2019 Content Trends Gleaned from 160+ Sales Calls

There’s a common challenge in the content marketing world that creates some friction between content creators and their managers. The creators are heads-down working on new content while the managers wait impatiently for results. One party sees trees, the other sees a forest. The result is dissatisfaction on both sides.

I’ve run 168 sales calls over the last 18 months or so and had the chance to hear both sides of this story. It turns out that most B2B SaaS companies have more or less the same problems. Execs do need to better understand their teams’ day-to-day issues, but content creators also need to appreciate the bigger picture.

These trends are worth both parties’ attention. As a manager, you should understand all of the things in your team’s way. As an employee, you should do your best to understand why your manager thinks the way they do. (Side note: This is also key to advancing your career.)

Here are a few things we hear over and over again. CMOs, heads of content, and all content creators—listen up, because your own colleagues are likely working through some of these same issues.

Content teams are increasingly being asked to provide support to the entire company—and that’s why traffic is stalled.

Content marketing teams used to be tasked with growing traffic. Five or more years ago, this was the only way to justify spending money on this up-and-coming thing called content marketing. This has changed significantly recently.

Here’s a scenario that we’ve seen play out many times. A company makes an initial investment in content and it works! They start to build out a team and set lofty traffic goals. Then, something interesting happens: The rest of the company realizes that there are professional writers on staff and unleashes pent-up demand for content. The partner marketing team wants to create a case study, the sales team needs a new one-pager, the demand gen folks are eager to publish a new ebook, etc.

Once the rest of the company starts asking the content team to serve other needs besides traffic . . . well, traffic stalls. The team may be delivering really high-quality work, but it’s very hard to measure because the work actually supports someone else’s goals. Interestingly, this is a common reason that companies seek agency help—a silver lining that we won’t complain about!—but it also raises an important question: What exactly is the role of a content team in 2019?

For companies of a certain size, it likely makes sense to separate content marketing from content services. The former can focus on traffic while the latter can support the rest of the org.

This is a luxury that smaller companies simply can’t afford—and it’s certainly not a situation that we see across the board. That said, we do recommend keeping an eye out for this. A content team that is overwhelmed with work and is not hitting their numbers can often be explained by this very problem.

Content is one marketing challenge that budget can’t always solve. Plenty of small companies outperform large ones.

In the autumn of 1903, Samuel P. Langley famously crash-landed an early “flying machine” prototype in the Potomac River, just south of Washington, DC. The failure ended a years-long project to be the first human to fly a self-propelled flying device—a project that received about $70,000 in funding from the Smithsonian and the United States government. Langley was a renowned and respected inventor, but despite access to capital and a team of skilled engineers, the project concluded without a true flight.

Just a few months later, the Wright brothers became the first to take off and land an airplane with a gasoline-powered engine. It was a historic accomplishment—and one that the Wright brothers funded with the small profits from their bicycle shop. Historian David McCullough reports in his book The Wright Brothers that the duo spent less than $1,000 on the project in the several years leading up to the achievement. They worked almost completely alone and relied on friends and family to help with the bicycle shop.

Budget can’t replace elbow grease—and this same paradox is alive and well today. In fact, budget occasionally works against its spenders. We’ve seen plenty of companies that spend lavishly on content marketing but are outperformed by a single writer with a WordPress blog and a Twitter handle. Some of the best examples of content marketing started with a $5/month hosting plan and an appetite for hard work.

This is a hard thing to accept about content marketing: If you don’t spend enough on content, you’ll never get the quality needed to stand out. If you spend too much, you’ll create overhead for your team, and quality will decline. Keep your operation lean with a strict emphasis on quality and results.

Content strategy is poorly understood and/or poorly executed.

A content strategy is (1) a documented vision for how content will support the business and (2) a description of how it will be executed. In our experience, most teams don’t have this written down. Because it isn’t memorialized in a place where everyone can see it and agree on it, the content strategy is in constant flux.

Here are a few ways we see this play out in practice:

Content teams bite off more than they can chew

As a general rule, humans are terrible at estimating how much work they can reasonably accomplish and how long that work will take. Group mentality seems to exacerbate this—a group of people in a conference feel a sense of enthusiasm about an upcoming project that dissolves quickly once the work actually begins.

Content teams, not unlike most other teams, often bite off way more than they can chew. They plan to publish twice a week, publish ebooks every quarter, help the partner marketing team with a collaboration, refresh old evergreen content, launch a newsletter, and redesign the blog. It never seems challenging in theory, but it’s incredibly difficult to do in practice.

There are two issues at the core of this:

  1. The person in charge is overly optimistic, or there are multiple people in charge, each with slightly different goals.
  2. The content strategy—your shield for saying no—isn’t documented and publicly available to everyone. Your vision should be clear, concise, and well known.

Figure out the issue that causes this, and then address it. There's nothing like too much work to slow down progress toward important goals.

Content is used to address the wrong part of the funnel.

Different revenue models require different strategies. Using content in the traditional way, to drive top-of-funnel traffic, may or may not be the best approach. Here are a few examples of revenue models that require a nuanced approach:

  • Marketplace: Content can be used to address both supply and demand sides but is more likely to help with supply. That’s because the supply side—think Airbnb hosts, SketchDeck designers, ClassPass gyms, etc.—tend to be a business and tend to provide a lot of value. One Airbnb host, for example, can host many guests over time; therefore, acquiring a single one is very valuable. Guests are more transactional, so they’re not a great fit for acquisition via content marketing.
  • Freemium: Most freemium products have the same problem: Lots of people use the free version, and very few graduate to the paid version. In this situation, should content marketing be used in the traditional way—that is, to drive more free users—or be used to drive free users toward the paid version? Almost certainly the latter, but we see many folks using content to address the wrong problem.
  • Enterprise: Most enterprise products do not offer free trials, opting to offer demos instead. If your primary call to action is a demo, you should not allocate more than about 30% of your content efforts to top-of-funnel traffic. You don’t need a high volume of traffic—you need highly qualified visitors. Work closely with sales and your paid media team to find topics that address problems in the middle and the bottom of the funnel.

This is something that content creators seem to struggle with. If you’re a content creator, this is an opportunity to learn some business strategy. Understand very clearly where the money comes from, then position your content as close as possible. Don’t simply write top-of-funnel content because it’s what you’re used to.

Content promotion is all but dead.

“We’re having trouble getting eyeballs on our content.”

This is extremely common, thanks to the law of shitty clickthroughs, which states, “Over time, all marketing strategies result in shitty clickthrough rates.” All channels decay, meaning they become far less effective as more marketers capitalize on them. The result is that many marketers, content marketers among them, are constantly chasing the tactic of the month.

There are so many content promotion tactics that have come and gone over the years: gaming communities by getting your coworkers to up vote, swapping guest blog posts, begging curators to include posts in their roundups, etc. Instead of chasing the latest content-promotion tactic, we recommend investing in channels that you own.

  • Personal brands: This is increasingly important because influential individuals can amass huge social media and email followings. These followers tend to be more engaged than your average blog reader and are more likely to follow an individual than a company. Growing the personal brands of the people in your company isn’t always a perfect strategy, but if you’re inclined to try it, we’ll encourage it.
  • Organic traffic: There has never been a cheaper, more reliable form of traffic. If you do nothing else, invest in growing your organic presence. Not only does it bring in more qualified traffic, but it boosts other important metrics as a by-product.
  • Email: An email list is a powerful owned channel. It’s similar to organic traffic in that it compounds. It can also take a long time to grow, but it’s worth it.

You are your promotion channels. It takes time to build your foundation, but it’s a much better use of time than any one-off gimmick to bring in new visitors.

See the Forest and the Trees

It may be a consolation to know that your content problems are similar to the ones that most other SaaS companies have. It can be really helpful to get to know your peers at other companies via Twitter, Slack groups, events, or other networking opportunities. It’s likely that you’ve each solved problems that the other is currently facing.

If you are heads-down writing, make sure you’re occasionally taking a break to see the bigger picture. And if you’re always thinking about your big-picture strategy, make time to talk to your content team about their day-to-day challenges. Everyone will be happier if you’re on the same page.