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4 Content Marketing Myths

2014 June 18
by Greg Satell

Technology transforms marketing in waves.  New platforms like search engines, social media and the mobile web create amazing opportunities, but leave marketers scrambling to develop the talent and tactics to capitalize on them.

Before long, false gurus emerge.  These “instant experts” are like umbrella salesmen in a Manhattan rainstorm. They have no special talent or skills, but thrive because they happen to be at the right place at the right time.  Before long, misinformation grows into myth.

That’s been especially true of content marketing.  Unlike search engines or the mobile web, content feels familiar, we’ve all watched TV and read magazines.  So for brand planners who’ve spent their careers developing strategy for ad campaigns, content doesn’t seem like it should be so different.  Unfortunately, it is and that’s why content marketers are failing.

Myth 1.  Start With The Consumer

In conventional marketing campaigns, the first place to start has always been with the consumer.  By analyzing consumers, you can uncover their wants and needs, allowing you to create a message that resonates.  Yet content is not advertising.  It’s purpose is not to grab attention, but hold attention.

So rather than trying to figure out what the consumer wants to hear, start with thinking about what you have to offer the world.  It is not enough to join the conversation, you must lead it.  Martin Scorsese did not create Mean Streets because he did a focus group.  Anna Wintour did not make Vogue a fashion bible by asking women what they want to wear.

Every enterprise has something to offer the world through sharing experience, expertise and insights.  Every brand has a great story to tell.  The challenge is to tell it well.  By focusing too much on what you think customers want to hear, chances are that you’ll end up with just another version of what everyone else is saying.

The truth is that, when it comes to content, brands need to start thinking more like publishers.  So instead of starting with consumers, think about what you have to offer the world and how you can make a positive impact.  That’s how you create a story that resonates.

Myth 2: Good Content Marketing Starts With Data And Metrics

Over the past generation, marketers have learned to be data driven.  Generally that’s been a good thing, infusing rigor and accountability into a profession that was all too often smoke and mirrors.  Yet the fascination with data and metrics can take on a life of its own, obscuring more than it reveals.

A good example is this post from Social Media Today, which purports to show the “ideal length” for everything from tweets to blog posts.  Citing data from Medium, it suggests that the ideal length for a blog post is seven minutes or 1600 words.

If that seems long, it is.  Medium is a site that focuses on thought leaders and its readers go there expecting some depth.  Seth Godin, on the other hand, became a very successful blogger by offering short daily nuggets that are often just a few hundred words.  Harvard Business Review blogs usually come in around 800-1000 words.

All are very successful publishers, yet each offers a very different reader experience and that is what accounts for the varying post length.  By merely aggregating data and ignoring context, you get a false picture.  So again, start with what you have to offer, design an experience around it and then you can start collecting data to optimize your efforts.

Myth 3.  It’s Important That Your Content Goes Viral

Having your content go viral is a wonderful thing.  While normal content has to claw its way through the zeitgeist, viral content fuelled by social sharing explodes onto the public consciousness.  For most of us, developing viral content is more luck than anything else, but sites like BuzzFeed and Upworthy have gotten it down to a science.

It makes you wonder, why doesn’t everyone follow their example?  You would think that with such enormous success, everyone would be rushing to emulate their model, but they’re not.  In fact, many top publishers discourage their writers from looking at traffic numbers, even digital natives like The Verge.

The reason is that they want their writers to be delivering on the editorial mission rather than chasing after readers.  Further, many of the best ways to attract audience, such as shrill, sensationalist headlines, can detract from the editorial brand and undermine the relationship with the audience.

The problem is even worse for marketers, for which content is merely a means to an end. Getting millions of views from viral content might look great in an ROI equation, but it does very little to establish an ongoing bond with consumers.  In some cases, it can even turn them away.

Myth 4: The Purpose of Content Is To Build An Emotional Connection

Marketers have known for years how valuable it is to build emotional connections with consumers.  Emotions are like little yellow highlighters in our brains, alerting us to important information so that we are sure to remember it.  By infusing a 30 second TV ad with emotional triggers, you can cut through the clutter and get noticed.

Unfortunately, the concept doesn’t translate well to content because emotion often has little to do the brand experience.  On the other hand, American Express’s Open Forum and IBM’s Smarter Planet blog have shown that you can be successful by delivering useful information with little or no emotional content.

The truth is that if you find yourself constantly talking about an emotional connection, you probably don’t have one and your efforts will likely come off as amateurish and pandering.  That’s a real turn-off.  You’ll do much better by thinking seriously about what value you have to exchange and delivering it well.

– Greg

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