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9 Sweeping Lessons from Content Marketing Benchmarking Study

top content marketing goals

In January, research firm Ascend2 released a study of 521 sales and marketing professionals was conducted through an online panel. The report published in January 2014, Content Marketing Benchmarking Summary, was covered in part by eMarketer and I recently went back to take a closer look at the findings.

The surveyors didn’t break out the demographics by role or seniority, and instead called them “decision makers” which seems to be a catch-all phrase in surveys of late. I would have also been very interested to know the break out between functions — specifically between sales and marketing — but I generally think it’s smart to include sales in any content marketing study.

The study itself was just about the data and graphics, and in this post, I’ve added fairly substantial interpretation about a) what it means and b) what marketers should do about it:

1. Top goals for content marketing

The research finds that top goals are 1) lead generation (54%) and 2) awareness (41%) and that’s what makes content marketing so unique.  Traditionally marketing has separated these two goals and resourced them separately as well.  For decades, forward-thinking marketers have advocated for integrated marketing, a single strategy that unifies all marketing efforts to work together.  Whether brands realize it or not, content marketing is fait accompli for integration.

“Existing customers are more likely to be fans and advocates that are willing to share.”

2.  Existing customers still an afterthought

Just 19% of respondents cited customer retention as a goal for content marketing. It’s an enormous mistake on both business and marketing levels.  First, it is far less expensive to upsell existing customers than it is to acquire new ones.  Second, the omnipresence of subscription models – and recurring revenue – means customer retention has never been more important.  Third, existing customers are more likely to be fans and advocates that are willing to share their experience with a given brand with others.

Content marketing successful

3.  Content marketing somewhat successful

The majority – 72% said content marketing efforts were “somewhat successful.”  Just 13% said “very successful” and another 15% said content marketing was “not successful.” Marketers have been programmed by salacious headlines and snake oil salesman to think every piece of content is going to drive measurable sales. It’s the enduring pursuit of that viral hit.

The very environment – the democratization of media and the fracturing of media sources – are precisely at odds with such goals. As Ian Lipner pointed out, “Visibility is a commodity.” For most brands, going viral isn’t a realistic goal and its certainly not a strategy.

The single more important factor in content marketing is consistency.  Good content marketing requires a culture of content, that experiments, iterates and continuously looks for new ways to develop, share and improve content assets.

Top content marketing challenges


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4.  Top challenges in content marketing

Almost half, or 48% said the number one challenge in content marketing is obtaining internal resources to create content.  The second largest challenge (41%) was writing original content.  These are very real challenges,  and in my experience, they stem from the culture.  The burden of content rests on just a few people, when the reality is nearly everyone in an organization has healthy contributions to offer.

Product management is immersed in data and use cases.  Customer support knows which questions customers ask most often.  Sales, especially account managers, are in tune with the specific benefits and drawbacks with which their clients struggle. Management has a vision. Content leadership marketing aside, a big part of marketing’s job is going to be increasingly finding, surfacing and putting a professional touch on these sources of content. Smart companies will begin baking in content development requirements into more and more job descriptions.

Though the second challenge indicates “writing” content doesn’t have to be just text-based. Visual design, videos, audio, such as podcasts, and other mediums provide opportunities that might better match the skill-sets and comfort level of employees.

“The single most effective way to ensure content is never consumed or shared is to put a gate in front of it.”

5. Gated versus un-gated content  

About half of marketers gate content, while the other half does not.  Registration is required for about 55% of newsletters, 53% of white papers, 53% of videos, 47% of case studies 39% of webinars, 36% of research reports, 31% of infographics and 27% of product demonstrations.

Some registrations – newsletters for example – are simply a requirement to obtain opt-in lists. Other gates are sheer insanity and a waste of money and time, not to mention lost engagement and potential leads.

The single most effective way to ensure content is never read, consumed, shared or acted upon is to put a gate in front of it.  Today, websites that require extra-clicks or that take mere extra-seconds to load lead to higher bounce rates. Marketers have just seconds for a headline or a visual cue to draw readers in – and a registration page that, from a consumer perspective, inevitably leads to volumes of unsolicited email is simply not worth the effort.

Witness the demise of the traditional news media, which for the last 10 years has struggled to find a new business model.  Annual subscriptions, freemium models, and pay-per-article models have all largely failed (hence the rise of native advertising).  The online community is simply not willing to pay for news because there are thousands of other sources they can turn to for news at no cost.

Brands that think their content is so special, unique or proprietary are simply fooling themselves.  Forrester Research finds that as many as 90% of buyers today have made up their minds about a purchase decision before engaging the brand. That decision has been made based largely on a mix of content from online research.  Content is the currency of the web, bartered in exchange for attention.

Marketers fast easy content

6.  Marketers prefer fast and easy content

As the chart nearby demonstrates, email newsletters are favored as fast and easy content marketing tactics. However what this chart misses is the integration of all these tactics – for example what content goes into that newsletter?  Certainly webinar promotions, white paper offers, and case study videos all make for useful newsletter content.

What I find missing here – indeed throughout the study – is a reference to corporate blogging. A blog ought to be the center of gravity for any content marketing effort: it is dynamic, updated frequently, the content is easily shareable, it should be easy to subscribe too and it ought to be tied to other efforts; readers become conditioned to look for fresh content on a blog.  A webinar schedule makes for a good blog post, a recap of the webinar is excellent content after and event, and all of the posts provide great links to include in a regular email newsletter.

Too often marketing is fractured with a team of people who are really working as individuals on separate projects. Marketers do prefer fast and easy, but the key to building momentum is to push through the first few challenges, and as the team gains experience, turn projects into repeatable, consistent, content marketing programs.  Everyone has a role.

In-house versus outsourcing content marketing

7.  In-house versus outsourcing content marketing

Fifty-two percent of respondents use in-house only resources to produce content; 44% use a combination and just 4% use outsourced content.  Strictly speaking, a good way to ensure marketing is misaligned with sales is to outsource your entire content marketing effort.  This will ensure content is developed in a silo several degrees removed from the nerve center of your organization.

Completely outsourcing content marketing is generally a bad idea.  I also don’t think completely developing all content in-house necessarily the right answer. Marketing consultants can bring creative thinking – a break from group think – and the best ones stay abreast of new and innovative ways to doing things. Outsourcing can also bring scale, especially when headcount is tight.  Outsourcing isn’t a panacea – and it will require a substantial time investment to a) train the team b) review content and edit c) provide redirection for misaligned content.

One of the most successful ways to outsource content I have found, is to keep an eye out for freelance or solo-consultants with expertise in a given industry. Often you can provide a creative briefing and set them on their own to develop a white paper or ebook that can then be repurposed in a number of ways.

content marketing software

8.  Use of content marketing software

About 40% of respondents don’t use software, 41% report a limited use of content marketing tools, and just 19% say they use software extensively.  Technology has a place, but brands need to think carefully about the tasks they wish to automate because technology simply can’t do the critical thinking that humans can do.

Further many of the “engines” and algorithms that make content recommendations do a lousy job because these tools cannot interpret sarcasm, humor, metaphors analogies, and other creative ways people use language. Most of these tools look impressive in a sales demonstration, especially to newcomers, but six months experience usually shows a sizable investment for very little benefit – and benefit you can probably get for free anyway.

Tools also require work – and investment of time and human resources. I’ve watch two companies struggle to implement well-known brand marketing automation because while it promised automation, the process of implementing it is labor intensive.  Most software tools needs an internal expert and champion to be successful. Study after study has shown that any broad program, software or otherwise, generally requires two key factors: a) executive support and b) an internal champion.

Not all tools are bad. There are some very sophisticated SEO tools that are great investments. Monitoring tools are another area that can be worth investing in, though I’d caution sometimes getting the search terms right can require a lot of effort.  Email marketing tools are often a perquisite – and better still if they come with options for easily developing dynamic landing pages for a quick real-time marketing target of opportunity.

most effective content marketing channels

9.  Most effective content marketing channels

There are dozens of studies that demonstrate email marketing is still highly effective – and arguable the most effective — and this survey adds to the pile. Sixty-one percent said email was most effective; a website ranked second with 54%, social media next with 41% and blogs fourth with 26%.

Ken Mueller says a website is a small business’ best marketing tool, and I’m inclined to believe this is also true for larger brands. The channels to promote a brand – the blog, social media, email, videos – in an ideal world all point back to the website.  This is where the transactions happen, be it an ecommerce transaction, or a request to speak with sales.

* * *

There’s a lot of hype over content marketing – from advocates and naysayers alike.  I see a tremendous amount of potential in the concept and am encouraged to see it taking an increasingly central role in marketing. Most notably, by default, it’s forcing marketing to work together and to extend into other functions of business.  Studies like this serve as benchmarks and checkpoints to help keep us all moving in the right direction.


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