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Shameless shares, pointless posts, wishy-washy word counts: Content marketing in 2016

Early last month, Buzzsumo published an article entitled “The Future is More Content: Jeff Bezos, Robots and High Volume Publishing”. I immediately rolled my eyes when I read the headline. I nearly refused to read the piece. Up until now, the content marketing mantra has been “less content, higher quality”. Here was one of the most respected marketing blogs on the internet saying the opposite. I was wary.

Because Buzzsumo frequently publishes useful and informative pieces that get a lot of traction, I eventually caved and read the article; I was also curious as to where the rationale behind the idea of high volume content production was coming from. While there’s nothing inherently wrong with the piece, it represents a lot of what I feel is wrong with content marketing in its current state: lack of definition, a reliance on social sharing, and poor execution.

In the hope of being a part of the solution instead of the problem, I’ve identified what I see as the biggest problems with content marketing. From there, I’ll propose how, as content marketers, we can shift the way we talk about, measure, and produce content so that we have a more coherent approach to content marketing.

Content Marketing defined

According to the Content Marketing Institute, the foremost authority on the matter, content marketing is defined as:

“The marketing and business process for creating and distributing relevant and valuable content to attract, acquire, and engage a clearly defined and understood target audience – with the objective of driving profitable customer action.”

This content can include anything from articles, videos, and newsletters, to infographics, research reports, and ebooks.

My problem with this definition of content marketing is that it doesn’t reflect reality. Using Steve Rayson’s Buzzsumo article as an example of some of the poor practices happening in content marketing (nothing personal Steve!), let’s see if we can shift the way we talk about– and write about– content marketing.

Beef #1: Constant flip-flopping

Content marketing, like SEO, is not an exact science. Anything that involves a certain level of creativity shouldn’t have a formula (despite many, many, many attempts at defining one). My biggest beef here is that what is considered “good” content marketing practice is constantly changing from one week to the next. It’s not so much the change itself that bothers me as it is the 180 degree turn on the heel differentiating what’s considered good and poor practice. One week, posts can’t exceed 1600 words; the next, they can’t be shorter than 2000.

The problem that Rayson’s article highlights is that he (by his own admission) gives advice completely dismissing– even negating– the advice that he and many other content marketers have been giving for years, and with little more than a shrug and an “oops, my bad” attitude.

As soon as somebody finds a new strategy that works for them, they’ll immediately begin pushing it out, in written form, to anyone that will listen. This leads to a copycat ripple effect, with writers scrambling to capture that success. Rayson’s article specifically focuses on the success of The Washington Post’s increase in content production. But let’s look at the context in which this new idea of “more content” worked.

Here’s the CliffsNotes version:

There are three big differences between the Washington Post and your content marketing blog to consider here:

  1. No budget: We don’t all have Daddy Bezos coming in to hire more writers and developers to repurpose one piece of content in ten different ways. Most content marketing departments have limited budgets to hire more writers for what’s already a small team.
  1. No audience: The Washington Post’s audience is a hell of a lot bigger than most content marketing blogs. To be fair, Rayson does note that “a high volume content approach probably only works if you have built an audience with authoritative, quality content first,” but this afterthought could be missed in an article justifying the production of more content.
  1. It’s not a blog: It’s the Washington Post! It’s whole business is objectivity and publishing content to report the news. A content marketing blog is often a side note in the greater scheme of pushing people to spend money.

Comparing a content strategy– like for like– with The Washington Post is a stretch, and also misleading for those with a much smaller audience.

My two cents:

Why not try sticking to a single strategy and playing it out to its maturity?

I still believe that long-form, informed content is the way to go for content marketers with a less established brand, which, unless you’re Moz, KISSmetrics, or HubSpot, is the vast majority of content marketing blogs. Not everyone has brand recognition to fall back on, and creating a credible and authoritative voice in content marketing is far more rewarding for both the writer and the reader than hundreds of useless blog posts.

Building authority requires providing value, and there’s no ‘get rich quick’ equivalent for building that up overnight.

Beef #2: Sharing isn’t always caring

Sharing is touted as the pinnacle of success in content marketing. It’s mentioned time and again as the cornerstone of a successful post. My problem here is regarding the perceived value attached to a share. There’s a huge and consistent assumption that shares = traffic. Take this excerpt from Rayson’s article as an example:

“However, Hubspot’s articles received 2.8m shares in total compared to the 1.8m shares of posts on Social Media Examiner. That is 1m more shares, over 30% more. We don’t have traffic figures for these sites but I would anticipate Hubspot also received similarly higher levels of traffic.”

Logically, that makes sense. Given our own experience at GetApp, however, I don’t think that it’s necessarily always the case. Take our blog as an example.

I wrote a piece earlier this year called “How to get more organic links from your content”. I was really excited to see that the post had been shared 789 times.

Disappointment swiftly followed when I saw that these shares were clearly not reflected in the traffic numbers.

Compare this to another post, which had a quarter of the shares, but almost double the traffic.

The point here is that an awful lot of emphasis is placed on social sharing, but it’s not necessarily reflective of traffic or referral numbers. We’re in the era of social media advocacy and butt-kissing on Twitter. Sharing is more of a favor than a show of respect or admiration, and asking someone to read an article from start to finish is like asking them to take a trip to the dentist for a root canal. Part of this is due to the influencer nature of social media and the idea that there’s more value in getting a share from influencer friends, who aren’t actually the target audience, than in reaching your readers.

Don’t assume that sharing content actually works towards driving the end goal of lead generation, sales, and lead nurturing, the top three goals outlined in the Content Marketing Institute and Marketing Profs’ most recent benchmark report.

(Source)

What is social sharing good for? That’s another troubling thought. Nobody does a very good job of answering the question. There are whispers about brand awareness and engagement, but with such a heavy focus on sharing, there’s very little data about how those shares actually impact content marketing’s end goal: profitable customer action.

One piece of research published in April 2016 studies referral traffic via social media, focusing on clicks instead of shares. It’s a really interesting piece of research outlining the results of sharing content, but while interesting, it’s also scary to think that in 2016, this is one of the few pieces of research to do so.

My two cents:

Don’t take shares at face value. Dig deeper using web analytics tools to see how those shares are reflected in traffic and revenue. The Content Marketing Institute and Marketing Profs’ report shows that 55 percent of content marketers don’t know what the success or effectiveness of their content marketing looks like, with only 30 percent citing their efforts as effective.

(Source)

Shares are a good starting point to measure engagement, but not success. From there, you’ll have to look at how those shares are reflected in click-throughs, leads, and revenue with advanced tracking and analytics that go beyond a share’s symbolic pat on the back.

Software that can help with tracking the result of social media shares include:

Another good thing to look at is organic traffic, which does a better job of showcasing how your content is working to target the right keywords and attract the right type of audience that you want to convert. While it’s not the be all and end all of content marketing, SEO is an important part of the process that can help drive more qualified leads to your content.

Beef #3: Quantity over quality

I’ve alluded to it multiple times throughout this post and others, but quality is still a big issue in content marketing. Coincidentally, one of the easiest ways to get away with poor quality content is to focus on sharing as a metric.

As Rayson himself points out:

“When I looked recently at the most shared content published by marketing and IT sites, the data confirmed that on average long form posts achieved more shares. But when I looked in more detail at the 50 most shared posts, 45 of them were short form and under 1,000 words. Thus people are very happy to share short form content and given the pressures on everyone’s time may prefer short form content…”.

He then goes on to say:

“Cynically it is easier to produce poor quality short form content than poor quality long form content.”

To me, this basically reads as, “short-form crap content can get you more shares.” Herein lies the problem. When the metric is sharing, the actual content matters less. All you need is a killer headline and you’ll have people sharing left, right, and center. In his article, Rayson also mentions Doug Kessler’s idea that “poor content may increasingly look on the surface like good content, as everyone learns how to write effective headlines.” This signifies a dangerous trend, but also hits the nail on the head.

People don’t notice poor quality– short or long– because they’re not reading. All they’re reading is the headline, which, if crafted properly, can rack up the share count.

Regardless of word count, short and long-form content has the potential to be good. Short-form pieces can be useful and informative just as much as long-form pieces can be long-winded and obvious. But short-form pieces run a greater risk of falling flat when they’re being produced in order to satiate the content marketing machine.

Because long-form pieces generally require more research and planning, they’re a larger investment of a writer’s time and usually add more value (although not always) than a quick 600 word article. The problem with asking people to produce more content is that they’ll likely be producing shorter, lower quality pieces in order to fill a quota.

Realistically, however, it all comes down to the writer. In a rather prophetic turn, Oscar Wilde once said:

“In old days books were written by men of letters and read by the public. Nowadays books are written by the public and read by nobody.”

That sounds a lot like the state of content marketing to me– unqualified writers, throwing caution and grammar to the wind, creating poor quality content which gets read by virtually no one.

My two cents:

Hire good writers! Hire people with a degree in journalism or a proven track record in writing, and don’t be afraid to test their writing chops before you take the plunge. Your content will only be as good as the people producing it, and whether its short-form or long, quality is the building block of your content marketing blog. In a rather depressing quote from Rayson’s article, he says, “producing quality content and hoping people will find it will no longer work, if it ever did.” I disagree. I still believe that creating good content (i.e. content that is informed, relevant, well-written, has data to back it up, or provides actionable advice) has a much better chance of gaining recognition than churning out hundreds of crappy posts and blasting them all over social media.

This coupled with expert contributions, search engine optimization, and proper promotion will work to get your blog noticed.

The long and short (form) of it

Content marketing in 2016 is at a perpetual crossroads, with constantly changing practices, strategies, and approaches. As the constant fear of displeasing Google’s almighty algorithm takes the “thou shalt obey” commandment to a whole new level, the bar for quality content was supposed to have increased. The argument now is that more content of a lesser quality can work too. While it can be quite frustrating for a content marketer trying to find the “right” way to do things, I think that logic can go a long way in content marketing.

To sum up:

  1. Stick to one strategy (at least for now): You’ll never know if a strategy works until you’ve played it out for at least six months to a year. Building authority requires playing the long game, and if you don’t give your content a chance, it’ll never work.
  1. Focus on more than just sharing: Sharing statistics only go so far. Look at more valuable metrics that illustrate the lifetime value of your content, not the size of your influencer pool.
  1. Don’t put quality on the back-burner: Not every piece of content will be the next War and Peace, but as you build up your repertoire of well-written, useful, and engaging content, you’ll start building a name for yourself and your brand.

Want more advice on how to improve your digital marketing efforts?

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Suzie Blaszkiewicz :Suzie is a writer and researcher at GetApp focusing on the social side of business– CRM, marketing, collaboration, and of course, social media. Aside from musing about B2B software, she has experience writing about consumer apps for iPhone and Android, as well as research experience from the London School of Economics. Suzie loves travelling, eating, and trying to steal dogs from the park at lunchtime.