Content Marketing’s Leadership Problem and the Need for More “Guts”

by Marcus Sheridan

leadershipFor just over 2 years now, I’ve been on a quest to create stories beyond that of River Pools–one where companies (no matter the size) were able to create exceptional results through inbound and content marketing.

This journey, for me, has been an interesting ride to say it in the least. For some folks, like those at Block Imaging, Yale Appliance, Ongoing Operations, Health Catalyst, and many others–I’ve been able to watch digital magic occur with each new blog post and piece of content.

But for others, I have seen myself struggle to help companies take their digital marketing efforts to the next level, as momentum never seemed to formulate.

What Leadership Looks Like in Content Marketing

As I sit back and compare both groups, there is an obvious trait that I simply can’t ignore–and that’s Leadership. In fact, I’d say leadership is easily the most important requisite I’ve found in terms of a company’s ability to do extraordinary things online.

And when it comes to leadership and content marketing success, the only way I’ve seen companies reach amazing levels is by a “top down” approach. In other words, when a company CEO or management team doesn’t care about content marketing, the results generally fall flat (i.e. They Stink). This is also why there is a literal glut of frustrated marketers around the world, wanting to embrace the right way of  marketing while their boss or CEO can’t see the forest through the trees.

But there is more to it than just “caring about” or “buying in” to content marketing. As a major part of this “leadership” we’re talking about, the person calling the shots needs to have guts. (bravery,audacity, and tenacity)

And when I say guts, I means LOTS of guts.


Because so many industries are becoming more and more inundated in content (be it text, video, audio etc.) there is one major component that makes a company’s ability to stand out and rise above the noise, and that is their willingness to have an opinion.

Sounds simple? Yes, it certainly does, but a shocking majority of businesses and corporations in this world have been taught NOT to have opinions. Rather, their culture is one of just go with the flow, don’t ruffle any feathers, and stay within the lines.

Depressing, isn’t it?

I submit this mentality will soon lead to a whole lot of nothing with respect to content marketing. No big results. No impact on the bottom line. Nothing.

You may be asking yourself what I  mean by “have an opinion,” so here are a few examples:

  • You’re willing to talk about what’s good AND bad about your industry.
  • You’re willing to address the competition. (see Samsung)
  • You’re willing to call a spade a spade.
  • You’re willing to change your opinion when necessary.
  • You’re willing to take a stand when it’s right.
  • You’re willing to show your secret sauce…even though there really is no such thing.
  • You’re willing to change the way it’s always been done because the way it has always been done makes no sense. (see Carmax)

How many companies can you name that actually exhibit all of these traits? Chances are, you’d be lucky to name 1 or 2.

If a company does have these characteristics, I’m not saying they’re negative, attacking,  or “the blogger that cried wolf.”

Rather, they’re simply willing to address subjects no one else seems to be willing to talk about–all because they have a clear vision and understanding of what consumers truly want.

This is exactly why few companies experience exponential revenue and brand growth due to their content marketing efforts, as they’re too busy living in the world of gray (or fear) to make folks stop in their tracks and say, “Wow, it’s about time someone started talking about this.”

What this all Means

So what does all of this mean? In my mind, the future of this industry looks like this:

90% of companies will continue to “play it safe”– not realizing what they’re actually doing is losing ground and market-share. For many of these organizations, the end result will be someone in management saying, “Yeah, we tried content marketing, but it didn’t work.”

10% of companies will have gutsy leadership (w/ respect to content marketing), separating themselves from the pack–causing the competition to scratch their heads (and possible gnash their teeth) as consumers everywhere give their “trust” to the ones that were willing to make *them* their guiding light.

What say you?

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{ 26 comments… read them below or add one }

Max Traylor November 19, 2013 at 8:42 am

I have lots of trouble with clients that get paranoid every time something happens in their industry. I am a firm believer that having an opinion on industry events and trending topics is a must if you are going to break through the noise out there.

You talked about the “noise” in various industries rich with content/inbound marketing competition, you called it something cooler, but anyway, your making a similar point here.

Your opinion makes you unique. Without one you have no chance of causing a reaction. Even if you get mixed reactions from your audience… at least you can say you got in there and added some value to the conversation.

Great article Marcus.


Marcus Sheridan November 19, 2013 at 1:33 pm

Nice memory Max–I call it “CSI”–which is an industry’s “content saturation index,” something that is going up all the time.

Great leadership is the best way to counteract CSI, but it’s unfortunately all too rare.

Good seeing you man,



Chris MacEachern November 19, 2013 at 12:40 pm

Thanks for this right-on-target article, Marcus. The current pervasive atmosphere of politcal correctness does encourage bland content. Also, the rapid growth of the content mills and spinning software offers badly written regurgitated pieces. How refreshing it is when a company will assert an opinion or take a stand.

Terrific article!


Marcus Sheridan November 19, 2013 at 1:31 pm

Chris, appreciate the kind words and yes, this subject goes way beyond “content marketing”—that’s for sure.

I guess that also means there are more opportunities for those actually will to stand up. :-)




Ruth Zive November 19, 2013 at 1:56 pm

Marcus, great article. And I agree with your conclusion about top down leadership and buy in when it comes to content marketing. However – especially given your 90/10 analysis, I’m going to challenge your conclusion last week that there is no opportunity for the late comers to get in on the game. No doubt that most companies simply SUCK at content marketing. So a more assertive message, more thoughtful positioning…heck, a provocative opinion…surely that’s going to give folks an edge?

You see, I can’t shake your opinion that it’s a lost cause for those of us that didn’t blaze the trail in our industry relative to content marketing. I still see lots of opportunity for excellence (in a sea of abysmal blah). Hoping you agree.


Marcus Sheridan November 19, 2013 at 2:01 pm

Hey Ruth, so glad you stopped by. Please understand last week’s article wasn’t a “we’re all screwed” article.

It was simply saying, “The later you get in the game, the harder it’s going to be, when means there is a huge competitive advantage for early entries.”

There will be outliers and such, no doubt–but you must agree that it’s definitively more difficult to make waves when you show up so late to the party…no? :-)


Ruth Zive November 19, 2013 at 2:08 pm

I hear ya. Definitely harder to make waves when you show up late to the party – unless everyone at the party is a major SNOOZE! Which is sort of your point in this post, I think. Most companies are doing a crappy job at content marketing. Opinions are either non existent or very wishy washy. In fact, very few folks are making any noise at all.

Sometimes, the life of the party arrives late and shakes things up big time. That’s my specialty :).


Laura Click November 19, 2013 at 2:13 pm

Right there with you on this, Marcus. And, I don’t think this just applies to content marketing – it really applies to business and marketing in general. The businesses that dare to take a stand and be different are the ones that will stand out – and ultimately, succeed. How many extraordinary businesses do you know of got that way by playing it safe?


Adam November 22, 2013 at 6:02 pm

Laura, I couldn’t agree more. Look at Richard Branson of Virgin media empire. His fame came from being gutsy and taking risks. He’s known as the “Bad Boy of Business” because he doesn’t follow the norm. Instead he uses tested practices that he knows works because he was willing to go against the grain.


Marcus Sheridan November 25, 2013 at 8:26 am

Great example Adam.


Marcus Sheridan November 25, 2013 at 8:32 am

Amen to that Laura, this is wayyyy more than content marketing. :-)

Hope you have a wonderful week my friend!



Don Stanley November 19, 2013 at 2:54 pm

Right on brother … time to “burn the boats” as Andy Andrews would say. I have to admit the “go with the flow”, “safe harbor” thing still lures me in. Maybe it’s the academic portion of my brain, maybe I am sometimes just chicken (very unRhino like I must admit ;-). But with guidance from folks like you, I’m building the confidence to have an opinion for valid reasons, share it with confidence and conviction.

Quick question, based on your post last week, in a high CSI industry, are there recommended strategies for being in the 10%?

Keep changing the world bro!


Siddharth Sharma November 19, 2013 at 10:26 pm

Content marketing leadership is most important for every one. this is well written a great article on this ropic. I’m glad to see you here! finally today i learn many tips and kind useful information . That’s very awesome dear. Thanks to write on this topic..



David Zadareky November 20, 2013 at 8:43 am

If you operate in the service sector (such as we do in residential real estate) then you must have an opinion. A consumer can access all the information you know online without you. What makes you valuable is your ability to draw a conclusion from the avalanche of data. Sort it out, have it make sense, and then apply a strategy that helps your client solve their pain. A simple concept but exceedingly hard in reality to execute.

Average is over.

Long live the consumer.

I will add to Marcus’ comments one point. While top down is important, and you won’t get far without executive level buy-in, to succeed as a consumer centric business today you need complete organizational buy-in. Everyone, and I mean everyone has to be on board with the mission and communication strategy. If your operations and service folks don’t talk like your executive and marketing folks you will have a major disconnect on your hand and the consumer will be disappointed and confused.

Part of the leadership courage required from the top down is the willingness to require the entire organization to change. Cutting the dead wood of mindless middle management and lethargic front line staff is scary but required to effect change.

PS – Lions are cool. Duh. ;-)


Marcus Sheridan November 25, 2013 at 8:31 am

Hahaha, David, LOVE this comment and what you’re saying here–especially about the buy in issue. That’s a BIG deal so few are yet paying attention to.

Have a tremendous week man,



Alan | Life's Too Good November 22, 2013 at 6:59 am

Hey Marcus,

I love this discussion – leadership is a subject close to my heart and one I find fascinating (partly because it’s often very misunderstood). What I also find fascinating is how the world is changing so I love how you ended this with a look into the future.

I believe there are several dimensions to this – and several dimensions to the modern business economy, such as trust being as much of a currency as money, reputation being a huge factor and companies no longer having anywhere to hide in terms of what they stand for, their ‘content’ and their reputation. Even if companies choose not to be online for example, all of their customers are and can still talk about them to a wide audience.

I think companies that will do well in the future are therefore companies that not only instill the right culture from the top down, but embrace the fact that the world has shifted significantly so that culture has to be one of collaboration, transparency and a genuine willingness to engage – all of which touches ‘content’ in one way or another.


Marcus Sheridan November 25, 2013 at 8:27 am

Incredilby well said Alan. Love your vision here my man.

Hope your week is a great one!!



Marcus Sheridan November 25, 2013 at 8:27 am

Incredibly well said Alan. Love your vision here my man.

Hope your week is a great one!!



Debra November 24, 2013 at 4:47 am

Excellent post Marcus. I believe that if the CEO isn’t really committed to content marketing they won’t put the structures in place to make sure it happens. I also see companies that are afraid of offending anyone losing market share.
Having an opinion may turn some people off – but they are probably not the people who will stick around as your customers anyway. Better to be honest and say what you think.


Marcus Sheridan November 25, 2013 at 8:25 am

Exactly Debra. Heck, many companies never realize that offending can be a “good” thing—especially when the person clearly is a bad fit.

Have a wonderful week!!



Mitch November 24, 2013 at 5:50 am

I say some of these examples you shared are really good, like taking a stand when it’s right, and calling a spade a spade, admitting your own mistakes and taking responsibility for your actions and products etc ..
this is gives allot of credibility and trust it is truly great,
but in my opinion this whole addressing your competition thing, and showing your secret sauce is really really bad move, and calls desperate.
why give your competitors credits they don’t deserve, when you address your competitors you are promoting them and putting them on the same level as you are not to mention there’s no credibility in what you say anyways.
of-course apple is gonna have negative reviews about sum-sung products, dahh all apple’s reviews about sum-sung are worth nothing and it only shows they are scared of their competition.

your mindset should always be , “this is me, and this is what i can offer you, i don’t care about what other are doing” .
you do not want to create your own demons and you do not wanna promote your competitors, mind your own business.
credibility trust and confidence for your business image are priceless.
Many thanks and Best wishes!


Marcus Sheridan November 25, 2013 at 8:24 am

Mitch, we have a simple philosophy here at The Sales Lion: If a consumer is asking a question, it’s our job not to run from it, but to embrace it and answer it.

Ignoring the consumer, and the competition, may have worked 15 years ago, but times are different today. And with online search the way it is, the company that is willing to hold the most relevant conversations is the one most likely to build their brand, business, and bottom line.

You see Mitch, I’ve followed this methodology with my two companies after originally following yours. Simply put, your methods got terrible results.

The same can be said for my clients. This is why I have countless analytical stats that prove my points.

In today’s world, the ostrich with his head in the sand never wins. Never.



JA November 25, 2013 at 11:00 pm

Marcus –

Once again, great words!

I’ve put your concepts to use (this one especially) in my niche industry and the results have been awesome…

Your concepts have taken my web presence to a new level! Seriously – I didn’t think I could get the results that we’ve gotten since putting your tools in place.
While my niche is small, I’m now feeling like I have a real shot at being an industry leader in what my team does.

In just 2 months, our site has gone from posting its first blog post (ie, non-existent) to showing up on google’s first page for some of our important key words. Crazy. I just found out about the first page rank today.

Our site and our marketing still have a long way to go but I’m thrilled with the results we’ve gotten…and I’m not exaggerating by saying our strategy has come straight from focusing on your concepts.

If I can ever be a voice for you guys or your methods, count me in.


Marcus Sheridan November 27, 2013 at 11:16 am

Love hearing stuff like this JA. Really, it makes my day. :-)

Thrilled for you,



Ryan Hanley December 6, 2013 at 12:59 pm


It’s not enough to simply implement a content marketing strategy anymore. Answering client questions is the baseline. Will we answer clients questions, is like asking, “Will we pick up the telephone when someone calls today?”

To truly separate your business we must be remarkable.

That will mean something different to everyone. I like your word, “Guts.” Take on the topics no one else is willing to have a public opinion on.

Easier said than done. But a must none the less.



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