What Content Can't Do

Whether you are already creating content or still debating the concept, make sure you pay close attention to content campaign promises – there are plenty of things that content can do, but an equal number of things it can’t.

Companies are understandably fixated on content’s return on investment, looking for a strong ROI on how content marketing will enhance sales or maybe even cut expenses. In response, consultants, agencies and marketing teams keep pulling together metrics and proposals promising hard returns. But expectations still aren’t being met on both sides, and I believe that’s due to a fundamental misunderstanding overall about what content can and can’t do.

Let’s clarify content’s role in a marketing plan so that everyone can agree on achievable goals. Once those are in place, your team can select the proper metrics to measure actual results instead of continually reaching for unachievable goals.

Content can create brand awareness and extend brand reach.

Look at Red Bull, a consumer-packaged-goods company that has restyled itself as a marketing engine. Red Bull sells two million copies of its monthly men’s lifestyle magazine, runs a YouTube channel with over four million subscribers, and owns the most-watched action sports network on television. Red Bull’s content has made it one of the most amped-up, coolest brands for its target demographic of 18-34-year-old men.

Content can generate leads.

Gated content is the perfect example of how content can play nice with lead generation and here’s a real opportunity for meaningful metrics. For example, it’s easy to measure number of customer touch points available, number of touch points engaged, number of emails gathered, number of downloads and even revenues generated by paywall content. There is a direct and measurable correlation between customer engagement and creating excellent content that your target market wants.  

Content can create customer trust.

My favorite example is Sift from King Arthur Flour. This high-value publication is for sale on newsstands and graces coffee tables of home bakers nationwide. King Arthur goes deep in this content, with recipes, technique and profiles of excellent bakers around the country. Customers recognize that King Arthur understands them and is the best go-to source for expert baking information.

Content can measure reach.

Digital metrics can track how many people open, read and share your content. This is a vast improvement over print, television, direct mail and billboard advertising, where you often have absolutely no idea. As an example, I worked with one publication that actually printed less than a quarter the number of pieces that it was promising advertisers.

Having pointed out content’s advantages, let’s now look at what it can’t do.

Content can’t sell stuff.

Content designed to sell is called “advertising.” If you are trying to directly sell product or services via content then you are hamstringing the true power of content – which is to create material that your target reader trusts. The minute a reader senses the hard sell, her credibility is shot and she’s out.

Content can’t close.

Even the best content, closely aligned with a sales funnel, can’t actually close a sale. Therefore, you can’t link sales directly to content. You can, however, link sales that your people close to a content pipeline that helped them develop that relationship.

Content can’t deliver a hard ROI.

I see so many promises on metrics, and sometimes those metrics do track real things like MQLs generated by content engagement. There are ways to track sales back to content engagement, but just know that those are still incomplete and can seem fuzzy. Because content is more powerful for branding than for sales, those numbers are not going to be hard and clean.

Obviously I love content marketing, and clearly it has proven itself more powerful than much traditional advertising and marketing. The metrics are indeed better. But just as any other marketing approach content marketing has its strengths and weaknesses. Just don’t be fooled by a bunch of campaign promises.