Stop Agonizing Over Best Practices - What's Your Unique Practice?

When I joined the venture capital industry about two years ago, my task was daunting but exciting: Build our brand by out-helping the competition. I was excited to take the reins of what was already a content-centric culture at NextView, with all three co-founding partners blogging regularly, a big social presence, and a reputation for being genuinely helpful already established.

Just one problem: I arrived right on the heels of a massive explosion of VCs starting to do more content marketing. (The adoption got so rampant that I penned -- tapped? -- this article for Contently about why every VC is suddenly obsessed with content.)

But fortunately for my work and my firm, VCs did what most organizations do when something becomes trendy in their industry: copy each other. They all mostly went generic, trying to grab at every single topic that could broadly apply to their worlds or to the worlds of tech entrepreneurs. 

I was blown away to see how every firm's brand seemed to claim the EXACT same things:

  • We're former entrepreneurs ourselves.
  • We're building the kind of firm we'd want to partner with as founders.
  • We partner with the boldest, riskiest founders.

And so their content, too, mimicked this copycat mentality. Every single firm seemed to launch a content marketing strategy around the same very general idea: startups.

Period. No clarification. If there was any, it sounded exactly like everyone else's, save for the 12-15 firms that were smart enough to stake a claim to something more specific. Since then, I've gotten to know those firms well thanks to talking shop periodically with their heads of content, and we all feel like we're "in" on a secret. We all cackle to each other. We all seem to agree:

"Let them fight over trying to own everything 'startup,' since in the end, they'll own nothing. We'll stay laser-focused and each own SOMETHING instead."

Now, at first glance, it may seem fine for a firm to try to own the idea of "startups." VCs invest in startups after all, and so to attract the best founders, a firm could blog about all things startups. But not everyone can own the entire industry theme generally. If you're in content marketing and blog generically about it, you're stuck competing with Content Marketing Institute. Inbound? HubSpot. SEO? Moz. You have to take a stronger or more original or more specific stance on these things to stand out and win. 

For VCs, trying to own "startups" without being more specific is a fool's errand, since several big players do this already, and they're already well-established. But worse than that is what happens in the minds of your customers: nothing. You simply won't have a distinct place or reason for being to them. You'll be "yet another."

This is common sense -- nobody wants to be a cheap imitation of another. So why do so many brands in so many industries keep doing this with their content?

(This copycat mentality is especially widespread among VCs given that all our products are basically identical. Everyone's money is just as green. And firms both know this and have acted accordingly, selling connected benefits along with their capital, like partner expertise, networks, or the particulars of how they structure their deals. Today, content, services, and support are part of that -- unless they're more generic sameness. Here's my article in TechCrunch on this sameness problem.)

So instead of owning "startups," or whatever topic you care about in your industry, it's all about finding a niche. We've known this for years in marketing, but people still struggle to pick something because, naturally, it's saying "No" to certain ideas or audiences as much as it is saying "Yes" to others.

But to be truly meaningful to one audience, you have to accept being less meaningful to another ... even if it'd be nice to reach them too.

At NextView, our niche is highly focused on one topical area because our investment strategy is also highly focused on the same area. We aim to be THE go-to informational resource around gaining initial startup traction. And that one word -- traction -- flows through everything we do.

We invest in the seed stage, when companies are very raw or even pre-launch. The reason we exist to our customers (entrepreneurs) is to help them gain traction. Our capital does that. Our advice does that. Our connections do that.

So our content should do that too.

So we won't write about Uber or Facebook or futuristic topics IN GENERAL (like so many VCs seem obsessed with doing thanks to ego or lack of content strategy or focus or all three). Instead, if we do want to write about these things, we put the lens of early startup traction over it. "Uber did X, so what can an early-stage startup learn?" or "Virtual reality is a trendy topic to write about, but what can we teach someone gaining early market validation or product/market fit today? Does VR apply there? No? Okay, write about it on Medium or your personal blog."

Which brings me to my main point today:

If your brand was forced to white label your content, would anyone recognize it was you?

Would they just guess from any number of competitors in your sector? Are you creating things that could just as easily be copied by others, or is there something unassailable and unique about your work?

For my firm, I'd say our topical focus helps us avoid this white label issue. If you removed "NextView" from our blog and scanned it quickly, you could tell it was us by how much it's focused on traction.

If you white labeled Sorry for Marketing, you could tell it was me just by my tone of voice or tilt on the overly-blogged-about topic of content marketing and creation.

And even if you didn't know NextView or Sorry for Marketing, you'd still look at the white labeled version and assume that was one distinct entity -- not any of dozens of competitors or related sites.

Too often, we look for "best practices" in our industry, but we don't realize that when the name of the game is standing out and being remembered, that's dangerous.

A "best practice" in a creative field only puts you on par with everyone else. But "unique practices" help you separate from the pack.

So what's your unique practice?

Is it a topical focus? Your tone of voice? A certain approach to design? Your use of a certain type of story? 

What if I told you that today, right now, this instant, your site just lost all of its branding, and all that was left was it's content?

Would anyone have the faintest idea that it was specifically YOU? And if you really think about why we do this content stuff at all, ask yourself:

Isn't that the entire point?

Posted on February 5, 2016 .