No sane person would deny that "content is king," so Web professionals spend their days pumping it out - a never-ending, deadline-driven assembly line of infographics, webinars, whitepapers, blog posts, videos and articles. Their focus is on editorial calendars, and the cadence of new content creation.
From there, they try to amplify the impact of their content by syndicating it into as many distribution channels as possible. They recycle and tweak their key ideas in a frantic attempt to minimize the amount of new topics to be created. In fact, many marketers are proud of the fact they can repackage a single content piece (such as a live webinar) into multiple content fragments (a video recording, a SlideShare presentation, a blog post, a text transcript and a slickly produced e-book). Some even make believe that their occasional well-shared pieces are actually virality that they somehow cleverly and intentionally engineered. The reality, however, is that most content marketing is self-serving broadcast "noisemaking."
The biggest problem with this approach is the assumption and philosophy behind it. Today's marketing commandment is that all businesses need to become a "publisher." The very word, however, belies its roots in the declining broadcast journalism of the last century.
Everyday companies do not run a monopolistic TV channel. They do not have exclusive rights to broadcast within a narrow frequency range of the radio spectrum. Nor do they own a mass-circulation print publication. And everyone who is in broadcast journalism had to pay massive amounts of money over decades to establish their reach and audience. It gets worse.
There are actually millions of channels and mini competitors out there for the very limited attention of people. The Internet and mobile wireless devices have penetrated to almost every corner of the globe. This fragmented "Tower of Babel" is available on-demand, and 24/7/365. It is impossible (and quite narcissistic) to believe that an individual marketer's content will out-scream everyone else's and penetrate unwanted into the brains of targeted prospects.
Try being helpful instead
The premise behind the content marketing described above is that people care about individual marketers and their respective companies. This is simply not true. They care only about themselves and their problems of the moment. That is why the inside-out approach (broadcasting from the inside of a company to the larger world) is doomed to fail. The right approach is to think of content from the outside-in perspective. This means marketers take their online prospects exactly where they are right now, and guide them toward the solution of their own problems (some of which will ultimately result in financial benefit to your company). In other words, conversion-focused content is based on being of service to real people. This kind of content is useful and speaks to today's modern consumer who is much more sophisticated and does not want to be "sold" to. They like self-service, and will gather information on their own terms because it leaves them in control.
Real conversion-focused content has the following characteristics:
It is created from the needs of visitors - not those of the business
It supports every stage of the customer journey and does not ignore early stage prospects simply because they do not intend to buy today
It is of excellent quality, and is not a product of arbitrary editorial deadlines
It is durable, and does not have a short and ephemeral shelf-life of relevance
It is laser-focused to cut through the noise, and resonate powerfully with a specific target audience
It is tracked and measured over time to the ultimate downstream effectiveness on real business metrics
Sometimes content is not the answer
Web professionals also have to be realistic, and recognize that sometimes content plays a very minimal role in an enterprise's online strategy. It is not a one-size-fits-all prescription. The following qualities define the sweet-spot of content importance:
High-ticket expensive purchases
Rare purchasing frequency
Multiple and complex trade-offs involved in the buying process
High level of specific domain knowledge required to make the selection or decision
A business-to-business environment with multiple decision makers
The more of these features that are present in a situation, the more likely that content will play a critical role in a brand's online success.
Conversely, the absence of these conditions probably means that content marketing is not essential.
A prescription for success
Start with a detailed content-for-conversion audit:
Define mission-critical roles and tasks (visitor scenarios and their intent)
Identify gaps in the Web experience, and the supporting content currently available
Create a prioritized list of content that needs to be created or reworked
Pay attention to the connective tissue (page flow, calls-to-action and gating of information)
Remember that website information architecture is, in itself, a critical form of content. A company may have to redesign the whole Web experience from a user-centered perspective, but once it does, the site architecture can serve as additional market research if its navigation is based on the important roles and tasks of the audience. Specific navigation choices can be noted for later lead-scoring and personalization. Brands can also create specific downloads to identify audience segments (e.g. "The single parent's" guide to going back to school," or "The 7 biggest mistakes when applying for a jumbo mortgage").
Tracking and collecting information is critical. Here are a few guidelines for doing it right:
Construct visitors' profiles over time via progressive disclosure (piece things together as more information is revealed over multiple visits or interactions)
Create content on the fly to avoid losing information later (dynamically embed critical information directly into downloadable material links)
Measure not only outcomes, but also the time delays between steps in a conversion process
Start with basic content changing rules (such as different content for first-time and repeat visitors), then graduate to predictive modeling and more sophisticated personalization
Create interactive marketing applications to collect data (typically with email gathering only at the end)
Some of these content "prescriptions" will require marketers and optimizers to have a flexible and powerful marketing technology stack. Typical pieces include a content management system, processes for content creation and editorial workflow, Web analytics, split testing tools, marketing automation software, predictive modeling, lead scoring, and real-time behavioral targeting and personalization.
Yes, it is a lot of work to get all of this in place, but so is mindlessly cranking out content that is not tied to the needs of visitors. The decision is now in your royal court: keep doing more of the same because content is king, or try to genuinely help your "subjects"?