Does every business need content marketing? A reality check.

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By Mark Schaefer

Does every business need content marketing? Of course not. Let’s pause the hype machine for a moment shall we?

Last week I had dinner with one of my best friends. He recently became president of a company whose primary line of business is producing highly-engineered rolls for the steel manufacturing process.

He has a finite number of customers — a handful of companies rolling steel in the US. He is facing a competitive threat that has a significant labor cost advantage. A union contract covering 90 percent of his workforce is ending next month. He is facing gut-wrenching decisions to change healthcare coverage in order to keep his company solvent in the face of this competition.

The main manufacturing facility has been the major employer in his small community for more than 100 years. Many employees are second- or third-generation workers and are stuck in very old and unproductive work habits.

Because the plant is so old, my friend also needs to somehow eke out funds for significant capital improvement projects to modernize basic equipment, address legacy environmental issues, and improve the site’s deplorable safety record — on top of overhauling the company culture, aggressively cutting costs, negotiating with the union, negotiating with customers, and placating impatient investors.

I don’t find his story and his challenges particularly unusual. Most of my career has been spent in businesses that actually made stuff in big old plants, so this is familiar territory.

This is the real world. Business is hard. Sometimes in tough competitive situations you survive to the next year by cutting a penny per unit on a long-term contract instead of investing in epic content.

Cutting through the Kool-Aid

This week I came across a quote from a speaker at the Content Marketing World conference: “Content marketing works every time, for every business, in every industry.”

Another well-known guru recently wrote: “It is impossible to rise above the noise in business today without a content marketing strategy.”

And I saw this quote shared on Facebook last week: “You are actually destroying relationships with customers by not creating engaging content.”

Is there anybody else out there that sees these positions as just a tad bit over-hyped?

I suppose you could dream up some scenario where content marketing would add a marginal benefit to my friend’s steel roll business, but given the circumstances, it would be a stretch. If I had to list the top 50 investment priorities for his company, spending money on content marketing would not make the list. Not even close. 

In fact, if you came to him with a marketing plan that included Twitter chats, streaming video, and infographics you would be laughed out of the room. And deservedly so.

In their IPO financial disclosure, Hubspot — the inventor of “inbound marketing” and a content-producing machine — revealed it had lost money for its first eight years in business. As a public company, it has never turned a quarterly profit. Not only does content marketing not work for “every company, every time,” it’s apparently not working for the best-known content marketing company in the world.

My point is, for my friend’s business, and millions of other businesses out there, content marketing may not make a meaningful difference to the bottom line, at least right now. As much fun as it is to fall in love with the idea that our blog or video will save our business, it probably won’t. In fact, due to this era of Content Shock, our content effort is probably becoming less effective week by week.

Content marketing is one weapon in an arsenal

Before you jump down my throat in the comment section and tell me that I am saying that content marketing is dead and that I am the devil, let me state clearly that content marketing is not dead. Content marketing absolutely works in the right situation, and it works really well. It works for me, it works for many of my customers.

I am an advocate for all useful marketing approaches and certainly there’s a place for content marketing in many businesses, to varying degrees. I actually created an entire content marketing curriculum at Rutgers University. But please don’t follow guru-speak blindly and turn content/social media marketing into a hammer looking for a nail.

Many businesses would be foolish to spend precious resources on content development when there are so many other marketing priorities, like getting costs under control to compete on price (yes, this is still an important reality — anybody sell to Wal-Mart?), distribution channels, product development, product placement, packaging, positioning, and long-term customer contracts, to name a few. Remember, there is more to marketing than Snapchat.

I’m not dismissing content marketing as a viable option. I’m simply introducing a dose of reality and drive home the fact that as marketing professionals, we have a responsibility to look at our business needs and marketing priorities rationally, holistically, responsibly, and dispassionately.

Let’s try a little test. How much brand content do you follow on a regular basis? My guess is, the answer is under three brands — and maybe zero — even if you are in marketing for a living!  Now, how many branded products do you buy every year? Thousands.

Sometimes I get a car wash because I have coupon. Sometimes I want a hamburger from a place because they taste good. Sometimes I buy gasoline because the petrol station is nearby. I don’t need an infographic to make these decisions.

Despite what the gurus would have you believe, there is no single marketing strategy that works for “every business, every time,” including content marketing. It’s time to emerge from the social media hype chamber and view content marketing rationally. Does every business need content marketing? Of course not.

SXSW 2016 3Mark Schaefer is the chief blogger for this site, executive director of Schaefer Marketing Solutions, and the author of several best-selling digital marketing books. He is an acclaimed keynote speaker, college educator, and business consultant. The Marketing Companion podcast is among the top business podcasts in the world. Contact Mark to have him speak to your company event or conference soon.

Illustration licensed through Marketoonist.

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