Robert Rose: Now’s the time for content marketing to get serious

Robert Rose, chief strategy advisor of the Content Marketing Institute, is heading to Sydney in May to deliver a keynote session and workshop at the B2B Marketing Leaders Forum. Ahead of his trip down under, our head of content Martin Wanless spoke with Robert about why the time has come for content marketing to press the reset button, why content marketing needs to be a business and not a marketing conversation, and why audience has to be first, last and everything.

Robert Rose is a man on a mission. He’s got the bit between his teeth when it comes to this whole ‘content marketing’ thing. Enough skirting round the edges, enough looking at how content can fit with businesses. The time has come to hit the big red – or, given CMI’s famous branding, orange – reset button, and present the new, improved Content Marketing 2.0.

Goodbye content marketing, the marketing tactic. Hello content marketing, the business strategy.

Of course, for those who’ve truly being practising content marketing, it’s always been a business strategy; something that’s intrinsically linked to objectives that drive revenue. But here in Australia, and in Rose’s home of the US, the annual CMI research keeps showing that it’s still not working as well as it could be.

“My diagnosis for content marketing here [in the US] and in Australia is very keen, with a side case of the blues,” says Rose.

“In a weird way we’ve almost made too good of a business case for content. We’ve spent all our time convincing everybody that doing this thing called content would be good for marketing. People went, ‘Okay great, go do that’. We started doing it and it started to work and before we knew it had created a monster.

“Instead of a discrete, focused approach to using an owned media experience to drive value for the business, content marketing has become an on-demand vending machine for every and any sort of content.”

The need for a reboot

This will no doubt resonate with many working in content marketing in Australia, too. What may have started off as a content marketing approach for many has turned into a ‘content for marketing’ approach.

And while content for marketing is needed, and there’s nothing to say teams or departments – or individuals – can’t produce both, it’s crucial the two don’t get mistaken for each other. Content for marketing is pure fulfilment; execution, campaign collateral, and one-off pieces that stand alone.

When content for marketing demands are placed on the content marketing team, something’s going to give. Usually it’s the non-urgent.

Rose is a regular consultant for businesses whose content marketing is in need of a guiding hand. Time and time again, the dilution of what content marketing should be is the root cause of failure.

“Most of the time when I go in and visit with a client, when things are truly broken it’s because the business has hired one or two people to support the entire business’s content needs. The investment has been small even though the demand for content is huge.

“Sales is demanding content. Brand is demanding content. The business is demanding content. We’re creating all of this content with no real direction, strategy or focus.

“Really, we’re just throwing as much of it as we can against the wall and hoping some of it will stick. And, in fairness, watching some of it stick. Then the business demands more and more and more.

“The feeling is if we produce more, diversify all over the place and try everything, we’re mitigating our investment risk. It’s becomes a never-ending cycle.

“Of course that’s failing. You start to see the decline in value of that over time because people can’t keep up. You just can’t sustain that level of scale. Businesses are so eager to do it that they’re actually now suffering from their success. Suffering from a quality over quantity challenge.”

The why, and the what next

Good old content marketing programs are turning into unstrategic content vending machines – and it’s all of our responsibility. A lot of the time, content marketing programs are being set up by the practitioner; sometimes ‘on the side’, and sometimes as a trial. And, while that may be the quickest way to get started, it’s not the way for it to work long-term.

“We see it a lot. Somebody at a practitioner level, who has all the best intentions, has read the right books and blogs, and attended the right events, they go, ‘Hey, let’s try content marketing’. And it starts to work. Then all of a sudden the business demands more and more and more.

All of a sudden there are more logos, more calls to action, more selling and more product. The quality starts to degrade, and the quantity demand increases. The pressure to sell and prove ROI and do all this stuff that is traditional marketing material starts to emerge and it becomes content for marketing rather than content marketing.”

It’s a familiar and recurring tale. But Rose says the answer – and the key to the content marketing reboot – is to take content marketing from a marketing conversation to a strategic business conversation. Demonstrate how it will deliver to the business, and be clear and categoric about what content marketing is and what it isn’t. This may mean doing more work at the outset: you’ll need to sell it to the c-suite and explain the business (rather than content) outcomes.

To illustrate the need for the c-suite to understand the business outcomes content marketing can deliver, Rose recounts a recent conversation he had with a B2B CEO.

“The conversation went something like this:

Him: ‘Tell me why I should do content marketing.’

Me: ‘Well, tell me about your marketing database right now.’

Him: ‘We have 25,000 email addresses.’

Me: ‘So you have 25,000 givemethewhitepaper@gmail.coms and mickeymouse@theemail.coms?

Him: ‘Yeah there’s some of that.’

Me: ‘What if I replaced those 25,000 email addresses with a 10,000 strong database, but instead of just email you had first names, last names, company names, their industry, zip code, phone number, email, and specific details about their role and their challenges?

And what if not only did you get that data from them, they wanted to give it to you? It’s not something you extracted from the whitepaper you gave them, some transactional thing. They wanted to give it to you because you gave them such value that they wanted to get more stuff from you. They subscribed to you.”

Him: ‘Well yeah that would be way more valuable.’

Getting the right people on board

A key content marketing challenge for many has been – and still is – to get the marketing director on board with the whole thing. And for some marketers that can be an uneasy and sometimes daunting prospect.

“I get emails all the time from people who say, ‘I am a traditional marketer’, and they’ll use that word in quotes and italics. They’ll say, ‘I’m a traditional marketer trying to learn the new ways of this content marketing thing, and I’m frustrated because I don’t think I know what I’m doing’.

“We all have this idea about what marketing’s purpose is in the business, right? But if you go back and look, marketing’s purpose has been really skewed over the last 20 years. Leads into the top of the funnel have literally become the only remit of marketing in most of today’s businesses.

“But it wasn’t always like that. Marketing has the potential to be so much more than that, because it’s really something that can create value for the business in interesting and creative ways. And what is happening is that we have fallen into scrapping for top of the funnel leads.

“Marketing is becoming responsible for the entirety of the buyer’s journey now. That means we as marketers, as professionals in our industry, have to really expand our skill set across that buyer’s journey if we’re going to remain competitive in the job market, or if our business is going to remain competitive in its space.

“It’s very exciting because it’s all new stuff for many of us that came out of traditional sales, or traditional lead generation, or traditional demand generation.

“And to me, it’s so much more interesting. I would much rather spend my days as a marketer, trying to develop more value for a customer, than trying to figure out whether AB testing, or multivariate testing, or this three bullet email thing is going to convert one percent more leads into the funnel. Yuck, that’s boring. I don’t want to do that. I want to do something big, I want to do something that’s evolutionary, and fun, and really drive value for my company.”