Content marketing is all the rage. But everything online is some form of content or another. That means all online marketing is content marketing. And that's the source of a big problem. Much of this effort is based on some big assumptions that may are largely wrong.

Tony Haile, CEO of Web analytics company Chartbeat, recently listed a set of Web myths that are holding back media companies. But with online marketing, every business either is a media company, at least in some sense, or is dealing with one for advertising. Here are the problems you face (and you'll want to read the original for more details):

No one reads what you write.

According to Haile, 55 percent of people who click a link to a media company spend 15 seconds or less on the page. Tighten that up to only article pages, and still a third of people don't last longer than a quarter minute. So, technically, it's not that no one reads what you write, but a whole lot probably don't read a good chunk of what you've written. Even if you're good at getting attention with clicky headlines, too many people wander away.

No one reads what they share.

This seems counterintuitive. It might seem more reasonable to assume that a well-shared article would be well-read. After all, visits are a product of a social media endorsement. But Chartbeat found zero relationship between how much a piece is shared and how well it's read.

Going beyond Chartbeat's info for a moment, consider something I brought up recently: Few things actually go viral. One-to-many effects are usually the source of big attention, so you don't have that chain of people carefully considering something and only then passing it on. Then there is the factor that people pass on things they don't read. Although I don't have data to show this, my suspicion is that people often retransmit headlines that strike an emotional chord. The content of the link is superfluous.

Expectations of advertising are upside down.

Native advertising, in which a marketing message is built to read and seem like an article, works relatively poorly. Less than a quarter of people landing on native ads scrolled down the page at all, compared to 71 percent for normal content. Many companies are wasting their time because the content that they either create or pay to have written for them is too flat to grab the interest of readers after they've taken the trouble to click a link. In short, too often native ads do diddly.

At the same time, the rumors of the death of banner ad effectiveness is like most of the celebrity-has-died rumors you hear online: wrong. Oh, the days of rampant click-through are all over. But apparently they can serve well to help increase brand advertising, if the creative is good enough and if the person is on the page for a long-enough period of time (20 seconds makes someone 20 percent to 30 percent more likely to recall the ad).

What you can do about it

Those are some real problems, but they also suggest actions to take for marketing content that will dazzle your customers:

  1. Specific and meaningful content--What you need is to engage people, not just catch their eye for a moment. So, whatever form you use, make sure you speak to the right audience and provide something with substance. That means avoid things that are overly tidy, bright, and happy. Be real with people. You're better off gaining a prospect's or customer's respect rather than tricking them into doing business with you. Giving respect helps gain it. So give something meaningful.
  2. Look at the right metrics for success--Forget the fashionable and be wary of those internally or externally who try to sell it to you. Find out what actually matters to how your marketing must perform. For example, social media is clearly important for having conversations with your customers. But, as the figures show, it doesn't necessarily reflect how engaging your material is. For that matter, engagement figures like time on page don't tell the whole story either. Maybe people are incredulous and outraged at what they perceive as stupidity. Do you know how well readers convert into customers? There is no single easy-to-get number that tells you everything.
  3. Use the right format for the right reason--Not all forms of content are for the same or equal use. For example, I was discussing today with a client about how to use an image to emotionally convey much of what a large company wanted to convey with words. Then again, a huge overly-busy infographic can be off-putting. A banner ad might not work well in direct marketing but could support a brand campaign (if that's really what your company should be doing).

It's time to cast layers of assumptions aside and look at what really happens on the Web. The more you understand your customers, how they react, and what they want, the better you will be able to converse with them.