TrackMaven’s Allen Gannett on How to Fix Your Content Marketing

July 21, 2016

Allen Gannett has been immersed in data-driven marketing since his college days when he launched and sold a small lead generation company that collected student leads via online apps and delivered those leads to traditional colleges. This early experience provided Gannett with a valuable crash course on data-driven marketing, how to cost-effectively acquire traffic, and how to convert that traffic through an efficient sales funnel. Today, as the founder and CEO of TrackMaven, the integrated marketing analytics platform for digital marketers, Gannett is delivering much more sophisticated solutions to savvy marketers across a wide variety of industries.

You might say that Gannett’s TrackMaven journey started right after he finished college and was working simultaneously as the CMO for a venture-backed startup and co-founder of Acceleprise, a B2B-focused accelerator fund. He approached both jobs with a very data-driven mindset, so it wasn’t surprising when he started asking elephant-in-the-room questions about exactly why so many content marketing initiatives fail. According to the 2016 Benchmarks, Budgets, and Trends report for North America from the Content Marketing Institute, only 30% of marketers believe their organizations are effective at content marketing (down from 38% in 2015). Gannett thinks that’s crazy.

Defining Where Content Marketing Breaks Down

“I realized early on that although there’s all this technology and potential, all the marketers I met were really struggling,” Gannett says. “Over and over again, they failed to hit their campaign objectives. I became fascinated with figuring out why there is so much failure in marketing.”

It didn’t take Gannett long to pinpoint where the content marketing process was falling short in his own campaigns and those of his peers. “The way marketers were coming up with new ideas was by sitting around a conference room and brainstorming blindly,” Gannett says. “Someone asks, ‘What should our next whitepaper be on?’ and someone else says, ‘Let’s do it on social media compliance,’ and someone else says. ‘Great idea,’ and then $50,000 or $100,000 later you’ve spent all kinds of time and resources to write, design, edit, proofread, publish, and promote this thing; and then – six months later – people are surprised that it didn’t work.”

The missing piece, Gannett says, is that marketers didn’t have a scientific way to identify what their audience actually cares about. “As marketers, we’re incredibly reliant on our gut – on what we feel and think and hope – but this gut-driven, creative-genius model of marketing is fundamentally broken,” Gannett explains. “I wanted to build a different model that was super data- and math-driven, something that allowed marketers to process and synthesize large amounts of data so they could understand what it really meant, thus enabling data-driven marketing decisions.”

Building a Better Way

Gannett started exploring the concept using his own marketing content, competitors, and audience. “I started consuming all the data I could get my hands on and found some really interesting insights,” he recalls. “For example, I ran an analysis on my competitors’ blog post topics and social shares to determine which topics were consistently outperforming the others. Then, for a month, I refocused my blog’s content strategy on those topics and delivered the best performance we’d ever had on the blog.” Gannett’s approach worked. It was predictive and efficient and boosted the success of his content marketing efforts exponentially, but he wasn’t about to stop there. “The results were really valuable,” he says. “But I didn’t want to have to spend four to five hours each week doing the research manually.”

Long story short, Gannett looked for a software platform that would automate tracking the performance of his competitors’ content, but couldn’t find anything that suited his needs. He launched TrackMaven in June 2013 and the company has been thriving since. Clearly, he wasn’t the only marketer who needed this kind of tool. In 2015, revenue was up 170% and the team landed approximately $25 million in capital. From a fairly modest initial idea, TrackMaven has evolved to become a powerful predictive analytics platform for marketers.

“We want to consume all your marketing data, but not just give you reports and visualizations and dashboards. We want to actually tell you what you should be doing differently based on the data,” Gannett says. “We provide the next layer – a machine version of a data analyst who can tell you which content you should write, which ads you should run on social, and all kinds of other actionable details.”

Getting Clear on The Key to Success: Data-Driven

“Marketing tends to move in trend waves,” Gannett says. “A few years ago we had the social wave, now I’d say we’re ramping up on the influencer wave, and we’re also starting to see a decline on the content marketing wave.” But, that doesn’t mean Gannett believes that content marketing is going away. “We tend to over-associate with these trends,” he explains. “Right now, there’s huge tension in the industry over whether or not content marketing is predominantly a paid or organic tactic. I tend to think more practically and pragmatically. We need to worry less about the labels and acknowledge that there’s a lot of gray area.”

That said, the one position on which Gannett is black-and-white is that gut-driven marketing doesn’t work and data-driven marketing does. “Data-driven marketing has historically proven itself to work,” he says simply. “I’m constantly amazed by how many gigantic companies still rely on a gut-driven marketing methodology. Sure, they ascribe to all the best practices about testing and optimizing your content, but that’s just a nice way of saying you’re going to try random stuff and hope it works – not much better than throwing spaghetti against the wall.”

Instead, Gannett is on a mission to convince marketers that there’s a better way. “What I’m suggesting,” he says, “is that marketers need to make a fundamental change to their approach: before you write or design anything, look at the data first to understand who the audience is, what they want, and what they care about right now.” Gannett likens this shift in perspective to the old adage, measure twice, cut once. “Don’t just cut a random line,” he says. “It’s an important nuance to understand. This isn’t about running a campaign based on your gut and then optimizing it. This is about looking at the numbers first to create truly data-driven campaigns that are tailored to your audience’s exact needs.”

Making Strides & Looking Ahead

Currently, TrackMaven consumes data from about fifteen different channels. “We have all the major social channels and can pull in your LinkedIn content, your blog, some web traffic/SEO data, and any earned media mentions your company is getting,” Gannett says. “But then we use the tool in content discovery to determine which topics are outperforming in the market right now. We can also look at things like seasonality to see which topics were performing well this time last year. And all of this happens in literally a matter of seconds.”

Perhaps what excites Gannett most is the breadth and depth of the data sources companies can use to build their data-driven marketing methodology. “We obviously focus on first-party data and competitive data,” he says. “But you can also look at things like audience data (what your audience is looking at) via social media listening or pull in large-scale demographic trends.” As Gannett points out, many of the most successful marketers – companies like the Procter & Gambles of the world – already employ these kinds of data-driven strategies to define their marketing messages and content.

Looking ahead to the future, Gannett anticipates that machine learning and artificial intelligence (AI) will become more widely applied in the marketing industry, but not as a silver bullet. “Marketers have to be able to consume large amounts of data, synthesize it, and make decisions about their content and creative strategy,” he says. “Obviously, the more inputs you have, the more accurate and precise you can be. I don’t think, however, that you’ll ever be able to just click a button and have all your marketing happen.”

Instead, Gannett suggests that the role of these technologies will be to make data more accessible to marketers by giving them the tools to consume and analyze millions of data points in an efficient and actionable way. “My hope and belief is that predictive analytics will usher in the next wave of marketing: data-driven marketing,” Gannett says. “I don’t think it’s a replacement for what we have now. I think it’s something that will enable marketers to be more creative and more human because – armed with actual data insights – they’ll have higher odds of success.”