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Content marketing is white hot right now. In our recent B2B Mobile Marketing report, marketers identified it as not just one of their top priorities but as the top priority in their current marketing efforts. But it’s also experiencing a significant crisis of confidence, as more and more content is being produced, making it harder for any individual marketer’s “hello world” blog post to stand out.

marketing-strategy-shutterstockThe bottom-dollar question: Is content marketing still worth it?

For most marketers, content marketing is a massive waste of time, according to one marketing technologist. And sales enablement tools that are improving how demand generation teams sell via email, via phone, and in person are taking their place.

“There’s a big disconnect between where marketers are investing money versus where customers are coming in,” says Ilya Lichtenstein, cofounder and CEO of MixRank. “Content marketing doesn’t scale anywhere near where it needs to be in B2B to generate enough leads.”

Of course, you might expect Lichtenstein to say that. His company, after all, makes software that helps sales and marketing teams land new clients via innovative data-driven targeting — not by content marketing. And in a previous startup, he founded a performance marketing company — also not content marketing.

170 B2B marketers told us what’s working in mobile. Click here to get the results.

But if that’s the case, it’s also the case that the biggest voices promoting content marketing are often those who offer tools that enable content marketing.

Unsurprisingly, that’s one of Lichtenstein’s key points:

“The people who are really good at content marketing are promoting it and producing a lot of content about it,” he told me recently. “It’s appealing — you think ‘I’m going to create this content and it’s going to go viral’ — and that does happen at the top, but it doesn’t scale.”

One of the companies that is really good at content marketing, of course, is Hubspot.

content marketing tactics

Above: Content marketing tactics

Image Credit: Content Marketing Institute

The marketing automation company just IPO’d with a nice pop and isn’t shy about the benefits of content marketing. In fact, it recently released a massive 3,600-marketer study on inbound marketing that says companies that blog — AKA do at least one component of content marketing — are 13 times more likely to be increasing ROI year-over-year.

But even Hubspot doesn’t recommend content marketing for everything.

“I think there are some industries that aren’t a great match for content marketing,” Hubspot’s VP of content, Joe Chernov, told me via email. “Let’s say you sell widgets for nuclear plants in the U.S. Your total addressable market is 62 companies. Content probably isn’t the most direct path to success here.”

But baby, meet bathwater.

social media marketing“Just because it’s hard to win at something doesn’t mean it’s a waste of time,” Chernov says. “Content helps bridge the divide between being unknown and known. Certainly ranking on the first page of Google helps, a lot. And while it’s difficult to rank for a head term, even companies that are new to content marketing can succeed in ranking for tail terms.”

In fact, in that huge Hubspot study, 82 percent of marketers said they are now using inbound techniques.

Lichtenstein’s point, of course, is that outbound and sales enablement matters — perhaps more than we typically hear. And that it is a faster strategy when you need to ramp quickly.

“Content takes so long to scale, longer than six months,” he says. “Building that audience with all the noise, 1,000 different things that people are sharing … it’s really hard to break out. And the traffic the top result gets versus the tenth is a big, big difference, with major drop-off.”

For him, the old standby tools like email, conferences, referrals, prospecting, and even cold-calling work faster — especially updated for today with sales enablement technology — at helping companies kickstart and scale revenue. In fact, they helped MixRank itself scale to over $1 million in revenue in its first year, Lichtenstein says. One benefit, of course, is that the conversation is commerce-focused from the start. In content marketing, the first job is getting attention, and then converting that attention into intention — buying intention.

It’s also a question of lead quality, of course.

marketingA lead scored by a marketing automation system or lead-scoring algorithm based on what content people have viewed or requested is a best guess that may or may not be accurate; while a lead evaluated in person should hold more water. Perhaps two-thirds of sales reps are giving marketing an “F” for the quality of sales leads, Lichtenstein says, while leads sourced from sales prospecting teams are typically higher quality.

But that sword cuts both ways.

“You can buy a list and blast a generic message to the entire audience (which I did in a prior job — and of the 8,000 contacts, precisely one opened the email),” Chernov says. “Or you can build a list organically over time and email people who want to hear from you.”

The bible of content marketing itself, Copyblogger, acknowledges the contemporary problem, mentioning the impending “content cliff,” the “period where content collapses in on itself as audiences max out on their ability to consume it.”

There is a solution, CopyBlogger says: better quality.

“There is not a glut of content that is useful, passionate, individual, and interesting,” Copybloggers’s Sonia Simone says.

There’s truth to that. But it also opens a big fat door to comebacks from the Lichtensteins of the world: Essentially, content marketers are engaged in an ongoing arms race of better and more useful and more passionate and more individual and more interesting content.

wordpress blogAnd arms races, as you know, benefit mostly arms manufacturers.

To Lichtenstein, the pendulum is swinging back towards sales and sales tech.

“We’ve had all of this investment in marketing tech and that’s great, but now we’re seeing a lot of sales development tech like Yesware … and that’s where the responsibility for generating leads should be,” he says.

Focusing on that, he says, has lowered MixRank’s cost of qualified lead from an industry-standard average of $400 to under $40, thanks to very accurate targeting of prospects as his sale reps eat the company’s own dogfood.

The upshot?

Content marketing is getting harder. Not only from proliferation, but also in the new mobile-first world that sees users spend most of their time in third-party apps, not engaged in traditional web surfing and not googling very often. And the new-old tools of outbound marketing, plus the new tools now available to demand generation teams are powerful and quick. So savvy marketers are definitely engaged in massive outbound marketing efforts, using everything from sales enablement to emerging adtech.

And yet good content marketers, with the right skills and the right products and the right content, are still driving great results. And it’s almost impossible to completely avoid content marketing if you want to tell an appropriate story when someone comes to your site to learn more, regardless of how they first heard about you.

Which leads to the logical conclusion: Act, measure, and figure out what works for you.

Then rinse and repeat.

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