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The Problem with Content Marketing Miracles

The miracle of miracles is the hope they engender. The joy of Santa’s extraordinary annual global journey to each and every hearth. The inspiration when a pilot lands his crippled airliner in the Hudson just so all the passengers can be plucked to safety before the plane sinks to the riverbed. The exultation when the US Olympic Hockey team upsets the dreaded Soviet Union as Al Michaels asked “do you believe in miracles?” Yes, Al, I believe.

But the thing is, Al, I won’t bet my company’s future, or my job, on a miracle. For all their power, hoping for miracles is a rotten business strategy. And yet it is one that I hear about every day in the world of content marketing. The storyline unfolds more or less like this.

  1. Let’s create a super cool piece of content about our product that people will love  <insert miracle number one> says the marketing exec, corp comm specialize, or agency creative
  2. We can send it out over social media channels and <insert miracle number two> it will go viral – won’t cost us anything to get it out there — we will include a link to our site and traffic will skyrocket
  3. It will be just like <insert reference to the most recent viral miracle>
  4. And we will be heroes
  5. Cue the fireworks and Handel

Let’s dissect the problems here. First, creating compelling content is easier said than done. The reason that top advertising agencies are so expensive is not that they are greedy; well, ok, maybe they are greedy, but that’s not the only reason they charge so much. Agencies undertake an intensive process to distill what you want to say, which is usually complicated, contextual, and inaccessible in their original form. They reduce communication to its very essence and then find the right creative overlay to catch people’s attention and to deliver that core message.

The planning and creative process require great skill, a lot of labor, and the time and willingness to cycle through a bathtub full of bad ideas to find the slippery bar of soap at the bottom. Fortunately, creating branded content can be significantly easier than creating full-blown advertising campaigns, but even so, skip the careful thinking and planning at your peril. Content, like an advertising message, is usually part of a longer messaging cycle and needs to be created with reference to what’s come before and what lies ahead. In telling stories, you have to find the right tone, the right words, understand your audience so that you are neither bewildering them with jargon nor treating them like kindergarteners with the frozen smile of an exasperated elementary school teacher.

The impact of the Oreo reminding us that we can dunk in the dark was rooted not a momentary spark of genius but in a long-term commitment of attention and money to the social media channel. Haven’t heard of the failings of the tens of thousands of Oreo imitators to catch a similar wave? Neither have I. That’s the point.

The even bigger miracle content marketers are hoping for is the second one. Content doesn’t “just go” viral. As inefficient as paid advertising can be, there’s no return on creating content that no one consumes. Content marketers require distribution strategies and distribution platforms. Would you ask your child’s friends to her birthday party by tying invitations to a bunch of balloons, releasing them into the air, and hoping that the wind would waft them to the right destinations? That’s a recipe for tear-stained birthday cake. What audience are you targeting, how can you connect with them, what social and seeding strategies are you going to use? Is your content newsworthy? Is it worth sending out a press release to get media pick-up? What’s your approach to SEO? One of the fallacies of content marketing is that distribution will take care of itself. It won’t; you have to apply the same deliberation and planning to distribution that you have to content creation.

The final task is to align your content marketing metrics to your business goals. Are you trying to change the perception of your product or services, launch a new service, enhance a brand, increase customer demand, cut churn? What are your metrics: video views, visitor numbers, sales, virality rates, embeds, site visits, elapsed time with content, improved brand equity? I have run into situations where a single-minded focus on driving site traffic to a corporate dotcom will create disincentives for a marketer to use the most audience-friendly tools for content distribution. Establish the right metrics that support the business impact that you are trying to create rather than pursue hobbled strategies to hit numbers of dubious value.

My friend Shane Atchison says content marketing is dead, well sort of dead anyway. Other smart and well-informed people say we’re at the dawn of new age of content creation and dissemination. I say let them prognosticate, and let me talk about execution. The best way to get the world to hear your stories is to tell good ones and put them where people can access them. And the way you do that, dear reader, is through setting your goals, respecting the challenge of creating, and not being arrogant about the challenges that even good content will face in finding its way from the darkness of the crowded marketplace of ideas and into the light. You can’t count on miracles and skip the hard work.

I started with this piece by talking about the annual miracle of Santa’s journey so it seems fitting to close with the words of another red giant.

 

Once all struggle is grasped, miracles are possible.

— Chairman Mao

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