Is the world of content marketing about to eat itself? You could easily think so.
On the one hand we have brands aggressively increasing their content marketing budgets; on the other we have informed and respected commentators warning of a ‘content crash’ -where consumers are unable to deal with the sheer volume of material being created.
Alongside all of this, of course, we have a significant percentage of businesses wedded to traditional marketing tactics. They’re probably wondering what all the noise is about and possibly thinking they’ve been smart in sticking to what they know.
So, does the popularity of content marketing inevitably sow the seeds of its own destruction? Or is it still the smart place to be investing your marketing dollars, pounds or euros?
Here’s why I believe it’s still not only advisable, but essential for brands to be investing in content; why I think that content strategies need to be refocused; and what brands need to do to ensure that their content creates value rather than noise.
There’s also one fundamental reason why content will continue to be indispensable in digital marketing, which I’ll come to later.
Content in crisis?
Study after study shows that brands are committing more money to content marketing each year. Meanwhile, Rand Fishkin reports that even a highly respected blog like Moz’s finds it harder to get comments and shares on its articles. Pumping out more content, he warns, is going to get us to a point where there are not enough eyes to go round.
I was also struck by comments by Eric Enge of Stone Temple Consulting in a recent interview which predicted a ‘long hard winter’ for 90% of content marketers. Many of these, he predicted, would need to find other careers; gulp!
I can see how this might be dispiriting for any businesses thinking about embarking on a content marketing journey. Don’t despair – you are still doing the right thing! But you do need to think much more deeply about how and why you are doing it.
Why content took off
If there is a crisis in the world of content marketing it’s simply because many businesses started doing it for the wrong reasons.
Sorry, I’ll qualify that. The reasons they had for doing content marketing in the way they did it made perfect commercial sense. It’s just that it was a blind alley paved with short-term gains and they are now hurtling towards the brick wall at the end.
First of all, back in November 2011, Google issued a freshness update to its ranking algorithm. Websites that hadn’t been touched for years probably, it reasoned, contained low quality, out of date content, so they were downgraded.
This placed a strong SEO and hence commercial value on fresh content. So the message became one of starting a blog to keep your website updated with new content.
Here’s a classic example of how things get distorted when we start talking about search rankings. For some it didn’t matter what they were posting so long as it was new and (hopefully) unique content.
For people who had the broad vision of the value of content the freshness argument was in the detail, not the highlight. But SEOs paid on results sometimes saw it (and sold it) differently.
Blogging for links
And, of course, people realised that dumping (sorry posting) links to their content in forums and syndication sites had enormous SEO value. Even better if you could include your money keywords in the anchor text. Google placed (and still does) a big emphasis on the number of links pointing to a site when deciding where to rank it.
If you were a business that felt it needed to be on page 1 of the SERPs, industrial scale content production made perfect sense and gave you an outcome you could measure easily. More content, more links and more SEO juice. Mmmm SEO juice, the taste of success.
This type of thinking sometimes influenced social media strategies too. ‘Quick fix’ top 10 lists proliferated as these often get shared and sometimes, I suspect, without even being read.
Meanwhile, some folks were doing things differently
One question I always had for businesses employing aggressive SEO strategies was what, exactly, happens after you get the click through? Too often traffic became the end rather than the means. The quality of the content on the site people reached barely got a look-in.
Which brings me back to Eric Enge’s comments. My interpretation of them is that the 90% of content marketers who are likely to find the future difficult are the tacticians who have been splattering the internet with low-value content, rather than the people who have been ‘doing the right thing.’
Who are the 90%?
Content marketers who lack the skills to produce thought-provoking content, or the business understanding to interpret the interests and needs of customers will find it increasingly difficult to find a role; at least that’s my take.
Google is getting better at identifying low value content and low value links and the penalties are severe. Algorithm updates will continue to target unnatural looking links from low authority sites.
And recently SearchEngineLand reported on Google penalizing guest blogging network PostJoint, which wasn’t the first and won’t be the last to get clobbered.
Meanwhile, the value of publishing deeper, more imaginative and more intelligent content continues to grow, both in SEO and ‘real’ terms. But it is challenging. The main difficulties here are threefold:
- this type of content is an order of magnitude harder to target and produce than the superficial stuff
- the skills required to produce it are not abundant
- and it can still be a job to find the good stuff when some estimates put the number of new blog posts published each day in excess of 2.5m.
Why content still has value
The real values and benefits that drew enlightened brands into content marketing are still valid. And a lot of this is to do with building qualified website traffic that is independent of Google’s algorithms.
Brands that really embraced the spirit of content knew that it was about building an audience and creating trust. They were creating content for that audience rather than for Google.
Yes, there were keywords and there was optimisation – that’s just good sense. But it was all driven by understanding who you wanted to attract and the information they were looking for, rather than just selecting the search terms with the highest volumes to get the biggest number of links and hits.
This type of customer-focused content still has marketing value because it is valued by your customers.
Why content matters more than ever
In my view, brands that are waiting for this ‘content thing’ to blow are taking a huge risk.
Duane Forrester, head of Microsoft’s internal SEO team recently rated content as the most effective way for any business to improve its search ranking - ahead of link building, social media and what we traditionally understand as SEO.
Duane’s focus is obviously Bing but the same general emphasis holds true for Google.
And despite Eric Enge’s concern for the plight of content marketers, his business at Stone Temple Consulting remains a massive producer of excellent content and a strong advocate of content marketing. They do it because it places the expertise and values of the organisation in the public domain – people can engage directly with the people behind the brand well before they enter anything that could be recognised as a sales funnel.
The keys to success are these:
- Continuously improve your understanding of your audience and their information needs
- Never compromise on quality in the interests of maintaining visibility
- Embrace long-form content
- Engage with people and be generous with your time and comments
- Engage in an honest and authentic way with influencers who have an audience you want to reach
- Use multiple formats: blogging, long-form posts on Google+, Hangouts on Air, video, etc.
- Employ highly selective content curation, and add value through your comments
I’d also recommend the following:
- Implement processes and assign clear responsibilities to your team
- Work with professional content creators who have an empathy with your business and your customers
- Invest in developing the content creation skills of your team
Why content has a future
Which all brings me to the single most persuasive reason for putting content at the heart of your digital marketing. Content is about answering questions. Your customers will always have questions and will be looking on line for whoever can provide the most informed and authoritative answers.
Your ability to answer real and important questions is what will earn you respect and trust. And whatever marketing tactics you employ, respect and trust are priceless.
This has an intrinsic value that has nothing to do with Google. Yet it’s also clear that the search giant is moving steadily and inexorably towards becoming a tool that serves up relevant and authoritative answers to real questions – rather than one that does the best job of keyword matching.
So content marketing does have a very rosy future; but only for those prepared to invest in doing it well and for the right reasons.
Copywriter, blogger and hopefully one of the 10%