Okay. So this is a blog article, being shared on social media, that intends to critique content marketing. I get the irony.
Still, this is worth saying. Most content marketing is fruitless, and even worse, it may cost you customers and result in lost business.
Let’s begin by quickly remembering a term you’ve probably heard of: opportunity cost. In short, this microeconomic concept describes the value of whatever you don’t do with a resource, because you’ve just spent it elsewhere. For example, if you spend $20,000 on a new car, that is 20,000 turns on a $1 claw machine that you’ll never get to enjoy. The opportunity cost in this example is weeks of fun and 100 cubic meters of polyester teddy bears that you’ll never delight in owning.
This concept obviously relates to money, but can also refer to time, energy, extra dark pretzel splits, or any other resource that has utility. You get to choose how to use a resource, and the opportunity cost is the value of that same resource that you can’t simultaneously use in some other way. You can’t simultaneously share that pretzel with a friend and also eat it yourself (I’ve looked into it).
With that in mind, consider what you’re doing with content marketing. In general, creating content takes time. Even curating and sharing other people’s content takes time. It may be that you spend money to purchase software or equipment to help create the content. You need to allocate mental energy and focus. Content marketing doesn’t just have a cost, it has several costs. And that means you won’t be investing those resources elsewhere.
In isolation, this may not a problem. You may decide that spending those resources is worthwhile because you derive some joy from it. In which case, have at it, create away. Become a YouTube star and perhaps become an accidental millionaire like my sons’ hero, Blippi.
I’m not here to tear into hobbyists creating content for fun, but I am here to ask some questions about your business-related content extravaganzas. If you’re creating content as a marketing pursuit, read on. If not, you can stop here and go steal some of Blippi’s bandwidth.
Marketing Isn’t Tactics
At least, marketing isn’t just tactics.
I define marketing as Strategic problem solving in service to the business. This includes tactical executions, but these are only the visible tip of the iceberg. Strategic problem solving normally includes planning, prioritization of resources, insight gathering, monitoring and measurement, promotion, and executing tactics.
The best businesses have a clear plan for growth. In the CORE Marketing Method, entrepreneurs learn that their plans need to be laid out into a series of objectives, working backwards from 5 Year Goals. Because the entrepreneur has determined annual milestones along the way, they can set highly prioritized objectives for each year. At heart, I’m still a 13 year old kid who loves rockets, and so the CORE Marketing Method looks like this:
Having seen a bunch of different models for this type of planning, I recommend Franklin Covey’s 4DX model for a corporate enterprise setting. In smaller enterprises and start-ups, I’ve amended some of Covey’s ideas to have more agility and application to leverage excellent marketing and entrepreneurship. One concept I’ve retained, though, is his concept of WIGs (Wildly Important Goals). These are the must-win battles that are prioritized above all else, and which I feel are best expressed by “We will …” statements, such as “We will become the most popular cafe on town among young professionals”.
This sense of planning and prioritization works perfectly in every SME. This model helps the business owner to zoom out to the macro, ensuring that the business is directionally correct over several years. It then helps them zoom in to the micro, making sure day-to-day operations are also correct, laddering up to those objectives laid out in the entrepreneur’s grand plans. Trust me. It always works.
So what does this have to do with content marketing? Well, let’s see …
The best business owners don’t frantically grasp for tactics, but rather, they decide what Strategic Imperatives need to be achieved for a WIG (Wildly Important Goal) to occur. These are best expressed by “Ensure that …” statements. For example, if the WIG is “We will become the most popular cafe in town among young professionals”, a Strategic Imperative for the year may be “Ensure that at least 25% of all young professional coffee drinkers are aware that our cafe has opened in High Street.”
Once that Strategic Imperative has been articulated, you can then decide ahead of time which tactical executions will help to deliver that goal. You can decide what resource you want to budget in ensuring that 25% of those young professionals learn about the cafe. You may choose to place an advertisement in the local paper, or generate a referral program, or create content on Instagram to build awareness. In execution planning, you’ll become acutely aware of opportunity costs, because spending money on that advertisement may mean you can’t budget as much for the referral program. You can also see in this example that content marketing is a tactic, chosen deliberately because it leads to a Strategic Imperative.
When content marketing is judicially undertaken as a deliberate tactical execution in pursuit of a Strategic Objective, it can make perfect sense. Like all executions, it should have a clear ambition that points to the imperative (help raise awareness among young professionals that our cafe has opened on Main Street). It should have a success metric to decide whether or not it has really worked (500 local young professionals engage with the Instagram campaign), a timeframe (the Instagram campaign will run from Jan to Mar), and a budget (we will spend $1000 and three hours per week to run the campaign). In the CORE Marketing Method, the entrepreneur also runs periodic Temperature Checks (quick way-point observations of the tactic against expected outcomes), and may also run Tactical Tests (small scale trial runs) for more costly executions.
The wonderful thing about this model is that the entrepreneur will immediately know which tactics are worthwhile, and may decide to increase the invested resources as a result. They determine that the opportunity cost is worth it, because they are seeing a real result.
Wait, didn’t your click-bait headline tell me that content marketing is bad?
Well, it can be. And I’ve become convinced that in most cases it is bad, and it’s especially pernicious for some specific reasons.
In most businesses, the systematic approach to marketing I described above is simply not in place. There are no well laid out goals, no substantive plans, and no logically prioritized imperatives. This means most tactical executions are little more than best guesses with fingers crossed, hoping for another customer. These are risky and unpredictable investments, what I describe to my CORE students as bad bets, that eventually lead to business failure or stagnation. It’s for this reason that I can confidently predict that content marketing efforts in SMEs are generally poor investments, because they are so often hasty bad bets.
It gets worse.
You Value The Financial Cost Incorrectly
Firstly, the financial barrier to entry for content marketing channels is very low, compared to other traditional advertising mediums. For $20, you can promote a post on ZuckerFace. This means that these tiny, nibble-size investments are within everyone’s immediate reach, with negligible economic pain felt in each transaction.
The problem is that we tend to use fuzzy logic to determine gists. In this case, the entrepreneur creates a gist – a simplified inner-narrative – that the low cost is effectively free. Never mind that they spend $20, three times a day, for a month. If the cost gist is (semi-consciously) $0 each time they boost a post, then “zero x three times per day x 30 days is still zero! Or close enough, right?” In reality, if they try this for six months, they will have invested $18,000. It’s not a free exercise, it’s a bad bet.
You Value The Time Cost Incorrectly
Most content marketers badly underestimate the time they invest in creating content.
A report from 2016 estimated that 39% of all marketers were spending at least 11 hours per week on social media. I suspect the number to be higher.
I ran a basic survey of 26 content marketers, and asked them to estimate how many minutes they anticipated spending in content creation each day for the upcoming week. When they kept an accurate record over the course of a week, literally 100% of these 26 marketers spent a far greater amount of time actually invested than they had forecast. In fact, it was not unusual for them to spend nearly twice as much time as anticipated. What’s more, before being shown how much time they actually had spent in the test week, I asked them to guess how much they think they spent. In most cases, they badly underestimated the real total even after they knew that they were recording the times.
I speculate that it’s something to do with the medium where these content tactics typically exist. I feel fortunate to have gotten to know a brilliant entrepreneur and author, Nir Eyal. In his excellent book Hooked – How To Build Habit-Forming Products Nir explains that many of the platforms where content is consumed feature highly addictive qualities, leveraging aspects of our psychology that make it very hard to look away. Although Nir wrote the book intending to democratize this for everyone, it does illuminate the reality that we just. keep. scrolling.
Here’s a shocking test to run on yourself. On your iPhone, go to Settings, then Battery, and scroll down to see all the apps being used and their impact on battery life. Hitting the “Show Activity” toggle will shame you with a display of exactly how many hours you’ve spent on those social media apps in the last 24 hours.
Those online environments have the potential to be utter time-sucks, and you, Dear Content Marketer, are immersed in them as both creator and consumer. You’re probably more exposed than most of us. You are likely spending a bucket load of your precious time, with no clear idea of how it’s returning to you. It’s a bad bet.
You Value The Focus Cost Incorrectly
Spending time and money is one thing. But how far can you stretch your attention?
All the evidence points to multitasking being a fool’s errand. Try as we might, we end up squandering productivity as we at switch between tasks.
For now, ignore professional marketers, social media managers, copy writers, and “influencers” (whatever that really means). Instead, just think about regular entrepreneurs and small business owners for a moment. In the vast majority of cases, the owner / founder either produces all of this content marketing themselves, or they provide direction to an employee who does. Even worse, they may just hand over a bunch of money, and completely abdicate strategic responsibility to someone who claims to be an online marketing guru, hoping for the best. Bad bets.
If the business owner is spending time trying to create and post content, attract engagement, and use it to build a business, they are almost always doing this in-between the normal daily operational requirements of their business. They are unlikely to have a methodical plan to create and manage content, with time judicially blocked out in the calendar. More likely, they spent four minutes posting something while they wait for the elevator, another fifteen minutes sharing on social after getting off the phone, and another seven minutes writing some inane marketing blog while on the toilet (ahem). Make no mistake, they paid a productivity cost every time they switched between real work and content marketing. They burned through time because their focus was poorly invested.
Much like the low-dollar threshold to promote online, we feel as though the impact on our focus is negligible. You may be surprised. Your focus is the place where amazing efficiencies can be found, where innovation and entrepreneurial creativity can germinate brilliant ideas, and where you can woo your customer further along the Love Story continuum. Diluting it around ad hoc content marketing efforts is a bad bet.
You Get The Wrong Rewards
Generating real wins as an entrepreneur is not easy. Growing a business can be dreary, thankless work that feels like it may take forever to pay off.
How delightful, then, when we look at our business tweet and find that it has been retweeted a bunch of times!? These micro-feedbacks offer us a little hit of dopamine and serotonin, that feel-good juice that sloshes around our brain. It takes but a moment to glance down and check that follower-count or to watch a few more likes appear on your last post. Each time, we feel a little glow of momentary joy (much better than knuckling down to manage those taxes, recruit a new sales rep, or draw up a real marketing plan). Research is confirming this reward response to be true, and quite addicting.
Over time, these variable rewards form powerful habits that can be hard to shake. What started as an innocent attempt to start a business Facebook page can quickly turn into an obsession, and before long you’ll be sitting in Starbucks with a sticker-laden Macbook, Airpods in, hashtagging your way into full-blown frenzy of Gary V inspirational quote-sharing.
Just because it feels good in the moment, doesn’t mean you should do it (I haven’t sounded this much like a Youth Group Leader since I was a Youth Group Leader). What really feels good is achieving actual business objectives. Conversely, sacrificing those substantive wins for the next fleeting short-term buzz is a bad bet.
You Measure The Wrong Things
Business life is not only hard, but is often lonely. Depending on where in the world you live, entrepreneurs can be viewed anywhere from brave, to flakey, greedy or untrustworthy. Your friends and family may not get it.
We humans are tribal creatures who need the affirmation of others. As an employee, this is formalized around manager reporting structures, promotions, and a weekly pay packet. For entrepreneurs, we often experience ups and downs with little empathy or encouragement from other people. We typically traverse this journey on our own, with occasional input from others in business.
I believe this may be one of the reasons why business owners and entrepreneurs are especially susceptible to chasing vanity metrics.
That term alone can make us recoil, because we may not consider ourselves especially vain by nature. It may be more understandable if we think of these metrics as proxies for human encouragement. These vanity metrics are generally easier to achieve, and more readily available, than the encouragement of others that may only ever eventuate at the culmination of a big project or some other landmark event.
For that reason, the entrepreneur’s psychology may draw them toward the sorts of metrics that make them feel morsels of pride and validation. By coincidence, content marketing is typically judged on many measurements that closely mirror vanity metrics.
These can all be proxies for how we feel others are interpreting us as people, not how they engage with our business. Do they like us? Do they want to engage with us? Do they want to give us their attention? Am I really succeeding?
Those human desires are normal. But unless these metrics are purposefully pointing toward a Strategic Objective on the way to a Wildly Important Goal, it’s not even worth measuring. Chasing these metrics is a bad bet.
So AJ, are you telling me to create content, or not?
I’m telling you to firstly have a plan to reach a specific goal.
Think strategically about what steps are needed to get there. If the costs for content marketing delivers a return in moving you forward toward a goal, and that ROI is better than whatever you forego in opportunity cost, it may be a wise bet. And, if you can set frameworks in place to guard against some of the risks and blindspots, it can be a very accessible tactical choice.
Otherwise, it’s an exercise based in flawed psychology, that won’t really move you towards where you want to be. Critically, it’ll use resources that could be otherwise invested to attract a customer. For that reason I hereby give you permission to not do it.
Now, please like and share this article. I need the dopamine.