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Where content marketers go wrong and the easy way to discover what an audience wants

Social & Digital

Where content marketers go wrong and the easy way to discover what an audience wants


Good content marketing should focus on what audiences want to see. Marketing speaks with content marketing pioneer Michael Brenner about where the industry gets it wrong.

Michael Brenner 150

Too many executives are still asking marketers to “stick my logo on a building”, says CEO at Marketing Insider Group and co-author of The Content Formula, Michael Brenner. With close to a decade of experience in content marketing, Brenner warns that even as content marketing becomes a more regular part of the marketer’s toolkit, the industry might not entirely know how to use it properly, and many marketers just aren’t getting it.

Marketing spoke with Brenner about content marketing, ego-driven marketing, Game of Thrones and how to smell propaganda.


Marketing: Content marketing has increased in sophistication a lot over the last few years, especially with developments in technology. What is exciting you in this space?

Michael Brenner: I think content marketing is a reaction to what Steve Lucas calls the engagement economy. We’re all connected to each other on social and we’re not really waiting for brands to advertise to us. We’re basically going to Google and searching stuff, educating ourselves. Content marketing came out of this new digital environment where we don’t want to be advertised to and we don’t want to give up our personal information – but when we’re ready to buy, we want to go do research. That’s what content marketing is and I think it’s why content marketing started maybe six or eight years ago.

What’s happening now is – with algorithm changes, criticism of Facebook, Twitter changing its rules of engagement and all the rules changing – paying for engagement is no longer working, or not as much as it used to. Companies – instead of creating ads that nobody wants and paying to distribute content that no one is ready for – are starting to tap into their employees to create content, share their expertise and, in some cases, talk about cats. It doesn’t really matter. The point is that we’re all looking for information from each other more so than from brands or from publishers.

Employee advocacy is the next real evolution of marketing. It’s about employees creating and sharing their expertise and then having the rest of the organisation sharing that expertise out in a real authentic and engaging way. It’s really working for a lot of companies.


Do you have any examples?

Adobe is one example of a company that was pretty early in the employee advocacy space. The difference is the culture at Adobe was, ‘We’re not just going to create social media guidelines and policies for our employees, we want to go beyond governance and control and actually encourage and reward employees for going out and sharing what they know.’ That was a real change in the way companies were thinking about social media just a few years ago.

Marketo is another example. When Steve Lucas joined the company as the CEO two years ago, I think the first personnel move he made was to establish an employee engagement person, which is typically an HR term in marketing. She built this employee engagement platform called ‘Marketo Life’ – it encourages employees to share news about the company. But that’s a small part of it. Most of it is, ‘If you understand demand generation, we want you to write an article about it. If you’re in customer service and you’re getting asked questions, we want you to share that out on social.’

It uses a platform driven by a technology called Influitive to create and share content from employees.

Sometimes it’s ‘One of our employees just had a baby or got a puppy.’ They share that internally as well. I think 100% of Marketo’s employees are engaging on that platform and a great deal of its new employees come in as referrals because of it. They’re seeing what we call ‘media equivalent reach’ from free sharing from employees of the content they’re creating, so Marketo is actually a great example of a company using employee advocacy.


A lot of companies are entering into the content marketing space, what is the most common mistake you’re seeing them make?

People think content marketing is just another way to promote your company and your products. It might be a little more insidious than that, an attempt to hide the fact that you’re trying to promote. There was an article I read the other day by a content marketing technology company, ‘Six ways to engage your prospects, and how our platform can help you do it.’

That’s just an ad, a product claim. They were trying to mask it behind what would be normally an audience-centric headline. They flipped it to ‘Why you should buy our crap.’

It’s just the most common mistake people make. The way that I try to explain it is: content needs to put the audience first. As consumers of content, we’re so good now at smelling propaganda. That’s a huge mistake that companies make and I always warn against that. Give people an opportunity to check out what you sell by earning their trust first with helpful information.


How will smart technologies continue to drive and empower good content marketing strategies?

Technologies like Marketo with AI, help in a couple of different areas. First is, it’s helping us understand the right audiences that we should be reaching. Second, what are they actually interested in on the content side? I always like to say ‘it’s not enough just to know your audience, you also have to know their interests.’ They don’t always align with what you’re selling, but that’s okay, because if you’re the provider of information that’s interesting to them, they’re going to look to you as a trusted source of information.

So if I was targeting marketers – I used insights and analytics to identify that marketers are really interested in entertainment more so than the general population. Game of Thrones is a really popular television series, so I wrote an article, ‘What marketers can learn bbout Game of Thrones?’ That’s just an example of me marrying my audience and the interests that they have, and getting really smart about targeting the topics for them.

In general, I think AI and technology is going to drive a lot more personalisation. Maybe not necessarily down to the individual level in the near term, but I think we’re going to get better at just getting that right piece of content to the right person at the right time. My biggest excitement in the opportunity with technology is: it’s going to become harder for companies to continue to do marketing that stinks.

When the CEO says, ‘Hey I want to stick my logo on a building, a billboard or a banner on the side of a website’ – AI and technology are going to give marketers more ammunition to say, ‘We tried that before and it didn’t really work,’ or ‘Other companies have done that and it doesn’t really tie back to real business results, but here is stuff that does.’ I think it’s going to allow us just to stop doing a lot of the ego driven marketing that many executives are still asking marketers to do.


Are we getting to a point now where good content marketing strategy can’t exist without smart technology?

I think the answer is no. From the moment there was a browser and a search engine – so in the mid ’90s – we already had the technology to create effective content marketing. I always tell my clients we live in a world where the questions your customers are asking are ‘know-able’, because they go into Google and type it in. For me, it’s all content marketing strategy, so I can type ‘content marketing strategy’ into Google and it will tell me all the related searches – that’s an editorial calendar for me.

That technology has been embedded in the digital web from the very beginning, now we’re just getting smarter about it. I think it’s inherent in the digital social web that we all use.


The author of this article attended Marketing Nation Summit as a guest of Marketo.


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Image copyright: twindesign / 123RF Stock Photo

Ben Ice

Ben Ice was MarketingMag editor from August 2017 - February 2020

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