Does every business need content marketing? A reality check.

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By Mark Schaefer

Does every business need content marketing? Of course not. Let’s pause the hype machine for a moment shall we?

Last week I had dinner with one of my best friends. He recently became president of a company whose primary line of business is producing highly-engineered rolls for the steel manufacturing process.

He has a finite number of customers — a handful of companies rolling steel in the US. He is facing a competitive threat that has a significant labor cost advantage. A union contract covering 90 percent of his workforce is ending next month. He is facing gut-wrenching decisions to change healthcare coverage in order to keep his company solvent in the face of this competition.

The main manufacturing facility has been the major employer in his small community for more than 100 years. Many employees are second- or third-generation workers and are stuck in very old and unproductive work habits.

Because the plant is so old, my friend also needs to somehow eke out funds for significant capital improvement projects to modernize basic equipment, address legacy environmental issues, and improve the site’s deplorable safety record — on top of overhauling the company culture, aggressively cutting costs, negotiating with the union, negotiating with customers, and placating impatient investors.

I don’t find his story and his challenges particularly unusual. Most of my career has been spent in businesses that actually made stuff in big old plants, so this is familiar territory.

This is the real world. Business is hard. Sometimes in tough competitive situations you survive to the next year by cutting a penny per unit on a long-term contract instead of investing in epic content.

Cutting through the Kool-Aid

This week I came across a quote from a speaker at the Content Marketing World conference: “Content marketing works every time, for every business, in every industry.”

Another well-known guru recently wrote: “It is impossible to rise above the noise in business today without a content marketing strategy.”

And I saw this quote shared on Facebook last week: “You are actually destroying relationships with customers by not creating engaging content.”

Is there anybody else out there that sees these positions as just a tad bit over-hyped?

I suppose you could dream up some scenario where content marketing would add a marginal benefit to my friend’s steel roll business, but given the circumstances, it would be a stretch. If I had to list the top 50 investment priorities for his company, spending money on content marketing would not make the list. Not even close. 

In fact, if you came to him with a marketing plan that included Twitter chats, streaming video, and infographics you would be laughed out of the room. And deservedly so.

In their IPO financial disclosure, Hubspot — the inventor of “inbound marketing” and a content-producing machine — revealed it had lost money for its first eight years in business. As a public company, it has never turned a quarterly profit. Not only does content marketing not work for “every company, every time,” it’s apparently not working for the best-known content marketing company in the world.

My point is, for my friend’s business, and millions of other businesses out there, content marketing may not make a meaningful difference to the bottom line, at least right now. As much fun as it is to fall in love with the idea that our blog or video will save our business, it probably won’t. In fact, due to this era of Content Shock, our content effort is probably becoming less effective week by week.

Content marketing is one weapon in an arsenal

Before you jump down my throat in the comment section and tell me that I am saying that content marketing is dead and that I am the devil, let me state clearly that content marketing is not dead. Content marketing absolutely works in the right situation, and it works really well. It works for me, it works for many of my customers.

I am an advocate for all useful marketing approaches and certainly there’s a place for content marketing in many businesses, to varying degrees. I actually created an entire content marketing curriculum at Rutgers University. But please don’t follow guru-speak blindly and turn content/social media marketing into a hammer looking for a nail.

Many businesses would be foolish to spend precious resources on content development when there are so many other marketing priorities, like getting costs under control to compete on price (yes, this is still an important reality — anybody sell to Wal-Mart?), distribution channels, product development, product placement, packaging, positioning, and long-term customer contracts, to name a few. Remember, there is more to marketing than Snapchat.

I’m not dismissing content marketing as a viable option. I’m simply introducing a dose of reality and drive home the fact that as marketing professionals, we have a responsibility to look at our business needs and marketing priorities rationally, holistically, responsibly, and dispassionately.

Let’s try a little test. How much brand content do you follow on a regular basis? My guess is, the answer is under three brands — and maybe zero — even if you are in marketing for a living!  Now, how many branded products do you buy every year? Thousands.

Sometimes I get a car wash because I have coupon. Sometimes I want a hamburger from a place because they taste good. Sometimes I buy gasoline because the petrol station is nearby. I don’t need an infographic to make these decisions.

Despite what the gurus would have you believe, there is no single marketing strategy that works for “every business, every time,” including content marketing. It’s time to emerge from the social media hype chamber and view content marketing rationally. Does every business need content marketing? Of course not.

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 licensed through Marketoonist.

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  • Linda Barclay Isles

    Great stuff Mark, I totally agree. Every business has to react proportionately to content marketing. Some companies are ‘fiddling while Rome burns’ by devoting too much time to creating a certain image of their brand when everyone knows their staff are on zero hours contracts or whatever. Content marketing is like putting a band-aid on an amputation in some instances and we need to be realistic.

  • I so agree, Mark. It often happens that a business reaches out to me convinced they should enroll in Blog School when I know that blogging and social media would be a waste of their precious resources. I’m happy to refer them to companies that can really help them, such as my SEO/PPC partners. In fact, it just happened the other day with an independent menswear retailer who is virtually invisible in his local market. The knowledge I’ve gleaned over many years of doing this stuff enables me to steer these people in a smarter direction. I can sleep at night!

    Great article!

    B

  • Absolutely love this post Mark! Funny, I was on a webinar a few weeks ago where a fellow business owner in the digital space stated that she would not be blogging anymore. At first, I balked at the fact that she would make such a statement, but then I realized that in the marketing world, there is no one size fits all strategy…and that sometimes you have to do what works best for you. In my case, blogging and content marketing works wonders for my brand, but … as you stated in your post, it may not work well for others. Great insights on this one. Have a great day!

  • Well said Mark! There is absolutely no single marketing strategy that works for every business, every time! And I agree with you that not every business needs content marketing!

  • Steve Woodruff

    – The Yugo car company failed.
    – Yugo was not creating compelling content on Snapchat.
    Conclusion: No content marketing strategy means business failure.
    I mean, it’s simple logic – right? ;>}

  • Riiiiiiight. : )

  • Thanks Anja.

  • Cool. Glad this connected with you Kim!

  • Well said and thanks for passing along this anecdote Betsy!

  • I like that analogy! Thanks for adding to the dialogue Linda!

  • You’re welcome Mark!

  • Dare we say there is more to “Social Media” and “Content” than marketing and sales? In fact, in this case SM could be leveraged to help this customer understand what is going on in his markets and potentially more deeply understand, address or find solutions to his issues?

  • Great post! I think a lot of marketers are loathe to admit when their given solution is not applicable to a certain situation. The irony of attempting to sell to everyone all the time is that it diminishes people’s trust in you. On the other hand, you “sell” content marketing, yet wrote this blog post – a perfect trust-building form of content marketing. Nice one! 🙂

  • Ryan T. Sauers

    Mark. Super post. I concur. Every organization (like every human being) is unique. Each have their own basic similarities (i.e. Humans= eat, drink, sleep etc). However, in many organizations a “one size fit all strategy” is no good.

    This would be the equivalent of my trying to repair everything in my home with a hammer and no other tool. Marketing done well meets the unique needs of that organization… Where they are… With the entire toolbox.

    So, you are spot on, in that the organization you mentioned… would likely look at any consultant or person as “being from another planet” if content marketing was recommended as a pressing matter/step. I would argue it’s probably not in their next 100 steps. 🙂 Maybe someday. Maybe never. Well done here. Ryan

  • Gillian Morris-Talbot

    One of the things I love about you is your honesty, Mark. For me, content marketing is sales enablement. It should first and foremost be customer-centric, so any industry where customers are not tech-savvy, not spending hours and hours on social media, and where buying decisions are not complex or long, doesn’t really need it, unless you want to build your brand. OTOH, when there’s a lot of choice, it’s difficult to differentiate between offerings, and ROI is important, content marketing will make a difference. Thanks for bringing back some credibility to what we do.

  • MrTonyDowling

    Brilliant post, and just one of the reasons I keep coming back for more 🙂

  • Well, as I said, you COULD find applications for social media and content for almost any business, but it is a matter of priority. If you look on what this guy has on his plate, it’s just not reasonable, although it is possible.

  • It’s funny. I started this blog eight years ago before content marketing was even a thing. Perhaps it is content marketing. For me, it has always been about creating authority by writing stuff that is true and smart. I thought maybe potential customers might get to know me and eventually hire me if they liked my writing and that has come true. One person told me I am an SEO professional because I create great content. I suppose if corn attracted links then being a farmer would make an SEO professional too! Am I a content marketer? Am I an SEO? I don’t know. All I have been, and all I will be, is true and smart.

  • Exactly right. Thanks Ryan, always a delight to hear from you.

  • Ryan T. Sauers

    Thank you my friend. Have a great week. R

  • True!

  • Hi Mark,

    You are spot on! It is way over hyped and it is not for every business. I’m friends with a entrepreneur who nets millions of dollars in profits per quarter, has a beautiful multi-million dollar vacation home in Costa Rica and he’s never done one day of content marketing. He wouldn’t even know where to start and it would be an unproductive waste of his time.

    Personally, I see content marketing as a complimentary strategy if you have a large enough target market to support it. That is going to be really dependent upon ones industry and business model. It works fantastic for me in my industry, business model and my connections online and offline pay attention to what I have to say.

    I also think that personality and creativity plays a big role in it. Can one write, create video or do things at a reasonable cost that is in “content demand.” (Yep, I’m going to coin that word now, lol…).

    Today, I wrote about the concept that content is dead. It’s literally as we both know, but it is in the sense that it requires more than just creating content and the old offline strategies of business growth before the internet have finally caught up online.

    PS – I quoted you from the Content Code and linked to it in the article.

    With all that said, one better know why they are creating content and for whom; and if they are able to solve one problem / meet one need / fulfill one desire for one person in any piece of content, that is relevant to a large enough audience.

    Have a great week Mark!

    ~ Don Purdum

  • Barbara Boustead

    Great post Mark! Kind of goes along with your previous blog about critical thinking. As entrepreneurs we often take in massive amounts of information about marketing and try to sort through what makes the most sense for our business. For example, I was told I “had to be on Twitter” as part of my marketing strategy. I said no and am glad I did. Life is hectic enough 🙂

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  • Bram van Berkel

    Thanks for writing this up Mark, great read.
    What I’ve been proclaiming at several events recently when it comes to commercial strategy (whether online or offline) is to start where you can have the biggest positive impact with the same investment, then on to the next biggest impact and so on – until the ROI of your efforts becomes too small to positively contribute to your business.
    This makes complete sense, even to most attendees, but a big portion of them simply never thought of it that way and have multiple people managing unproductive social media accounts, writing content without a proper distribution strategy or subscribing to numerous irrelevant directories – all while they don’t even have a device-responsive website.
    Look forward to any new articles.
    Bram

  • Super smart comment Gillian. Thanks for taking the time to comment and also thanks for the very kind words!

  • Many thanks sir.

  • I don’t think content is dead but I think when we simply want to cover the world with content as a strategy we are doing the world, and ourselves, a disservice. Feel free to post the link to your blog post here Don. Others might like to see it.

  • But you DO have to be on Twitter. Kidding, kidding! : ) Thanks for commenting Barbara.

  • Very good strategy. Makes a lot of sense.

    … and I write articles all the time, so see you soon!

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  • Hi Mark,
    I absolutely agree. A few weeks ago I had the same kind of conversation and indeed, even though there might be few people who believe in Content Marketing more than me, I have to say: sometimes the situation is not right for content marketing. A lot has to come together to make it the perfect fit…
    In the end it’s mostly a question of resources. Content Marketing doesn’t have to be EPIC. It can be more lean. However a content strategy I think, is essential for all businesses. Not something you work on for 12 months and invest millions in. But a clear structure on topics you cover, how to handle workflows to be more effective, use the right tools, be clear on governance… Today we call it content strategy, but this is a part which has always been important and always will be I believe.

  • I think this is a rational perspective Mael. Just because content marketing doesn’t fit every situation doesn’t mean you don’t believe in content marketing. Thanks for the superb comment!

  • Hi Mark

    Great insight!

    I see the same thing with “SEO”.

    I work with a lot of small businesses (less than 10 employees, tight marketing budgets). They will initially come to me and ask for “SEO” (most of them not really sure what that means). But I explain to them that in order to do SEO the right way, they need to make a commitment outside the resources of most small business – and then I work with them to create a more effective strategy based on their desired outcomes.

    Of course I make sure their pages are using baseline best practices for SEO, but, like Content Marketing (which I also provide when it’s merited), it’s not the end-all-be-all, and companies need to understand what the techniques mean, the work involved, and the expected outcomes before they should jump in.

  • Well said Sue.

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  • Engineer’s Chaupal

    This article is quite useful for increasing awareness and knowledge about content marketing for businesses.
    Every business has their own objectives and strategies which they follow for increasing the awareness of their products or services.

  • I think a lot of the hype comes from trying to hit home the point that quality should be the focus. In the recent past, this was a difficult concept to sell to business owners who had vague idea of what SEO used to mean and were looking for a quick fix for their SERPs. In an effort to get away from bad practices, we might have swung a little too far in the other direction as far as hype, but I am glad to see your article and hear some more measured approaches to marketing strategies. Some hyperbolic statements also make great click bait and sound bites …

    The fundamental idea behind content marketing is to create a comprehensive approach that utilizes available tools and addresses specific needs, challenges and audiences. In no way could that always mean pushing content.

  • Kitty Kilian

    ‘Sometimes I get a car wash because I have coupon. Sometimes I want a hamburger from a place because they taste good. Sometimes I buy gasoline because the petrol station is nearby. I don’t need an infographic to make these decisions.’

    Haha! That made my day.

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  • Aishwarya Chaturvedi

    Quite a few questions, Mark!

    1. Your friend’s case – it doesn’t seem he needs marketing at all, let alone content marketing. Of course, content marketing is not for businesses that don’t need more customers readily.
    2. The very definition of content marketing – Why does content marketing need to be at the very top of the funnel? Your friend here can definitely use some video case studies, email-ready product brochures (there are better ways than attaching PDFs) and a lot many other forms of content to help his sales team close more customers, or address more leads as well.

    Having said that, I agree that not all businesses need content marketing all the time. But when a business wants to tell a story, to get more customers or attract a larger audience in general, they sure can use a dose.

    What are your thoughts on this?

  • As I said in the post, a room full of marketers cold sit around and dream up a dozen ways you COULD use content to solve some problem but in terms of a business priority, it would still be out of line with what needs to be done. As marketers, we need to be business people first and clearly align ourselves with the needs of the business and its customers. Suggesting that content marketing is even in the top 10 priorities for this business would be irresponsible.

  • Andy Vale

    There’s a guy out there, who I’m sure you know, who spent a good while making a living telling brands they should answer “every complaint, every channel, every time.” Sounds nice.

    But we work with Premier League clubs, and major brands, whose every utterance online will generate a ton of responses (including complaints), impossible to adequately respond to on every channel. So four times now, on multiple channels, I’ve complained to him that that advice doesn’t really work for brands like that. He’s never replied.

  • Oh the irony. That guy sounds dangerous. ; )

  • Amen, Mark, and I’m saying Amen as a writer and producer of content…but also a salesman and sales trainer. I’m pitched infographics weekly that someone wants me to post on my site and I even asked last week if infographics “are still a thing.”

    But one thing I know that is still a thing is knowing how to sell via email, direct mail, over the phone, and face to face.

    I think we forget there’s a human being at the other end of the screen. I think whomever keeps that idea front and center in this over-communicated world is going to be the winner.

  • This is like the comment of the year Wes. Right on!!!!

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