At Napier, one of the questions we often get from clients is whether content marketing is too good to be true? They ask because a lot of people promise all sorts of things from content marketing and yet, many clients find that the results are not as good as they hoped.

But first of all, what do we mean by content marketing?

One definition is that content marketing involves the creation and sharing of online material – so anything from videos, blogs to social media posts that doesn’t explicitly promote a brand but is intended to stimulate interest in that brand’s products or services.

A lot of this is about sharing the content rather than pushing it out. And it seems like a great approach, one where we can create materials that don’t have to be too salesy or promotional, and they’ll magically help sell our product.

Is this really the case? To try and answer this question, we can look at where people have done well or badly in content marketing.

The good…

Resolving problems or helping people do their job is key to good content marketing, but sometimes, it pays to take a risk and just be creative. A company called Midwich started promoting a QR code but didn’t say what it was – it just created some interest around the QR code, which actually led to their blog. So creativity can be a very important part of content marketing, but will only work if it’s valuable to the reader.

Some of the best examples of content marketing seek to create value for customers. An example here is one of the best known content marketing campaigns, Whiteboard Friday, created by Moz, who are in the rapidly changing search engine optimization market.

Moz identified the need for people to keep up with new information and understand what’s going on. Whiteboard Friday presents an ongoing training course, providing all you need to know about SEO and in the process, driving visits to their website. This is a great example of content marketing.

SEO actually provides a lot of great examples. Instead of providing content, like a video or a blog post to help people, you can provide free tools to take the donkey work out of SEO, helping people ultimately migrate through to using your paid offering.

Lastly, sometimes, content marketing is much more about creating the image for your brand. Dell, for example, worked with the Girl Scouts of America to promote STEM education. This raised Dell’s profile among many potential purchasers but also created a very positive view of the company.

Overall, there is no one particular recommended approach. Content marketing can offer a blog post, a video, or a tool that people use that has some software engineering behind it – it’s all about finding the right content for your customer.

… and the bad

There are also some examples of bad content marketing. Take MailChimp, which decided to offer video content in a channel called MailChimp Presents. The trouble was that people were inundated with content from MailChimp, and it was very hard to find what was relevant. The lesson here is that it’s not just about volume of content, it’s also very much about quality as well.

Content also needs to be honest and truthful. Step forward Intel, which launched the 11th generation of core processors, and unsurprisingly had a press release that talked about how amazing these products were – in fact, there were 18 separate references to ‘the world’s best’.

The problem was the small print, which said that Intel may have tweaked the performance test to make their processors look better than any other manufacturers’.

It could still be that those Intel microprocessors are the best for laptops. But with so many caveats you couldn’t really trust the claims.

The third example is the Tesla cybertruck event, featuring a super futuristic truck launched by Elon Musk and positioned as basically indestructible. Yet, as the demo staff found, throwing stones at the windows caused the glass to crack.

Was this a failure or did it raise the profile of the cybertruck? No doubt Tesla would have preferred that the rocks bounced off, and it probably did lead to questions about whether other claims about the product were true.

Who reads all that stuff anyway?

So, does content marketing work? The promise of content marketing, that you create the content, people then come and read the content and suddenly want to buy your product or your service, is fantastic.

But is this really true? Well no – by and large, people don’t read your content. A 2008 study concluded that typically visitors read only 20% of your webpage.

The first thing to say is when you create content, people are not going to read it if it’s written content, meaning you need to design your content for the people who don’t read the whole web page, the skimmers.

Also, when we look at internet traffic, just over a third is actually bot traffic, not humans, and many of these are trying to steal data.

As well as seeing traffic that’s not real humans, we also create content that’s not used – if you look on social media, research shows the majority of links have never been clicked. So there’s lots of reasons not to feel optimistic about content marketing.

But actually, sometimes it does work. At Napier, we’ve had phone calls from prospective companies based purely on them reading our newsletter. So, content marketing does sometimes work, but actually generating high volumes of content is not the goal.

The keys are quality and variety – it’s not all about white papers, though they tend to be the favorite content marketing tool. And if you create content that will help potential customers, then ultimately, you should be driving new customers through your content. And if you’re measuring customers, and not volume of content, you’re then able to look at whether you’re getting a return on investment, and that really is important.

Content that works

So how do we create content that really works?

You’ve got to produce something that is relevant for the people you’re trying to address, your audience or your personas – they’ve got to see it at the right time, they’ve got to be interested in it.

You need to think about everything from your customer’s point of view. For example, we have a persona we call new technology Nicola, who is very keen on applying martech to their campaigns and is typically very digitally orientated. They’re very driven by metrics, so creating content for them is very straightforward.

That persona would be very different from a persona, perhaps of a PR manager, who would be much more worried about brand, much less worried about stats, and really concerned about things like messaging. So, the content for these two people would be very different.

You also need to make sure you deliver the content at the right time. And the only way to do that is by mapping your customer journey – if we’re trying to reach someone who already knows us and is actively looking for a PR agency, we need to find very different content to someone who does all their PR in house.

Whether you can capture sales depends on where the customer is in the journey. So, it’s not just the content you create, but also the metrics that need to change depending on what point in the customer journey you’re targeting.

One of the best sources of content to help people learn things is YouTube. YouTube is actually the second biggest search engine after Google, so producing content for this outlet can reach a lot of people.

You can also help people do things that are inherently complex by providing tools, such as one to estimate the life of a battery in hours or estimate the power consumption of various combinations of sensors and microprocessors.

On the Napier website our highest traffic page is one that lets you create SMART goals from simply filling in some boxes. Creating calculators is a massively underestimated tool in content marketing.

A selector guide is a similar idea. One of our clients had an idea to help people new to using artificial intelligence. As well as information on AI itself, they’d also need to know how to use the available products, so we worked with the client to combine both aspects.

The resulting tool allows people to put in the application, what sensors they’re using and how they’re connecting to share the data – the selector guide provides not only the best boards to use with the project, but will also advice on how to use the boards or use Alexa as your voice recognition system.

So, there’s lots of ways we can create good content. And ultimately, it’s about trust – if your audience trust you, then absolutely, your content will be viewed.

Earlier, we said that content marketing was about pre-creating content that doesn’t directly sell, so eliminating that kind of sales pitch is really important. Also, make sure you are writing for people, not search engines – even though SEO is important, the content must work for people first. And finally, it’s about content marketing, not content production – when people focus on volume, almost always the quality falls.

Tips for top content

The first tip shouldn’t be a surprise – put yourself in the customer’s shoes. You’ve got to think about personas, you’ve got to think about the customer journey and you’ve got to create the content that customers want.

And most importantly, please don’t create content you want – quite often, you’ll find your customer doesn’t care because they’re not ready, or they don’t need that information.

The next thing to do is think about return on investment. Whenever you’re creating content, you need to understand what you want that content to achieve, and how much that goal is worth to you. It could be generating new leads, where you might compare the value of a lead with the cost of going to a trade show. You might look at potential conversion rates, moving people to becoming customers, and how much they’re likely to spend.

Perhaps the best tip is that titles are really key. Most people only read 20% of your article and in fact, a lot of people will only read the headline. HubSpot found that the single biggest factor in driving the take up of ebooks was the title – the content and the layout of a landing page was much less important than the actual title of the book.

Format also really matters. Take a number of white papers, put them together, call it an ebook, and I guarantee that you will have a higher signup rate than for any of the white papers. We find that people are very keen to sign up for ebooks that offer a comprehensive guide.

Looking back at Moz with its whiteboard Fridays, it’s really all about the video, in particular the consistent format. We would strongly recommend experimenting with formats to find the right one for your content.

We mentioned that people aren’t going to read all your article, so you need to write something where the length reflects what the reader wants – you’ve got to help people find what’s important. A Table of Contents is becoming more important for longer and more complex web pages and blog posts – it’s also helpful for SEO.

Our final tip is to be brave. Some of our best content marketing results have been achieved by content that is much more playful than normal content. This ranges from a client that talked about customer service in large enterprises, and related it to their local cheese shop, to content that talks about what supercomputing experts can learn from England football managers.

Thinking outside what you normally do, and being prepared to have a bit more fun and enjoy content a bit more, is a really good idea, so we’d strongly recommend being a little bit brave and trying things that maybe appear to be a little different or a little risky.

Above all, keep in mind that it’s the customer that counts – build your content around what they require and you will start to get the results you need.


If you want to find out more about how you can be successful with content marketing, check out our webinar ‘Is Content Marketing too Good to be True?’.