The content marketing debate – distribution versus greatness

hör mir zuForrester analyst Ryan Skinner put out a blog post, Why Great Content is Not Enough, that rubbed me the wrong way.

Skinner cites a few highlights from his recent content marketing report (available for Forrester clients or paid a la carte) and comes to a surprising conclusion: for content marketers great content is no longer the top issue, distribution of that content is.

I give Skinner credit for pushing some provocative conclusions (supported by fresh data), but see the problem differently. I worry that a focus on distribution implies that the content problem is solved when it is anything but.

The content marketing skills paradox

Effective content marketing poses a skills paradox. On the one hand, you need to capture attention via creative output. On the other hand, you need a means to distribute that content and an ability to measure the results of that content and tie it into a lead generation funnel. Those skills are rarely found on the same team, much less in the same person.

Skinner’s argument comes at a pivotal time for content marketers. Breaking through the noise and capturing attention is now difficult, perhaps to the point of being alarming. Good content is no longer enough. On that, Skinner and I agree.

Skinner writes:

Marketers and agencies have invested large sums to create quality content, but – in many cases – it’s not getting discovered. Audiences are neither finding nor sharing it. It’s not going viral. It’s not going anywhere.

Putting faith in SEO and social networks is a fail

He goes on to cite the example of a CEO of a distribution company that gets new clients by hunting YouTube for good channels with low eyeballs. According to his source, there are many such prospects.

The problem? Search and social shares are not generating traffic at reliable rates. On that point, Skinner and I are also in agreement. It is totally naive to put trust in Google and social networks to drive your site traffic consistently – much less reach the key individuals in your demographic. Search indexing is too unpredictable; social shares are fickle and depend on the agendas of so-called influencers and what outside events are distracting them, from sports to tsunamis to trade shows.

That’s where opt-in channels, particularly email, continue to be essential even in the era of priority inboxes. If this is simply a matter of Skinner and I agreeing to cultivate opt-in email lists, then the argument is over and so is this blog post. But that’s not very interesting, nor is it the full story.

Skinner goes on to cite several bullet points from his report. The upshot: ‘Brands can actually step down content production and step up distribution to get better results.’

Brands haven’t begun to figure out content

I take a completely different point of view: (most) brands haven’t begun to figure out content. They need to double down on the cultural and skills changes required to create narratives that captivate those not already drinking the Kool-Aid.

Semantics are all important here. Yes, there is plenty of good brand content out there. But is there an abundance of truly great brand content? Because if there is, I’m not seeing it. As I wrote in the blog comments:

I believe memorable content does get shared – without that much effort. That doesn’t mean distribution doesn’t matter, but I know plenty of companies that know how to manage email lists – few of them know how to create engaging content and narratives that are not about pushing their brand at every opportunity.

I asked Skinner for some examples of the ‘great’ (not good, but great) content that he is seeing out there that is not getting enough attention. Understandably, he was loath to pick on certain brands, but he did use an example referred to him of the Altoids YouTube channel, which has thousands of views but is comparatively low for a B2C brand.

Skinner’s example proved my point more than his. Those Altoids videos may be good but they are far from great or truly memorable. They are nowhere near as compelling as Acura’s brilliant Comedians in Cars Getting Coffee with Jerry Seinfeld and friends.

I am not a B2C branding expert so I’m not offering to fix Altoids’ video engagement problems, but what I don’t see in those videos is an attempt to emphasize with their own customer base, or to provide info on how to stop bad breath or whatever drives the need to pop little Altoids pills.

I don’t see any videos made by their own customers showing real-life Altoids mint-popping. And, I only see five videos – not nearly enough to build an audience. I see an all-too-common mistake – creating content for those who already have an affiliation with a brand. Yes, those who love Altoids might like historical factoids, but that’s not going to pull in anyone who is not already popping Altoids (for the record, I pop them myself – cinnamon in my case).

The gulf between good and great content is massive

Skinner responded to my blog comment:

One of the premises of this particular piece of research was that we were talking about fundamentally good content. That is, even when the content is good, the mechanisms that are supposed to distribute it to your audience, don’t work that well.

And that’s where our semantic breakdown occurs. I see a big distinction between  ‘good’ content (which badly needs distribution) and great content (which is MUCH harder to create, but has a way of getting shared – after all, it has never been easier to share things that move you than in the Facebook/Twitter era).

I then responded with some clarifications which ended up being longer than Skinner’s original blog post, which likely made him think I was a nutjob and our conversation stopped.

Here’s an excerpt from my rant:

I’m not going to argue against investing in distribution, but it’s a problem you can throw money at. Example: invest in an email opt-in management platform, or invest in a sponsored content channel on a high volume web site and embed your videos in blog posts to get more exposure.

Poor versus good content isn’t the issue anymore. There’s too much good content out there. The struggle has shifted to: how do I produce great content? (and/or controversial/viral content which I’d argue is often a backfire unless it truly reinforces brand values).

Awesome content doesn’t need as big a push – users push it. Creating “top of sales funnel” content that is not about your brand but about real problems in the world and how they are getting solved is the toughest thing and the biggest content marketing challenge.

Why? Because unlike distribution you can’t just throw money at it. It’s also a culture problem. Many companies have trouble engaging in conversations that are transparent and not about the wonderfulness of their brands and products. That creates a block to creating the content, sometimes called “thought leader content” (though I loath the phrase), that pulls in new audiences.

Or: telling great stories and setting a narrative for viewers that pulls them in. That takes talent and an ability, usually, to rise above brand narratives. I don’t see many companies able to do that. So, while distribution may be an issue, I don’t believe the content problem is solved.

Final take

I can’t really win this argument because it’s foolhardy for me to pretend that opt-in platforms are not a huge boost to any content initiative.  Take this site as an example – our built-up followings on social channels and in Google news give this post an immediate distribution network I would not have access to if I just tossed this up on a personal blog.

But I could get exposure for it either way – and not just because of a constant, imperfect struggle for quality. I could get exposure because of the enterprise communities I have invested years of relationship building and knowledge exchange in.

Community may tie this argument together. ‘Sticky’ communities that further discussions around content are a potent piece of a distribution network, particularly in the B2B space where influencers and budget-holders have such a disproportionate impact on how money is spent. If you’re not reaching those people, total page views are irrelevant.

If Skinner is a believer in building brand communities, then we may have a point of agreement on distribution after all. I would be remiss if I did not mention he has a nuance to his position: that improving distribution accelerates the feedback loop, which in turn increases content quality.

I could not agree more. But the keys to potent B2B content marketing go beyond that. The five words that come to mind are: expertise, community, talent, transparency, and, above all, soul.  ‘Soul’ may sound off-putting but aren’t we all sick of branded content that doesn’t have a pulse? Brands are so busy polishing every position – meanwhile, we are looking for the imperfections and the humanity.  When we relate to a brand, we connect. And when we connect, we spend.

Image credit: hör mir zu © contrastwerkstatt – Fotolia.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, Reed is a (cough) blogger/analyst and also counsels vendors and startups on go-to-market strategy. He is an SAP Mentor, Enterprise Irregular, and video content producer.
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
8 comments
CindyJutras
CindyJutras

Jon - I prefer your description of great content. Given that, I would say that a vendor developing a brand cannot create great content. Even if it demonstrates thought leadership, the fact they are promoting their own brand reduces the value. For that reason great content must always be authored by an independent voice, be educational and have a call to action: exactly what I try to do... and why.

Striving for greatness.... Cindy

jonathanscrowe
jonathanscrowe

Great post, Jon. This really is a conversation we content marketers should all be having. I actually do agree many brands might be well served to step down content production in terms of pure QUANTITY, but, like you, I think it's crazy to suggest simply doubling down on distribution is the answer when so often it's the QUALITY of the content that's the problem. 

We're all inundated with uninspired content day in and day out. Just because your company gets better at getting it in front of me doesn't mean I'm going to suddenly see the light. If anything, increased distribution might just have a negative impact on my impressions of your brand. In order to break through it's the content, itself, that truly has to be remarkable.

To frame this a different way, would Skinner suggest that companies stop focusing on building a great product and focus on simply getting it in front of as many people as possible? I get the "lean" argument stressing the need for iteration, but it still all comes back to the product and improving quality, right?


JoePulizzi
JoePulizzi

I have only one word to say...Amen!

jonerp
jonerp moderator

@CindyJutrasCindy thanks for your comments. I agree and disagree. I do agree that independents can have a major impact and have some advantages when it comes to creating great content. But "great content must always be authored by an independent voice" - I can point to a number of examples. Vijay Vijayasankar of SAP has blogged very effectively on big data themes that reflect very well on SAP while landing more in the (ahem) thought leadership space. JP Rangaswami does the same thing for Salesforce.com. Companies do struggle with this kind of content for many reasons but it can be done. 

Educational content is also powerful and in my view a form of content marketing. Again SAP has had huge success on this front with the HANA Academy and more recently the MOOCs. Branded communities also result in a lot of user generated content. An energized user community can self-generate a lot of valuable content. 

Your point on the value of independents is well taken but I'm not letting brands off the hook. :)

jonerp
jonerp moderator

@jonathanscroweThanks for that. As for this comment: "I actually do agree many brands might be well served to step down content production in terms of pure QUANTITY." Yes - 100 percent agreed. 

I may have been misleading on that front when I pointed out that in the Altoids example, 5 videos are probably not enough to build an audience, but content is really about consistency not quantity if you get my drift. 

I should probably blog on this, but Google's fanboy/girl search hype to the contrary, the QUANTITY game is over. The search aggregators, media monster sites (e.g. ESPN), and content farms have won on that front. 

But posting outstanding specialized content is still effective, and for most companies, publishing less content with higher quality is far more important. I'm honestly still surprised by how many companies I talk with who have not generated kickass content, for lack of a better word, directly targeting the 10-20 most common questions they get from prospects in their industry.

That gets me back to the sales-marketing gap post I put out last week. :) 




CindyJutras
CindyJutras

@jonerp @CindyJutras I didn't so much "let them off the hook" as imply their good content might never achieve greatness. That is only because it is tainted by the fact that they have something to sell the reader besides the thought leadership and education. They are selling their brand, however subtly.

The most excellent analysts lose some of their credibility as soon as he or she goes to work for a vendor. What would have been considered "great" before is now relegated to good, but with an ulterior motive.

CindyJutras
CindyJutras

@jonerp   @CindyJutras Good point of there being different types of content. And in the how-to category, even vendors can shine, and most definitely the communities that grow around them. SAP Mentors are a good example, as is MS DynamicsWorld.


jonerp
jonerp moderator

@CindyJutras agree it's harder to create great content under those circumstances but independents have agendas too. If you are transparent to the reader, you can put out great content at all different points in the sales cycle. There are times when we welcome being sold to as long as it is clear that is what is happening. I have listened to a couple of great Gartner webinars lately - very strong content, and the sales pitch was also included and I had no problem with that it was made very clear what the pitch was.

Vendors particularly struggle at the top of the sales funnel with "thought leader" type content but I just cited two examples of individuals who have pulled it off and there are definitely more.

"The most excellent analysts lose some of their credibility as soon as he or she goes to work for a vendor."

True, as market analysts for sure, but that's not the only kind of great content that readers want. Readers want a variety of content and there IS such a thing as great educational and how-to content also, which is easier for companies to create. 

Some of this is cultural - the companies that encourage more independent views amongst their employees stand a much better chance of creating really good "thought leader" content. 

But as I've mentioned there is plenty of great content in company communities. If you create a great community, even a decent blog post can become a great one thanks to the honest comments of all kinds of community members.