The Unfortunate Reality Of Most Content Marketing Programs

It should be no surprise that bad content strategy results in low conversions. Columnist and CRO expert Tim Ash explains the questions you should be asking to overcome this.

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A marriage made in heaven — Conversion Rate Optimization (CRO) should be the perfect mate to content marketing.

People rely on Internet self-service research for their scouting when making buying decisions about many products and services. In my experience with clients, 60-80 percent of the typical customer journey now takes place unaided and online. The old days of getting a “hot” lead to your salesperson and then having them hard-close are long gone.

The expectation is that people will be able to get the information that they need, when they want it, on their terms. If that were really the case, it would be a great match for CRO. However, there are a few twists in this story …

Most Content Marketing Programs Are Falling Short

I know this is a gross over-generalization, but I’m going to describe the content marketing situation from my perspective. For the rare unicorns that are the conversion-focused content creators, my apologies in advance — please don’t send me hate mail. (However, since 80 percent of people think that they are above-average drivers, maybe this applies to more folks than you realize!)

Typically, the content marketing world is filled with scheduled production work. How many blog posts/whitepapers/videos did you pump out this month? How many columns did you contribute? How many podcasts did you record? How many webinars did you organize? How can you leverage existing content to get as much exposure as possible by tweaking its format slightly? For example, a webinar becomes a video, written transcript, and a Slideshare presentation.

We are worried about editorial calendars and measuring the impact of some items (hopefully) going viral. We might even try to correlate the extent of this exposure in some crude way to estimate the value of the “earned” media generated.

But this is still light-years from where it needs to be to truly support the mission of making your online experience truly seamless. In order to do that, we have to approach content marketing differently — from the perspective of your visitors.

I don’t have answers, but I have a number of powerful questions you should be asking yourself as well as others in your online marketing organization.

Is The Problem Really On Our Website?

The website is a very occasional touch-point for many decisions. You might spend a few seconds or a minute on the site. But the actual decision is made by talking with real people, reviewing downloaded content, or flipping through your mailbox.

We spend much more time in those contexts than on a particular website. Yet the focus is always on the tangible and durable Web pages.

Think of asking someone to get across a dangerous chasm on a rickety rope bridge. Certainly we can’t expect to jump across in a single bound. Yet, that is the Web-only equivalent.

We need to think about our supporting content as building small and vital steps to get us to the other side. How much of my attention do you need to capture in the in-between points when I am not on your site?

Are We Squeezing The Bottom Of The Funnel Only?

A related problem is that we focus too much on the pay-off point at the bottom of the funnel. We like this part of the process, since this is where we can directly cost-justify the returns that we get from our traffic acquisition spend.

But if you think of it from another perspective, we are basically asking someone to “go big, or go home.” There is usually little content available for people earlier in the funnel (defining their needs, comparing alternatives, or customizing a solution for their specific situation).

Yet this is exactly where content marketers should focus. By being useful to these earlier stage visitors, we can earn their loyalty and take the competitors out of the equation by pre-empting them.

Despite this obvious potential advantage, most of us are still deeply infected by what I call “Greedy Marketer Syndrome” — squeezing the bottom of the sales funnel and hoping that more money comes out.

Do We Understand Who Is Coming To Our Site And What They Want?

This is really the heart of the problem with content marketing and online marketing more generally. We tend to focus on our company’s needs, and not those of the user. So generally we have an inside-out view of things — how can we present ourselves to the outside world?

Unfortunately that gets us into communicating in “we” mode, spouting off about things that your visitor really does not care about.

The antidote is to focus on the roles of people coming to the site and anticipating the specific tasks or problems that they are trying to solve.

This is a messier business that requires empathy and understanding. You have to take people as they are — without all of the expert-level knowledge of the business that you possess. This means taking into account the misunderstandings, biases and baggage that your visitors bring with them.

You need to create specific user scenarios (a combination of a role and a specific task) that describe the important interactions that visitors will have with your site. Then take a hard look and see if the intent of each scenario can easily be met with the current combination of Web pages and content marketing.

Don’t expect anyone to connect the dots for people. Just because you think it’s obvious, doesn’t mean your visitors won’t find deadly gaps in your user experience.

Do We Really Need To “Gate” All Our Content?

One of the common mistakes that I have seen is “gating” all content behind some kind of information collection form.

We often ask for too much information, and do it too early in the process. Because of this, the balance of what-I-get and what-I-have-to-give is not compelling enough to have most people take you up on your offer.

Just because they downloaded your e-book doesn’t mean they want to get a call or email from your sales team. They are not a high-quality lead until the very end of the process.

So you are doing a double disservice by gating: minimizing the adoption of and spread of your content, and feeding your sales team poor-quality unqualified “suspects” instead of really eager and excited prospects.

In general you want to err on the side of giving high-quality content away and asking for as little as possible in return. In fact, in my “Landing Page Optimization” book, I mention the Form-Field Test: “Is this information absolutely necessary to complete the current transaction?” If you can’t answer “yes,” then the form field should not be gating the content.

Final Thoughts: Making It Work

But there is hope for a successful union. The key is to focus on the needs of your visitors.

Content creators need to think through the whole customer journey side by side with the conversion team and create specific content to address visitor concerns. This must then be woven tightly into the fabric of the on-site experience (as well as email and other offline touchpoints). Only then can you add the following graffiti:

CRO + CM = $

Happy optimizing!

Opinions expressed in this article are those of the guest author and not necessarily MarTech. Staff authors are listed here.

About the author

Tim Ash
Tim Ash is the author of the bestselling book "Landing Page Optimization," CEO of and chairperson of the international Conversion Conference event series.

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