Like most marketers today, you’ve probably been following the online conversation about content marketing. And that may have left you a bit confused.
For the past few years, content marketing has been the darling of the online marketing community, hyped as the next big thing in online marketing. We’ve been barraged with blogs and articles whose advice has ranged from suggesting you should consider adding content marketing to your marketing strategy, to warning that — if you don’t get on the bandwagon — you’ll be left behind. Content marketing has been promoted as a “secret weapon” that would increase your sales, decrease your costs, make your company a “thought leader,” and crush your competition.
So, as a conscientious marketer, you may have decided to get on board and have begun some sort of content marketing efforts for your company or organization.
But now, wherever you are in that process, you may be beginning to question your decision. That’s because the internet is now barraged with “information” suggesting that content marketing is a bust. That those who have adopted a content marketing strategy are not reaping the promised harvests of profit. And that many “early adopters” are jumping ship.
What’s going on? It’s easy to blame the well-documented quixotic nature of online opinion. But that’s too easy. You want the facts. You want to know that your assessment of the value — going forward — of content marketing to your organization is grounded in reality.
Let’s start with an analogy to the content marketing perplexity drawn from popular culture.
It’s a scenario familiar to all sports fans: In the wake of a season — or two or three or more — of less than spectacular results, the once-beloved coach is dumped or “allowed to resign.” After an intensive search, a new coach is introduced amid a fanfare that promises a “turnaround,” a resurgence to the top of the pack. Boosters and fans and players are triggered into a tidal wave of enthusiasm and optimism.
And guess what? For a time, the enthusiasm and optimism are enough. The coach has all the right answers, the donors are writing checks again, the stands are packed with fans, the teams play with a renewed fire, and wins begin to add up beyond even the projections of optimists. Expectations — already high — are inflated even further.
What frequently comes next is equally predictable — sooner or later, wins get harder to come by, crowds dwindle, players sulk and rebel and struggle, the gloss fades, the “wizard” is revealed…and the enthusiasm plummets.
What’s next? Frequently, the new coach goes the way of the old, and is replaced. Once more, boosters and fans and players are triggered into a tidal wave of enthusiasm and optimism, and…well, you get the idea. It’s an all-too-familiar vicious circle. And it’s a recipe for frustration and failure.
As marketers, what can we learn from this analogy? How can we avoid the “fire the coach” cycle and make a reality-based assessment of our content marketing efforts? We can turn for help to another analogy, this one drawn from a widely recognized theory about technology adoption — the Gartner Hype Cycle.
The Gartner Hype Cycle
The pattern we’ve described closely parallels one that has been identified as operative in the world of emerging technology. There, it’s called the Gartner Hype Cycle (GHC), developed by Gartner, Inc., a leading information technology research and advisory company for more than thirty years.
According to Gartner, the GHC provides “a graphic representation of the maturity and adoption of technologies and applications, and how they are potentially relevant to solving real business problems and exploiting new opportunities.” It posits a five-step cycle, illustrated by this graph:
To summarize, each Hype Cycle drills down into the five key phases of a technology’s life cycle:
- Technology Trigger: A breakthrough kicks things off. Early reports trigger significant publicity. Usable products may not even exist and commercial viability may be yet unproven.
- Peak of Inflated Expectations: Early success stories are often accompanied by less publicized failures. Some companies take action; many do not.
- Trough of Disillusionment: Interest wanes as experiments and implementations fail to deliver. Producers fail or leave the field. Investments continue only when surviving providers improve their products to satisfy early adopters.
- Slope of Enlightenment: Examples of potential benefits begin to emerge and become more widely understood. Second- and third-generation products appear. More enterprises fund pilots; conservative companies remain cautious.
- Plateau of Productivity: Mainstream adoption takes off. The technology’s broad market significance is clearly paying off.
Content Marketing and the Hype Cycle
Let’s look at a recent article by Joe Pulizzi, marketing guru and a founder of the Content Marketing Institute (CMI). Pulizzi applies the GHC to the adoption by businesses and organizations of content marketing principles and strategies. Drawing on data from CMI’s recently published B2B Content Marketing: 2016 Benchmarks, Budgets, and Trends — North America, Pulizzi focuses on the first three elements of the Hype Cycle. Here’s a summary of the main points of his argument:
Technology Trigger — As the internet grew exponentially in capacity, scope, and reach, “…all companies, regardless of size, could publish on the web. At the same time consumers had unprecedented access to information.” Noting that the practice, if not the name, of content marketing has been around for hundreds of years (see CMI’s fun and informative infographic, A Brief History of Content Marketing), “the growing popularity of online content created a free flow of information for both the publisher and the consumer.”
Peak of Inflated Expectations — That surge in online content and direct access to consumers was mirrored by a surge in expectations among content marketers and their organizations, as “…content marketing [was] seen as shiny, amazing, and new.”
Trough of Disillusionment — Those inflated expectations lead — inevitably the Hype Cycle tells us — to a crash, as “…those who tried the shiny new thing realize it’s not so easy.” Result: disillusionment and anxiety and, in many cases, a reduction or abandonment of content marketing efforts.
Pulizzi doesn’t specifically address the third and fourth GHC elements: the Slope of Enlightenment — in which the benefits of content marketing begin to gain traction and recognition — and the Plateau of Productivity — in which content marketing begins to provide clear benefits to its practitioners, and that success fuels adoption by more and more businesses and organizations.
But we can extrapolate from his analogy. And we can draw on the GHC model to find ways to “dodge the cycle” and help ensure the success of our content marketing efforts. Here’s how:
7 Tips for “Dodging the Cycle” in Content Marketing
Develop and document a content marketing strategy and plan, communicate them to everyone in your organization, and execute them.
For Pulizzi, this is key: “Lots of companies bought into the hype and started what they thought was content marketing, but either didn’t have a strategy or didn’t execute it well…or both…those [who] have a strategy and continue to execute…it will win.” As we noted in a previous post, Pulizzi has said elsewhere, the CMI benchmark report showed that, “The most-effective marketers are more likely than less-effective marketers to document their content marketing strategy, have a documented editorial mission statement, and hold regular meetings.”
Base everything on clearly defined, realistic expectations and goals.
Simply put, if you know where you’re trying to go you’re much more likely to arrive there. And, given the Hype Cycle over your shoulder, realistic goals will help you dodge disillusionment, or at least diminish its proportions. This is grounded in both absolute results and timing. Recognize that content marketing will not — overnight — rescue a failing market strategy and turn stagnant returns into surging profits. Be prepared for incremental gains. And recognize that it won’t happen overnight. Fundamentally, content marketing is not about driving sales; it’s about establishing your organization as a trusted source of useful information and letting that trust enhance your market position. It will take time for those gains to be realized, for your patience and persistence to be rewarded. As Pulizzi says, “Companies focus on campaigns instead of ongoing programs, publish content that’s brand-focused rather than audience-focused, or produce content that’s undifferentiated in any way. Goals like “engagement” don’t connect to long-term results, and the lack of audience building in any way shocks and astonishes me.”
Focus efforts on being useful to your audience(s), not on hyping your brand or products.
Don’t for a moment take your eyes off the essence of content marketing. It’s not about focusing on the latest whiz-bang product, the deepest discounts, the snazziest campaign. It’s about positioning your company or organization as a trusted source of useful information, one they’ll come back to again and again. As Pulizzi puts it, it’s about, “…a focus on the needs of the audience, consistency, and a strategy that includes audience building.”
Measure your results according to the aforementioned realistic expectations.
You’re spending valuable resources to create, publish, and promote your content marketing. That means it’s essential that you monitor your results and evaluate the data you gather. And that means establishing measurable goals, basing your content firmly in those goals, and gathering metrics to determine the degree to which your content is serving your goals. (If you’re not sure how to get these metrics, ask for help from someone who does.)
Revise your goals and plans based on your measured results.
Act on what those measurements reveal, even when — especially when — they suggest that you’re not getting what you’d hoped from your efforts. But don’t give up on your process; modify it, implement it as modified, measure the results…well, as the shampoo bottle says: lather, rinse, repeat.
Maintain ongoing communication with anyone and everyone involved.
Pulizzi’s earlier article noted, “The most-effective marketers are more likely than less-effective marketers to…hold regular meetings. In fact, 61% of the most-effective B2B marketers meet daily or weekly with their content marketing team either virtually or in person. Furthermore, those who meet daily or weekly find the meetings to be more valuable (70%) than those who meet biweekly or monthly (49%).” When it comes to successful content marketing, silence is definitely not golden.
Practice patience and ignore the flak.
As the Hype Cycle suggests innovations are rarely, if ever, overnight miracles. Content marketing is no exception. There’s a virtual online blizzard of information every week about content marketing: what’s new, what’s tested, what’s working, what’s appropriate for B2B or B2C companies; large, medium, or small organizations; startups or established organizations. Much of it will be critical of content marketing. But don’t panic. Educate yourself about the content marketing results others have achieved and share the findings with others in your organization. Be prepared for an onslaught of naysayers tempting you and yours to abandon ship. Be prepared for both advances and retreats. And be prepared for achieving consistency to take time.
Evolution and Your Game Plan
Gartner Hype Cycles, in Gartner’s own words, offer, “a view of how a technology or application will evolve over time, providing a sound source of insight to manage its deployment within the context of your specific business goals.” Recognizing the inevitability of that evolution, and adopting the seven tips outlined above, will position your organization as a dependable winner — you’ll control your own destiny and realize the powerful benefits that well-designed, well-executed content marketing can provide. That’s the pathway up onto the plateau of productivity.