• Content marketing isn’t free – it represents a shift in investments and resources
  • B2B organizations seeking to earn a wider audience than what they’ve paid for must acknowledge that the core difference between paid and earned isn’t just cost
  • Earned attention for your brand can sometimes be more resource-intensive than paid attention!

Of all the things I hear from marketers, here’s one of my least favorites: We’re facing significant budget cuts for next year, so we need to save money by focusing more on content marketing and earned media than outbound and paid tactics. So, like, we want to reduce our advertising spend and instead build a content engine on our Web site for free to increase our search rankings.

First, let me say that despite the flawed premise, this is, in fact, the right pivot for almost every organization to make right now. So I’ll clarify that content marketing and earned media is not my least favorite topic because I want to redirect the strategy; it’s my least favorite because of the implication that it’s somehow magical and free and can just happen if you cut your paid media budget, clap your hands and repeat the phrase, “I DO believe in content marketing! I DO! I DO! I DO believe in content marketing!”

Magic Is Something You Make

The reality is that – as I discussed in my post “The Myth of Free Content” – content is not free. Even low-quality content isn’t free. Good or bad, we pay for it through a combination of third-party partners and internal salaries. So what troubles me about this initiative is the delusion that content marketing or earned media in general is an easily attainable and viable “free” alternative to traditional paid modes. It’s a dangerous and unrealistic expectation, and it makes me worry that this marketer is being set up for failure because of an illusion that somehow great content marketing is just regular old marketing with a reduction in paid distribution.

What we see in organizations that succeed at content marketing isn’t necessarily a reduced investment – rather, it’s a shifted investment. Marketers using traditional outbound – or “push”– marketing forced people to look at generally mediocre content by paying to put it in the places they visit. When we think about the two primary phases of enterprise content process – creation and activation – the investment load was heavily weighted toward activation. Modern inbound marketing – or content marketing – doesn’t simply remove that bloated activation budget; instead, it reallocates those paid media dollars to efforts and resources for increasing content quality – pushing those dollars upstream into creation in the form of licensed content from influencers or content whose creation is more labor intensive (e.g. higher contribution levels from internal subject matter experts, greater focus on high production value).

Sure, activation costs in the form of paid media might be easier to see in the marketing budget, and reducing those costs might feel good for red pen-wielding budget slashers across the world. But without shifting that investment allocation into the content creation process to generate better, more audience-centric content, very few organizations will reap the benefits promised by content marketing.

One of the most dangerous reinforcements of the delusion of “free content marketing” is the trend we’re seeing toward measuring content marketing performance in terms of advertising equivalency – a common (and flawed) way to measure earned media. The basic premise here is that you can measure the value of your content by assessing its equivalent value in paid media. This approach essentially seeks to compare earned content marketing results with paid traditional marketing results to show that content marketing is not just more effective, but more effective at a lower cost.

The problem with this approach is that while it may make the content marketer look like a hero, it really undervalues (or even completely devalues) the investment required to create content that’s good enough to make this strategy work. And more dangerously, it misleads executives into believing that SEO, social marketing and Web optimization are some magic mystery that just needs to be unlocked (for free and separate from content optimization) to turn a Web site into a virtual faucet of high-quality, nearly free leads. In reality, the organizations that have implemented content marketing successfully have invested tremendous amounts of money (either explicitly with third parties or implicitly through new roles and increased man-hours) in increasing the volume and quality of the content they use as currency in this new paradigm.

And let’s be clear – these organizations ultimately do see results like increased lead quality and decreased cost per lead. But let’s also be honest with ourselves and our leadership about what’s truly required to make this sort of magic happen.

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