7 Laws for Content Marketing Success


This article is based on Joe’s keynote presentation at Content Marketing World 2019. You can see the presentation slides  here.

First, I’d like to apologize.

Back in 2008, when Newt Barrett and I wrote the book Get Content Get Customers (please, do not buy this book), I wrote some things that simply aren’t true. At least not anymore.

Now don’t get me wrong. I love that book. Without that book, there wouldn’t be a Content Marketing Institute or a Content Marketing World. Heck, “content marketing” wasn’t even a “thing” when we wrote that book.

But, I did write things like “create content wherever your customers are at.” Ouch. Please don’t do that. Or, if you look at the mock case study at the end of the book, I’m telling people to launch multiple content initiatives at the same time. In this case, it was a print magazine, an e-book series, a blog, a research white paper series, etc. Uh, don’t do that either (more on that later).

And here we are today, and in many cases, content runs amok. Marketers think that because they can, they should. In some circles, content marketing has a black eye. Many believe (and shout it from the blogtops) that content marketing like this doesn’t work. Well, because it doesn’t.

But there is hope. There is a way out. I’ve made it a mission to go back to the basics. To speak the “truth” about what does work in content marketing and what doesn’t. This article is a start to that.

A word of warning: These recommendations are not for the weak of heart. To be a successful content marketer moving forward you have to be strong-willed. You need fortitude. You must have a fighting spirit. You’ll make it out alive, but you’ll probably look like Rocky at the end of Rocky I, II, III … Worth it? Yes. Easy? No.

To be a successful #content marketer moving forward you have to be strong-willed, says @JoePulizzi via @cmicontent. #CMWorld Click To Tweet

Here we go. My seven laws for the next decade of marketing. The seven things that will, hopefully, lead you to success in 2030.

Law 1: Always be selling internally

There are many high-profile content marketing failures to choose from. There’s mattress company Casper’s shutdown of its content brand, Van Winkle. Verizon shuttering its news site, SugarString, also comes to mind. When I first started in content marketing, our client Agilent Technologies closed its B2B magazine for engineers without ever really telling us why.

And there will be more to come, but not for the reason you think.

Over my 20 years in content marketing, I’ve preached over and over why content marketing programs fail:

All good reasons for failure, but they are not the main one. The biggest reason why content marketing programs are killed is because the people in the organization who control the budget and decisions have no idea what you are doing.

Top reason #contentmarketing dies? Budget controllers and decision-makers don’t know what you do, says @JoePulizzi via @cmicontent. #CMWorld Click To Tweet

Let me restate this just in case you missed it. Most content marketing programs don’t stop because of lack of results. They don’t stop because they aren’t working (the Agilent Technologies one I mentioned was working quite well). They stop because the people with the purse strings – the ones who control the budget – don’t understand content marketing, why you are doing it, and what impact it could and should make on the organization.

And when that happens, your content marketing goes bye-bye.

I learned this the hard way when I first started selling content marketing projects. No matter how well the programs were doing, my boss couldn’t understand why I was selling custom magazines and newsletters over advertising programs.


The fix

There is a solution. First, find those people who control the budget: the chief marketing officer, the chief financial officer, anyone else who truly influences budgetary and strategic decisions.

Second, create an internal content marketing program just for them. It could be a regular email, a handwritten note with samples, an audio overview … whatever … but it’s your job to teach them about the craft of content marketing. Teach them why it’s important. Who’s doing it well? What’s the payoff?

If your content marketing program gets canceled, you can no longer blame the executive team because they didn’t understand what you were doing. And if you don’t educate them, there’s only one person to blame when your project ends up on the cutting board.


Law 2: Plan for multiple lines of revenue

When you launch a content marketing initiative, you start with a marketing goal. It could be lead generation or to help in the nurturing process. Maybe the goal is to increase the value of current customers or to keep customers longer.

Your marketing goal is your most important goal and you need to focus on it. But is it enough?

Did you know that BuzzFeed, through its Tasty brand, is going to sell approximately $260 million of household appliances in 2019, with plans for a half-billion dollars in 2020? And here come Tasty Toys, Tasty Spices, Tasty Ice Cream, and more.

Did you know Cleveland Clinic’s Health Essentials blog drives almost enough direct revenue to cover its cost of operation? Sure, Cleveland Clinic’s main goal for the blog is to drive more patients into its health system (and it does that very well). But at the same time, it drives direct revenue through advertising and sponsored content. The Health Essentials team creates original health-related content for large technology companies. It also syndicates content on other platforms.

The fix

In 2017, Robert Rose and I wrote Killing Marketing. One of the core concepts of the book was planning for multiple lines of revenue. In the book we predicted that the most innovative organizations would drive five, six, or even seven lines of revenue from their audience-building efforts:

Traditional content marketing revenue choices:

  • Sell more products
  • Sell more services
  • Drive repeat customer sales
  • Create more profitable customers (yield increase)
  • Sell other products to current customers (cross-sales)

Traditional media revenue choices:

  • Advertising/sponsorship
  • Conference and event revenue
  • Paid content subscriptions
  • Premium content for sale (e.g., e-books, research reports)
  • Donations (e.g., Patreon)

It’s your job to plan and anticipate these types of revenue opportunities. If done correctly, as with the Cleveland Clinic, your department could be self-sustaining.


Law 3: Buy before you build

If you look at research about first-time entrepreneurs, you know most startups fail – majestically – to the tune of more than 90%. And this is exactly what happens to content marketers. We launch our content startups with the worst possible odds.

Even though Stanford University loves its unicorns, it realized that entrepreneurs drastically increase the odds of success if they purchase an existing business. So much so, its business school dedicated a program to mergers and acquisitions in its executive education program.

Content marketers are taking an unnecessary risk by only creating new content-oriented projects.

The fix

Smart media companies ALWAYS look to buy BEFORE they build. It’s just good business, especially today when distressed media assets are available in every industry. Content marketers who don’t at least look to buy before they build are just plain crazy.

Smart content marketers look to buy before they build, says @JoePulizzi via @cmicontent. #CMWorld Click To Tweet

Computer hardware manufacturer Raspberry Pi purchased two magazines from U.K. publisher Dennis Publishing. Just think how challenging it would be and how long it would take for Raspberry Pi to build two loyal audiences in those categories. Two years easy.

And my favorite example is electronics-distribution company Arrow Electronics’ (a Fortune 500 company) purchase of UBM’s technology media portfolio a few years back. Arrow became the largest media company in the world targeting electronics engineers.

But you need to create the plan. Develop a list of media and influencer brands to purchase for each audience you target. Analyze the distressed media assets for sale in all the industries you cover.

To learn about all seven steps to integrating this plan into your overall content marketing plan, check out this article on acquiring content marketing.

Law 4: Do one great thing

You may have seen the announcement of Mailchimp Presents. The email marketing company launched a slew of short-form series, films, animations, podcasts, and more all around the same time, targeting entrepreneurs.

Now I like Mailchimp. I’m a customer. It’s a good, solid company.

But I’m fairly certain that Mailchimp Presents will go up in flames.

Why? If you go back in history and look at how all the great media and content brands started, from the The New York Times to Huffington Post to Red Bull Media House, none started by launching multiple content initiatives. That’s a big ZERO.

It’s simply too difficult to be great at more than one thing at a time, and yet almost every company launches multiple content efforts at once. They launch a blog and a podcast and some research and a horrible e-newsletter, and some content social and possibly an event. This is a recipe for disaster.

It’s difficult to be great at more than one thing at a time, & yet almost every company launches multiple #content efforts at once. This is a recipe for disaster. @JoePulizzi via @cmicontent #CMWorld Click To Tweet

The fix

Regardless of how big or small your marketing department is, every organization has finite energy when it comes to content efforts. To increase your odds of success, you need to shutter much of what you are doing and focus on being truly exceptional at one or two things.

Home Made Simple, one of P&G’s content brands, is amazingly successful today. It includes a blog, a popular e-newsletter, a TV series, and it evolved into a commercial line of branded products. But 15 years ago, it was just a blog and an e-newsletter. The company focused on doing just those two things extremely well, and that is why it is still around today.

Today, Content Marketing Institute offers over a dozen content products. But in its beginnings – 2007 to 2009 – we focused on an amazing blog and a truly helpful e-newsletter. Once we developed a minimum viable audience, then (and only then) did we launch Chief Content Officer magazine, Content Marketing World, ContentTECH, and all the others.

I’m doing the same thing with the launch of my new thriller novel, The Will to Die. Instead of creating a print book, a digital book, and an audiobook at the same time (like everyone else), I’m focusing on the audio channel. I believe that by focusing on just one content type to start, it will have more focus and do better than spreading the marketing and content too thin.

Kill off what’s not working and place heavy bets on your winners. Remember, you do NOT need a content initiative for every channel you are involved in. And, it won’t work anyway.

You do NOT need a #content initiative for every channel you are involved in, says @JoePulizzi via @cmicontent. #CMWorld Click To Tweet

Law 5: Stay away from content campaigns

I had the honor of judging this year’s Content Marketing Awards category for best overall content marketing strategy. Of the 14 entries, 10 were content marketing campaigns.

That means that these 10 companies that believed their project was good enough for best overall strategy invested countless hours, energy, and creative on an initiative that they voluntarily stopped.

It’s crazy. In some cases, these companies built valuable audiences, then just stopped sending them the content. I can’t think of many more things worse in marketing.

We have becoming infatuated with getting a sale – with pushing super short-term success. But the true purpose of content marketing is not to get “a” sale. The purpose of content marketing is to create better customers over time. You can’t do that in a six- to nine-month window.

The purpose of #contentmarketing is to create better customers over time. You can’t do that in a six- to nine-month window, says @JoePulizzi via @cmicontent. #CMWorld Click To Tweet

The fix

In researching my 2015 book Content Inc., we found the average time for content marketing to start showing results was between 12 and 18 months. It takes time to build a loyal audience.

If you need immediate results with your marketing, do not do content marketing. Go interrupt people. Go buy advertising.

If you want to build a real asset for your organization, you need to set expectations that it might take two years to see a real payoff. Content marketing is a marathon not a sprint. If you’re a sprinter, I suggest changing careers.

Law 6: Plan for the end of social

All marketing professionals are aware of the issues with organic reach and social media platforms. Six or seven years ago, brands used to get decent organic reach. Today, we barely see a blip. It’s going to get worse.

Brands used to get decent organic reach. Today, we barely see a blip. It’s going to get worse, says @JoePulizzi via @cmicontent. #CMWorld Click To Tweet

Right now, social media platforms need our content for their business models to run. But, at the same time, our content is their biggest liability. It’s our content they need to fact check. It’s our content that could be fake news. It’s our content that may not be very valuable and hurt the user’s experience.

What are the platforms doing about this? They are making plans so they won’t need our content at all:

  • Social media can block youTwitter has a history of blocking users for no apparent reason. Some brands and people get blocked. Some don’t. More and more, social platforms will block certain entities to protect their interests.

  • Privacy concerns are not going awayNetflix’s The Great Hack showed how deep the problem goes when it comes to privacy and social media. This is not the end, but the start.

The combination of these four issues means that social media, as a place to share content and build audiences, is going away. This may not happen for two, three, or five years, but it’s going to happen.

The fix

Should you use these channels if you can? Of course. If you see an opportunity leveraging Twitter, Instagram, or Tik Tok, you should do it. But while there, you should move that user, when possible, to first-party data sources.

The image above is a subscriber hierarchy. Now, all these connections are good, but they are definitely not equal. If you get a YouTube subscriber, you should have a plan to move that subscriber up the chain to something you have more control over (email and print subscribers).

Yes, we are going back to 1999. The e-newsletter is back and more powerful than ever.

Don’t believe me?

We are going back to 1999. The e-newsletter is back and more powerful than ever, says @JoePulizzi via @cmicontent. #CMWorld Click To Tweet

BuzzFeed and The New York Times turned around their business models through e-newsletter subscriptions. The New York Times has over 100 e-newsletters today, with most getting a well over 40% open rate.

But, for this to work, you must execute a truly amazing and valuable newsletter. How’s yours?


Law 7: Say no! Have conviction in the practice

I love the content marketing community. The people in this community are simply the smartest and most giving group of people I’ve ever met.

That said, you say yes way too much. It’s becoming a problem, for you and for our industry.

The fix

When someone in your organization asks for something truly idiotic, you must say no. Let’s look at a few examples.

If someone asks: Can you put more sales and product mentions in your content?

The answer is no.

If someone asks: Can we launch a video series and a podcast series at the same time?

The answer is no.

If someone asks: Can we skip the content marketing strategy so we can start creating content right away?

The answer is no.

I’ve been in too many companies where content marketing professionals want to please everyone, and they start creating all kinds of content because people ask them to.

Those days are over. Your favorite word in the next decade needs to be NO. 

Into the future

If you take these seven laws to heart, you will be a successful marketing professional way before the year 2030.

  1. Always be selling internally.
  2. Plan for multiple lines of revenue.
  3. Buy before you build.
  4. Do one thing great.
  5. Stay away from content campaigns.
  6. Plan for the end of social.
  7. Have conviction in the practice.

Good luck!

Here’s an excerpt from Joe’s talk:

Advance your knowledge and practice of content marketing in 2020 at Content Marketing University. Enrollment for winter semester begins Dec. 1. Sign up today for a reminder.

Cover image by Joseph Kalinowski/Content Marketing Institute


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