If you’ve ever read the “suggested recipe” on a bottle of mustard, it’s always for a casserole that requires three cups of mustard. You can’t exactly expect the mustard guys to encourage you to moderate your mustard intake.

“Really, guys?” you might ask. “I’ve always used a tablespoon of mustard in my vinaigrette.”

“That’s what you’re doing wrong!” they shout. “In fact, the best salad dressing is pure mustard! Just drench that salad in mustard! Your dinner guests will love it!”

Since I run a content marketing company, you probably expect me to say that everyone needs content marketing, and the more the better. We’ve learned over the years, however, that not everyone is ready for content marketing. When we talk to prospective clients, we have a quick checklist that tells us whether their business is ready.

I’m going to devote this blog post, in other words, to turning away potential clients. I’m going to tell you that a tablespoon of mustard is the right amount. Even if we don’t sell as much mustard, I’m confident your salad dressing will taste delicious.

Test #1: Your business relies on website leads.

To invest in content marketing, at least some of your prospective customers should come via the Web, plain and simple. The more your business relies on website leads, the better the fit for content marketing.

This is why lead-based industries like insurance, home improvement, and SaaS businesses are in the sweet spot: they know the cost to acquire and close a lead, and content marketing accelerates their efforts. Also, these customers are usually doing research online, so you need to grab their attention online, when they’re in the process of shopping around.

If your website is more of a “brochure,” if the real selling happens elsewhere, then content marketing is probably not a great fit. For example, brick-and-mortar stores or local service businesses could better spend their money elsewhere. Focus on ways of generating foot traffic, instead of blogging.

Good businesses for content marketing: auto insurance, medical billing software, CRM systems, business phone providers, loan providers, online schools, online healthcare providers.

Bad businesses for content marketing: breakfast cereal, tampons, cash-strapped startups, Etsy shops, local dentists, local auto mechanics, local anything.

Many people start content marketing programs with vague ambitions of “thought leadership” or “useful content,” but as soon as budgets get tight, these lofty ideals are the first to go. By focusing your content marketing on growing the business, through generating more potential customers — more leads — you can see exactly what your content marketing efforts are driving for you.

As my mentor once advised me: “Find out where the flow of money is going, and put yourself right in the middle of it.” In order for content marketing to be successful, put it right in the flow of money. Generate leads.

Test #2: You have an established sales funnel to convert leads into paying customers.

Simply put, you need a process for closing leads. You have to be able to proactively move customers from “interest” to “purchase.” If you think of the classic sales funnel, content marketing gets more people in the top of the sales funnel, so your sales team can convert them into paying customers:

Sales Funnel

This is a drawing I made today. Note my perfectly manicured, womanly hands.

The more well defined your sales funnel, the more effective your content marketing will be.

  • Your content should direct readers into the sales funnel (e.g., a Call to Action at the bottom of each post);
  • Your sales team should have a disciplined sales process (e.g., they follow up quickly and regularly);
  • Your sales team should feed learning back into sales funnel (e.g., common sales questions that can be used to generate even better content).

“But I don’t want our blog to feel too salesy,” some marketers whine. News flash: As a marketer, YOUR JOB IS TO DRIVE SALES. If you want to do art, go to film school. If you want to make a living, do your job.

Test #3: You have an established paid search campaign.

It’s a warning flag when companies want to use content marketing as their first online marketing program, and here’s why.

In the early days of your business, you need to get customers. For companies that fit the first two criteria above, the most cost-effective customers will generally come through paid search (a.k.a. PPC advertising, like Google AdWords). You pay for your ad to show up beside search results; the search engine sends you targeted customers.

Paid search is ideal for first-time online advertisers, but eventually they run into two problems. First, there is a limit to the number of searches on any given keyword per month, i.e., there are only so many ads you can run. Second, they come to realize their entire marketing engine is dependent on the search engines: as soon as they turn off the ads, the traffic spigot dries up.

So they look for new ways to diversify, and content marketing is the next best alternative. Although it takes longer to ramp up, it is an investment that pays off well into the future — unlike paid search.

For example, if you create 100 great blog posts as part of your content marketing program, those 100 blog posts will always be part of your site, bringing in more traffic. In other words, content marketing has future benefit: it’s like a bank account that keeps paying interest.

Still, you can’t earn much interest in a bank account when you don’t have much money. Because younger, smaller companies need growth fast, we encourage them to get a paid search campaign set up first … then think about content marketing.

In short, a company needs to evolve to a certain level before it’s ready for content marketing. You don’t build a biotech research lab in the middle of a run-down neighborhood; you build it where there’s enough infrastructure in place to support it: restaurants, parking, test tube stores, etc.

Or to use a more flavorful analogy, three cups of mustard can be way too much. Take a tablespoon when you’re ready. It really does make the best dressing.

Content companies compared.

Sir John Hargrave is the CEO of Media Shower and author of the upcoming book Mind Hacking. This post is free to distribute under CC 4.0: if you like it, please share it.