Enterprise content marketing fails

Man legs in the officeWhen marketing departments tried out the ‘content marketing’ phrase on me a year ago, I was briefly encouraged.

I assumed companies would step back from polluting the Tweetstream with compulsive retweets and hashtag pimping in favor of original content. Perhaps content marketing would compel them to slash their PR budgets, fire their social media ninjas/consultants and hire talented, under-employed writers to tell their stories. Even better: hire an equally talented, equally under-employed editor to coach subject matter experts into blogging.

That didn’t happen. But all was not lost – we got a pile of content marketing infographics for our trouble. Oh, and we got a spiffy new phrase, thought leadership marketing, which I dare you to say in front of a real customer.

The headline for enterprise vendors? Customers don’t really want your thought leadership. What they want is to sit around a table and solve problems. If you have a demonstrated expertise for solving those problems, you get a seat at the table. I’m not sure what you call that, but it isn’t content marketing.

In content marketing circles, firms trot out pyramids or hierarchies to help those who have given up on pummeling mass markets into submission to figure out where to invest their resources. Full disclosure: I did a content hierarchy also, though I never turned it into an infographic. My bad.

Forrester put out a pyramid that positioned traditional brand advertising at the base, followed by product collateral, then case studies, then true thought leadership at the top. According to Forrester’s research, thought leader content has far more impact on potential buyers than pushing your logo. That’s a fair point.

Another take on the content marketing pyramid puts curated content on the bottom, then blogs, infographics, webinars, white papers and books on the top. When was the last time you read a 20 page vendor white paper? This pyramid already seems dated, but there’s a takeway: the more you put into content, the more you tend to get out.

So why does content marketing tend to fail? Usually because the definitions are too simplistic. Here’s how I see it:

  1. Content hierarchies ignore the realities of the enterprise sales cycle. When it comes to engaging new prospects, blog posts are most certainly NOT at the bottom of the content pyramid. When prospects are kicking tires on your products, case studies and on-demand demos are suddenly the most valuable content you can have.
  2. Hierarchies fail to address the need for opt-in information and how you get that opt-in. One of the delicate (some would say ugly) aspects of content creation is that your sales team expects demographic information like job titles from your visitors. Meanwhile your marketing manager wants to count subscribers. That means getting consumers to opt-in.
  3. Email newsletters are vastly underrated, however bland-sounding. Email is far from dead; those readers who let you into their priority inbox are far more valuable than those who click on your Facebook link and never look back. The sophisticated frontier is opt-in email that sends your readers/prospects exactly the information they asked for, exactly when they need it. Check your inbox – I’ll bet there isn’t a single vendor doing that effectively for you right now.
  4. Culture eats content for lunch. Opt-in is just the beginning. The real achievement is building culture around your brand that turns customers into advocates, singing your praises without prompting. Blogging about their great experience is a good sign. But the best stuff happens behind closed doors (and in private forums), when peers pitch your company to peers. It’s tough for B2B companies to inspire the same kind of brand love as B2Cs like Apple and Harley Davidson. When a CxO tattoos your brand on their arm, you get a week off. Maybe two.
  5. Don’t repurpose, go multi-media. Offering people video, audio, and text is not just good for search, it’s good for whatever device they prefer. But repurposing everything can lead you to syndication, where the same content gets plastered all over creation. That’s bad for search and worse for credibility. At diginomica we strive for as close to 100 percent original content as we can get. We don’t syndicate. The challenge is to build a great destination while also going where the conversations are. Do both.
  6. The best content strategies combine creation, measurement, and automation. It’s tough to create what I call soulful content on the one hand, and measure the results of that content on the other. Both are needed. Marketing automation gets a bad rap, but that’s essential for how prospects become sales. Properly used, these technologies get you into your prospects’ home office or airport lounge right when decisions are being made. Ironically, the firms which excel at content creation tend to be the worst at marketing automation, and vice versa.
  7. Conversation forces transparency, and transparency is a beast. Content sparks conversation, which is far more of double-edged sword than companies initially realize. Gleeful surprise at proliferating blog comments turns to despair when controversial feedback is deleted and the community revolts. Today’s enterprise customer doesn’t have the time for  ‘productive interactions’ or ‘good feedback sessions.’ They want issues resolved from that conversation. Companies should stay off social channels if social means faux engagement and soliciting input that goes nowhere. Paying community managers what they deserve for crafting fair policies and putting out fires is a good step – if you want to build culture out of content.
  8. Content marketing should be vertical. This automotive content marketing post points to the enterprise content  future: specialized content by specialists – for demanding and industry-focused readers.

At the risk of appearing too self serving we’re doing something different at diginomica by including our partners in these enterprise conversations. We’ve asked them to craft content that builds on what our five co-founders are writing. That means talking about shared business problems, not technical specifications. That means tearing down the walls between customers, partners and experts so we all have a seat at the table, setting projects on the right track. Buzzwords aside, that’s where everyone becomes a winner.

Photo credit: © iceteaimages – Fotalio.com

Jon Reed

Jon Reed

Jon Reed has been involved in enterprise communities since 1995, including time spent building ERP recruiting and training firms. These days, Jon is a roving blogger/analyst, and also counsels vendors and startups on go-to-market strategy. He is a diginomica co-founder, Enterprise Irregular, and purveyor of multi-media content. Jon is an advocate for media over marketing; he sees diginomica as a chance to disrupt tech media, with the BS-weary enterprise reader in mind.
Jon Reed

@jonerp

Enterprise Irregular, diginomica co-founder + SAP Mentor who blogs/videocasts on the enterprise, w/ dash of bootstrappin' + media hacks. OK, I rant sometimes.
Jon Reed
  • stuartbruce says:

    Agree with some of this, but not sure I understand your point about re-purposing content and if I do then I think I disagree! The point about putting the same content into different formats is to help the reader/user/consumer. Different people like information in different ways so give it to them how they want it, not how you want to give it. I’ll eagerly read (and if I like it share) your blog post, article or probably even PowerPoint presentation on SlideShare. I’m very unlikely to watch your video or listen to your audio podcast. I don’t have time, I don’t learn that way, it’s just not me. However, I know enterprise buyers who are the exact opposite and will watch your video, but probably won’t read your article.

    • jonerp says:

      stuartbruce Dennis covered the syndication point well in his detailed comment. I do think I could have expressed that point a bit more clearly. I do believe that offering folks content in different consumption forms is a good thing. But then there is a line that gets crossed into syndication and that tends to dilute conversation and create an impersonal, rather than a personal connection. I’ll think on this tonight and perhaps tweak that section tomorrow….

      • stuartbruce says:

        jonerp stuartbruce dahowlett Thanks for the swift replies. Think we are all probably thinking similar things. That’s why I prefaced my remark with I wasn’t quite sure what Jon meant on that particular point. What Dennis says about ‘command and control’ is particularly important. Back when I actually used to do PR for clients I constantly had battles to argue that the best case studies were ‘warts and all’. You tell me enterprise project that worked perfectly. You can’t, because they don’t. Prospects know this so if you include the crap of what went wrong and then what you did to try and put it right then it starts to become credible. Knowing that is one thing. Convincing the client is another.

        • kyield says:

          jonerp Well that is how people are trained to believe by monopoly cultures, and it works very well generally, until it doesn’t, but it’s been tested many many times and almost always fails to hold up with the very valuable IP– not to be confused with incremental innovation. That’s why fines and awards are so large – it’s the behavior and culture of large social ecosystems– quite well known by CEOs and directors– some of whom turn their head and others frustrated they can’t change the culture. They are an inventor’s worst nightmare – no accountability for failure and self accreditation for any good idea in the universe. – MM

        • jonerp says:

          @kyield  –  Terrific comment. I think you’ve also nailed some very legit issues why some companies/individuals would not be transparent or want to share stories that might infringe on IP. My view is that not every company or industry can be equially transparent for a variety of reasons. What is more important is avoiding faux transparency and being upfront about what is bloggabla and what is off limits. 
          That said, as someone who has given out a lot of IP for free, I’ve come to believe that at least for myself, there is a big value in giving a good amount of IP away, or giving it away in exchange for opt-in as trust develops. The advantage for me is that this attitude pushes me to remain creative and to continually put out new assets. I’m not saying that this applies to all companies but it’s something to think about. And yes, people are going to steal some of that free content. But I’d argue the downside of not sharing original content is worse. :) 
          That’s the short version – thanks for staying up so late to add some meat….

        • kyield says:

          jonerp stuartbruce Good discussion on otherwise rare topic. Since I’ve been pretty deep into the use case and sales cycle the past 18 months, would chime in a bit. First is that I rediscovered from under a different hat again the difference between original content from a founder and what that means in a world full of CI, highest priority of protecting IP and IC regardless of what anyone else thinks they want or need, and providing the actual information people should need if they were actually looking after their org’s long-term interests. That’s probably worth a second look. Second, I found out how rusty my own skills were, and still are to some degree, particularly relative to a pretty broad range of ability to understand advanced topics we cover. Third, there is a disconnect between understanding public and private information, particularly relating to customer intel. I am transparent by culture and preference, but that can prove dangerous in a world where customer apathy and incumbent’s spend more on CI and copying and protectionism than real innovation, even if it costs billions USD – apparently even massive fines and historic awards are not much of a disincentive–it’s baked into the culture. Fourth, the challenge of customer competition in some cultures extended to locked-in incumbent ecosystems is worthy of a (private) book. And not quite finally but it’s 2am, it’s easier than ever to go direct to the source and that’s a game changer. Certainly agree with the multi-media comments- while most can do both, some much prefer one format over another supported by obvious cognitive bias. And of course the content modeling in the industry is just a mess and all the customers know it, but then they also have the opportunity at any time to hire unbiased consultants–many do, again less transparent and more wise than some might presume.

        • dahowlett says:

          stuartbruce jonerp dahowlett We’re with you in that one. In our JD-OD material, we talk to challenges but in a positive way. We don’t end up polished but we do have meat. 
          As a sort of self deprecating joke, for video I like to think we work hard to suck more but you get the point.

        • jonerp says:

          stuartbruce Right. I could have expressed that point more clearly, that’s certain. I’m glad you brought up customer case studies because while these are often derided by content marketing purists as not being effective for those who don’t care about your product, for those prospects in the sales cycle a well-executed case study can be powerful. Especially if it addresses their industry and situation. 
          I’m actually thinking of doing a piece here on the art of the customer case study. Your point about imperfect case studies is key. If you don’t acknowledge some of the struggle then the whole document falls apart. Amongst enterprise buyers, there are very few suckers anymore. BS filters are on high…

    • dahowlett says:

      stuartbruce < jonerp can answer for himself but we have found over the years that simply reprinting material in other channels is not a good strategy. Despite what might have seemed to make sense in the past, syndicating content doesn’t deliver the desired or expected results. That was something I genuinely thought would be a net good at EnterpriseIrregulars. Instead, it became a glorified RSS feed source. Great for aggregating content for the drive by info consumer but lousy elsewhere since that content already existed in another primary domain. 
      What’s more, because those stories existed in distributed networks, we could not effectively create stories and conversations around the stories without considerable and, at times, self defeating effort. 
      We see brands (in tech at least) attempting to get away from this by developing their own content as a pull mechanism to their web properties. It is a very hard trick to pull off unless you really know what you’re doing and can add in the necessary ‘independent thinking’ layer. Too often, the best intentions get lost as the marketers fall back on their broadcast training once they see this requires genuine effort that takes time to pay off.
      I have only seen one really good example – Xero.  
      The problem  then comes that in many cases, we see the ‘command and control’ brand police step in, along with legal, who then extract all the juice out of these efforts. So that doesn’t work so well either. 
      What we are advocating is fundamentally different. It is obvious (to parrot @Euan) when you think it through but does require discipline (which we bring) knowledge (to which everyone can contribute) and authenticity (because we control the output.) In turn we are transferring knowledge back to partners from which they can benefit. Net-net we think the reader gets a better experience. 
      To your point on consumption types – yes – we agree. But to say ‘I don’t have time’ for certain media misses the point. We are finding that people do make time when they need to and so blending all media types is a sensible way to offer alternative ways to consume within a single package over time. The logic there is that we’re not storm chasing, we’re providing context which we see as a higher level activity and which attracts the RIGHT readers .not just the drive by guys. 
      Curiously and, if our early results are indicative, it discourages the trollers and only pulls in those who want to add to the conversation. Our spam levels are remarkably low. 
      We see our job as creating both short and long tail stories and story ‘books’ through which readers can easily navigate nuanced points of view and to which they can return as needed. That’s why we have no adverts and have no sidebars in the mobile device versions. 
      Does that help?