7 hurdles to effective content marketing (and how to jump them)

By Derek Slater, Content Director  |  Mar 27, 2017

7 Hurdles Hero-2x.jpgCredit: Aylisha Kelley/Ready State

Content marketers at big companies tend to have more resources than scrappy one-man bands at smaller organizations. They tend to have larger budgets, better access to editors, designers, and SEO and social-media experts, and a broader pool of contributors.

They often also have to deal with complicated and rigid publishing platforms and processes. Challenges such as retrofitted homegrown tools and multiple layers of manager reviews sometimes outweigh the advantages. They can hamper the content’s ultimate impact.

Here are seven pervasive problems we’ve observed in big-company content marketing—and ideas on how to address them in producing engaging and effective content.

1. Lack of candor

Many companies want to become “trusted advisers” to their customers. It’s a noble goal. Now think of a trusted adviser in your own life. She’s most likely honest and direct.

Effective content needs to speak the truth, even when it’s uncomfortable or unflattering. For example, if a technology or product category is immature, and its immaturity is relevant to your audience, then go ahead and call it immature. It’s more effective to admit challenges or mistakes than to whistle past them, hoping nobody will notice. Customers will pick up on challenges, regardless of whether you acknowledge them.

In my experience, candor often disappears from big-company content in the review process, as people start to weigh in with comments like, “We can’t say that because it will offend business partners.”

If, as a content marketer, you want to avoid situations like this, you should first establish a content-marketing review process that is different from the process used for product collateral or ad campaigns. Those reviewing your content should be vetting it with the an eye for accomplishing a defined goal of being “more candid.” You could invoke this goal or rule to protect your content.

In creating this new review process, you also have a chance to sidestep potentially problematic reviewers. Sometimes that’s not possible—the legal department, for example, might need to have the final word on everything. Indeed, I know a content marketer at a risk-averse financial-services company who is still battling over whether the company can use “how to” in a headline.

If nothing else, creating the new process will help you suss out what constitutes real risk—and which types of edits might be overprotective.

2. Monotonous voice

Having a consistent publishing cadence and point of view is good. But it’s a short ride from Fort Consistency to the town of Total Boredom.

Does your content all sound the same? Shake it up! Public speakers know that vocal variety helps keep the audience engaged. The same concept applies to content, where the idea of honing a consistent “voice” is sometimes applied too dogmatically.

Sometimes marketers extend their idea of voice to include article formatting. If all your articles look identical, you’re probably stale. Don’t shoehorn everything into a numbered list or a three-subhead “thought leadership” post. (Here’s a Slideshare deck with a bunch of ideas to help you surprise your readers with greater variety.)

3. Disjointed content strategy

Many large companies produce blogs, white papers, case studies, social posts, and other types of content, with different groups responsible for each type.

The more you connect these efforts, the more effective your overall content production work will become. Your blog can support campaigns without becoming a slave to them; case studies and white papers can spin out useful snippets for the blog or social media.

One big research study can generate tons of reuse—that’s Rebecca Lieb’s Thanksgiving Turkey approach. Conversely, you can create rich assets by rolling together material created over the past year or more—an approach I call Frankenturkey. (The term mysteriously doesn’t seem to be catching on.)

Taking a holistic content approach can uncover and take advantage of those opportunities. Hiring a smart and experienced editorial manager, and assembling a steering council, might also help, but you’ll need communication to extend to the tactical level for best results.

4. Reliance on personas over customers

Customer interviews are a wellspring of great content. Marketers should have regular conversations with real customers to identify key topics and learn how to articulate pain points in a way that resonates with real people, minus the business jargon. Some big-company marketers never speak to customers. That’s weird.

Google’s Apps for Work team interviews real customers. Method Products does too. Intel, meanwhile, speaks with data scientists and IT leaders about analytics.

Here’s how a marketer with a public-relations background explains her insistence on making user interviews the core of a big content project:

“Without customers to provide color, it would have just been words and data,” she says.   Customer stories “turned it from a marketing asset into a collection of stories that engaged in a way people in B2B marketing didn’t expect.”

5. Slow source approvals

Interviewing customers is great, but here’s a sticking point we’ve observed at big companies: Many content marketers first need a green light from their sales organizations.

“I’ll just get a quick approval from the account team. They’re eager to spotlight their customers,” a well-meaning internal content strategist says. Then, as you sit around waiting for permission, the topic ages, and deadlines pass.

Some big-company workers are more comfortable with process than with decision making. So create a process, or update and formalize your current process. Create a source authorization form that concisely explains how participation benefits the source and the account team. Then you’re simply asking for a signature on a form—not a decision.

6. Volume-based purchasing

Smart content-marketing programs spell out their business goals up front. How else will you know if you’re succeeding? Those goals are usually expressed in terms of brand awareness or lead generation or newsletter subscriptions—or something along those lines.

Smart programs quickly get less smart when budget realities sets in.

When evaluating realistic content creation options, the “goals” focus goes out the window. In comes a focus on price and volume. Somebody on the team brings up a catchphrase like, “I can get 20 percent more articles for that price from somebody else.”

If you build a house using that philosophy, you get the cheapest contractor, and your house falls down. Why build your content-marketing program that way?

As my favorite business guru (and quote machine) W. Edwards Deming has said, “It is easy to count. Counts relieve management of the necessity to contrive a measure with meaning.”

In other words, stop haggling over volume, and start thinking about the type and quality of content required to accomplish your business goals. Pay for the right subject-matter expertise, social following, creativity, global perspective, or whatever else your content creators need to bring to the table.

7. Job description written by the wrong person

At a big company, you’re already spending six or seven figures on messaging-based marketing.

And at some point, the CMO recognizes that a market segment is not responding to those messages. He decided that your strategy should include a content-marketing program that takes a conversational approach to this market segment, and that you should hire someone to run this new program.

Then, because he’s busy, he asks a subordinate to gin up a job description.

The subordinate, a true-blue messaging-based marketer, writes a job description focused on writing copy for ad campaigns and sales collateral. He means well but also has an obvious incentive to place the content marketer below himself in the corporate hierarchy.

The result: The new content-marketing leader is put at a disadvantage before she’s even started. She’s been relegated to a siloed position without broad organizational view or influence. This, naturally, leads to the “disjointed content strategy” point described above.

Simple suggestion: Make sure that someone who has a broad content strategy background is involved in developing the job descriptions for the content-marketing team.

Topics: content marketing, marketing strategy, content strategy

Derek Slater, Content Director

Derek Slater, Content Director

Prior to joining Ready State, Derek spent two decades in B2B technology journalism. He was editor in chief of award-winning security publication CSO for seven years, and he previously held editorial leadership positions with CIO and with the Enterprise IT and Finance media groups at FierceMarkets. He wrote the book Content Marketing in 30 Minutes and has special interest in two areas: the use of analytics and SEO data to inform content creation, and content reuse and recycling. Derek has helped clients from startups to tech giants to develop more effective content strategies and create better content.