These days, content marketing is a lot like the housing market. Sure, it’s still possible to get on the ladder and own your own home, but making the transition from renter to proud new homeowner has become a hell of a lot harder than it used to be.
When I started my content marketing career, “content marketing” wasn’t even a thing. Now, everyone and their grandmother is a publisher, a brand storyteller, or something equally nebulous. The overuse of clichéd marketing buzzwords like this doesn’t mean that content marketing isn’t important. On the contrary, it’s never been more important.
However, there are numerous challenges that make content marketing difficult in today’s media environment. In today’s post, I’ll be looking at 11 of these content marketing challenges and what they mean to your content strategy, whethere you're creating B2C or B2B content, as well as sharing some tips for overcoming them.
Content Marketing Challenge #1: Insufficient Resources
Producing content is easy. Producing good content is much harder.
It takes time and skill to produce quality content consistently. Many small businesses tackle their own content marketing efforts, and for good reason. After all, nobody knows your business better than you, so you’re the perfect person to blog about whatever it is that you do.
Unfortunately, producing consistently great content can get in the way of other things, like actually running your business.
A lack of time is arguably one of the biggest barriers to content marketing that many businesses face. The other is a lack of sufficient budget. After all, if you don’t have time to produce your own content, it stands to reason that paying someone else to do it makes sense. The problem with this approach is that, since it takes skill to produce great content, many would-be content producers are faced with what is known as the project management triangle:
How to Overcome It
Whether you outsource your content production or keep it in-house, you’re going to pay for it – one way or another. Either you accept the time investment required to produce consistently quality content, or you’ll have to pony up and pay someone to do it for you.
Outsourcing might seem like the more affordable option, but it’s not without its risks. For starters, you’re at the mercy of another company when it comes to maintaining a regular production schedule. Secondly, you risk publishing content that fails to leverage your expertise and industry knowledge, or even meet your basic expectations in terms of editorial quality, which can harm your brand.
Alternatively, choosing to produce your own content can save you a lot of money, but unless you’re somehow able to balance running a business and running a blog, you may have to be willing to put in a lot more hours.
It’s tempting to think of content as a “free” marketing strategy, but it isn’t. Be prepared to deal with the tangible costs of content marketing long before you sit down to write your first post – or ask someone else to do it for you.
Content Marketing Challenge #2: Increasing Competition
Whether you’re blogging about your small needlecraft business or enterprise-level IT hardware, someone else has already been blogging about it for a long time. To make matters worse, there has never been such intense competition for your audience’s attention.
Unfortunately, this challenge compounds the first. As competition for limited audiences (even large ones) intensifies, what can you do? Create better content, which requires more time, money, or both. The result is a figurative arms race – who can produce the best content, the most frequently? In addition, as competition for audience attention escalates, the expectations of your readers become higher, placing you under even greater pressure to consistently deliver not just good content, but truly exceptional content.
While I was researching this post, I came across a blog post by Rand Fishkin about how content marketers have become their own worst enemies, published over a year ago. Interestingly, it was a remark in the comments section by Jon Morrow that really nailed the current state of content marketing and its future:
Jon makes an excellent point about the phenomenal success of TV shows like “Breaking Bad” in a completely oversaturated market – if you suck, you get nothing. If you win, on the other hand, the gains are almost immeasurable. The problem, of course, is that actually creating content on a par with “Breaking Bad” is very, very difficult.
Jon’s comment sparked some vigorous debate about content marketing, and it didn’t take long for someone to mention Darwinism in the context of content; only the strong will survive.
How to Overcome It
There are no guarantees in content marketing, but one thing’s for sure – if your content is crap, you’re doomed to fail. Each and every post you publish has to be as good as it possibly can be, and you need to keep this up for years if you hope to build and sustain a sizable audience.
It’s virtually impossible to hit the mark every time – even the very best blogs still publish mediocre content from time to time – but you have to strive for nothing less than excellence. You also have to actively promote your content and give it multiple chances to succeed (for example, republishing content on Medium and other sites where it can reach a new audience).
However, there is some good news. The relentless intensification of competition in content marketing has created a unique challenge, and opportunity, for savvy content marketers, which is…
Content Marketing Challenge #3: Keeping Quality Consistently High
As a content producer, reading is a significant part of my job. During the course of an average day, I read dozens of blog posts, news stories, and in-depth articles. I’m going to let you in on a little secret.
At least half of them are terrible.
Oh, how the mighty have fallen.
Out of respect (and a keen sense of professional self-preservation), I’m not going to name names or point the finger of blame at specific publications (aside from the dig at TIME above, which is obviously well deserved). I am, however, telling you that even sites with huge audiences and large teams of professional writers and copyeditors frequently publish simply awful articles riddled with mistakes, lazy writing, or incorrect facts. Why? Partly because they have to, and partly because they can.
Some sites leverage their name recognition and branding to get away with publishing half-assed crap, whereas some of the most consistently excellent content I’ve read in recent months has been published on small, independent blogs run by a handful of people (or even a very talented individual). This means that, thanks to the relentless pressure to Always Be Publishing, opportunities to publish useful, insightful, well-written content (you know, the stuff readers desperately want) are right there for the taking – if you’re up to the task.
How to Overcome It
It would be naïve to assume that an article published in a glossy monthly technology magazine doesn’t have more pull than even the best of posts on a scrappy upstart blog. However, if you consistently push yourself, take the time to develop your writing skills, and only publish the very best content you can, before long you’ll actually be publishing content that’s better than at least half of what ends up online every day. Keep it up, even when it feels like nobody’s reading you.
Also, don’t compare your work to other publications too often. Yes, it’s valuable to be aware of overall editorial standards and content trends, but you should focus on making your latest post even better than your last post – not losing sleep over whether your latest article is better than something you read in Wired last week.
Content Marketing Challenges #4: Shifts in Trends Toward Paid Promotion
Sometimes, simply publishing great content just isn’t enough.
We’ve written about the importance of content promotion in the past, but the content landscape is shifting rapidly toward a heavy prioritization of paid promotion.
Sure, “organic” social media promotion most definitely still has its place, but with platforms such as Facebook, Twitter, and LinkedIn offering a range of increasingly sophisticated ways to segment audiences and reach the right people – for the right price, of course – greater emphasis is being placed on paying to get your content in front of the people you want to see it.
There’s no easy solution to this problem. Relying solely on organic social promotion might work just fine for a while, but if you’re trying to aggressively expand your reach and grow your audience, you may want to explore paid promotion options. Just as you should expect to make a tangible investment in the actual creation of your content, you may also have to pay to ensure it reaches more people and accomplishes its purpose.
How to Overcome It
There are dozens of variables that will dictate the best social media advertising strategy for your business, such as:
- Target market demographics
- Typical social media consumption habits of your audience
- Content type
- Device compatibility of content
- Desired business outcomes
We’ll be covering how to promote content on social media with a limited budget in a forthcoming post. In the meantime, it may be worth experimenting with paid content promotion on a small scale to gauge the effectiveness of your campaigns before embarking on larger (and likely more expensive) promotional initiatives.
However much you decide to spend on content promotion, be sure to set goals for your campaigns. Do you want to attract more followers? Increase referral traffic? Capture emails for your newsletter? Gain external links from industry publications? Think carefully about what you want your campaign to do before making an investment, whether it be $50 or $50,000.
Content Marketing Challenge #5: Impatience and Unrealistic Expectations
If you’ve ever had to make a business case for content marketing to your managerial team, you probably already know how imposing these challenges can be. Although content marketing has been in vogue for several years, misconceptions abound about how it works and what management can expect from an investment in content marketing.
The first distinct challenge is impatience. Mention the word “years” in any pitch meeting with management and you’ll likely be met with cold stares and uncomfortable silences. However, the truth is that, even with a large and skilled content marketing team behind you, it can often take several years for content to start doing what it’s supposed to do.
This isn’t a flaw in content marketing itself, but rather a problem of expectations. Many executives and managers are used to the relatively immediate return on more traditional marketing strategies. Asking them to not only fund content marketing projects, but potentially wait several years for them to pay off, is a difficult pill to swallow.
How to Overcome It
The first thing you and other content stakeholders need to come to terms with is that content marketing takes time. Very few blogs achieve runaway success overnight, and it takes time to establish an audience and build credibility.
The figure above is a snapshot of WordStream’s traffic over a six-year period from January 2009 to January 2015. See how long it took before our content marketing efforts really took off? It took more than two and a half years before traffic even started to increase considerably, and we didn’t begin to see major increases in traffic until early 2013 – four years after we began our content marketing efforts.
The second thing you need to manage are your expectations. Agree upon realistic traffic and engagement targets, rather than setting yourself up for disappointment by aiming too high too fast. It’s better to establish manageable goals and achieve them than dismiss your content marketing efforts as a failure by missing targets that are too ambitious.
If your content marketing campaigns are more successful than you had anticipated, adjust your targets accordingly – just be sure to have enough data to justify a change in plan.
Content Marketing Challenge #6: Maintaining Ambitious Publishing Schedules
The term “signal vs. noise” comes up frequently in discussions about content marketing. In this context, the signal is your content, and the noise is everything else. Simply put, with so much content being produced, the sense of urgency to publish as much as you can (with the ultimate goal of brute-forcing your way through the sheer volume of articles being published every day) is often too great to ignore.
There are innumerable blog posts, white papers, and how-to guides out there telling you that publishing at least once per day is essential for content marketing success. However, what if you simply can’t maintain this kind of publishing schedule?
How to Overcome It
Good content marketing is difficult to scale. If you want to publish more frequently, you need to invest more resources (see challenge #1). If you can’t do this, the quality of your content will suffer. With this in mind, it’s crucial to balance quantity with quality, with particular emphasis on the latter.
It’s better to publish one truly excellent post per week than post five mediocre posts every week. With so many publishers vying for attention, the only thing that will differentiate you from other publishers in your industry is quality content, and only you can decide how often you can publish. Consistently excellent content is more important to your audience than whether you update your blog several times in a single day. After all, who wants to read five crappy posts a day when they can truly savor and learn from one really excellent post?
Image via Content Marketing Institute’s ‘B2B Content Marketing 2015 Benchmarks, Budgets, and Trends – North America’ report
Don’t buy into the content marketing myth that publishing less than once per day will doom your efforts to fail. Always focus on quality rather than pumping out filler content for its own sake.
Content Marketing Challenge #7: Focusing Too Broadly (or Narrowly)
One of the most common mistakes that many content marketers make is focusing too broadly on a vast subject area, or zeroing in exclusively on the tiniest niche.
Achieving a balance in terms of editorial focus is a challenge for even established, well-resourced content production teams. Cast your content nets too widely and you could face an uphill struggle to establish a name for yourself, or risk losing traffic to larger, more established publishers.
On the other hand, focusing on a highly specific niche might seem like a great idea (and it can be), but by doing so, you may struggle to expand your readership further down the road, or even run out of genuinely new and insightful things to say about your industry.
How to Overcome It
Begin by starting with a broad category relevant to your business, then come up with increasingly granular ideas for potentially relevant subcategories. Remember, though, that the narrower your editorial focus, the harder it may be to expand your audience as your content strategy matures. Leave yourself enough breathing room to come up with exciting posts about relevant topics, but avoid targeting vastly broad subject areas.
Content Marketing Challenge #8: Risk Aversion (or ‘Content Comfort Zones’)
Content marketers are, by and large, creatures of habit. We tend to stick with what works. If a particular type of post resonates with our audience, we’ll often apply this “formula” to our next post, and the next, and so on. There are two main reasons for this. The first is that we genuinely want to provide our readers with content they find useful, actionable, and valuable.
The second is that, frankly, we’re hopelessly addicted to the pageviews.
Remember when I said that it can sometimes take years to establish an audience and generate consistent traffic from content marketing campaigns? Well, now imagine that whatever you’ve been doing has worked really well, and you’re seeing tens of thousands of unique monthly pageviews as a result of your efforts. You’d probably be hesitant about trying something radical that could potentially tank your traffic, right?
This is why so much content out there is bland, generic, instantly forgettable crap.
Every day when I check my RSS feed for the latest news and content, the vast majority of it ends up looking and sounding exactly the same. Granted, this is particularly prevalent in marketing content (perhaps more so than other industries), but even well-known mainstream media brands all seem to be pushing the same content, day in, day out; six surprising ways to accomplish this routine task, 21 things you won’t believe about some everyday occurrence, why you shouldn’t be doing this thing everyone else is doing. Even this post follows this pattern.
Try me. Actually, you know what? Don’t.
Most of the time, the homogeneity of most content out there isn’t a result of publishers’ desire to crank out mediocre crap, but because the goals behind these content strategies demand results. The easiest way to achieve them is to replicate formerly successful content projects. The more successful – or reliable – a content marketing initiative is, the harder it becomes to deviate from it.
How to Overcome It
This particular challenge is perhaps more easily overcome by smaller publishers or blogs with limited audiences. After all, if trying something new won’t cost you thousands of dollars in lost leads, there’s much less inherent risk in branching out and trying new things. This doesn’t mean that larger, more established blogs can’t experiment, but it probably will require more justification that the potential gains outweigh the risks.
If you decide to experiment with new content types, consider doing so alongside the strategies that are currently working. This way, you won’t risk throwing the baby out with the bathwater. If your experiment works, think about scaling your new content types to include additional subject matter or popular topics. If it doesn’t, learn from the experiment and apply the results to future projects.
Content Marketing Challenge #9: Long-Term Sustainability
With more and more publishers creating more and more content, some experts fear we’re rapidly approaching a breaking point in the sustainability of content marketing. Mark Schaefer calls this “content shock,” and while I don’t personally subscribe to the notion that the ever-increasing noise will ever truly drown out the valuable signals, it does represent a challenge to content marketers.
One aspect of Schaefer’s theory that rings true is the concept of the financial feasibility of content marketing in the future. In his post, Schaefer breaks down the costs of producing content versus the return on this investment (more on this shortly).
For example, he estimated that in 2009, he was effectively “paying” his readers $500 per week to consume his content, based on an hourly rate of $100 for his time, multiplied by the five hours per week he spent actually creating content. Schaefer goes on to state that today, that figure is likely closer to $1,500 per week, based on the increasing time investment necessary to create content that will merely sustain the current level of readership his blog attracts.
Just one possible solution.
Obviously, this model isn’t sustainable if things continue the way they have for the past six years.
The benefits of content marketing must outweigh the cost of content production. If you’re facing the prospect of either spending more time producing content or hiring additional staff – and the realities of marginal gains by doing so – the sustainability of current content marketing practices becomes questionable.
How to Overcome It
For some bloggers and content producers, this may never be an issue. For others, the sheer volume of content being produced may create additional problems that necessitate an alternate approach.
As valid and urgent as some of Schafer’s concerns are, audiences will always find ways to find content that’s relevant and useful to them. Yes, changing media consumption habits will almost certainly have an impact on your content strategies, but only you can decide at what point your content marketing strategy becomes genuinely unsustainable.
The sky isn’t falling – yet – but these questions are definitely worth considering before embarking on a long-term content marketing initiative.
Content Marketing Challenge #10: Content Producer Burnout
Burnout is one of the greatest challenges you may face as a content marketer, but it’s not a conversation that many of us are eager to have.
I’ve written about the pressures of life in the content trenches before, but I omitted the part where my 4,000-words-per-day (every single day, for three years) workload almost landed me in the hospital. While my experience working for a content farm was invaluable in honing my skills and improving my craft, the cost was high – almost too high.
Aside from the very real danger burnout poses to your physical and mental health, it also has the potential to destroy all your hard work. Although they’re deluged by content every single day, your regular readers are as sharp as a tack, and a discernible drop in the quality of your content will be immediately and powerfully obvious. This can result in damage to your brand’s reputation, and formerly loyal readers abandoning you in favor of other publishers in your niche.
Just as setting realistic goals and managing expectations are important to the business case for content marketing (see challenge #5), it’s just as important – if not more so – to the well-being and health of either yourself or your content producers. Even the most skilled, reliable writers have limits, and consistently pushing them beyond what they’re capable of can be disastrous.
Of course, hospitalization and serious health problems are two of the more extreme results of content producer burnout. General dissatisfaction, waning interest in the material, and sloppy work are some of the more common symptoms of burnout, but that doesn’t diminish their potential impact on your content. The work of a disengaged, cynical blogger can be just as detrimental to your content marketing goals as hiring the wrong person for the job in the first place.
How to Overcome It
Be realistic about how much and how often to publish. Set reasonable goals and deadlines. Be honest about your quality standards and long-term goals. Burnout is a very real and very serious challenge, and as the saying goes, an ounce of prevention is worth a pound of cure.
Content Marketing Challenge #11: Difficulty Measuring ROI
I’ve taken the advice of Vanessa Williams by saving the “best” for last – actually quantifying the return on investment of content marketing.
Once upon a time, proving that content marketing “worked” was very difficult. Even today, with increasingly sophisticated analytics technology at our disposal, it’s still a major challenge that even large, well-established publishers wrestle with. Fortunately, with a little planning, it doesn’t have to be a nightmare.
How to Overcome It
Firstly, you need to determine what you want your content marketing to actually accomplish. Do you want your blog to expand your social audience? Generate leads? Elevate the profile of your thought leaders? All of the above? Without clearly defined goals, measuring the ROI of content marketing initiatives is going to be very difficult.
It’s just as important to decide how you’re going to measure the ROI of your content. If you’re hoping that blogging will result in more leads for your business, you’ll need to ensure that you have conversion paths and tracking set up correctly in Google Analytics (or your program of choice) to prove that your strategy is working. If your content goals are more social in nature, you may want to utilize tools such as BuzzSumo or Twitter Analytics to track the social impact of your content over time (all the while remembering that correlation does not equal causation, of course). Be wary of vanity metrics, such as marketers’ beloved pageviews and notoriously treacherous data such as Time on Page, and consider measuring so-called “attention metrics” such as scroll depth to more accurately quantify reader engagement.
Don’t just start blogging and hope for the best. Know why you’re producing content, what it should be doing, and have a well thought-out plan to quantify whether your strategy is working or not. For more tips on measuring the ROI of content marketing, check out this excellent Whiteboard Friday by Rand.
I sincerely hope that this post hasn’t discouraged you, but rather given you some ideas on how to overcome the content marketing challenges that are relevant to your business. Yes, content marketing is a lot harder than it used to be, but it’s still one of the most effective ways to grow your business.