Three content marketing pitfalls to avoid

We share the biggest content marketing fails- such as a lack of editorial skills and self-awareness- so you don’t go on to make them.

Brand journalism is on the rise. According to the Content Marketing Institute, marketers allocate 29% of their budget to content marketing and 39% of marketers plan to spend more in 2018. That is because they are enticed by the rewards that content marketing can bring if done effectively.

As the research advisory firm CEB states, a buyer is 57 per cent of the way through a purchase decision before he even approaches any vendors. This means that more and more value is built by content which is publicly available or directly mailed to prospects while they are in the ‘research’ stage of their discovery or purchasing journey.

But why is branded journalism specifically on the rise? Why is it better for brands to become publishers rather than ‘product-pushers’? This is because the expectations of readers for branded content are different to the aims that marketers have.

According to a study by The Economist Intelligence Unit, 75 per cent of high ranking business executives use branded content to research a new business idea. This isn’t necessarily to complete a transaction, but to become informed about new marketplace trends and developments. This is one of the same reasons why business leaders read independent publications.

However, marketers emphasise sales. In the same study, it states 93 per cent connect their content directly to a product or service, 75 per cent say that mentions of their products and services are a frequent part of their content strategy, and 70 per cent measure their content’s effectiveness by the number of inbound leads they generate.

Yet only 16 per cent of executives are reading content to make a purchase decision. To summarise, marketers are looking to sell but consumers are looking to learn.

Business leaders want to read branded content, but they want to read it in a similar fashion to reading The Times, The Wall Street Journal or The FT. There is a real opportunity here for brands to create high quality content that will shape the decisions of senior business leaders. However, it is easy to fall into the traps of other marketers who make their content too product focused.

Three pitfalls to avoid

1.Wrong objectives

Driven by marketing objectives…

All marketing objectives are driven by ROI in some capacity. However, given most functions in a business can be judged by a quantitative measurement like ‘cost savings’, ‘sales targets’ or ‘retention rate’, marketers are equally pressured to demonstrate ROI using a quantitative measurement.

But, it is difficult to judge the value of a content initiative quantitatively and it can create the wrong sort of brand image if a marketer immediately begins to judge the output of their work using inbound lead metrics.

Dwell time, bounce rate and pages per session can give an idea of how your readers are interacting with online content.

However, publishers tend to judge the output of their work by qualitative measures. Does this publication meet the brief? Does it communicate the message we want to say? Are we filling an information gap? Has anyone else written about this subject in such an incisive way? They listen to audience feedback; did this article resonate with the readers? Was it inspiring enough to send onto colleagues and friends?

These questions are more important because they are more in line with what prospects are looking for – to learn.

…or worse, driven by sales goals

It’s great that marketing is now collaborating more closely with sales. However, when it comes to content, it is wrong to think it will generate leads in a similar fashion to what a sales person can achieve spending all day on the phone. Content should not be given a quarterly or monthly revenue goal in the same way a person is.

The Content Marketing Association states the 20 per cent of internet surfing time is on content-led websites. Content is a revenue generator, but it is a long sell. Content can be used to capture the attention of your target market for longer and develop relationships with them, which ultimately leads to higher-value deals and contracts.

2. Lack of editorial skills

Lack of experience with publishing

There are numerous skills that you need to create quality content. In order to project manage a content initiative you need to have an understanding of how to commission first-class journalism, curate the flow of storytelling and of high impact data design.

These include things like maintaining the right relationships with the best contributors for the initiative; having a wide knowledge of what is being said in the nationals and trade press and being able to take a slightly different angle to their content; experience in appropriate distribution, both online and offline; and knowledge of page format, layout and word counts. It is also important to have the experience to tell when sources are misquoted, copy is wrong, and most importantly when something is poorly written.

Those from an editorial background do tend to have these skills innately; but even a journalist or previous editor may only fulfil half of the characteristics required.

It is worth taking the time to invest in developing publishing skills, or outsource to a specialist, who can manage the process end-to-end. Ultimately it is not simply the skills of a journalist – but those of a publisher or commissioning editor that make for the right kind of experience.

Lack of self-awareness about writing ability

Many brands believe that a marketing or a communications professional can write just as well as a journalist. And we can understand why a brand may have that perspective. They have taken the time to learn how to write in the style of that brand. However, marketing copy is brand-centric and focuses on the ultimate sell, whereas independent journalism is all about the angle, the story and the reader.

It takes time to become a great writer, and there are techniques that each journalist practices in order to make their writing individual, informative and concise. These are not easy to learn overnight, or even through experience in writing academic papers, brand collateral or blogs.

3. Unwilling to relinquish control

Corporate ‘fear of having an opinion’

Your organisation is probably afraid of losing customers via their marketing communications just as much as they are keen to gain customers via their marketing communications. This usually means that the content they produce will be dry, with an inoffensive tone of voice which doesn’t necessarily commit to an opinion so as not to offend or be too ‘out there’.

In order to launch an interesting content initiative, a brand may have to be prepared to provoke some people. However, when a brand provokes some people, it also creates fans in another demographic. Your brand is never going to sell to everyone, and is never going to be liked by everyone.

But if you can connect with the people who buy into your vision and your position, that’s the right target market with whom to have a relationship.

The real difficulty can sometimes come from legal and compliance – there may be topics that are too risky to have an opinion on.

However, if you are looking to create content, it would be worth your time to get buy in from your legal and compliance teams and also agree clear boundaries about what you can and cannot discuss in your content strategy. It’s best to make sure all parties are clear on how to align marketing and compliance objectives.

Ultimately, it is important to have a point of view about something, and when you have that point of view, it is important to tell the story in an engaging and opinionated way. Whenever you create any content, don’t think ‘would anyone be alienated by this’, think ‘would anyone be engaged by this?’

Business leaders want to read branded content, but they want to read it in a similar fashion to reading The Times, The Wall Street Journal or The FT

Not about ‘us’ enough

Many brands start out with the right content motivations, only be disappointed by the copy that is submitted to them. That is because they realise the copy doesn’t ‘discuss them’ enough. Or perhaps the copy doesn’t have the detail that they know the expert can give. Perhaps the first spokesperson doesn’t come from their brand, or it doesn’t discuss a key product related to this article.

And then brands can get even pickier; ‘is this tone in our brand guidelines?’; ‘does it feel like us enough?’ By this point there will have been so many amends that the original thrust of the argument will be gone, and the article turns into a corporate piece rather than a journalistic piece.

We can understand why. If 70 per cent of marketers use inbound leads as a measurement of how good the content is, then if the content isn’t immediately directed towards getting inbound leads, then they believe the content will fail.

However, this goal is not compatible with the reasons why business leaders want branded journalism. In fact, leading with this approach can be counter-productive. 55 per cent of business leaders have said they no longer trust a brand who is explicitly trying to push a product under their nose.


In summary – brand journalism is a major asset to relationship building, nurturing and education; from John Deere’s iconic publication ‘The Furrow’ created for farmers in the 19th century, through to – Adobe’s content hub for marketers. However, in order to achieve these objectives brands have had to think like a publisher – almost completely – and echo the publishing and journalistic trends of the time.