I recently spoke with Michael Brenner, CEO of Marketing Insider Group, co-author of the bestselling book, The Content Formula, and recognized by Forbes as one of the top CMO influencers in the country.
Michael is one of the best in the business, and in this interview, we covered a lot of ground concerning the current state of content marketing, and what to expect in 2017 and into the future.
David Reimherr: So, what is happening currently, when it comes to content marketing?
Michael Brenner: I think the state of content marketing is pretty strong. Modern content marketing, I think, is just about 7 years old. A lot of people point to American Express Open Forum as one of the earliest examples of modern content marketing. I think it took another two or three years for other companies to really learn from their example — myself included.
Those early days were a real struggle. 1 — We had to explain content marketing. 2 — executives were still trying to figure out what social media was, and along comes another trend. And then 3 — there weren’t a lot of people nodding their heads in the room when we were having these kinds of conversations.
A lot has changed. Now, everyone understands that you’ve got to distribute content, and be where your audience is on social. I think most companies are starting to realize that you have to create content that helps buyers, as opposed to just creating content that promotes your business.
With regard to the content marketing, and marketing with value added — articles, blogs, videos, podcasts, interactive content, are you still feeling that it’s a very strong way to market yourself?
MB: Absolutely. Essentially there’s a shift happening. It started with digital marketing. We started to see brands shifting out of traditional methods, and into more digital forums. And what they found was that those were just as ineffective when they started to be able to measure them — as the older forms of promotional marketing.
So you think about paid, owned and earned. I think even the largest consumer brands are starting to put significant amounts of shift in their investments into owned content marketing platforms. And so I’m totally bullish that’s going to continue, because every technique and every tactic can be measured now. And if it can’t be measured, I really question whether it should be done at all.
Tell me what you mean by owned.
MB: When people talk about paid, owned and earned — owned media properties would be, as simple as I can explain it, their corporate website. You own that property, no one can come and take your traffic away from you. That would be a great example of an owned media property.
When you think about earned media, think about the likes, tweets and shares that you get on your social channels. Not just on your own branded accounts, but also the things that are happening organically from your audience. So that would be earned media. Most people traditionally think of earned media as PR mentions. But now, essentially social media is a digital, modern form of PR mentions.
And then paid media is all the stuff that you pay another publisher or media property for, to interrupt their audience’s content experiences. Usually, it’s in the form of an ad. And so banner ads are paid, TV ads are paid. Billboards on the side of the Interstate are paid ads. And so, that’s the distinction between paid, owned and earned.
What are some of the biggest challenges brands, companies, marketers are facing with content marketing these days?
MB: I think we continue to see two main challenges. 1 — We continue to see the natural, I call it the natural instinct of the business, to want to promote itself. And so, I think it’s important to understand that it is natural to want to do that.
As business executives, managers, and leaders — we love our products, and we love our customers as well. So, it’s natural that we want to promote ourselves and what we do, and why we’re better, and why people choose us. That’s the natural instinct of the business. However, those are the kinds of techniques and tactics that we as consumers tune out. I think now most marketers get the fact that you can’t just do paid promotion. You can’t just interrupt content experiences. We need to have some investment in content marketing.
When you get to the sales leadership, especially like B2B, or even CMO’s on the B2C side, whose base of power is really in their ad budgets, you really start to see these challenges come forth. Think about Budweiser. What does Budweiser spend on paid ads, versus content marketing? I don’t know what the percentage is, but I would be shocked if they spent as much as 1% of their total marketing budget on content marketing. I’m pretty sure that, just based on what I see as a consumer, that they’re spending a ton of money on interruptive experiential. I know they call it experiential, but it’s basically interrupting content experiences, to try to push a message of, “Hey, drink our beer, because it will it will make girls like you more.”
That natural tendency is the biggest challenge still today in content marketing. The natural tendency for companies to want to promote themselves — when promotion is the thing that turns us off as consumers.
I want to touch on that point. Some people might look at Budweiser and think, “Well, shoot — they’re huge, it’s working for them.” Don’t forget, they’ve had 100 years to get in the position where they are.
MB: I think the second main challenge we still face as marketers — and especially as marketers who are trying to push the benefits and the return that you can see from content marketing — is the campaign-based mentality. It’s really a challenge because content marketing really requires a commitment. Even a small investment, done consistently over time, produces a compounding rate of return. Campaigns often don’t produce any return. If they do produce a return, which many do, and there’s a lot of good marketers out there doing great stuff with a campaign- based approach, they are never compounding. When the money stops, the results end.
What the possible potential negative result of over-saturation of content out there on the web?
MB: I want to pay some respect to my friend and colleague, Mark Schaefer, who wrote about “Content Shock.” I sort of disagreed with Mark at first, and I think he disagreed with my reaction. And I think we’ve come to a common understanding of each other’s points of view — which is always a good thing. Content Shock, was basically Mark’s defense of the position you just mentioned.
I think the point Mark was trying to make was that the return on any one piece of content, is going to continue to decrease to a potential point of diminishing return. And that is an absolute fact.
The reaction that I had with Mark, was that having lived inside a brand, a company as big as SAP, there is so much money being wasted on content. It’s either never used, or when it’s used, it’s just such crap that no one looks at it. In my mind, there’s an infinite opportunity — an endless opportunity to improve, when you look at the investment and the resources that go into creating such crappy content inside corporate marketing departments.
So, if you think about it from a universe perspective — yes, there is tons of content being created today and it will only get worse, if you will. I guess it’s really not a bad thing in my mind. But it will continue to be harder to break though the noise, and yet — I think when you look at content that we create, the investments we make as corporate marketers in content, there are endless opportunities for improvement.
I think that you need to be able to hold both of these notions in your head. Maybe it means brands almost need to get exponentially better at creating better content, and more content at the same time. That’s a really difficult thing for a lot of companies. And yes, companies that commit to content marketing are making that happen. And they’re showing results.
Let’s start moving towards the future now. What are some of the biggest trends you see, in specialization, visualization, and personalization?
MB: Let’s say that brands have created efficient content marketing operations. And so they’re now efficiently creating content and continuing to improve. And let’s also assume that Mark Schaefer’s absolutely right, because he is; that content saturation is a problem in the marketplace.
But the prediction I have for the future is specialization. Every financial service company could say that they want to be an authority on providing their audience with the best financial education possible through their content, but not every financial service company can be the premier authority in financial institutions. So, Wells Fargo needs to have a different approach than Bank of America.
Each of these brands are going to need to find a way to specialize, and I’m not talking about unique point of view. I often tell my clients that there’s a unique point of view trap — because it’s all about you as a brand. Brands need to focus on how they can be uniquely valuable. And that’s what specialization is all about. It means I can provide a unique value to my audience, because of the things that make us unique. Because of the things that sort of drove us to start the companies they’ve started. And that specialization, that uniqueness is going to translate into unique value for an audience.
So find your niche, find out what you’re really good at — and then go for that. Don’t be everything to all people.
MB: Yes. I would say it’s important that there’s a nuance. It’s important to think of it from the customer’s point of view. It’s not “What are we the best at?” Think about how does that translate to value that is perceived by your audience?
Let’s talk about visualization.
MB: I think this is almost so obvious it doesn’t even bear repeating. But I think most folks like us on the agency and consulting side, I think we sometimes underestimate how really complex organizations are that we serve. So, it’s obvious that we need to create more and better visual content. The generation coming after millennials, statistics show that something like 95 to 99% of the content that they interact with is visual. It’s an image, it’s a video, it’s an animated gif, it’s an emoticon — whatever, emoji — whatever visual sort of content you can imagine.
Brands are going to need to figure this out, and they’re going to need to figure it out quickly.
You cannot fake your way to quality visual content. You can’t fake a great infographic, you can’t fake an effective video. Or even design, design around longer form content. Even images, something as simple as image selection for written pieces of content are really important. And, they are much more expensive — like 3, 4, 10, 100 times more expensive than written content or text-based content. This is something that brands are going to need to figure out in 2017.
Personalization. It sounds like that might connect to specialization, but maybe a little bit different? Why don’t you dig into that?
MB: So personalization I think is a bit further, or more mature down the life cycle of content.
How do you make yourself truly, uniquely valuable to your audience? I think one way to do that is to deliver highly personalized content. I read Business Insider every single day. I subscribe to teo or three of their newsletters. They use a technology called “Sailthru” that identifies the content I interact with in both the newsletter and on their website, when I do land there. It offers me a totally personalized, individual newsletter every single day based on some of the recent stories that they have published. So if you and I both subscribed to that newsletter, you would get a different one than I would, based on your click history, and track record with consuming content on their website.
How does a company like that go about serving that personalized content?
MB: I think there are a couple of different technologies. In fact, part of me, if I had more time in the days or weeks to come, is thinking about doing a whole sort of series on how to implement personalization. I just wrote sort of a summary article earlier this week about personalization. This is a good question, and I’ll answer it in a couple of different ways.
I think it’s important to understand that there are still 3 main ways that we all as consumers discover content. It’s search, social, and email. And so there are entire companies who exist only as email service providers, The Skim is a great example. All they do is email out cool stuff to a broad audience, all they have is an e-mail list. And content that they curate and cover in their own perspective, and that’s what’s drawn people to them.
With social, you’re trying to gain access to your audience’s audience through the interest that you share. I think it’s pretty difficult to personalize through social, because we can’t influence Facebook’s, Twitter’s, Snapchat’s algorithms. So when you get to search, now it starts to get interesting because if somebody types in, let’s say, “content marketing agencies”, and let’s say hopefully they find yours and mine somewhere on that list. And they click on it.
Through simple technologies like Adobe Test and Target, or I know Monetate has a platform — SAP bought Hybris which does this for e-commerce companies. There are other platforms as well that do this. One Spot, Idio — there’s a number of technologies where they can serve up a piece of content that — if not totally personalized — it’s at least somewhat intelligent. And so it may know what browser you’re using, it may know what company you’re from because of your IP address, it may know what region of the country you’re in.
I think if you to Monetate’s website, it says, “Good morning, Michael. It’s 98 degrees in Philadelphia. Go get a glass of lemonade.” At least it feels somewhat personalized, even though they don’t really know who you are.
Now what we’re seeing is we’re seeing those technologies follow you around the web. And I’m sure you’ve seen this; you search for a pair of shoes and then you see that pair of shoes on 75 websites in banner ads. They’ve got a cookie, they’re tracking you, and they’re serving you content.
And companies like One Spot, they’re serving up banner ad content that isn’t always in the form of an ad. It’s often maps to where they think you are in the buyer journey. So it might be a blog article or a white paper, relevant to what they think the stage of the buyer journey they’re in. Companies like One Spot are doing a great job of doing that wherever you go on the web.
What about tying in marketing automation with content marketing? What do you see these days, and moving forward?
MB: The marketing technology landscape is an interesting one. In general, what I think is happening is marketing automation is a pretty proven must-have technology tool set for marketers. In the same way as CRM was 10,15, 20 years ago. So, companies rushed to chase the shiny objects when marketing technology markets were pretty hot.
The second those things got implemented, there was a huge need for pointing to the gap in the content. I’m thrilled that marketing automation has reached almost the saturation point it has in the marketing landscape. It’s just pointing out, and solidifying the gap that most brands have in creating content mapped to the buyer journey.
I think the point of marketing automation is to drive higher conversions from one lead stage to another. It’s really that simple. What’s been great about marketing automation, is it’s forced marketers to think across the buyer journey, and put the buyer at the center. Now marketing automation is the technology, or the tool set, that enables you to nurture your customers — depending on process, depending on what stage they’re in. Once you know what stage they’re in, then you’ve got to offer up the right piece of content, that’s going to drive them — or at least educate them — so that they can, they can move onto the next stage.
And so, that’s why I love marketing automation. We’re all looking at the buyer journey, trying to map content through the buyer journey. Marketing automation is a tool that helps you get there. But it’s also been great for content marketing. Because it’s pointing to the gaps that exist, largely in the early and the middle stages.
I always ask this question for all the experts out there — when should a company start to see success with content marketing, if you’re starting from scratch? And does it differ between a B2B and B2C company?
MB: I think it’s 4 months, 1 week and 3 days.
You nailed it, that’s what everyone’s saying.
MB: Exactly. 4 months, 1 week and 3 days — of course. No, I always say there is the “Valley of Darkness,” or the leap of faith. There is a period of time where I think for most companies, there’s going to be a lack of results, despite an investment. It’s just the nature of building a financial asset. And that’s what happens when you make the right kind of strategic investment in anything. Whether it’s in a factory, or an employee or a content marketing platform. What we’ve seen, is that in general, Google starts to think of you as an authority to take seriously, when you’re consistently publishing content after about 4 months. So, I made that number up a little bit. But that’s what I’ve seen. And I’ve looked at this trend across, probably 30 different companies.
What I tell most marketers is — take a pulse check at 6 months. Now, having said that, and I’m trying to set expectations somewhat low. Most of the companies I work with see results almost immediately.
Any off the wall, crazy prediction for marketing in 2017 you want to give me?
MB: It’s a somewhat crazy prediction in certain circles, but the prediction I have is that I think we’re going to see the death of ads. I really do. I think that at some point in the future, we won’t see ads.
I think we’re going to see a radical shift in the way marketers spend their dollars — away from ads. And what it may look like, is it might — we might go back to P&G “soap operas.” We might see — hey — a soap opera sponsored by P&G, commercial-free, right? There are TV, media companies that are already going back to that model. And PBS has been using that model with sort of — in a non-profit way for a long time. But I think that’s what we’re going to start to see. And we’re going to start to see that happen, I think a lot quicker than the ad agencies might be thinking.
This article originally appeared as a podcast on Magnificent Marketing