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When Content Marketing Stops Working

Added on by Tom Webster.
Urinal at the Industrial Saloon

Today, in a very crowded Hynes Convention Center bathroom, I got to witness a very valuable economics lesson. The HCC is heaving from the crowds for Hubspot's Inbound Conference, and there are lines everywhere. At one point, after using the restroom, I turned the corner to leave and saw a very long line of guys waiting to use the facilities. When I left, the first guy in line walked in, presumably to take the spot I had just vacated. What the men in line didn't know, however, was that when I left the bathroom there were six or seven stalls/urinals open, which means that there were five or six guys standing in line (squirming), who actually could have gone right in, had they had enough information. I, of course, could have given them that information, but decided not to so I could make a pithy point on my blog--information has value because information is inequitably distributed. Sorry, fellas--I have a blog to tend to.

This is why blogging and content marketing have economic value--because the transmission of knowledge from those who have it to those who don't is an intrinsically valuable transaction. The more inequitable the distribution of knowledge, the more the transmission of that knowledge is worth. This is how most of today's superstar bloggers realized their early success--they knew a thing, not many people were sharing that thing, so there was value in the exchange.

Today, however, it's demonstrably more difficult to get a new blog off the ground than it was back when these top bloggers got started. There is more information extant, so the transmission of that knowledge is not as economically valuable as it used to be. Yesterday, I asked my Facebook friends what they would do if they were starting a brand new blog today in this new environment, and I was gratified to see some of these successful, early bloggers respond to my thread.

I got lots of good advice on picking niches, selecting keywords, establishing quantity and building a distribution network. All good advice, all of which worked for the folks who left it--and will probably work for you, today.

But all of it, eventually, will stop working.

No, not in the sense that tactics always change, and the best bloggers adapt--I get that. But in the sense that blogging itself, eventually, will no longer "work," from an economic perspective.

The Economic Value Of Content

I had a quick conversation with Marcus Sheridan at Inbound yesterday, which reminded me of his great concept--the CSI, or "Content Saturation Index." Marcus wisely notes that the more your niche is saturated with content, the longer it will take you to succeed in that niche.

Now, time being money (and vice versa), the fact that it takes longer to succeed in a niche is not a trivial variable. Content marketing currently "works" because the economic value that you obtain from content marketing generally exceeds the economic value that you contribute to content creation. If that is not the case for you, by the way, the only economically sustainable choice is to cease the activity. Make sense?

When a lot of today's top bloggers got started, they generally operated in niches that, Marcus would say, had lower CSIs. Because they dominated those niches with a quantity of quality, they owned those niches, and became, as Chris Brogan advises, the "go-to" person in those niches.

A lot of the advice I got involved choosing these niches to find topic areas with little competition--a low CSI--to dominate those areas. In a sense, all of this advice is dependent upon this fact: blogging (and content marketing in general) works because information, while ubiquitous, is inequitably distributed and thus economically inefficient.

Information Efficiency

We do not live in a world of perfect information efficiency. As long as not everyone interested in a thing, knows everything about the thing, those that know more about the thing can profit from those who do not. Welcome to the world of equities analysis. But, as in the world of stocks and bonds, information can approach efficiency, which is why no one can truly "time" the market. You can look it up--the smartest way to bet the market over time is simply to bet with the market over time. Hell, the SEC exists to ensure that no entity can systematically profit by knowing information that other investors do not have access to.

When one entity profits from knowing a bit more than the other guy, we think of that as arbitrage. No value was created by the party that profits; instead, they profit from the transaction itself because they know a little (or a lot) more than the other party. This was how new car sales worked for decades--car dealers profited from arbitrage, because they had "perfect" information about how much a car costs, while prospective buyers had imperfect information.

The Internet (as it does) completely disintermediated that information--we all have access to nearly perfect information about what new cars cost. Effectively, dealers can no longer profit on arbitrage--they profit on what buyers think is a fair profit, and by selling extras like pinstriping and extended warranties. There have been so many information efficiency gains in this area that arbitrage is no longer possible.

Content Arbitrage

Now let's consider blogging (and for the sake of this discussion, let's refer to blogging-as-content-marketing, and not for other reasons.) Let's say I want to market my services as a self-help guru. Of course, I have zero qualification to be a self-help guru. I might, in fact, be a leader in the nascent self-destructivity field. But, setting that aside, I'm good at content. I know more about keywords, SEO and social than 90% of other people who might also want to sell self-help services.

Because I know more about the mechanics of content marketing than most of my competitors, I am able to profit from arbitrage--my blog content is more likely to be found and consumed by prospects because I'm good at making my content findable and consumable and maybe even vaguely useful, and not because I'm actually great in my field. Yes, I have to be good in my field to write content that fits these criteria, but I don't have to be the best in my field to be the best content marketer in my field.

Because prospects don't have perfect information about my comparative skills, I can profit--but more importantly, because my competitors don't have perfect (or even sufficient) information about content marketing, I can profit from content arbitrage. My content isn't "better," I'm just better at getting it in front of people.

When I asked my Facebook friends about what they would do to start a new blog today, the tips I got mostly boiled down to content arbitrage--choose a field with low saturation, contribute consistently, guest post to increase distribution, etc. etc. When you know this and practice this in an area where this knowledge is not widely known, their advice will work. Guaranteed. And this advice did work for all of these people back when they started their own blogs, so their advice is true and valuable from that perspective. That is what makes them experts.

But information, over time, approaches efficiency. The experts' tips worked in a time when content arbitrage was possible. And it still is, of course--until it isn't. In any niche that has value, the skills and knowledge of content marketers will increase over time, increasing the "Sheridan CSI," and making the niche more and more crowded with people doing the same things you are. When that happens, following those expert tips will no longer be so effective--in fact, they might even encourage you to continue with a potentially economically unsustainable activity. Some of you are in niches that aren't niches any more, and maybe you intuitively know this to be true.

The Long Road to Zero

As the skills of content marketers in a field increase, and the amount of information in a field proliferates, your ability to stand out through any of the current received wisdom of content marketers will asymptotically approach zero. Will the value of your efforts ever be, theoretically, "zero?" No, but it can get pretty close. When answering customer questions stops being effective, you move to broadening your distribution. When that stops working, you start using video and long form content. When that becomes less effective you move to the next area of disparity between what could be done and what is done, until all of those potholes are satisfactorily filled, at least from the perspective of prospective searchers.

This, by the way, is not at the point of "perfect information efficiency." Maybe it's at the 80% mark. At some point, though, most everybody is behaving in the same way, and the only way to profit from arbitrage is to make smaller and smaller incremental gains with ever-dimishing returns (which is a valid strategy, btw--someone has to be the best, even when the costs become prohibitive).

When a given area reaches this level of saturation, tips that involve how you manipulate your content become less and less effective. And as your ability to win through content manipulation diminishes, so too does the value of arbitrage in that area. And, sadly, at some point, this means that you would be expending more of your time and treasure on content marketing and blogging than those activities are worth.

You might even be at that point now, and don't know it.

When Content Stops Being Worth It

By this point, you might think I'm being a little shrill. I admit, depending on your field, that there may be a significant time horizon ahead of you in which to profit from content marketing and blogging--and I am an almost unemployably long-term thinker. But this also isn't "theory." It's inevitable. You also might disagree with me that the time you spend on content marketing extracts an economic toll, and that you might actually destroy value if you spend more time on it than it's worth, to be reductive.

This, of course, is to argue that time isn't money. I would be happy to disabuse you of this notion over lunch, any day of the week. I will charge you $250 for that lunch. Thus endeth the lesson.

But here is a more salient question to ask yourself, when the content-going gets tough: is my field really saturated? Or do you need to move from trying to profit from arbitrage, which is fleeting, to finding another strategy entirely?

Three Things To Do

When you reach that sticking point where content marketing and blogging cease to be "worth it," or at least seem like they aren't working, I think you have three basic strategies:

1. Exit the activity. This is a viable option. You have finite resources, and if content marketing returns less economic value than other things you could spend your time on (yes, even outbound marketing), then ceasing unprofitable activities and reallocating your resources has to be an option, right? That's basic opportunity cost, and a failure to understand opportunity cost has been the downfall of many a company.

2. Increase your expertise. Again, I don't want to denigrate any of the tips I got from pros about establishing a new blog, and most of them will work for most people, most of the time. I was surprised, however, that no one suggested what I thought was fairly obvious--to set aside content arbitrage and actually become the best in your field (and not the best content marketer in your field.)

When a niche approaches the point at which keywords and cross posts and social sharing etc. etc. aren't working for you, then arbitrage isn't the answer. Maybe the answer is to actually be the best in your field, and unproductive time spent on content marketing might best be put to use building your skills to advance the field into new areas. Besides winning business, you'll open up new keywords. Cue Kool and the Gang and CELEBRATE.

3. Finally, there's this thought--what feels like saturation might not actually be saturation, but the level of competency in your field might be such that you have all hit the ceiling of what people are currently willing to do to win at content marketing. In those cases, as I mentioned before, the way to win is to do what others won't, to make marginal gains where more significant gains are not possible.

In some cases, when you do this, you discover that you actually had more growth opportunities than you ever thought possible, and have actually broken through a "false" barrier simply because you are willing to go to the extra pains that your competitors are not. And it is those extra pains--those extraordinary measures that might just actually make you the best in your field, that I'm going to be talking about in this space over the next few months.

The simple truth is this--Content Marketing isn't going to stop working, not for a good while. But what you are doing--and even what the experts are doing--will in fact become less and less effective over time. But if you are in Content Marketing for the long haul, you are in luck--the field is in its infancy. The possibilities for differentiation and leadership, even when it feels like everyone is writing the same stuff, are legion, and lessons can easily be drawn from other, more mature media and marketing efforts. All you have to do is be willing to make the leap, and take the risk to invest what others won't (in time AND money) and treat your content marketing like it competes with other media, not other content, and the answers easily reveal themselves for the bold.

I'm going to start unraveling all of this next month at Content Marketing World, in a session I'm proud to debut called "What's Wrong With Your Content Creation Strategy (and How to Fix it.)" If you are going to CMW, you have already made a commitment to do a little better than the other guy or gal. I hope you'll come to this session--and watch this space--as we explore what it's really going to take in the coming years to win with content.

A Semi-Radical Idea About Offline Media

Added on by Tom Webster.

Funnel CapIt's time for this week's Marketing Companion, in which my co-host Mark Schaefer and I discuss the recent purchase of the Washington Post by Jeff Bezos, John Henry's purchase of the Boston Globe, and sundry other things related to the future of traditional media like print and AM/FM radio. Mark and I share a love for the topic, certainly--he has a background in journalism, and I cut my teeth on traditional media research early in my career--so we have a lively chat about why Bezos might have bought the Post and what he might do next. But along the way, I dropped a semi-radical idea about "offline" media, so I wanted to expand on it here.

I saw a graphic a few weeks ago that compared the "old" marketing funnel (with TV, Print and Radio at the top) with the "new" funnel (all social and digital.) The basic thesis of this graphic (and it was in a college textbook) was that digital and social media have replaced all of these other media for everything from top-of-mind awareness to purchase. I do agree that online media is as much responsible for awareness as anything else, and with the proliferation of information choices we have, we are as likely--if not more so--to hear about brands and products for the first time online as we are anywhere else.

Where this graphic fell flat, however, was not only in leaving traditional media off of the "new" funnel (that's preposterous), but also in relegating its place on the "old" funnel to top-of-mind awareness only. That makes for tidy funnels, but isn't entirely accurate.

According to The Infinite Dial 2013, our joint study with Arbitron, the number one medium people are exposed to in the 30 minutes just prior to visiting an offline store to make a purchase is AM/FM radio, at 49% (billboards, a favorite with my friend Tim Hayden, were at number 2, and no sign of faxes, Aaron Strout!)

Edison Research Arbitron Infinite Dial 2013 Page 66

To me, this puts a traditional medium like AM/FM radio not at the top of the funnel, but at the action level, right before purchase. If a retail store, apparel brand, car dealer or other purveyor of the bricks and mortar wants to build awareness, the ways are legion. But if they want to communicate an offer right before purchase, to drive an action, radio is a pretty sound bet. And when you think of it in that light, you begin to see how you can work AM/FM radio into a digital campaign pretty smartly--not at the beginning, but somewhere in the middle.

Yet, this is not what I see. Every time I hear a radio spot (and to be clear, I am speaking solely of AM/FM, tower-delivered radio here) that "drives traffic" to an online site, I question that decision. If you are in radio sales, and you sell spots to a client looking to send listeners to a Facebook page, or an online video, you might think twice about the utility of this. Even taking mobile phones into account, there is a layer of friction sitting between a listener hearing about an online action on the radio, and then taking that action when they are in front of a computer.

If a radio station uses the power of its off-air broadcast to drive traffic to an online location, three things are true: first, radio will never be as good at doing this as an online medium; second, radio will have a hard time tracking its effectiveness in this effort (since there are likely other components and promotional tactics going on); and third, if the effort is successful from the client's perspective, who will get the credit? The digital/social agency. Radio gets laundered out of the equation, and that's a shame.

So my semi-radical suggestion about offline media is this--use it to drive offline action. It's pretty good at that. In fact, it's arguably better than online media. Using AM/FM radio or other offline media to drive people online is playing a game that is stacked against you from the start. So, when possible, don't play it. And if you are in traditional offline media, and you must play this game for sales purposes, make sure you are in a position to work SMS and mobile into the play--it helps bring the odds of this game slightly back into your favor.

Am I saying radio should stay away from online? Of course not--that's what radio's own online properties are for. But I wonder if the relentless drive to use AM/FM radio to drive people to web sites (the "power of the tower!") hasn't done the medium more harm than good.

Rant over. Mark and I discuss this, and other aspects of traditional media on this week's Marketing Companion, and I truly hope you'll listen.

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If I Were A Carpenter: Marketing, Research, and the DIY Culture

Added on by Tom Webster.

Ramshackle on Rainey Street Market Researchers are really taking it on the chin lately. Just today, I read two posts--one claiming that surveying customers in social media was bad advice, and the other that "pathetic 'market researchers'" endorsed an idiotic automobile industry messaging strategy--that could have gotten my dander up. But they didn't.

I'm not really going to argue with either of these. Certainly in the latter example (from Ad Contrarian), yeah--there was probably (at best) a little post-campaign revisionist history going on, if not something more sinister. Here is what is demonstrably true: the market research industry is in sore need of some innovation. Here is what is also true (and a casual glance at the agenda for any MR conference over the past two years will tell you): we know that, and we're moving. There are enough smoke signs in the form of articles like Bob Hoffman's to convince even the most die-hard industry apologists that there's a fire somewhere.

Here is what hasn't changed: the voice of the consumer is a vital input to your business. Here's what has: the ways in which those voices can be heard. And just as consumers' outlets for feedback have multiplied, so too have the tools to monitor, measure and analyze that feedback.

Sometimes, when I'm feeling flippant, I'll ask proponents of DIY market research if they would get an appendectomy through "Surgery Monkey." A tool is a tool, however, and DIY market research tools can be immensely valuable. The hard reality is, in the words of my friend Jay Baer, it's the wizard, not the wand.

Of course, market research isn't surgery--but it's a lot like home improvement. The home improvement industry boom led to a lot of DIY and weekend carpentry projects. Many of them are pretty good. Others are average. Still more look a little like the house above. Imagine driving by that house --or any of these fine examples of handiwork-and commenting that carpentry was dead, or broken. That's obviously not the case, is it? Carpentry is just fine. The tools are probably just fine. The carpenter, however, had some issues.

So, when the author of the Ragan piece I linked to above states that he got crappy answers when he asked his customers if they would pay "x" for his content, should you pile on "carpentry?" Or belittle the carpenter? The answer, again, lies within the model established by the home improvement industry--neither is correct. Stores like Lowe's and Home Depot obviously aren't going to denigrate carpentry, and they wouldn't be in business long if they took their "weekend carpentry warrior" client base to task for poor work.

In this case, I think the best response for the professional market researcher is to commiserate and offer advice. You know, pricing research is really, really tricky. In fact, it's one of the most difficult things to research well, and there are lots of econometric models and tools like conjoint analysis that researchers use to try and crack that nut. Often, the question "how much would you be willing to pay for that" is not asked because we care about or use the answer, it's asked to establish a mental framework to ask better questions with more elaborate techniques. It's the start, not the end. To make a home improvement analogy, pricing research is a lot like electrical or plumbing repairs. You could do it yourself. Most people ask for help. And market researchers can either offer that help, or they can insist that only a professional should do the job.

I think the right answer is probably the former, with a healthy caveat about the difficulty of the job and the value we could provide as "contractors." Do I think that pricing research should be left to professionals? Yeah--but that isn't going to stop weekend research warriors from trying it anyway. So I can at least offer a constructive consultation, or some useful content. Again, to quote my very wise compadre Jay Baer, teaching you the recipe doesn't make you a chef [/metaphormixing].

But the other thing at play here is just how much the Market Research business could use some PR. Do stories like the one Ad Contrarian cited happen? Sure. Was the market research agency in charge of the strategy? I HIGHLY doubt it. If you are going to blame market research when a poor marketing decision is made, should we not also praise it when marketing goes right? And just as we extol those leaders whose "golden gut" and vision seemingly obviate the need for market research, should we not also vilify the leaders who ignored market research--and shouldn't have?

As I've written about here before, there are thousands of research-informed decisions that happen every day, shepherded by diligent and careful marketers, that have positive results. We don't hear about these, because they make boring stories.

The more ways we can find to tell those stories, the more value we will create as partners, and not adversaries, to DIY researchers. Or, we can keep letting ads like the one below define what we do. The tools are in our hands.

Mobility Doesn't Mean Out Of Home

Added on by Tom Webster.

Burning CouchA fascinating study came out this week from Nielsen on mobile commerce and the "mobile shopper's journey." Nielsen surveyed 3,257 adults who own either a tablet or a smartphone, and had engaged in mobile shopping in the last 30 days, to ascertain how mobile affects their shopping behaviors. The money stat is this: 72% of smartphone shoppers (and 95% of tablet shoppers) who make a purchase with their device do so at home. Obviously, this does not preclude out-of-home shopping behavior, but it does raise an interesting rethink of what "mobility" really means vis a vis digital commerce.

Mobile shopping untethers consumers, but if that untethering is from the desk to the couch, that sparks all kinds of interesting questions:

  • Is actual "out-of-home" purchase behavior mainly limited to low-risk purchases?
  • Are consumers reluctant to pay for purchases outside the sanctity of their wi-fi networks?
  • Is there a stronger link between in-home TV viewing and "mobile" commerce than heretofore surmised?
  • And, if shoppers are more comfortable loosening their mobile pursestrings in the comfort of their own home, might there be a greater opportunity for mobile shopping for high-risk purchases if we stop thinking about mobile buys as "in-the-moment," location-based decisions?

Of course, lots of marketers already know the answers to some of these questions--which is why we are seeing more and more Shazam-encoded TV advertising. But what these and other data point to is this: if you are thinking about your mobile strategy as a purely location-based strategy, you might be doing it wrong.

They Just Don't Get It--Or Do They?

Added on by Tom Webster.

Number of High Net Worth Individuals, 2011 v4I just saw some reporting on a recent study that decried the 'low' percentage of Fortune 500 CEOs who use Twitter and other social platforms. In response, I offer the following questions: A. Why would they use Twitter?

B. Why do you use Twitter?

Compare the answers to A and B.

Are they the same answer? Are they different?

Is Twitter the best tool--or even a good tool--to achieve that "why" if you are a CEO?

Or for you?

The rise in Twitter usage is not inexorable. And it isn't the CEO's job to "get" Twitter, or any other ephemeral tool.

By the way, the headline on this article says that "68% of CEOs have ‘no presence’ on any social media." Yes, this is well below the percentage of Americans who have 'no presence' on social, which is about 40%.

The average American doesn't have their tweets and status updates scrutinized by the SEC, isn't responsible for hundreds of thousands of jobs, and doesn't spend more in legal fees than they do on cheeseburgers.

My takeaway from this study? Fortune 500 CEO's aren't average people.

But you knew that.