Why Joe Pulizzi and I disagree on today’s content marketing dynamics

pulizzi

By Mark Schaefer

In a recent This Old Marketing podcast episode, Robert Rose and Joe Pulizzi of the Content Marketing Institute had a lengthy section disagreeing with two of my conclusions from a recent blog post.

Which is … excellent.

People don’t disagree with each other enough in this field of marketing, so I am incredibly grateful for these gentlemen and their willingness to dissent and start a respectful discussion on relevant topics.

Joe and Robert speak from a perspective of experience and wisdom. However, I disagree with their perspectives on a few issues. I believe the views they expressed on the podcast are historically accurate … but potentially disconnected from the marketing dynamics we face today. Their keen points are worth additional dissection today.

The issues

In a blog post entitled “Does corporate storytelling work? Some mega-brands say no,” I used several high-profile case studies (Coke, Fiskars, Sharpie) to show that even well-funded, ambitious, and successful content marketing programs had crashed and burned.

It’s a short read, and if you didn’t catch this post before, reading it now might help you understand the points I am about to make in defense of my position.

I made several recommendations at the end of the post, and this is where Robert and Joe disagreed with me. Let’s look at these two points and their dissent.

“Think like a marketer”

Let me tell a little story.

One of the greatest marketing successes in my career came when I convinced my company to build specialized trucks to deliver a custom-sized product to our largest customer. This custom product optimized our plant’s manufacturing path, created incredible new efficiencies for our customer, and frankly screwed my biggest competitor. Creating this innovative new product distribution method resulted in a significant, long-term profit windfall for my company.

To accomplish this marketing feat, I did not “think like a publisher” (as our industry so often advises), I thought like a marketer, which involves taking a holistic view of the competitive environment and what it takes to win.

In my original post, I mentioned that there is a danger when marketers only view the world through a content-marketing or social media lens. In the example in my story, and for many businesses in this world, being a “publisher” may not be a top priority.

Joe Pulizzi partially agreed with me, saying that he suspected that the root cause of the content failures featured in my post might be because the companies did not fully know their “why” before embarking on a content strategy.

But then he reiterated that marketers SHOULD think like publishers because “a publisher is somebody who monetizes an audience. That’s what marketing does. It’s the same thing.”

As I demonstrated in my trucking example, “publishing” and “marketing” are not the same thing. Marketing is not just about monetizing an audience through content, in fact it rarely is. Let me demonstrate this: How many brand content channels do you subscribe to, or even consume on a regular basis? My prediction is that you said “less than five.”

But how many products do you buy in a year? Thousands! In reality, an extremely small percentage of all marketers in this world monetize an audience primarily through content. How are marketers getting you to buy those products? It’s not through great storytelling, is it? Perhaps it’s a convenient location, a lower price, a personal relationship, free delivery, a coupon, or even a special truck that brings you a custom product.

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I’m not saying content isn’t important. It can be absolutely critical to a company marketing strategy (It is to me and many of my customers). But direct (or indirect) monetization through content is unlikely for the vast majority of businesses. Robert pointed to Red Bull as a content monetization success example, but we need to stop comparing the normal world to extreme case studies like that. It’s like saying, if Elon Musk can create a rocket to Mars, I can do it, too. Elon Musk is a once-in-a-generation entrepreneur. Red Bull is a once in a decade content success story.

Business people do not need to “think like publishers” to be successful. That’s a great catch phrase, but it’s not how the marketing world works for most businesses. Marketing people need to think like marketers, first and foremost, and then figure out if content should be a priority in the mix.

Content in the cloud

On to disagreement number two!

Here is the evolution of corporate content distribution in one sentence: Content moved from paper to websites, websites to apps, and now apps to social media news streams.

It’s hard to argue with this progression. It’s not an opinion, it’s a fact, and this evolution is by far the most powerful trend publishers are fighting right now (one newspaper chain just eliminated their websites and they’re putting ALL their content on Facebook). The content is migrating to the social news feeds because it benefits the powerful social channels and also because people don’t WANT to visit company content websites any more. They want to consume all their content conveniently in one place.

In his new book The Inevitable, futurist and internet pioneer Kevin Kelly describes content as being in an unstoppable state of flow. We can’t contain it, corral it, or try to keep it boxed up on a website. Nor should we want to.

Your car dealership or pizza parlor is not going to outwit Facebook and you’re not going to out-gun Google. We need to submit to these giants and publish our content in those places, in addition to our “home base.” There is no power in content, only in content that moves and we need to do whatever it takes to unleash it — including publishing in the places where people want to see it.

Pulizzi and Rose disagree.

“Do you chase your audience or do you build something that ultimately your audience will rally around?” Rose asks. “I think it’s the latter because ultimately, the value to the business is in the relationship to the audience. If you have an intermediary between you and the audience like Facebook, Google, Twitter, LinkedIn, etc, you do not have a relationship with your audience. You are building someone else’s business, not your own.”

Pulizzi added: “If we try to play by the rules of Facebook and Google to reach an audience then you’re just playing with the devil. You’re going to go to all this effort to build an audience on someone else’s platform and then you’re going to wake up and it’s going to be gone.”

Theoretically, I agree with them — that’s how content works in an ideal world. Maybe it even worked that way in the world of 2014. But we no longer live in an ideal world and it hasn’t worked that way for some time now. As you peer into the future, trying to drag people to your website to view your blog post or video seems increasingly fruitless. So, we need to adapt our strategies to this new world of flow.

Facebook, Google, Apple, Snapchat, and others want our content. Not a link … the content. Should we play by Facebook’s rules? YES! We should! We should publish our content where they want us to publish, and more important, where our customers want it! Rose asks, should we chase our customers? Absolutely we should chase our customers, rather than expecting them to chase us.

I will simply let Joe and Robert themselves confirm my point that we need to publish in the news feeds, or wherever people want to see our content. How did Rose and Pulizzi find my original post? On Facebook. That’s right. I published on “rented land!” They saw my entire post on Facebook. They didn’t go to my website. They didn’t visit my web pages and learn about about my books and speaking career and clever calls to action. They found my article (and even linked to it) on Facebook! And THAT is how the world works today. They didn’t come to my content. My content went to them.

Rose, Pulizzi and I all agree that the key to success is maintaining a direct relationship with the customer (especially with an email list, if possible). That is certainly being challenged by these new dynamics but we’re not going to change the dynamics, we need to change our strategy.

The conversation needs to evolve to be: “How do we maintain a direct customer relationship when people aren’t visiting our site to consume our content?”

On a personal note …

It’s a new era. Yes, publish on your website, but also fearlessly publish wherever people will find it. Unleash your content. Give your content to customers wherever THEY want it, not where YOU want it.

If a content marketing strategy fits for you, your economics aren’t driven by “publishing.” Your economics are driven by transmission — people seeing and sharing the content, and if the best chance of that happening is on Facebook or LinkedIn, do it there and don’t think twice about it.

Does this jeopardize the “inbound” content model we have espoused for six or seven years? Yes, it does, and I hate that. Does it screw up the way I have taught my own marketing classes for the last seven years? Yup. But we have to adapt and adopt, instead of playing the same old tapes on how things used to operate. I’m updating my courses, workshops, and consulting materials every quarter to reflect the realities of this new world.

Content marketing still works, but not in the way it did two or three years ago. We have to run our businesses based on what is, not on what we wish for.

On a personal note, I want to express appreciation for Joe and Robert and the leadership and intelligence they have brought to the field. They have been true friends and supporters for many years. In truth, we’re not that far apart in our views of most things … or even these points. I love the fact that they disagreed with me and I hope this sort of dialogue sets an example that any of us can disagree with each other without being caustic or disrespectful. That’s how we move the world along.

I hope you’ll join all three of us at Content Marketing World in September. Perhaps this dialogue is just beginning.

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.

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