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Why Most Content Marketing Sucks (and what to do about it) – Will Francis
The Agents of Change

Why Most Content Marketing Sucks (and what to do about it) – Will Francis

Just what is the secret to creating great content? This is something every marketer wishes they knew the answer to. What it does not mean is to create insane amounts of content and throw it up on every platform possible – quantity does not equal quality in this equation.

If you’re a technology, digital, and social media expert like today’s guest Will Francis, you will start adopting a more practical approach when it comes to your content marketing.  Remember, you don’t need to be on every platform to get traction on your content – and you shouldn’t. Less content with higher quality to it can still earn you loads of eyeballs. And don’t forget to get creative in your repurposing efforts! In today’s episode, our guest will give you practical advice and some great actionable tips to turn your marketing content into leads and sales.


Rich: Since working at MySpace in the 2000s as the UK editor, and more recently running London ad agency, Harkable, my guest today has helped some of the world’s most loved brands innovate in digital and social media. These days he shares his experience and expertise through courses at respected institutions, and as host of the Digital Marketing Institute’s podcast, Ahead of the Game, and in other media.

Today we’re going to be talking about content marketing and how to do it right with Will Francis. Will, welcome to the podcast.

Will: Thanks, Rich. It’s an absolute honor and a pleasure to be here chatting with you today.

Rich: It is enjoyable. We had a nice pre-conversation chat, and I think we are in alignment on a lot of the issues that are going on with content online.

So as digital marketers, we’ve been told forever that content is king. So what’s the problem with that? What’s the fallout from that?

Will: I mean, there’s a few problems that have come about in the last few years really. And they are things like the complete saturation of most channels, particularly social media. You know, every single day more businesses set up still, you know today there’s more businesses every day setting up kind of pages in social and putting out more content. So it’s more and more saturated. In response to that, as we well know, companies like Facebook design algorithms to then cherry pick the very best content for its users to keep people on those platforms for as long as possible and keep them looking at as many ads as possible. So people see a fraction of the available content when they log on, and it’s probably not your content.

And those algorithms govern what we see in all sorts of places now and what to watch on Netflix, what to see on YouTube, what email is important in Gmail, et cetera, et cetera. So cutting through the noise is incredibly hard. And you know, if you look down your average Facebook feed you hardly see any brand page content these days, it’s all close friends and groups. Just as Mark Zuckerberg promised a few years ago.

Rich: And ads. That’s the thing, you got to spend the money and you see the ads.

Will: Yeah, you got it. Oh, sorry. Yeah, of course. You’ve got to pay to play. Absolutely. And so where we’re left with is a place where most, in my work, most marketers that I meet are still playing by the rules of 2012. They’re playing by completely outdated rules. Their boss thinks that they should just keep going, pumping out content into the ether, because maybe it looks good, maybe it will drive a lead somewhere, somehow. But the reality is that if these brands stopped producing content, and I’m talking about most companies, no one would notice. And it’s a sad fact.

So, you know, part of my job as an educator and speaker on this is just to try and get people to understand that, and then we can start dealing with how to actually get around it and add value to people’s lives.

Rich: So I’m hearing that generic content doesn’t work. Because of the level of competition and the data smog that’s out there, only the best is really going to be rewarded and unless you’re throwing money behind it. So how do you define non-generic content, or how do you define high quality or valuable content?

Will: Yes. And that is the question of our time. Good content marketing is, in my view, is media of any type that when it lands in front of someone it’s of true value to them and it draws them in. Most content looks like just marketing and it just repels people. In fact, it doesn’t even do that. They just ignore it. We’ve become very well wired to just ignore anything that even vaguely looks like it might be marketing. Right? So, yes, it’s that adding value that you’ve got to do, and really it comes down to two things: be useful or entertaining.

If you can be useful, so provide knowledge, show people how to do something, or be entertaining, make people laugh, cry, fascinate them, tell them a story, then that is adding value. That is dropping something in that very crowded space that is actually worth looking over at and spending time and attention on. And that’s really what it comes down to.

Rich: When you think about content that’s created by brands, how important do you feel the personality of the brand is coming through? You talked about how the content has to be valuable for the end user, but I’m sure you get the same thing, I get pitched daily on people like saying, “Oh, I want to write for your blog, I want to guest blog, I want to be a freelance writer for you”, whatever. And I take a look at their content and it literally could be for any company in the world, there’s no sense of who’s writing this. Is that an issue, or is that just something where it’s kind of like a value, a value add is, is the personality of the brand less important? Is it only about the value to the end user?

Will: That’s a very good question. That’s a really good question. I think to some extent, good content has been commoditized. And so, you know, a good blog post about how to change the tire on an SUV is valuable wherever it’s from, if you’re looking for that information. So I think there is an extent to which it. It doesn’t matter. But of course, the brands that do have a tone, a genuine tone of voice and a personality and bring that to their content, demonstrably do better because they become destinations in and of themself. So over time, if people just find you informative, they’ll probably just find you when they really kind of need you or they’ll just by accident come to you because it happens to be your blog post they’ve come across.

Whereas the brands that have got a real personality become brands that you would genuinely just go and see what they’re saying today, because you know that they are reliable sources. And I think it’s usually the entertainment that people are doing, the entertainment stuff is where you can do the personality. So, you know, but it’s a tricky one. I struggle with that one because when you’re telling people how to do personality, it’s like we can’t do that in an hour’s lecture or session or talk, et cetera. That’s a big process, a long process to go on in terms of working out what your personality is. It’s easier to encapsulate exactly how to add value to the internet.

Rich: Yeah. And I definitely want to get back to that. I’m just thinking, early on in COVID I got interested in woodworking, something I never grown up with, I never did. And I started watching some YouTube videos, which of course then changes your entire YouTube channel over to videos or experience over to videos on your topic of choice. And there were one or two content creators that I would regularly go back to and devour all their content because when – I can’t think of the guy’s name – but it was ‘woodworking for mere mortals’ and there was another one called ‘Jane drills’, something like that. And those people had a very strong personality or personality that I was in tune with. And like you said, I would go back to find their content to see what they were saying, because I just liked everything that they were doing. That’s maybe a whole other level of creating content. But maybe just from what I’m hearing from you is just start with focusing on your end user and what do they find valuable, and that’s the kind of content that’s going to succeed.

Will: Yeah, absolutely. And I mean, I know I don’t mean to sound like a marketing textbook, but it’s about that classic thing of understand your audience, find out what they want to know through basic tools, like Answer the Public, and Keywords Everywhere, and Ubersuggest all these kind of great tools that you can find out what people are searching for. That’s a good way to find out an informational need.

But you do need to go that layer deeper, I think, because otherwise you’re just doing more woodworking videos, right? How to router groove and stuff. Where you go that level deeper is where you get to know the audience a bit. And some of those less tangible ways, get inside their head, go and join their communities, see what they talk about, see what they joke about, see what they’re ironic about, see what they see as a bit passe and boring. Really kind of put some texture around those kinds of more cold, keyword research, get inside their head.

And you know, there’s a great quote and I could never remember who it was, but basically it’s one of the old advertising kind of legends who said something like, “Great advertising enters the conversation already taking place in people’s heads.” And I think great content does that as well. And it does so in a way that kind of continues an ongoing little dialogue you’ve got at the back of your head, in a way that really resonates with you and that you can relate to.

So yeah, I mean, same here. I’ve had a very similar experience to you with YouTube. There are certain creators that I go back to because I’m into music and playing guitar and playing drums, and there’s loads of people that show me how to do that. But there’s only certain ones that have a certain groove, a certain vibe, certain style of music, and you connect to that on a deeper level because it’s more than coldly informational.

Rich: And I like the directions conversation because I could see that there must be some content creators out there teaching you how to play guitar that you’re just going to like, because for whatever reason you like that kind of person, that personality, whatever it is. They don’t necessarily need to go out of their way to create content that’s perfect for Will.

But then I also think that there’s this content creator out there that starts by teaching people how to play guitar and then goes into the groups, the clubs on Facebook. What have you learned about their ideal customers, or maybe they survey their customers, and they find out what their customers are struggling with. And maybe it’s like, yes, I want guitar lessons, but really I want ukulele lessons, or I want guitar lessons, but I really want to know how to play classical guitar or a garage rock from the sixties or whatever. And then you start to really narrow down the content you’re creating, the audience gets smaller, but that content really starts to stand out for that audience.

Will: Well, that’s another great point, isn’t it? That it’s this internet thing that we’re all fascinated by and have been for a quarter of a century. It’s ultimately a big network of stitched together niches, or ‘niches’ as I believe you say in the U.S.  And it really is this like massive patchwork quilt of niches. And I think the people who recognize that, the people that really do well on the internet, it’s not about being general.

And you’re absolutely right. I mean, the worst thing you can do right now is set up a YouTube channel about how to play guitar. Like, that is done. But how to play classical, thrash metal, crossover guitar, on a homemade guitar made out of rubber bands, and specifically oak wood. I think you’ve got yourself a niche.

Rich: Yeah. You’ll be the best and the worst at it.

Will: Yeah, exactly. You’ll own it. But yeah, and it really is about that. Because if you look at, there is a whole trail of success stories that started in a tiny niche. And I mean, Malcolm Gladwell talks about that in The Tipping Point, he talks about how famous brands of today, some of them just started in tiny little niches, but they really exploded. It was like a pressure cooker and that niche became so popular in this tiny little community that it exploded out. And when it did, there was fanaticism from that community, just splattered all over the walls, in the aftermath of the explosion to kind of continue the analogy.

But it comes at you with the force of this passion of this community, and so it’s like, whoa, there’s something here that’s worth taking notice of. Whereas if those brands had just gone direct to the mainstream, there’s nothing really interesting in there. And so owning a niche as a starting point is a fantastic way to then branch out and convince others on a gradual way that this is something important and worth taking notice of.

Rich: Absolutely because you already have that passionate social proof built in. So far it feels like we’ve talked about a few different layers of content, and the easiest and laziest content is just the crap that fills our newsfeeds every day. There’s very little research or thought put into it. It’s just volume or quantity is what’s most important. And that’s what people want. So we put out as much as possible.

The next level down is using some of those. And when I say ‘down’, actually better, but yeah, using some of those tools that you mentioned, like Ubersuggest and Answer the Public, where you’re really starting to write content that addresses the needs of your generic customers out there.

And then the step after that is, you learn who your actual customers are, the people who have already started engaging with you, and you find out what they’re struggling with and what those niches are that you can go even narrower on. And you really start to tailor that content to a smaller but more engaged and passionate audience. Would you agree that that’s kind of what you’ve outlined for us?

Will: That is essentially it. I think the other dimension of that to mention is that the content you create has to be sufficiently better. I’m not saying it has to blow absolutely everything out of the water. There are content marketers who would say – I’ve heard this phrase – that you have to “10x” it. You know, you have to create stuff that’s 10 times better than what’s already out there. I don’t think that’s always realistic to be honest, but I do think that there has to be that depth. And I think, again, there’s a few misconceptions. People think that attention spans have dwindled. Don’t think so. Long form written content is having a hay day. Podcasts often go for hours.

Rich: I just watched Zack Snyder’s Justice League cut, it’s four hours.

Will: Right. There’s not an attention span problem. People want you to go deep, and Google wants you to go deep. You know, Google talks about explicitly E.A.T. – expertise, authoritativeness, trustworthiness. They want that in content. They don’t want you to just to be paying people on Fiverr, to pump out thousand-word articles that just about cover the topic. That’s not useful. We need 5,000 words; we want you to go deep. When you put all your knowledge down on paper and really kind of make the most useful, thorough resource. And I’m talking more about resources than just blogs and SEO. That’s not the game. It’s about fantastic, deep resources. So I think there’s that dimension to it worth mentioning as well, you know.

Rich: You mentioned Google, you mentioned SEO, although it sounded like you were a little dismissive of SEO at the end. So I’m kind of curious to know, Will, how does SEO fit into our conversation today? Especially around blogs, and maybe to a lesser degree video.

Will: Well, no, I’m not dismissive of SEO. What I’m dismissive of is when I hear the term ‘SEO content’, I sort of die side a little bit. Because that’s the wrong way to think about it. You’re just trying to pump content out there that and thinking that the Google algorithm will be tricked into like, wow, here’s a new source of fantastic information, someone’s put loads of exactly thousand-word articles up on their website about a topic Fantastic. No, the algorithm is not stupid. You know? There are so many companies, all your competition is doing that, probably just pumping out thousand-word articles. And it’s about going much deeper than that.

And if you look at, I mean, in our game in marketing, you look at people like HubSpot, Sprout, Social Buffer, a 5,000-word article from them is not unusual. And that content goes deep. It links off to other smaller bits of content, links off to templates, downloadables, resources, you name it. And Google can see that, the algorithm is incredibly smart. So I think search, I’m a massive fan of that as a channel. You could argue it’s the last channel that you can cut through on, because you have control over that. You can create the best content. Whereas in social, you are more at the mercy of a less clear set of rules. So yeah, SEO is more important than ever. I just think you’ve got to take the time to create the content that Google is really looking for, not just a load of crappy little pieces.

Rich: And as we’re discussing this, and obviously when it comes to things like ranking high, a company like flyte new media or Agents of Change, we’re competing with HubSpot and Sprout Social, and Buffer on some level, because we’re creating content that helps people market their business better.

And so do these companies, and these companies have hundreds of people creating content for them, and they have these huge editorial teams and it’s David versus Goliath. So I think it just comes back to again, is it about in terms of being the better company out there? Or maybe again it’s about like you were talking about earlier, is it about niching down and really understanding your ideal customers better than anybody else can and providing the kind of content? Yes, you need to consider SEO. You need to understand SEO so that people find it in the first place. But I’ve been saying for years, keyword research is just market research. It’s about understanding who your customers are.

Will: Yeah. And just on that point about 10x’ing, something I found, I’ve found myself telling clients for I guess it’s years now is, do less brilliantly. That’s all. That’s all I’m asking people to do is just do less stuff. I mean, you know, scrap the content, the social content calendar, scrap all those blog posts. Spend all your time doing one amazing resource. That is the ultimate last word in that. And the answer to that problem, right? So, yeah, maybe it’s a 5,000-word article with a couple of templates and what have you. And that is going to serve you far better than a load of skimming the surface, kind of light throw away content. So it’s about doing less. And so even a one person business can do that. You know, you just have to really focus.

What was the second part of your question, or was there one?

Rich: I don’t know that there was a second part. Will, this has been an awesome conversation, and you and I are definitely in alignment about creating this really deep, tailored content that provides value for our customers. If somebody hasn’t been doing this or they’re just getting started in the content game, what would you recommend? How should they start, in your opinion?

Will: Okay. You’ve got no content and you’re starting from scratch. I think the first thing you need to do is go and look at what else is out there from your competitors. So do some competitive research and as you say, your competitors can be Goliath. They’re just the other people and brands out there that are competing for your audience’s attention. So there might not even be direct business competitors in a way. So who is out there taking the attention of your audience? Okay.

Then do the keyword research, the market research, the customer research in a very basic way. Like if you use answerthepublic.com, the questions that it surfaces there are essentially the lazy marketers content plan right off the page. You know, you don’t need to do anything. But pick a few things or even just one thing to start with and try and make the most useful answers to those questions. I mean, that’s the main thing.

But also what I’m keen to tell people is that I think a few years ago when people said content marketing essentially meant corporate blogging, I actually would say that we’ve gone out of just written content. We’ve gone outside of that. It’s expanded to, I think you could say podcasts, videos, white papers, apps. They will do the same thing and deliver the same content. And that’s important if you look at the best content marketers in this world, people like Gary Vaynerchuk and the like. What they are masters of is repurposing and reformatting content.

So once you’re done, the beauty about writing a 5,000-word article is you can dine out on that for months and years to come. You can create videos. You can drop that in Lumen5, which automatically turns written content into short videos, you can create animated videos of your own in something like Biteable, which is the popular online video maker. You could read out and turn it into a podcast episode or make a little season like a five-part podcast season where you kind of divide the piece up but then also maybe talk to people along the way. You could create little social quotes, many videos for LinkedIn. I mean, I could go on and really bore the pants off you, but you get the point from that one seed. Because you’ve done the hard work.

The great thing about written content, every Hollywood movie, every pop song you’ve ever heard, everything starts with written content, right? So once you’ve done that hard work, you can create loads of stuff out of it. And so that would be my advice, it would be to start creating systems of true value and good things will just kind of fall out of it essentially.

Rich: All right. Let’s talk about the idea of good things just falling out of it. Now we’re producing content, not just for our own health, obviously. Some people are doing it just because they love to share ideas, but from a business standpoint we’re doing it because we want to grow our business. So how do we, or even do we, work in a promotional hook into the content that we’re creating?

Will: That’s a very good question, and one I do get asked quite a lot. Yes, a lot of people who come to my talks or come into my workshops go away to their boss the next day and tell them what they’ve heard. And the boss probably goes, “Right, so we’re just going to create all this great content out of the goodness of our heart. How exactly does that drive sales?”

Well, it’s because we operate in an incredibly crowded space and there is lots of other companies trying to get the dollar of our audience. So our job with content is to gain awareness and to gain a trust and to start relationships with people. And over time, it’s clear that that does work, any well-known company you can think of is probably a case study of that. Yes, you can put promotional hooks in and around your content, of course. And it should be related to what you do, but of course, this is a really good point.

Let me just take a minute to impact this. So let’s say you are just a local car mechanic. Okay. Now you might do some research and find out that actually one of the most talked about keywords in your space is sports cars. So you think, right, I’m going to create loads of content about sports cars. So what you’re missing there is you’re not making best use of what you actually have deep knowledge of. You’re just jumping on a trend, or you’re jumping on something that has a lot of volume and interest. And so you’ve kind of missed the point of the whole exercise. What you need to do is find the things that you are clearly a deep expert in, because then the content sells you.

So if you’re that local car mechanic and you do a piece about how to winterize your car, or how to change your window washing fluid or something like that. You know, it all relates very directly to what you do. And you could, you know, around your content, you can have calls to action about of course, book in your service now. I mean, that’s absolutely fine. I’ve got nothing against that because people are there and they get it. They’re in your venue. You know, they expect to see that you’re a company and hear about that as long as you do it in a tasteful way. But it always has to be effective. The point I’m making is it has to relate in a very kind of clear way to what you do and what your expertise is in.

Just one more thing to say about that is, where you should never be promotional is in the places that you sign post to that content. So in a social media feed, if you try and get in some promotional message in there, people just won’t engage with it. Their eyes will glaze over it and their brain has worked out this marketing before. The rest of their brain is bothered to even take a look and pay any attention to it. So we’re automatically blind to it. Same in the way you appear in a search result or anywhere else. But when you bring people to a site or you’re talking on a podcast and you’re halfway through the podcast, yeah, drop in a promo message, that’s fine.

Rich: So a lot of the conversation these days is around the customer journey and how during the customer journey there are pieces of information needed, based on whether you’re just in discovery or whether you’re comparing products. How does this approach fit into hitting people at different parts of their journey?

Will: Well, I think content marketing in the broad way that I’ve described, it really does work well throughout the customer journey. I think that the kind of top of funnel informational stuff where people are finding you without deliberately doing so just because you’ve created good content. Great. That drives awareness. So yeah, informational blog posts would be an example of that.

Where you can then help people in consideration is with comparisons of your product with others. One example I regularly use is if you Google ‘social media management software’, you will see that a lot of the results there are actually blog posts by people like Buffer and Sprout Social, comparing themselves with competitors. And they link off to all their competitors in the article. You know, it’s like the ‘10 best’ and it’s by Buffer and it’s like, whoa, okay, why would both be playing out there? They’re basically telling people to go and try out HootSuite. Why would they do that?

But of course they are creating comparison-type information that helps people make a good buying decision. Also, it makes sure that they’re on the first page of Google and it’s worth taking the hit of losing a bit of business to Hootsuite to get onto that first page of Google. So another point. So it’s that comparative stuff.

Then you, as you move down the funnel, it’s testimonials, its reviews, case studies, and that kind of thing. Which can be done in a nice way that don’t necessarily have to feel like kind of cheesy marketing. And then towards purchase, it’s where we do things like remarketing. Perhaps we’ve offered people a download in return for an email address further up the funnel and that’s where we’d email people. And so when you get to the kind of bottom of the funnel, that’s where we start to use some of those kinds of remarketing techniques of one sort or another.

And then with loyalty as well. You know, I think the best brands, if you think of a lot of your favorite brands, they have fantastic communities around that brand that is fostered by the brand. It might be a Facebook group, could be a knowledge base, a forum, a sub-Reddit. And the brand is active, and it helps you at the community, but it doesn’t get over-involved, and it just allows the community to help each other and steps in when needed. And I think that’s a kind of a good way to think about how content marketing can work through the funnel.

Rich: Awesome. Well, this has been a great conversation and I absolutely appreciate you coming on the show and sharing your expertise. For people who want to learn a little bit more about you, maybe some of your courses and things like that, where can we send them online?

Will: If you go to willfrancis.com, F R A N C I S is the spelling of my surname, wiifrancis.com is where you’ll find the courses that I run. I do online zoom workshops about things like SEO, social media marketing, and what have you. And you can find out more about me there and follow me on Twitter @WillFrancis, which is my username pretty much everywhere on the internet as well.

Rich: Excellent. Will, this has been great. Thank you so much for dropping by today.

Will: An absolute pleasure. Thanks a lot, Rich.

Show Notes:

Will Francis is a leader in the world of digital marketing and social media. If you’d like to learn more from him, consider signing up for one of his courses, or check out his podcast. And be sure to connect with him on Twitter and let him know you heard him on The Agents of Change podcast!

Rich Brooks is the President of flyte new media, a web design & digital marketing agency in Portland, Maine, and founder of the Agents of Change. He’s passionate about helping small businesses grow online and has put his 20+ years of experience into the book, The Lead Machine: The Small Business Guide to Digital Marketing.