By Joe Pulizzi published June 29, 2015

The One Ingredient Your Content Marketing Program Is Missing


Through keynote talks, workshops, and webinars, I’ve had the opportunity to present on the topic of content marketing more than 200 times in the past four years. In almost every one of those presentations, I relayed the following information:

“Content marketing doesn’t usually fail because of content quality. The main reason is because it’s inconsistent or it stops.”

Most marketers simply don’t want to hear this. With all the exuberance around content marketing, they want to hear that if they execute against a reasonable strategy, success will come in six months or less. This is hardly ever the case.

To the patient companies go the spoils

In the last couple weeks, the mattress e-commerce company Casper launched a content brand called Van Winkle’s, dedicated entirely to sleep culture. This type of move is not surprising. Content brands are the new skinny pants, with Airbnb launching Pineapple, Uber launching Momentum, and Intel launching IQ … adding to Coca-Cola’s Journey, and American Express’ Open Forum (and the list goes on).


What is different about Casper’s launch is … patience. Casper co-founder Luke Sherwin told New York Business Journal, “… When you look at (start-up publications), typically they cut themselves off below the knee before they let it breathe and make money.” That means that Casper’s content site will not advertise any of Casper’s products or link to e-commerce offers of any kind. Even crazier, the site is funded outside of marketing, with the ultimate goal of creating a sustainable publication long term.

Monetization comes after you build a loyal audience.

Whether you agree with this strategy or not isn’t the point. The key is that Casper is giving the editorial product time to breath before mandating results.

We’re seeing similar moves within our CMI advisory client base. In an interview, one enterprise told Robert Rose, CMI’s Chief Strategy Officer, that it has been given an 18-month runway before having to show a return of any kind.

I know what you’re thinking … impossible (but true).

Can countless content marketing successes be wrong?

If you are a regular reader at CMI, you know the story. We started the CMI content marketing blog in 2007. It took three years before we successfully monetized it. Shortly thereafter, we launched the magazine Chief Content Officer, and then the Content Marketing World event.

Three years. Did we do something wrong at CMI that made it take so long to show substantial results from our content marketing?

About a year ago, we started interviewing some of the most successful businesses in the world that employed a content-driven approach. We talked to them for my fourth book, Content Inc. (to be released in September at Content Marketing World). These companies ONLY launched content-focused blogs, podcasts, events, or e-newsletters to start and grow a business. These companies came from a variety of industries, including food, fashion, technology, manufacturing, and more.

In every case, it took more than 12 months to build a loyal audience and see return. On average, it took between 15 and 17 months until the platforms could actively show revenue gains because of the approach.

The majority of these companies were start-ups or solo entrepreneurs. Other than their current content-focused approach, they had no marketing, advertising, or public relations budget. Their only choice was to be patient and slowly, over time, build a loyal audience (something Brian Clark calls a minimum viable audience [MVA]). Only when this MVA was established could success be shown.

But there’s something else …

Let’s go back to the Casper scenario. It’s not just that it is taking a long-term approach to success with the platform, it isn’t even trying to monetize the platform yet.

Brian’s Copyblogger Media, the holding company behind one of the fastest-growing software-as-a-service organizations, blogged for 19 months without actively trying to generate revenue. Obviously, this has worked for Brian and his growing team.


Click to enlarge

Easier said than done. I know, I know. This type of mentality is almost impossible to find in larger organizations. Many content programs are funded by product marketing around campaigns that last no longer than 12 months. Two things happen with this:

  1. Because the funding is 12 months or less, there is an immediate pressure to show return or the project could (and does) get cut.
  1. From Day One, companies are actively trying to sell against the content, be that in the form of leads or direct sales.

Point 2 is critical. It was in our case. It was in Brian’s case. It will be in Casper’s case. Heck, it took TD Ameritrade two years to show the impact its magazine, thinkmoney, was making on its audience (it found active readers traded five times more than nonreaders).

Giving the content marketing platform time to focus requires every second of attention to be on the needs of the audience, especially at the beginning stages – that’s what builds a loyal audience. That focus leads to success. When the majority of brands start out so focused on their own revenue goals, it’s easy to see why the patient, who are focused on audience outcomes, ultimately win.

I’m not saying that you shouldn’t actively drive revenue from your platform. I don’t think it’s a black-and-white situation. But I do think that those who are patient and have a timetable longer than a year are more apt to win. Your job as a content marketer is to set reasonable expectations from the beginning. Focus on building a loyal audience. Highlight what your readers are accomplishing because of the communication you are delivering and share that with your executive team.

Basically, beg, borrow, and steal until you can get to a point where you can monetize your audience. It’s not the only way, but I do believe it’s the best way to ultimately see success with your content marketing.

Want to get the support you need for successful content marketing. Check out CMI’s starter kit, Mastering the Buy-in Conversation on Content Marketing for stats, tips, and essential talking points. And don’t forget to include a copy of this post.

Cover image by Joseph Kalinowski/Content Marketing Institute

Author: Joe Pulizzi

Joe Pulizzi is the Founder of Content Marketing Institute, a UBM company, the leading education and training organization for content marketing, which includes the largest in-person content marketing event in the world, Content Marketing World. Joe is the winner of the 2014 John Caldwell Lifetime Achievement Award from the Content Council. Joe’s the author of five books, including his latest, Killing Marketing. His third book, Epic Content Marketing was named one of “Five Must Read Business Books of 2013” by Fortune Magazine. If you ever see Joe in person, he’ll be wearing orange. Follow him on Twitter @JoePulizzi.

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  • Cathy Mayhue

    Nice points Joe! It is very important to keep patience before you actually start making money. These days I am exploring tumblr to promote blogs, but these are my initial days, do not know how to quickly get more followers. Some experts say that publishing 25 – 50 posts/day is important to grab the attention of other important influencers. I am still confused about the best way of using tumblr to get maximum results in short time. But one thing is sure tumblr has worked for many. Do you have any idea about it?


    • Joe Pulizzi

      Hi Cathy…I don’t think there is a post minimum or maximum. The answer is, unfortunately, it always depends. I would focus on what value you are bringing consistently and what audience you are trying to target/help. Focus on an area that you can actually be the leading expert/voice on something…so go very very niche.

  • Edwin Dearborn

    “Nothing in this world can take the place of persistence. Talent will not: nothing is more common than unsuccessful men with talent. Genius will not; unrewarded genius is almost a proverb. Education will not: the world is full of educated derelicts. Persistence and determination alone are omnipotent.” – Calvin Coolidge

    • Joe Pulizzi

      Excellent quote!

  • Afryrear

    And the truth shall (hopefully) set you free!

    I was nodding my head through this whole piece. It’s a rare and powerful thing to let content mature like the fine wine that it should be, but it’s such a benefit — to both the business and content marketing efforts — in the long run.

    Thanks for putting this out here so we can all forward it to our bosses this week 🙂

    • Joe Pulizzi

      Love it!

  • rhonda hurwitz

    This has been my client’s experience, too! Patience, grasshopper! Thanks for the examples.

  • subu

    Thanks Joe… have been trying to say the same thing in India for the last four years and noone seems to listen. They all think ‘it is content “marketing”, right’? simply because you put it out there doesnt mean it hotcakes will sell like content! Given time, it has the potential to give disproportionate returns. Most CEOs and CMOs that I speak with give me a 3 month pilot to test out results!
    Thanks again.

    • Joe Pulizzi

      Totally understand your plight sabu…most companies want immediate results and content marketing is not the path for that. Keep showing them examples of what content marketing really is and how they can build an asset over time.

  • Ashton

    Very true about larger organizations applying pressure to show immediate returns on projects and actively selling against the content. Great insight, very helpful article.

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  • Joshua D. Tobkin

    I really thought it was interesting that companies are so shortsighted with their content marketing, even today.

    I think having a 12 month plan makes a lot of sense, instead of having to show results immediately.

    It takes time to structure an engaging content strategy and it takes discipline to stick with the strategy even though it may take a few moments to begin ranking in search engines and for people to recognize your brand is a leading authority on your topic.

    Patience is important in this game.

  • Anchal

    I have been listening to this since years “Content is King” but if a content is catchy and informative then only it can draw attention of the public. That too, depends on how the content marketing is done whether the content is reaching to the right audience or not. Very interesting article.

  • Siddharth Dwivedi

    Amazing article. Can’t to tell you how much relief it induced. Thanks!

  • NenadSenic

    Joe, I believe this is the single most important article everyone should read. You nailed it! Thank you. N.

    • Joe Pulizzi

      Wow…quite a compliment my friend. Thanks so much!

  • Ron W

    Great post, Joe! And I think that’s why content marketing is often maligned, because it doesn’t show immediate results or the relationship you’re building with your target audience is hard to measure. It’s a difficult balance to maintain, i.e. long-term relationship building leading to lead generation.

    As a separate note when you think about building a content stream for 12 – 18 months with no “discernible results”, you have to be able to do it in a cost-effective fashion. I would think the more money you’re budgeted, the more eyeballs and expectations would be on the content program. Maybe doing it in a slow and less visible fashion is the way to launch your content marketing initiative…

    • Joe Pulizzi

      Totally agree with the second part Ron. It’s better to launch a content brand as a pilot at first. Give it some time to breath. Then once you get some traction and a minimum viable audience, then you can really put some budget to it. There is no black and white as I say, but that’s a proven method for small and large enterprises. Thanks for the comment.

  • Christina Cordova

    Thank you for this! I’ve been blogging for a little over a year (though not every day…) and I’m just now starting to see a substantial increase in website traffic. We’ve gotten a few customers through our blog over the course of this past year, but crossing our fingers we’ll get more as we continue to blog (on a more consistent basis from now on 😉 ).

  • Michael Clarke

    Great post. It’s always hard trying to sell content to C level management when you tell them it won’t make a return for 18 months. What are you thoughts on blending marketing automation with content in the short them to get quick wins?

    • Joe Pulizzi

      Absolutely Michael. You can definitely speed the process up…but it always takes time to build an audience. It can take less or more, but some period of time is required. Focus on small wins in the beginning.

      • Michael Clarke

        Thanks for your response Joe