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How to Battle 7 “Sins” that Derail Content Marketing Success

devil-angel-sins and absolution-successful content marketingThey push for a “hard sell” when the target audience isn’t looking for an advertisement. They’re passive-aggressive about critical deadlines. And they’ll never tell you what they want when they demand a redo on content you produced (they only give less-than-constructive criticisms, like, “I Hate Hate Hate it!” before bouncing it back to you. Grrrr…).

Content marketing professionals serve challenging clients and internal stakeholders like these all the time. Fortunately, most clients are perceptive enough to recognize their shortcomings, and try to manage them without impacting the quality of the work itself. But the reality is that there will always be those who impose obstacles that can threaten any chance they have of achieving content marketing success. 

According to the Content Marketing Institute’s report, B2B Content Marketing: 2013 Benchmarks, Budgets, and Trends-North America, only 36 percent of B2B marketers say they are effective at content marketing. As any content marketer can attest, all it takes is one difficult client and/or internal corporate stakeholder to make it feel like content success is unlikely, if not impossible.

With this in mind, let’s take a look at the top seven “sins” of challenging clients/internal stakeholders to successful content marketing, along with some expert recommendations on how to defuse these situations and move forward in the right direction:

The sinner: The sales director who insists that every piece of content must “sell, sell, sell.” For her, great content looks, reads, and smells like an advertorial. You, however, realize this will kill chances of placement success and target-audience engagement.

The path to absolution: Demonstrate that the competition for the audience’s attention is immense. According to data compiled by, there are 1.6 million blogs, 140 million Tweets, 1.5 billion Facebook content posts/status updates/comments, 2 million videos and 5 million images created every day online. Oh, and there are 60,000 new websites added every 24 hours, too.

Because there’s so much content out there, users are especially quick to detect corporate shilling thinly disguised as helpful content. “In a businesslike manner, you need to explain how we live in an age in which people open their mail over garbage cans and watch TV with their thumbs ready to press ‘fast forward’ on their DVR once the commercials start,” says Rachel Parker, President/owner of Houston-based Resonance Content Marketing. “If they get the slightest inkling that your content is a dressed-up infomercial, they’ll be clicking on the next blog or eNewsletter or video.”

To present a winning alternative plan, turn the tables and “sell” said sales director — on the reality that the audience primarily seeks to learn from brand content. The voice of respected authority always trumps that of a self-serving vendor. “You introduce evidence that the best way to increase sales is to advise, enlighten, and share,” says Lisa Tilt, president of Full Tilt Consulting, a brand development/marketing firm in Atlanta. “You convince [that] sales director that you’re in competition for the audience’s trust, which you gain through your teaching, not your selling. Then, you build upon it by being highly personal, inventive and interesting.”

The sinner: The COO who insists that every single “brilliant” word he has ever written must be included in content — even if that content is a 300-word blog post.

The path to absolution: Actually, this is easier to resolve than you’d think. In fact, you can turn it into a “win-win” by breaking up the COO’s luminous ponderings into individual pieces. If it’s a blog or podcast, make it a multi-part one. Or suggest that you repurpose the material as something more ambitious, like a white paper. If you go this route, the blog can serve as a short teaser to draw the target audience to the longer paper.

“By proposing this, you drive home the message that words of wisdom will overwhelm an audience if heard all at once,” says Frederic Chanut, Managing Director of Manly, Australia-based marketing agency In Marketing We Trust. “Lao-Tsu did not dispense his whole “Tào Té Chīng” teachings in one seating, but by producing a series of classes for his disciples.”

There are many benefits to this strategy. First, you generate more content to promote the brand. Second, you’ll engage verbose executives by turning them into “stars” of a series or long paper. (Flattery is your friend here.)

“Progressively distilling down the knowledge into a series of easily digestible content pieces can more effectively demonstrate, and even increase, its value,” Chanut says. “Present the idea as a prime opportunity to build the executive’s personal brand, in addition to the corporate one.”

The sinner: The regional director agreed to be interviewed for a client case study, only to clam up on the phone. He leaves you, the content marketer, feeling like you need a crowbar just to get him to open his mouth, let alone say something remotely usable.

The path to absolution: Remember what you learned in a basic interviewing class: The more open-ended the question, the better. An inquiry such as, “What do you think of the state of the widget industry today?” may work. But a terse exec will more likely open up if you provide them with some parameters, like, “Could you list three driving trends that are shaping the widget industry today?

But before you start interviewing, try to engage. These execs will loosen up if you express interest in their backgrounds and interests. Impress them with your knowledge of their career (you always check their LinkedIn profile and/or company-site biography before interviewing someone, right?). Make sure you’re up on all of the very latest industry trends and market drivers, so you can discuss them in-depth.

When you segue to the interview, don’t resort to scripted questions. Stick to important topic points, but be flexible enough to ask insightful follow-ups and even detour into a subject area that seems interesting — especially if the exec gets on a roll.

Also remember that certain executives and other interviewees may clam up because they worry, in mid-interview, how every word they utter will look in print. “This is quite common,” Chanut says. “So put their minds at ease by offering to send a draft for review. You establish very amenable ‘rules’ up front about what can be shared and what can’t. If they’re still uncomfortable, then you probably need to switch from doing a phone interview to either an in-person setting or via email. Every executive is different. Some open up in person, and others really get their thoughts flowing in email.” 

The sinner: The CFO who speaks in nothing but arcane terminology and insider jargon.

The path to absolution: A safe initial approach is to explain how a content piece loaded with esoteric “inside baseball” references is going to misfire with, oh, probably 90 percent of the potential target audience. “We strongly emphasize content marketing for building our clients’ brands,” says Caitlin Dodds, a SEO specialist with Lancaster, Pa.-based agency, Web Talent Marketing. “When we run into this, we gently explain how this kind of content isn’t going to get them any links, or engagement, or readers, or customers.”

And if that doesn’t work?

“Then I ask them, ‘What kind of content do you like to read – especially when you’re exploring an unfamiliar subject area?‘ ” Dodds says. “They realize that they’re seeking to educate, so they usually get it. They then understand that web users and readers want the same, direct easy-to-digest content that they do.”

OK, so what if even that doesn’t work? That’s when Dodds resorts to her heavier artillery:

“If I need to push the point, I’ll provide them examples that the competition has produced,” she says. “If we’re still not on the same page, I’ll suggest doing a test in which we post one blog with lots of jargon and another without. Then we compare the numbers: traffic, time spent on the page, click-throughs and more. In most cases, the data will convince them.”

The sinner: The chief legal officer who sits on content drafts and other materials needing approval right up to — or beyond — their deadlines. His frequent delays damage your relationship with industry press editors, cause you to miss industry award submission deadlines, and mess up the timing of content for product launches.

The path to absolution: Let’s start with establishing a sense of perspective on the part of you, the content deliverer. Because whenever you deal with an organization of any kind, you should keep in mind that there are often greater priorities that come up. “Your content may not be as important as a critical, last-minute, lengthy legal doc that the same team of execs must review in-depth,” says Arienne Holland, Communications Director at Raven Internet Marketing Tools, an online marketing software company based in Nashville. “Or a great video you made promoting a product’s new ‘holy cow!’ feature may go on hiatus because the tech side found an operational flaw in the feature, and IT is too swamped in trying to fix it to give the marketing people a ‘heads up.’ Don’t be angry. Be flexible.”

With the right demeanor, you can nip tardiness early by establishing ground rules in the very beginning of the process, as opposed to waiting until you’ve invested a ton of time into content creation.

“Make sure everyone knows the goals, and why they’ll benefit the product, and company,” Holland says. “Assign roles and make it clear as to what will happen if deadline targets are missed. Send status update emails to the entire team, which reinforces the accountability of all involved.”

Parker performs “end-arounds” on procrastinating parties by making it as easy on them as possible: If the content has been sitting in limbo forever awaiting corporate approval, she swings into proactive mode. “I’ll ask them how I can help,” she says. “For example, ‘Would it be easier to review changes over the phone instead of typing them into the doc? What about an email?’

Don’t be afraid to demonstrate to clients/stakeholders the consequences of tardiness, such as how much they’re losing in SEO rankings because their website content is stale. “We’ve shown them measurable losses in traffic and rankings,” says Alex Turbett, Digital Marketing Associate at allwebcafe, an agency in Philadelphia. “Showing these slips emphasizes the importance of hitting deadlines and staying on schedule.”

The sinner: The marketing VP who will only say things like, “I don’t like the way this is phrased…” or “This section doesn’t work for me,” without offering any real feedback on what she would like to see.

The path to absolution: To be candid, there really is no magic-bullet remedy here. These kinds of executives usually have overall communications issues. Or they may harbor unrealistic expectations of a content marketer’s ability to “fix” anything. (Or they could simply be impatient, self-important and not-particularly-nice people, but for sanity’s sake, let’s assume that isn’t really the case.)

But, like members of your family, you can’t pick the executives to whom you’re assigned. So you must work well and play nicely with all of them. For opaque types, try pushing the conversation just a bit by offering multiple remedies. Naturally, it never hurts to appear as if you’re on the same page with their thinking — as in: “You know what? You’re right. The paragraph always bothered me too, but I couldn’t quite figure out a better way before I had to send it along. Since then, I’ve had time to think about it, and here are three alternative routes to express the same perspective which could work…

This enables you to both empower and force the hand of the executive. The ball, as they say, is moved to their court. So you’re setting up the outcome you seek, while aligning yourself with the executive instead of potentially alienating him or her with an even slightly confrontational response.

But what if the exec replies with something to the effect of, “I don’t have time… are you asking me to do your job for you?” In this case, it’s safe to say that you have a very tough nut to crack. The exec is essentially saying, “Use your judgment and don’t bother me,” which is exactly what you should do: Suck it up. Trust your instincts. And try, try again until you hit the right notes.

The sinner: The CEO who feels his product/service is so clearly superior to any others that even the highest-profile content outlets should be knocking down his door to cover it. He perceives of anything less than a profile in Forbes to be a failure, even when content placed in lower-profile industry press would reach his target audience more successfully.

The path to absolution: This seems like a perennial problem with clients/internal stakeholders. On the one hand, these execs demand ROI on their content spend. But on the other, the placements that generally deliver the best ROI aren’t really the sexy ones. And let’s face it: Every CEO’s bucket list probably includes, “Get my head shot printed as one of those ‘dot’ portraits on the front page of the Wall Street Journal.

You can counter hubris with (surprise) an appeal to the ego. True, the marquee placements are great. But they’re typically one-offs. You have your day in the sun, and then the heavy media hitters move on to tomorrow’s cover story. With niche publications, on the other hand, you build opportunities for residual, routine placements — perhaps as a regular columnist or blog/executive byline contributor. And this can often trigger eventual placement in the A-lister publications (especially if you explain that the writers and editors at the top-tier media outlets often come up with their topic ideas from the niche ones).

“I explain that smaller press leads to bigger media coverage down the line,” says Adam Grunwerg, Managing Director of, a digital-marketing firm in London. “If you demonstrate how you constantly position yourself and your company as a brand leader in a smaller outlet, then you’ll gain the traction with the bigger ones. Especially when the stories on the smaller sites are shared with larger ones. But you have to present a convincing case that a time investment is required, and that starting with smaller news stories and blogs greatly helps.”

Love the sinner (thereby fixing the sin)

Ultimately, the secret to dealing with the “sins” committed by difficult content marketing clients boils down to a lesson that’s literally as old as the scriptures: Follow the Golden Rule. Yes, you were hired for your content-marketing savvy. But you can’t just steamroll clients and other stakeholders into following your path to content marketing enlightenment. You’ll likely find that defaulting to kinder, gentler, and more gradually paced tactics will ultimately produce greater payoffs.

Perhaps Caitlyn Dodds says it best: “Having the right attitude makes all the difference. When you’re patient and understanding, your advice and ideas go much farther than they would if you attempt to force them upon people. After all, they are paying your salary.”

For more ideas on how to break down the barriers to successful content marketing, read Joe Pulizzi’s new book, Epic Content Marketing: How to Tell a Different Story, Break Through the Clutter, and Win More Customers by Marketing Less.

Cover image via Bigstock