Content Marketing’s 3rd Era: When Guessing Isn’t Good Enough

Content Marketing’s 3rd Era: When Guessing Isn’t Good Enough

Are we entering a new era of content marketing? The question may seem absurd at first thought – after all, “content marketing” is the buzzword du jour; how can it already be time for a third era of something so new?

But the truth is, content marketing isn’t new; as long as there has been marketing there has been the content that powers it. Beyond that, savvy brands have been doing content-specific marketing for more than 100 years. Today, what was once something only the smartest companies did has become a must-have for any brand hoping to keep its head above water.

The last few years have seen exactly that; as brands have recognized that buyers are doing up to 90% of their research before even contacting their companies, they’ve poured resources into content marketing to try to win back mindshare. But unfortunately, many companies have been marketing mindlessly; they’re “doing content” but they don’t know why they’re doing it, and the disastrous results speak for themselves – in fact, according to Sirius Decisions, some 70 percent of branded content produced by B2B companies goes unused.

Fortunately, in this third era of content marketing, B2B brands can finally get smart about content, and learn from their mistakes. And they’re going to do it using big data. But to understand why, we need to start with a little recap of content marketing’s lifecycle thus far.

The Primordial Era: A Time Before “Content Marketing”

The Locomotive
Photo by Hartford Steam Boiler

This first era occurred before anyone had thought to give content marketing a name. But just as some early “heretics” always knew that the world wasn’t flat, savvy brands have been telling stories that inform and entertain their audiences for 150 years.

While today many people associate marquee content efforts with consumer brands like Red Bull and Coca-Cola, the truth is that the earliest brand newsrooms were fully B2B focused. The world’s first piece of “sponsored content” was in fact geared towards railroad companies, when the Hartford Steam Boiler Inspection and Insurance Company began publishing The Locomotive, their magazine geared towards helping railroad equipment owners and operators solve common issues and mitigate risks. In fact, The Locomotive is still around today; long live content!

30 years later, John Deere started their own publishing efforts, with the launch of The Furrow, which is still going strong, offering farmers advice in over 14 languages, while occasionally helping sell a John Deere tractor or two. As the 20th century progressed, a few other savvy companies jumped in – giving us everything from Michelin Guides to Lego Magazine, but most companies were content to keep using traditional sales methods.

The 2000s: Companies Jump All In, But Results Decidedly Mixed

This brings us up to the turn of the century, where the spread of the Internet started to rapidly change the marketing and sales model. What started as a trickle has become a torrential river, as consumers now are always-on: they could be researching your marketplace on their phone at 3 AM, or someone could be talking about your brand on social media without you ever knowing it.

B2B marketers fought back, embracing content as a way to maintain some control over the dialogue while showcasing the value of one’s brand and building relationships with potential customers. But for every high-profile success like Amex or Cisco, there are countless more floundering along: not necessarily abject failures, but definitely not successes either.

The numbers speak for themselves on this issue: while 86 percent of B2B companies are using content marketing, most are seriously struggling with methodology and results. As CMI documented, only 38 percent of marketers think their content is effective. The vast majority doesn’t have a documented strategy behind their initiatives, nor can they track any ROI from their work, and yet organizations are continuing to invest in content marketing regardless. In fact, even among the companies that rate themselves as “least effective” at content marketing, 58 percent are creating more content and spending more money on it than they did the year before.

While this may have been a passable strategy at first, this is clearly not sustainable in the long run. Marketers need to get smart about their content, and the only way to do that is to actually understand what your audience cares about. Traditionally, many marketers have tried telling stories that their companies care about, without considering whether or not that’s what their audience is actually looking for. Or maybe they did some “research” by scrolling through countless RSS feeds, newsletters, and Twitter updates to see what’s trending.

The unfortunate result is a world with a million unread blog posts, countless branded Youtube videos that are neither funny nor informative, and billions of meaningless tweets that nobody asked for.

Modern Content: Data-Driven Storytelling

So if 70 percent of branded content never generates a reaction, what’s the solution? The problem is that storytelling (which is what content creation really is) is an art. And art alone won’t make you and your brand money. Many brands seem to have forgotten this when they merged storytelling into their marketing operations and now they need to reintroduce science to make their marketing work again.

Great art, not great lead gen

There’s a science to understanding what your audience craves, what sort of stories they’re looking for and will make a connection with them; it’s the science of big data and semantic analysis. By analyzing the existing conversations taking place across all mediums – offline & online news, blogs, social media – you can see what people are talking about, what’s influential and resonating and which of those themes are influencing your audience of buyers.

You need to create content your audience wants, not guess haphazardly and hope for a one-in-a-million viral hit. Leave that for your personal blog.

Smart marketers recognize this, and that’s why they’re turning to next-generation tools to better understand their marketplaces. At Appinions, we’ve built our technology off of a decade’s worth of semantic analysis research out of Cornell and we process tens of millions of documents a day to precisely understand what influential people are talking about across any given topic. We extract top themes, influential publications, and see exactly what is moving a market.

We’re not the only one; the ecosystem of smart tools to help a marketing organization understand the world they operate in is growing stronger every day. You can turn to Tableau to visualize your geographic presence or opportunities, Splunk for insights into your customer behavior, or Flurry to understand how your users interact with your app. The world is clearly embracing business intelligence on a massive scale, and it’s time that content marketers realize it’s just as applicable to them.

Remember: Content marketing without data is just content. Data allows marketers to create a repeatable, predictable strategy that’s transformative and guarantees you a voice in your buyer’s journey.