Content Marketing works for a lot of businesses, but it takes time.
When pursuing any new strategy, tactic, or method, we first apply the models, frameworks and learnings that made our past efforts successful. Campaigns are a part of the advertising world that content marketers seemed to have adopted by default.
Marketing campaigns make sense. At their core, campaigns define the terms and scope of marketing activities. They’re researched, planned, and executed within a time frame, with set costs and performance expectations. What’s not to like?
“Content marketing is not campaign marketing”
Robert Rose, of the Content Marketing Institute, in this ANA video, explains that “…successful content marketing is not supercharged campaign marketing,” and reduces his statement to “content marketing is not campaign marketing.”
The folks at the Content Marketing Institute aren’t the only ones saying this. You’ll find dozens of similar mentions on Twitter and in the blogosphere.
So… what’s wrong with campaigns? Why are content marketers opposed to campaigns? What do we do about it? To answer these questions, let’s first define the terms.
Content Marketing Campaigns vs. Programs
What Is A Content Marketing Campaign?
A marketing campaign is a coordinated, organized effort executed within a set time frame, usually targeting one business goal. Content marketing campaigns include both the creation and promotion of content.
A campaign plan often includes multiple distribution channels – blog, email, and social media are three of the most commonly used.
Sometimes campaigns include one piece of content that’s atomized and distributed, and sometimes campaigns include a series of content around a particular theme.
Why Are Campaigns Used In Content Marketing?
Campaigns make for compelling business cases because they typically serve one goal, they’re easy to measure, they include defined costs, scope and timeline, and there is a definite end date. The CFO isn’t going to lose their mind because they’ve agreed to a “marketing cost-center” that will spend cash and resources indefinitely.
Campaigns are often used because something has to be promoted to a target audience. The thing has already been made and it needs eyes on it. One common campaign “theme” centers around content that’s created to promote a new product.
Performance involves short-term measurement around a pre-defined goal. Measuring content marketing campaigns is actually quite simple. You can measure traffic (sessions and page views), engagement (social shares, comments, bounce rate, time on page) and conversion (subscribers, downloads, contact-form submissions), within a set time frame.
Campaigns Measure the Performance of Content For These Metrics:
- Social Shares
- Bounce Rate / Time on Page
- New Subscribers
- Contact Submissions
While marketers usually have full visibility into any and all of these metrics, their campaigns typically serve one of the three major goals – traffic, engagement, or conversion.
Content Marketing campaigns are easy to get approved because they serve brands’ needs for distributing messages, they play within the confines of existing business frameworks, and they’re easy to quantify with concrete metrics.
What Is A Content Marketing Program?
A content marketing program is an ongoing effort to attract, educate and/or entertain an audience. A program is “always on,” there’s no end date. They’re about developing relationships with the people in a market, over the long haul. They may have business goals, even short term ones, but programs have brand-building aspirations.
Programs can serv
e multiple business goals, driving results across the entire marketing funnel. Whereas a campaign usually serves one master (often sign-ups, downloads or leads) programs are usually built to drive results that impact the entire funnel.
Because programs are built to produce ongoing traffic, leads, and sales, the “shout” methods of distribution, like PR, outreach, ad buying and heavy syndication often take a back seat to organic audience growth. Organic traffic, from search engines, is a major distribution channel for many content marketing programs.
The promise of a successful program is a large cumulative business effect over the long term. If the content you produce has lasting value, then every piece builds on the one before it. Unlike with ads, “evergreen content” can continue to rank, to be found through internal search and internal navigation, and can be continually promoted and shared through social media. So when you’ve published 20 articles, videos and whitepapers, you may have some decent traffic and lead volume, and when you’ve published 200, you may have altered the awareness, perception and sales of your business, forever.
That’s what makes content marketing unusually compelling in the digital marketing world. That’s what successful programs do.
Programs are tracked in the short term using the same types of metrics that campaigns are tracked with. They aim to drive inbound and organic results for the business in the medium term, and they aspire to build the brand and its connection with its customers over the long term. Often, companies use data points from NPS surveys, and widen the lens to measure performance across major traffic sources over the long-term.
What’s Wrong With Campaigns?
We know that campaigns can be successful. They can give us short bursts of traffic, engagement, and leads. What’s so wrong with them?
A lot of times, unless they’re propped up by significant advertising investment, content marketing campaigns just aren’t all that successful. It’s not safe to expect organic results from content these days, but it’s even less realistic when that measurement is crammed into a short measurement window. From Rand Fishkin’s brilliant 2014 Slideshare presentation “Why Content Marketing Fails“:
Rand’s point applies to the content marketing campaigns of today. Many flop because they’re just not given enough time. When campaigns are ditched too soon, brands give up on content marketing. That’s what’s wrong. But there’s more reasons campaigns aren’t ideal beyond just “you might fail.”
The Traditional Campaign Mindset
Campaigns, historically, are framed to represent the brand’s interests. If you launched a new product, a new service or an update, you ran a campaign. When that thing stopped resonating or was no longer “new,” you shut it down. But that model doesn’t serve the audience, it serves the brand’s interests. At worst, it drives brands to focus on product content rather than content that serves people.
Campaigns often use an idea-first approach, instead of an audience-first approach – “We made a “whitepaper, how can we push it in front of people’s faces?” Email “blasts” and short-term eye candy campaigns are not a path to long-term success. Capitalizing on holidays sales(!), events, and promotions isn’t the key to long-term viability in a market. They can all play a key role in quarterly earnings, and keep a CMO or Marketing Director from getting fired this year, but they’re often at odds with brand building.
Audiences don’t care about your campaigns. They don’t care that your budget ran out this quarter. They don’t stop using social media, consuming content, and searching for solutions to their problems because your budget ran out. Earn and keep their attention or else.
Campaigns Are Static
Where planning in the marketing world died, testing and iteration took over. Content marketing efforts should be fluid. You have to be willing to alter your work on the fly. If a particular topic or theme isn’t producing success indicators, you don’t see it through to the end of the quarter to score your losses. You change. The cadence with which we publish and the speed with which we can close the feedback loop simply happens too fast for static campaigns.
Campaigns Ignore The “Content Hit Rate”
The Pareto Principle applies to content, but it’s probably less like 80/20 and more like 90/10. If you produce one-thousand pieces of content, a dozen of them will drive the majority of your results. It’s not because you’re not good, it’s just the nature of the business.
What does this mean? It means that your one-off campaign may not produce a “hit” at all. Your one-off campaign strategy may not get the results you’re capable of.. It doesn’t mean you failed or that content failed you, it means you’ve failed to understand the content hit rate. If you don’t commit to publishing and promoting regularly, you may never know what content can do for your business.
Distribution Takes Ongoing Effort
“Hits” rarely happen without distribution. Maximizing distribution channels is critical to producing content marketing wins. Waiting for Google to index and rank your website isn’t enough. Putting ad dollars behind content will only take you so far. You need to invest in non-paid channels to produce hits.
Non-paid distribution isn’t (just) about sharing on your social media and pushing to syndicated partners, it’s also about developing opportunities and clout with influencers and within communities. It’s about developing relationships that give you access to larger audiences. The ROI of relationship building can be massive, but it’s difficult to build relationships within a campaign. An ongoing program allows you to develop real relationships and expand your distribution channels over time.
Measurement Expectations Are Misaligned
The short-term results of content marketing usually isn’t business results. You can’t expect that publishing a whitepaper is going to lead to sales this month. That simply ignores the truth of the customer journey. Customers don’t buy because of whitepapers, they buy because it’s the right time for them, and you did all the right things along their journey.
This is an area where expectation-setting is critical. Content marketing campaigns often “fail” or are discontinued because they don’t get backing from stakeholders outside of the marketing department. It’s why you hear misguided marketers say, “we blogged for a couple months, but it didn’t get us results.” You can’t launch a piece of content and measure how many sales it got you in 30 days.
When your campaign ends, your work may have impacted one cohort of people one time. Even if they converted six months later, you’re probably “done” measuring that campaign, and might mis-attribute the impact.
No Cumulative Impact
The article lifecycle is 37 days. Every successful article will give you about a month of heavy interaction until results taper off. You can expect the same from resources, videos, and slide presentations.
When you’re constantly starting and stopping campaigns, your results tend to look like this:
When your work builds on itself over time, and each effort helps fortify the last one, then you’re more likely to see results like this:
If a campaign is what you must do to initiate a program, run one, run twelve, do whatever it takes. Know that you’ll spend considerable time creating new strategies, documenting terms and expectations, measuring incomplete data, slapping reports together, and then waiting. At the very least, design your campaigns around your customers, not around your brand and its products.
Convert Your Campaigns to Programs
There are a lot of common, traditional reasons why programs aren’t pursued by brands – they’re too “new” (read: risky), expensive, and they require a lot of resources & specialized help, but I believe the two biggest reasons are:
- Programs are the long game. Every marketer wants to focus on the long term. Every company wants to be a recognizable brand in their niche. When quarterly and yearly budgets are created, few have the guts to play the long game.
- Clean measurement is hard. Metrics are easy to collect, but business results can be hard to attribute. Programs evolve and change, other channels change over time, the competition changes – how do we know the dollar value impact of content marketing?
Given the challenges, how do we pursue a program rather than a series of campaigns?
First, understand that the best time to adopt a content marketing program is at the end of a successful content marketing campaign. If nothing else, it’s okay to build Content Marketing campaigns with reasonable, short-term goals – like marketing-qualified leads for a particular customer segment. Once you’ve proven success on a small scale – parlay that work into a program.
That means documenting the tactics and activities in your strategy, building it into a new plan, and assigning out work, but it also means considering the three key pieces of infrastructure you’ll need to operationalize the effort:
Channel integration is critical. Content marketing touches and influences too many marketing channels. There’s no “social media strategy” completely separate from a “content marketing strategy.” There’s no “SEO strategy” independent of content marketing. They must integrate.
The work simply can’t be done in a silo. If you report on long-term trends in the business, say, organic rankings over time, who’s to say that SEO is not to credit? Integrating between channels and attributing results is a critical component of a successful content marketing program.
A program needs to have a single person in charge of its success. Maybe you can run the occasional campaign through the social media team and the SEO agency and the copywriter and marketing coordinators, but programs need to be owned by a single person. You don’t need a “Content Marketing Manager,” but you need someone who assumes that role and takes ownership of the program.
A System & A Calendar
How will you manage an ongoing effort? What project management platform will you use to assign and manage daily tasks? What processes do you need to set in place and what recurring meetings need to go on the calendar?
A campaign can be kicked off with a meeting, a pre-mortem. You can throw in some status updates along the way and complete it with a final report and a post-mortem meeting. Programs need structure and calendars, editorial and internal. They need regular measurement, not just of content pieces, but of cumulative business results. They need a cadence.
Campaigns Are For Messages, Programs Are For Audience
Content Marketing is a long game. Campaigns are short-sighted. In the content marketing world, they mostly cut short of business results. A 90-day campaign simply can’t capture the entire customer lifecycle. It can generate pageviews, likes shares, engagement, form-fillouts, and MQLs, but it can’t necessarily see those leads through to sale. That’s the promise of a content marketing program.
Programs are about audience. Running a Content Marketing program means committing to creating value for people on the promise of future sales.
Campaigns are for advertising. They’re great for direct response. They reach far and wide to try to win customers.