By Robert Rose published July 20, 2021 Est Read Time: 13 min

How To Make a Better Case for Content Marketing in 2021

It feels like we’ve been here before.

[Quickly checks archive.]

Ahhh, yes. We have.  We’ve built the business case for content marketing here.  And here. And here.

But here’s an interesting anecdotal tidbit for you. The overriding purpose behind establishing a content marketing strategy has changed as we round the bend of the third quarter of 2021.

So, first, let’s just call 2020 the “weirdness” – and go to 2019 for comparison to 2021.  In 2019, my consulting group helped 30-ish clients develop a business case and strategy for content as a function in the business. At least 25 (83%) were primarily focused on developing a better lead-generation engine. Four (13%) were focused on brand and purpose-driven strategies. And the remaining one (4%) was focused on loyalty and better customer experiences post-sale.

This year, we’ve worked with 20 companies so far. Fifteen (75%) have been focused on how content marketing can help enhance an overall brand strategy or assist with awareness programs to help strengthen the earliest parts of the customer’s journey. Interestingly, the other five (25%) have all been focused on driving better digital sales enablement.

Additionally, and in a satisfying turn, significant progress seems to have finally sunk in around instituting content as a function, an operation, and not just a series of one-off campaigns.  In 2019, there was still a significant drive to optimize content marketing as simply a series of discrete campaigns.

More brands in 2021 see #content as an operations function, not just a series of one-off campaigns, says @Robert_Rose via @CMIContent. Click To Tweet

Answering a different question

In 2021, the strategy/challenge is focused on two key (and different) questions:

  1. How do we successfully build (or merge as the case may be) the teams of content strategy (governance, processes, structured content, data, and technology) with content marketing (creating valuable, purpose-driven, content experiences).
  2. How do we scale this new operation to make it efficient, measurable, and manageable?

The business case has changed. It’s no longer selling content marketing as a concept. If your business case is to prove the concept of showing the C-suite how competitor X has an amazing blog, competitor Y won an award for their white paper program, or competitor Z is driving better awareness with their print magazine, you’ll mostly get shrugged shoulders and a lifted eyebrow.

You see, many marketers are still answering “why should we do content marketing,” believing the C-suite is skeptical. They aren’t. They’re wondering why it’s taken so long for us to get there.

Put simply: We’re asking for a new model car and the CEO is saying, “What the hell have you been doing with all the parts that we’ve been buying?”

Today’s CEOs want to know what #ContentMarketing has been doing with all the “parts” they’ve been buying over the years, says @Robert_Rose via @CMIContent. Click To Tweet

Business case for strategic content operations

Make no bones about it – this pushback hits every aspect of any content strategy we want to stand up. Just as an example, our last two advisory engagement inquiries weren’t about why they should launch a content marketing approach. In both cases, the CMO had issued a directive to launch strategic content marketing. But to make the resources available to do that, they had to fix the entirety of content as a strategic function.

“Beware,” one of them said. “Our CEO now doesn’t believe we have the ability to do this. She believes we already have too much content.” But the thing is, once we dig in, it’s not that the CEO doesn’t believe in content marketing.  Nor is it that she doesn’t understand what content marketing is. She’s skeptical about why no one has bothered to think strategically about all this stuff in the first place.

Let’s look at the common pushbacks to implementing content – and specifically content marketing – as a strategic function that we’re hearing in 2021 and address them one by one.

Let me count the ways

In CMI’s 2021 research across thousands of marketers, we examined which factors marketers attributed to a minimal or lack of content marketing success. By a huge margin, the top two factors were “content creation challenges” and “strategy issues.”

Just to the point made earlier, this is where the “we-already-suck-at-it” pushback comes from senior management. Why should they invest MORE in content, when your brand struggles at the content you’re already creating?

Of course, no one actually says this part out loud. Business leaders couch their concerns in much more “business appropriate” language for this. We hear things like:

  • “There is already too much content. Shouldn’t we reduce the amount of content we are creating?”
  • “Content marketing costs too much. Isn’t advertising/paid media more efficient?”
  • “How can we compete? I don’t know if we’re capable of creating differentiated
  • “We can’t tie the content marketing approach to revenue. Where’s the data? How will we measure this?”

Let’s acknowledge every single one of these concerns is or has been true at different times. Now, let’s address each one and figure out how to make the business case.

There’s already too much content

There is no doubt that we produce too much content. There is also no doubt that we don’t use it to its fullest extent.  Much of our marketing content goes unused by sales.  So many of the pieces we create are never reused or repackaged. We pour content into our blog, but never promote or put any paid media behind it.

What gives? What’s the answer?

All of these are symptoms of not having codified our content operating model.  Yes, we can build a smart “factory” of content, but unless there’s a specific purpose behind what we put on the assembly line, the widgets won’t ever be valuable and we won’t know when we’re making too many.

We can build a “factory” of #content, but the widgets won’t be valuable unless there’s a specific purpose behind it, says @Robert_Rose via @CMIContent. Click To Tweet

The answer to the “there’s already too much content” objection is to acknowledge it and respond that is the primary business case for putting a strategy behind it.  One of my favorite questions to ask a CFO to make a business case for content is, “How much did you spend on content last year?” The answer (if it can be answered at all) is that it’s almost certainly the biggest expense that’s not actually tracked by the company.

We MUST get our arms around this. Developing an operational model for content is the critical piece of solving our ability to track not just how much we are spending, but for the planning, activation, and measurement of all the content we will produce. To know how much content is enough because that little voice in the brain that asks – Are we actually creating too much content? – is correct. It’s rarely not that we are making too much different content. We are simply stuck in a cycle of duplicating things in a never-ending rinse and repeat cycle.

What does that look like? I detailed a bit of it in one of my recent episodes of Marketing Makers. That brings us to the second objection.

Content marketing costs more

Somewhere in the collective conscious of marketing – especially digital marketing – “paid media” became the de facto standard for how much things should cost. Any new approach that comes along is put through the same filter: Is it cheaper or more expensive than advertising? If it’s cheaper, it must be worth doing, and if it’s more expensive it’s not.

The troubling thing about the question is that it assumes two things: (1) “Advertising” and the costs associated with it are as good as it’s going to get and won’t degrade further, and (2) We are pitching content marketing as a replacement for paid media.

In other words, it may be true that content marketing is more expensive than advertising today. But what if advertising completely fails one day, and we haven’t invested in an alternative form of marketing? Or what if (and hear me out just a second) advertising on its own actually costs more than we truly admit.

That brings us to the second erroneous assumption – we are proposing it as a replacement for advertising. This isn’t true. Content marketing provides multiple ways to draw value and ALL of them are interdependent on public relations, paid media, sales, and even loyalty programs.

Content marketing is a part of the integrated marketing mix – not separate from it. When we present the approach of content marketing, it should not be as a set of campaigns that are meant to replace (or be cheaper) than a paid media advertisement.  In fact, quite the opposite, the content marketing approach is about the development of the product of content, with which we will integrate all other types of marketing including paid media.

#ContentMarketing is a part of the integrated marketing mix – not separate from it, says @Robert_Rose via @CMIContent. Click To Tweet

At its heart, a great content marketing program is a content product operation (Are you sensing a theme here?) that builds, activates, and promotes our content experience that ultimately benefits the sale of our other products and services. This is why the great content marketing experiences that you’re showing the C-suite are almost always publishing platforms like blogs, resource centers, events, or print magazines. They are meant to be an integrated part of your content operation and measured in similar ways.

But that then leads us to the third objection.

We can’t compete with content

If our business was hurting, and the head of product management came to the CEO and said, “We can’t create great products,” how might the CEO react?

What if that situation was reversed? In either case, the head of product management may be looking for a job. The ability to create great products and services is CORE to our business.

If we’re treating content seriously, why would we expect anything less? The only reason this assertion will be true is if we don’t try hard or care.

Remember, nobody has this truly figured out. You are NOT late.  Not yet. As an example, PR firm Edelman and LinkedIn recently conducted research about the potential of thought leadership for B2B marketing. Almost half (48%) of decision-makers spend an hour or more per week engaged in thought leadership. Only 15% of those same decision-makers rated the quality of the thought leadership as “excellent.”  Further, only 29% of them said they gain valuable insights more than half the time.

The current bar for thought leadership is pretty darn low. If we’re not providing the thought leadership for our industry, the real question is who is? Are we going to rely on our competitors to set the bar for what “smart” looks like in our business?

That brings us to our last objection that I cover here.

We can’t tie content marketing to revenue

The short answer here is: Then don’t.

There are myriad other ways to associate content marketing with business value. Revenue is but one. If you can tie any of your marketing and advertising to revenue, then you can tie content marketing to revenue.

But, if we dig deeper, the real assertion here is that content marketing is “too fuzzy” to associate with a sale – and thus it’s hard to draw a straight line to revenue. Now, this may be true, but it’s not an argument for not doing content marketing. This is simply a challenge to how we design our measurement program – and ensuring we apply the proper goals to our content operation. Show me a company that struggles to measure content marketing, and I’ll show you a company that struggles to measure marketing.

Put simply: A blog that is meant to support brand awareness should not be measured by how many leads it produces. Likewise, assets stored in a fully gated resource center to drive leads should not be measured on how much it powers awareness through SEO.

Each of the various content operating models will have different (and distinct) measurement goals. This is why it’s so critical to understand that operating model. I’ve talked before about some of the details of this approach.

You’re in good company

Here’s something thing that will either comfort you or keep you up at night. Ready for it?

You’re not alone. Nobody has this completely figured out yet. Nobody. Well, OK, maybe Cleveland Clinic has this mostly figured out. But honestly, when it comes to content strategy, they’re operating at an entirely different level than most businesses.

We’ve spilled gallons of digital ink over the years talking about how content marketing isn’t a new thing for businesses.  It’s been around for hundreds of years. We point to the Michelin Guide, John Deere’s The Furrow magazine, and even LEGO as prime examples.  But I can tell you, over the years I’ve talked with and/or consulted with every one of those companies, as well as so many others that serve as “case stud” fodder at conferences. All of them, without exceptions, are just like all of us: feeling our way, exploring, on a journey to make the business case. Every. Single. Day.  As the leader at one of the most frequently mentioned content marketing case studies said to me in 2019, “I wish my boss could see all the times we’re mentioned as a case study. I’m still fighting for budget every single quarter.”

But guess what? This struggle is not a sign that content marketing isn’t working. It’s a sign that it’s just become a normal part of marketing.

The big rock we have to get over – the 2021 business case – is that the classic content marketing adage – we need to act like a media company – is mostly misunderstood.  It’s not that we need to create stuff that helps us market ourselves as a media company would.  No. The goal is that we need to operate as a media company does.

We need to operate as a media company does, says @Robert_Rose via @CMIContent. #ContentMarketing Click To Tweet

That’s what we’re building a business case for – a scalable operational model of content that’s as important as any product or service we offer in the market, an operation that helps power everything in modern marketing.

When making our renewed business case for content, remember that no single new marketing approach is going to change the business. But one new approach to marketing can be the reason the business changes.

Hear what Robert Rose has to say to inspire and inform your content marketing operations at this fall’s Content Marketing World in person or virtually. Register today.

Cover image by Joseph Kalinowski/Content Marketing Institute

Author: Robert Rose

Robert is the founder and chief strategy officer of The Content Advisory, the education and consulting group for The Content Marketing Institute. Robert has worked with more than 500 companies, including 15 of the Fortune 100. He’s provided content marketing and strategy advice for global brands such as Capital One, NASA, Dell, McCormick Spices, Hewlett Packard, Microsoft, and The Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation. Robert’s third book – Killing Marketing, with co-author Joe Pulizzi has been called the “book that rewrites the rules of marketing.” His second book – Experiences: The Seventh Era of Marketing is a top seller and has been called a “treatise, and a call to arms for marketers to lead business innovation in the 21st century.” Robert’s first book, Managing Content Marketing, spent two weeks as a top 10 marketing book on Amazon.com and is generally considered to be the “owners manual” of the content marketing process. You can follow him on Twitter @Robert_Rose.

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