The Ultimate Guide to Content Marketing (Just Kidding, It's Me in SpongeBob Underwear)

In marketing, there's an unspoken but very real negative part to the industry. While you may not subscribe to these practices yourself, it's easy to watch some marketers ruin stuff for others, or else turn the work into a constant battle to game systems and buy followers and over-optimize everything. It can feel hollow just to say you do marketing sometimes -- especially since these negative or "black hat" tactics can and do get noticed by those outside our industry.

All of this only furthers the need for quality organizations, individuals, and communities to push us all in the right direction and drown out the negative noise.

Today, I'd like to place something that feels innocent but is actually detrimental to all involved into that negative side of our industry: using data to replace, rather than inform, a content creator's intuition.

To be clear, data is the source of lots of good in our industry. But, as it's so often used incorrectly, it mostly becomes a tool to make a selfish case for something. Often, those things are shortcuts or personal agendas that aren't good for the customer or audience. As this English major has been learning for years, numbers can be twisted in an even more dangerous way than words since they seem more "concrete."

Case in point: the use of ebooks placed behind lead-gen forms. This tactic has worked for years in content marketing -- particularly in B2B. The approach was once the poster child for what B2B content marketing should be, but today, it feels overrun and tired. While it may yield results for some organizations, for many others, it's a sign that they're getting lazy. They look backwards at what the data says worked BEFORE, then try to replicate it without evolving or advancing.

That's where we get into serious trouble -- using data to remove all creative thought in our work, rather than to supercharge it. Some marketers might look at past reports to say, "X worked in the past. Just do X again." Although that feels like a smart approach, we wind up repeating ourselves too much. We ruin things for ourselves and our audiences. And, worse, we become short-sighted and fail to see the forest for the trees.

In these cases, instead of trying to build a loyal audience that takes action on our behalf, we try to manufacture vanity metrics. We over-optimize the headlines, the SEO, or the landing page copy as a substitute for -- rather than enhancement to -- content that's inherently worth reading and sharing. (This is the content equivalent of artificial ingredients in food. Rather than the real, tasty thing, we want to manufacture the cheaper option that LOOKS the same but is usually anything but.)

Again, in too many cases, it's not about the forest. It's all about the trees. But these are rotten trees.

The worst, most rotten offense that data misusers make is to under-deliver on their content's promise. They work like hell on all the stuff that feels like marketing (SEO, et al) but skimp on the other, "softer" stuff like great writing or design.

But in these scenarios, nobody wins. 

A Horrifying Example

I once had a conversation with a marketing colleague about this exact issue, all triggered by a single ebook that had been created about two years prior to our discussion.

I first noticed us tweet the old ebook: "The Ultimate Guide to [XYZ]." (I'm removing identifying words to be respectful of my friends/past employer.) 

We'd been smart about using old content as new social media posts, so seeing a two-year-old piece in my feed wasn't the horrifying part. The horror started only after I clicked the link and arrived on the landing page.

The page read, "The Ultimate Guide to [XYZ]: Everything you need to know to [benefits to the customer]." A lengthy, bulleted list of example lessons you'd learn sat beneath that, with an animated GIF scrolling through teaser images from inside piece.

It looked and sounded, in a word, sexy.

But then I downloaded it. And the ultimate guide was ... anything but.

And "everything I needed to know" was ... everything that was missing.

In fact, while the landing page listed a number of tactics you'd learn in the guide, the PDF itself only focused on one of those things. We were blatantly overselling and under-delivering. Said another way, we were very obviously misleading our audience and didn't seem to care.

Worse still, the only part that was included in the ebook sucked. The writing was awful, the design looked sloppy, and the layout felt juvenile and amateurish. 

So, naturally, I told my colleague that I wanted to redesign and rewrite that ebook. The response floored me: "Why bother? It's generating tons of traffic and leads every month."

I ... um ... what?!

In what world is it okay to do what I just described above? And in what universe does someone who feels THAT misled and disrespected actually want to hear from your sales team or receive another marketing email? Yes, they're now a lead. But they're also a person, and that person probably felt completely frustrated with us.

So why didn't we take action? The numbers looked good enough to stop using our intuition. Gun to their head, my colleague would have probably agreed with me. But why spend the extra energy when the analytics looked positive?

The refrain seemed to be, "Who cares what sits behind that form as long as the form sitting in front of it converts leads?"

Never mind that actual humans are what trigger your analytics reports. Never mind that, even though a new name is in your database, it represents a person who's probably pissed at you.

It was a losing battle. My argument was based on intuition, while theirs was based on data. But just "using numbers" doesn't mean you've learned anything. It doesn't mean you have the right information. It doesn't mean your argument is more correct, either.

I believe that intuition and data need to work together. Sometimes one or the other alone is enough. Sometimes you need both. In my experience, the best content is produced not by looking back at what works and simply copying it but by combining the quantitive and qualitative. 

Best case scenario, it looks like this:

Content, you see, can be frustrating to purely data-driven marketers. It requires a high degree of craft to it, and while someone needs to look out for the science and metrics, you also need to pay attention to the art (aka, the content). It's that part which makes this style marketing different than, say, PPC on search or programmatic display advertising. It's just a fact: Production work can't be fully automated, at least not yet. Hopefully not ever.  

I think about that aforementioned ultimate guide a ton. It reminds me that it DOES matter that content marketers think longer term than all the vanity metrics out there. Again, to short-term thinkers occupying the negative side of the marketing industry, it literally doesn't matter what they put behind the form. It could be the Ultimate Guide to XYZ. It could be a one-page checklist. Or it could be a picture of me in SpongeBob underwear. What difference does it make?

Answer: all the difference in the world.

And if you don't buy it and won't believe it, then here -- I've saved you the trouble of having to create great content. Just stick this behind a lead-gen form and never think about your readers ever again. Never create anything original or useful or entertaining. Never care whether or not you offend, disrespect, or spam your audience. At least you'll be doing so with something damn good looking...

Posted on April 20, 2015 and filed under Rants, Cartoons.