ClickZ Live: content marketing isn’t easy

“Most content is failing.”

That was a comment which sucked the air out of the room, and it was about the first thing Ian Walsh of competitive intelligence vendor TrackMaven said, when he took the stage at ClickZ Live New York this week.

ClickZ live is a global conference series for digital marketers. It brought more than 600 marketers to the Times Square Marriott Marquis to hear keynotes by Tim Goudie of Coca-Cola, Leigh Hayman from the Executive Office of the President, and attend breakout sessions on data-driven, content, and email-marketing, social innovation, mobile optimization on search.

Brands can win big by providing targeted customer experiences on social (and, of course, mobile) channels. No question about that. But after two days, I was convinced that it’s by no means an easy win; and, what’s more, people are still groping in the dark when it comes to knowing if the brand is winning or not.

The seed of doubt was sown by Tim Goudie’s kickoff keynote. Goudie is director of social media, sustainability, for Coke–one of the world’s most distinctive and popular brands. The big win for Goudie’s team had been improving perception and sentiment surrounding the brand, while reducing negative commentary by two thirds, using social channels at a much lower cost than, for example, prime time television.

The method? Tell “good stories” about the “PlantBottle,” about sustainable packaging, about empowering women, and about the way Coca-Cola can reach remote and inaccessible parts of the globe (they’d advised the Gates Foundation on how medicines could be distributed as effectively as soda). And Goudie set out some principles which were reiterated by other speakers throughout the sessions:

  • Organic is dead; social has to be paid.
  • Consumers have shifted to mobile platforms.
  • The brand voice (social) is different from the company voice (official).

“Learn, iterate, reapply,” he said. He also said that the content he was describing was successful in engaging people interested in environmental and women’s issues. That makes perfect sense in the context of the campaign, but it did leave me wondering whether that was an audience which drank a lot of Coke.

I started asking speakers whether content marketing should be benchmarked by success in driving engagement (clicks, shares, “likes,” etc) or driving sales.

Matt Gentile, director of social media for Century 21 Real Estate 21, said that the objective of developing social-creative content was not just to “fill the channel,” but to drive referral traffic (the 2015 goal was to drive 15 percent of that traffic through social marketing). 

Gentile estimated that about 80 percent of the content created by his team was entertaining, amusing and engaging, while about 20 percent represented direct calls to action. But when I asked whether successful referrals were attributable to the former of the latter, he told me: “We haven’t done the compare and contrast yet.” Nevertheless, part of his responsibility was boosting brand preference, and brokers and agents were happy with the results.

Katrina Craigwell, GE’s director of global content and programming, made an effective response when I asked her how a dance video, no matter how imaginative, helped conversions.

GE does see leads coming in from this kind of content, she said, but it’s more about things like brand awareness, transparency, the “talent pipeline,” and appealing to next generation shareholders. Which all makes luminous sense as far as GE is concerned, but may not be what a smaller company is looking for–especially if the bottom line depends on selling cars, furniture, or cans of beans.

I asked Ian Walsh whether TrackMaven’s metrics reflected ROI in terms of revenues, or some other marker of tangible success, beyond social engagement. He pointed out that the question of whether campaigns are working is one that precedes digital. Trackmaven seeks to ensure that the social needles are all moving in the right direction. That’s clearly worth addressing given, according to Trackmaven’s survey of two years’ social data across almost 9,000 brands. With 13.8 million pieces of content in the mix, and 7 billion interactions with it, Trackmaven found that as quantity of content increased, engagement fell, with the effectiveness of campaigns diminishing across all channels. 

Successful campaigns may be worth celebrating, but simply “filling the channels” is far from a guarantee of positive audience response. As Simon Berg, CEO of content management software vendor Ceros, said: “The white noise has to stop. Blog post after blog post can’t continue.” Or digital strategist Helen Bergstein, President of Abbot-Water: “The worst thing you can do is go into every channel without knowing why you’re there.”

My takeaway from ClickZ Live? Despite the explosive growth in content marketing, especially on mobile platforms, we’re still low on the learning curve, with a steep climb ahead. For brands that are pedaling fast, but going nowhere, pedaling even faster is clearly not the solution. Reiterate and reapply by all means, but first learn–and have the analytics to learn effectively. 

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