Content Marketing: The 2021 Business Case

As businesses start expanding their use of content marketing, both old and new questions have emerged as to the efficacy of using content to further our marketing strategy.

It feels like we’ve been here before.

[quickly checks archive]

Ahhh yes. We have.

But here’s an interesting anecdotal tidbit for you. The overriding purpose behind establishing a content marketing strategy has changed as we round the bend of the third quarter of 2021. 

So, first, let’s just call 2020 the “weirdness” – and go back to 2019 for comparison to 2021.  In 2019 my consulting group worked with 30-ish clients helping them develop a business case and strategy for content as a function in the business. At least 25 of those (83%) were primarily focused on developing a better lead generation engine. Four of the remaining five (13%) were focused on brand and purpose-driven strategies. And the remaining one (4%) was focused on loyalty and better customer experiences post-sale.

This year we’ve worked with twenty companies so far. Fifteen of them (75%) have been focused on how content marketing can help enhance an overall brand strategy or assist with awareness programs to help strengthen the earliest parts of the customer’s journey. Interestingly, the other 5 (25%) have all been focused on driving better digital sales enablement.  

Additionally, and in a satisfying turn, significant progress seems to have finally sunk in around instituting content as a function, an operation, and not just a series of one-off campaigns.  Because in 2019, there was still a significant drive to how we optimize content marketing as simply a series of discrete campaigns.

Answering A Different Question

In 2021 – the strategy/challenge is focused on two key (and different) questions:

  1. How do we successfully build (or merge as the case may be) the teams of content strategy (governance, processes, structured content, data, and technology) with content marketing (creating valuable, purpose-driven, content experiences).
  2. How do we scale this new operation in a way that makes it efficient, measurable, and manageable?

So – the business case has changed. It’s no longer selling Content Marketing as a concept. If your business case is to prove the concept exists by showing the C-suite how competitor X has an amazing blog, or competitor Y won an award for their white paper program, or competitor Z is driving better awareness with their print magazine, you’ll mostly get shrugged shoulders and a lifted eyebrow.

You see, many are still answering the “why should we do content marketing” believing the c-suite have been skeptical about the idea. They haven’t. They’re wondering why it’s taken so long for us to get there.

Put simply: we’re asking for a new model car – and the CEO is saying “what the hell have you been doing with all the parts that we’ve been buying?”

A Business Case For Strategic Content Operations

Make no bones about it – this pushback hits every aspect of any content strategy we want to stand up. Just as an example, the last two advisory engagement inquiries we received weren’t about why they should launch a content marketing approach. In both cases the CMO had issued a directive to launch strategic content marketing. But in order to make the resources available to be able to do that, they had to fix the entirety of content as a strategic function.

“Beware,” one of them said. “Our CEO now doesn’t believe we have the ability to do this. She believes we already have too much content.”  But the thing is, once we dig in, it’s not that the CEO doesn’t believe in content marketing.  Nor is it that she doesn’t understand what Content Marketing is.  The real challenge is that she’s skeptical about why no one has bothered to think strategically about all this stuff in the first place.

So let’s look at the common pushbacks to implementing Content – and specifically Content Marketing – as a strategic function that we’re hearing in 2021 and address them one by one.

Let Me Count The Ways

In CMI’s 2021 research across thousands of marketers, one of the things we examined was which factors Marketers attributed to a minimal or lack of content marketing success. By a huge margin the top two factors were “content creation challenges” and “strategy issues”.  

So – just to the point made above – this is where the “we-already-suck-at-it” pushback comes from senior management. Why should we invest MORE in content, when we struggle at the content we’re already creating?

Now – of course no one actually says this part out loud where people can hear it on a Zoom meeting. Business leaders couch their concerns in much more “business appropriate” language for this. We hear things like:

  1. There is too much content already. Shouldn’t we reduce the amount of content we are creating?
  2. Content Marketing costs too much. Isn’t advertising/paid media more efficient?
  3. How can we compete? I don’t know if we’re capable of creating differentiated content.
  4. We can’t tie the content marketing approach to revenue. Where’s the data? How will we measure this?

So, let’s first acknowledge something. Every single one of these is, or has been, true at different times. But now, let’s address these one by one and figure out how we make the business case.

There’s Too Much Content Already

Yes. There is no doubt that we produce too much content. There is also no doubt that we don’t utilize the content we do produce to its fullest extent.  So much of our marketing content goes unused by sales.  So many of the pieces we create are never re-used, or re-packaged. We pour content into our blog, but never promote it, or put any paid media behind it.

What gives?  What’s the answer?

All of these are symptoms of not having codified our content operating model.  Yes, we can build a smart “factory” of content – but unless there’s specific purpose behind what we put on the assembly line, the widgets the factory produces won’t ever be valuable, and we won’t know when we’re making to many.

So – the answer to the “there’s too much content already” objection is to acknowledge it and respond that this is the primary business case for putting a strategy behind it.  One of my favorite questions to ask a CFO in order to make a business case for content is to ask “how much did you spend on content last year?”  The answer (if it can currently even be answered at all) is that it’s almost certainly the biggest expense that’s not actually tracked by the company.

We MUST get our arms around this – and developing an operational model for content is the critical piece of solving our ability to track not just how much we are spending, but for the planning, activation and measurement of all the content we will produce. To actually know how much is enough.  Because that little voice in brain that squints and says “are we actually creating too much content?” is correct.  We’ve seen over and over again that it’s frequently NOT that we are making too much different content. We are simply stuck in a cycle of duplicating things in a never-ending rinse and repeat cycle.   

What does that look like?  Well, I detailed a bit of it in one of my recent episodes of Marketing Makers.  You can explore that more deeply here.  That brings us to the second objection.

Content Marketing Costs More

Somewhere in the collective conscious of marketing – especially digital marketing – “paid media” somehow became the de facto standard for how much things should cost. Any new approach that comes along is put through the same filter: is it cheaper or more expensive than advertising? If it’s cheaper it must be worth doing, and if it’s more expensive it’s not.

The troubling thing about this question is that it assumes two things. The first thing it assumes is that “advertising” and the costs associated with it are as good as it’s going to get and won’t degrade further. The second assumption is that we are pitching content marketing as a replacement for paid media.  

In other words, it may actually be true that Content Marketing is more expensive than advertising today. But what if advertising completely fails one day, and we haven’t invested in any alternative form of marketing? Or what if (and hear me out just a second) advertising on its own actually costs more than we are truly admitting.

That brings us to the second assumption about content marketing – which is that we are proposing it as a replacement for advertising. This isn’t true. Content Marketing provides for multiple ways to draw value, and ALL of them are interdependent on PR, Paid Media, Sales, and even Loyalty Programs.

Content Marketing is a part of the integrated marketing mix – not separated from it. The key is that when we present the approach of Content Marketing, it should not be as a set of replacement campaigns that are meant to replace (or be cheaper) than a paid media advertisement.  In fact, quite the opposite, the content marketing approach is about the development of the product of content, with which we will integrate all of the other types of marketing including paid media.

At its heart, a great Content Marketing program is a content product operation (are you sensing a theme here?) – that builds, activates, and promotes our content experience that ultimately benefits the sale of our other products and services. This is why the great content marketing experiences that you’re showing the C-Suite are almost always publishing platforms like blogs, resource centers, events, or print magazines. They are meant to be an integrated part of your content operation and measured in similar ways.

But that then leads us to the third objection.

We can’t compete with content

If our business was hurting, and the head of product management came to the CEO and said – “we can’t create great products”, how might the CEO react?

What if that situation was reversed? In either case, the head of product management may be looking for a job. The ability to create great products and services is CORE to our business.

So, if we’re treating content seriously, why would we expect anything less? The only reason that this assertion will be true is if we don’t try very hard, or care.

Remember, nobody has this truly figured out. You are NOT late.  Not yet.  As an example, PR Firm Edelman and LinkedIn recently conducted research about the potential of thought leadership for B2B Marketing. They found that almost half (48%) of decision-makers spend an hour or more per week engaged in thought leadership.  But 15% of those same decision-makers rated the quality of the thought leadership as “excellent”.  Further, only 29% of them said they gain valuable insights more than half the time.

The current bar for thought leadership is currently pretty darn low. If we’re not providing the thought leadership for our industry – the real question is who is?   Are we going to rely on our competitor to set the bar for what “smart” looks like in our business?

That brings us to our last objection that we’ll cover here.

We can’t tie Content Marketing to revenue

The short answer here is – “then don’t.”

There are myriad other ways to associate content marketing with business value. Revenue is but one of those values. If you can tie ANY of your marketing and advertising to revenue, then you can tie content marketing to revenue.

But, if we dig deeper, the real assertion here is that it’s “too fuzzy” to associate with a sale – and thus it’s hard to draw a straight line to revenue. Now, this may be true – but it’s not an argument for not doing content marketing. This is simply a challenge to how we design our measurement program – and ensuring we apply the proper goals to our content operation.  Show me a company that struggles to measure content marketing, and I’ll show you a company that struggles to measure marketing.

Put simply: a blog that is meant to support brand and awareness should not be measured by how many leads it produces.  Likewise, assets stored in a resource center that is fully gated in order to drive “leads” should not be measured on how much it powers awareness through SEO. 

Each of the various content operating models will have different (and distinct) measurement goals.  This is why it’s so critical to understand that operating model.  I’ve talked before about some of the details of this approach.

You’re In Good Company

So, here’s something thing that will either comfort you or keep you up at night. Ready for it?

You’re not alone. Nobody has this completely figured out yet. Nobody. Well, okay, maybe Cleveland Clinic has this mostly figured out. But honestly, when it comes to content strategy, they’re operating at an entirely different level than most businesses.

We’ve spilled gallons of digital ink over the years talking about how Content Marketing isn’t a new thing for businesses.  It’s been around for hundreds of years. We point to the Michelin Guide, John Deere’s The Furrow magazine, and even LEGO as prime examples.  But I can tell you, over the years I’ve talked with and/or consulted with every one of those companies, as well as so many others that serve as “case study” fodder at almost every conference. All of them, without exceptions, are just like all of us: feeling our way, exploring, on a journey to make the business case for this Every. Single. Day.  As the leader at one of the most frequently mentioned content marketing case studies said to me back in 2019, “I wish my boss could see all the times we’re mentioned as a case study.  I’m still fighting for budget every single quarter.”

But guess what? This struggle is not a sign that content marketing isn’t working. It’s a sign that it’s just become a normal part of marketing.   

The big rock we have to get over – the 2021 business case – is that the classic content marketing adage of “we need to act like a media company” is mostly misunderstood.  It’s not that we need to create stuff that helps us market ourselves as a media company would.  No. The goal is that that we need to operate like a media company does. That’s what we’re building a business case for: a scalable operational model of content that’s as important as any product or service we offer in the market. An operation that helps power everything in modern marketing.

When we’re making our renewed business case for content, we should just remember that no one new marketing approach is going to change the business. But our one new approach to marketing can be the reason the business changes.

It’s Your Story Tell It Well.  

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