By Joe Pulizzi published February 3, 2016

One Thing Is Killing Content Marketing and Everyone Is Ignoring It


A few weeks before the start of the New Year I led a workshop on content marketing for about 50 small-business CEOs and operations managers. They came from all different industries. Some were consultants. There was a plumber and a representative from an HVAC company present. Pest management? Check. A few small manufacturing companies, a nonprofit, and a jewelry store rounded it out. In other words, it was a diverse group of companies.

What wasn’t diverse were the ways they were marketing their companies. Most had e-newsletters. All of them had Facebook pages. Every one of these senior leaders was concerned about search engine rankings.

Another consistent characteristic? Not one of them was happy with their marketing. This is not unusual. It’s predictable that senior leaders are often disappointed with their marketing. Why? Mostly because they believe it should be easier than it is. They also feel they are just one secret-sauce answer away from Utopia. I mean, how hard could it really be? (Don’t answer that.)

And that’s what I heard about their content efforts as well. Their blog posts weren’t getting much traffic or converting. Their email newsletters weren’t getting opened. Their customers were ignoring them on social media. Finding themselves on the first page on a search engine listing was equally hard.

Changing course

I’d heard enough. After the last complaint, I stopped my presentation. This is something I don’t normally do. I’ve been doing this particular workshop for a while, and the flow works well with small businesses. The last thing I wanted to do was alter course.

But I did alter it with this one simple question, “Is the content you are creating and distributing for your customers any different than anything else out there?”

I looked around at the business leaders. You could have heard a pin drop.

I repeated the question.

“Is the content you are creating and distributing for your customers any different than anything else out there?”

I then rephrased and asked the question to each one directly. I asked the jewelry store executive with the e-newsletter if what they sent to customers was any different. They sent coupons and articles that you could find literally anywhere.

I asked the plumber. He promoted content from the manufacturer on his YouTube page and his blog. I also found out that about 300 other plumbers used that same content.

I asked the financial consultant. He said he purposely kept his articles general because he didn’t want to give away any intellectual property without compensation. “How’s that working for you?” I asked.

“Not very well” was his response.

At one point in the workshop, I told them that if they aren’t going to take this seriously, they should all just go out and buy advertising (and I meant it).

Why should your customers care?

For the rest of the morning, we focused on answering one simple question: “Why should my customers care?”

That e-newsletter you are sending out. Why should they care?

Your Facebook post? Why should they care?

Your blog post, video or (God help us all) Snapchat?

You get the point.

Our job, as marketers, is not to create more content. It has never been about that. It’s about creating the minimum amount of content with the maximum amount of behavior change in our customers (hat tip to Robert Rose). For that to be possible, what you are creating has to be valuable, useful, compelling and, yes, different.

Marketers: Create the min amount of #content with the max amount of behavior change in your customers. Click To Tweet

The content tilt

Somewhere along the line, we marketers became infatuated with the tools and less concerned about what we put inside them. This, my friends, has got to change.

Of the six-step process of the Content Inc. model (from my latest book), the most important step is the second, the content tilt.

The content tilt is that area of little to no competition on the web that actually gives you a fighter’s chance of breaking through and becoming relevant. It’s not only what makes you different, it’s so different that you get noticed by your audience. That audience rewards you with their attention.

The content tilt is what will separate you from everyone else in your market area. Andrew Davis, author of Town Inc., calls this “the hook” – a simple twist on a familiar theme designed to entrap or ensnare your audience. Without “tilting” your content just enough to truly have a different story to tell, your content will fade into the rest of the clutter and be forgotten.

How to find your tilt

The real goal of this little story was to get you to ask the question – Is my content different? The majority, like over 99% of marketers, do not have differentiated content. They are not telling stories that are different.

If you are like most marketers, then, your next question is “How do I make it different?”

One question marketers should ask before creating #content: Is my content different from my competition? Click To Tweet

This is easier said than done, but it is possible to tell a different and compelling story looking at different data points. Here are some things to consider:

  • Audience – Are you really niche enough with your audience? “Pet owners” simply is too broad as a target audience. What about “homeowners who like to travel with a dog in their recreational vehicle and live in southwest Florida”? That may be too niche, but probably not. To be truly relevant with your story, you need to focus on a very specific reader. As Stephen Kings says in On Writing, you should think about this person every time you create content.
  • How you tell the story – Content marketing has been around for years and has been called many different things. But we at the Content Marketing Institute were the first to call it content marketing. That made a difference in how the audience responded.
  • Platform – One of the HVAC contractors in the workshop told me there are a thousand blog posts a day on energy efficiency. We also learned that there were few, if any, podcasts about saving energy. Opportunity? I’m not sure, but it’s worth a look.
  • Subject matter – Using tools like Google Trends, you can uncover breakout terms for which there are few instructional resources. Take this quote from Jay Baer as an example:

It’s like, ‘Hey I like knitting, and I’m going to start a knitting blog.’ Really! There are 27 other knitting blogs. Why would anybody read yours? What is different? What is unique? What is interesting? Why would anyone stop reading the knitting blog that they’ve been reading for the last three years and read yours ever? And if you can’t articulate that, you need to go back to the drawing board. And most people I find who haven’t been doing this for a while just don’t go through that competitive calculus, and it’s dangerous.

From the subject matter standpoint, knitting might be too broad. Are there certain types of knitting that are underserved, where you could be the leading expert in the world?

What if your content was gone?

Let’s end with this thought.

Let’s say someone rounded up all your content and placed it in a box like it never existed. Would anyone miss it? Would you leave a gap in the marketplace?

If the answer to this is no, then you have a problem (and this article is directed at you, bub).

We want customers and prospects needing … no, longing for our content. It becomes part of their lives … their jobs.

Today, it’s harder and harder to buy attention. You have to earn it. Earn it today, tomorrow, and five years from now by delivering the most impactful information your customers could ever ask for. “Good enough” won’t win the battle for customer attention. Be great.

Your unique brand story is one of the five core elements for running successful, scalable content marketing operations. Read our 2016 Content Marketing Framework: 5 Building Blocks for Profitable, Scalable Operations for an overview of the full strategic blueprint. 

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.

Other posts by Joe Pulizzi

  • Brendan Alan Barrett

    Hi Joe,

    Great post!

    I’ve almost finished Content, Inc. but I’ve already started to implement some of your insight and it’s making a world of difference!

    Thanks for shaing!

    – Brendan

    • Joe Pulizzi

      That’s awesome Brendan…thanks so much. If you would, an Amazon review would be perfecto.

  • Ralph du Plessis

    We often refer to the SUCCES formula in Made to Stick because it forces clients to think content ideas through and has a tangible scoring (likelihood of success) metric.

    Even so, it is still very difficult to make businesses understand just how important it is to stand out from the crowd when every man and his dog is churning out content. The quality bar is so high in most industries now. You need to invest in proper designers and copywriters as well as ensuring your content idea stands up to SUCCES scrutiny,

    • Joe Pulizzi

      Exactly! Thanks Ralph.

  • Jay Acunzo

    Joe, this is great. I always ask people, “If we white label this content and remove that branding, will they know it’s you?” Is there a tilt, niche topic, tone of voice, familiar story angle, cast of characters, or ANYTHING to make it your original work?

    Watch a Pixar film and you know it’s them without seeing the logo thanks to the story’s tone and animation/design style.

    Watch a Red Bull video and you know it’s them due to the camera angles and extreme action.

    Consume our content from NextView, and we’ve hopefully obsessed so much about one word and idea (initial startup traction), that it’s ours to own outright.

    Unfortunately, in all of this, the major key (shout to DJ Khaled) is not the tech or process or distribution but the creative and care for craft — or the same thing that often gets rushed, misunderstood, or outright ignored. Those who have that care for craft seem to never struggle to do what you’re suggesting though. It’s just second nature to them.

    • Joe Pulizzi

      So true Jay. Your team is doing a great job around startup traction. Amazing stuff.

      • Jay Acunzo

        Ha, oh Joe – my team is a team of one 😉 But I really appreciate the compliment!

  • Mike Myers

    Joe: Put simply, this is inspiring. You’ve got me thinking about how it’s more than a good idea to be different, today it’s an imperative. And, as marketers, it’s our J-O-B. I’m heading off right now to write a blog about this insight…thanks for the nudge!

    • Joe Pulizzi

      Anything to help my friend…that’s my job.

  • carmenhill

    YES. YES. YES! My enthusiasm may imply that I’ve got this sussed, but it’s a daily struggle and we’re not there yet. Also, what Mike said: “this is inspiring.”

    • Joe Pulizzi

      Thanks Carmen…we all lose this message from time to time. Good reminder huh?

  • Mike Allton

    Spot on, Joe.

  • http://wwww.AllYourScreens/ Rick Ellis

    As someone who has both written a lot of content for sites as well as my own business, my biggest recommendation is to have someone write your content who is a writer first. Not a marketer, not an SEO expert who fancies themselves a writer. Finding someone who knows how to connect with readers is everything. They can be taught your business or what you need to have included to close the sale. But like all talents, writing requires a specific skill-set that not everyone possesses.

    • Elda Martone


    • Troy Simmonds

      Very valid point Rick.

  • Greg Strandberg

    Joe, if you keep talking like this your peers in the marketing industry will ostracize you. Don’t you know you’re just supposed to take people’s money and tell them everything will be alright? And my God…no more useless tools posts? You’ve really on gone off the deep-end on that one. Prepare for a good shunning.

    • Joe Pulizzi

      Hi Greg…every week we try to do some strategic (like this post) and some tactical (like the useless tool posts you mention). We hit the mark most of the time. Sometimes we don’t. Like everyone, we need to strive to do better.

  • UnveiltheWeb

    Hi Joe,

    You are spot on! People are focusing on all the wrong things instead of the one thing that is most important… Their message.

    In a recent study by IBM, 80% of consumers who responded said that companies in no way share relevant information to their problems, needs, wants or desires.

    In the 2015 B2B Web Usability Report, over 50% of respondents said they leave a website almost immediately due to a lack of message.

    In any one piece of content, I’m looking for that that 20% who says; “OMG, how did he/she know… ?”

    Yet, most businesses are talking about themselves, their products or their services and their prospects don’t care.

    To change this problem a business must learn to understand their customers and communicate more relevantly to them.

    In order to get out of their mindset, they must:

    1. Discover the “specific” problems they are passionate about solving. This separates them from their competition and attracts a like minded prospect who can feel them and people buy based on emotion, not logic.

    2. Discover the tangible values customers experience and how they feel about the experience.

    3. Discover the “specific” problems they solve for each tangible value

    4. Discover who they “specifically” solve each problem for (in detail)

    5. Discover how their product or service is “a” part of “a” solution

    Then you can really study in detail from all kinds of databases as well as personal experiences what the customer is going through and how to relate to them in your content.

    Content must be created for one person, who has one problem/need/desire… with one solution per article.

    Clarity is needed in the business first and the five questions above create the clarity and from that a message is born that is relevant, compelling and inspiring.

    Great post Joe and thanks for allowing me to share on your comments section.

    Have a great second half to your week.

    ~ Don Purdum

    • Joe Pulizzi

      Thanks for stopping by Don. A very worthy comment indeed.

  • עידית נעמן

    Inspiring as usual. One of the techniques I teach my CCO course students is to build a very close and familiar buyer persona. – One you can feel without talking… and then writing your content as if it was a personal letter to this persona. It’s amazing how it creates a personal, useful and familiar air! Thanks Joe. As always your words help spread my content wings.

    • Joe Pulizzi


  • John F. Hunt

    What I’ve discovered is that for smaller local businesses like HVAC, or Real Estate, or any other market that is saturated with many competitors is that you really can’t come up with a tilt based on content for subjects like energy efficiency or Information about X neighborhood. The only thing that seems to work is to make a personality out of the owner or the person representing the business and make them a celebrity of something, anything, that is different (doesn’t even need to be related to their trade topic). Personal branding. Probably gonna make some technical content writers mad, but this is what I’ve seen work. Think about the successful local businesses in your home town and usually the memorable ones have a brand (and content promoted) that is the person running the business. You know like that guy who runs around in orange clothes all the time 🙂

    • Joe Pulizzi

      Ha…thanks John. I’m wearing orange today as well. I knew you were concerned.

  • Carrie Morgan

    I often think it’s a matter of investment – they don’t want to spend the money great content requires. I have one of my OWN clients like that! He’ll outsource to a newbie writer instead of using my services, then scratch his head why it isn’t working. It’s penny wise and pound foolish. He just won’t listen or recognize how important it is to DIG DEEP ENOUGH with content to make it creative and unusual. It’s hard, and many go for the low-hanging fruit.

    • J-P De Clerck

      Agree. You need the dig deep enough. But also the low hanging as in what customers simply expect to find and is overlooked too. And agree on the fact most see it as easy and cheap. It ain’t. Unless you have too much change to throw away.

  • Archana Gidwani

    While I don’t disagree- as someone who is on the implementation side of content strategy- in reality- slightly differentiated content produced consistently and cheaply trumps highly differentiated content produced with a longer runway and more $$ affecting the cadence…. Maybe because I am hyper focused on higher education vertical where content marketing is still somewhat nascent- consistency and relevance produces better results than irregular and differentiated. I hope you all don’t jump on me for saying this:)

    • Joe Pulizzi

      Hi Archana…to your point, you need quality and consistency. Mediocre, consistent content was a winning combination a few years ago. I don’t believe that’s true anymore. But yes, some verticals are a bit behind…but they will all get there. Thanks for the comment!

  • Brian Hansford

    A perfect example of why the knuckleheads who continue to spew “content is king” need a swift kick in the ass. Content that isn’t unique and that the audience doesn’t care about is useless noise. Not that I have strong feelings about that or anything.

    • Joe Pulizzi

      Not at all Brian. Love it!

  • Rich

    I absolutely LOVE THIS. It’s going in as one of my go-to resources.

    • Joe Pulizzi

      Awesome. Thanks Rich!

  • Hitesh Parekh

    Great write up, sets the tone for a very contemplative mood. I agree about the main point of producing unique content that is tied in with your brand identity. Why pitch the same thing that everybody says?

  • MacushlaB

    Joe – thank you for highlighting the imperative to avoid vanilla and instead, make your own content flavour. It applies to every marketing form and platform and is constantly overlooked. It’s easy to forget in marketing (but shouldn’t be) that “it’s about you, not me”.

  • Matt Lambert

    Plumbers shouldn’t be content marketing. Blogging is a worse strategy than Search marketing, for them, for their business in particular. What we should tell people, is that Content and Search are opposite strategies (semantics allowing)….It would help business owners if they knew that.

    • Joe Pulizzi

      Hi Matt…I think some plumbers “could” depending on the goals and the story. But, to your point, most are awful at it.

      • Matt Lambert

        Actually Joe, I think content is golden, but at the beginning of a project, depending on the business, most of it shouldn’t go in a blog format. The layout, navigation and chronological nature of that content are not conducive to conversion in a ‘Search’ strategy. It might work, but not as well. We once put the same content in a blog and in the body of a site – it happened by mistake, but both pages got loads of traffic. The content in the body of the site converted 3 times as well. Context was really important. I also think that blogging works best when outbound, targeted at a particular audience. For that reason I feel it will work better in vertical markets (within an industry) rather than in horizontal ones like local plumbers, dentists, lawyers etc

  • Joe Pulizzi

    Thanks Ula!

  • Colston Young

    YES – I have the exact same discussion with pretty much all of my professional services clients…many of these firms spend so many hours creating long, non-engaging newsletters that contain much of the same content as their competitors’ newsletters. They’ve been doing these newsletters for so long that they’ve never stopped to think, “Why are we doing this again?” and “Is this actually creating any value?” But when you point out to them that this content isn’t really driving client engagement, they don’t disagree.

  • J-P De Clerck

    It’s been many years since we’ve been “doing” content marketing for large companies now and the problems aren’t different from those in smaller ones. Going beyond the “is your content any different from what’s out there already” question and the question of uniqueness here’s what I see – and is beyond my comprehension:

    – Rarely marketers start with a very simple yet crucial question: what are we expected to realize as a company this year and the next and next (numbers and key themes to get there) and what content do I need to make it happen, taking into account what the various decision makers need/want/like to know and in line with my unique value proposition (which often is not known either). Often the essence and lowest hanging fruit is lacking while someone is already working on personas which in many businesses are even de facto a step to far with everything else they need to cover. In practice, when you really do this with numbers and facts by the hands, you can even get higher budgets but now most start from their budgets and then fill it in. Wrong, it’s the outcome for the business that defines the budget.

    – Rarely they get to the point of having inventorized and mapped (gap analysis) and having properly done research (VoC) whereby they might have found lacks for which they maybe need to conduct research or have it conducted by a credible partner (leading to content opportunities). Essential angles and content from the perspective of the customers (and what would make them interested at all in your business, based on their priorities and challenges) are overlooked. So, there’s even often no time for some ‘big idea’. If you don’t know what you need to get to your goals and truly understand how to get there you’re doomed to fail. And this isn’t just about content marketing.

    – When the time has come to create the content rarely the question gets asked about the who (“reader”), why (“the purpose”) and how (the format, the often overlooked ‘distribution’) gets truly answered. If it does there often is no prioritization.

    – The departments that really sit on the information that you really need are too often left out of the equation. Product marketing, customer service, you name it. You need to know what happens and dive deep into the reasons why things are done, topics are picked, stuff will look and what folks ask.

    – Another big one: outsource everything or have it written or done by someone who works for a gazillion of industries and companies at the same time. Teams don’t have time to stear the narrative and messages and when external partners are then producing often it’s “me too” as the business and customers aren’t properly understood (and diving really deep into them would take time and thus cost money).

    Just some thoughts. Read about all those content marketing getting harder posts and messages lately. Don’t buy them. We focus too much on the ‘out there’ and not enough on the ‘in here’ with ‘in’ being the people in the business and the ecosystem, partners, customers and so on. I blame many content marketers and most certainly many PR and SEO companies turned content marketing for a lack of focus on the business and the marketing and bad marketing managers buying in to their pitches which are all alike and result in the same “me too” content.

    Another perspective maybe but I can guarantee you it’s based on real-life facts. There is no content shock as Mark Schaefer would call it. But there still are many marketers who don’t understand content marketing and (are led to) ask the wrong questions, while overlooking the simple ones. The problem is not content marketing. The problem is people.

    Just for the record: experiences based on working only in specific markets so not valid for all.

    • Joe Pulizzi

      J-P…this should have been its own blog post ;). Thanks for adding to the conversation.

      One point…I agree with you that it’s not getting harder. I actually think it’s SO much easier today than when I started in this industry almost 20 years ago. The issues where brands are failing are simply basic publishing mistakes (for the most part).

  • Mike Pruett

    Joe, I think the other big piece that is missing from this conversation is around the need for companies to understand what their prospects and current customers are consuming and the topics that are surging within their marketplace.

    From a ‘net new’ perspective, this is identifying potential customers that aren’t already inside their database and creating content introducing their product or service in a way that is meaningful to them, essentially identifying topics that are being researched or consumed at a given moment and then tailor their message so it resonates and separates a given company’s message from the rest.

    Then there is the continuing communication with your existing base of customers and the potential to provide them with continuing solutions or products, again, based on what they are consuming at any given moment as this group of customers’ needs area going to change and it is important to understand what is being consumed and where that content sits within the sales funnel.

    We see this as being especially prevalent in the B2B space where so many companies are competing for the same customer with very similar offers. It is difficult to separate themselves.

    Content must be relevant to the need or business solution that needs to be solved and it should be timely based on tools that allow organizations to see what is trending within the marketplace that they are competing in.

    • Joe Pulizzi

      Thanks Mike…the absolute BEST place to start is with current customers. Most start with acquisition. But you are right…two different efforts here.

  • Matt Charney

    This is missing a pretty obvious point. Not every company should need to justify content marketing or need to do it better, they should just spend their money somewhere else. Your average SMB doesn’t need a blog in the first place. This seems like a weird consideration to not even acknowledge if even to refute it…

    • Joe Pulizzi

      Hi Matt…you are absolutely right. Content marketing isn’t for everyone. That said, if you want to differentiate from your competition, especially for SMB, this is the best way. The problem is that most companies are already doing it, they don’t need to be convinced…they are just doing it wrong.

    • soniasimone

      I think Joe’s point, which is an excellent one, is that IF you’re going to do it, do it well. Otherwise it’s just a colossal waste of time and resources that could be used in another way.

      Every business, small or large, must differentiate. Content is an efficient way to do that, but generic content — by its nature — won’t do the trick.

  • Hassaan Khan

    Hi Joe,
    I’m a content marketing enthusiast and student. I believe, content marketing does what advertising doesn’t do. An ad quickly tells that you may need this, but a content marketing campaign might explain that why you need that (product), why it is good for you, or what you need to do with it.
    I’m not qualified to leave a comment under your post with my point of view, but I second your opinion on utilizing the content to make a difference. In fact, I’m glad you tried to explain it to the brands and content marketers that if they want to make a difference, they actually need to do something different.

    • Joe Pulizzi

      Thanks for stopping by Hassaan…we are all students!

  • Ed “Scratchy” Baker

    I’m going to quote your first two lines in my next e-mail to my clients.

  • Gwazoo

    Wow! This is my new favorite article, bookmarked it in my bookmarks bar so I can reread at a moments notice. These are all very powerful points and you are absolutely correct. Writing content can be difficult to begin with but digging deeper and bursting through all the clutter and noise of everyone else’s content to stand out is a serious skill! This has definitely given me food for thought in how to angle my content, whether it be for Gwazoo, a guest post, or freelance down the road.

  • Chris Thompson

    Great share Joe! I’ve been reading a lot articles related to content marketing and this is a different one and you made some great points here. Thanks for sharing a useful information, surely I will recommend this 🙂

  • Cody Lister

    Loved reading your book, Joe. It’s super practical and relevant for content marketers, bloggers and business owners. Highly recommended!

    • Joe Pulizzi

      Thanks Cody. Really appreciate that.

  • Rod Strauch

    Fantastic Post… And let’s hope we see a push to diversity and customer focus. I know it’s what I’ll be preaching. Thanks Joe. As usual you deliver content gold!

  • paul johnson

    Great post Joe! Agree 100% with uninspiring/ generic content resulting in a lot of useless content. Building on your article, I think it’s important to call out two additional points critical to a successful content marketing strategy. Content marketing is having it’s day in the spotlight, bringing with it more time, energy, and content creation, and in turn making it even more difficult to stand out:

    1) Promotion: Even if you have the best content in the world, unless you create a viral hit, you need a distribution strategy to get it in front of enough people in your target audience to see results. Promoted social posts are almost table stakes these days to get your content seen. A great strategy here is creating “pillar” content to promote and then supporting it with in depth/ related “cluster” content to support your content, and provide more value to readers. Facebook, LinkedIn, Twitter all offer incredibly granular targeting options depending on your audience and are a good way to drive traffic to “pillar” pieces

    2) Curation: Most of the focus tends to fall on original content, but there is something to be said for carefully curating what you see as valuable content for your customers while reinforcing you brand. Curation for your social feeds fills editorial gaps for original content and helps stretch those budget $$$ further. There are plenty of content discovery tools out there to help with this (I am a fan of Feedly for personal news feeds), and we built another one focused on the needs of the business user

  • Lynford Morton

    This was timely and thoughtful. It’s the kind of post I feel that I should read every week before I start creating content. Thanks for the reminder.