The anatomy of a failed content marketing project

Most people will talk about their success stories when it comes to content marketing. Here’s why a content marketing project went wrong.


Most people will talk about their success stories when it comes to content marketing. However, sometimes things don’t turn out as you had planned, as guest writer Alex Clifford explains.

“A year ago, fresh out of school, I persuaded a financial advice firm my parents had used to give me a content marketing job.

Their products were fantastic: they offered some brilliant overseas investments which had decent returns and saved people tax.  What they were offering was a step above anything available in the UK market. I thought this was the perfect opportunity to scale a business by using content marketing. Unfortunately it didn’t work out as planned and there were a few reasons why.

Lack of understanding

I had to explain to the boss why they needed some high-quality content. People won’t just visit your website cold, make a phone call, arrange a meeting and hand over their life savings as he thought.

People visit websites cold, then they get warm with content. They become leads once they give you their email address. Then when they’re ready to buy, they will – in their own time. This lack of understanding was probably the biggest pitfall from the start.

Distance from the project

If you want content for your website, it’s best to stay close to it. You’re the expert. You know what you’re talking about. You’re the person who does things, every day. You can’t farm it all out to somebody else – they’ll need a bit of help.

What went wrong with this project is we were too distant. I’d ask my boss questions, and he wouldn’t email back for 3 days, if at all. This meant that the cost of information was really high! And I’d have to Google things, and make assumptions. It ultimately meant I was creating content which was sometimes less than accurate.

Keeping information to yourself

Nobody is going to invite you to their house to discuss investments if they don’t know anything about them, or you. My boss told me just to write “phone client services for more information”, but phoning is a big mental commitment. I explained how nobody is at that phone call stage until they really want to buy. It fell on deaf ears.

I wanted to go into all the pinickity detail about each product – explaining all the details of why something is better, and what could could go right/wrong with an investment. My boss was reluctant to because he didn’t want to give away too much information.

As a salesman he wanted to feel like he had the knowledge and the power. But sales has changed. If we don’t tell you about a product, somebody else will. And you certainly won’t phone up to ask.

We-ing all over the place


My boss wanted me to ‘we’ all over the place. For him it was all ‘we offer these products’, ‘we are Europe’s market-leaders in this’, ‘we provide that’.

I had to ask him: where is the ‘you’? I couldn’t get him to understand that you’re having a conversation with someone online with your content. It’s not about being self-oriented. You’re not massaging your ego or bragging. You have to talk to them – in a way you’d want to be spoken to.

Being unrealistic about results

I’ll be honest, I over-promised. It was my first job. I pitched too hard to him when I started and I didn’t really know the nature of the market. I think the conversation went something along the lines of: “Yeah, we just need to put up a few blog articles, be bold and get some press coverage, then we’ll have hundreds of new customers.”

In hindsight, I should have talked about the content generating a certain amount of leads. Then we need to nurture those leads. Then those leads would have converted into customers several months or years later.

Investments have a very long sales cycle – as I realised later on. It takes a long time in order to get people to trust you, and since I didn’t know this at the time, I gave him unrealistic expectations.

Not challenging anybody

You should be bold with your content marketing. I wanted to write something like: “Your pension is crap,” but he was very conservative. If your product is better than others on the market I think you should challenge people. In The Challenger Saleone of the best sales books I’ve read – the authors show that salespeople who challenge buyers are the top performers. The same principle applies with content. Educate people, make them think and challenge them – they’ll buy because you’re not aggressively selling, you’re teaching something fresh.

At the end of the day

Whether I was fired, or I quit, I don’t really remember. But I do remember that the project was a bit of a flop. It was partly my fault for over-promising before really knowing the market. It was partly his fault for being stubborn, unavailable when I needed help and a bit stuffy.

Sales and marketing have changed forever with the internet. This was a case of an old-school, hard-sell, corporatey business trying to use those same tactics online. A friendly, soft-sell, content-heavy approach is what they needed. Unfortunately I couldn’t persuade them to our way of thinking, so it was destined to fail.

If you’re buying into content marketing, you need the right culture. You need to be prepared to help other people, and be friendly and helpful. If you get this right you’ll see the stellar results that content marketing can deliver, as Sonja and Sharon here at Valuable Content will attest.”

About Alex

Alex Clifford is a freelance content marketer and writer for hire. He has worked with a financial advice company and technology companies including Virally and Kapost; he’s written for the Content Marketing Institute and has also written a book (and he’s only 19 years old – wow!) Alex is available for hire until January 2014 where he will be heading on the Uncollege gap year program. You can see his portfolio here.

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  1. Mark Corderoy

    Congratulations on a refreshingly honest review of a ‘problem’ project. It is often easier to learn from failed projects than successful projects. Thanks for sharing.

  2. Sonja Jefferson

    Thanks so much for your honesty Alex. You make some really important points there and I’m sorry this particular project didn’t work out for you.

    As you rightly point out, content marketing is NOT easy.

    Success starts with the right attitude (help, don’t sell – in a spirit of generosity); it is fuelled by the right content (valuable and client-focused, never self-oriented); it can only work with top-team involvement and input from the technical experts on the ground (for it’s their knowledge that must be turned into valuable content!); and it relies on putting the right system in place – one that goes far wider than just creating a few blog posts.

    With these elements in place inbound leads will really flow. As content marketers we have to be very careful to educate clients on the hard work it will take to get success.

    Thanks very much for the excellent article.


  3. Heather Townsend

    Yes, an excellent article – and one which shines a light on why so many companies fail to really leverage their content and their investment in social media.
    Just today I have heard about a company of IFAs who have been ahead of the market place with their investment in social media. In fact, they are regularly in demand to talk about how other professionals can use social media to help attract new business. Their blog is absolutely humming and gets shed loads of traffic.
    However, because someone somewhere doesn’t understand how buyers behaviours have changed, or how to leverage their content, or how to nurture their blog readership, (Which this blog explains very well) they have taken the decision that only people who have registered are now able to read their blog.
    I hope they revisit this decision before they find that they have ripped the heart and soul out of the marketing collateral.

  4. Alex Clifford

    You’re right Heather – it’s frustrating when something like that happens. It just takes a few bad decisions about things like gating content, withholding information and being stuffy… to put a dampener on the amount of clients you’ll generate with content.

    Hopefully that someone in that IFA business will realise that before it’s too late.

  5. Bill Maryon

    Very good Alex. It’s odd that these IFA’s (who are mainly salesmen rather than technicians) accept that building relationships in the physical world is a successful strategy for selling, but forget (or can’t even imagine) that this also applies in the digital world. Strange lack of imagination on their part.

  6. Sharon Tanton

    Thanks Bill, good point. You’d be surprised (or maybe you wouldn’t!) how many people still see the digital world as a place primarily to SELL, and not as a place to build relationships.


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