Dot-com bubble burst aside, something really frustrating happened between the rise of Google in the early 2000s and sometime in early 2011: useful web content took a back seat to search engine rankings.

Many companies, including some very significant brands, simply stopped caring about the experiences of their online audiences.

Instead, it was a race towards dominating search engines, and everyone from marketing interns to the c-suite spent sleepless nights chasing algorithms trying to rank on the first page of Google for whatever keyword they thought their customers were searching for.

Then, Google—arguably the most important of all search engines at the time—fired a series of shots heard ‘round the world' with significant updates to its top-secret algorithm, which programmatically determines how web pages are positioned in its search results when someone searches for a specific keyword or phrase. Google had finally decided that quality content mattered again. And with that, digital marketing forever changed… kinda.

The Conceptual Shift

The Google updates only impacted a small percentage of overall websites, but the concept of publishing unique content versus trying to game the system took on a life of its own. Marketers began to accept that content creation was the way forward, and content marketing soon became the buzz phrase to beat. Unfortunately, most marketers had—and still have today—a very difficult time actually defining what that means. And if marketers can’t clearly define something, getting buy-in at the leadership level is all but impossible.

Over the past few years, content marketing as a business practice has been championed by some really smart and inspiring people: Joe Pulizzi, Jay Baer, Robert Rose, Doug Kessler, Marcus Sheridan—Google them; follow them; learn from them. But for the most part, marketers seem to be absorbing only bits-and-pieces from these and other thought leaders and failing miserably at content marketing on all fronts—strategy, planning, execution, and measurement.

That’s not to say those guys aren’t doing great work or that it’s all marketers’ faults—there are some amazing examples of brands doing it right, like RedBull, Adobe, Marriott, Autodesk, and others. It’s that most brands aren’t leveraging these learnings to build their own holistic, well-informed content marketing practices. It’s all being conducted very piecemeal and with little intent on actually helping target audiences. Instead, there’s a boatload of really bad content being branded and pushed by companies with extremely misguided intentions and expectations.

A New Problem: “Branded Content"

Recent research from Track Maven shows just how awful the concept of branded content really is, reporting on the abysmal engagement of almost 9,000 brands and 13 million pieces of content over two years. Instead of conducting smaller content experiments, listening to and helping audiences, and measuring real-time engagement to inform next steps, brands are stuck in the past, treating individual pieces of content—that may indeed be great—as advertising creative by ‘branding' it with sales and marketing messaging. After that and without any further nurturing, they meet every month or quarter to discuss ROI and wonder why it’s not working. Combined, all of these missteps are giving what is an otherwise successful decades-old practice—content marketing—a really bad rap.

Getting Back on Track

Content Marketing Reset

At its core, content marketing is about being genuinely helpful. Period. Every day, millions of people turn to the web in search of an answer to something or a way to be entertained without being marketed to. Being there when they want it most is content’s role in the organization. The solution isn’t to generate more content, it’s to generate the right content and then distribute that content to the right people, in the right place, at the right time.

This simple formula requires a shift in how companies think about and approach marketing communications. Think like a publisher is a popular catchphrase right now within certain marketing circles, but traditional publishers base their offerings around stringent editorial calendars and campaigns—a monthly magazine with an annual buyer’s guide that takes months to prepare, for example. And since calendars are driving content more than real-time or predictive behavioral analytics and data, publishing models aren’t very agile. Consistent, sure. Nimble, not so much.

Think (and Act) Like Teachers

Your audiences have questions—oftentimes very specific questions. More often than not, these people are turning to the web for answers. Those not there to help will lose out to those who are. Instead of thinking like publishers, companies need to think more like teachers, educating and helping target audiences make better decisions along their various buying journeys. This is much different than pushing self-serving content where the star of the show is the brand, its products or its services.

It’s time to reset content marketing. Put someone in charge who understands how the right content can solve business problems, build loyal audiences, earn conversions and retain customers through continued trust and authority. Build a team that is constantly in-tune with the voice of the customer. Create exceptional content that is genuinely helpful and distribute it consistently when, where and how target audiences want to consume it. Do these things correctly and, over time, content marketing’s ROI can easily surpass almost every other marketing channel tactic, oftentimes combined.

Michael Turner Michael Turner

Director of Digital Strategy at Station Four