By Bruce McDuffee published March 2, 2014

The One Mistake Standing Between You and Successful Content Marketing

gauge-bs detectorSurveys (including those in CMI’s Benchmarks, Budgets and Trends yearly series) generally agree that approximately 90 percent of marketers are using content marketing in one form or another. Surveys also generally agree that only about 40 percent feel their content marketing efforts are effective — and only about 10 percent of marketers feel their content marketing efforts are very effective. There must be a lot of frustrated marketers out there when it comes to using content marketing strategies to grow revenue.

Although there may be many reasons for ineffective content marketing, I contend that there is one mistake that practitioners make that keeps them from producing successful content marketing. In fact, it’s one I think we all make at some point in our content marketing journey — and one that some marketers continue to make year after year. 

The good news is, it’s easy to fix. Fix this one mistake and you, too, will become a member of the exclusive “very effective” group of content marketers.

The mistake? The only topic your content talks about is you — your company, your products, or your services.

Don’t get me wrong, I’m not saying that you should never create content about your business or its offerings. You need product-specific content for those prospective customers in the latter 30 percent of their buying process (or lower funnel, if you prefer). Spec sheets, application notes, case studies, and testimonials play an important role in the latter stages of the buying decision process. Most firms already have plenty of this type of content, and use it wisely.

But leading your outbound marketing efforts with these types of product-based content is old-school marketing, and it’s no longer very effective at generating demand and revenue growth. Why? Because when you lead with self-promotional content, you’re talking about something that matters to you alone — not what matters to the people in your target audience. Product-based content misses the target during the first 70 percent of the buying process! 

Are you guilty?

If your top-funnel content includes a lot of first-person pronouns, like “we,” “ours,” “us,” “I,” and “me,” chances are very high that you are making this mistake. On the flip-side, if your content marketing is not effective, chances are the majority of your content talks about your products, services, or the firm.

In order to grow revenue and gain market share, you must get the attention of and engage with members of your target audience during the early stages of their decision-making process (i.e., 70 percent of the purchase funnel). To gain their attention and engage with them, your content must be focused on them — their pains, their needs, their interests, and their challenges. 

Here are some typical examples that indicate “The Mistake” is being made in your organization:

  • You’ve built your content strategy around convincing your target audience that your specific product is the best one on the market.
  • You write a “How to Choose” guide that cleverly suggests your product is the best solution.
  • You conduct a webinar that focuses on highlighting the attributes of your product or firm.
  • You write an application note detailing how to use your product in that context. 

Our built-in male bovine fecal matter detector (MBFM)

As business buyers, or even as individual buyers, we all have a highly sensitive MBFM (aka BS) detector built into our purchasing brains. Bait-and-switch is one such tactic that generally causes these meters to max out. When the meter goes into the red, we tend to assign negative marks to the companies that triggered the meter, so there’s little benefit in trying to fool the meter with tactics like masquerading product promotion as helpful education.

Other examples of MBFM triggering content:

  • As a prospective buyer, if I am promised an educational webinar and instead get a product promotion, my MBFM meter goes crazy.
  • When I’m promised a document that will help me choose the right product for my situation, and the recommendation turns out to be for the product manufactured by the company that produced the document, my MBFM meter red-lines right away.

When this type of masquerading content triggers my BS meter, that firm gets a negative mark in my memory. Good experiences correlate with higher growth rates and bad experiences correlate with lower growth rates.

How do I know this is the No. 1 mistake? Granted, my evidence is not based on statistically significant data, but it is based on abundant anecdotal evidence.

Ninety percent of the B2B marketers I talk to about content marketing get excited about it. That’s a great thing! However, when questioned further, they almost always tell me about this piece of content or that piece of content they’ve designed to convince customers to buy their company’s product. Again, this type of content is great for latter stages, but it fails as content for the all-important early buying stage.

Furthermore, if we consider some stats from the 2014 CMI Benchmark report, the fact that 82 percent place “Brand Awareness” as the top goal screams “It’s about me, myself, and I.” Perhaps the number one goal of our content marketing should be to help make the people in our target audience be better at their business goals.

Easy fixes for the problem

If you think your company and its marketing team is making this critical mistake, try these action items to immediately improve the success of your content marketing:

  1. Stop pitching your products.
  2. Stop trying to be clever by masquerading a product promotion as a helpful piece of content.
  3. Start giving away your expertise in the form of free education or interesting information — without promoting your product.
  4. Start making a clear distinction between content that is meant to clearly define your offering and content that is meant to engage your audience by providing them with useful education or entertainment

If you are willing and able to make these changes and carry out content marketing as described here, I can virtually guarantee you, too, will soon be responding to the next CMI survey that your content efforts fit the “Very Effective” category.

For more great ideas, insights, and examples for advancing your content marketing, read Epic Content Marketing, by Joe Pulizzi.

Author: Bruce McDuffee

Bruce McDuffee helps manufacturing companies significantly increase organic growth by teaching them how to engage with a much larger portion of the target audience through education and sharing their expert knowledge. At his company, Knowledge Marketing for Industry (KMI), he is fond of saying “Knowledge marketing sails where product marketing fails.” Check out his most popular SlideShare presentation, The Manufacturer’s Growth Manifesto and follow him on Twitter @BruceMcDuffee Bruce is happy to entertain more discussion via email or phone conversations (see his LinkedIn profile for contact information).

Other posts by Bruce McDuffee

  • William J. Holland

    You hit it out of the stadium with this piece. Am I the only one who sees WHY? With digital domesticated technology, we’ve left the anagogic terminus shaped from center-margin based civilizations. The abstract lines of engagement that animate the cognitive requirements of any digital interface can only be “seen” when one’ development was informed from analogue sources. Now it’s the whole that matters not parts in relation. Demonstrating this felt integrity requires that marketing embody early participation. The key is to develop and solicit participatory involvement.

    Absolutely brilliant!

  • Gary

    Interesting article Bruce. Where did the 70% figure come from with regard to the purchase funnel? Is that from a research study? Also, can you give more specific examples of what you see as types of content that do a good job of addressing the early-stage of the buying process. What I struggle with is figuring out how to make the content non-product-specific, yet relevant to our company’s industry and product categories.

    • Bruce McDuffee

      Thanks for the question and comment Gary. The 70% figure is most commonly quoted from the Sirius Decisions research that buyers (almost all buyers of a considered purchase) will not reach out to the vendor directly until they are 70% through the purchase cycle. I equate this to top of the funnel, thus the 70% figure. My experience is that the best type of content to engage early stage buying is educational content. Not educating them about your product or offering, but educating them about some issue that they face where your expertise (not product) can help. For example, I was a marketing director for a company that manufactured humidity measurement instruments. I put together a highly effective early buying process engagement campaign where we educated them about how to make a better measurement and what environmental factors affected the measurement. Nothing about our particular product was touched. It was highly successful.

      Call me or email me directly and I’d be glad to brainstorm with you about your particular industry and products.

      – Bruce

      • Gary

        Thanks for your reply Bruce. I’d like you to please be a little more specific with your example, because this is where I need clarity. You say you put together a campaign where you educated about how to make a better measurement. I am assuming that in this you focus on how to make better measurements with instruments of the type you sell (without mentioning your specific product). So is that the trick? Just describe how your product category (not your product) solves problems? If so, won’t the prospect see through this as just a sly way of promoting your product?

        Or is my assumption wrong and there is some other way you educated about how to make better measurements without describing what measurement instruments can do?

        • Bruce McDuffee

          Not exactly Gary. In the humidity seminars, I would teach them about the factors that affect several types of humidity measurement technology. We would also teach about things like calibration, uncertainty, and pros and cons of all technology able to measure humidity. We did cover the specific technology what my company used, but not any more than the other technologies.

          That being said, you don’t need to be sly or clever, but you need to be very blatant about what company is providing the seminar and what that company has to offer in the way of products or services. It’s not a secret about why you would educate your target audience. They know you eventually want to sell them something. What they don’t like is if you do try to be sly or clever.

          We always had the sales people at the seminar and a small display of our products in the back of the room. People were always happy to chat about the products with the sales people. Some others just wanted the information at the seminar. Heck, we would even let competitors in the room if they wanted to learn more about how to measure humidity.

          Educational marketing is powerful, but you are right to ask these questions. If you like, send me an email at I’d be glad set up a time to chat with you more offline over the phone.

          Also, check out this SlideShare I put together, it touches on the same idea about why this type of marketing works so well.

          – Bruce

  • Walter Tyo

    Reminds me of my favorite piece of guidance – “It’s not just about the customer, it’s ONLY about the customer.”
    Rather than think of yourself as their partner or friend, maintain your understanding that you are hired help – That will keep you focused on trying to add value on an ongoing basis, which in theory is why you are in an engagement.
    Might seem a bit hard and cold, but so is having your contract terminated for cause. What you did yesterday relates to this analogy – “Memories fade, but ink doesn’t.”. Document your success and don’t rest on what you did in the past.

    • Bruce McDuffee

      Thanks for the comment Walter. If we’re all honest with ourselves, we realize that our customers don’t care about our company or our products, they care about what’s in it for them. (WIIFM) I agree, this is the best way to approach a go to market strategy.

      • Walter Tyo

        Right you are Bruce – It’s all about the “Me”. Let your guard down and someone will eat your lunch and the next thing you know you’ll be getting kicked you to the curb.
        I’m new to this site, but really enjoy the topic – I’m engaged in several procurement and govt contracting groups on LinkedIn and found CMI via one of many discussions. I’ve gotten several new customers from sharing subject matter expertise, which prompted me to begin investing more formally in content.
        I look forward to reading more of your articles!

  • globalcopywrite

    Hi Bruce,

    Really solid advice in this and I’ve bookmarked it for future sharing with clients that just aren’t getting it. One thing I do to help businesses see the light on this is to ask them to remove every reference of ‘I’, ‘we’ or ‘us’ in their copy and rewrite the content to say ‘you’. It’s a starting point that works as an eye-opener.

    The other thing I do is find an example (and there are many) of company-focused content from an unrelated industry and ask them how likely they would be to respond to the call to action. It’s funny to see their own MBFM start to quiver.

    Nice work here. I’m sharing.

    • Bruce McDuffee

      Those two great ideas to open the eyes of the ‘offenders’. Thanks for commenting!

  • Roger C. Parker

    Dear Bruce:
    Once again, another compelling CMI post.

    I, too, am bookmarketing it to share with clients.

    Your summary statement, “…the number one goal of our content marketing should be to help make the people in our target audience be better at their business goals” is commendably concise.

    • Bruce McDuffee

      Thanks Roger! Glad you enjoyed the post. The great thing about educational content is that it works!

  • Zamir Javer

    Good post…i couldn’t agree more. Initial early stage nurture content must be created to educate and change the “Status quo” thinking and lead persons to look into an alternate way of thinking….and eventually this can lead them to more products and services focused content. However jumping to BOFU (bottom of the funnel) content right from the start is going to turn people off. TOFU content is really what people need to focus on in the beginning stages of building out content marketing campaigns.

    • Bruce McDuffee

      Thanks for your comment Zamir!

  • Tom Repp

    Dead on Bruce. Keep it up. The more fires we light, the more we burn down the old ways of reaching customers.

    • Bruce McDuffee

      Thanks Tom, Great metaphor! I’ll keep lighting ’em if you will!

  • Akash Agarwal

    I want to know merely about the mistake between me and my success. hanks a lot for sharing this. This will help me a lot in content marketing.

    • Bruce McDuffee

      Thanks for the comment Akash! I’m glad it was useful.

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