Once upon a time, there was a little marketer with a big problem. Her sales executives said, "We need more leads." So she bought a big new shiny marketing automation engine . . . .

Stop me if you've heard this one before, but I'm sure we all know the end of the story. The marketing engine didn't live up to expectations because data and content didn't come in the box.

More than ever, marketers view content as the fuel needed to run a powerful revenue generation machine. But the debate over the quality of the content created seems to have reached a fevered pitch. Look no further than posts from SAP's Michael Brenner, Marketo's Jon Miller, UK-based Velocity (the slide show here is a riot!), Dr. Liz Alexander, and SHIFT Communication's Christopher Penn to see the backlash against bad content marketing practices grow.

Why now?  I see four key trends converging on business-to-business marketers that drive interest in, and failure with, content marketing:

  1. Increased buyer sophistication. Gone are the days when sales can show up at the client's door, share a brochure, run through a demo, and start contract negotiations. In this new age of the customer, buyers go online to research and problem-solve and rely on peer networks (traditional and social) to help them out. They have become adept at avoiding marketing messages and more discerning about what they read, watch, and visit.
  2. Underperforming marketing mix. Marketing execs struggle to make sense of a stunning array of digital marketing tactics, few of which seem to stand out from the crowd. But don't blame the tactics — most email, social, mobile, etc., campaigns suffer from irrelevant, uninteresting content used to lure buyers to open, click, or engage.
  3. Rise of marketing automation. Sales demands more pipeline help and the chief financial officer wants proof marketing programs work. Automation gives marketers a start at solving both problems, but not all the answers.
  4. Media fragmentation. Cheap, easy publishing technology pushes many traditional business publications into obscurity as these tools let everyone become an overnight journalist, including many marketing departments. Too bad that journalistic acumen and audience understanding doesn't come along with the software.

These four factors combine to release a flood of company-backed content onto unsuspecting buyers. Marketing leadership looks at the tsunami streaming out corporate doors and says, "We need to make this better."

Enter thought leadership. (Saving content curation as another topic for a later date.)

But here's the problem. There is an awful lot of tired old white papers and trumped up case studies masquerading as thought leadership. It's time for CMOs to get real about content marketing priorities and whether thought leadership should be one of them.

Getting real means understanding that very few ideas or points of view you put out will get picked up by the market and your buyer communities to take on a life of their own. It means deciding if your content publication efforts exist to generate demand, build or change your brand, get your voice heard above the din, or create a provocative unexpected perspective that runs contrary to common practice. The last is the hardest to do.

I'm planning to explore what it takes to produce a persistent thought leadership platform (subscription required) in upcoming research. The key question is: Can CMOs manufacture thought leadership, or is it only earned through the consistent, dedicated pursuit of good editorial publishing that is educational, interesting, and (even) entertaining?

Please feel free to comment here or drop me a note to let me know what you think.