It’s hard being a marketer. Mostly because people think we all talk bollocks a lot of the time. Sadly there’s too much truth in this assertion. Take some of the claims made by so-called “content marketing specialists”.

  •      Video content needs to be six minutes long – bollocks!
  •      Written content should be no more than 700 words – rubbish!
  •      Anyone can shoot a video – codswallop!
  •      It’s all about getting loads of content out there – balderdash!

Content marketing agencies may be quick to point out that content marketing cost a third of conventional advertising whist delivering three time the result, but according to a recent survey by The Content Marketing Institute only 9% of businesses think their content marketing is “very effective”. In fact, as with most things, the truth is probably that content marketing at its best can deliver the impressive numbers, but sadly, most content is falling well short of the required standard.

I’ve achieved higher engagement for my clients with written content that was twice the length prescribed by the “experts” and I was recently engaged in a test where we achieved 85% end-to-end watch-through for a twenty minute video. It’s not about the length of the video, it’s purely about targeting, relevance and production values.

If your production values are low you won’t get any kind of engagement – people won’t watch for long before they switch off and the chances of them taking anything away from their experience will be pretty low. If someone watches a long video from end-to-end you know they are engaged and its safe to assume it will have influence.

This raises a number of issues. Firstly targeting. Too little of the content out there is written with a defined audience in mind. All the content marketing consultancies I have encountered are very quick to adopt Google’s two key buzz-words – personas and moments – few however seem to understand what they mean or how this relates to their task. Furthermore you can key-word, tag and SEO your content as much as you like, but at some point you are probably going to have to use advertising of some kind to drive traffic to it, much as you would with any other form of marketing campaign and we all know how important targeting is in that respect. Content marketing is no exception.

The second obvious and connected issue is relevance. It’s like any form of communication, once you have profiled your target and understand their triggers you have to write to hit their buttons. It may mean having a number of versions of the same piece with slight modifications designed to appeal to different profiles. Don’t forget the wealth of data and analytics available to any content marketer either. You may need to do A/B testing to better understand your segments and their motivations. That’s the job of a content marketer.

The third thing that makes content successful is the production values involved. It applies to both print and video, although maybe it’s easier to concentrate on video for now. The idea that people will be influenced by something that looks like a bad home movie is absurd. Content marketing is fundamentally about establishing authority and it’s a, maybe, sad fact of life that we associate a polished performance with a degree of expertise in the subject in question.

This relates to any form of presentation. I’ve lost count of the number of good ideas I’ve seen that weren’t given a second thought because the person presenting them did so badly. I don’t mean failing to explain them succinctly, although this is also important. This starts with just using proper language, and articulating points precisely, but I am also talking about having smart slides and support material.

I was involved a short while ago in building a content writing team. I interviewed an endless stream of candidates, all of whom called themselves writers and were holding jobs that referred to them as such, but almost all of them were incapable of articulating a point in a succinct sentence. This week I received a white paper which, even though I only scan read it, I found contained half a dozen grammatical or typographical errors. These examples at best reduce the effectiveness of the piece in establishing authority and will often just make the publisher look a bit sad.

It also takes a special skill to create great video on a shoe-string, but that’s ideally what we want and it can be done. However, while digital cameras may have prompted everyone to suddenly believe they are a “photographer” an i-Phone in the hands of a real photographer produces an entirely different outcome to those we see posted all over the place by content marketers.

The same is so of video. Probably moreso in fact.  Framing your background, getting the lighting right, looking the part and delivering your message in a way that encourages people to think of you as educated and knowledgeable are skills that few people have. I know very smart people who look ridiculous on camera. I’ve also seen really useful messages get lost in videos shot against distracting backgrounds and others made entirely nonsensical by an inappropriate location, poor editing or messy graphics.

Forget the ridiculous notion that the most important thing with content marketing is getting loads of it out there. There is a threshold of frequency, of course and it is often higher than client companies expect, but frequency at the expense of quality is a road you don’t want to go down. The Internet is a powerful tool and it will amplify your faults just as readily as it can your strengths.

My message to anyone contemplating a content marketing strategy is to find real experts. Dig around, test candidates out – and I mean content marketing agencies as much as individual writers and producers – many are nowhere close to delivering what you really need. Above all relieve yourself of the notion that content marketing is a cheap alternative to advertising. For one thing content only really come into its own as part of an integrated strategy that also includes advertising and secondly if you do it right it isn’t that cheap.

I’m a great believer in content marketing, which is probably why I get so riled up when I hear idiots who call themselves “experts” making ridiculous claims and giving stupid advice. My advice is don’t waste your budget on a third-rate content strategy cobbled together by inexperienced vendors in some back street unless you have a really knowledgeable and skilled marketing consultant or in-house marketing director to closely manage them. Remember content like any other tool is only one of many elements in a modern marketing communications strategy and you can’t treat it in isolation. Combine them intelligently and you’ll achieve the synergy every marketing strategy should be aiming for.

Above all set out to deliver something simple, really well. Don’t get sucked into a spiral of complex design and shooting techniques that really require a bigger budget than you have. I used to work with a creative team who used the term “ingenious” as a criterion by which to judge their ideas. People love ingenuity. It’s engaging and clever and that’s exactly the picture you want your content to paint of you. Mostly, ingenuity doesn’t cost you more either, you just have to be smart … just as a real marketer should be.

Originally published on LinkedIn May 2018

Phil Darby
August 3, 2018

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