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Barriers to Effective Content Marketing: Lessons from Australia

are we doing it right?As a content marketer, when I complete a project, I sometimes get this feeling like I’m handing over the keys to a Ferrari, only to watch it crash before getting out of the car park. 

Looking at the data revealed in Content Marketing in Australia 2014: Benchmarks, Budgets and Trends, I’d say clients are also experiencing a state of frustration: 

Ninety-three percent of Australian marketers surveyed reported using some form of content marketing over the past year — but only 33 percent say they’re effective at it.

So what’s going on? 

The commitment is there, but there’s not enough thinking behind it

Of those same marketers, only 52 percent reported having a documented content marketing strategy. (And, while these numbers are reflective of content marketing in Australia, the same trends appear across all geographies and verticals.)

Without the strategy in place (the targeted purpose coupled with streamlined processes), there will be no business goal blueprint to guide the provision of the right content in the right format, to the right audience, at the optimal time — or to measure the results. In the absence of content strategy, I often see content being produced for content’s sake. The rationale for formats, audiences, distribution, and timing is usually: “Because we’ve always done it that way.”

Same-same: Not different 

While lack of a documented content marketing strategy is an issue, other factors could be responsible as well. For example, when I looked at the type of content being produced by the marketers surveyed, I began to see some clues around format that may help us get to the root of this problem:

Out of the top 10, only two were visual content formats!

Just how much reading do we expect time-poor customers to do? After a while, having to read everything gets kind of boring. And if marketers are trying to convey complex stories, it’s a big ask to expect prospective customers to engage quickly through written formats: In 2013, a person’s average attention span dropped to eights seconds — that’s even less than a goldfish (which came in at nine seconds).

Now, apply that thinking to the most popular forms of written content used by Australian marketers surveyed:

  • Articles on websites (84 percent)
  • eNewsletters (82 percent)
  • Blogs (82 percent)
  • Articles on other websites (72 percent)

Then, factor in that the average person only reads 20 percent of the words on a standard web page and you may begin to see some possible reasons for that effectiveness rating of 33 percent. Two of the most engaging forms of visual content didn’t even make the Top 10: Infographics came in 12th, and one of the fastest growing content formats — motion graphics (animation videos that combine moving images, text, animation and music to explain a message, promote a service or to tell a story) — didn’t even rate a mention. 

Are we failing to choose the right metrics? 

The metrics marketers are using to measure success are the third reason why marketers may not be feeling effective in their efforts. Fifty-eight percent of Australian marketers surveyed cited web traffic as the key metric for their content marketing efforts, with social media sharing coming in second (51 percent), and SEO ranking third at 45 percent.

In contrast, the metrics I would rate most important — sales lead quality (44 percent) and sales lead quantity (43 percent) (especially if the content is appearing on a website) — came in fourth and fifth, respectively. Direct sales were rated only sixth as an important metric (with only 40 percent of survey respondents rating it as important). Interestingly, a benchmark lift for product/service awareness was rated 12th (26 percent) among important metrics, yet content marketers surveyed rated “brand awareness” as the most important goal of their content marketing efforts.

What is the CEO or the CMO going to do with website traffic as the lead metric? That’s an activity, not a results measurement. Crowd-pleasing metrics like activity at the expense of results or quantity at the expense of quality are really just comb-overs. Even if marketers accept these as the standard measurement currency, there are still important questions that aren’t getting asked, such as:

  • What is the outcome of more followers/likes/traffic?
  • How has SEO directly impacted performance or profit?
  • What’s the relationship between more traffic to the website and revenue?
  • What kinds of content drive the most leads?
  • What do those metrics tell us about our customers?

Do marketers have the right goals in place for their content marketing efforts?

Another clue in solving the “33 percent effectiveness” problem can be found in the data rating marketing goals.

There are certain outcomes that content marketing delivers on very, very well. I’d suggest the top three goals for content marketing should be lead generation, customer acquisition, and sales. Findings in a recent survey of 815 LinkedIn groups supports this view, with lead generation being the most common content marketing goal for B2B tech marketers, cited by 71 percent of respondents (followed by thought leadership and marketing education at 50 percent and customer acquisition at 45 percent). However, Australian marketers surveyed rated these goals much less important: Lead generation came in third, customer acquisition fourth, and sales eighth.

If marketers realigned their goals to play to the strengths of content marketing — like lead generation and sales — perhaps that effectiveness metric would shift north of 33 percent. Again, a disconnect among these goals emerged within the data — only 45 percent of Australian marketers surveyed tailored their content marketing efforts to stages in the buying cycle — typically awareness, interest, consideration, purchase, support, loyalty, and advocacy. Content should be created to address a customer problem and then guide them from that point. 

More content produced on a lower budget: The quality issue

Australian marketers surveyed are producing more content on a lower budget than their U.S. and UK counterparts. This can be a smart play — depending on the recommendations derived from the content marketing strategy. However, based on the fact that only 52 percent of marketers actually have a documented content marketing strategy, I think this falls in the “not smart” category.

Think about it in terms of effective content optimization (i.e., creating multiple content formats from a single format): Infographics can easily be converted into motion graphics with little effort; nuggets from thought leadership videos/interviews can serve as the basis for articles; articles can be further dissected for use as social media content; PowerPoint presentations can be reformatted for sharing on SlideShare. It’s hard to tell if that kind of optimization is going on. But based on that gloomy 33 percent effectiveness metric, I suspect that, for most marketers surveyed, the answer is no. 

How to avoid “crashing the Ferrari” 

There are some quick wins to be had and some long-term thinking to be applied. There’s also a need to understand the general shift in marketing that’s occurring. Digital marketing efforts are becoming a lot more transparent (thanks to the growing number of online metrics available), nimble (data analysis enables quick tweaks of marketing efforts), and considerate of audience fragmentation — and marketers’ efforts need to recognize this.

  • Pull together a content marketing strategy: There’s plenty of free content out there providing a wealth of information on the questions that need answering in developing a content marketing strategy.
  • Diversify content formats: Visual content is just as important and, for some target audiences and content goals, a lot more effective than written content. Fifty percent of our brain is used in visual processing and, for younger target audiences, it’s the primary format they engage with. And it’s not just younger audiences that prefer it — time-poor audiences also like to grasp complex stories quickly in visual format. Plus, visual content is fun! 
  • Choose the right the goal: Good content marketing products should work tirelessly for your business. Traditionally, million-dollar TV ads have measured their success in terms of brand awareness. Content marketing works a little differently. Brand awareness is an important part of the story — but the key is lead conversion and collecting and measuring behavior-based data. Content products are the refueling stops on the road to customer conversion — from education to purchase. Understanding this journey, and the data it captures, should be aligned with content marketing goals. Conversion aligns marketing with sales — that’s business nirvana, right?
  • Don’t benchmark success with dumb metrics: Be smart here. If your key metric is something as nebulous as web traffic, you better have the answer ready when the CMO asks for the direct relationship between web traffic and revenue. Comb-overs don’t make anyone look good.

Is it likely that 2014 will build on that 33 percent effectiveness metric? 

Yes. Marketing is becoming more data-driven than ever before. I’m not suggesting that advertising creatives will cease working on the brilliant Big Idea, but what I am saying, is a lot of the heavy lifting is going to be done through content marketing efforts — put some thinking behind the effort, and you’ll be happily cruising north of 33 percent in that Ferrari, instead of straight into the wall.

I’ve also captured the ideas presented in this blog in an infographic: Content Marketing in Australia: Are We Doing it Right?

Looking for more insight on how to improve the effectiveness of your content marketing? Register to attend Content Marketing World Sydney, March 31 – April 2, 2014.