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"There is no disgrace in honest failure…What is past is useful only as it suggests ways and means for progress."

- Henry Ford

It was some time around 2010 when I first heard the words “inbound marketing.” And honestly, the concept seemed too good to be true. Write compelling content and your business will grow.

Here’s the thing: it IS too good to be true. I know this because the first time I attempted to implement a content marketing program, I failed. Miserably. Epically. Shamefully. 

To be clear: the failure was entirely on me—not the company, campaign or team associated with this first go-round. I seriously underestimated the amount of time and attention the program would require. I didn't really know what I was getting into. Coupled with the classic mistake of taking on too many disparate projects at once, those missteps pretty much doomed the effort from the start.

I puttered along for a good six months or so before finally scrapping what we had and starting over. The bright side was that my team, at least, contained the damage and were able to regroup and move on.

Looking back at a near-decade of now successfully running content marketing programs, I can see how that first attempt proved invaluable. I wouldn't know how to shape programs, connect content through digital channels or measure the efficacy of our campaigns in terms of driving new business if I hadn't done everything the absolute wrong way at the outset.

So, for anyone who doesn't have 6-12 months to fail at a new marketing approach, allow me to share the cold, hard truth about content marketing with you:

1. Strategy is everything.

How hard can it be to write a blog? Or send an email? Short answer: not very. But if you're trying to coordinate those two tactics (and more) while targeting a variety of ideal clients, the work gets considerably more intricate.

If you take only one piece of advice from this blog, let it be this: don't jump into content creation and distribution without a plan. I did and I ended up with a bunch of half-baked, ill-conceived blogs that weren't really appropriate for my target audiences. And they didn't fit together under any defined categories, so I coudn't really map a campaign to them. 

The better approach is to start by developing your juiciest, premium content—the stuff that's going to compel people to hand over their contact information or something else of value—and work backwards from there. No, it's not as immediate as throwing together an email to promote every blog you write, but it will make your readers a lot happier.

Which brings me to:

2. Content is only as good as distribution.

"Inbound" doesn't mean you don't have to promote your work—you just have to do it smartly. 

Back in the day, we tried to "distribute" by sending out mass emails that weren't at all targeted. In return, we had huge bounce rates and high requests to unsubscribe. Ouch.

Today, there are more relevant distribution channels than ever. And they all require a bit of effort:

  • SEO efforts have never been "set it and forget it." As the nature of search and online content consumption continues to evolve, you need to stay on top of your digital footprint. As search engines get smarter and the online space gets more competitive, finding an edge requires more upfront work and onging effort to boost your rankings.
  • Organic social promotion is a great, free starting point for many brands. But if you don't have a social following, you'll have to build one in order to expand your reach. That might lead you to consider paid social to promote your brand and specific content pieces. If you have a small budget, you might be forced to prioritize one over the other (choose carefully).
  • Sharing content with other sites can be hugely beneficial to your reach and overall online presence. But more and more sites are cracking down on link sharing and there is a move to sponsored content on highly trafficked sites. Making contacts in the right places is critical but can be overwhelming depending on how many sites you're targeting (and how fast their staff turns over).
  • Email is still hugely popular. But that means the competition for views and clickthroughs is higher than ever. You need clean, updated contact information for those individuals who want your content delivered directly, which can easily become a full-time job. 

3. Technology can make or break your program.

Your marketing technology stack is critical to the success of your program. If your systems aren't working together, and aren't organized well, you're missing out on opportunities. 

When we first started our program, our systems—from CRM to email automation—didn’t integrate, so we were caught in an endless hell of downloading, editing and uploading CSV files. That's if we could even secure people's contact information. Our website was so cumbersome, building a landing page threatened to topple to backend of our site.

We didn’t have a good data management program, so we could barely segment between leads, prospects, clients and people who never wanted to hear from us again (not that any of those existed).

We also weren’t targeting at all—if you were employed or were launching a business and we had your email address, you got the same email as everyone else we knew. Yikes!

Without connected technology programs, all of the effort of content creation and distribution is largely for naught. Finding the right systems and getting them to work together is time (and money) well spent to ensure the success of your program. As automation and artificial intelligence connect more content (and even create it in some cases), embracing technology will be essential to enacting a cutting-edge program.

4. A dedicated team is essential.

Content marketing is not a part-time job. You need dedicated resources to be successful but maybe not the ones you think.

Many companies start by hiring a host of writers. But if those writers don't have a strategist to set the parameters of the overall program, they're bound to fail or just start writing without a goal. Strong writers also need to possess a basic understanding of SEO, social sharing and subject matter expertise to shine.

You also need someone with strong organizational skills to ensure that multiple campaigns are running simultaneously and connecting where appropriate. This overlooked piece can make or break the long-term success of your program. The behind-the-scenes campaign of connecting disparate content pieces and reusing what you have shouldn't be out of mind just because it's out of sight.

Content marketing also doesn't have to mean written content either. Videos, podcasts, infographics ... these can all help engage your audience.

But don't forget to build your audience too. Social media specialists, media relations experts, SEO consultants and digital advertisers all have a role to play in content marketing—maybe not on Day One but eventually. 

5. Content marketing is not a silver bullet.

This is the big reason I'm sharing my failure with the world. As more and more people tout the success of their content programs, many companies are going all-in without thinking about what they're giving up.

I've yet to see one single communications program that perfectly meets any organization's needs in their entirety. That's why we call it a marketing mix, after all. And while the tenents of a content marketing program cover a lot of ground, they can't replace the benefits of a thorough and thoughtful marketing plan.

Already we know that content marketing for content marketing's sake is over and done . The next wave will be about real interactions, real impressions and real business results—the same challenges marketers have always faced. By understanding the common pitfalls of today's programs, and the basics you need to success, you'll be well positioned to take advantage of the coming tide of marketing opportunities.

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