The Content Cold War: more B2B marketers should produce less content

During the Cold War, rival superpowers entered into an escalating arms race. They created enough nuclear weapons to decimate the planet over and over again (and then a few more times, just to be sure) – pursuing a policy known as Mutually Assured Destruction, or MAD for short. Simply, the principle seemed to be ‘if you blow us to smithereens, we’ll blow you to smithereens – we’ll all die together‘. Happy days.

Possibly horribly inappropriately – and clearly not even in the same universe of threat – but in this post I’m going to liken some unhelpful aspects of the ‘content marketing era’ to the nuclear escalations of the Cold War.

I was inspired to write it in response to continued recommendations by some commentators that producing more and more content is sound advice for B2B brands. In the last two weeks I’ve been approached with just that advice by two B2B marketing suppliers – adding to the dozens of other similar recommendations I’ve seen during the course of the last year. Well here I am, disagreeing with that advice, and offering a heartfelt plea to fellow marketers…

Firstly, a bit of content marketing context

If you work in B2B marketing, I’m certain that you’ll already be fully familiar with the notion of why producing more and more content is, conceivably, a good strategy. For the sake of the story, here are a few of the key arguments:

  • Producing ‘content’ that helps, informs and/or entertains customers is a brilliant tactic to both help our B2B brands be discoverable to new customers (eg via Google) and also for staying in touch with existing customers. But because there are lots of different customers out there, with lots of different needs, it is understandable that B2B brands should respond with lots of different content;
  • Similarly, some customers value lots of detail, whereas some just want a 30 second summary. Some respond better to the written word, while others respond better to videos, and others favour infographics. It therefore makes sense for marketers to talk about the same topics in lots of different ways – culminating in more outputs;
  • Looking beyond customer preferences, it became widely understood some time ago that recency and frequency of content had a positive impact on Google’s search algorithms. Among other factors, B2B websites producing high quality, fresh content would be rewarded with higher search rankings. And of course ‘fresh content’ means new content, produced at some degree of frequency;
  • Growing and maintaining ‘Share of Voice’ (relative to rival brands) has been a core objective for B2B brands for many a long year. The ‘content era’ brought about new opportunities to dominate Share of Voice. And, taken to its extreme, more and more content potentially meant less and less scope for rivals to get a word in; and finally
  • While social media has become an invaluable media channel for B2B brands, one of its challenges is that social media content gets lost in the sands of timelines. You might tweet a great piece of content at 11am on a Tuesday morning, but if a person of interest doesn’t log on to Twitter until 10pm that Thursday evening, the chances of them spotting your content will be tiny – since their Twitter feed will have since filled up with lots of other stuff (mainly tweets about writing more content, most likely). The response, of course, was to post more and more stuff, on more and more channels, more and more often. It’s simple mathematics to state that target customers have a higher likelihood of seeing your stuff if you put more stuff out there, more often and in more places.

All of that theory in favour of ‘more content’ made sense on paper. As a result, by 2012-2013, an endless deluge of conferences, articles, tweets and the like extolled the testament of ‘more, more and even more content’.

Swept up in the hype of how fellow B2B marketers had used content to crack the hidden secrets of lead generation, and fearing being left behind by rival B2B brands, marketers escalated their production of content. The content arms race – the Content Cold War – had begun.

The Content Cold War – effectiveness, efficiency and MADness

As the following few years progressed, with many B2B brands and marketers firmly on board the content production bandwagon, content supply quickly outstripped content demand. In 2014, Mark Schaefer famously coined the phrase ‘Content Shock’ to describe the imminent point when the total volume of content being produced would overtake the total capacity of humankind to consume it. Mutually Assured Destruction (MAD) finally hit the content marketing world. Marketers had collectively created enough content to kill customer attention spans many times over. Happy days.

And yet, in late 2017, some people are still out there advocating the production of more and more content. Why? There are probably a host of reasons. One is that few marketers want to be the first to blink. In a global game of ‘content chicken’, few marketers want to be the first to take their foot off the gas. You can hardly blame marketers for not wanting to leave the field of play wide-open to rivals. In the actual Cold War, no-one was going to disarm unilaterally – that really would have been MADness – and the same is true in the Content Cold War.

That’s one reason why people advocate more and more content. Of course there is another, more cynical, one…

nuclear

The Content Cold War brought with it a new ecosystem of suppliers that could help us B2B marketers to arm ourselves. A host of content agencies and tech providers (aka ‘arms dealers’) emerged, equipping us to publish more content more efficiently than ever. That ecosystem brought us unbelievably useful listening and insight tools to identify new topics to write about. Analytics and testing tools taught us where and when to post our content, and how to tweak it to improve conversion rates. Further tools helped us to post our improved content in multiple places at the touch of a button, even when we were fast asleep. Visualisation, video and other tools helped us to produce that content in new, high-impact ways, without the need for a degree in graphic design or other visual arts. And further tools helped us to syndicate and re-post relevant content produced by others, so now we could get more content into customer inboxes and social feeds without even having to write it. The list of labour-saving tools went on and on (contributing to a 1000% increase in martech solutions in just 6 years, according to chiefmartec.com).

In the same way that the rival superpowers of the Cold War perfected the yield efficiency of their nuclear arsenals over time in order to ensure ever more effective Mutually Assured Destruction (MAD) – rival superpowers of the B2B content era increased the efficiency of their content arsenals to also ensure ever more effective Mutually Assured Destruction (truly MAD).

So back to the question of why some are people still promoting the production of more and more content. It’s not because it’s good advice. It’s because if you’re a supplier that relies on marketers producing more and more content, then of course you’d advocate producing more and more content. But I think that, more often than not, that is bad advice.

Here’s what I think

I’m not going to sit here and say that my way is better than anyone else’s way, and of course the needs of different B2B brands vary greatly, but I am going to state what I believe to be the facts of B2B content marketing…

  • When it comes to content, I concur with the view that there is more supply than demand. I also believe that customers want less noise in their lives, not more. Excessive volume is therefore unhelpful.
  • For quite some time now, many marketers have heard and followed the same advice extolled by the same content marketing visionaries. And many marketers have invested in the same content marketing tactics and the same content marketing tools. All of which has led to many marketers producing similar content, in similar ways, posted on the same channels, at similar times, for the same target customers, about the same customer issues. We’ve consequently ended up with one big amorphous mass of ‘sameness’. Faced with that reality, continuing to produce more and more of the same stuff is not going to help our B2B brands to achieve much. Differentiating our respective B2B content has to be a better strategy than simply producing more of it. But differentiation, by default, means not doing what others are doing. And doing things differently is often not easy, quick, nor cheap – and the solution doesn’t primarily lie in tools and formulas – it lies in empathy, creativity and bravery.
  • I think that any marketing commentator, consultant or vendor that tells you which tactic to use (in this case producing more content, or even ‘content marketing’ at all) – without first having understood your specific marketing status and objectives – should go take a hard look at themselves in the mirror, and maybe take a breath mint to mask the smell of bullsh*t. Strategy should always come before tactics, and it is always better to pick the right tool for the right task, not pick the tool first and then work backwards.

Summary thoughts

I’m going to end this post by once again apologising for likening a marketing problem to the threat of nuclear holocaust. It’s an excessive analogy, used only in response to excessive marketing advice. I use it to make a point, namely that escalating the noise in our customers’ worlds is unhelpful.

I’m a big proponent of the importance of useful content within a balanced marketing mix, but I advocate more differentiation, more strategy and less MADness. For my part, I intend to prioritise content quality and uniqueness over volume. I also strongly advocate using marketing technology to help us do our jobs – but not to create more spam. And in particular, I am personally committed to never letting the excitement of tools and technology cloud some of the fundamental goals of marketing communications – including standing out from the crowd, tapping into human emotions, and persuading people why we’re a better choice of B2B brand.

#GoodLuckFellowB2BMarketers #NoRantIntended

 

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