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 that engages readers who are not already in the sales funnel or, as I said, drinking the corporate Kool-Aid. This content is vitally important for reaching new prospects and earning trust (see my piece, Why the informed buyer is ruining the content party).
- Customer case study content, complete with validated ROI, that forms the heart of a customer advocacy program. (see The forgotten art of the customer case study). Gartner's Hank Barnes just published an update on the essential role of case studies to buyer engagement (The Biggest Content Gap in Technology Marketing).
"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:
- quality/relevance - quality still beats quantity most of the time.
- distribution/platform - content on a popular platform has a huge head start.
- user experience (UX) - ease of content consumption, particularly on mobile devices, is becoming a content dealbreaker.
- 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.
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 - Fotolia.com.