5 Signs Your Content Marketing Sucks — and How to Fix It

5 Signs Your Content Marketing Sucks — and How to Fix It Featured Image

Content marketing is hard.

I know that sounds a bit negative, but it’s something most people don’t talk about given all the glitz and glamour and buzzwords that fly around about how content marketing is the best thing since sliced bread. The truth is content marketing can have a massive positive impact — but there are a lot of things that can go wrong.

Here are five signs your content marketing isn’t going well and some ideas on how to fix your content marketing problems.

1. You Have No Documentation

Is your content marketing strategy written down? Do you have style guides, content calendars, and creative briefs? If not, there’s a good chance your content marketing sucks and you don’t even know it.

Documentation is tangible evidence that your strategy has been carefully planned and vetted. If a strategy isn’t documented, it’s really just wishes and prayers.

What feels like an extra or annoying step (writing everything down) is actually a mission-critical effort, and here are three reasons why:

  • Documentation makes your strategy future-proof.
    When a strategy lives inside the heads of just one or two people in your organization, it’s impossible to effectively pass it on. Things will be lost in translation and left open to interpretation, and if one of those people leaves, he takes his knowledge (and your strategy) with him.
  • Documentation gives you a reference point.
    How will you know you’ve succeeded in the future? Having a documented strategy means you’ll be able to look back on your original goals, personas, and plans and either see how far you’ve come or assess where things need to be changed. If you don’t know where you started, you have no idea how you’re really performing.
  • Documentation makes you accountable.
    When goals, benchmarks, and personas are documented and easily referenced, they become tangible. Whoever is in charge becomes responsible for hitting those numbers and orchestrating your effort. This creates an incentive to track numbers and monitor what’s happening instead of coasting along, and it sets a precedent that will carry forward as your strategy is executed.

How to fix it: Start documenting things!

Create a document outlining your goals, objectives, and key metrics to watch.
Assign reasonable timelines over which to measure their success.

Build a persona source sheet that outlines, in detail, who your targeted audiences are.
You can use abbreviated versions in a pull-sheet when hiring creative talent to bring them up to speed on who they’re trying to reach.

Compile a style guide.
Make sure it outlines brand tone and voice as well as any other creative considerations (how to cite sources, how to include images, what fonts should be used, etc.).

Plan your content initiatives in a content calendar.
Outline what will be created, when, and by whom. You may also want to include notes about your promotional strategy and add in success stats post-mortem for a convenient, at-a-glance look at your most successful content over time.

Implement a reporting process.
Document your progress along the way and monitor how your key metrics are moving across time. Keep it short, to the point, and actionable.

2. You Keep Running Out of Ideas

If you’re constantly scrambling for a blog post topic at the 11th hour, it’s a sign you haven’t put the necessary time and attention into your content ideation process.

It’s also usually an indication that you’re burning up budget — whether that’s staring blankly at a screen and praying for inspiration or creating things you’re not sure will work because you’ve got a deadline to hit.

Businesses tend to want to jump straight to the creation phase of the content marketing process, overlooking and underestimating the importance of a strong ideation process. Just knowing who your customers are and what your business does is NOT enough information to start producing blog posts.

How to fix it: Improve your ideation process and make use of repurposing.

Fuel ideation with research.
The very best content ideas come from eavesdropping on your customers. What you want is to find places where people are talking about the kinds of products you offer, the pain points/questions they have, and the solutions they’re looking for.

Some places to start:

  • Reddit. Not only are there keyword-searchable communities on virtually everything under the sun, you can also sort by most popular content to see what’s done well in the past. If you can find any niche-specific forums (subreddits), those will also be excellent tools for monitoring conversations.
  • Übersuggest. This tool collects all of the most popular searches surrounding your chosen keyword — perfect for seeing what people are really looking for.
  • Quora. This Q&A website is loaded with learning opportunities. Pick a topic and dig in to see popular questions your content could answer.
  • Topsy. Scan the latest on Twitter to see what people are sharing, asking, and contemplating. It’s a great tool for finding trending topics you can capitalize on with your own content.

Your sales team. Your salespeople are dealing with customers on a daily basis and will hear all of the most common questions and concerns. Ask them for their insights, and pick their brains for things you could create to alleviate those fears and answer those questions.

Do large ideation sessions all at once to generate several ideas beforehand.
Creating a huge database of ideas to draw from will help you avoid sitting there and wondering what to create next.

If you’ve got even a small team (and not necessarily everyone has to be a designated “content creator”; salespeople and other internal staff work too) you can use the 6-3-5 exercise to generate a huge number of ideas in just a half hour:

Get six people together. Starting with a problem statement or goal of the customer’s, give everyone five minutes of silence to write down just three ideas on a blank sheet of paper. When the five minutes are up, have them pass the sheet on to the person next to them — and repeat until a half hour has passed.  This will generate a huge list of raw ideas you can then cut down after the exercise is over.

Repurpose.
The single best way to save money and time on content creation is repurposing. The concept of repurposing is remarkably simple but very underutilized:

Start with one core, big idea and plan a “cornerstone” asset — the largest, most involved asset you will create. Then, conduct thorough, detailed research, citing all your sources and keeping it incredibly organized. Finally, plan how you can use this same research in multiple pieces and across multiple formats: Stats can become tweetables and infographics, detailed research can become a series of blog posts, the same blog posts can be rewritten with a different audience in mind and turned into guest posts — and so on. Get more leverage out of each and every idea instead of constantly trying to reinvent the wheel!

3. You Have No Engagement

You’ve created it — and nobody is checking it out. No tweets, no comments, no links — nothing. If that sounds like the impact your content marketing is having, any number of things have gone wrong in your process, and unlike the other two things we’ve already talked about, fixes will be a lot less straightforward.

Some things to investigate:

Do you really have the right personas?
Are you sure you really know who your customers are? Now might be a good time to check over who you’re targeting and whether or not you really understand that audience. The process of building and verifying personas is very involved, but the best post I know on the matter comes from Mike King: “Personas: The Art and Science of Understanding the Person Behind the Visit.”

Are you creating content that answers legitimate pain points?
Perhaps it’s not that you don’t know your audience — it’s that you’re not answering questions they’re really asking. If your content is answering questions nobody is asking, nobody has any reason to check it out. To solve this problem, go back to the content ideation phase I talked about earlier and do some in-depth research.

Are you using quality content creators?
If your ideas are good and you’re targeting the right audience, maybe your execution is to blame. This is most common when you’re outsourcing content on the cheap or trying to force internal staff to become content creators when it’s really not their forte.

Great content creators tend to come at a premium, because you’re not just paying someone to write words — you’re paying for their ability to conduct research and make your topic interesting, unique, and on-brand. If your content is simply “me too” content being churned out by overworked overseas people, then there’s nothing remarkable for your audience to latch on to and no reason to come calling.

Consider scaling down the amount of content you’re creating and devoting that budget to someone who is truly talented and outstanding in your niche.

Are you actively and adequately promoting your content?
More than anything else, a lack of promotion is the real reason most content gets almost no engagement. If the extent of your promotion is tweeting your pieces from your own corporate account — or worse, hoping “SEO” will do the trick of ranking them for you — you’re doing it wrong.

To fix this, consider the channels you have available: owned, earned, and paid. There’s an excellent piece by Matt Gratt of Buzzstream on this concept, but in summary:

  • Owned media channels are those you directly control — usually social accounts and email lists. The limitation here is that you can only reach people who either already follow you or who you contact directly (e.g., tweeting your piece at an influencer). These channels are great for reaching your immediate audience but not so great for audience-building itself.
  • Paid media channels get a bad rap because the era of “inbound” has made paying for exposure feel like a carnal sin. That said, you overlook paid channels at your own peril. Whether it’s services like Taboola or Outbrain that place your content on other relevant sites, paid StumbleUpon traffic, or Adwords ads (extremely useful for marketing your cornerstone assets like guides and whitepapers), paid channels are  excellent for reaching audiences who have never heard of you before. Twitter and Facebook both offer paid services with varying degrees of targeting ability to help you reach people who might be interested in your content.
  • Earned media is that coveted “word of mouth” content marketers dearly hope for. That said, it’s the hardest to cultivate, and doing so will usually mean you need to saddle up and do some targeted outreach. Stephanie Beadell put together a tremendous guide to outreach a year ago that rings true to this day. Some of the earned channels you can deliberately target include industry hubs (think major publications in your niche or adjacent niches), influencers (though they have a many-to-one level of impact, be advised that earning the attention of an influencer can be a challenge), guest blogging opportunities, and prominent placement on aggregator sites like Reddit or Hacker News (which usually necessitates some sort of relationship with the community).

4. Your Audience Is Leaving

Maybe you’ve had success in the past, but you’re noticing your numbers are starting to dwindle. People are tuning you out, and the audience you worked so hard to capture is packing their bags and heading elsewhere for their information. This is a clear sign that things have fallen off the horse and you need to start rethinking your approach.

How to fix it:

In addition to a lack of promotion (which we’ve just discussed), there are many reasons an audience might tune out:

They no longer relate to your content.
There’s a real tendency for businesses to start writing about what they care about instead of what interests their audience. If this is the case, it’s time to head back to the ideation phase and evaluate whether you’re answering questions people are really asking.

Your signal-to-noise ratio is poor.
If you’ve inundated your audience with loads of content and ceaseless promotion, they may have come to see you as more of a nuisance than a trusted source of information. If you suspect this might be the case, scale down your production and focus on creating fewer, more compelling assets and promoting them adequately instead of fragmenting that time and budget across multiple projects.

You’re publishing too infrequently.
The opposite of the previous problem. Maybe you publish so little that your audience has simply forgotten you exist. If you’re publishing hardly anything at all or haven’t published in months, it’s time to revisit your content calendar and plan out a sustainable, consistent effort you can manage across time.

Your content is inconsistent.
If your tone and voice vary wildly, your audience has no idea what to expect and has no personality or expectation of your content they can latch on to. If you’re using multiple content creators or have no documentation in place, this is a likely culprit. Fixing the problem means coming up with some documentation and uniting your creators around it.

5. You’re Not Seeing Any Monetary ROI

To be clear: There are many different kinds of returns on investment for content marketing, from increasing your audience and solving customer problems to improving your rankings in search engines. But if you’re not seeing any tangible growth in your financials, something has definitely gone amiss.

Be careful with this one: Content marketing efforts take time and energy to ramp up, and it’s almost never the case that you get a fast and immediate return if you’re just joining the fray. But if it’s been over six months and nothing has changed, you’ve got a problem to sort out.

How to fix it:

One of the most common reasons businesses see no return on their content investments is because they overlook the importance of having content for every stage of the funnel. A blog is nice, but do you have adequate content to help a person make the journey from interest and awareness all the way to purchase — or are you just entertaining people?

To solve the problem, you need to conduct a content audit:

  • Start by mapping out the different stages of your customers’ buying cycle and the questions/pain points your unique customer will have at every stage: awareness, evaluation, and purchase.
  • Next, take stock of all the content your company has produced over time, grouping the different pieces into the different stages of the funnel.
  • Where do you see gaps? Where is your content leaving customers hanging or failing to nurture them into the next stage of the funnel? You may lack content that’s useful for closing the deal, or perhaps you’ve overlooked the kind of content that helps people evaluate your offering and make comparisons to competitors. Whatever the case, you now have a sense of what needs to be created.

When you can close the gaps in the funnel, you can capture more leads and avoid the leakage that happens when information is incomplete.

When the Going Gets Tough, the Tough Think Critically

All of the problems I’ve outlined are things you need to be aware of, and my final point is that content marketing — no matter how well documented or how good your process — cannot be left to run on autopilot. Awareness is half the battle, so take stock of your campaigns and be mindful of where improvements can be made. Content marketing might be hard, but those who persevere will be the ones who ultimately bring home the bacon.

Do you need to freshen up your content marketing?

If your content isn’t performing, then it might be time to make some changes to your content strategy. Digital Current’s team has over a decade of experience making search marketing campaigns perform at the maximum, giving you more performance and more conversions for your sales funnel.

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