By Neil Patel published February 9, 2016

Here’s Why Your Content Marketing Strategy is Totally Failing

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I talk with a lot of people who are frustrated with the fact that their content marketing strategy doesn’t seem to be working.

In fact, in some cases, their entire content strategy seems to be an abject failure.

Why is this the case? If content marketing is such an important marketing method, has proven success, and is used by nearly 90% of businesses, then why do so many businesses feel like their strategy is useless and ineffective?

There are some common trends that characterize many of these “failed” content marketing strategies. In most cases, the strategies haven’t “failed” at all. The “strategy,” whatever that is, wasn’t clear enough to guide the business to achieve its goals.

Instead, what the strategy needs is a hard reset and some new programming. That new programming comes in the form of SMART goals.

Why I’m concerned about ‘strategy’

Content marketing is something that everyone is doing, but not many people are very confident about it. You may have read CMI’s industry survey, which explained that only 9% of B2B marketers think their organization’s use of content marketing is “very effective.” That leaves the vast majority of the industry in a situation where they are not totally confident about their efforts.

This is a problem. If content marketing is the wonder technique that we think it is, shouldn’t we have a bit more confidence in it?

The core of the problem seems to be with strategy. The proof is in the data.

What we’re facing is an industry in which “strategy” – whatever that is – is either not working or nonexistent. Why? Because there isn’t a strategy at all.

This is an issue that I covered in depth in my Kissmetrics article, 10 Common Reasons Why Content Marketing Isn’t Working for You. The issue to notice here is that there’s actually no strategy. None.

If this is the case, then it’s no wonder your content marketing strategy is failing. You don’t have one. The problem is more common than you might think.

Here is the critical data from CMI’s survey:

CMI-Survey-B2C-Marketers-Marketin-Strategy

The percentage of B2C marketers who have a documented content marketing strategy is 27%. You might get hopeful, because 50% of marketers have a strategy. (It’s not written down, that’s all.)

That’s a huge problem. If it’s not written down, then it probably doesn’t really exist. Sure, it exists in people’s minds, but how clear is that? How can a strategy that exists in people’s minds guide an organization’s cohesive efforts?

Content marketing is a method that takes a team to carry forward. If the organization’s individuals are holding some nebulous strategy in their minds, that’s not really a strategy at all. That’s just some thoughts on content marketing.

I’m also concerned about this statistic: Only one-third follow their documented strategy “very” closely, with 57% following it “somewhat” closely. Why document your content marketing strategy if it’s not valuable enough to follow closely?

The problem seems to lie with the word “strategy.”

“Strategy” is a fuzzy word. Frank Cespedes wrote in the Harvard Business Review:

Ironically, after years of books, articles, and MBA programs dedicated to strategic thinking, that’s the danger with how strategy is used in business meetings. It’s too often a way of sounding smart or leader-like and used to avoid necessary choices.

People conflate business strategy with the aggregation of tactical plans … Studies show that a big problem with strategic planning processes is that the resulting ‘strategy’ is a bland compilation of capital budgets that, in turn, are a compilation (not integration) of separate functional initiatives.

OK, so most businesses don’t have a strategy – let alone a good one. Now, we need to talk about what “strategy” is. The HBR article explains it this way:

So, what is strategy? It’s fundamentally the movement of an organization from its present position to a desirable but inherently uncertain future position. The path from here to there is both analytical (a series of linked hypotheses about objectives in a market, where we do and don’t play among our opportunity spaces, and what this means for the customer value proposition, sales tasks, and other activities) and behavioral (the ongoing coordinated efforts of people who work in different functions but must align for effective strategy execution). And the trail always begins with customers.

That’s basically a complicated way of saying that we need to have goals.

Goals.

I would argue that “strategy” should really mean “goals.”

“Strategy” sounds smart and sexy, but how different is it from goals? Goals are a much clearer way to look at the issue of strategy. I suggest that we stop trying to come up with an innovative “strategy,” and instead focus on goals.

Use SMART goals for content marketing

The kind of goal-setting that I suggest is a simple tried-and-true technique called SMART goals. Here’s the basic overview:

SMART-goals

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SMART goals are a way to help businesses and individuals develop their goals. Many goals are fuzzy desires. SMART goals have a clear method of progress, and real numbers that demonstrate whether that progress is happening.

If businesses would forget about “strategy,” and instead pick real goals, I think that content marketing would explode in effectiveness. It’s easy to toss out recommendations like “make SMART goals!” What I want to do is explain exactly what SMART goal-setting looks like in the field of content marketing.

The ways that I see companies lose their strategy can be tied back to shortcomings in the SMART goal-setting process.

This article’s outline follows the SMART goal framework, applying each one to a goal-setting problem that focuses on content marketing:

  1. Specific: You haven’t defined the precise content tactics you will use.
  2. Measurable: You aren’t measuring your ROI.
  3. Attainable: You don’t have a clear perspective on the eventual outcome.
  4. Relevant: Your content marketing strategy doesn’t actually target the business’ goals.
  5. Time-bound: You don’t know when you’ve succeeded.

Reorienting your content marketing strategy around these five guidelines will revolutionize the way you approach marketing. Let’s discuss each one.

Specific: You haven’t defined the precise content tactics you will use.

Content marketing alone is not a tactic. It includes all kinds of tactics. There are a ton. Here’s a sample:

  • Infographics
  • Lists
  • Videos
  • Webinars
  • How-tos
  • Polls
  • Case studies
  • Guides
  • PDF downloads
  • Reviews
  • Interviews
  • Podcasts
  • Tutorials
  • White papers
  • Research

Different types of content will have differing results. Some types of content will cost more than others.

Types-of-content

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You have to choose which types of content you will produce and promote. Most organizations choose multiple types of content marketing tactics. That’s entirely appropriate.

Companies do so because different types of content affect the customer in different ways. Depending on where the customer is in the purchase cycle, certain forms of content can help nudge them further down the funnel.

Content-marketing-strategy-to-support

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TIP: Don’t assume that blogging is the right tactic. Not every business needs a blog. There are dozens of content varieties and for your specific business some of these may be more effective than a blog.

You should, as the image below points out, “diversify content types.”

Diversify-content-types

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Be careful, though. You don’t want to diversify to the point of dilution. Often, a single and focused tactic works better than a dozen tactics that are poorly executed.

At the very least, pick one or two content tactics to dominate, and then go and do it.

Measurable: You aren’t measuring your ROI.

Measuring the ROI of content marketing is one of the most common frustrations among marketers. It is sometimes hard to do, especially if you don’t have a clear strategy. I’ve found that companies that have a strategy are very effective at tracking their ROI. The two go hand-in-hand. If you have measurable goals (a strategy), then you are usually measuring the return on investment.

Measuring the ROI of #contentmarketing is hard to do if you don’t have a clear strategy says @neilpatel Click To Tweet

The question is how do you measure the return on investment?

The frustrating answer is, there’s no one way. But there are definitely ways to do it. You have to choose the method that works best for your organization.

If your business uses AdWords, then you might want to try the technique used by David Meerman Scott, which includes measuring your ROI based on AdWords equivalency. (You can read the great explanation in this CMI article.) Scott Severson implemented this ROI measurement, and it helped his clients not just gain traction, but prove it. He tracked specific keyword data.

Measuring-ROI-based-on-AdWords-Equivalency

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And measured those improvements in dollar amounts based on SEO-click value.

Measurment-dollars-based-SEO-click-value

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There are alternative methods of measuring ROI. You simply need to choose a method that works, and stick with it.

Attainable: You don’t have a clear perspective on the eventual outcome.

What’s the goal of content marketing? This is an easy question with an easy answer – to gain more customers.

But there are several nuances to the issue that make it slightly more complicated. For one, many marketers get so caught up in the daily tasks of producing content that they lose sight of this outcome. Instead, they simply are producing more content, more content, more content, and don’t stop to realize that more content isn’t going to get them anywhere unless that content is directly tied to an attainable goal.

The attainable goal isn’t just more clients. A true attainable goal should be more specific. Joe Pulizzi recommends these possibilities:

  • Brand awareness or reinforcement – This is a strong goal for businesses that may not sell a product online.
  • Lead conversion and nurturing – The types of leads vary according to business, but this is a common goal.
  • Customer conversion – Many e-commerce sites simply want their content marketing strategy to drive up actual purchases.
  • Customer loyalty/retention – An advanced method of content marketing is the retention strategy – keeping the customer post-sale.
  • Customer up-sell – The more that a customer interacts beyond the initial sale, the better. Content marketing can help him or her do that.

Keep in mind that a real strategy – one that is built on SMART goals – has an attainable outcome. To make that outcome as attainable as possible, you need to focus it as best as possible on metrics that matter.

Relevant: Your content marketing strategy doesn’t actually target the business’ goals.

Content marketing is such a widespread marketing method that many organizations simply do it without taking the time to integrate it with company-wide goals. Often, a business’ marketing department has a different mindset than the remainder of the company.

If content marketing is to be effective, it must be tied to overall business goals. On occasion, I’ve seen businesses that were, for example, in the business of selling SaaS. Their marketing department, however, was in the business of promoting webinars.

If #contentmarketing is to be effective, it must be tied to overall business goals says @neilpatel Click To Tweet

Is that a good approach? Sure it is. Webinars are a powerful way to drive traffic, build thought leadership, expand influence, and produce all kinds of wonderful results. I’ve been using webinars a lot recently, and providing value to many people.

What’s the problem? The problem arises when the webinar goal and the business goal are separated at the core. If those webinars aren’t designed to improve the sale of SaaS, then they are a waste of time and money.

For those webinars to possess explosive power, they should contain calls to action that drive attendees to sign up for the SaaS.

Content marketing is a funnel. The skinny end of the funnel should be the company’s business goal.

Content-marketing-funnel

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There could be content marketing tied to marketing activities after the sale, too.

Content-marketing-after-sale

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Every content marketing funnel is going to be different, depending on the business. Once you create your marketing funnel, make sure that your content marketing strategy aligns perfectly.

Time-bound: You don’t know when you’ve succeeded.

Does content marketing ever end? Unless we do away with contemporary marketing channels, I doubt it. Content is a way of serving customers, and customer service is a never-ending process.

Some argue that content marketing isn’t a sustainable strategy. Their argument stems, in part, from the fact that there is simply so much content being produced and proportionately less content being consumed by the target audiences.

Content-shock

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If content marketing is going to continue into the foreseeable future, we need to know when we’ve reached our goals. A goal isn’t a real goal unless it has a logical endpoint. Goals are allowed to evolve, but they aren’t allowed to continue indefinitely. As content marketers, we can continually set the bar higher, but we ought not to allow the endless pursuit of a somewhere, somehow, someday endpoint.

As you crystallize your content marketing goals, make sure that each goal has a point at which you know for sure if you’ve finished or not.

If your goals are too vague, you’ll keep spinning your strategic wheels, hoping for a conclusion, but never seeing one.

Conclusion

The explosive growth of content marketing is one of the best things to happen to the marketing world. At the same time, we’re still in the early stages of defining, understanding, and making sense of its digital application.

If you feel like your strategy is messed up, you’re probably not alone. A lot of other businesses are enduring the same challenge.

If you replace the vague idea of “strategy” with some crystal-clear goals, you’ll see your content marketing advance. SMART goals are powerful, unstoppable, and ready to push your marketing efforts to new heights of success.

What challenges have you faced with your content marketing strategy?

Want some help in creating a solid content marketing strategy? Download the 16-page CMI guide with 36 questions to answer.

Cover image by Joseph Kalinowski/Content Marketing Institute

Author: Neil Patel

Neil Patel is the co-founder of Crazy Egg, Hello Bar, and KISSmetrics. He helps companies like Amazon, NBC, GM, HP and Viacom grow their revenue. The Wall Street Journal calls him a top influencer on the web, and Entrepreneur Magazine says he has created one of the 100 most brilliant companies in the world. You can connect with him on Twitter @neilpatel.

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  • http://memocup.com/ Deepak Memo

    Nice post Neil, Strategy is a mode that drive you to your goals in a way so that you can quantify it and in presentable way. Any strategy goes with a lot of initial brainstorming and refinement processes because it is necessary to understand which one is working for you and then keep your strategy refined to get to your goals.

    The word goal here goes like sprint which are small iterations and can be quantified. every small goal can give you factor of improvement in strategies so that next goal can be achieved.

    Small quantified goals can have boundaries but when it comes to broad goal for any organization then I think it is infinite and never ending process. Always your next goal define its own boundaries based on previous achievements. truly said that your strategy should be aligned with organization goal.

    Thanks for sharing this post. Getting very nice info :)

    • http://neilpatel.com Neil Patel

      Deepak, definitely. I like incremental goals because they allow you to switch things up on a dime.

  • http://shockleymarketing.com/ Ricky Shockley

    Definitely agree that goals and measurement are crucial, but I think this article completely misses the point when it comes to a “documented content marketing strategy.”

    A documented content marketing strategy ensures that your content is differentiated, fills a specific need and is viable in the market as a media property. Without answering those key questions and finding your content niche, you’ll have very little chance of achieving any goals or building any sort of audience/following!

    • http://neilpatel.com Neil Patel

      Ricky, having solid benchmarks is vital — I always test and test again to see how I can improve.

  • Noel Wurst_Skytap Social

    This is solid stuff, Neil! I think another challenge around content marketing – and one I’m writing a piece about right now – is the challenge of (or possibly the inability to) document/measure/metricize the complete cultural shift that content marketing requires being included in that “process.” I’m always so disappointed to see it left out of an organization’s playbook!

    • http://neilpatel.com Neil Patel

      I agree — I think a lot of failure is due to lack of testing. You really need to test things out to see what works and iterate from there.

  • http://neilpatel.com Neil Patel

    Sounds like you are on top of things. As with any business strategy you really have to plan and prioritize when it comes to content. It’s not something you can just delegate and hope to see work.

  • Mike Myers

    Neil: I completely agree that brands today struggle with how to document a content marketing strategy, which research has consistently shown. But I respectfully disagree (a whole lot) with your assertion that strategy = goals.

    A strategy is a plan designed to reach a goal, so it can’t be the goal itself.

    For example, if my goal were to travel from Ohio to California (where it’s nice and warm), I could employ a number of different strategies to get there, some more effective than others:

    If I flew in an airplane, I would get there fast but it would be somewhat expensive.
    If I drove a car, it would cost less but may take several more days.
    If I simply set out for California on foot, I may not make it at all.

    All of these are strategies designed to reach my goal of getting to California. But the trick with strategic thinking/planning is to choose.

    Simply identifying the goal (I want to go to California) will never get me there, I have to create a plan — a strategy — to help me reach that goal.

  • http://www.solohacks.com/ Dylan

    Great insight Vee, thanks for sharing.

    It’s surprising how many marketing leaders have no clear strategy, there is definitely a lack of rigour compared to more established methodologies and practices for example in enterprise architecture and business transformation for example.

  • Lisa Mayer

    Reminder about SMART goals is great but still need to go one step back – how can yo set goals if you don’t know what your key messages should be – that’s the part of strategy I think most people don’t plan for – if you want to be an industry leader you have to know what it is you stand for

  • Sachin

    Thanks for some tips and suggestions Neil. Really looking forward to apply changes with hiring new writer for our site. Hope it will help.

  • http://www.edtroxellcreative.com/ Ed Troxell

    Wow! Amazing article with so much great content! Thank you! I really love the visuals here as they really make an impact.

  • http://marketingwitfred.com/ FREDDIE ROSS

    Hey Neil, I agree that sometime we have to give ourselves a hard reset of new programming and create smarter goals great post.