Content marketing success and the crappy quality myth

content marketing success

By Mark Schaefer

Here is the ultimate sign that some people are drinking too much of the content marketing Kool-Aid. A Facebook post like this:

“The problem with content marketing isn’t that there’s too much content, it’s that there is too much crappy content.”

I see this sentiment expressed ALL THE TIME and frankly it just aggravates me off when people assume that when companies aren’t successful with their marketing, it’s because they’re producing “crappy content.” Says who?

Quality content is simply the stakes to get a seat at the table today. It does NOT assure triumph. Digital marketing success requires a complex cocktail of skill, strategy, and persistence. Here are a few examples that prove that “great quality” assures nothing

Case study one: Authority and audience

I had a friend who has been struggling with her blog. She is super-smart and an excellent writer but has been treading water in the very saturated SEO content niche.

On one blog post, she received almost no social shares or comments. But when she submitted the exact same article to TechCrunch, it went viral. The post was shared nearly 3,000 times and received dozens of comments.

This would be a sign that it was an EXCELLENT article. Yet it languished on her blog. Her success ultimately resulted from the fact that TechCrunch has a much higher readership and higher domain authority than her blog. It may take many years for my friend to accomplish that on her own. in this case, here great content is getting submerged in an over-loaded niche.

Case study two: When quality doesn’t matter

In 2014, the fans of Social Media Examiner voted Buffer’s blog as their favorite social media blog in the world (the blog you are reading was voted number two). This stellar award would be an indicator of consistent, excellent content, right? And yet less than a year later, the company revealed that it was struggling with its blog.

Buffer, a company that specializes in social sharing, reported that despite efforts at producing consistent, unique and useful content, their social referral traffic dropped by 50 percent in just 12 months.

Following this stunning revelation, BuzzSumo reported an even more somber view of the situation. It revealed that for even the most respected content sites on the planet — including Social Media Examiner, Copyblogger, and MOZ — social shares of content had also plummeted very rapidly in the same timeframe.

The content on these sites is best-in-class. What in the world is going on here?

Content Shock, baby

In 2014 I wrote a post predicting this outfall called Content Shock: Why content marketing may not be a sustainable strategy (for some businesses).

I applied basic economic principles to content and surmised that something was going to have to give. As the level of content rises and the attention of readers is “fixed” (there are only 24 hours in a day) the cost of producing successful content would have to go up. Either you would have to invest in better quality or pay for promotion, or both. And even that may not be enough. This cycle would continue until some people could simply no longer compete.

This is exactly what is happening.

Here is a very powerful chart shared by Michael Stelzner in his keynote talk at Social Media Marketing World 2017:

content marketing success 2

We see that despite a 47 percent increase in fans, the company experienced a 63% decline in Facebook page views. Of course Content Shock does not impact every industry at the same time, or in the same way, but it is certainly a force that we can observe happening right before our eyes.

I recently passed along a story noting that it was getting increasingly difficult to get my posts accepted by The Harvard Business Review. My editor noted that the level of content creation she is dealing with has gone haywire, increasing the competition for what will get published. She said that a post I wrote last year may not make the cut this year, for example.

The reason I am not getting published is not crappy content. It’s intensified competition. Will I be able to overcome that? At what cost? Maybe it’s time for me to drop out of the competition and pursue another channel.

Similarly, “crappy content” was not the reason my blogger friend failed or why Buffer’s audience was slipping, or why the traffic is so off at Social Media Examiner. In fact. the content in all these examples is very, very good.

The idea that marketers are failing because of “crappy content” is a lie. These companies — and perhaps most companies — are struggling to succeed even with superb content.

What does it take to succeed?

The value of content marketing does not come from “great content.” It comes from the transmission of content. The economic value of content that is not seen and shared is zero. In my book The Content Code I spell out the options for breaking through, assuming you’re putting out a quality product in the first place:

  • You can work on your brand to improve awareness and social sharing.
  • You can focus on audience development, particularly the audience that shares your content the most.
  • You can work with influencers to ignite your content.
  • You can develop new distribution channels (like publishing in a trade journal or on LinkedIn)
  • You can improve your domain authority so your content gets discovered more easily through search (but this may take years to accomplish)
  • You can work on tactics that help your content get shared more often like creating better headlines, writing about current trends and research, or creating an emotional appeal (there are 25 such tips in my book)
  • You can leverage symbols of social proof like testimonies and awards.

You don’t have to do all of these things, but they are all ingredients of this success recipe.

So it just aggravates me to no end when some guru assumes that somebody’s lack of success is “crappy content.” This is just disrespectful and untrue. Most of the people I know in this field are working their butts off to win this war for attention and they’re still struggling to cut through the rising tide of noise.

OK, rant over. I feel much better now. Please add your thoughts in the comment section, won’t you?

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 Pedro Ribeiro Simões

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  • Claytonjay101

    With the limited time I have been blogging on Medium (since July of last year), I can completely attest to this. The reason I started publishing through a third-party publication if because they have 50k+ followers, any story I submit gets an automatic lift in readership. I am constantly trying to improve my quality but when I don’t submit something to them, I notice a dip in traffic. I also notice on really large medium publications even when the article seems a little lower in quality, it still gets a lot of traffic, likes and comments by virtue of where it was published.

    To me it feels a little like a push-pull situation for why something could fail. On the one hand, you want to be honest with yourself about the quality of your work. On the other hand, you want to be honest if people are just not seeing it. I definitely don’t have an answer to that question because I have barely been at this content game long enough to know (since July 2016,) but do know anything good requires patience.

    The Businesses Grow blog did not grow to where it’s at today by accident or overnight. I’m a big fan of patience and continuous improvement. The company I worked at before took many years to get momentum but when it did, it grew consistently 30% or more each year in a tough market. Overnight success can sometimes be a misread on the situation, Dollar Shave Club blew up overnight but Mike and someone else created that viral video because they spent years honing their craft and comedy abilities.

  • heidicohen


    The point that your HBR articles from last year wouldn’t be accepted today is important for content creators and marketers to absorb. Assuming your columns would improve over time due to continued practice of your writing craft, the problem isn’t quality. It’s increased competition.

    From a marketing perspective, seriously consider the information you create and share with your audience. You must break into their inner content circle and consistent publish new content to create content expectation on the part of your reader.

    Happy marketing,

    Heidi Cohen
    Actionable Marketing Guide

  • All good points Clayton. I think in some ways today, it is harder to know whether to be patient or pivot. That’s why I spent so much time addressing that in the KNOWN book. Consistency and patience may be more important than talent!

  • I like that Heidi — “breaking into the inner circle.” Harder to do. Harder to maintain.

  • heidicohen


    I agree getting into the “inner content circle”is difficult, especially since it includes everything from your favorite sports team to the New York Times. Older email newsletter research from the early 2000s showed that the number was about 16.

    The key from a marketer’s perspective is that the list can change over time as interests and needs change as well as content providers and media entities. This is best represented by annual Top10 to Top 100 lists. New people break into the top–either over time or overnight.

    Happy marketing,

  • Another excellent and very insightful post, Mr Schaefer.

    It’s difficult to argue with any of the points you’ve made.

    This is one of the reasons why strategic content promotion (not spamming or broadcasting), combined with building a solid brand and audience are vital.

    To link this in with the concepts in your latest book, I feel it’s super-important to build your audience and authority by becoming known in order to have any chance of success going forward.

    Thanks, Mark. Excellent insight, as usual.

  • Very good points Gareth and I like how you “connected the dots” here. Certainly a symbiotic relationship between content, audience and brand.

  • Thank you, Mark. All put together via your teaching and what I’ve read in your books. 🙂

  • I think we are saying the same thing. : )

    First, congratulations on your success, which has been determined by the “complex cocktail” I mention in my article. You found an unsaturated niche and you’re exploiting it with helpful content. That is helping you rank and attract search traffic. Great job!

    I agree that there is a difference between social traffic and search traffic but I’m guessing the same dynamics apply. Google rewards quality content effectively serving a niche audience. If the niche gets crowded, the level of your content quality will have to go up for you to maintain your results. I 100% agree that there are still lots of opportunities for business to replicate your success. Content shock may not occur everywhere, at least for some time, and the “system” you have could effectively block competitors and secure your status for a long time to come. Effectively, the GOAL is to create content shock for your competitors. Thanks for the thought-provoking comment.

  • Kitty Kilian

    I agree with Bob. To be honest, I see a lot of WELL WRITTEN CRAPPY CONTENT. Hardly ever – hardly EVER – do I sigh and close my eyes a second for joy because I encounter a brilliant new website with brilliant articles.

    It did happen 2 months ago, when I found a new website by a multilingual whizz kid names Gill Andrews who started a new website (her name dot com) about tadaa… content marketing. Now if there was ever a saturated niche, it is that one. Yet her articles – or I should say: her instruments – are so amazingly fresh and helpful that I cannot help but link to her every post and newsletter. So – within only 2 months she has paying customers, she is already on page 2 in Google for her business, she has a steadily growing email list, she has influential contacts and she is getting picked up by some really big blogs.

    Why? Because it is so damn hard to find REAL quality content. We all talk about it. She’s doing it. Being absolutely helpful.

  • Let’s do a reality check for a moment. You’re a professional writer who teaches writing. I could see how it would take an extraordinary talent to make an impact on you (and I plan to check Gill out — she recently started following me). I wouldn’t put myself in your class, but I also appreciate great writing and it probably takes more to impress me than the average person. I’m glad to hear her talent is rising above the noise but I’m not surprised that the extraordinary is rare. The reason is, the extraordinary is rare : )

  • Kitty Kilian

    No, I was not talking about the quality of her writing. (And of course you are in my class, what nonsense, loads of people are.) I was talking as a reader – and I was talking about how she shares her knowledge with her readers. How helpful her insights are and how generously she shares.

    You do that, too, which is why I read you 😉 But let’s get real yet again: the blogs and websites of most people are a little tired. They are not really out to help or to share big time. They are out to share just enough, and no more.

  • IMO, if you have to choose, you’re better of with subpar content and great distribution methods as opposed to great content and mediocre distribution but this has been the case forever IMO. It just used to be a lot easier to get eyes on content whether it was through SEO, social media, paid, or whatever other digital channel an individual or business used.

    I think this issue is getting more attention now because the competition has gotten a lot more fierce – there’s way more content being produced (content shock as you mentioned) and a lot of popular distribution channels are beyond saturated (Medium, LinkedIn Pulse, FB, Twitter,etc.) so that if you don’t already have a large audience, it’s an uphill battle to get noticed, and even if you do have a large audience, it’s still tough unless you are actively engaged with them.

    In terms of the case studies of some sites noticing a huge drop off in social shares – besides the saturation factor, I’m also guessing that one potential problem is that they seem to mostly push their content without really engaging with their audience and providing no real motivation to share. I’m also assuming because some of the methods that previously worked with gaming the systems in order to get content in a users’ feeds no longer work, sites are noticing decreases in shares.

    Anyway, this is my long winded and not quite so eloquent way of saying great article – I completely agree that great quality content doesn’t assure anything and that just because a site isn’t seeing a good amount of traffic, doesn’t necessarily mean that their content is crappy or vice versa – sites that are getting a lot of visits aren’t necessarily creating stellar content.

  • Exactly half of the blogs out there are below the average : )

  • Thanks for commenting Josh. I agree that distribution is an important strategy, especially in the short-term, but I think the real key to success is contained in your comments about engagement and sharing. We can trick people into clicking a link, but we can’t trick them into reading it or sharing the post. That’s what builds an audience in the long-term. The sad thing is that engagement is dropping on these sites, too. SME and Buffer in particular have a lot of engagement on their sites typically. Just a difficult competitive world, overall because the entry barriers to creating content are zero.

  • Superb……. Very good information..

  • There is a lot of unfortunate content out there – highly inaccurate, uninsightful and fake information. And opinion! And such unfortunate content does not always fail. Sometimes, it succeeds. Because that’s what people want to believe.

    And, yes, you have to compete with it. And, yes, you have to help others too. Consciously.

    Social can be a highly toxic, kitschy, immature, savage and neo-nepotic ecosystem. It’s not very different from high school. Sometimes, the elementary school playground. Social can also be awesome, uplifting, growing, inspiring…

    Therefore, be excellent, praiseworthy and admirable regardless of the disappointing measurement. It will make you a better person. It will make you more truly you.

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