I spend a lot of time creating content, talking about content, and creating content about creating content. So much so that the word content is hard for me to even say without feeling a little weird about it. Say any word enough and it begins to lose meaning. Sometimes I feel as if I'm trapped within a slightly-bigger-than-me-sized content bubble, that I've lost any objectivity when it comes to what it means to create content and understand how it operates in the world. That may or may not be true. But despite the disorientation that is sometimes at the heart of the content experience, I can see that content has taught me a thing or two.
Content requires planning, investment, systems and management, teamwork, and time. That much is obvious. But it also requires self-awareness, curiosity, patience, restraint, perseverance and humility. You may not initially bring those qualities to your content, but eventually, you will come out with them.
I'd like to assume that you're already persuaded that adopting a content marketing strategy is the best way for a firm like yours to make its expertise known. Are you? If not, consider that your firm could be like thousands of others that in the last several years have shifted their marketing focus from push to pull, saving enormous sums on staffing miserable cold-callers, deadtree advertising, and potentially even millions more on otherwise demonstrating their capabilities by doing work on spec (commonly known as the RFP—for more information on why RFPs are evil, see Blair Enns).
Content marketing isn't a trend, it's the result of a logical progression of ideas, beginning with the "flattening" power of the internet and maintained by another power: our collective, earnest desire to prove our expertise to those who need and are willing to pay for it, and to waste as little time in the process as humanly possible. When not abused—where pretense outweighs capability, or noise exceeds signal—it is truly the most efficient means of connecting those who ask with those who answer.
And yet, another abuse is when we assume content marketing as a default strategy. For agencies especially, the first caveat to keep in mind is that while content may work for you, it may not always be the best approach for your client.
There are, in fact, plenty of instances in which the written content model is undeniably inadequate. With a few exceptions, most consumer products are not easily marketed with text. Typically, consumers prefer to let products "speak for themselves" in use and research their performance in reviews—which, of course, are found in abundant supply on the web—rather than defer to what the maker has to say about his wares. In most cases, our aversion to being sold is so strong that it leads us to struggle to believe the seller even when we believe in the value of his product! Those in the healthcare industry may also perceive reasons to take up content strategies of their own, but often locality and emergency are the primary factors in a consumer’s choice of care providers, rather than researched, advance consideration. Similarly, utility-type services—plumbers, electricians, mechanics, cleaners, etc.—are more likely to be selected on the basis of what is nearby, immediately available, and affordable than any pitch a blog or newsletter may provide. That isn’t to say that some form of content shouldn’t occupy a piece of the overall marketing strategy; there may be opportunities to use audio, video, and social media that could be quite effective, while not being the lead marketing initiative.
On the other hand, there are instances in which written content marketing works quite well. At the product end of the business spectrum, those manufactured for businesses, rather than consumers, are typically heavily researched by buyers—who make active use of search engines to do so—before purchase. Case studies, white papers, blog posts, and other articles can satisfy the researcher’s need for sharable, decision-reinforcing information, especially if they are enabling a buying decision that will ultimately be made by someone else. And obviously, the same dynamic exists within any “knowledge industry” service. For professionals in design, advertising, marketing, public relations, law, or finance, the essential intangibility of their expertise must be carefully described in-depth in diverse ways to qualify the specific nature of what they do and for whom they are best suited to do it.
I list these considerations in order to point out that our role as strategic advisors to our clients is not to promote the latest marketing practices, but to diagnose their needs and prescribe the best solution. Even if that ends up being an "old school" approach. Content marketing, though essential to the success of some enterprises, will not be the best fit for others. Naturally, our own fraught experience in employing content marketing for ourselves may be instructive of that point as well.