The content marketing bubble will burst...unless... 4 years ago

I’d been suspecting it for a while. I knew it for sure when I talked to over a dozen marketing leaders at the Inbound conference in August 2015. Each conversation went remarkably similar to this:

Me: “How’s your content marketing going?”

Them: “Great!!  We produce a ton of awesome content. Our executives blog every week, we’ve done a bunch of really cool ebooks, we have lots of technical white papers, infographics, case studies, we’re starting to do videos, yada yada…”

Me: “How’s that all workin for ya?”

Them: “Great!!!  But lately it seems like it’s tougher to get people to read our content, and it’s not bringing in real buyers.”

Me: “So what are you doing about that?”

Them: “We hired an agency to create more content for us,” and/or “We’re planning to staff a content team of professional writers.”  A few even mentioned they’re hiring former journalists.

Uggh. Suspicions confirmed. We’re in a content marketing bubble. Irrational exuberance. Effectiveness declining, so we throw more money at it and follow the herd. I’ve been contemplating writing this post for 9 months, then something happened that pushed me off the cliff.

A friend of mine got a call from the president of a well-regarded content marketing agency that was looking for a “content strategist” to augment their team on a contract basis. He was given the name of one of their clients and told to look at their website, create a content plan, and write an 800 word article each week.

“What’s their secret sauce?” my friend asked. “Why do their customers buy from them?”

“That doesn’t matter,” the president said. “You’re just writing articles that are keyword rich so they can be found on Google.”

My friend said that he’ll need to interview their execs, a few salespeople, and some customers to figure out what content will resonate with their audience and motivate them to take action. He was told “Sorry, that’s not how it works.”

Talk about contributing to the content glut. As marketers, we’ve become so enamored with the “content” side of content marketing that we’ve lost sight of the reason “marketing” exists in the first place: to drive revenue by attracting, winning, and retaining the right customers. Sure there’s lots of other stuff we do, but at the end of the day, this is what our CEOs and investors want from us.

Millions of companies of all sizes now push boatloads of “educational” content into the market, along with promotional brochures disguised as thought leadership. Despite catchy headlines, most of this content is crap that disappoints the readers who open it. This proliferation of content has created a deafening noise that is causing our target buyers to tune us out altogether. Yet we think the answer is to create more content. Wrong.

How do we keep the content marketing bubble from bursting? How do we get through the noise? By going back to basics to understand what our target buyers really care about, and unleashing authentic, genuine customer stories, told in the customer voice, that truly address those needs. This is what buyers want. Why?

You know your buyer is going through a problem-solving process. His interest in your offering is not a straight line from “no interest” to “ready to buy”, like most of us want to believe. It is more like the graph from a heart rate monitor.

He discovers your company/solution, he gains hope, then he encounters a specific question, fear, or doubt that causes his interest to drop. If he can overcome that doubt, his interest builds until another specific question or fear arises and it drops. This may happen several times before he’s even talking to your sale rep. Once he’s talking to your rep, the cycle continues, and he may even go dark. As I’ve posted before, your buyers want a crystal ball into what life will be like as a customer.

You need to uncover what the questions, fears and doubts are that arise with your buyers and stop them in their tracks. This will usually come out of good persona work. Then ask your best customers how they overcame those underlying issues. Let the customer tell their story, full of the drama and tension, the success and failure, and the end result.

Here’s an example: I work with a company that sells digital printers and software, and one of their major segments is screen-printing shops. These shop owners are afraid to take the plunge from screen-printing to digital printing because it is a big, risky, expensive transformation. The company could hire an intern to write a white paper about how their product helps screen printers make this transformation. But the better way to engage these buyers is for the company to have a few of their successful shop owners share their experiences making the transformation, answering the biggest questions and doubts that prospects have at each stage of their journey, which include:

  • “How did you decide it was time to take the plunge?”
  • “How did you go about evaluating your digital printer options?”
  • “What operational changes did you have to make to your shop to add digital printing?”
  • “How has it changed the mix of printing jobs you do for clients?”
  • “What advice would you give to a print shop owner considering digital printing?”

I call this “customer-generated content”, and truly believe that it is the only type of content that will break through the noise, capture the attention and interest of your target buyers, address their biggest questions, and motivate them to want to buy your offering. This is our best hope for keeping the content marketing bubble from bursting.

(NOTE: Don’t brush this off by saying “Jeff, you’re just telling me to do more case studies.”  I’ll be writing a post soon on why traditional case studies are a waste of everyone’s time and money.)

Every marketer I’ve talked with in the last year agrees with me, but I know many of you may claim you’re killing it with your content marketing, so let it rip, share your opinion on whether or not we’re in a bubble and whether it will burst.

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