How to fix the sad state of content marketing

Content marketing. It was the darling of the marketing world in years past, but it’s fallen on hard times lately. Why? Mostly because marketers are struggling with it, and as a result generating terrible content, which in turn is making people unhappy:

Content marketing…

The problem that marketers are running into is one of resource constraints. Most of us have a certain number of really good ideas in us, a decent supply of pretty good ideas, and a metric ton of bad ideas. As we create content, we tend to use them up in that order – we begin creating content and knock it out of the park for a short while, keep people interested with pretty good stuff, and eventually, without replenishment, that well runs dry and we create garbage.

The aforementioned Tom Webster correctly cites the issue of content production schedules as being the primary cause for this – if you commit to blogging a certain number of times per week, personally or organizationally, then you have to find content to fill those commitments. The easiest choice, as Tom points out in a recent blog post, is to abolish the content production schedule entirely and only share content when you have really great ideas to share, but for many businesses, that’s not a step that’s viewed as realistic.

So how do you scale your content production to meet a rigorous schedule? First and foremost, you have to acknowledge that you as a content creator have limits. There is a nearly literal well of ideas in your head around your product, service, or industry. That well refills over time; the rate of replenishment depends on how immersed you are in other ideas and how differently you can think about your industry.

Down a big hole

How do you know when you’ve reached a point of depletion? When the ideas stop flowing. When you’re sitting in front of your keyboard wondering, “what the heck am I going to write today?” When the voice in your head says, “ah, just write anything, no one will care anyway”. When you reach those points, your well has run dry.

To meet a production schedule without losing quality, then, you have to do one of two things. You can either change the rate of replenishment or you can add content creators. Adding content creators is the most rational choice, especially for an organization, because it means instead of waiting for one well of great ideas to refill (and possibly creating garbage in the meantime), you have several that you can go to. The more content creators you add to your team (who have talent and intelligence), the better your content will be, because you’ll deplete your wells of good ideas at a slower rate and allow them to replenish more fully in between uses.

If you’re in a position where you’re blogging for yourself or in an organization where adding more content creators isn’t possible, then the other option is to change the rate of replenishment of ideas. Get smarter. Get more creative. How? First and foremost, if you’re a content creator for business, you absolutely must be out in the world talking to customers on a regular, frequent basis. Your best ideas will almost always come from seeing people at work with your products or services and observing the challenges they face. You can do that by going to conferences, visiting customers, helping out with customer service, and being a customer yourself of your company.

Dayton Quest Center Hombu Dojo

Second, you need to draw on multiple disciplines in order to get your well of ideas to replenish more quickly. If you’re a marketer, reading marketing books and blogs will provide only limited benefit, and the better you get as a marketer, the less helpful other marketing blogs will be. At some point, they’ll actually become a hindrance to you. Look to other disciplines for their assortment of best ideas, especially in the fields of the liberal arts. For example, I look to the many inspirations, ideas, strategies, and philosophies of the martial arts for many of my ideas. If you are experienced in the martial art I practice, there are some blog posts which are nearly literal translations of kata strategies, but applied to marketing.

If you study music, what ideas from music come to mind that inform your marketing? There are things like tempo, chord progressions, and harmony that can be translated into other forms of content with relative ease. If you study photography, what can you translate? There are ideas like contrast, lines, lighting, and bokeh that you can translate to your content.

Improving your rate of replenishment comes with a warning: there are rapidly diminishing returns on it that are dictated by time and your level of talent. At a certain point, you either have to throttle back on the schedule or add more human beings.

If the year behind us was about the power of content marketing, then the year ahead has to be about making content that doesn’t suck if we want content marketing to remain a viable method of reaching and acquiring new customers. Like a restaurant, you only need to serve up one plate of garbage instead of a good meal to lose someone forever.


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  • http://twitter.com/bobbiklein Bobbi Klein

    Chris, this is so true. Sometimes I find myself without knowing how to write a blog post, then I always revert to questions that my Spanish students ask or the troubles that my mom’s coffee shop is experiencing. Also, this reminds me of what Chris Brogan and Julien Smith wrtie in “The Impact Equation” about always looking for the good ideas. Great post!

    • http://www.ChristopherSPenn.com Christopher S. Penn

      Thanks!

  • http://www.jasonkonopinski.com/ Jason Konopinski

    Bravo, my good man. This is brilliant.

    • http://www.ChristopherSPenn.com Christopher S. Penn

      Thanks, sir.

  • http://www.m2sys.com/ John Trader

    I echo @jasonkonopinski:disqus’s sentiment – great post Christopher. Being a solo content creator, and desperately wanting help to diversify the content pot, I can’t cry in my cereal that I have run out of ideas. Instead, I need to get out of the office more and visit customers, attend trade shows, etc. as you suggested. Appreciate the motivation.

    • http://www.ChristopherSPenn.com Christopher S. Penn

      Thanks, sir. Getting out from behind the desk is key!

  • http://www.sideraworks.com/ Matt Ridings – Techguerilla

    One of the primary sources for expanding the content creation sources (or minimally the source of new content ideas) should be looking to your existing pool of untapped knowledge…your employee base. Creating programs that not only incentivize their participation but also educate on what makes great content and gains support of their managers can reap rapid rewards. The ideal result one can hope for is to go from banging your head on the wall as the sole person/group responsible for new content ideas to that of becoming expert curators due to volume.

    Cheers,

    Matt Ridings – @techguerilla

    • http://www.ChristopherSPenn.com Christopher S. Penn

      Matt – I mostly agree. At the very least you want your subject matter experts on tap because they’re going to provide all kinds of rabbit holes you can dive into for insights. That said, I’ve worked at a fair number of companies where the employee base probably would not have been my first choice, at least not as a whole :)

  • http://www.monicawright.com Monica Wright

    As a martial artist (actually, martial arts enthusiast is probably a better way to describe myself) I would love to see links to the blog posts you mentioned where you apply kata to marketing.

  • http://b2bdigital.net/ Eric Wittlake

    Chris, yes, this is what content marketers need to do. But is it enough?

    We are so inundated with content that quality, by itself, doesn’t earn new audiences fast enough for businesses. For a small business or a personal blogger who can grow organically on the back of quality, maybe. But most businesses can’t solve the underlying business issues by focusing on quality content. They need to not just delight their current audience, they need to continue to grow that audience for their blogging and content machine to become a driver versus a sidebar to their business results.

    I don’t have a solution, but I’m starting to question the wisdom of content marketing in many industries as the “solution” or “difference maker.” Increasingly, excellent content that serves your audience is just the best practice standard. Marketers need to find their next real difference maker to add to their content practice.

    That’s where my head is at right now, would love to hear your perspective.

    • http://www.DataScopic.net/ Oz

      Eric, I dig what you’re saying here. I just spent the past week unsubscribing from great blogs just because I just don’t have the time to read and/or implement what they’re teaching. How many other people are at a saturation point?

      Also, as a technical blogger and freelancer, there’s a lot to keep in perspective, and tough triage decisions need to be made. Thus, I’m not sure how much of a priority it should be for me to get an audience like Chris’ or Mashable. I don’t envision hundreds of readers waiting for my next post on Excel date formatting. I need to be out in the world, sending out invoices, writing proposals, making appointments and meeting deadlines.

      As far as content, sometimes we have to go with “good is good enough.” Recently, more and more articles have been warning that generating consistent content is frikken hard. The point is: either do it or don’t do it. Don’t kinda do it. So, let’s not encourage people to generate outstanding content if:

      1. They won’t be able to do it consistently or
      2. It’s happening at the peril of fundamental business activities.

  • http://twitter.com/adamlundquist Adam Lundquist

    This is an excellent blog that gets right to the point. I like the idea of studying other disciplines to be a better content marketer

  • http://twitter.com/geoffliving Geoff Livingston

    It’s one of the reasons I publish 4x a week. I actually write everyday. The gap allows me to toss bad ideas, and refine unpolished ones to deliver a higher level of quality.

  • http://contentmarketinginstitute.com/ Joe Pulizzi

    Hi Chris…always have been a big fan. You cite some important points about content marketing issues, but miss the most important reason why marketers struggle with content marketing – a lack of a content marketing strategy. Content creation without a strong content marketing mission statement is a recipe for disaster. This is the number one problem we see with the large brands we work with…they are trying to put fires out with content without understanding the true potential that content can hold in the buying process, as well as sales enablement, with a clear vision.

    Executing any of your solutions won’t help very much without it.

    As a final note, I’ve had the pleasure of working with hundreds of small, medium and large brands on their content strategies…and only one thing is consistent…every plan is different. There is no silver bullet with content marketing. You need to test and adapt to see what kind of content works for your customers that, in turn, solves your marketing challenges at the same time.

    Keep up the great work. Peace.
    Joe

    • http://www.ChristopherSPenn.com Christopher S. Penn

      Thanks Joe – and I agree that a strategy is a very good thing. I guess I assume you have one :)

      • http://contentmarketinginstitute.com/ Joe Pulizzi

        Yep…that is the biggest issue of all. Most marketers don’t have one. It’s hard to believe, but true.

  • http://newenglandmultimedia.com/ Michelle Quillin

    Chris, thank-you so much for sharing this! I’m with @juntajoe:disqus here — a content marketing strategy is vital. I know a few bloggers-for-business who, in an effort to keep up with their self-imposed publishing schedules, write content that gets a lot of traffic to their websites but doesn’t do a thing to bring their readers along in the sales process. I could write provocative blog posts about any number of hot-button topics and drive plenty of traffic to our website, but are my readers going to (a) be in our business’s target audience, (b) “get” the association between the content and our brand, or (c) give a whit about the services our company offers?

    I’m a big advocate of editorial calendars for planning, strategy, and a source of inspiration. I really need to do long-term planning myself. Some time ago, Laura Roeder recommended a 52-week strategy. What do you think of planning out that far ahead, with a marketing strategy in place?

    Michelle Quillin — @NEMultimedia