Content marketing is part art, part science. Combine analytics with human creativity and the ideal result is your next viral video or successful e-book. But down here on Earth, it’s rarely that easy. There are budgets, higher-ups, and editorial processes to keep an eye on, so occasionally something slips through the cracks. Many of these content marketing problems come down to the same issues: lack of oversight or critical thinking, fear of failure, etc.

But the more you’re aware of these problems, the better you can navigate around them. In that spirit, here are 10 content marketing lessons we’ve learned the hard way.

1) Question Absolutely Everything

In our eight years as a content marketing agency, we’ve seen everything from headline typos to weak content strategy wreak havoc, all because something went unanalyzed. You don’t have to turn into a full-on conspiracy theorist, but keep a sharp critical eye at all times.

We once had a beautifully designed infographic that was ready to be sent to the client. On a hunch, I did one more edit pass to confirm there were no stray typos. After catching a missing data point (mistake one), I went to the listed source to find it. The source was an article from a major publication, quoting a study (mistake two: always use the primary source!).

After poking through the study, I found that the data and associated insights quoted in the major publication’s article were not only incorrect but stated the exact opposite conclusion than the actual data presented (mistake three). Naturally, we had to adjust and redesign the infographic, costing more time and money.


Whether it’s a discussion about project objectives, how you will measure a project’s success, or the format chosen, thinking outside yourself can save you tons of heartache down the line. stefan-malmsten

Remember, too, that while data is incredibly important, one of the most important content marketing lessons is learning to listen to your gut if something feels a little out of sorts, no matter what stage it’s at.

2) Put Your Audience First

Far too often we’ve made the mistake of getting so excited about an awesome idea that we become more focused on bringing our idea to fruition than bringing the right idea to fruition. All content marketers are guilty of this. We think about what we like or what we want instead of what our audience needs and wants. Or we get sidetracked by industry trends or enamored of new mediums.

The best, most effective content speaks directly to your audience. It solves their problems, aligns with their values, and engages them on a practical and personal level.

10 Content Marketing Lessons We Learned the Hard Way

Before you even start to brainstorm your next project, make sure you have a solid understanding of who your audience is and what they want—whether or not that includes your product. One helpful way to do this is to create marketing personas, which help you identify who you’re speaking to—down to the books they read and the problems they face at work. (Here’s how to create them in under 60 minutes.)


3) Think About Distribution Before Your Idea

Your content needs an audience. Even if it’s a niche audience, finding the right platform that can deliver that content is crucial. Publishers, bloggers, and other influencers can be your secret weapon. But too often we get caught up in our own content goals and big ideas that we forget to consider what publishers might want.

Brands often think they’re creating content when what they’re really creating is thinly veiled sales material (read: lots of logos and product/service mentions). It’s not surprising that these types of projects are mostly met with a big, fat rejection from publishers.


If you want your content to have big reach, think about your target publication. Consider the content subject, tone, voice, and style. Do they publish similar things? Is this relevant? Is there a newsy hook? The more you build relationships with these publishers and influencers, the more you learn what it is they’re really looking for and deliver great ideas they’ll love.

(For tips on building relationships, find out how to promote your content like a content marketing agency.)


4) Fight For Your Ideas

Our extremely successful Child of the ‘90s video for Microsoft/Internet Explorer started out as an infographic project. We had every intention of moving forward with it, but after some deep thinking, we came up with an alternate proposal that we felt better served the brand’s ask. Had we kept quiet and “fulfilled the order,” the company would have lost out on its 48-million-view viral hit.

On the flipside, we once pitched a video concept to a major brand. Although it aligned with their audience, had a fantastic product tie-in, and had a surprise hook that would make it attractive to publishers, the client passed after we argued its case many times. We went forward with their desired concept instead.

Months later a different brand used the same video concept to magnificent results. While it was frustrating (and tempting to pull an “I told you so!”), we took it as validation that, yes, it was a fantastic concept and we were right to have gone to bat for it.

While you should always pick and choose your battles, it is important to fight for what you believe in. It’s not about ego or being right (we strongly believe in being humble); it’s about fighting for and finding the best solution for your problem.


Even if you lose (and sometimes you will), showing that passion and commitment to your work will earn you respect and show clients that you’re passionate about working in their best interests.

5) Select the Right Format

Message is important, but medium is just as important. You may have a great story, but if you don’t choose the right vehicle, it won’t make the impact you want. We’ve seen this a lot. A rich data set is condensed into an e-book when an interactive infographic would have served it better. A client wants an infographic, although a motion graphic could tell a stronger story.

This is especially true considering distribution platforms. Make sure your format works for the content, story, and appropriate channels.

We once created an amazing GIF series that a publisher wanted, but their platform didn’t support the format. All sides were disappointed.


6) Practice Mise En Place

If you’re not familiar, mise en place is a practice employed by chefs. The French phrase translates to “everything in its place,” and for practical application it means preparing as much as you can ahead of time so that everything goes smoothly.

When it comes to content marketing, this applies to absolutely every stage, from ideation, to production, to publishing. In our own experience, we’ve faced various speedbumps that could have been avoided by using this tactic:

  • An uncharged camera battery that delayed production while we ran to buy a new one.
  • A voiceover re-recorded because a client looped in stakeholders after the script was supposedly finalized.
  • An infographic concept changed mid-production after better research surfaced.

This level of preparation is important for everybody. It prevents internal miscommunications. It ensures production goes smoothly. It helps you create better, more effective content. And it helps you distribute that content. (If you need help with strategy, our guides to building a solid content strategy and distribution strategy can save you headaches.)


7) Experiment at Every Stage

One of our five values is Experiment Often. We believe in applying this mentality to everything we do creatively, whether it’s exploring a new format or taking a chance on a different design style. With more and more brands competing in the content space, this is more important than ever.


Content marketing is a crowded space. Innovation and originality play a huge part in successful content. But like lemmings, it seems many brands are in a game of follow the leader. One video goes viral, they want a copycat. One infographic does well, they want five more on the same theme. It feels more comfortable to play it safe, but that also keeps you stagnated.

john-kim asher-rumack

If you never try something new, you’ll never do anything great. Even if you fail, there’s always a lesson somewhere (see: this post).


8) Move Quickly

It’s one thing to have your great idea shot down, it’s another thing to not follow through—or, worse—do so a smidge too late. You know you’re late to the game when you pitch content the day a publisher puts out a similar piece or your competitor puts out something game-changing while you’re still trying to get idea approval from your CMO.

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The news cycle moves at lightning speed. It’s up to you to keep up. Stay educated so that you can be at the forefront of trends and plan ahead so that you can align content with upcoming events.
Our Team

9) Find Joy in Your Project—No Matter What It Is

Not every project is going to be your favorite. You might be uninterested or frustrated that someone vetoed your idea, but that doesn’t mean you can’t find value in it. Maybe the subject is boring, but it allows you to experiment with a new format. Maybe the data is dreary, but you can bring it to life through beautiful data visualization.

Take pride in doing good work. Use every opportunity to stretch your skills and learn something new. The content you create will be better, and your working relationships will benefit, too.


10) Be Critical of Your Process

This is one of the easiest blind spots for everyone. Just because you’ve always done something one way doesn’t mean it’s the best. There are a lot of moving parts to any content marketing machine. Actively improving your processes helps save time, energy, and frustration. It also creates a better working environment for everyone.

For us, that means trying new technologies (we actually have an internal multi-department team that experiments with new apps and things to see if they’re beneficial for the larger team), sharing tools and resources, and having regular conversations about how we might improve, both with clients and our own team. It may be annoying sometimes, but it benefits you in the long run.


Ultimately, building an effective content marketing machine is about testing, tinkering, and moving on.

For more content marketing hacks, check out our best fixes for your content marketing problems.