In the booming advertising form known as content marketing, no one active in the business today has done more to foster that boom and build an intellectual framework around it than Joe Pulizzi.
The Cleveland-based entrepreneur started using the term “content marketing” as far back as 2001, and built out a content-marketing operation for Penton Media in the first half of the last decade. In 2007, he started the company that in 2010 became the Content Marketing Institute—a company that forever changed the landscape for what had been called custom publishing.
Pulizzi created a content juggernaut, with blog posts, a magazine, webinars, an annual event, books, podcasts and more, all centered on how-to information about content marketing and grounded in a few simple questions:
- How do I develop a content-marketing strategy?
- How do I create content that my audience will find valuable?
- What are the best content-marketing tactics for my audience?
- How do I best manage the content-marketing process? If I decide to outsource, how do I do that?
- How do I measure what’s working (and what’s not) to make changes?
In 2016, Pulizzi sold the Content Marketing Institute to the British media and events company UBM for $17.6 million. He stayed on for a while, but eventually stepped down in January 2018, announcing an extended sabbatical in a blog post a couple of months earlier, where he said, ” I’ve been given a very rare gift in that I can step away and focus on some things that I may have been neglecting over the past few years. As Alexander Hamilton says in the musical Hamilton, “I am not throwing away my shot.” My plan is to truly lean in to this and see where the journey leads me.”
In the months since Pulizzi departed CMI, the strength of content marketing has only increased, and the multifaceted morass that is digital advertising has only deepened. Pulizzi’s take on the strategic aspects of content marketing now that he’s removed from the day-to-day requirements of running a company are more valuable than ever. In that spirit, he fielded some questions.
The first was to assess the current state of the craft. “Although I’d like to say differently, content marketing, as a practice area for marketers, is still at the beginning stages,” he says. “Most content-marketing programs are projects and campaigns, and there’s not a lot of long-term thinking. With so much pressure on marketers to deliver results, content-marketing investment is thought of in weeks and months, and not years like we should be seeing (but that’s true with almost all marketing these days).”
That said, he adds, some brands are evolving as as leading content marketers in their industries. “Arrow Electronics is clearly the leading media company for electronics engineers (they sell electronic equipment in B2B) and General Mills and Kraft continue to be the leaders in food content creation,” Pulizzi says. “What are they doing differently? They are actively building relationships with audiences over time. This is the difference between the good and great—a focus on building an audience of subscribers that values what the brand sends them.
“That’s the true power of content marketing, building loyal audiences through content and then monetizing those audiences in multiple ways,” Pulizzi adds. “The fastest growing, most innovative companies in the world are focused on building loyal audiences in this manner (Amazon, Facebook, YouTube, Disney).”
The proliferation of brand newsrooms and content studios has been the major development in content marketing the last two or three years. Media companies have pivoted into focusing on content creation for clients, and many brands, including GE, now have on-staff journalists creating stories about their operations. This trend will continue, Pulizzi believes, but the terms “brand newsroom” and “content studio” are temporary. ” In 10 years, it will just be the way these brands go to market, since most of their marketing will be around building their own audiences and content brands,” Pulizzi says.
This is not to suggest that all marketers will rely on content marketing, he adds, but the most innovative companies will. “Brands will still be able to market traditionally, but it will be more and more challenging to interrupt your way to success,” he says. “Relationship building, regardless of product, is key. That’s why content marketing is so important. It’s the one form of communication that seeks to give more value than it gets.”
Even with content marketing’s emphasis on story telling, no conversation about any area of advertising and marketing would be complete without asking where it fits in the world of programmatic advertising, and in an advertising market where two companies, Google and Facebook, capture more than 70 percent of the total ad spend.
Pulizzi says it’s not necessarily one or the other. “A company that focuses on a real content-marketing strategy will still advertise,” he says. “It will still do programmatic. It will still buy keywords. That said, I believe that content marketing can make everything a brand does a little bit better.”
One of the few controversial areas of content marketing is measurement. Marketers are trained to expect fast, tangible results for their spending, in the form of qualified leads and ultimately, buyers. Pulizzi says measurement is vital, but the context around what’s measured has to be different. “In content marketing, the best measurement is the power of the subscriber,” he says. “Once a company acquires an opt-in subscriber, how does that subscriber behave differently? Do they buy more? Do they stay longer as customers? Do they talk more positively about your brands and products? All this can be measured.
“Before we begin a content-marketing initiative,” he adds, “we build a hypothesis as to what we think could happen. Then we measure and continually iterate the program.”
So what are the pitfalls in content marketing, circa mid-2018? Pulizzi points to two mistakes. First, companies don’t focus on a content area where they can be the leading provider of that information to a particular audience. To cut through all the clutter and build a loyal audience, they need to deliver amazing information.
The second mistake is consistency, he adds. “Generally, it takes 12-18 months for a content-marketing strategy to start delivering revenue of some kind,” Pulizzi says. “Sadly, most brands do not deliver consistently over that period. If we have a weekly newsletter, we should be delivering at the same day and time each week and never miss. Content is a promise to our customers. If we don’t deliver, they simply will forget about us and seek out other information.”
Fixing those two ingredients can fix a number of wrongs with any content-marketing program, Pulizzi concluded.