketing your content in ways you couldn’t previously imagine.

So What Does This Mean for Content Marketing?

I hope we can now all agree that the common association with content marketing emphasizes creation over marketing. So yes, f#*k it. But not because we don’t need it, but because we obsess a bit too much over creating content on a daily basis. In fact, I co-host a weekly podcast called Conex: The Content Experience Show, where most of the guests admittedly come on to speak to the strategy of content creation. Creating content has gotten a lot easier. That is not to say that it’s easy. However, if you want to commit to it today, you should be up-and-running a lot faster and with a better strategy than we could have imagined ten years ago.

The challenge now (to paraphrase Phyllis Davidson) is starting to use our entire catalogue of content to fuel the end-to-end marketing engine. SiriusDecisions’ research shows that 60–70% of content churned out by B2B marketing departments today sits unused. I don’t care if you’re a leader of demand gen, content or the CMO. That number should scare the s-word out of you!

So what do we do? Let me be clear. This is not a call to stop creating content. In fact, I want to take a moment to thank every person who has held the title of content marketer—or has embraced the unofficial responsibility of creating content. These are the people who have embraced our products, services, and solutions and built a discipline through which people can better relate to the brands and companies with which they do business.

But to truly stand out, we must emphasize using our content in creative and meaningful ways throughout the entire customer lifecycle, over continuing to emphasize content creation and the hope of generating inbound interest. So f#*k content marketing. It’s time to start marketing your content.

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