5 Reasons most content marketing is FAR behind where it needs to be

content marketing change

By Mark W. Schaefer

No industry has been under more attack from emerging technologies than the press. Newspapers, magazines, and other traditional media channels are failing all around us. So if you think marketing is tough in your business, step into the shoes of a newspaper publisher to really see what pressure is!

These are people who go to work every day knowing they need to move content like their careers depended on it … because it does.

I recently attended a conference on the future of technology and journalism at Columbia University’s Pulitzer Graduate School of Journalism for a glimpse of the cutting edge of content marketing. It was an eye-opening experience because it showed me that by comparison, the business world is way out of step with many cutting edge strategies.

In fact, in terms of content techniques, the business world is a sloth racing against a cheetah compared to the pace of change in mainstream journalism.

Here are five important lessons the business world we need to learn NOW from our journalism brethren:.

1) We’re not in the publishing business, we’re in the fashion business.

Nearly every day you can find this tired advice on the web: Companies need to be in the publishing business — that we need to “think like a media company.”

Perhaps that was true three years ago but it’s not true any more. Sure, we might be lucky and get somebody to click on one piece of content … and maybe even read it. But how do we get them to COME BACK again?

To achieve that, I think we need to think more like the fashion industry where there is something new, new, new happening every day in such a compelling and rapid way that we can’t look away.

How are you approaching content today? Are you answering customer questions … and then answering them again? So what happens when people get the answer to their question? How do you BUILD A CONTINUING RELATIONSHIP?

Here is an example of what I mean. My wife recently had a question and did a web search for it. I asked here if she knew where she got the answer and she replied “no.” So obviously she won’t visit that site, let alone build any kind of connection with the company behind it.

But her favorite fashion site offers something compelling, interesting, and entertaining every day. She not only visits the site often but subscribes to updates. She has an ongoing relationship with the brand and the emotional connection (and loyalty) is building.

Why do you return to a favorite site over and over again? They deliver something new. If you are creating the same old content over and over again, you’re not going to make it. Unless you sit alone in your content category, you need to think like a fashion designer, not a publisher, to win today.

2) Approach new platforms with urgency

Many major news outlets approach social media channels with a frenzied pace of innvoation.. They are not just dabbling in emerging media platforms, they’re trying to make anything and everything work in an effort to connect with new customers first:

  • The acclaimed Frontline news program from PBS was having no luck connecting their documentary programs with a younger crowd until they started doing mini-documentaries on Snapchat.
  • Trushar Barot, Mobile editor for BBC World News Service described efforts to use WhatsaApp and Snapchat as push services for news. These channels usually reward light and fluffy content — how do you use this for serious news?
  • YikYak is a new social media channel that serves up local comments anonymously (it was recently at the heart of the protests at University of Missouri). BBC partnered with YikYak to uncover trends and comments during the recent Canadian elections.
  • A service called Telegram is a very popular news delivery app in Middle East. The news channels realize there is a first mover advantage to grabbing attention on a service like this.

As I listened to example after example of creative story delivery, I thought of the recent conversations I’ve had with major companies still debating whether they should have a blog or not. Most of the business world is so far behind where they need to be on platform innovation.

3) At-a-glance storytelling

Research shows that people “lean in” to content during the day and “lean back” at night. Let’s unpack that idea.

During the day, people want short bits. They normally don’t have time for the whole story … they want developing headlines as a story unfolds. They “bump into content” through social media all long. They may not visit a blog, website, or long-form content at that time of day but they may scan tweets and headlines.

But during commute times and at night, people may relax and spend the time to read or view a longer story.

Today, storytelling is much more complex and nuanced than it was a few years ago. You don’t need to deliver the entire story all at one time and maybe your goal should be to avoid that!

Mainstream media is providing “at-a-glance storytelling” through quick updates, summary bullet points, photo galleries, short video bursts, and timely tweets to tell a story, with a longer-form commentary saved for later in the day.

In business we still have endless debates about the best time of day to publish. That is so 2012. We need to be doing a deep dive into our consumer consumption patterns as the media industry is doing and adjust to a more nuanced strategy.

4) It’s a silent world

Are you creating videos for your business? Podcasts? Maybe doing live streaming media on Periscope or Facebook? How is this effective in a world that normally consumes content with the sound OFF?


It’s true. If you’re consuming content in a noisy bus or train, can you really hear the audio? If you’re in an office cubicle and want to sneak a peek at the news headlines, are you going to have the sound up or wear headphones that may signal you’re not working?

Research from the media outlets shows that much content is consumed with the sound off, which explains how much video storytelling we now see with captions or just bold headlines.

In this example, Business Insider tells a complex backstory of a political protest and you can follow the entire video even with the sound off.

Screenshot 2015-12-28 08.16.17

Although this is now becoming a common technique for channels like CNN, I have seen little or no adoption in the world of corporate content but it makes so much sense.

5) It’s not short form or long form. It’s right form

Another endless debate in the business world is short-form versus long form content. We employ algorithms and statistical tests to try to predict the optimal length of piece of content.

The news world would say these rules are silly. The story determines the length. We are all caught up in trying to have some pre-determined length determine the story!

I’ll give you an example. I recently wrote a piece for a company that was about 2,000 words long, It had lots of new ideas and insights. But the cusotmer said I had to conform to their rule of an 800-word maximum because that’s what their ad agency determined to be ideal length. That’s just crazy. The length determines the story?

A key point from the conference is that people from every generation still consume long-form content if the content is interesting and compelling. Don’t make the story conform to algorithmic standards. Let the story dictate the proper length.

Now, this is not an excuse to be breezy and long-winded. Never waste the reader’s time. Every sentence and image must move the story along.

6) Bonus content

Here are a few other take-aways from the conference. Less profound, but good reminders:

  • Headlines are more important than ever, You have three seconds to get somebody’s attention.
  • Create content in forms that will make it easy to share. Create moments people love to share.
  • The internet of the future is going to be very simple. the content of the future is going to be very simple, too
  • Facebook is difficult for news. On Twitter, it’s there and breaking, but on Facebook it’s like, that’s nice guys, we’ll decide when to put it up
  • Essentially every piece of content is your home page. People are not coming to your brand through the back door of social media, not the front door of your website.
  • The world is getting increasingly visual. If you are print-oriented, you need to see stories in a different light. Learn to use your smartphones to tell your story.

I’d love to learn of your thoughts on these ideas in the comment section.

SXSW 2016 3Mark Schaefer is the chief blogger for this site, executive director of Schaefer Marketing Solutions, and the author of several best-selling digital marketing books. He is an acclaimed keynote speaker, college educator, and business consultant. The Marketing Companion podcast is among the top business podcasts in the world. Contact Mark to have him speak to your company event or conference soon.

Illustration courtesy Flickr CC and BiblioArchives

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  • Mia Sherwood Landau

    Mark, what do you mean when you say the internet will be simple and content will be simple in the future?

  • That’s what i wanted to ask also! Thanks for asking Mia (:

  • A relationship can’t be build on your being the source of content. Quality content sourced from a person or entity that you know, like and trust builds relationships. Without a relationship, you’ve got squat.

  • This is an idea discussed by one of the Columbia professors. If you think about how difficult it was to navigate the web 10 years ago you can begin to see the progression of simplicity. We will continue down this trend in the future. Much web search today is done by voice command, for example.

  • I think what you’re saying is that original content has no value unless it is moved and validated by trustworthy people. I agree!

  • You’ve touched on some very relevant trends Mark. I dabbled in fashion (publishing and online retail) at one point so totally love the analogy.

    Visual narrative and snack-able ‘bit-sized’ content is increasingly important.

    Along the same lines, another emerging trend important for content creators is ‘interactive content’. It will get easier for us to create interactive content to enhance narratives with immersive content that is distributed on platforms.

    This will be a great fit for the education-information-entertainment triumvirate. VR will accelerate this trend. e.g.: being able to virtually enter a particular portal within mini-documentary that you found on snapchat to explore the virtual landscape of a supporting narrative OR being to explore additional ‘levels’ of infographics that offers insights into sub topics.

    As I see it, with the exponential growth of technical capabilities, the web has moved from a ‘Foundational’ era to the current era of ‘Universal Adoptation’ leading us to the next era of ‘leapfrog innovation’.

  • Jennifer Porter

    I truly feel that higher ed’s lack of teaching in the present is much to blame. You meet MBA’s daily that were not taught modern marketing skills….sad day.

  • Number four surprised me…until I realized that I absolutely do that pretty often. I sometimes get annoyed or skip content when I can’t get the gist of it without sound. This may have just changed the way I approach some of my content this year. Another exceptional post, @markwilliamschaefer:disqus!

  • Kitty Kilian

    1. You are losing me here, Mark. Businesses should approach their online marketing like the fashion industry where ‘there is something new, new, new happening every day in such a compelling and rapid way that we can’t look away’? Are you seriously saying we should all jump into the frenzy and create more and more and more content? Thus endlessly multiplying the content shock? I disagree.

    2. A need for simplicity – yes. Also a byproduct of online overwhelm. By the way telecom providers in Holland are simplifying all of their internal programs and their product ranges. They have become too large & simply unmanageable. The underlying old setup of the internet is a problem in itself for all of us – it is pretty shakey I have been told over an over by people who should know.

  • MrTonyDowling

    As with Kitty’s earlier comment, Ive had the very conversation TODAY that point 1 makes.

    Its really uncomfortable reading, but I think you are right Mark. We need to look at new ways to reach our readers every day.

    Maybe fashion is an ‘out there’ example? I still like the analogy you’ve used time and again – a series of small interactions is what builds the relationship!

    But I truly believe you need to be fresh and relevant every time someone visits – otherwise they aint coming back – we already see this in when brand sites homepages arent regularly updated to reflect the latest developments, and I’ll bet you a New English Pound that will get worse as content shock continues to bite!

    Another great post 🙂

  • Truly brilliant points my friend. Your comment is a gift.

  • Oh don’t get me started on that … marketing education most places today is pathetic, and I am in the business.

  • Ha! Love that. My point made a surprise attack! : )

  • I am trying to draw a comparison of the way most businesses are versus the way they should be. I have had conversations with two Fortune 100 companies in the last eight weeks that went like this … “do you think we should have a presence in social media?”

    The business world is SO FAR behind in so many aspects of digital marketing that I wanted to make the point that if they are still internalizing the “we should be a publisher” idea they’re already behind.

    My point about the fashion industry is relevant I think. The big idea for content marketing is “you ask, we answer,” and I have always wondered … well then what? You’ve answered their question, why would they ever come back and buy something?

    You have to do more than just answer questions to win today, like the fashion industry. I don’t believe the answer is necessarily MORE content of course.

    Thanks for the very insightful questions and commentary Kitty!

  • I can’t take that bet, as you know because you’r right! Thanks for the great comment Tony.

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  • People lean in during the day and lean back at night — I couldn’t agree more and believe it’s related to your fashion analogy.

  • Mark – as always, much of what you say is spot on. But I have to take issue with the fashion analogy, because I think, on balance, it’s likely to push marketers into doing the wrong thing. Far better, for example, to get your mainstream content right, than to react instantly to every new fad. Experimentation – in moderation – is a great thing, and a pillar of the agile content principles I use every day. But in the business world, things move more slowly and the subject matter is highly esoteric. This means business content marketers are often better off establishing themselves as thought leaders within their own specific sector – which is often much narrower than the world of global fashion, for example.

    So in my view, it’s more important to do this as well as possible than to be perpetually distracted by the latest craze. Tortoise and hare, I think. And in the business world, to advise everyone to sprint ahead isn’t quite right. Every now and again, sure. But focus on getting the basics right in your niche and you’ll get on better.

    Points 3, 4 and 5 I’m with you 100% 🙂

  • Thanks Frank!

  • First and foremost, I can’t tell you happy I am to see a John Bottom comment on my blog! Just like the old days : )

    I probably did not explain this idea well. Let me take a crack at it this way. The current content marketing mantra is “They ask, you answer.” This has worked if you are dominating an unsaturated niche but increasingly, a market niche is NOT going to be dominated by one content producer. So you answer a question … then what?

    We can look at the social media space as a proxy for the future of content marketing. Everybody is spouting about the same thing over and over and over. So somebody gets an answer … then what?

    Now compare this to my wife’s activity on a fashion site. This is a place that is not simply answering questions. It is providing rich content that entices, informs and entertains every day. This is how emotional connection is formed. It ain’t going to happen through “answers” alone : )

    BTW, that site might not be chasing the shiny red ball … it might simply providing exceptional and creative new entries on the same channels — blogs, Instagram, whatever.

    In your B2B space you might be years away from this reality … still a lot of basic stuff to cover but as information density increases, I think we will have no alternative but to diversify our content output.

    I don’t think our positions are mutually exclusive. In fact I agree with you — we must tackle the basics well first.

  • I too was a little thrown off with the fashion industry comment. Until I read the point about PBS using SnapChat. Main take away for me was, if you’re going to do it. Then do it. No dabbling. No dipping the toe in. As John says, “…get your mainstream content right…” but, then embrace the “new”. The new platforms, the new methods of delivery, the “new” need for bite-sized information sprinkled throughout the day.

    As always Mark, inspiring post!

  • Thanks so much Jacqui!

  • Love this post, and this comment thread. Like John, I struggle with the fashion analogy though, maybe in part because anyone who has met me in person will quickly surmise fashion content is NOT what will bring me back.

    That said, I agree with the idea. I generally think of it as providing ‘content’ (very broadly defined) that makes someone want to get the next thing you create. If you say that is inspired by fashion, by entertainment (think TV series as well as well known producers or writers) by advise business models (people pay to get the next stock picks…), that’s the standard we need to deliver in content IF content will going to be our means to marketing differentiation.

    Which raises the bigger question: in today’s content environment, should content continue to have the top billing focus it has in many organizations? I’m not saying it can’t make that kind of difference, but a great ad campaign still can too (think AFLAC). Does content still deserve to be as big of a topic as it is?

  • First, so happy to see you in the comment section!

    I think content marketing is a victim of its own success. Remember Beanie Babies? These are little stuffed animals that created a buyer frenzy. People were paying thousands of dollars to buy a $4 toy they needed for a collection. Eventually the feeding frenzy ran its course.

    We are in a beanie Baby stage today. Everybody is rushing to pump out content because it sees to be the thing to do. They are being advised by people who have no sense of what works, or have a stake in the fact that they are pumping out volumes of content. I saw a blog post today called why you need more content. Just more content. Arrgh.

    Eventually I think this will sort out. Like every trend, in about a year a manager is going to look around and say, why in the world are we pumping out all this content? (ie Why are we paying $1,000 for a beanie baby?) And move on to something else.

    I think lost in this frenzy is that advertising works. Newsletters work. Phone calls work. It is a bit irrational right now.

  • Kitty Kilian

    Ah, yes, I keep forgetting the corporate world is your world.

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  • Great piece, Mark! I particularly love the Snapchat examples. I just wrote an article on why Snapchat, WhatsApp, Kik, are so appealing to a younger crowd – a big part of it has to do with intimacy. The old-school journalism is very, “we speak, you listen.” Much of content marketing is done like that. Snapchat content is consumed on-demand, it’s multi-dimensional, it’s quick and friendly. Channels like Refinery 29 use drawings, caricatures, animations, infographic-style layouts. It feels comfortable because it matches the “private club” feel of the app. It’s content that a friend may create but with more animation. Check out ESPN for a great example of that.

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