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Don’t Let Your Marketing Ruin Your Content

2016 January 6
by Greg Satell

Content, in theory, should be a boon to marketers. The Content Marketing Institute says that “consumers have shut off the traditional world of marketing“ and touts content as a “strategic marketing approach that can attract and retain audiences” and “drive profitable customer action.”

Sounds great. The only problem, as I’ve noted before, is that content is crap. Nobody calls anything good, like an Oscar winning film or a hit song, content. The concept mostly exists as a fantasy in the minds of strategic planners who want to replace paid media with long-form ads on media assets they own and control.

In other words, content marketing fails largely because it is pursued by marketers who bring a traditional mindset to a completely new field. Rather than discovering and telling stories, they try to wrap marketing messages inside canned narratives. The truth is that marketers need to shift their mental models to think less like carnival barkers and more like publishers.

Creating Experiences Rather Than Crafting Messages

A brand is essentially a promise. When a customer goes to a store or brings a product home, they expect it to deliver on that promise consistently. If their expectations are exceeded and they get more than they bargained for, great, but for the most part people don’t like to be surprised. They want to know what they’re getting for their money.

That’s why it’s so important for marketers to put out a consistent brand message and carve out a distinct identity. That takes discipline, especially in large enterprises. Every ad, PR release and action needs to be scrutinized, honed and delivered in a way that supports the overall brand effort. A stray word or mistimed message can bring the whole ship down.

Today, however, consumers expect to interact with brands through web sites and mobile phones as well as in a traditional environment. From virtually any place at any time of day, they can collect information, ask questions, indicate preferences and make purchases. That’s not something that can be standardized in the way that traditional campaigns are.

So marketers need to shift from crafting messages to creating experiences and that’s a tall order. It means that we need to leave behind how we’ve come to think about traditional campaigns and adopt a different approach to brand publishing.

Great Stories Don’t Come Wrapped In A Bow

Successful ads demand clarity. They show how features lead to benefits and deliver on a distinct brand value proposition. The outcome is never in question. Products are “new and improved.” Customers are happy and satisfied. Good ads don’t lie, but they do tell an idealized version of the truth.

Great stories, on the other hand, are ambiguous. As David Mitchell, author of bestsellers like Cloud Atlas, points out that we find characters like Darth Vader more interesting than more one dimensional ones like Superman because they lack moral clarity. It is that ambiguity that makes them interesting and provokes thought and discussion.

In Creativity Inc., Pixar CEO Ed Catmull writes that every story starts out as an “ugly baby.” It takes care and patience to transform those ugly babies into hit movies like Toy Story, Finding Nemo and Inside Out.  Characters take on multiple dimensions, the plot weaves through twists and turns and we make new discoveries along the way.

That’s the power of story. We want to see how it ends because we genuinely don’t know how things will turn out. Instead of a canned, linear sequence of events, we enter an unfamiliar world that surprises us and teaches us something.

Don’t Manage Stories, Advocate For Them

Every organization is full of great stories. Some develop exciting products. Others serve customers and solve their problems. Still others develop expertise in important areas. There is a tremendous amount of value in sharing those stories and telling them well.

Unfortunately, a marketer’s first instinct is to hone those stories to conform to a messaging strategy. They use stories to underline brand values and put positive brand attributes on display, because they see them as a means to an end, rather than an end in themselves. The result is usually so incredibly dull, it never finds a life outside of a boardroom.

Stories don’t need managers. They need advocates. They need someone to uncover them, nurture them and bring them to life. That becomes impossible if they are required to conform to a predetermined script. Ugly babies that never experience a troubled adolescence eventually become very boring middle-aged underperformers.

Marketers need to learn how to champion the stories in their organization with passion and fervor. They’re your ugly babies. If you are unable to see the beauty in them, no one else will.

Value Your Mission Over Your Metrics

Marketer’s strive to be accountable and rightly so. Traditional campaigns require vast resources and businesses expect to see a return on investment. So marketers actively track metrics—from GRP’s and “clicks” to awareness and conversions—to ensure that specific objectives are being met. It’s a reasonable approach that will not, and for the most part should not, change.

Yet publishing is more akin to product development than a promotional campaign and measurement is often confused with meaning. For example, Coke’s sustainability blog is unlikely to rival the audience of Nike’s Lebron James video, but that doesn’t mean that it can’t be a great way to for Coke communicate its commitment and share its experience.

What’s important is that brands provide their audience with something that they value because it informs, entertains or excites them. To do that, marketers need to optimize for mission, not for metrics. Be clear about what you value you have to offer the world, uncover stories that deliver that value and tell them well.

Content doesn’t have to be crap. Just don’t let marketing get in the way.

– Greg

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