By Joe Pulizzi published January 20, 2016

Content Marketing – It’s Going to Get Weird


In the hit science-fiction movie The Matrix, Neo (The One) is about to enter a virtual simulation of the real world. Morpheus, his teacher and guide, tells Neo before he enters the simulation, “This is going to feel … a little … weird.”

And that’s exactly where we are with content marketing.

In our 2016 Content Marketing Benchmarks, Budgets, and Trends research (conducted in partnership with MarketingProfs), the effectiveness rate for B2B organizations actually went down (from 38 percent in 2015 to 30 percent in 2016). This is not good. And the worst may be yet to come.

During my opening keynote presentation at Content Marketing World in September, I talked about content marketing through the lens of Gartner’s Hype Cycle for Digital Marketing. The Hype Cycle concept is a great way to follow the adoption curve of a disruptive technology, and it’s amazingly accurate.

Five steps to the Hype Cycle


First you have the technology trigger – in the case of content marketing, the trigger was that all companies, regardless of size, could publish on the web. At the same time consumers had unprecedented access to information. No big media company or corporation controlled the flow of information. BANG. Even though content marketing has been around for hundreds of years, the growing popularity of online content created a free flow of information for both the publisher and the consumer.

Then the cycle tilts upward into the peak of inflated expectations. At this stage, content marketing is seen as shiny, amazing, and new. We’ve been in this stage for the past couple years. In some lagging markets, like manufacturing, this is where we are today.

After hitting the big peak, we slide into the trough of disillusionment. It’s the moment when all those who tried the shiny new thing realize it’s not so easy. This is where we are heading now as content marketers.

Sounds ominous, right? Well, maybe not.

Right now you’ll read article after article in other media saying content marketing doesn’t work and we need to consider something else. I see at least one post per week slamming the practice, and even more that say content marketing isn’t really a “thing.” And it makes sense. Lots of companies bought into the hype and started what they thought was content marketing, but either didn’t have a strategy or didn’t execute it well … or both. So they are looking for something else.

The reasons why marketers are disillusioned with content marketing are varied: Companies focus on campaigns instead of ongoing programs, publish content that’s brand-focused rather than audience-focused, or produce content that’s undifferentiated in any way. Goals like “engagement” don’t connect to long-term results, and the lack of audience building in any way shocks and astonishes me.

Here’s what I believe: Now is when we will witness the greatest content marketing failures of all time.

And right now we also will see some of the greatest success stories of our time.

What should you do? While your competitors may slow their content-marketing velocity or kill the plan entirely, those that have a strategy and continue to execute against it will win. We know that over time, with a documented plan, a focus on the needs of the audience, consistency, and a strategy that includes audience building, the approach of content marketing works.

So, things may get a little weird for a while, but those that keep to the plan will emerge successful. I’m hoping that’s you.

This article originally appeared in the December issue of Chief Content Officer. Sign up to receive your free subscription to our bimonthly, print magazine.

Cover image by Joseph Kalinowski/Content Marketing Institute

Author: Joe Pulizzi

Joe Pulizzi considers himself the poster boy for content marketing. Founder of the Content Marketing Institute , Joe evangelizes content marketing around the world through keynotes, articles, tweets and his books, including best-selling Epic Content Marketing (McGraw-Hill) and the new book, Content Inc. Check out Joe's two podcasts. If you want to get on his good side, send him something orange. For more on Joe, check out his personal site or follow him on Twitter @JoePulizzi.

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  • Lynette Young

    Amazing insight, thank you. I have to say, having worked with more than a few companies on their content marketing the majority of them feel that if they throw money at writing it is “content marketing.” I would rather have one writer and three analysts any day to get the job done. The gold is in the stats.

  • Muhammad Saad Khan

    Audience building or as I say community building is the key to any content marketing program’s success.

  • Steve Faber

    Joe, thanks. Newly empowered consumers are thirsty for information, and will find somewhere to get it. Brands can create and control the message, or consumers will find someone else who will. Brands’ big challenge is creating “dual value” content, i.e. content that has value both for them and info thirsty consumers.

    As with many changes, it’s delivering an amazing opportunity to organizations’ collective doorsteps, if they’re willing to take advantage of it. As Muhammed said, an audience building perspective is vital for success here. With ROI-driven marketing departments sometimes unable unable to directly put their finger on ongoing content’s ROI in some arbitrary fiscal time frame, the opportunity sometimes slips away.

    The “How many sales did we make from that blog post” (I really had a Marketing VP say that to me once) mentality creeps in, and with it, an opportunity to become THE resource in their space is lost. As you noted though, it will be back!

  • Greg Strandberg

    Honest post. It shows how pathetic we are.

    38%? That’s a ‘call the parents and invite them to the principle’s office for a chat’ kind of score there.

    At least it’s not as bad as the 3% click-through rate we view as acceptable for email marketing.

    How about the 6.4% click-through rate we think is stellar on Twitter?

    My, we are pathetic, aren’t we?

    I’m glad you’re admitting you have a problem, Joe. You’ll be one of the 2016 success stories because of that.

    Many of your peers will not.

    It won’t be a loss.

    • Jason Miller

      What’s with all the negativity? Referring to all content marketers as pathetic is a bit much.

      • Greg Strandberg

        I’m sorry, but if you don’t think those numbers are pathetic then perhaps you’re part of the problem. I think we all are, in a way. There’s a glut of content. I’m sure when we see some financial turbulence this year, perhaps even war, many companies will reassess their priorities and we’ll see a lot less content.

        That’s my opinion, of course.

        • Jason Miller

          Addressing the problem at hand with such negativity comes across more like a troll than adding any sort of value to the thread. Lighten up.

          • Greg Strandberg

            It’s that lack of negativity, lack of distinctive voice and compelling tone, that’s giving so many people such pathetic results. I’m sorry if it bothers you, but honestly, I don’t really care.

          • Jason Miller

            Nice attitude. Keep it up.

  • Paul

    Hi Joe, excellent observation and content. Coming from an email marketing background I witnessed the exact same thing. In 2004 evangelizing the channel, while in 2008 everybody was knocking on the door to get some tools and advice, and in 2010 email was doomed. But the companies that had a good program in place and stuck to it are some of the big winners of today.

    Best, Paul.

  • Arnie Kuenn

    Totally agree with you. We have been educating our clients on the content marketing slog. Using a very similar graphic. Not only is this happening in the industry as a whole, but almost every individual client goes through the same curve.

    Excitement -> Disillusionment -> (and if they keep at it) Re-Education -> Success


    • Joe Pulizzi

      Rock on! The Re-education part is so important right now.

  • rogercparker

    Thank you for having the courage to share what is, even if it’s temporarily unsettling. With so much hype and empty promises going around, it takes a genuine leader to provide a truly useful perspective. It also sparked useful provocative dialog.

  • Tom Scott

    Hi Joe. A brave and transparent post, but you make the right points. Ultimately any type of marketing (or anything else for that matter) that’s done badly or without the right strategy is destined to fail, or produce below par results. The Australian market (which I’m working in) is still lagging behind with content marketing and strategy, in comparison to the US – and so the positive thing that it’s shininess is still on the rise! Having said that, as a BDM I’m continuously sitting in front of businesses that are telling me they have a strategy and that they are creating content, but when I look at a lot of it I basically cringe. Sometimes it’s because the platform they publish to is structured horrifically, sometime it’s because they don’t measure anything, sometime it’s because it’s all about them etc. etc. Sure it’s my job to educate and I don’t have an issue with that, but please don’t throw your money at a brick wall and hope it sticks!

    I cannot drive the point home hard enough that it’s your audience that matters and how much you understand them! Understanding them at the deepest level possible and giving them the content they actually need, when they actually need it to form part of their purchase process, is the approach that will drive the most profitable action.

    If you don’t work out who they are and what is relevant/resourceful to them first then you may as well go and take a shot in the dark. Following that you need to measure and evolve, measure and evolve, measure and evolve (until infinity).



    • Joe Pulizzi

      Great feedback Tom. Appreciate the detail.

  • kenny marks

    Thanks For The Info!

  • Scott Lum

    Great post, Joe. It is indeed brave but it’s also necessary to take an objective look at the direction we’re headed as marketers. It’s so easy to get caught up in the hype and excitement of being a part of disruptive change. At CMWorld two years ago, I asked the question in one of the sessions, “What if we’re wrong about content marketing?” It all makes sense, but what if we made a pivot toward content marketing and it just didn’t work as well as our old marketing did?
    I found that pushing myself to play devil’s advocate was a good way to shake off the giddy optimism and make me prove it right or wrong. I was part of a team that committed fully to content marketing – killing the campaign mindset and up & down launch cycles. We had some tremendous successes but also some hard learned lessons.
    But I think the weird times will be good for the industry. The learning experiences will make us stronger. We’ll learn to how to put better governance in place, have less trial and error of endless technologies(or maybe not), and customer-centricity will become a culture instead of a buzzword.
    I’m not convinced content marketing will be the end in itself, however. I think it will be one of the foundational pieces to an modern marketing evolution which seems just about right as we hit the Slope of Enlightenment.

    • Joe Pulizzi

      Love this Scott…really appreciate the perspective. Looking forward to seeing you at Content Marketing World this year.

  • Mark Miller

    Awesome thoughts Joe! As you say, things could very well get…interesting in the near future. I think firms who have been committed to content marketing with a cohesive strategy and meaningful investment into talented marketers will make it through just fine, but we’re likely to see a lot of orgs who have halfheartedly bandwagoned onto the trend struggling to find success.

    • Joe Pulizzi

      Agreed Mark. Thanks for pitching in.

  • Adam Garcia

    Joel, you state in the article, “We know that over time, with a documented plan, a focus on the needs of the audience, consistency, and a strategy that includes audience building, the approach of content marketing works.” My question focuses on audience building. What techniques, other than through email lists & social media, would be best for audience building, specifically within the articles?

    • Joe Pulizzi

      Thanks Adam…email subscription is key. Then working on other social followings to convert into an owned program works. That means having a content destination is critical. Once you have a content destination/platform, you can diversify into different areas (i.e., podcast, event, etc.)

  • christidman

    Successful musicians now don’t need promoters because they can do it themselves. They have a segment of the market that falls in love with them and they sell their product directly from the factory gate. This is becoming the norm as a greater percentage of the population becomes accustomed to purchasing online. Whatever you are selling when you entered the Internet suddenly became easier to sell because your customer base increased dramatically. More customers meant more sales. However, as the industry matures, more of your competitors are now doing what you are doing, and since the customer base is increasing at a slower rate than the number of competitors, your sales volume falls off. This is a natural industry growth curve. When demand for pizzas went up and there were few pizza parlours it was an easy business in which you could make lots of money, but as the number of pizza parlours increased The profit margins collapsed. In the world of the Internet this transition has been very fast from its ‘incubation’ where everything is being invented to ‘cash cow’ where it is easy to succeed following the leaders, to the ‘mature’ industry where everyone is selling something to everyone else. That is where we are headed, and the middlemen who sold other people’s stuff are becoming redundant. Everyone is his own brand. Everyone is selling something and your success depends on the number of people who like you.

  • Andrea Edwards

    Thanks so much Joe. It’s such a spot on post and an issue I’ve seen growing in Asia for some time. I’m also seeing the “content marketing is dead” posts too – sigh. I jumped on one the other day because the definition of content marketing was all around brand ambassadors and I’m like what? That’s not content marketing! Anyhoo I just wanted you to know that I really appreciate you writing this, because anyone else tackling the subject would’ve looked defensive or protective, but you don’t. It’s definitely what the market needed to hear right now and you’re right – there will be big losers and big winners this year. It’s going to be an interesting time that’s for sure! Hang on for the ride xxxxx

    • Joe Pulizzi

      Thanks Andrea…keep fighting the good fight.

  • Josh Steimle

    As noted with manufacturing, it’s interesting to me to watch how different industries, geographies, and client types are in different places along path. I’m based in Hong Kong and it seems most companies here, whether Fortune 500 or startups, are still climbing the peak of inflated expectations. At my agency we hear a lot of “We’re thinking of starting a blog,” or “Tell me more about these infographic thingies,” or “What’s Slideshare?” Many of those companies that are using content marketing are stuck in campaign mode rather than making content marketing an ongoing program. And it’s not just Hong Kong, it’s everywhere in Asia.

    Not that the entire region is ignorant of content marketing, but I’d be surprised if more than 5% of companies here have any sort of legit content marketing program going on, or even know what it is. 5% is still a lot of companies in real numbers, but there is still massive opportunity for the majority to take advantage of this tool. And in fairness, I’m not sure the U.S. or any other market is that far ahead. Despite stats like these, I think there are many more companies than we realize who aren’t even scaling that peak of inflated expectations when it comes to content marketing–they’re still waking up to the 20-year old “bang” of that technology trigger.

    The point I’m trying to make is EVERYONE is at a different point along this cycle. When it comes to pitching content marketing to a client, boss, industry, etc. we marketers need to figure out where the individual(s) we’re talking to are on the path, and customize our pitches appropriately.

    Thanks Joe, great stuff!

    • Joe Pulizzi

      Thanks for the great comment Josh!

  • eBrand . Buzz Inc

    Being new to the content marketing world, this is very refreshing! I appreciate the heads-up in hanging in there and being sure to consistently work the program; having and working a documented, audience building strategy.