Is content marketing failing us in B2B?

4th December 2016

I just read in detail the Content Marketing Institute (CMI) 2017 B2B Content Marketing Benchmarking Report (North America) which was published at the end of September. This latest report claims that, while last year content marketing was in a ‘trough of disillusionment’, the tide has turned.

The headline finding is that 62% of B2B marketers (in North America) now say that their organisation’s overall approach to content marketing has been more successful compared to a year ago – though only 17% say much more successful and 45% say somewhat more successful.

However, when I dug into the research, I’m a bit uncomfortable with their conclusion that ‘the tide has turned’.

Let’s compare the 2017 to the 2016 findings  (please note, my apologies, I created this chart and can’t seem to get it clear in the thumbnail, so please click on image for greater clarity):

CMI report comparison 2

The 2016 numbers reflected 3 years of a downward spiral for ‘content marketing effectiveness’. And I would suggest that with the exception of the spend on content marketing – which at 39% is a significant decrease from the 2016 findings – and the ranking of metrics, the differences are statistically negligible and, if anything, support a conclusion that not much has changed. In fact, the dramatic change in importance of specific metrics only underlines for me that ‘content marketers’ are struggling to measure effectiveness in a meaningful way.

I’m also concerned that some of the language in the 2017 survey changed, so that I’m not convinced we can make the same year-on-year comparisons. For example, in the 2016 report, only 30% of B2B marketers said that their content marketing was effective (compared to 42% the previous year). They didn’t actually ask the same question this year, instead asking about the effectiveness of their content marketing strategy (34% extremely/very effective), which I’ve aligned in the chart above, but is not actually the same question.

Furthermore, most worrying to me in the 2016 report was that almost 2/3 of respondents didn’t have a real understanding of what content was effective for their organisations and what wasn’t. This trend continues in 2017 – though that’s not made apparent in the report – where the tactics and channels that are being used today are no longer seen as the most critical to content marketing success next year (again my apologies, I created this chart too and can’t seem to get it clear in the thumbnail, so please click on image for greater clarity):

CMI comparison 2

These are dramatic shifts and I interpret these findings as suggesting that we still don’t quite understand what’s working and what’s not.

So why are we still so fixated on content marketing if it isn’t working for us?

Why are we continuing to increase our content production if we are not convinced of its effectiveness?

The CMI suggests that the problem isn’t with content marketing, that content marketing works and that the real problem is with us. And they suggest that content marketing strategy is the differentiator for content marketing success. Yet when I dug into the research, I was startled by a fundamental confusion between strategy and tactics, and a complete lack of integration or alignment to the wider marketing mix.

The Content Marketing Institute defines content marketing as ‘a strategic marketing approach focused on creating and distributing valuable, relevant, and consistent content to attract and retain a clearly defined audience—and, ultimately, to drive profitable customer action’.

Yet, this definition applies to every aspect of the marketing mix and, as in the research, doesn’t even acknowledge how it aligns to the rest of the mix. Creating and distributing content is not an end in itself. Furthermore, it confuses the word ‘strategic’ with ‘strategy’ – a strategic marketing approach is not marketing strategy. Content can only be strategic if it is aligned to and supports the delivery of the overall marketing strategy.

Even so, over the past decade an entirely new industry has sprung up around ‘content marketing’, creating a totally separate discipline within our profession. The past few years in particular have seen an explosion of content marketing agencies, consultants and completely new content marketing roles within our B2B organisations.

We’ve been told that content marketing has been an historic transformation for brands and marketers everywhere. That by embracing content marketing, our companies and our marketing act more like publishers, creating specific inbound online assets which draw in our customers – a classic ‘we will build it and they will come’ mentality. And in the process, we’ve hired journalists and ‘content marketers’ to create the kind of content necessary to stand out in this era of information (read content) overload.

It’s great that journalists and other writers are reinventing themselves for the corporate world, because we do need more people who know how to write. But this new breed of self-styled ‘content marketer’ – whether in-house, agency or consultant – is sowing confusion by persistently equating strategy and tactics. And these same ‘content marketers’ and ‘content marketing’ agencies and consultants are all missing the point.

Contrary to what we’ve been told, there is no such thing as content marketing. It’s one part of the marketing mix, a tactic, and it’s what marketing has always done, albeit through new channels and with a revitalised customer perspective.

Because marketing is impossible without content. Content is what we use to engage with our customers – whether it’s written, verbal, auditory or visual, or distributed through online or offline channels.

Regardless of the marketing tactic or channel, content is a part of every element of the marketing mix.

What we need to remember is that ‘content marketing’ is simply a response to the fundamental changes in the customer buying journey. In essence, ‘content marketing’ has helped to shift our marketing focus away from what we sell to what’s important to our customers – in other words, engaging with our customers on their terms, from their perspective, not ours.

This is nothing more than good marketing. Marketing’s job has always had to continually adapt to the commercial landscape, and in this social era – where, even in B2B, control of the buyer journey has fundamentally shifted to our customers – we have had to learn how to communicate with our customers in many new and different ways.

Yet content marketing has lost sight of the marketing; instead, it has become almost solely focused on the production of content. But instead of asking ourselves what content we want to create, shouldn’t we first be asking ourselves what kind of engagement we want to have with our customers? Like the over-dependence upon ‘digital’ as a descriptor for marketing, a focus on content marketing implies a tactical choice before first understanding what we are trying to achieve, for both our brands and our customers.

My solution? Well, we can start by thinking about marketing in its entirety, with content as one element of the whole.  A critical part, surely, but by returning to and focusing on the basics first – brand, strategy and customers – we just might find our efforts make more of an impact. And this is what makes great marketers, instead of merely good ones.

Heidi Taylor is an award-winning senior marketing strategist with 25 years' experience of helping organisations engage with their customers, creating impact and differentiation. She is a sought-after speaker at marketing conferences in the UK and internationally, and regularly contributes articles to marketing journals in print and online. You can follow her on Twitter @TaylorMadeInKew.

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