Monday, 30 March 2015

11 Big Content Marketing Challenges (and How to Overcome Them)

These days, content marketing is a lot like the housing market. Sure, it’s still possible to get on the ladder and own your own home, but making the transition from renter to proud new homeowner has become a hell of a lot harder than it used to be.
Content marketing challenges demotivator
When I started my content marketing career, “content marketing” wasn’t even a thing. Now, everyone and their grandmother is a publisher, a brand storyteller, or something equally nebulous. The overuse of clichéd marketing buzzwords like this doesn’t mean that content marketing isn’t important. On the contrary, it’s never been more important.
However, there are numerous challenges that make content marketing difficult in today’s media environment. In today’s post, I’ll be looking at 11 of these content marketing challenges and what they mean to your content strategy, as well as sharing some tips for overcoming them.

Content Marketing Challenge #1: Insufficient Resources

Producing content is easy. Producing good content is much harder.
It takes time and skill to produce quality content consistently. Many small businesses tackle their own content marketing efforts, and for good reason. After all, nobody knows your business better than you, so you’re the perfect person to blog about whatever it is that you do.
Unfortunately, producing consistently great content can get in the way of other things, like actually running your business.
A lack of time is arguably one of the biggest barriers to content marketing that many businesses face. The other is a lack of sufficient budget. After all, if you don’t have time to produce your own content, it stands to reason that paying someone else to do it makes sense. The problem with this approach is that, since it takes skill to produce great content, many would-be content producers are faced with what is known as the project management triangle:
Content marketing challenges good fast cheap pick two 
Pick two.

How to Overcome It

Whether you outsource your content production or keep it in-house, you’re going to pay for it – one way or another. Either you accept the time investment required to produce consistently quality content, or you’ll have to pony up and pay someone to do it for you.
Outsourcing might seem like the more affordable option, but it’s not without its risks. For starters, you’re at the mercy of another company when it comes to maintaining a regular production schedule. Secondly, you risk publishing content that fails to leverage your expertise and industry knowledge, or even meet your basic expectations in terms of editorial quality, which can harm your brand.
Alternatively, choosing to produce your own content can save you a lot of money, but unless you’re somehow able to balance running a business and running a blog, you may have to be willing to put in a lot more hours.
It’s tempting to think of content as a “free” marketing strategy, but it isn’t. Be prepared to deal with the tangible costs of content marketing long before you sit down to write your first post – or ask someone else to do it for you.

Content Marketing Challenge #2: Increasing Competition

Whether you’re blogging about your small needlecraft business or enterprise-level IT hardware, someone else has already been blogging about it for a long time. To make matters worse, there has never been such intense competition for your audience’s attention.
Content marketing challenges attention economy quote
Unfortunately, this challenge compounds the first. As competition for limited audiences (even large ones) intensifies, what can you do? Create better content, which requires more time, money, or both. The result is a figurative arms race – who can produce the best content, the most frequently? In addition, as competition for audience attention escalates, the expectations of your readers become higher, placing you under even greater pressure to consistently deliver not just good content, but truly exceptional content.
While I was researching this post, I came across a blog post by Rand Fishkin about how content marketers have become their own worst enemies, published over a year ago. Interestingly, it was a remark in the comments section by Jon Morrow that really nailed the current state of content marketing and its future:
 Content marketing challenges Jon Morrow comment
Jon makes an excellent point about the phenomenal success of TV shows like “Breaking Bad” in a completely oversaturated market – if you suck, you get nothing. If you win, on the other hand, the gains are almost immeasurable. The problem, of course, is that actually creating content on a par with “Breaking Bad” is very, very difficult.
Jon’s comment sparked some vigorous debate about content marketing, and it didn’t take long for someone to mention Darwinism in the context of content; only the strong will survive.

How to Overcome It

There are no guarantees in content marketing, but one thing’s for sure – if your content is crap, you’re doomed to fail. Each and every post you publish has to be as good as it possibly can be, and you need to keep this up for years if you hope to build and sustain a sizable audience.
It’s virtually impossible to hit the mark every time – even the very best blogs still publish mediocre content from time to time – but you have to strive for nothing less than excellence.
However, there is some good news. The relentless intensification of competition in content marketing has created a unique challenge, and opportunity, for savvy content marketers, which is…

Content Marketing Challenge #3: Keeping Quality Consistently High

As a content producer, reading is a significant part of my job. During the course of an average day, I read dozens of blog posts, news stories, and in-depth articles. I’m going to let you in on a little secret.
At least half of them are terrible.
Content marketing challenges worst examples
Oh, how the mighty have fallen.
Out of respect (and a keen sense of professional self-preservation), I’m not going to name names or point the finger of blame at specific publications (aside from the dig at TIME above, which is obviously well deserved). I am, however, telling you that even sites with huge audiences and large teams of professional writers and copyeditors frequently publish simply awful articles riddled with mistakes, lazy writing, or incorrect facts. Why? Partly because they have to, and partly because they can.
Some sites leverage their name recognition and branding to get away with publishing half-assed crap, whereas some of the most consistently excellent content I’ve read in recent months has been published on small, independent blogs run by a handful of people (or even a very talented individual). This means that, thanks to the relentless pressure to Always Be Publishing, opportunities to publish useful, insightful, well-written content (you know, the stuff readers desperately want) are right there for the taking – if you’re up to the task.

How to Overcome It

It would be naïve to assume that an article published in a glossy monthly technology magazine doesn’t have more pull than even the best of posts on a scrappy upstart blog. However, if you consistently push yourself, take the time to develop your writing skills, and only publish the very best content you can, before long you’ll actually be publishing content that’s better than at least half of what ends up online every day. Keep it up, even when it feels like nobody’s reading you.
Also, don’t compare your work to other publications too often. Yes, it’s valuable to be aware of overall editorial standards and content trends, but you should focus on making your latest post even better thanyour last post – not losing sleep over whether your latest article is better than something you read in Wired last week.

Content Marketing Challenges #4: Shifts in Trends Toward Paid Promotion

Sometimes, simply publishing great content just isn’t enough.
We’ve written about the importance of content promotion in the past, but the content landscape is shifting rapidly toward a heavy prioritization of paid promotion.
Content marketing challenges paid content promotion
Sure, “organic” social media promotion most definitely still has its place, but with platforms such as Facebook, Twitter, and LinkedIn offering a range of increasingly sophisticated ways to segment audiences and reach the right people – for the right price, of course – greater emphasis is being placed on paying to get your content in front of the people you want to see it.
There’s no easy solution to this problem. Relying solely on organic social promotion might work just fine for a while, but if you’re trying to aggressively expand your reach and grow your audience, you may want to explore paid promotion options. Just as you should expect to make a tangible investment in the actual creation of your content, you may also have to pay to ensure it reaches more people and accomplishes its purpose.

How to Overcome It

There are dozens of variables that will dictate the best social media advertising strategy for your business, such as:
  • Budget
  • Target market demographics
  • Typical social media consumption habits of your audience
  • Content type
  • Device compatibility of content
  • Desired business outcomes
We’ll be covering how to promote content on social media with a limited budget in a forthcoming post. In the meantime, it may be worth experimenting with paid content promotion on a small scale to gauge the effectiveness of your campaigns before embarking on larger (and likely more expensive) promotional initiatives.
However much you decide to spend on content promotion, be sure to set goals for your campaigns. Do you want to attract more followers? Increase referral traffic? Capture emails for your newsletter? Gain external links from industry publications? Think carefully about what you want your campaign to do before making an investment, whether it be $50 or $50,000.

Content Marketing Challenge #5: Impatience and Unrealistic Expectations

If you’ve ever had to make a business case for content marketing to your managerial team, you probably already know how imposing these challenges can be. Although content marketing has been in vogue for several years, misconceptions abound about how it works and what management can expect from an investment in content marketing.
Content marketing challenges getting stakeholder buy-in 
The first distinct challenge is impatience. Mention the word “years” in any pitch meeting with management and you’ll likely be met with cold stares and uncomfortable silences. However, the truth is that, even with a large and skilled content marketing team behind you, it can often take several years for content to start doing what it’s supposed to do.
This isn’t a flaw in content marketing itself, but rather a problem of expectations. Many executives and managers are used to the relatively immediate return on more traditional marketing strategies. Asking them to not only fund content marketing projects, but potentially wait several years for them to pay off, is a difficult pill to swallow.

How to Overcome It

The first thing you and other content stakeholders need to come to terms with is that content marketing takes time. Very few blogs achieve runaway success overnight, and it takes time to establish an audience and build credibility.
Content marketing challenges patience
The figure above is a snapshot of WordStream’s traffic over a six-year period from January 2009 to January 2015. See how long it took before our content marketing efforts really took off? It took more than two and a half years before traffic even started to increase considerably, and we didn’t begin to see major increases in traffic until early 2013 – four years after we began our content marketing efforts.
The second thing you need to manage are your expectations. Agree upon realistic traffic and engagement targets, rather than setting yourself up for disappointment by aiming too high too fast. It’s better to establish manageable goals and achieve them than dismiss your content marketing efforts as a failure by missing targets that are too ambitious.
If your content marketing campaigns are more successful than you had anticipated, adjust your targets accordingly – just be sure to have enough data to justify a change in plan.

Content Marketing Challenge #6: Maintaining Ambitious Publishing Schedules

The term “signal vs. noise” comes up frequently in discussions about content marketing. In this context, the signal is your content, and the noise is everything else. Simply put, with so much content being produced, the sense of urgency to publish as much as you can (with the ultimate goal of brute-forcing your way through the sheer volume of articles being published every day) is often too great to ignore.
Content marketing challenges signal vs. noise
There are innumerable blog posts, white papers, and how-to guides out there telling you that publishing at least once per day is essential for content marketing success. However, what if you simply can’t maintain this kind of publishing schedule?

How to Overcome It

Good content marketing is difficult to scale. If you want to publish more frequently, you need to invest more resources (see challenge #1). If you can’t do this, the quality of your content will suffer. With this in mind, it’s crucial to balance quantity with quality, with particular emphasis on the latter.
It’s better to publish one truly excellent post per week than post five mediocre posts every week. With so many publishers vying for attention, the only thing that will differentiate you from other publishers in your industry is quality content, and only you can decide how often you can publish. Consistently excellent content is more important to your audience than whether you update your blog several times in a single day. After all, who wants to read five crappy posts a day when they can truly savor and learn from one really excellent post?
Content marketing challenges publishing frequency
Image via Content Marketing Institute’s ‘B2B Content Marketing 2015 Benchmarks, Budgets, and Trends – North America’ report
Don’t buy into the content marketing myth that publishing less than once per day will doom your efforts to fail. Always focus on quality rather than pumping out filler content for its own sake.

Content Marketing Challenge #7: Focusing Too Broadly (or Narrowly)

One of the most common mistakes that many content marketers make is focusing too broadly on a vast subject area, or zeroing in exclusively on the tiniest niche.
Achieving a balance in terms of editorial focus is a challenge for even established, well-resourced content production teams. Cast your content nets too widely and you could face an uphill struggle to establish a name for yourself, or risk losing traffic to larger, more established publishers.
On the other hand, focusing on a highly specific niche might seem like a great idea (and it can be), but by doing so, you may struggle to expand your readership further down the road, or even run out of genuinely new and insightful things to say about your industry.

How to Overcome It

Begin by starting with a broad category relevant to your business, then come up with increasingly granular ideas for potentially relevant subcategories. Remember, though, that the narrower your editorial focus, the harder it may be to expand your audience as your content strategy matures. Leave yourself enough breathing room to come up with exciting posts about relevant topics, but avoid targeting vastly broad subject areas.

Content Marketing Challenge #8: Risk Aversion (or ‘Content Comfort Zones’)

Content marketers are, by and large, creatures of habit. We tend to stick with what works. If a particular type of post resonates with our audience, we’ll often apply this “formula” to our next post, and the next, and so on. There are two main reasons for this. The first is that we genuinely want to provide our readers with content they find useful, actionable, and valuable.
The second is that, frankly, we’re hopelessly addicted to the pageviews.
The struggle is real.
Remember when I said that it can sometimes take years to establish an audience and generate consistent traffic from content marketing campaigns? Well, now imagine that whatever you’ve been doing has worked really well, and you’re seeing tens of thousands of unique monthly pageviews as a result of your efforts. You’d probably be hesitant about trying something radical that could potentially tank your traffic, right?
This is why so much content out there is bland, generic, instantly forgettable crap.
Every day when I check my RSS feed for the latest news and content, the vast majority of it ends up looking and sounding exactly the same. Granted, this is particularly prevalent in marketing content (perhaps more so than other industries), but even well-known mainstream media brands all seem to be pushing the same content, day in, day out; six surprising ways to accomplish this routine task, 21 things you won’t believe about some everyday occurrence, why you shouldn't be doing this thing everyone else is doing. Even this post follows this pattern.
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