The ugly truth: Simple math behind your failed content / inbound marketing

Published: Tuesday, October 29, 2013

For a while, content and inbound marketing have been the approach de jour for self-proclaimed “marketing gurus” supposedly leading the way for a more consumer-focused approach to marketing and advertising.

In simple terms, a content marketing strategy is based on creating/curating content (usually in the form of blogs/ebooks/white papers) as a way to grow organic search visibility and attract customers “on their terms”.

The proliferation of inbound marketing is born largely from the push for SEO. That is, the central premise that more content = more pages to be indexed by search engines = more web traffic = more customers.

Essentially, “blog and pray”. (Okay, I’ll give some credit to the SEO folks who are mining data and putting some sort of strategy behind the content — but it’s still all predicated on love from search engines.)

SEO is the fulcrum of most content marketing strategies. It’s meant to do the heavy lifting of bringing in traffic and growing your audience — all without you spending any money on advertising or other marketing methods.

But, if this method is so effective, then why have many brands and agencies implemented it and seen little or no results?

Simply put: SEO is not a gift that keeps on giving — especially for newer brands and in crowded markets. There are only so many spots at the top of Google for any given search term. And, increasingly, delivering free web traffic to your company seems to run contrary to Google and other search engines’ best interests. They seem perfectly content to serve up relevant information directly in search results and keep searchers in their sandbox (where they can make more money from ads).

In other words: If your content marketing strategy is built on leveraging SEO for growth and exposure, you’re playing a losing game.

And, even if the SEO gates weren’t on their way down, it would almost certainly take years — if ever — to grow any sizable audience by simply publishing content in a vacuum. My second bit of bad news to bear is that tweeting out your blog posts to 5 (probably fake) followers isn’t going to grow your business very quickly.

More established brands may be pushing their content to a strong audience on Facebook, Twitter, Pinterest, or email. But, the majority of small brands are being wrapped up in  a much less-effective approach that starts with content and the idea that SEO will build an audience in and of itself. (Read: Just keep talking to yourself until some people find their way to your blog.)

This is where the simple math comes into play.

If we look at the mechanics of successful content marketing, we see that the math driving business success breaks down into a pretty simple formula:

A diagram showing various components that go into conversion from a content marketing strategy.

Simple, right? Okay, maybe not so simple. But, the reality is that all of these factors play a role in success. And, as we learned in math class, because this is multiplication, any of them equaling zero (or being absent) will return a zero value for the entire equation.

What I’m saying is that if your brand is creating the most earth-shattering content, backed by an incredible strategy and magnificant UX, but your immediate reach (Twitter, Facebook, email, what have you) is zero — or very small, — then your results will be severely limited. You’ve neutered your brand’s potential growth before you’ve even started.

And this is the trap that many brands have fallen into. They’ve put all of their chips on SEO and just started blogging away.

Those selling inbound marketing services / software (ahem, Hubspot) may not outright condemn paid media (ads, sponsored content, etc), but they have certainly positioned their solution as the antithesis to the “old” approach to marketing and advertising.

The implication here is that inbound marketing is much cheaper than “outbound” methods. And, this may be true in many cases. But, effective content marketing is not free. It takes a considerable investment of time and resources to create and edit great content — ask any publication. This investment can be disastrous if you’re creating content in an echo chamber and not seeing results. You could just as easily make a small investment in building an audience through advertising, sponsored content, etc, which will increase the effectiveness of your content strategy exponentially.

I believe that a well-rounded approach — where you incorporate some paid media that will help scale your audience — will be much more effective. You’ll start to see results from great content much faster if you actually have some people to show it to in the first place. Plus, the added bonus of hopefully getting some earned media (i.e., shares and retweets) that will help spread your content and continue to grow your audience — for free.

Yes, content marketing can be effective. Yes, you can create an inbound marketing machine that’s driven by content. But, starting from scratch with a content-only approach is not the holy grail of “build it and they will come” that it’s often made out as.

About me

My name is Tyler Hakes. I'm a digital strategist in Des Moines. I write and tweet about marketing, strategy, media, and technology.

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