The rise of bad content marketing advice

Columnist Rebecca Lieb believes it’s time for content marketers to put the kibosh on poor writing and link-bait and instead put content strategy ahead of tactics.

For over a decade now, I’ve had a Google News alert for the term “content marketing.” I set it up around the time I delivered my first keynote on the topic and started to write my first book on the subject.

For years, it was a lonely little feed, updated mostly when a small handful of early content marketing-obsessed colleagues (Ann Handley, Lee Odden, Ardath Albee, Kristina Halvorson, Joe Pulizzi and Robert Rose come to mind) blogged or posted on the topic. The feed was informative, illuminating, thought-provoking and just downright useful for my research and advisory work on the topic.

No more.

Now I’m seriously considering deleting the feed, which has become a sterling example of spoiling-the-commons junk advice on content marketing from self-anointed experts, gurus, divas, mavens, swamis and supreme potentates.

My feed is now filled with link-bait. Nearly every headline contains a number or promises a list, because common wisdom dictates that particular tactic encourages click-through (4 Reasons Why; 6 Reasons Why; 5 Ways to Make; 10 Make-or-Break Skills; and 7 Questions to Ask are all headlines on page one of this morning’s feed).

The writing is often appalling, editing and proofreading non-existent.

Ignoring the ‘why’ of content

But writing and click-bait aside, there’s a commonality in the bottomless pit of content marketing advice and “thought leadership” my feed has become. These articles, columns and blog posts are overwhelmingly prescriptive and highly tactical. They almost without exception start with “content marketing” and disregard the much more fundamental question of content strategy.

Their point of departure is often about how to reach a specific audience, or how to create content for a specific channel. What they almost universally disregard is the “why” of content: actual business goals.

One recent article I randomly clicked on assured readers that the first and foremost audience to target with content is to “existing customers.” That’s certainly a valid audience for many businesses, but it most definitely isn’t a recommendation that’s universally valid.

What if the company’s priority is attracting new clients or customers? More qualified leads? Shortening the time that those leads take to convert? Creating content for different stages in the customer journey?

What if goals aren’t even sales-oriented? For example, perhaps the need is to demonstrate thought leadership in the industry, to create brand favorability.

Then there are all those “content marketing” how-tos that are channel-, rather than strategy-oriented. Lately, these have been Snapchat-heavy, due to the company’s recent IPO. But just because Snapchat is attracting attention this week doesn’t mean it’s for everyone. (Moreover, Snapchat is more of a channel and a tactic than a strategy.)

These types of prescriptive, formulaic, devoid-of-strategic-oversight articles are what give content marketing a bad name. We’ve entered the eye-rolling phase of content, when noise overwhelms signal.

And we’ve seen it all before. Ten years ago, this happened to social media. The carpetbaggers moved in, and suddenly marketers branding themselves as social media experts were crawling out of the woodwork.

I wrote about one of these social media wannabes in August 2009. Here’s an excerpt:

This social media “expert” launched a blog in July 2008. She managed three entries last calendar year, and an equal number so far this year. Six entries in 13 months on a blog with no comments, no categories, and no keywords? No thank you. Over to Twitter, then. Our social media workshop leader has been on Twitter for a scant five months! She’s following 19 people, and has 22 followers. She’s posted 26 times since joining (yes, counting tweets like “testing from my blackberry”). Some of those are references to articles she’s published online, but without links that would help you to actually find and read them.

This species of social media fraudster is perfectly representative of the type of “expert” who is quick to migrate to the next shiny new object. We had them in email, we had them in search, then social, now content.

I can’t yet say where they’ll turn up next, but I will end this little rant with a resounding caveat emptor.

Brands seeking service providers need to conduct due diligence. And put strategy ahead of tactics.

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