Why I think there's no such thing as content marketing in B2B

In the most recent issue of B2B Marketing magazine, I was interviewed for a column featuring opposing viewpoints on some of the most debated topics in our profession. For my interview, the focus was on ‘content marketing’, quite possibly my biggest bugbear in all of B2B marketing.

Marketing begins with strategy, full stop

Make no mistake, ‘content marketing’ is not a strategy, although clearly, content is an important part of every marketing activity. My issue with it is that when we as marketers start with a tactic – e.g. producing content – we neglect and often completely ignore everything else we need to be thinking about in order to effectively engage with and provide value for our customers.

Yet, there remains a fundamental confusion between strategy and tactics, and a complete lack of integration or alignment to or within the wider marketing mix. Many of us simply don’t understand what marketing strategy is and how to develop it. We create our marketing plans and call them strategy. We constantly and incorrectly use the word strategy to describe what we do on a tactical level.

Marketing strategy is all about where, how and why our organisations deliver value to and engage with customers in our markets. Tactics are then the who, what and when we deliver on that strategy. Simply put, we first segment our markets and make decisions on where we focus our time and resources, and how we position and differentiate our brands against the competition. Then we develop clear objectives for each target segment, articulating the outcome(s) we're trying to achieve. Only then should we start to think about the execution and which specific tactics, tools and channels we might use to achieve the outcomes that our businesses require.

Despite our obsession with it, ‘content marketing’ continues to distract us from our real job as marketers, which isn’t about the tactics at all, it’s about the strategic decisions that underpin the choices we make as marketers. Yet, we've become so focused on producing content that we’ve forgotten to do the actual marketing of it. And this is worrying for me: that we're treating ‘content marketing’ as if it's all there is to marketing, separate to what we do as marketers.

What is ‘content marketing’ anyways?

Apparently, it’s all about the destination: that it’s content marketing if you're creating organically discoverable content and driving customers to your own ‘brand-owned destination’ – or in other words, to your website.

That’s fine. And even just a few years ago, this approach alone would likely still generate some decent results. But we live in a world of ever-increasing content overload and the problems begin when we believe that content marketing is all we need to ‘do’ as marketers.

"Contrary to what we’ve been told, there is no such thing as content marketing"

While it’s great that there’s continuing attention placed on the content we produce and that we’re creating more valuable online resources for our customers, too many of us are still missing the point. Contrary to what we’ve been told, there is no such thing as content marketing. It’s one part of the marketing mix – a tactic – and it’s what marketing has always done.

Because marketing is impossible without content. Content is what we use to engage with our customers – whether it’s written, verbal, auditory or visual. And regardless of the marketing tactics or channels, content is a part of every element of the marketing mix. What we really need to be asking ourselves is not what content we want to create, but what engagement we want to have with our customers. Like the over-dependence upon ‘digital’ as a descriptor for marketing, a focus on content marketing implies a tactical choice before understanding what we are trying to achieve, for both our brands and our customers.

‘Content marketing’ is ultimately failing us

Even the Content Marketing Institute’s (CMI) annual survey continues to highlight this failure year after year. In late September, the company published the 2018 B2B Content Marketing Benchmarking Report (North America).

The headline finding for this year’s research is that "content marketing is finally maturing", as evidenced by "an 18% year-over-year increase in respondents who say they are focused on using content marketing to build their audience (one or more subscriber bases)". Although the data point here is incorrect (it’s actually a 12% – not 18% – increase from 68% to 80%), let’s look more closely at this conclusion and the rest of the findings.

My expectation is that if content marketing is ‘finally maturing’, B2B marketers should be realising more success with the approach. So, as I’ve done for the past two years, I compared the data year-on-year:

Is content marketing the ‘only marketing’ in B2B? Image

I found this chart rather startling. Keeping in mind that last year’s survey reflected a three-year downward trend in every category, what is this year actually telling us?

  • Clarity around what successful content marketing looks like across the organisation wasn’t even asked this year, yet...
  • Fully 80% of respondents feel their organisation is focused on building audiences (one or more subscriber bases), implying that this is what successful content marketing looks like. And while this is a 12% increase from 2017, for the past two years, the top goal and focus for content marketers (and by extension their organisations) was lead generation. This is an abrupt about-face for content marketers and suggests an ongoing struggle to measure their effectiveness.
  • 62% say their organisation is realistic about what content marketing can achieve. This indicates to me that content marketing is not fulfilling its promise and should be a worrying statistic for content marketers. It implies that B2B marketers are increasingly concerned about what content marketing is actually achieving and suggests a growing sense that ‘content marketing’ alone cannot achieve their objectives.
  • Furthermore, only 24% of respondents feel their content marketing efforts are extremely or very successful, which is essentially no change at all from previous years.
  • More respondents do feel their organisations are sophisticated or mature content marketers – 34% as opposed to 28% in 2017. But I’m not really sure what this means. If we are becoming more sophisticated, shouldn't we be achieving greater success?
  • There is no change at all in how many of us have a documented content marketing strategy (only 37%). Yet, as in past years, the survey specifically asks about the elements of the strategy and every single one of those elements are elements of a plan, not a strategy.
  • Fewer of us will increase our spending next year, but I’m still concerned that fully 38% will continue to increase spending on a tactic that doesn't appear to be delivering the kind of success it should.
  • Email remains the top distribution channel this year – at 93% it’s the same as last year.

But the most concerning finding for me this year is that only 35% of respondents measure content marketing ROI, a huge drop from last year’s 72%. And of those 35% who measure ROI, only 19% say there's excellent or very good alignment of their metrics with their goals. When I looked deeper into the data, respondents said that measuring ROI was either too hard (38%), too time-consuming (21%), or they didn’t know how (27%).​

"Content marketing is simply not fulfilling its promise"

I find this astonishing. Not the data itself, which doesn’t actually surprise me, but what the data suggests, which is that content marketers are really struggling. Yet despite the findings of this and other surveys going back a number of years, too few of us are asking the right questions or attempting to change the conversation.

Content marketing is simply not fulfilling its promise. And despite the continuing hype, all the data appears to support that conclusion.

What can we do? I believe too many people are professionally invested in content marketing to eradicate the term from our marketing language. But we can start to think differently about it: by thinking first about marketing in its entirety, with content as one element of the whole. A critical part, surely, but by returning to and focusing on the marketing fundamentals - brand, strategy and customers – we just might find our efforts make more of an impact. And this is what makes great B2B marketers, not just 'content marketers'.

I explore these and other issues further in my new book – B2B Marketing Strategy: differentiate, develop and deliver lasting customer engagement – now available to pre-order from Kogan Page publishers and Amazon everywhere.

B2B Marketing magazine – Autumn 2017

Autumn 2017's edition of the B2B Marketing magazine features three stellar examples of paid social media marketing, the ins and outs of GDPR and what this means for B2B, and two marketers going head-to-head on whether content marketing is actually a thing.

Download now

B2B Marketing magazine – Autumn 2017 image