Mark Schaefer is a globally-recognized blogger, speaker, educator, consultant and leader of the blog {grow}—one of the top marketing blogs in the world.

Mark Schaefer {grow} Blog Logo

Between numerous accomplishments such as being an internationally acclaimed marketing expert and influencer to teaching at Rutgers University and writing five best-selling books (to name a few), Schaefer has quickly become recognized as a content marketing powerhouse—and PowerPublish was lucky enough to sit down with him for some of his expert insights.

Find out what Schaefer had to say about journalism, branding and how to not only survive in this digital age but rise above the rest.

The Tipping Point of “Content Shock”

PowerPublish: One of the concepts you’re most known for is the term “content shock.” For those who don’t know, it’s the idea that we soon will be (if we’re not already) creating more content than we can possibly consume. When that tipping point does happen, you predicted several specific consequences. How are you seeing these play out today?

I think we’re absolutely at that point, or maybe even beyond that point. I know a lot of people regarded this as sort of a controversial idea—that we would start to fill up niches with so much content that it would drive the cost of successful content marketing up, because either we’d have to compete with better content, or we’d have to promote it more—but, in either case, the cost is going to go up, and I didn’t really regard that as controversial at all.

I think that, when there’s too much of anything, whether it’s in a human system or a natural system or an economic system, then the game has to change.

And I think that’s where we are in the content marketing world; things don’t work the way they used to because there’s too much “stuff” and it takes more effort to compete.

The Changing Economics of Content Image

Source: {grow}

PowerPublish: With that, do you think content still has a fighting chance based on its merits? Or do we need to do more than just produce great content for it to get noticed?

Well, it depends. And I think the important thing to realize (and what most marketers are missing today) is that the first step in content marketing is not content.

The solution to our problems is not starting a blog or a podcast or a series of white papers. Instead, we have to do an assessment to see what the information density in our niche is, what are our competitors already doing and what are our customers already consuming. We have to look at what our options are to maneuver because we can’t keep doing more of the same—that just creates more content and makes the problem even worse.

There are lots of opportunities out there, but you have to find out how you can uniquely maneuver in your business niche and not just contribute to the problem even more.

PowerPublish: As these trends continue, what will be the common attributes of the best performing marketing content (from say, an engagement and SEO perspective) in the future?

Well, it really depends on your goals because there are a lot of different objectives that can be served by content.

Obviously, the first one that comes to people’s minds is sales. We want to convert somehow, but it can be a lot more than that. It can be awareness, it can be raising money for a charity, it could be helping somebody run for office or it could be establishing someone as a thought leader in an industry. So, there are a lot of different ways that content can work for us.

I think the overarching goal for content, in any situation, should have some common aspects or attributes such as relevance, interest, timeliness and entertainment.

Attributes of High-Performing Content Image

1. Relevance

For relevance, you also don’t want to confuse your audience. If you’re trying to teach them about a certain product and then you start writing posts about European history or something, it’s not going to be relevant.

2. Interest

Next, you want it to be interesting, because if it’s interesting, then people will keep coming back. But, once it’s not interesting anymore or once it’s not superior to other content they can find out there, then you’re going to have a hard time.

3. Timeliness

Another question you should ask is if it’s timely. This is an opportunity a lot of businesses really overlook. They develop let’s say a content schedule and then they stick to the schedule without looking around to see what’s going on in the news, what’s going on in the world, what’s going on that our customers might care about that we could comment on it.

4. Entertainment

Finally, if you think about the sort of content that you like to share, there’s probably some entertainment aspect to it. Maybe it was funny, maybe it was thought-provoking or maybe it made you say, “wow.”

Unfortunately, in our companies today, we don’t really think about how we can become more entertaining. We need to put ourselves in the position of the people reading and remember that we like to be entertained.

The Chase Toward A “Marketing Easy Button”

PowerPublish: What do you think about the role that automation (and increasingly, AI), plays in content creation?

Well, undoubtedly it’s going to play a very, very big role. AI is very good at creating content that’s getting better and better all the time, but it also sort of goes against what our customers want.

Now, if AI can help make the content more personal in some way, then I think that’s a good thing. If AI can be more human than the humans in our company, that might be a good thing, too. But, overall, marketers are looking for an easy button there. They want to be as lazy as possible or as cost-efficient as possible, but that’s not necessarily what their customers want.

And that’s one of the biggest hurdles to marketing success today, is that we seem to be on this chase toward the “marketing easy button” that isn’t really going to exist.

As a result, it produces something quite the opposite of what our customers expect—and quite the opposite of what is going to make us stand out in the world today. However, if AI can make us more human, if AI can elicit an emotional connection with our customers or make us distinctive in some way, then yes, it will work. But if it just makes content a commodity, it won’t.

PowerPublish: One piece of feedback that we hear a lot from content creators is the pressure they feel to produce more, more, more. Do you have any advice for content teams as to how to scale up their output without jeopardizing quality or connection with their audience’s needs?

Well, there is an aspect to quantity in this field. Earlier, we talked about the idea of content shock. So, this happens whenever a niche gets filled up and it becomes more difficult to compete.

Now, here’s the irony: If you’re the first one to fill the niche, if you find an open area that’s relatively unsaturated or relatively uncontested, and you fill it up consistently with quality, helpful content, you’re basically creating “content shock” for your competitors. And that’s really the primary goal of content marketing: to dominate the search results, to attract the attention from Google. And one of the ways to do that is to dominate the niche with content. So quantity does play a role in this.

However, you also can’t sacrifice quality. If you’re in an unsaturated niche, then I think the minimum viable content is what I call “Google sufficient.” So if it’s getting you the search results you want, then the quality of your content is working because maybe there are not many other choices.

In the end, the customers are happy to have your content, but once the competition begins, then that’s where content shock starts to occur, and you’re going to have to up the quality of your content. So it is a delicate balance between quantity and quality.

The Disciplines of Journalism in Content

PowerPublish: In your opinion, does successful, engaging content relate to journalism? 

Well, I think journalism and the disciplines in journalism are very important today. A lot of people don’t know this but I was a journalism major, and who would have thought that it would have prepared me so well for the challenges that we face in content marketing today.

So, as a journalist, you have to be able to create a lot and be able to work under pressure. You practice and practice and practice so that you can write good, quality content with a pretty short turnaround—and that’s what news is all about.

I think that the biggest thing we can do today, maybe even the only thing we can do in marketing, is to create this bond with our customers and create an emotional connection that leads to trust. If you can lead your customers to trust you, then maybe they’ll buy from you and maybe even recommend you, creating loyal consumers over time.

Engaging Content and Audience Trust Image

The reason I got into journalism was that I love the people in journalism. They were dedicated to the truth. Maybe they were even a little naive or dreaming that they wanted to change the world and wanted to find the truth. But, in this world of fake news, we need that more and more today.

We need the discipline of journalism. We need to create content that absolutely customers can trust.

There’s a big pool for the type of content that journalists can produce in all types of media today. So I think that the discipline of journalism is very important in whatever kind of content you’re creating.

Average Shares by Content Length Graph Image

Source: {grow}

PowerPublish: Have you seen any journalistic elements enter into content marketing as content becomes more long-form and informative?

Well, I think one of the problems that companies and organizations are having, in general, is that they really don’t have the skillset to create the types of content that can connect with people today. As we’ve talked about with this idea of content shock, if you’re in a very competitive business, you’ve got to create something.

For example, I think about television as a content channel in my hometown of Knoxville, Tennessee. And, in the early days of television, channels were filled with local content. From cooking shows and craft shows to musical variety shows, they were all with local people.

Then, there was basically one sponsor for these shows because, back then, there wasn’t a lot of competition. So, it was easy to get your content on the show because the requirements weren’t very high. You just had to be able to cook something or fix a car or something and then, boom, you had a TV show, and it wasn’t very competitive or very expensive. And, that wasn’t all that long ago.

Popularity of Social Channels Infographic Image

Now, if you look at the history of the country, what does it take to get our attention today? What are the shows the people are talking about? It’s not local cooking shows. It’s not something produced on a local channel. It’s Game of Thrones, right? It’s Breaking Bad. It’s these big iconic shows that almost have a movie-like quality to them. So we see that as the popularity of the channel increases, the content quality has to increase as well.

Read Mark Schaefer’s article, “Why the future of content marketing is revealed in Game of Thrones.”

However, the cost of supporting this is going to increase, as well. And that’s what’s happening in every marketing channel today. As content becomes more popular on Youtube videos and podcasts it gets more competitive. It takes more to stand out. So, you’ve got to be the Game of Thrones in your niche.

I’m not saying you need to be that movie-like quality, but you’ve got to be the best. You’ve got to have the best quality for your industry or for your niche, whatever that is, or you’re not going to make it. You’re not going to stand out.

PowerPublish: What are some of the old-school writing and information-gathering practices that modern content marketers may have lost touch with?

Well, we mentioned earlier that there’s an emphasis on quantity. There’s a pressure on producing more. But, that really doesn’t work anymore.

The biggest problem we’re facing is that content marketing does not work as it did five years ago, and so many people are still running this old playbook. Maybe they went to a webinar three years ago, or maybe they read a blog post five years ago or maybe they went to a conference or something and they think they know how content marketing works—but it doesn’t work that way today at all.

Content is no longer a novelty. You’ve got to approach it sort of in a journalistic way, or at least in the way of a professional content creator, and most companies aren’t doing that. You know, they’ve got Jimmy from the mailroom who’s a Millennial and knows how to use Facebook, and that becomes the content creator, but that is not sufficient today.

You’ve got to up your game, and you’ve got to have a level of professionalism and a level of quality that’s going to help you stand out.

The Search for Truth in Content Marketing

PowerPublish: What’s the single most common mistake you see made, whether it be about resources, workflow, strategy or misunderstanding of practices, that is holding most content marketers back?

I think the biggest idea is that it is similar to what I said in that people are really out of touch with how much the world is changing.

I’m working on a new book that will be out in February called the “Marketing Rebellion.” The idea is that the most human company wins and that’s a powerful statement, so we have to think about that in terms of our content as well.

Our customers are our marketers today, and people are losing faith in companies and brands in advertising. So, we have to think about more than content. If it doesn’t move the economic value of content that’s not seen and shared, the value is zero. So this implies we also have to have a competency in getting the content to move.

What does the content need to do to move?

Number one is going to be great quality. It’s got to be worthy of the conversation. Number two, you’ve got to be connecting with people. You’ve got to show up. You can’t just put content into the world and expect it to move. And then number three, you can’t be sales-y. Instead, you have to be authentically helpful, and that creates a sense of trust because sharing content is a big deal. It’s a very intimate decision because these people who share content, it’s an extension of who they are. It’s an extension of their personal brand.

So, this is a very, very big decision for people to share content, but we have no choice. We have to find ways to get the content to move. And, if you have that mindset in your content marketing strategy, it will drive the right behaviors.

How can we get the content to move?

You’ve got to have the quality that’s share-worthy and conversational. You’ve got to be engaging with people and rewarding the people who are sharing your content. For example, I go out there and asked companies: “Do you know who’s sharing your content by name?” Because those are your marketers.

So, in the end, we need to ask ourselves:

  • Are we being helpful?
  • Are we being authentic?
  • Are we adding value to our customers instead of being me-centric and talking all about us?

PowerPublish: It’s easy for us to say: “Okay, so the problem is connecting with our customers and the solution is getting to know them better,” but what do you think the first steps look like? Are there any resources that our audience could find to better engage with their consumers or “get to know them better”?

As we discussed earlier, the first step is to do an assessment of finding out what is the current situation in your niche.

I wrote a book called “The Content Code,” which is all about finding out how we get our content to move. How do we do that assessment, and how do we start to create content that really ignites? Because that’s the value of content marketing—it’s not in the content; it’s in the transmission. So, first, we need to get comfortable with asking: “What kind of content do we need to make that’s going to move?”

I think the other thing is to just get out there and talk to customers and find out what’s going on. What are their needs? What can you do to help them have a happier, healthier life? Or, depending on what you’re selling, how can you help them make money, help them save money or help them be more entertained? I think that will give you a good idea and a good foundation for where you need to go with your content marketing.

PowerPublish: Your book “KNOWN” is all about “personal branding in the digital age.” How should brands go about building practical and humanistic approaches to marketing?

Well, that’s a very interesting question, and as I start to think about this, what I realize is that in the future, this idea of personal branding is going to be more important for corporate branding.

When I was a little boy, the only way that a brand could connect to my family and me was through advertising in a newspaper, because every family had a paper newspaper filled with ads or magazines or radio or television or something like that. But, today, we don’t have as many opportunities to see those ads.

So, for example, I watch more television than I’ve ever watched in my life, but I hardly ever see an ad because it’s streaming on TV or on Netflix or Amazon. I also listen to the radio all the time, and I never hear ads because I’m listening to a podcast, an audiobook or a streaming service I subscribe to for newspapers. I see some ads in the digital versions of the newspapers, but nothing like you’d see in the paper newspapers, and about one-third of Americans today have ad blockers on their smart devices.

For that reason, my personal advertising consumption is down 95 percent in the last five years, and I’m sure I’m not alone.

So if we don’t trust companies, if we don’t trust brands, if we don’t trust ads or don’t even see ads, who do we trust? We trust people. We trust our friends. We trust our family. We trust influencers.

The Importance of Influencers

I know a lot of people roll their eyes when you say influencers, but influencers are trusted experts and friends, and they are people that we pay attention to. These are human impressions, it’s what we hear from our friends; it’s what we see being shared on social media. Even if it’s just a review, we will trust a review from a stranger more than will trust an advertisement from a company.

So, it gets back down to this idea that it’s not just the content, it’s how do we get that content to move through these trusted friends? It’s the transmission in these human impressions. It’s human-generated marketing that’s going to lead us into the future of marketing success.

PowerPublish: In addition to that, what other trends do you think we’ll see in the next 6-12 months? If you had a say in things, what are the trends you would like to see grow in popularity if any?

Well, I think there’s really one mega trend that answers all of those questions, and I don’t want to be repetitive, but I think it’s just the truth.

It’s this idea of content shock because all the research and statistics show that the number of videos and blog posts and even news articles are just increasing at an incredible pace and all that content is competition for our attention.

So this is like a big hammer pounding on a Forge. This trend of information density and this increased competition for attention—it’s going to impact our strategies, it’s going to impact the type of content we produce and the quality of content we produce. It’s even going to impact the skillsets of the people that we hire. We talked about the need to have a journalistic approach to content these days, and that’s the trend. It’s going to impact everything we do in marketing.

Now, some of the implications are that it’s going to cost more and we’re going to have to be more creative and more inventive. We’re going to have to look for new types of content that could get people’s attention. We’re going to have to get smarter around strategies to move the content.

These ideas that I talked about in “Content Code” include six major strategies on how we can get our content to move, and that’s where the value of content marketing is—and we have to master that.

The Power of Personal Branding

PowerPublish: Your bio mentions that you are the seventh-most mentioned person by CMO’s on Twitter and among the Top 10 most retweeted marketing authorities in the world. What would your advice be to brands looking to foster more social engagement?

Well, I think what brands need to understand, and certainly, something that I recognized early on, is that they are two very different strategies around content.

The first is the one that most people look for—some sort of SEO benefit, some sort of inbound marketing benefit, and you can create content that somehow rises to the top and gets attention from search engines; that will drive traffic to your site.

The truth, however, is that this only impacts a very small percentage of companies. Because if you aren’t number one or two or maybe even three in the search results then it really doesn’t impact your business that much. So, you do have to look at SEO, but it’s a bunch of big angry, powerful dogs fighting over the same bone—they all want the same keywords. If you’re not one of those big powerful dogs, you’ve got to try something else, and that would be my strategy.

I’ve grown a personal brand, but I’m in a very, very competitive field. So, what’s my chance of getting to the top of the SEO results? Zero. So I’ve got to do something else, and that is being an authority and building trust.

Creating Great Content Image

To me, it doesn’t really matter if I rank in the search engine or not because if I create great content and build trust then I don’t have to do marketing anymore because I have fans and the fans do the marketing for me.

So you mentioned I’m one of the most mentioned people by CMO’s, but why? Why would a CMO pay attention to my content?

Because my content, whether it’s a blog or a podcast or a book, I’m not selling anything. I’m not pitching anything. You can’t even find an ad on any of my blog posts. I’m simply trying to help people. I’m trying to teach people. I’m trying to create insights that you can’t find anywhere else. And that’s why people love my content. That’s why people spread my word.

So, as I’m becoming known as people share my content, then people have heard of me, they trust me and they want to hire me. Because of this, I’ve built a very successful business over the last 10 years without spending a dime on advertising, without taking out a single ad, and without really caring about SEO whatsoever—but it’s all come from the content and that’s what a lot of businesses overlook.

If you’re in a saturated niche, and you’re never going to win the SEO results, that doesn’t mean you can’t create business through your content, but you’ve got to go a different way.

PowerPublish: Let’s forget for a second that your blog is now in the top 1 percent of blogs. In the beginning, how did you determine what blog topics you’d write about? Has that process changed over the years? 

My process has definitely changed over the years, mostly because I’ve changed over the years. But I think the biggest change, the biggest insight I’ve had came early on.

Like everybody else who was just starting out (and again, this was 10 years ago where social media was just coming out), it was sort of like the Wild West. So I took a somewhat formal marketing approach. I had my message that I had to craft for my personas which are the ideal customers I’m supposed to be crafting my message for, so after about nine months, two things happened.

Number one, nothing happened. I didn’t have any readers. I didn’t have any blog comments. Nobody was sharing my content. And the second thing that happened is I was getting bored because it’s really difficult crafting these marketing messages for these people that you’ve made up in your head.

So then I said, “I’m just going to write about what I’m interested in. I’m going to write about what I’m passionate about, and I just sort of had the courage to show my personality and to tell my story.” And this is what’s really hard for big companies. But, if you think about it, to be original and to stand out today, we really have no choice. You have to show yourself. You have to show your humanity, your passion, your interests. If you’re happy, say you’re happy. If you’re sad, say you’re sad. Have that courage to add your story to the narrative. It’s really the only way to stand out.

When I see so many blogs from big companies today, you don’t even know who wrote it. Why? I want to know who wrote it. I want to see their smiling face. I want to see their personality. It’s hard to build an emotional connection to a logo or a website or branded content. We can really only build an emotional connection to a person. So, that was really a turning point for me.

Once I started to show up as a person, something magical happened. Instead of me finding my target market, my target market found me and that made all the difference. The truth is, nobody hands you anything these days. But here’s the power that we all have today: We don’t have to wait to be picked. We can pick ourselves.

PowerPublish: What do you wish you had known when you first started your career?

I think the biggest lesson I’ve learned is humility. Which I guess is normal, but when I was in my twenties and shooting up the corporate ladder, I really thought I was something else. So if I could talk to my 20-or-25-year-old self now, I would just say: “You really didn’t know much at all.” And, today, that’s something I always try to emphasize.

People might refer to me as an expert or guru, and certainly, that is very kind, and I want to be gracious and appreciative of that. But at my heart, I’m a student. I’m just learning like everybody else—and you’ve got to have that humility.

I’m a student, and I want to be a teacher in everything that I do. I want to be generous and help people, and I’m at a great point in my life where I’ve had a great career, and now I can send the elevator back down and help younger people. So I think just being generous and being humble is an important part of life, and it’s definitely been important to me.

When you’re humble and when you’re generous, you really do get it back in so many ways. When someone tells you that you’ve had an impact on their life or an impact on their business—to me, that’s better than money.

More about Mark Schaefer

Mark W. Schaefer is a globally-recognized author, speaker, podcaster, and business consultant who blogs at {grow} — one of the top five marketing blogs of the world. He teaches graduate marketing classes at Rutgers University and has written six best-selling books including The Tao of Twitter (the best-selling book on Twitter in the world) and The Content Code, named by INC magazine as one of the Top five marketing books of the year, and his new book KNOWN: The handbook for building and unleashing your personal brand in the digital age. Mark also wrote the classic first book on influence marketing, Return On Influence. His many global clients include Pfizer, Cisco, Dell, Adidas, and the US Air Force. He has been a keynote speaker at prestigious events all over the world including SXSW, Marketing Summit Tokyo, and the Institute for International and European Affairs. He has appeared as a guest on media channels such as CNN, The Wall Street Journal, The New York Times and CBS News.

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