By Robert Rose published April 17, 2013

How to Survive the Disillusionment of Content Marketing

train tracks-content marketingA few days ago, Joe Pulizzi wrote a post, 4 Truths About Content Marketing Agencies. There, he outlined some of the agency trends and best practices that we at CMI have observed as the ideas around content marketing become more widespread — and as more companies join the “gold rush” of helping brands produce this content.

As with most new approaches (think social media, or cloud services, or “big data”), we have seen clearly thought-out practices being evangelized right alongside the short-sighted strategies of trend-obsessed hangers-on. 

Naturally, this is resulting in ample frustration in our industry. You can see it in the conversations that are happening — the hype-posts; the content-marketing-is-overhyped counterpoint posts; the complete backlash posts; the sighing-in-disappointment posts — everywhere the trend is clear: Content marketing is now staring down a “Valley of Disillusionment.”

Send in the hype (too late — it’s already here)

If you’re not familiar with Gartner’s Hype Cycle, it’s basically a method of looking at the adoption of innovation.

First, there is a “Technology Trigger” — a breakthrough that provides early conceptual stories and gets significant coverage. I think we can all agree that we’ve heard enough about the Amex Open Network, BlendTec, and Red Bull efforts to recognize this trigger in action.

Then, there is the “Peak of Inflated Expectations.” Early success from innovative risk-takers is celebrated, and failures are disregarded as coming from those that aren’t “truly understanding the innovation.” The innovation then becomes “the new black,” where everybody’s doing it, but nobody is getting any results. Our latest 2013 Research found this in spades.

I believe we’re past this point, and are now entering “The Trough of Disillusionment.”

The Trough of Disillusionment is where the backlash begins, the “gold rush” and diffusion of the solution reaches its peak, and practitioners are left to succeed or fail.

But it’s also here that the real progress begins. As more cases start to really succeed, the innovation then ascends into the “Slope of Enlightenment,” where it becomes more widely understood and second- and third-generation “solutions” start to get deployed. The cycle eventually culminates at the “Plateau of Productivity,” where mainstream adoption really starts to take off.

So, as those who passionately believe that “content” is a truly worthy innovation, how do we help to move it forward?

Stop painting over the agency sign (even if we are one)

I recently wrote a post that asked the question, When Did Marketing Become IT? In it, I observed that — whether self-inflicted or based on the fact that the C-Suite doesn’t grok marketing (a sentiment I hear far too often, frankly) — the phrase, “we’re an internal agency” is just nuts.

In many businesses (especially in B2B), the marketing department is an order-taking, tactical function that runs on the hamster-wheel of demand generation, trying to keep up with “client” orders for new collateral, press releases, case studies and, at times, marketing-qualified leads (MQL’s). And when that structure proves unproductive, the business simply moves people in and out, puts a new person in charge of the “agency,” and expects different results.

The same holds true on the agency side. Every one of the types of agencies that Joe listed in his post are going through some kind of business model disruption. But, many are reacting by merely putting a new kind of buzz-flavored coating on the old model. Not surprisingly, it’s not working.

In its most recent annual report on the state of marketing, the CMO Council found that only 12 percent of respondents view their agency partners as “extremely valuable.” And nearly half (47 percent) characterized their agencies as being average, underperforming, or not producing at all. Gack!

Wow, what a set of downers, right? Content marketing is in a state of disillusionment, the C-Suite has no faith in marketing’s ability to deliver, and marketers have no faith in their agencies. So how can we even hope to get content marketing into the mix?

Disrupt, or be disrupted

Today’s successful business strategy (whether you’re an agency or a brand) is about how quickly and efficiently you can adapt to conditions in your market. Look no further than an article that ran last week in Ad Age: Pepsi, thirsty for change, is now experimenting with new agency models at Omnicom — where teams are curated across business units and are then assembled (practically in real time) to manage a particular campaign. It’s evidence of both sides being willing to adapt in their efforts to improve results.

Content marketing is an approach; a marketing practice that is infused into everything else we may do as marketers. This is vitally important to understand, because it is the practice of marketing, on the whole, that is in the process of evolving, and content marketing is but one approach that factors into the entirety of this fundamental change.

Yet, I passionately believe that great content is at the heart of this broader shift. So, ultimately, it doesn’t matter whether a given strategy specifically resides in marketing’s domain or not (though I believe it should). Giving content a strategic seat at the business strategy table can be a unifying force internally — and a differentiating force externally. If your agency (internally or externally) is the agent of that change, you are setting yourself apart. In other words, you win.

So, what does that mean?

It means that, regardless of whether we consider ourselves a content marketing agency or an internal marketing department, deploying a successful content marketing effort for “clients” includes a few requisite points of view:

  • It starts with our ability to create a plan to infuse the approach and the practices of content marketing into the changing culture of the organization. It gives content a central and strategic seat at the table. As Joe says in his recent post, “Be wary of a campaign or program. There is one thing that’s certain with any campaign: It has an end date. Not so with successful content marketing.”
  • Content strategy is different than content marketing — and here I mean content strategy more broadly, not just content marketing planning. The required skills for content strategy and content marketing are very different from one another, and a great content strategist is worth his/her weight in gold. Whether you’re an agency or an internal team, knowing this (and staffing for it) is critical.
  • The process must be infused into both our new and traditional methods. The approach of content marketing benefits from paid media, and it is amplified by earned media (and vice versa).

At CMI, our goal is nothing short of advancing the practice of content marketing. We want to make the Trough of Disillusionment as shallow and short as possible. We want to set every agency, brand, and practitioner on the path to “enlightenment,” destined to reach the Plateau of Productivity.

To that end, if you work at an agency that is interested in building its content marketing practice — and you’re planning to head to Cleveland for Content Marketing World — I hope you’ll join me, the incomparable Jay Baer, and the multitalented Paul Roetzer for a pre-conference workshop called, Building/Growing Your Content Agency/Consultancy.

Every day, I get more and more excited about the opportunities that abound in this field. And I’m actually happy we’ve reached the place where we are right now — it’s an exciting position to be in, and it’s where the real progress starts to take shape. It reminds me of a quote by Gandhi: “First they ignore you, then they ridicule you, then they fight you, then you win.”

Let’s go play.

Author: Robert Rose

Robert Rose is the Founder and Chief Strategy Officer of The Content Advisory - the education and advisory group of The Content Marketing Institute. As a strategist, Robert has worked with more than 500 companies including global brands such as Capital One, Dell, Ernst & Young, Hewlett Packard, and The Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation. Robert is the author of three books. His latest, Killing Marketing, with co-author Joe Pulizzi has just been released. His last book, Experiences: The 7th Era of Marketing, was called a “treatise, and a call to arms for marketers to lead business innovation in the 21st century.” You can hear Robert on his weekly podcast with co-host Joe Pulizzi, "This Old Marketing”. Robert is also an early-stage investor and advisor to a number of technology startups, serving on the advisory boards for a number of companies, such as Akoonu, DivvyHQ and Tint. Follow him on Twitter @Robert_Rose.

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  • dougkessler

    Excellent post, as always Robert.
    I’m definitely feeling the market passing that peak-of-the-roller-coaster moment tat signals the Trough of Disillusionment.

    The encouraging thing to remember with the Gartner Hype Cycle is that the Plateau of Productivity keeps sloping up and up as the real value of the emerging discipline beds down.

    The hype may be exagerrated but so is the trough.

    • Robert Rose

      Thank you sir… That means a lot coming from you. And, yes, totally agree…

  • Anne Miles

    I particularly like the insight that replacing the people (when the marketing is thought to be failing) is not always the solution. Nothing fails faster in a business than good marketing around the wrong positioning or wrong products.

  • ContentCollaborative

    As a case study I am very interested in the approach Canon is taking Although I’m not involved, I am eager to see the model they are adopting to produce high end content with the end goal being participation. From an outsiders viewpoint it looks like they are taking a round table approach to their suppliers. Thoughts?

  • Scott Abel

    Hey, I’ll be there, too! And, I can’t wait to share some exciting lessons learned — and help push us toward reality. Thanks for the great post, Rob.

  • Craig Coffey

    Hey! I resemble that remark! As we’ve discussed, as the lead of an “internal agency” I use that term not in the sense that we work FOR the “internal client” but to point out to my team that it is our responsibility to stay on top of the latest technology, execute creatively and otherwise bring value to the relationship, rather than get complacent because our “clients” have no alternatives but to work with us. Part of that is setting a degree of customer service expectation within the relationship. The goal is that by delivering real value, we become a trusted partner, not replaceable, task oriented doers. You earn respect by delivering results, and that gets you a seat at the big kids table.

    See you in CLE at CMW!

  • John Coonen – #CMSX

    Reality checks are healthy. Thanks Robert.

  • Russell Sparkman

    Thanks Robert (and Joe) for this recent dialog.

    As a content marketing agency, we’ve had our share of clients that “get it,” and get it done, and experience positive results. We’ve also had our share that have given up, even after experiencing positive outcomes. Go figure.

    All I can say is that in today’s “costumer-in-control, fractured audience, everybody’s a publisher, multi platform, multichannel world,” if someone can show me a viable option to the content-centric best practices of Content Marketing, I’m all in …

    But I don’t think the alternative is out there. If anyone reading this can explain what the alternatives are, I’m personally all ears!

    But, I honestly believe there is no other choice … if “Content Marketing” were to disappear, what would fill its place?

    So, I think that there are enough case studies out there now where, in any particular vertical, one business is outperforming its competitors because it has the better content.

    The competitive imperative, if nothing else, is going to pull people out of the Trough of Disillusionment when they see they’re getting their butts kicked by a competitor who’s acquiring or stealing market share by outperforming them by providing the most relevant, engaging, useful content.

  • Barbara Behan

    The disillusionment trough reminds me of Seth Godin’s The Dip. He sees it as an opportunity rather than–or as well as–a depressing challenge.