Content marketers are like toddlers.
Attracted to bright, shiny toys, fond of fun and much given to playfulness. And not greatly aware of, or interested in, commerce.
Or so many traditional salespeople think.
Sales executives gripe that content marketers live in a bubble. Divorced from the rough and tumble of commercial life, they exemplify that old canard that marketing is the ‘colouring-in department’.
I have some sympathy with this view.
If I see any more infographics using cute typography and illustrations to cram two, or perhaps three, mildly interesting points into an area equivalent to a 56” TV screen, I think I shall scream.
However, sales can’t have things all their own way.
Like a greedy baby forever mewling for the breast, sales executives get tiresome to those who have other concerns besides producing a constant source of leads.
Especially when the baby seems unable to close a deal.
“What did you do with the last lot?” would not be an unfair question in many companies.
Still, if content marketers are going to prove their worth to sceptical or downright cynical colleagues (which may one day soon include the finance director) they are going to have to face the truth.
An uncomfortable truth (for some)
The only reason to continue investing in content is if it contributes to profitable sales.
This is one of Trevor Lever’s points in his guest post on the Valuable Content blog and I couldn’t agree more.
All the other things we count are soft – sometimes to the point of spinelessness – measures of success.
Engagement, clicks, comments, likes, retweets. At best they are a proxy for something that will actually pay a company’s bills, at worst a massive and potentially fatal distraction.
This shouldn’t alarm the practitioners of content marketing.
After all, it is, still, marketing. The UK’s Chartered Institute of Marketing defines marketing as “the management process responsible for identifying, anticipating and satisfying customer requirements profitably”.
Please note the last word of that sentence.
From that, I’d say content marketing must have as its goal, “satisfying customer requirements profitably”.
“Marketing is selling done by graduates”
Many marketers I have spoken to, and trained, neither have nor want profit responsibility.
Whether they see it or not, their job is managing the publicity function.
The problem is worse with content marketers, who often, but by no means always, have no commercial experience at all, having joined the ranks from editorial or journalistic fields.
In fact, one of the most common burning issues I get at the start of my copywriting workshops is, “How do I write copy without being salesy”.
For these marketers, being “salesy” is akin to being “sleazy”.
It betrays a deep distrust, and misunderstanding, of what sales people actually do.
We’re back to the historical divide between sales and marketing. The colouring-in department versus the mewling baby.
But without sales – without profitable sales – what we have is not content marketing but content production.
From birth to decay without once touching a customer
Some years back I knew a lady who had worked during her university holidays at an aluminium factory.
The factory produced aluminium ingots. Weighty, dull silver blocks about the size of a baby pig.
Jess’s job was to load a handcart with surplus ingots and drag them round to a storage yard at the rear of the plant where she would stack them against a wall.
At the back of the yard she could see older stacks of ingots that had started to crumble and degrade. One day she asked her boss what happened to these disintegrating lumps of metal.
“Oh, they get smashed down and fed back into the blast furnace,” he said, “to be turned into new ingots”.
Much like a great deal of the content currently being produced around the world.
Many of today’s content marketers spend their days worrying not about what impact their efforts are having on the company’s bottom line, but about what they can produce next.
This production mania has its roots, I suspect, in a fear that, without a constant stream of new content, Google will downgrade the producer’s website in its rankings.
But focusing on production rather than consumption reduces the current epitome of capitalistic endeavour to the status and outlook of a Soviet tractor factory:
“Good news comrade! We have again met our monthly production quota!”
“But comrade, nobody has bought any tractors.”
“We have met our production quotas. Long live the revolution!”
Supposing it works … then what?
Let’s make a huge assumption.
Let’s assume that a company’s content marketing is working. Leads are coming in. Piling up, in fact. Like a stack of shiny aluminium ingots, fresh from the furnace.
Is anybody mentioning this fact to the sales guys?
Are the sales guys doing anything intelligent with them?
Are the sales guys closing?
Because this is what it’s all about. Making a contribution to profitable sales.
And despite the wishes of its most fervent advocates, such as Seth Godin, who somewhat hopefully pronounced that content marketing “is all the marketing that’s left”, content marketing simply can’t deal with all the reasons why someone might – or might not – buy from you (or your client).
What content marketing can’t do
Let’s take a fictional service company – Fortune Favours The Bold – an upmarket marriage broker for CEOs and their ilk.
Here is just a small list of things the managing director’s customers might be weighing up before deciding to do business with her (I’ve italicised the things that content marketing could deal with):
Pool of candidates
Network of contacts
Everything else is only communicable using old-fashioned copy. Salespersonship on screen if you like.
Fortune Favours The Bold’s content marketing is pretty good, and it brings a steady stream of lonely, ‘time-poor’ CEOs to their door.
But these men and women aren’t willing to select an agency to handle their need for a mate based on blog posts, infographics and white papers.
Besides, they have researched eight agencies and all eight have published similar articles on the specifics of upmarket dating protocols, partner selection and prenups.
Now they are visiting the companies in person.
And this is where it’s going to happen. Or not.
Luckily for her, the MD is adept at asking questions, recognising buying signals, smoothly handling objections and, critically, asking for the order.
Because she can sell.
This lady knows how to sell …
In fact, we can learn a lot from owner-managed businesses like hers.
Whether they have sales or marketing backgrounds, or something else entirely, these entrepreneurs know that they won’t be around this time next year unless they can sell.
Nor do they have a narrow, outdated view of selling as some sort of foot-in-the-door process where you shout and shout until the prospect caves in.
Instead they see selling as a natural, integral part of the customer experience.
It’s what happens when the customer is ready to buy, either on their website, in one of their stores, at their call centre or in a sales meeting.
The conversation now is not about the problem, it’s about the product.
The customer knows we know a lot about their problem, whether it’s the time they have to spend doing manual bookkeeping, their dog’s flatulence or their troublesome spouse.
But they still have the problem.
… but do we know how to sell?
So we’d better sell them some of our stuff that solves it, which could be accounting software, organic dog food or our family law practice.
On the web, our selling is done by our copywriter. In a store, by our sales assistant. In our call centre it’s an operator. In a meeting it’s our sales executive.
They are not presenting content. They are demonstrating the benefits of using (buying) our product.
They will be talking about all the items in my list above that determine whether the customer buys or not.
They will be answering any questions the customer asks.
And, if we’re lucky, they will be closing the sale.
So what role did our content play in all of this?
Well, it was our content that drew them to us in the first place.
They searched “why does my dog fart so much?”, or “alternatives to manual bookkeeping” or “divorce lawyer, Newtown” and ended up on our site.
They downloaded or read the content and decided we knew our stuff.
Then they added us to their shortlist.
We’d passed their due diligence test.
So when we had the sales conversation with them, they were a lot further along the road than they might have been in the pre-content age.
(Although bear in mind that old-timey sales brochures often included tons of factual information, precisely because there was no content marketing function.)
So our content marketing gave us a warm or even hot prospect.
RIP Willy Loman?
In Arthur Miller’s play, Death of a Salesman, the protagonist was a salesman by profession, but a cynic by nature.
He thought hard work was for mugs and had the morals of a weasel.
We don’t need Willy Loman to chase the leads we’ve generated with our content marketing.
But we do need somebody to do it.
Somebody passionate about meeting our customers’ needs – profitably.
Somebody who sees selling as necessary, valuable, enjoyable – even honourable. It is, after all, the only time when we can talk to our customer in person.
That somebody could be the CEO, the sales executive, the call centre operator or the copywriter.
The king is dead! Long live the king!
Content is king, it’s said. But maybe content marketing isn’t.
We’ve seen other corporate functions change their names to match their changing roles.
Staff became Personnel, became Human Resources, became Global Talent.
So let’s ditch the adversarial Sales and Marketing departments and blend the best of both into a new department that always put the customer first.
Ladies and gentlemen, I give you, The Customer Experience Department.
It creates fantastic content based squarely on customer needs.
It integrates that content into the company’s core commercial processes.
It captures leads intelligently and shares them with the people who can make the most of them.
And it looks after customers from their first tentative browse through the blog to the repeat orders, recommendations and personal letters of thanks.