Content Marketing Enters the Trough: Themes & Lessons from Content Marketing World 2015

Content marketers may be heading for some rough terrain.

Since I left Cleveland over a month ago the phrase, “Trough of Disillusionment” has been used to refer to content marketing more and more often.

content marketing grows up

“Trough of Disillusionment.” Sounds scary, right?  

This idea, illustrated on the graph below, certainly isn’t unique to content marketing. Most ideas go through a phase of heightened expectations, when they’re held up as the answer to all the problems everywhere (Peak of Inflated Expectations).

gartner hype cycle

Then it turns out they aren’t the answer to all the questions everywhere, and people get disillusioned with them (Trough of Disillusionment).

This doesn’t mean the idea isn’t good, it just isn’t the magic wand or magic bullet or magic anything. That’s just about where we’re at with content marketing, according to its orange-clad protector Joe Pulizzi.

Looking back, this was an undercurrent in many of the presentations that I saw at Content Marketing World, and I want to take some time to unpack those themes and their implications so my fellow content marketers can be prepared for the world that’s coming our way.

Content Marketing Grows Up, Gets Angsty

Gone is the unbridled euphoria that came with content’s early days, but that’s not really a bad thing. Instead of running around creating content like writers with our heads cut off who suddenly got a budget, we’ve now got to put our heads back on and get strategic about what we’re doing (possibly with a smaller budget).

For some content marketers, this reigning in feels like failure.

We react like angsty teenagers and insist that nobody really understands content.

If they did, they’d just let us keep doing whatever we want and expanding our budget without asking questions.

But this demand for justification, measurement, and serious strategy aren’t a sign of failure. They’re the price of admission to the big kids’ table.

If we want content marketers to have a shot at the CMO’s office, we’ve got to get over our angst and get serious about our strategy. (Yes, writers, I’m talking to you too.)

For most organizations, that means our conversations need to move to the next level. Instead of questions like:

  • How do I convince my organization/boss to adopt this approach?
  • How much content do I need to produce?
  • Who is my audience?
  • Where do I find people to read my content?

It’s time to start asking harder questions, like:

  • How do I maintain a sustained focus on content over time?
  • How do I measure, track, and report on ROI for my organization?
  • How can I manage content coming in from multiple sources?
  • What needs to change about my content on different channels?

Harder questions are, well, harder, but they lead to better content, better strategy, and better results for our businesses and our audiences.

Do the Work, Get the Rewards

In the early days, back when we were on the Peak of Inflated Expectations, people thought they could throw out a couple dozen blog posts and an ebook and achieve market dominance. Content marketing! Woo!

Sometimes that worked, but now it almost never will; there’s just too much content out there to compete with.

But the issue isn’t just about quantity, it’s about quality too. While there’s certainly been a glut of mediocre and poor content flooding the internet in the past decade, there’s also been a beautiful explosion of really great content too.

That great content — the unicorns of content marketing — are what we should be competing with.

As we move into the Trough of Disillusionment (cue ominous music), it’s time to do the real work to reap the real rewards. We can’t continue to have debates about whether we should produce more content OR higher quality content. That debate is over, and the answer is both.

Content marketing success now demands awesomeness at scale, and nothing less.

People will continue to pour money into mediocrity and expect their audience to reward them with undying loyalty, but it’s just not going to happen anymore. Welcome to the Trough, people. Nobody said it was going to be easy.

We Serve Two Mistresses: Audience and Business

From its inception content marketing has been about the audience (or at least it has been when done right). It was effective as marketing precisely because it didn’t look, feel, or act like marketing as people knew it.

Content marketing was just there to help, and if you wanted to buy something later on, that was great. Back when we were on the Peak of Inflated Expectations we could get away with doing this and just assuming that people would make a purchase…eventually (but we couldn’t really tell you when, or what they bought, or where).

This was really nice while it lasted, but even the most altruistic of businesses can’t keep creating an endless stream of helpful resources without seeing any cash coming in on the other side.  

Life in the Trough means that we’re being pulled back into the business conversations. We’re now being asked to not only serve our audience, but to also prove that we’re simultaneously meeting business goals.

Again, this is a harder conversation to have, but it produces more valuable resources and gives content a seat at the big kids’ table of marketing strategies.

Now we’re driving profitable, measurable action AND making our audience happy. It’s a pretty big step forward.

Managing theses sometimes conflicting expectations may be tricky, but it will be completely worth it as content marketing continues to mature and find its way into more and more C-level offices.

Cue the Content Marketing Cleverness

I mentioned earlier that the quantity/quality debate is over, because we have to be producing high quality content at scale in order to succeed. For many of us, however, we aren’t going to be getting more resources to achieve this goal.

That means it’s time to get clever, crafty, and conniving.

People should be shocked when they learn the size of our content teams because they expect them to be two or three times larger.

First we’ve got to pick the right channels (NOT all the channels) and make sure our content goals are customized for each one. Then we have to realize that things can be great without being perfect (I’m looking at you, grammar nazis) and just start getting it done.

There’s a lot of talk about content marketers facing writer’s block, an inability to create graphics themselves, or feeling overwhelmed in the face of too many publishing channels.

Well, all those things can be tough, but we don’t get to use them as excuses anymore.

The Trough of Disillusionment isn’t likely to be kind to content marketers who can’t address their weaknesses rapidly, or to departments that spend their time explaining why they can’t do something.

Get out there, get creating, and get sharing. Oh, and if you don’t have a strategy yet, you’d better get one.

Strategy Will Save Us All

Back when only a handful of your competitors might have been practicing content marketing, you could get away with muddling through without much of an editorial calendar, never mind a documented content strategy.

But those days are gone. The time has come to strategize or eulogize.

Departments with a documented content strategy report four times the ROI on content marketing as those without one. So write it down, get it approved, and stick to it.

Yes, that means you need to actually create personas.

Yes, that means you’ve got to do a content audit.

And yes, it will all be worth it.

That might mean that you’ve got to get off the speeding freight train of content deadlines for a little while, but this is unlikely to spell disaster for your content marketing efforts. Consider how quickly you’ll recoup any losses with your newly expanded efficiency.

The Trough Isn’t the Enemy

The Trough of Disillusionment, despite its intimidating name, isn’t a bad thing for content marketing.

We’ve got to get through it in order to reach the maturity of this new marketing discipline, and it might even help weed out some of the pretenders who have sullied the content marketing name.

To my fellow content marketers, however, I offer this warning: make sure you’re prepared for the hard times ahead. Strategize your heart out. Hone your craft; train to shore up your weaknesses.

And finally, network like mad. We’re going to need comrades in arms to make it through this trough.

Now, let’s get to work.

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Andrea Fryrear
About the Author:

Andrea Fryrear

Andrea loves to dissect marketing buzzwords and fads looking for the pearls of wisdom at their cores. Her favorite topic is agile marketing, which she believes holds the key to a more fulfilling (and less stressful) marketing career for individuals and a more powerful marketing department for business. When not scrutinizing the latest agile methodologies, Andrea can be found on the volleyball court, at the park with her two delightful kids, or baking “calorie-free” cookies. Connect with her on Twitter @AndreaFryrear, or on LinkedIn.

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