This is going to be awkward. I know we shouldn’t be admitting to content marketing mistakes we’ve made. We’re meant to be experts. But you learn about this stuff from experience. We’re sharing this in the knowledge that you can learn from our mistakes more quickly than we did.
So … (deep breath). Regrets? We’ve had a few. But then again, not too few to mention. Here are eight content marketing mistakes we’re prepared to admit to, and what we did to fix them.
1. Not updating our website
For many years, our website was just a brochure in cyberspace. In fact, when we first started the company (11 years ago), we really couldn’t be bothered having a website. But then we told ourselves, no, we need a brochure in cyberspace. If not for our content marketing company, then at least for the magazines we published.
But our biggest worry in those early days was that we would put too much information on that website. It wasn’t only us. Many other publishers feared that if they put a media kit up on their site, their competitors would find out how much they charged for ads. Like many of our contemporaries, we had a page which gave you a name and a number to phone to get your copy of the media kits.
Over the course of a few years, we started building stand-alone websites for each of the brands we had. But again, they were pretty much brochures with ‘contact us’ details. Had we cultivated a more sophisticated internal linking structure back then, we would have been in a very nice position when the first social media waves started crashing five years ago.
2. Not blogging
Or at least, not blogging regularly. The problem was, it was nobody’s job. We all knew we should do it, but writing a blog post took second priority to the day-to-day stuff that was in our job descriptions.
We knew we should be doing it. We figured all we had to do was put any new press releases up on our site, plus curate the occasional short piece when we saw an interesting article that we liked. But at that time, there wasn’t a lot of information about content marketing or custom publishing out on the web. So we didn’t have much to curate.
Personally, I also suffered from the classic ‘imposter syndrome’ problem. I questioned why anyone would care about anything I had to write about (I frequently still question myself still). I knew that I knew a bit about writing and editing, having done it professionally for twenty years. But it wasn’t until I committed to writing about those topics regularly that I realised how much I had to say.
As a result, we really missed an opportunity to have a much more established presence displaying our expertise. The hill we had to climb now is much steeper than one we would have had to climb five years ago.
3. Not having a call to action
In our earliest blog posts, we didn’t really know how to end them. We didn’t want to have a crass sales message, and in any case, sometimes a crass sales message isn’t appropriate. Surely they’re for ads, we thought, not for content like we do.
This was a big mistake, based on a big assumption. Firstly, we were assuming that someone would read a blog post and then go off and buy something from us. Even though we were always explaining to people that ads didn’t work that way, we defaulted to believing that content would.
Our other problem was not knowing why you would have content on your website if it wasn’t to sell stuff. We didn’t think about the importance of improving dwell times, setting ourselves up as experts in this field, and of building email lists.
Once we had those goals, we realised we had to go back and add proper calls-to-action at the end of every post to build our authority with both readers and search engines.
4. Not gathering audience data
We may have had a lot of visitors in those early days. Or we may not have. To be honest, we weren’t really paying attention. That’s the problem when you’re rushing to catch up with everyone else and get as much content on your site as you can.
We should have taken a step back and asked whether volume of content mattered. We were a little dazzled by the (wrong) belief that Google rewarded the amount of content on the site, rather than the quality of interaction and engagement with that content. And you can’t know whether you’re getting that engagement without gathering some data on it—even if you’re just recording the number of social shares you’re getting per post.
There are some commentators who believe that gathering and acting on audience data is the one thing that all content marketers do that sets them apart from everyday bloggers. I only half agree, because I believe there’s only so much you can learn from data, and we’re limited in what we can gather.
But you still need the data. You need to know how many people are sharing different posts, and where they are sharing them. You need to know who is visiting the site so you can tell them when you’re publishing again. Otherwise you’re letting a potential client slip through your fingers.
Even if you’re only gathering a name and/or email address through a pop-up, gathering an audience is the difference between creating content, and content marketing.
5. Putting out press releases instead of blog posts
A press release is either about a product, service or brand. And it really only has one thing to say—‘this is available to buy right now’. There’s nothing wrong with that. If you have a new product to tell people about, it’s a good idea to write and distribute a press release. But we didn’t have new products every month.
Nonetheless, we thought the only type of content we could put out was a press release. I don’t know why. So we launched a magazine, and put out a press release. Then we got involved in some industry research, and put out another one. Then we just knuckled down and worked for a while, and didn’t have anything to put out a press release about.
Then a few months had gone by and we had gotten out of the habit of posting to the site.
The problem with the press release mindset is you are forced into only talking about yourself and your company, and what you’ve done. You’d have to be pretty fascinated in yourself to maintain that strategy. And no-one else gives a crap.
It was only when we started thinking about what problems we could help customers solve that we realised we had a deep well of content we could draw from. When we got our heads around that, we started producing content that got a lot more attention and engagement. Wish we’d done it years ago.
6. Working without a strategy
This year there has been a lot of attention paid to content marketing strategy, for a couple of really good reasons. One is the Content Marketing Institute in the US identified having a documented content strategy as one factor that set successful content marketers apart.
We didn’t really have a strategy at first, because we hadn’t thought enough about what we wanted our content to achieve beyond a decent search ranking.
But a decent search ranking, while appealing, is not a meaningful marketing goal. It’s a vanity metric. Like chasing Facebook likes. What is far more important is not just the ability to generate leads but to move those leads through a sales funnel (or continuum, or whatever your model is) towards a sale. And then to continue to engage with them so they move from customer to evangelist.
If you don’t have a strategy to do that, you’re wasting your effort.
7. Hiring for yesterday’s skills
We had this sub-editor come to work with us who was waaaaayyyy over-qualified. But I hired him anyway. He’d been at some of the top publications in the land. I figured he had probably forgotten more about editing and publishing than the rest of us had learnt.
But he quickly ran into problems. Firstly, he was only familiar with the software used by newspapers at the time. We were working with Adobe’s creative suite on Macs, which was a different kettle of fish. He couldn’t get his head around how to use it, and got really frustrated with his computer as a result. And because he was SUPER-EXPERIENCED, it was difficult for him to ask anyone for help.
Not that it mattered. He couldn’t work his phone either. And he knew all the rules of grammar, but none of the rules of social etiquette. In the end, I sat him down for a job review, and explained that he didn’t seem to be doing any work. He replied that he was prepared to learn how to work his computer if we gave him options as part of a bonus scheme.
The irony is, ten years ago he would have been fine (except for his lack of social skills). But the nature of what we do in both publishing and content marketing is moving and changing so fast, he didn’t have the skills needed to adapt his existing skills.
Journalism, publishing and marketing are all trades. They can all be taught. Flexibility, initiative and savvy can’t be. That’s what we hire for now.
8. Mistaking sales for marketing
So we did everything right. We started posting regularly to our sites. We made sure we optimised those posts for search. We paid attention to who was reading, sharing and interacting with our content. We waited for the orders to roll in.
Marketing is about engaging, sharing and interacting (in fact, here’s more than 70 definitions of marketing which all boil down to that insight). Sales should result from marketing. But sales and marketing are different things. Not all marketing will lead to sales at the same time. And I very nearly gave up before the first shoots of interest in what we were selling started to appear.
Marketing can work straight away—as long as your goal isn’t sales. Because marketing, and content marketing in particular, is about building trust and expertise, so the sales process becomes more about the customer buying than you selling. If your goal is to build leads, and you have a good social media strategy in place as well as your SEO sorted, you will see results very quickly.
What to do next
If any of these mistakes sound familiar, it’s just the start. There are all sorts of things that can go wrong when you’re publishing regularly, and we’ve experienced them and come out the other side.
However, if you’re still confident you want to go ahead but you’re not sure how much it will cost you, read this guide to the cost of content marketing. It should give you a path forward to publishing online and elsewhere.
And if you think this content is valuable, please sign up to our newsletter. It’s a monthly email with three original articles on either content marketing, content strategy or content production. Feel free to use them to make your content, and your content marketing, better and more effective than ever before!
Finally, if you disagree with anything I’ve said here, please feel free to leave a comment. We do read them and comment back, and I’m more than happy to discuss it with you.