Why Content Campaigns Fail (6 steps to content that gets results)

When producing content campaigns why does it sometimes fail to get links? Here are the 6 main reasons why your content isn't good enough and how you can improve for greater content success.

You’re thinking about producing a big content campaign but can you justify the spend on an epic hero piece and how can you ensure its success? You love interactive pieces but what can you produce and how can you make sure you get results? What would successful results even look like? Most importantly, how do you avoid a content fail?

What is a content campaign fail?

There are many ways in which content can fail (depending on your objective) but in this instance, for ‘big campaign’ content, a fail is considered a piece of content that doesn’t obtain links from authority sites or have any mentions and shares.

What is a ‘big content campaign’?

Content that is produced within a strategy to gain awareness for a brand or website, is the essence of a ‘content campaign’.

As links have been the metric for content campaigns to date, what I am focusing on here is content that has the specific aim of gaining links from media or influential hub sites.

The state of content marketing 2017

Content production is not showing any signs of slowing down. In fact, 79% of content marketers in the UK expect to produce more content in 2017 (CMI), but the consensus is that “We’re spending more but struggling with justification and delivery.” (State of Content Marketing 2017)

Even though ‘content shock’ was first cited by Mark Schafer in 2014, ‘brands as publishers’ are forging ahead and churning out content mostly without consideration for objective, strategy or measured results. From my experience, few have the understanding of how to construct a successful content campaign.

Buzzsumo produced a report back in 2015 that highlighted how 50% of content obtains eight shares or fewer and 75% obtain zero links. And still today, many marketers are struggling to define what makes good content. Surveys show that 65% find it a challenge to produce engaging content and 60% say they can’t produce content consistently.

A prescriptive content process

After specialising in the production of content over the past six years and watching who produces what, I have seen a lot of content successes and fails. Being so focused on this space I have a clear insight into why content fails and how prescriptive content production can be.

However, don’t be fooled into thinking it’s an easy formulaic process – no one gets it right every time.

And that brings us to:

Why do content campaigns fail?

From producing many pieces of content over several years and observations working alongside others, I have distilled what I think are the six predominant reasons why campaigns fail. By trying and doing lots of things I have made mistakes (and achieved big wins) to learn and develop the experience to know what makes and breaks content.

1: You didn’t conduct audience research first

The first question you should ask yourself in any campaign is:

Where do I want my content to be placed?

This is the number one mistake: creating content first and then secondly thinking about where and who to outreach to. Know who and where you want to target for exposure and then create content specifically for that influencer or website. This feeds into your objective and your concepts.

Understand your primary and secondary audience

Predominantly, you want the attention of your influencer or journalist but secondary and just as important, is that you understand what their readership consume and want. You can read in-depth about creating personas here.

After identifying the website you want to gain placement on, take the time to go through it by hand to get a feel for titles and themes. Use Buzzsumo to check share counts and links to top pages.

It’s not about you, avoid self-promotion

Another issue I have dealt with is heavy-handed branding and self-promotional pieces that you can guarantee an influencer will not want to share. Big brands have internal policies and style guides to adhere to but this can impact on quality of concept and production. I’ve had awful situations arise from creating bold concepts to gain attention that initially got approval but after due diligence and several rounds of stakeholder intervention, the concept and the piece of content has become so diluted to be rendered useless and the content bombs. This is a waste of time for everyone.

2: You didn’t have an objective or strategy

Secondary to understanding your audience, I consider the objective to be one of the most important factors in content production and yet it’s so often overlooked. The number of times clients say, I want to produce an interactive piece, and my first response is, why?

The starting point for any campaign should be the end:

What do you want to achieve?

Personally, I am a big believer in ‘doing’ and just trying things to see what works. For content campaigns, if you don’t have an aim then you are shooting with a blindfold on and have little chance of hitting the target. Following on from the first fail of not understanding your audience, you want to know who and where you want exposure from – be strategic about this. Reduce your target and produce focused content just for one media/influential site. Establish contact and build a relationship with this influencer first and get them to buy into your content before you create it.

Why am I doing this?

If you churn out content without a strategy and a goal, then you are throwing your budget away. Tie your content production to specific goals. Big content campaigns are predominantly about links but your content should also tie into wider goals and should have a predetermined user journey to capture and retain traffic. My recommendation is to always be capturing email addresses – a database of ‘opted in’ users is the most valuable marketing asset you can have.

Is the tool right for the objective?

In my experience, a lot of clients take the ‘tool first’ approach and want to produce an interactive map, with no consideration for what their audience want or for a concept. They try to retro fit the concept to the tool. When new ‘tools’ become available, such as 360 video, a flurry of producers will benefit from the novelty value, but without strength of concept to add substance to the piece, it will not be sustained. If you are left with a feeling of where’s the value?, then this is more likely to turn people off than engage them with your content and brand.

How to trust a website

Example, How to Trust a Website

The objective was to achieve links from high authority sites and to engage the demographic of the brand, which was a 35+ female.

When we researched concepts for this piece, 65% of shoppers claimed they could do more to stay safe online. The concept came out of wanting to empower a shopper with enough knowledge of how to stay safe when Christmas shopping. Directed at a user (35+) with little internet understanding and timed for the pre-Christmas season.

We had very fortunate timing just before launch in the wake of a major data security breach at Talk Talk and this had opened a discussion about the safety of entering data online. The timing enabled us to obtain endorsement from Action Fraud and secure links from the police, Crimestoppers, Get Safe Online and 80 other root domains.

Internet awareness day on the 9th February also offered another window that we tapped into.

3: Your concept wasn’t useful, surprising or emotional

Made to Stick, by Chip and Dan Heath, is a book about what makes ideas ‘sticky’ and is well known in my circles for offering insight into how to generate ideas for content campaigns. The premise of the book centres around their acronym of SUCCES:

  • Simple: distilling to the most important idea at the core.
  • Unexpected: the brain is a self-organising pattern maker and something that disrupts that pattern stands out and gets attention.
  • Concrete: to make something be easily described or detected by the human senses.
  • Credible: statistics, testimonials, real life examples and testable credentials.
  • Emotional: make people care and inspire them to act.
  • Stories: it’s proven that it’s easier to retain information delivered as a story.

For content idea generation, I have a simpler acronym of USE:

  • Useful: offer real value to the audience of what they are interested in. For example, ‘how to’ or a curation of niche information.
  • Surprising: disrupting patterns and offering something unexpected will help to get attention. For example, how the information is visually delivered or a twist in the concept.
  • Emotional: recognising and addressing the pain points and the challenges of the audience is most likely to make a connection. For example, what keeps your audience awake at 3am?

Without a strong concept, content has neither anything to offer nor value to an audience or a journalist during outreach. This is a vast subject, so you can read a more in-depth piece about how to generate ideas here.

Creating concepts that will attract and engage your audience is not an easy task. Consider that YouTube alone has 300 hours of video uploaded every minute! We are drowning in the stuff and the probability of having an original idea sits somewhere between slim and not a chance.

My favourite process for creating a unique idea is to combine two random ideas to create a new one. I always cite one of the best combinations of all time: the camera phone. When I was growing up, the notion that a phone would fit in your pocket and combine with a (then film) camera was too remote to imagine. Someone somewhere had the idea that combining the two would be a gimmick to sell more phones. And sell more phones it did!

Steps in the City

Example, Steps in the City

While researching for an idea, I came across an article in the Guardian about how walking was the new jogging. At the time, the craze for fitness bands was in full peak and users were embracing the goal of hitting 10,000 steps a day. Also, I love niche curated walking tours such as graffiti street art walks and all these ideas then began to connect.

The concept that came together from these three random ideas was based on having a ‘fun’ day out whilst at the same time being healthy and achieving a 10,000 steps goal as a side result.

Steps achieved placement on Heart.org.uk (amongst others) and as an evergreen piece of content, can benefit from rounds of promotion annually.

4: You didn’t have a reason for journalists to share

Outreach to journalists is very different to contacting a blogger and it’s taking a while for the SEO industry to catch up with how to work with journalists. I’m not going to go into detail here about how to contact a journalist, as there is so much to say but the main points are:

What’s the story?

The overriding motivation for any journalist is that they want a story for their readers – that’s their job. They don’t care about Buzzfeed-style listicles or quirky quizzes and they don’t care about you or your brand. Simply, they want something unique and newsworthy.

Consider their position and think about how your piece of content can be turned into a story in their media publication. What do you have of unique value to offer?

A journalist will respond to:

  • Unique data and research
  • Surveys that show insights
  • Ground-breaking news (exclusivity)

Once I understood this, it changed my whole approach to generating content ideas.

Email approach

A journalist has little time and is constantly pitched to. They can see through your approach of ‘I read your publication all the time and I think you’re great. Would you share my piece of content all about how great bathrooms are?’. That might seem a little basic but there are a lot of people who simply don’t know how to write outreach emails.

The right topic.

Do your homework on what a journalist covers. Imagine this: you cover sports for a newspaper and get an email pitch to share content about weddings. It might seem obvious but again, writing emails takes time, research and attention to detail.

Blanket emails

If you think sending 200 emails to a list with the only variation being {name} then your outreach approach has a serious problem. Do not blanket email journalists.


If you can gain endorsement for your content, such as the Cats Protection League for a pet-based piece, this can significantly raise the credibility of what you offer and have far more appeal. The endorsement from the police site, Action fraud, significantly helped the ‘How to trust a website’ piece (see example).

Food Allergy

Example, Food allergy

Health is a topic known to be popular for outreach to certain media sites, so we settled on a niche target audience of food allergy sufferers – one in five people have a level of food insensitivity in the UK. The concept was inspired by my own issues with a restricted diet and pre-checking a menu before visiting a restaurant is mandatory for me, to ensure that I can eat something.

In 2014, legislation came into effect that required food businesses to provide allergy information on all food sold unpackaged. We tapped into this information to provide both an allergen food count for brand restaurants in the UK and a resource for anyone with food allergy and diet restrictions.

We fed the campaign with a unique survey conducted from a wide database of the brands and through feedback on social media. This fed into the piece and supported the coverage we achieved.

The objective was to target media links and we secured coverage in the Daily Mail who cited the survey information.

5: You underestimated how much promotion is needed

A content campaign is probably 80/20 – promotion/content – and in my experience, a lot of marketers think it is the other way around. You can have the best piece of content in the world but if you don’t put the investment and effort into the promotion and do it right then you will fail – completely.

From experience, I found that promotion is best delivered on a tiered basis, starting with:

  • Exclusive offering to top-level publications and journalists.
  • Outreach to other influential hub sites.
  • Outreach to mid-level sites.
  • Start social media promotion (non-paid).
  • Start syndication on sites such as Reddit.
  • Start paid social ads and continue rounds when traffic/mentions slow.
  • Outreach to bloggers.
  • Search to pick up non-linking citations and placements.

The rule of promotion is that persistence pays off. Investing in one or two days of outreach on an isolated basis is only going to deliver limited results. Outreach needs to be conducted over weeks and months to keep picking up links and to sustain momentum. An evergreen piece of content can have renewed outreach seasonally and when relevant awareness days are due. A good piece can be outreached over several years to get real value. On this basis, I always think it is best for outreach to be conducted inhouse or a dedicated digital PR person who is constantly monitoring for new opportunities as these can arise all the time.

Note, anyone who offers a placement on their website will most likely want a graphic to use. If you have produced an interactive infographic then supplement production with a static graphic that can be used with outreach.

6: The right content at the wrong time

Ultimately, you can follow all the processes and formulas, and still your content can still fail. This usually happens because of timing:

  • Too much competition from other content
  • You missed the slot for an awareness day
  • A major news event just happened and knocked you out of the schedule
  • A similar idea has just been launched

I have also found that offering seasonal content is not the best approach to take. You are competing against countless other content offerings and also, influencers and journalists will be inundated at peak seasonal times, such as Christmas or the World Cup.

Awareness days however, are a valuable boost to tie into your concept if timed correctly. Keep note of key dates, as these can help to promote content and enable you to revisit evergreen pieces. You can find a useful PR event calendar resource here.


Example, Sport bluff

At the time, Sportbluff was one of my favourite combinations of two random ideas. After searching for ideas around the theme ‘rugby’ I found an article titled ‘Fat lads who played rugby once in school to talk s**t for next six weeks, warns barman’.

This fired off a thought I had, that rugby is a complicated game and for the average person watching in the pub, it’s difficult to follow and to enjoy. A high profile tournament such as the Rugby World Cup raises popular interest and as a result, more people want to watch the game.

The second thought to connect was from one of my favourite episodes in the IT Crowd about a website called ‘Bluffball’, which was all about football parlance.

The focus was to deliver a basic but comprehensive level of the rules of the game, so that a total novice could refer to the site in a pub and follow a game (or just enough to bluff your way through a game).

Unfortunately, the fail was missing the window of opportunity of outreach for the World Cup and therefore not achieving the success the piece could potentially have had. That said, it is an evergreen idea and it can benefit from subsequent rounds of outreach before key tournaments and seasons.

Hopefully, you now have a better understanding of why content campaigns can fail and have a useful input into how you can improve your concepts and approach for greater content success.

Why content campaigns fail takeaways:

  • Understand your audience
  • Know your objective and ask why?
  • Make a ‘sticky’ concept with USE
  • Create a ‘story’ for journalists
  • Be persistent with promotion
  • The right timing

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