Why Your Company is Terrible at Content Marketing and What You Can Do About It

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Creating content is hard. Genius auteurs fail at it all the time. The few blog owners with large followings notwithstanding, most influential media efforts overflow with highly trained people who are skilled at telling compelling stories through sight, sound and words.  This kind of storytelling, whether in the service of news, entertainment or products, takes time, money and skill. Even with the right people involved, brands are better at telling people what they should want—marketing—then giving people what they need—relevant content.  Only by breaking content marketing into its components, more precisely sorting out who should be creating each and coordinating the output can brands succeed in reaching the right people with the right content at the right time.

If you’ve never been to a newsroom, TV station or film set, you owe it to yourself. The experience is as much about what you will see as who you will meet. In most cases, you’ll stumble over the army of people and piles of tech it takes to put together a magazine, produce a newscast or shoot and edit a show.

And this army is not made up of mere worker bees. Writers, photographers, camera people, editors of text and image are not only consummate technicians, but like Tyrion Lannister, they drink and they know things—a lot of things–about politics, culture, music, art, science and the world.  And they can tell you about those things in a way that would captivate kids around a campfire as much as cognoscenti in an auditorium. They are consummate storytellers. If you’re creating content, they are your fierce competition for attention in a noisy media ecosystem.

Most brands struggle to produce compelling content because storytelling is not part of their DNA. In the best cases, their real focus is on creating unique products or services–think of Apple’s seamless hardware and content consumption experience–and in the worst cases they are marketing machines trying to sell things little different from everything else in their vertical. While luxury brands can use quality to differentiate themselves from mass market goods, outside of aspirational marketing, they are competing with similarly positioned goods and services that all offer quality. Within a category of products of similar quality then, the only differentiator is story because story is the brand.

But aside from brands that can afford to hire a genius like Tom Ford to create content so visually beautiful that no mortal can avert her gaze, the rest founder at making content because they don’t have storytellers in house. Instead, they tend to rely on marketers to do the heavy lifting.  And while marketers can sometimes be compelling storytellers, they are generally constrained by the need to message in the service of selling. This focus creates a mismatch between the content customers want and the content they get. Even when needs and tastes do align, the timing might not be right.

As an example, I’ve been in the market for a new pair of shoes for a week or so. I’ve never had a pair of one of the more well-known brands on my 11-and-a-halfs, but after reading an article about the company’s founder and corporate culture, it’s going to be my first stop. My decision will happen not out of brand loyalty or recognition– I’ve seen their advertising for years and it had no effect on me–but because I liked the brand’s story. I was marketed to at the right time in the subtlest of ways—no models, no desirable settings, not a product shot in sight—just compelling words and ideas in an article. The article was not written by the brand. A professional storyteller wrote it for a trade website. Marketers held to directly measurable ROI metrics don’t have the luxury of following such a broad, ill-defined content marketing funnel. And they will never know that it worked because it’s untraceable.

So, what’s a brand to do? The answers lie in how we define content marketing to begin with. Brands need to be everywhere all the time with their messaging so that the customers hear them when they are ready to listen. This requires redefining what content marketing means by separating “content” and “marketing” into their constituent parts and giving responsibilities to executing those parts to people who have the skill to do so.

At a macro level, a successful content marketing strategy includes traditional real world and digital marketing, advertising, PR, service and editorial content and social engagement. It is an ecosystem of messaging. If brands can coordinate all these efforts effectively, they can have a multiplying effect.

But once requirements move away from marketing to advertising and content, they are generally outside of a brand’s expertise. Brands aren’t publishers–that’s a different job done by experts. But internal marketing teams should act like they belong to one. The effort needs an editor in chief–or content marketing officer—who is smart enough to know what is outside of the organization’s wheelhouse and knowledgeable enough to coordinate the activities of disparate professionals. Because if they aren’t all in the room, then you might be doing marketing or posting to social or commissioning content, but you are not doing content marketing.

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