lean content

Content quality or quantity? You’re asking the wrong question

In Trends by Michael Brenner

Marketing Insider Group CEO Michael Brenner says we should stop debating and start pursuing lean content.

I’ve always believed that content marketing means that companies can leave behind their tired old promotional ads, brochures and requests for a demo. That’s why marketers are acting like real publishers focused on helping their audience become educated, informed, even entertained.

If you’re good enough to build an audience, great things happen to your business. More people engage with your brand. And that engagement leads to trust, which leads to more sales, greater awareness of your expertise and more loyal customers.

If you’ve figured out how to produce high-quality content that delivers new customers, then you should seek to help your audience as much and as often as you can, as long as the content you produce is helpful and it makes financial sense.

Many have debated this view, arguing that “less is more”. That we should ease off on the quantifiable volume of content, minimise production costs and focus on subjective quality at the expense of quantity.

I believe this is a false choice. Journalists are handed a round and deadlines. They don’t sacrifice quality for the sake of meeting their quantity-driven deadlines. Publishers don’t wake up in the morning and look around to decide that there just isn’t anything interesting happening that day, then go off and have a cocktail. Publishers focus on consistently more, high-quality content.

Why should content marketing be any different? “Quantity v quality” is not even a relevant debate. And the data proves that brands who publish more frequently have better content marketing results.

More is more

Once we figure out the formula for producing effective content that helps our customers and drives real business results, we should look for ways to scale the production of helpful content to position ourselves as an authority in our field.

There are many ways to do this by tapping into the experts inside your organisation and telling compelling customer stories by real people talking about the journeys they took to solve real business challenges. Or finding existing research and sharing your perspective on the implications, trends and insights it provides. Or allowing your partners, employees and customers to share their passions, pains and provocations.

Help your customers and you help your business. Help your customers more and you drive even higher returns on your investment.

Less is more, too

We live in a world swimming in crap content. And so the “less is more” argument is tempting.

My friend and author Andrew Davis argued for less content during his keynote speech at Content Marketing World 2016, during which he asked the question “do we really need all of this ‘stuff’?” Davis’s view is that we should stop “throwing up” content all over the place in an endless pursuit of traffic spikes. Instead, we should try to “raise the height of our valleys” through better content and smarter distribution. It’s hard to disagree with that.

Digital strategist Kristen Matthews agrees. She argued that brands should stop being the only voice on their blogs and social channels and create less content by focusing more on influencer marketing and user-generated content. I can’t argue with that one, either.

The Content Marketing Institute’s Joe Pulizzi and Robert Rose questioned the business model of creating more content. They accepted that increased traffic could result from more volume but questioned whether that drives real business impact.

So, is it time to give up on creating more content to serve your audience every single day, or even more?

The publishers’ view

Let’s look at the big producers, the content heavyweights, the trusted publishers whose high-quality content we all hope to emulate. The Washington Post, for example, produces 1200 posts in a single day! This dwarfs anything most of us could ever consider.

Steve Rayson discussed this in a blog post for Buzzsumo. He explained that he, too, used to believe that less was indeed more and that organisations should only be publishing a minimal quantity of extremely high-value pieces. But then he changed his mind.

He noted that the number of people visiting The Washington Post’s website increased by 28 per cent in the 12 months leading up to September 2016, and that – for a time – the Post sat ahead of its rival, The New York Times, in the web traffic stakes.

This is an example of an organisation producing content on an enormous scale – just one of many across the world – and succeeding by doing so.

“Today’s content production teams are lean, streamlined and optimised for success.”

Some might argue that sites like The Washington Post and The New York Times, The Guardian or the China Daily can’t be compared to a brand’s content marketing because these traditional publishers’ entire business relies on a history of quality journalism, a cultural integrity of editorial standards, and ultimately, monetising their traffic.

I think there’s a lesson to be learned from so-called new-age publishers who grew up in the reality of declining ad sales.

Business Insider boasts of having the same traffic as Bloomberg with only 10 per cent of the people. I’ve toured the Business Insider newsroom, swarming with dozens of twenty-somethings who are trying to become new-age journalists.

You can argue whether their content is subjectively quality journalism, but the truth is that they’re delivering quantifiable business results at a fraction of the cost of their traditional rivals.

So why couldn’t a committed brand do the same? If your business can compete with actual mainstream publishers, with lower costs, and deliver quantifiable business results, why wouldn’t you? If media companies publish multiple times per day on every topic, without sacrificing quality, shouldn’t brands follow suit?

Peak content

One of the red flags waved by those proclaiming that less is more is that of “peak content”.

Peak content is the idea that we have reached a point of critical mass in the world of online content. That there is now more content than we can deal with, and that further production can only lead to audience “shock” in all that content surplus.

This is another myth that Steve Rayson dispelled in his Buzzsumo article. The crux of the “peak content” argument is that everything worth being said has already been said, and that there is very little left to add to the debate. Or that because so much content surplus exists, the value of each additional piece of content is diminished.

Rayson countered this by smartly pointing out that there are well over 28,000 scholarly journals actively publishing content online, between them uploading 2.5 million peer-reviewed academic papers every 12 months, a rate that increases year on year.

Surely, this can’t be dismissed as worthless content. Of course, this is a relatively extreme example and the vast majority of content produced for public consumption each day is not at this standard. But there is still a substantial proportion that provides genuine worth to users.

Content production is undoubtedly increasing – in July 2016, for example, new posts published via WordPress exceeded 2 million every day. According to Rayson: “The volume of content published each year that competes for our attention is growing. The data is unequivocal. As the internet population grows, as tools to publish and repurpose content get easier and as automated content algorithms improve, we will see an acceleration in content production. The future is more content.”

But look around at all the content your business creates that either never gets used at all or drives no engagement. I can’t accept that marketers should just give up because we’re in “peak content”.

As a society we’ve adapted and are coping quite well with all the content options available to us. We skim, filter and skip the stuff we don’t love, isn’t helpful or is plain boring.

I’m not suggesting we create more crap. The answer is to create more better content.

Less is less, then

Many of you have heard the “less is more” battle cry, so you’re producing less. But are you seeing better results? No!

In its third annual survey of more than 1000 bloggers, Andy Crestodina’s agency Orbit Media found that bloggers were producing less content. Between 2015 and 2016, daily blogs decreased 53 per cent while monthly blogs increased 38 per cent. The same survey showed that bloggers who produced more work claimed better results. “But does less frequent mean better results?” Crestodina asked. “No.”

The survey found the opposite to be true. Bloggers who were publishing more often – anything up to six posts a week – were more likely to report “strong results”. The biggest increase in effectiveness was for those moving from weekly to two to six posts per week, which is a realistic goal for any business.

I should note the data presented in this post mostly refers to written content such as blog posts and articles. I think similar concepts could be applied to podcasts, video or images although the cadences might certainly be different.

The value of one

Here’s the business case for content marketing: reach, engage, convert and retain customers you would have never reached if all you did was traditional marketing campaigns, blatant self-promotion and advertising “interruptions” of the content your audience wants to read and share. To be effective, content marketing requires a brand-owned digital destination – a content marketing hub – where you commit to consistently publishing content that is helpful to your audience.

The business value of one piece of content is zero because buyers engage with multiple pieces of content from various sources over the course of their customer journey. Shouldn’t your business seek to be the provider of as much of that content as possible?

And what about ROI? The fact is that content marketing programs are financial assets with real value growing over time. It’s not so much the “level” of investment that matters as much as the consistency.

For some visual proof of this idea, check out Tom Tunguz’s concept of “compounding returns” in content. The idea is that you can increase audience engagement over time by consistently publishing “evergreen” content with topical content over extended periods of time.

This idea of the compounding return of content marketing is that the value accelerates over time while the investment stays the same. So the higher the investment (assuming quality content at scale) the higher the level of return. But it accelerates either way.

To achieve high levels of reach and momentum – and to accomplish our long-term goals – we need to keep on producing more quality content.

The content machine

Every year, Hubspot research concludes that increasing publishing cadence drives a direct increase in traffic and leads. Some argue whether this is causation or correlation. I think it’s probably a matter of causation.

The real correlation comes from the likelihood that companies who commit to publishing higher volumes are also committed to publishing better content. They learn from a higher volume of content “experiments”. But the correlation can’t be dismissed.

Does this mean that focusing on quantity over quality will deliver the same results? No.

Andy Crestodina agrees, citing the results of his study: “Bloggers with higher-frequency content programs are probably doing other things well, including distribution, promotion and measurement.”

Sean Callahan of LinkedIn Marketing Solution believes frequency is the key to results in content marketing. As a former journalist, Callahan knows a thing or two about the importance of quality and quantity. He says frequency:

  • Has always been a key tenet of advertising
  • Is the best way to build engaged subscribers
  • Is the “pathway” to better quality
  • Provides an opportunity for more effective testing and optimisation
  • Enables true always-on marketing

This is not “frequency for frequency sake”. And this is well beyond the old advertising goals of just reach and frequency. It’s about engaging your audience more often with better content.

Lean content

“But content production is expensive,” I hear you cry, “and the ‘less is more’ folks say that this cash could be better spent elsewhere.” Or it just isn’t worth the investment. But what if I said you could build a content machine that delivers quality content consistently? Without increasing costs.

In fact, I have demonstrated how anyone can increase quality content production without increasing budget by a single cent. And I’ve applied this concept across more than a dozen brands and businesses. Once you invest in an effective content machine, why wouldn’t you keep pouring in the fuel required to keep it running?

content marketing lifecycle scoopit

Image: Scoop.It

Back in 2013, Digiday explained how content marketing success comes from “producing the most content at as low a cost as possible”. This gives them an advantage in the market.

Today’s content production teams are lean, streamlined and optimised for success. Great content – at the necessary volume – requires a strategy; it requires a strong mechanism driving your production methods onwards.

Scoop.It co-founder Guillaume Decugis outlined lean content as the key to delivering content marketing ROI: conversions from more and better content, produced at scale, continuously improving, all while reducing costs over time. His content production lifecycle wheel is a lean framework in which authors and producers can go on achieving their aims, creating stunning content, amplifying results and reducing costs.

By developing this kind of solid foundation for our strategies and efforts, we can safeguard our content marketing ROI.

More (better) content

In today’s noisy world, your business has only two options: continue advertising and trying to buy your way into the hearts and minds of your customers with interruptions to the content they want, with ads and promotional messages they don’t want. Or invest in, and truly commit to, consistently producing high-quality content that attracts new customers.

If you can build this publishing machine, and implement a lean content marketing process, you will find yourself producing more and better content, at a lower cost, with a higher rate of return (ROI) than any other approach your business can take.

Note: This article first appeared on the Marketing Insider Group blog.

Photo: Ben White on Unsplash

Links and references

Convince and Convert: Why your brand should create less content

TrackMaven: Analysis points to major shift in digital marketing efficacy

About the Author

Michael Brenner

Michael Brenner is a globally recognised keynote speaker, author of The Content Formula and CEO of Marketing Insider Group. He has worked in leadership positions in sales and marketing for global brands such as SAP and Nielsen, as well as for thriving startups.

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