People / 12.17.15

Listen Up, Content Marketers: Execs Want More Content, Less Marketing

By Jeffrey Davis
Know your audience. It’s one of the simplest and irrefutable codes of publishing, marketing and advertising. (Or life in general, for that matter.) Yet in these go-go times of content marketing (where the lines have blurred between all three disciplines), a recent survey from The Economist Group suggests that legions of ambitious Content Marketeers are out of sync with the most important audience of all — the CEOs, business executives, and decision-makers whose influence and trust those marketers seek the most. Execs are looking for more substance in content; marketers are still a little stuck on pomp and circumstance.

What explains the disconnect? We asked Jeff Pundyk, global VP of content solutions at The Economist Group — where he leads a team of journalists, researchers, social media managers and creatives who produce and distribute thought leadership content — for some additional insight behind the numbers.

The study shows a disconnect between marketers creating content largely about their products and services, and their target audience — decision makers — who say they want more substance. But content marketing isn’t exactly new anymore. What explains the big perception gap?

What’s new is the influx of brands taking up content marketing for the first time. These are primarily marketers who are used to communicating through traditional advertising, which is usually focused on products and services. It’s a huge shift to think about how to serve the reader rather than on how to position your own products and services. Everybody has access to the tools of publishing. That’s the easy part. But having the mind-set of a publisher — to put the reader first — is much harder.

If execs are already ‘sold’ on editorial substance instinctively, why don’t we see more companies taking bigger risks with more substantive content ideas?

I think we’re in transition and seeing a lot of experiments. But many marketers are going into the experiment without a clear sense of what success looks like. My perspective is that content is a long-term play. It’s about building trust over time. That takes commitment and resources. It’s not easy. I’m sure many will lose faith or interest before they can see the benefits. But those who have a strategy — a clear sense of who they are trying to reach and how they can serve them — will see the benefits over time in increased loyalty and increased referrals.

The report says decision makers want “distinctiveness” and that marketers are largely creating content for brand awareness. Yet most content programs are measured by sales-side metrics. Are other forms of measurement emerging to define success as more ambitious content initiatives evolve and expand?

That kind of disconnect underscores that many marketers are not matching their goals with their KPIs. If the goal is awareness, then why would you measure success based on sales? It usually means there’s no real strategy in the first place. Too often we see brands creating content without knowing who they are trying to reach, what they are trying to accomplish or thinking about what they have to say that is unique. Content marketing is not the answer to every marketing challenge. But it can be an essential part of the mix if it’s matched against the right goals and measured by those goals.

One interesting data point was that veteran professionals are more interested in a company’s reputation than their younger counterparts — “Generation Next” — who are more focused on friends’ or colleagues’ recommendations. What do you think this means for content producers?

Content done right can build loyalty and loyalty can build recommendations. So content is clearly a part of the answer. But beyond that, as we think about Generation Next, we need to be very thoughtful about formats and channels, particularly as search begins to decline for the next generation and social discovery grows. What’s interesting to me is there seems to be more openness from Generation Next to content from brands versus from media companies. That feels like an opportunity for those who are willing to take the time to build an audience now.

Jeffrey Davis, Editorial Advisor, Co‑founder
Jeff has been covering technology’s overhaul of business for two decades as a journalist, magazine editor and editorial leader. He was a founding editor at Business 2.0 magazine and an executive editor at CNET and CBS Interactive. Jeff co-founded Original9 and is now an editorial advisor to the company.