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Content marketing: Widely known, rarely understood

Chris Trimble Chris Trimble

I had some figures put in front of me the other day that made me smile. Ninety three per cent of marketers believe themselves to be familiar with content marketing. Eighty six per cent of companies are using content marketing to attract or engage customers.

“Brilliant – the education war is over” I thought. “Just think of what we could do with those hundreds of man-hours spent each day explaining what content marketing is and convincing people of its worth. Think of all that time and effort and money we’re going to save.”

I flicked on a few pages, read some more stats, sighed and frowned. “Hold those man-hours everyone. Looks like we’re not done educating the masses just yet.”

According to this poll carried out by my research department, over 70 per cent of businesses use news articles in their content marketing strategies. I find this number scarily high. To me it suggests a lot of those claiming to be “familiar” with content marketing do not have a clue how to use it.

News simply isn’t appropriate for that many companies. It’s not even close.

Content content Content content

Let me explain in layman’s terms. Try to think of yourself as the customer or the audience content marketing is trying to reach. Think about all the businesses you give your money to each day, week, month, year. Do you really want more than two-thirds to provide you with news? Are you the least bit interested in receiving updates on what two-thirds of these businesses or their industries are up to?

Of course not. In most cases you’ll probably find the news completely irrelevant. It won’t attract you. It won’t engage you. It may even put you off. Let’s say you’re an ordinary customer who isn’t aware of content marketing’s existence. I wouldn’t be surprised if you questioned why the news is there at all. “Who reads this stuff? How out of touch is this company if they think I’m going to spend any of my valuable time looking at it?”

Don’t get me wrong, I’m not trying to say news has no place in content marketing strategies. Events news can be ideal for travel companies, for example. Mergers and acquisition news can work for spread betting firms. Out of all the many businesses you give your custom to, I’m sure you can think of some from whom you’d be interested in news. I just don’t believe you can think of anything like 7 out of 10.

You see, the secret to the success of any content type is relevance.
Companies need to think about what their audiences want and tailor the content accordingly. It’s an incredibly simple idea and one Google – the master all content marketers aim to please – has been evangelical about for years. Yet a lot of people have not fully grasped it, as demonstrated I think by news’s continued prevalence. I’m almost certain the reason is many of those “familiar” with content marketing are not familiar with the content marketing of 2013. They’re familiar with the content marketing of five or six years ago instead. In talking to potential customers I see this huge gap between what they think they know and what they actually do know.

Back in 2007 factors such as “is anybody going to bother to read this” were much less important than they are now. As long as content was published regularly and there were lots of keywords in prominent positions, it could do wonders for your website’s ranking in search results and this was the chief measure of success. Clickthroughs and conversions were secondary considerations. As long as companies could see themselves on page one of Google, it was assumed the content was working and all was right with the world.

google newsIn this context, news was the ideal fit for almost everyone. It was easy for businesses to find someone to produce it for them and from there even easier to achieve success. If you could get it into Google News, this content even had the ability to get you to the top of search results for keywords you couldn’t otherwise dream of ranking for. If a similar poll of content marketing was taken at the time – though bear in mind nobody was calling it content marketing back then – I imagine it would’ve shown a percentage news adoption well into the 90s. It was more or less the only game in town.

However, the one group this content didn’t work for was web users. Too often they would find themselves confronted with irrelevant content and Google decided to do something about it. In the name of ensuring the best search results for Joe Public, Google made its algorithms so sophisticated it forced content marketing to become about offering content that users actually want to see. Websites that didn’t do this would be penalised.

No longer was content marketing about exploiting loopholes in how Google generated its search results and writing content to attract its spider bots. To please the search engines you first had to please users. Never has this been more the case than today, and it’ll be even more the case tomorrow and the day after that.

So that’s why the 70 per cent news adoption stat made me sigh, and why I think it shows a lack of understanding. My career in content marketing began as a news writer and I’ve watched first hand as it evolved from a jack of all trades tool effective for everyone to a specialist tool effective for just a few.

As part of broad and varied content strategies, you need to continue to provide news content but if the news isn’t part of a recently developed strategy, I view it as a red flag that the strategy needs revisiting, as it is so often symptomatic of out-of-date tactics more likely to deliver negative results than positive. If your business has a news feed and you don’t know precisely what it offers to the audience you’re trying to reach, I strongly suggest you do the same.

Chris Trimble is director of content at content marketing specialist Axonn Media

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