Thought Leadership or Noise

Is Content Marketing Without Thought Leadership Just Noise?

My love affair with content marketing began almost as soon as I entered the AEC industry. Freshly-minted marketing degree in hand, I joined an engineering firm as their first-ever dedicated marketer. My initial task was to create collateral materials that were essentially non-existent. However, pretty soon I was working to launch a newsletter, something the company had never previously published.

Mind you, this was back in the Dark Ages. Computers back then had black backgrounds with green text (MS-DOS) or blue backgrounds with white text (Word Prefect 5.1). So Newsletter 1.0 was pretty much just a text document – two columns, with a couple of horizontal lines (high tech stuff, no?).

However, for what the “Engineering Quarterly” lacked in design, it made up for in substance. Unlike many other newsletters of the era, the content was not about “us” – the firm. Rather, it was about sharing a little bit of knowledge with the readers.

In the first few years of the newsletter, we slowly evolved. We upgraded to Windows 3.1, and suddenly found we could use Lotus Ami Pro for basic desktop publishing. (Anybody remember that program?) We tackled topics like thermal ice storage systems for energy reduction, improving indoor air quality in office environments, and the environmental issues caused by chlorofluorocarbons (CFCs), among other topics. The CFC newsletter had so much traction that we actually published a booklet, which we promoted via direct mail. It became a great marketing tool to position the firm as subject matter experts on the topic. 

This was content marketing, although we didn’t call it that. (Nor did we refer to it as “thought leadership.”

Today when we think about content marketing, we think about blogs, videos, podcasts, whitepapers, and infographics. But content marketing is far older than the internet.

For decades, AEC firms have utilized staff to develop educational content for presentations and panels at conferences. This is also a form of content marketing – a highly effective branch of content marketing, in fact.

What is Content Marketing?

Wikipedia tells us that content marketing is “A form of marketing focused on creating, publishing, and distributing content for a targeted audience online.”

That is a very basic definition, although I disagree with the last word: “online.” Content marketing can most definitely be offline as well, like a print newsletter. 

The Content Marketing Institute (CMI) offers an alternative definition: “Content marketing is a strategic marketing approach focused on creating and distributing valuable, relevant, and consistent content to attract and retain a clearly defined audience – and, ultimately, to drive profitable customer action.”

I love this definition, but to me is more appropriate for “thought leadership marketing.” The reality is that there’s a lot of garbage out there that falls under the umbrella of “content marketing.”

Valuable and relevant information transcends other types of content. 

This graphic is adapted from Forrester Research, and breaks content marketing into four primary categories:

Content Marketing Pyramid

With this example, all marketing messages fall under the category of “content.”

If you post a blog about your latest project experience, it is content marketing. But is it really valuable? I guess it depends upon how you approach your storytelling. Are you the hero? Does the narrative talk about how great your firm is? Does it simply dump data that is of interest to few readers and sure to be remembered by none?

For instance…

Boring Builders Inc. recently finished construction of a new 25,000 sq. ft. office building for Acme Developers. The project obtained LEED Silver Certification from the U.S. Green Building Council and won an award of merit from the local builders council. The steel-framed building is located in Mega Business Park and was constructed over a six-month period. Boring’s scope of services included project management, scheduling, estimating, bidding, and subcontractor management. Are you still reading? Why? This crap is boring! What are you thinking?

The brief description above – well at least most of it – has been written millions of times by hundreds of thousands of companies (and, embarrassingly, by me many times in my career). Blah, blah, and more blah. Sure, there’s some relevant information there, but is the “content” really of use to anyone? Is it valuable and relevant? Will it attract and retain a clearly defined audience?

The answer is a resounding no. However, it is still “content.” 

There are countless “content farms” out there willing to produce meaningless content of value to no one. These content farms – or mills – produce content that is generally of low quality, intended to maximize SEO and revenue. However, Google and other search engines have caught on, and have gotten better at segmenting the meaningful content from the bad content. 

In the 1970s, the average consumer was exposed to 500 marketing messages in a given day. And while that sounds like a lot, it is quaint by today’s standards, where it is common to be exposed to 5,000 or more marketing messages every day. (Some sources use 10,000 daily messages.) One of the primary reasons for this is the amount of time we spend on media – broadcast, print, and digital. The latter wasn’t even an option in the 1970s, and today we interact with media ten hours a day on average. 

What Do B2B Content Consumers Want?

According to DemandGen’s 2019 Content Preferences Survey Report, B2B content consumers are looking for even more value, with two-thirds of respondents to a survey seeking more data and research to back-up the content. Almost as many participants are also seeking a reduction in “selling” within that content. Sixty percent want more insight from your thought leaders while 58% would prefer to avoid gated content (not have to fill out forms, or fill out less information to access the content). Additionally, roughly half of respondents prefer content that is not overwhelmed with copy – it needs to be easily skimmed and digested.

Improving B2B Content

Consumers, including business-to-business consumers, are bombarded with thousands of marketing messages on a daily basis. According to research from Media Dynamics, within those thousands of messages, 362 each day are advertisements, yet consumers are really only aware of 86 of those ads, and engage with just 12 of them.

Stew on that for a moment. The average consumer is only aware of a quarter of the ads they are exposed to, and have some level of engagement with a mere 3% of them. John Wannamaker, a famous retailer and marketer who passed away in 1922, opined that “Half the money I spend on advertising is wasted; the trouble is I don’t know which half.” 

Well, Mr. Wannamaker, by today’s standards 97% of your advertising is wasted.

Now juxtapose these advertising metrics over your content, which are forms of marketing messaging. Self-laudatory data dumps may qualify as content, but they sure aren’t thought leadership. B2B consumers are hungry for more thought leadership, particularly when it is research-based, and they are tired of content that is too “salesy.” 

Promotion vs. Value

By all means, showcase your firm in your thought leadership. But do so in a way that provides value to your readers. Let’s say you’re Acme Architects, and you design a new building that has several resilient design features. You could create content around “Acme Architects Designs for Resiliency,” and review your many project accomplishments. You might get some views and some engagements. But by the title alone we know that Acme Architects is going to be the hero of the story – the focus is on you and the building you designed.

Conversely, you could create content around “Four Strategies to Make Your Building More Resilient.” Structure the content to feature specific approaches or strategies for resilient design, and use your project as an example. In this case, the focus is on information of value – approaches to resilient design. The example project becomes a type of “proof”; that is, real-world applications of the recommended design or construction approaches. Furthermore, the subject matter expert – whether they are the author of a blog or featured on a video – will be recognized as a thought leader in resilient design. 

“Acme Architects Designs for Resiliency” comes across as self-promoting content, and thus will be treated akin to advertising. “Four Strategies to Make your Building More Resilient” is thought leadership-based content, and will get higher levels of engagement while in turn enhancing the company brand (and personal brand of the subject matter expert).

It also happens that the “Four Strategies…” approach is known as the Listicle, an article based around a list and a very effective approach to content marketing. 

Returning to the question addressed in the title of this post: “Is Content Marketing Without Thought Leadership Just Noise?”

Different types of content serves different purposes. Not all content is going to be thought leadership; however, our audiences are increasingly becoming more discerning, and they have limited time to spend with the content we create. So it damn well better be of value to them! They need a takeaway (and a call to action). Otherwise, even if you love your Ode to Our Latest Project, to a client or prospective client, it’s probably just noise – one more thing for them to ignore in the cacophony of daily marketing messages drowning out their thoughts!

What do you think? Is there a role for self-laudatory content in a content marketing program? Or is it just noise of limited value to your target audience?

Looking to elevate your content strategy or incorporate content into your marketing plan? Contact Scott D. Butcher, FSMPS, CPSM at 717.891.1393 or to discuss taking your content to the next level.

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