Content strategy takes a big shift – why I was wrong


Everyone gets a piece of humble pie from time to time – today it’s my turn. Content strategy has changed, and so has my outlook. We have the four components of effective content to blame.

woman-says-oopsI was wrong about content strategy. In October of 2013, I took a position on the content distribution versus greatness debate against Ryan Skinner of Forrester. Yep, screwed up. Missed a trick. Stepped in the ol’ doggy doo.  Whatever you wanna call it. Things changed – now I have to.

The ‘why’ behind this change has big implications for how enterprises should be thinking about content marketing.

I haven’t backed off my pulpit completely. I still believe that brands struggle to create truly memorable content. As I wrote in 2013:

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.

That holds true today. I went on:

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.

Brands are pretty good at creating service and sales support content, like product FAQs. But they struggle in two crucial areas:

“Thought leadership” content is the harder of the two. Why? because it requires huge culture and skills changes in marketing departments. Media now trumps branded promotions, which threatens CMOs until they start hiring – and thinking like – journalists.

But my 2013 statement response to Skinner no longer holds up:

I believe memorable content does get shared – without that much effort.

Nope – no longer true. Back then, if you wrote a brilliant/provocative missive on your personal blog, it would get shared widely – as long as you had enough industry contacts to jump start. Now we see a massive migration to bigger platforms. Sadly, most are walled social gardens, which my colleague Den Howlett has taken a defiant position on.

With each day, I see more influencers abandoning or downgrading their personal blogs in favor of networked blogs on LinkedIn, Medium or massive tech sites. If they can get ten or even one hundred times the social shares, can you blame them?

This sets up new dilemmas:

  • Influencers must decide which of these new platforms is best, and whether to even maintain their own personal blog or web sites.
  • Brands face a tougher decision. They must weight the benefits of exposure on social networks versus publishing on their own web pages for integrated lead generation, even if that content might get significantly less traffic. The stakes for pure media companies are higher, with the terrifying question of whether to surrender their hard-won traffic to Facebook in exchange for ad revenue splits.

I once believed that in the B2B space, if your content had enough quality and/or relevance, it could break through the social noise. But that thesis has failed the analytics test.

The four attributes of effective B2B content

Yes, plenty of crappy enterprise content gets lots of shares. Sometimes it’s a linkbait headline, sometimes it’s just a bad article on a huge platform. That keeps me busy each week on hits and misses. But: when it comes to reaching buyers and gaining topic authority, content quality still matters. Here’s the disconnect:

Quality is only one of the four attributes of successful enterprise content:

  1. quality/relevance – quality still beats quantity most of the time.
  2. distribution/platform – content on a popular platform has a huge head start.
  3. user experience (UX) – ease of content consumption, particularly on mobile devices, is becoming a content dealbreaker.
  4. engagement – true engagement – meaning interactions and action steps provoked by the content – is the ultimate differentiator.

I argued that quality had a direct, causal relationship with distribution and engagement. That’s no longer the case. Quality/relevance only sparks engagement if it’s supported by the proper distribution and user experience.

I used to recommend that clients start with a content/topic map, driven by customer interests and the so-called “buyers journey.” But I no longer do that. I still begin with the customer, but now I start with engagement and user experience, then distribution, and finally get to content.

Why? Because if engagement is the goal, you may not need to create that much content. If you build an exceptional platform and user experience, customers might create their own content and discussions. Then your content fills in the gaps, adding data and depth.

Lately, I’ve seen fascinating examples of how UX has led to community engagement and self-generated content – enough to warrant its own article, or two. For now, I’ll say that enterprises go off track when they obsess about mobile consumption only. The key for B2B UX is savvy mobile consumption that seamlessly syncs with desktop and tablet and back again. It’s about seamless portability, not mobile-only.

Distribution and platform are also misunderstood. The assumption is: “let’s extend our platform and increase the volume of shares.” Paying for page views is a danger zone. Earned traffic is vastly superior.

Expanding a platform with earned traffic is great – it gives each piece of content a head start. But a winning distribution strategy should deepen relationships with vertical audiences, and cultivate opt-ins based on topic authority. Let’s say you published a piece on Walmart and retail change – would you rather have 500 Twitter shares, or 500 email subscribers who want your retail analysis? You’d rather have the targeted audience – as long as that topic is relevant to your paid products/services.

Good distribution is often about narrowcasting to a desirable segment or growing a topic community. When that’s combined with overall platform growth, and tied into lead gen analytics, then you have a viable distribution strategy for 2016. Pull that content into the sales cycle wherever you can.

Final thoughts

So yeah, I was proven wrong. Maybe a part of me wanted to live in a world where great content speaks for itself. But that’s not the world we live in now. Thankfully, a passion for your craft doesn’t go away. Passion, authenticity, edginess, expertise, and a bit of self-mockery is still a winning B2B content formula. Great content in and of itself is a message in a bottle. It’s nothing but a prayer unless it reaches your audience’s shoreline.

There continues to be a delightful/maddening mystery to what content flies and what dies. No analytics tool completely solves that. But reckoning with these four components will give you a modern content plan. You can still pray also. 🙂

End note: this piece is part of my ongoing B2B Content Strategy series.

Image credit: frau hält die hand vor den mund © contrastwerkstatt –

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    1. Content today is all about video in 2016 future websites will have less anonymity if companies want to be more social and consequently being seen as more trustworthy nothing beats video on the web to display who you are to develop a connection with your audience by including web video as part of web design. No matter if you are not the worlds best presenter. Your presentation is not meant to be anything but an honest representation

      1. Jon Reed says:

        Gordon thx and I agree. Video can be very potent for reflecting culture and for customer case studies the trust level of getting your customer to speak well of you on video is unbeatable.

        I didn’t get into forms of content in this article but when you open up the engagement/user experience discussion, that opens up the types of content which I have covered a lot in the past (see my post on video here).

        I’ve done quite a bit of podcast and video, my colleague Den Howlett convinced me to double down on enterprise video and it’s been a great pursuit with much more to come. (Here’s his video channel which contains a lot of our work, as well as my Busting the Omnichannel podcast feed).

        I don’t agree that content is “all about video.” Video is still less effective from a search standpoint. And some folks don’t like consuming video. I’ve heard some views/research that video is not as trustworthy in the enterprise space as there is too much promo video content. And some folks, having been burned by that, won’t willingly push “play” unless they know your video content will be authentic and useful.

        Bottom line video is very powerful and a vital part of the content mix. I’m a big believer in multi-media and giving folks content in many different forms – audio-only podcasts also have a big place given our mobile online/offline lifestyles etc.

        – Jon

        1. Thanks Jon,
          Agreed with you about video content the problem is that corporates think like it should be a TV advert. They don’t realize that it should be more social in nature and content. Just a friendly chat on video and not another boring ad type production. Unfortunately for me I am bashing my head against a brick wall trying to convince corporate the difference between a TV ad with paid for “Talent” and “production values” being their core augment. If I may direct you to a video that I have done to try to encourage my market (its me in the vid) so its a home made production but it does show me as myself. The message is strong as well. However even getting clients to review this page is worrying me. Marketing people seem to have “other interests” and I think it’s all about social media for them. If they would only realize that social websites are not their property and money they spend to have them updated by third parties is not a good use of their budget. They need to spend money on their own websites?

          1. Jon Reed says:

            “Agreed with you about video content the problem is that corporates think like it should be a TV advert. They don’t realize that it should be more social in nature and content. Just a friendly chat on video and not another boring ad type production. Unfortunately for me I am bashing my head against a brick wall trying to convince corporate the difference between a TV ad with paid for “Talent” and “production values” being their core augment”

            Gordon – I nodded my head vigorously while reading this. Have been there many times. Some companies have figured out that informal video content that is honest and authentic works better, but too many of them are still spit-polishing their brand messages on video. In turn, as I said prior, this leads to some distrust on the part of the viewer of enterprise video content, as they are wary of viewing more slickly-produced vendor messaging.

            Keep up the good fight – video done well is a huge asset to you and your clients.

    2. Barb says:

      Distribution is critical. You can write great content but if the only ones visiting your site are the spambots – that…then what’s the point?

      One of the challenges to finding the right distribution channels for thought leadership is finding places where your content isn’t buried within an hour of it being me – that’s where UX/promotion is so critical and so many websites fail big time.

      1. Jon Reed says:

        Well put Barb.

        Another thing I didn’t get into in the article is another big difference between individuals and companies: content is about engagement, yes. But for individual influencers, engagement through so-called “thought leadership” is really important for the journey towards sought-after expert. Whereas for companies, engagement is the end goal. Content is just one means to that end. You might build such a lovely app that you don’t even need to seed it with too much content before the users start to generate their own, and interact with each other and so on. Granted that’s not an easy feat.

        – Jon