Joe Pulizzi: “Your content marketing needs a razor-sharp focus”

What if all your blog posts, videos and white papers were to vanish from the internet tomorrow? Would anyone miss them? If the answer to that last question is not an unequivocal ‘yes’, it’s time to rethink your strategy, says Joe Pulizzi, founder of the Content Marketing Institute (CMI). I spoke to him earlier this year, leading up to his keynote at Content Marketing Fast Forward in Amsterdam. “The main reason most companies fail with content marketing, is that they don’t make choices. They copy what others do. But if you do what others do, you will never become relevant enough to people. To be successful with content marketing, you need to make choices.”

A promise that has come under pressure

Joe was the pioneer who coined the term ‘content marketing’. He struck a chord with many marketers who felt that the rise of digital and social media had changed the marketing playbook. Joe built a successful company based on the premise that sharing valuable content helps attract and retain customers. But in the last few years, the promise of content marketing has come under pressure.

‘We should do something with content marketing.’ It’s a poor starting point for any marketing strategy, because content marketing should never be a goal in itself. But it happens. A lot. Every channel has become subject to a never-ending stream of marketing drivel – content that is generic, boring and not really helpful. The same tired tips and tricks, repeated over and over again. “A lot of marketers think they should publish everywhere, just because they can,” says Joe.

“A lot of marketers think they should publish everywhere, just because they can.”

It’s no wonder that content marketing has become a target for criticism. In 2014, when I heard Joe speak at Content Marketing World in Cleveland, the first critics were already stirring. These days, every month a new article pops up which declares content marketing dead.

Cleveland Content Marketing World 2014
Cleveland on the eve of Content Marketing World 2014

Beyond the disillusionment after the hype

Joe acknowledges the negative sentiment and refers to Gartner’s hype cycle: “We are in the middle of the trough of disillusionment.” In fact, Joe has recently been in a lot of meetings where he advised marketers not to continue on their current course. “If you publish inconsistently, without a clearly-defined audience and without offering a unique point of view, then it’s better to stop. You would never run a media company like this, and you cannot run a content marketing program like this.”

Gartner Hype Cycle
Joe is eager to show that there are alternatives. Because he also works with a lot of companies that are, in fact, having success with content marketing. Companies that have become an authority by consistently sharing their expertise in a specific area with a specific audience. Without echoing their competitors.

“With content marketing, you build a loyal audience over time. This allows you to grow faster, because people already know, respect and trust you. But this only works if you make choices. Otherwise, your content will never be specific and relevant enough. Focus on that one area where you can truly make a difference to people.”

“If you don’t make choices, your content will never be specific and relevant enough to people.”

Slice your target audience

Is content marketing a fitting strategy for every company and every product? Content marketing works better in some industries than in others, Joe admits. It is primarily suitable for business-to-business companies. “They can distinguish themselves by showing thought leadership.” Content marketing can also be a powerful strategy for enterpreneurs and startups. In his latest book, Content Inc. (2015), Joe describes a range of examples.

What if you work for a large business-to-consumer company that sells soda or toothpaste? Then content marketing can still be a valuable part of your marketing mix, Joe believes. But it’s more difficult to execute. Not because of the product, but because of the large number of target audiences.

“Coca-Cola wants to sell Coke to everyone. But you cannot create a content platform for everyone. Such a platform is destined to fail. What you can do, is define different audience segments and fields of interest. This is what Procter & Gamble has done over the last fifteen years, with micro websites aimed at specific target audiences; ranging from working moms to adolescent girls. That’s the level of specificity you need to be succesful with content marketing.”

Strategy is about saying ‘no’

Of course, not every company has a marketing budget akin to that of Procter & Gamble. And you cannot simply ignore 95 per cent of your market because you want to focus all your efforts on one niche. What should you do if every product manager in your company asks for content, but you don’t have the time and the budget to serve them all?

Joe: “The biggest pitfall in content marketing is trying to please everyone. I used to have the same conversations when I worked in B2B publishing: everytime we went after fifteen audiences at the same time, we failed. You need to focus. Saying ‘yes’ to everything is not a strategy. Strategy is about saying ‘no’.”

“The biggest pitfall in content marketing is trying to please everyone.”

“Focus on where the pain is the greatest in your company,” Joe advises. “Find a target audience where your current marketing strategy is not working. That’s a good starting point for a content marketing pilot. See what works, and build on your successes.”

In the meantime, how do you market to other target audiences? Joe: “Don’t stop doing what your company is already doing. If your current marketing approach works for certain audiences, continue on that path for those audiences.” After all: why fix something if it ain’t broken?

Find your ‘sweet spot’

Once you’ve selected a target audience, find out what their interests and concerns are. Consult your customer service department for frequently asked questions. Interview your sales colleagues. Perform a search analysis. Talk with customers. Research. Listen.

It sounds obvious. But a lot of companies don’t follow this approach. They prefer talking about themselves and their products. “The story your company wants to share, is often not the story your target audience wants to hear,” Joe explains. “The intersection between a customer pain point and your company’s knowledge area, that is the ‘sweet spot’ for content marketing.”

Content marketing sweet spot
Finding your sweet spot is not enough, however. You also need to define what will separate you from everyone else in your market area. Joe calls this the ‘content tilt’. “If you don’t have a truly different story to tell, your content won’t break through the clutter.”

There are many ways to ‘tilt’ your content. Narrow down your target audience even further; select a niche that is not yet saturated with content . Or cover a topic from a unique angle. “Take a stance in your content. If you are afraid to be different, you will never be succesful. You need to alienate some people to attract others.”

Does your approach pass the ‘why exercise’?

A lot of companies don’t just lack focus in their audience and in their story. Their marketing communications mix lacks focus as well. E-mail, Facebook, Twitter, Periscope, Snapchat: marketers like to use each and every channel, without always knowing why.

“Our surveys show that, on average, marketers use thirteen to fifteen channels to communicate with consumers or customers,” says Joe. “That’s too many. Scale back and focus on those channels where you have the biggest chance of making an impact. In fact, when you start with your content marketing program, it’s best to focus on one channel: a blog, a YouTube channel, a podcast. Get people to know, like and trust you. Build an audience first. Diversify later.”

“If you cannot reasonably argue why you are doing something, stop doing it.”

To achieve focus, Joe recommends the ‘why exercise’. “Take a piece of paper and divide it into two columns. Put your audience at the top. In the left column, list all the ways you are currently communicating with your audience. In the right column, list the business reasons for doing so. If you’re a B2B company, why do you have a Facebook page? If you have a newsletter with a 2% open rate, why do you keep sending it? Ask yourself those questions. If you cannot reasonably argue why you are doing something, stop doing it. You will probably end up with a much shorter list. That’s focus.”


Content marketing is a marathon, not a sprint

Once you have the right focus, persist. Be patient. “Nine months before I started having success with content marketing, I thought I was a complete failure,” Joe says.

“Nine months before I started having success with content marketing, I thought I was a complete failure.”

“It takes at least twelve to eighteen months before your content marketing efforts pay off. You need to build authority, and that takes time. That’s why content marketing programs often fail in large companies: those companies are on a quarterly schedule and their agenda is dictated by short-term thinking. If you go to your CMO to propose a 12-18 month program, they will likely declare you crazy. ‘Can’t we do this in six months’, they will ask. But if you want success within six months, it’s better to do advertising. Content marketing is a marathon, not a sprint.”

Sell your vision first

Combining advertising with a long-term content marketing program can be a winning strategy, Joe argues. It’s not a matter of ‘either-or’, as some like to suggest. Joe: “I remember a lot of social media posts from the mid 00s, proclaiming that social media would serve as a substitute for traditional marketing practices. Now we realize that social media is just part of the mix. The same goes for content marketing. Advertising, PR, content marketing: it all works together.”

At least, it should. In reality, most marketing departments lack integration. “A lot of content marketing teams work completely separately from their advertising, PR, and media colleagues. I have seen content marketers create a blog, only to find out later that their IT department is not willing to add it to the navigation of their website.”

Seeking collaboration from day one is pivotal, says Joe. “You need to sell your vision first. Explain to your colleagues how you will help them to achieve their goals. How will you help your demand generation team to achieve their aims? You need to pull in money from other teams and get promotional dollars behind your content. Organically, it takes far too long to build an audience these days.”

Think beyond the marketing department

Collaboration across disciplines should go beyond the marketing department, says Joe. “Content marketing also represents a great opportunity for research and development. You get first-hand data to learn more about the needs of your target market.”

Joe cites Kraft Foods as an example. Kraft publishes recipes and monitors their popularity. The product development team uses these data, in combination with other data sources, like Google Trends. “If they notice that there’s a high demand for recipes with a certain taste, they can develop new products with that taste. For example, the Red Velvet Oreo was a way for Kraft Foods to tap into the popularity of the red velvet taste. This strategy has worked really well for them.”

Red Velvet Oreo Cookie

The biggest mistake Joe made

By listening to your public, you can discover they need other products than those you initially thought of. And so again, you must dare to make choices.

Joe knows what he’s talking about.

In 2007, when Joe left an executive position at a publisher to start his own company, he set out to develop a product for matching brands and agencies. But once he had built up an audience of marketers with his blog, he found out that his original plan did not work: the matching product flopped.

“I had developed tunnel vision. I focussed to much on my product and wasn’t listening to my audience.”

“I believed that my audience would buy my product. But they didn’t. I wasted one year forcing a product down the throat of an audience that didn’t want it. I had developed tunnel vision. I focussed to much on my product and wasn’t listening to my audience.” In 2009, when Joe did a few reader surveys and re-read all comments on his blog posts from the previous two years, he realised what his audience really wanted: advice, training, events. One year later, Joe founded the Content Marketing Institute (CMI) to deliver just that, and since then, the CMI has grown into a multi-million dollar company.

It starts and ends with choices

What is the future of content marketing? Joe is not sure when we will hit rock bottom in Gartner’s hype cycle, but he is as optimistic as ever. “We’re going to see a lot of companies saying that content marketing doesn’t work, because they’re not doing it right. But we’re going to see companies that shine bright with their content marketing, because they are willing to make choices and tell a different story.”

Joe believes it’s a healthy development. “We’ve been through similar developments in advertising, PR, and social media. Some companies do it well, other’s don’t. Sure, there are other ways for companies to be innovative and succesful. For example, by delivering exceptional customer service. Is content marketing an absolute necessity? No. But I still believe that it is the most powerful way to build a loyal audience and grow faster than your competitors.”

What should your company focus on? That choice is up to you.


Thanks to Albert Jan Huisman and Bert van Loon for putting me into contact with Joe Pulizzi.

Photo credit: Fallon’s Photography