Tuesday, November 10th, 2009

The Content Delusion

The Content Delusion
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You’re special. You know that right? You have a voice, story, and message, and all you have to do is share it with us. Really! Be transparent and authentic, and put it out there. You’re a beautiful and unique snowflake… Now tell us more about that turd you took this morning.

A new hope

All over this great nation, and your great nation, and the one next to it, marketers are talking about content. We’ve gone content mad, and for good reason. Unless you’re a big brand or really smart about how you do it, traditional advertising is costly and often ineffective. Plus, it’s fashionable to beat up on big advertising, so kick a billboard on your way to work. You’ll feel better, cooler, and more “with it.”

We’re living in the world in which a viral campaign can result in a box office smash, one great post can make you a household name, and one compelling video can make you a YouTube superstar. All of these things are tremendous, and if you can make that sort of thing happen, do it! I’m not joking here—if you get this lucky, you have horseshoes up your ass! (Make it happen again and you may be a marketing genius!)

Harsh realities

We’re in a content gold rush. The part that people don’t like to talk about in a gold rush is that a lot of folks die on the trail or get their toes amputated. A few fare acceptably, with someone as sexy as me left to simply pimp his own ass out on the street. But ugly truths like these don’t sell many copies of Web 2.0 Billionaire magazine, so they get swept under the rug. You see, the media is in the content business. They tell stories and concentrate on finding good ones that you’ll pay attention to. And you know what? They’re really good at it!

This, specifically, is the story that no content/web 2.0/social media proponent wants to talk about. You’re probably not a content person. That means you have limited ability when it comes to writing, producing, editing, or seeding your stories. Nevertheless, almost every marketer has now decided that they’re in the content game, which leaves people like you competing with folks whose whole lives are dedicated to crafting stories. “Hey… wait a second!” you think. “I thought social media was about blogs and Twitter. You mean I have to tell stories too?”

The great attrition

Here we find the fine print of social media: the tools to make the stuff are only a small part of the equation. Now that you’re in the content game, you actually have to make content. This isn’t an unfamiliar scenario: buying the guitar was the easy part. Writing some good songs? Hey, wait a second… isn’t Lost on?

And that’s the pinch. Making stuff is hard. Creating good stuff is harder yet. For all of the talk of a democratized landscape, democracy turns out to be a bit of a bitch. (Meant in the colloquial way, not the sexist way.) You see, your yard care video tips aren’t just fighting with ads for other landscaping companies. They’re fighting with Lost, Californication, Mad Men, and every other thing I can read, watch, listen to, or take part in. And honestly, dude… Joan Harris in another form-fitting dress kicks the ass of any tips you may have about Weed ‘n’ Feed. (Good luck with that video, though!)

I hate to tell you this, but the prognosis for the amateur content creator is in many ways rather gloomy. I recently took an informal survey, just reviewing the state of some design blogs I frequented a few years ago. Sadly, I’d estimate that 70 percent have gone the way of the dodo. Sure, there are plenty of new blogs, and some very good ones; but, it seems that most folks just grow tired of running a business or working a full time job, and then putting all their spare time into content creation.


You might think that I’m a pessimist, that I’ve had one too many cups of coffee, or that I’m against content marketing. All but the last point may be true. This isn’t because I have something against you using social media; I just want you to go in prepared. With the price of entry being “zero”, everyone is willing to hop on for a spin. In the case of social media, this means many will line up, but few will get anything out of the experience. I think there’s a lot to be said for content marketing, but I want to dash your hopes first. Once that’s out of the way, you might have a chance of getting something out of all of your efforts. Although it initially may seem cruel, it’s good medicine. In fact, it’s why this blog is still here.

We were a little late to the game when we started ideasonideas, and in a way that was a good thing. There were already so many sites out there that we didn’t think anyone would pay attention. Instead, we thought long and hard about what we might talk about and what readers would get out of it. Ultimately we chose to share some of our experience with like minds, and doing so turned out to be a lot of fun.

It hasn’t, however, been highly profitable. We’ve only seen a single job as a result of it, and in that respect it’s a brutal failure. Then of course, we began with few thoughts about how it could be leveraged as a business tool, or to promote our stuff. (Except for the odd link, where I might ask you to buy my book.) Not thinking of this as something that would provide an instant return turned out to be a healthy starting point.

Makin’ it work

Regardless of how you integrate content and social media in your company’s storytelling or marketing, you’ll probably find that it’s best to keep your feet on the ground. This isn’t an instant path to riches or glory. That’s okay, though. It can be a great way to build connections with others, tell your story, and build interest and value for what you do. There are plenty of good ways to make it work; here are a few quick tips on doing so.

First of all, don’t start with heavy promotion. A lot of corporate approaches to content marketing start with a great deal of fanfare, excitement, and enthusiasm that’s almost impossible to live up to. Try this: don’t promote it on your website. Set up a sandbox of sorts and invite a few folks to check it out. See what they think, measure the reactions, and ask if there’s a reasonable case to continue. I even think it’s wise to treat such a thing as a separate entity from your main website. Doing so will give you more latitude to play, without the worry of soiling your company’s good name.

I don’t have any hard data on this, but I bet you my lunch money that content creation from one group to the next graphs pretty consistently. It will start with a flurry of activity, and then do a hard drop. Hey, it’s fun creating content for the first few weeks of any new thing. Once things settle down, though, one finds that earning repeat visits isn’t easy. This leaves content creation feeling a lot like work (which it is). My suggestion is to not blow your load too early. Schedule content creation for once a week, or every two weeks, or even less frequently—and don’t start your blog, YouTube channel, or whatever, until you have a dozen in the can. This will make the transition a little smoother.

But wait, there’s more!

What kind of a blogger would I be to dash your hopes, build them up, and leave you all alone? Believe me, I’m not one of those guys! Let’s keep going… You and me… we’ll be okay. Don’t you worry!

When it comes to content, there’s one point that’s more important than all the rest: you have to give me (or your audience) a reason to care. This is a really, really, really, really big deal. Most storytellers, entertainers, and journalists concentrate on crafting stories that resonate with us. Unfortunately, companies like yours tend to only see their content as a way to sell more stuff. This is sensible enough, but it tends to make for horribly boring stories.

The sad fact is that most of us have way too much to look at. This results in us either seeking out specific content, or clicking on something salacious just because it seems titillating. If you want to compete with that, you need to give your audience something remarkable. Perhaps it’s a sordid story, or a painful admission. Maybe it’s the recipe to your secret sauce, a way to get around paying full price, or an answer to a problem that’s driving them crazy. I don’t know what you’ll do to connect, but if you’re only selling your stuff or trying to build link strength, you’re toast.

Keep in mind, this is a world that pays attention to LOL cats. Who the heck knows what clicks? Your game isn’t one of knowing what will work; it’s one of finding your voice (or your wave) and exploring what might work. Having a mandate, vision, or journalistic purpose of sorts will help inform what you put out there, and how you craft that content.

Headlines, hooks, and hustling

Want in on a secret? I pay as much attention to the titles of my blog posts as the content within them. That probably sounds mad to you, but I’ve learned that doing so makes a difference. The truth is: there are posts on this site that are hidden gems that have gone by unnoticed because I didn’t write a compelling enough headline. Like it or not, we’re in a Twitter-world, and those snippets are what people choose to share, re-tweet, and link to. In my experience headlines that ask, “Is Tim Ferriss acting like an asshole?” get people to read. It may seem unnecessarily sensational, but it tends to work.

On that topic, I have to applaud Tim for what he does really well: he “hooks” us with compelling propositions. Who wouldn’t want to work a 4 hour workweek, or build a high-traffic blog? Even though the answers he gives to such things can at times seem a little vague, he often gets people like me to read his posts or watch his videos. That’s another hard truth of this content gig: you can have all the steak you want, but sizzle still counts.

Meanwhile, you can’t forget the hustle. Traffic, interest, and discussion doesn’t happen on its own. That’s a fantasy that many are happy to maintain because it’s just so horribly seductive. Aside from a very lucky few, most of us have to work to build interest for our content. How will you do that? I don’t know. Perhaps you’ll contact a few friends. Maybe you’ll connect with a few influential folks. Or you might do something surprising that none of us have figured out yet. Whichever way you go about banging the drum, just remember that there’s little escaping it.

You’re going to have to work for your supper, no matter what the zealots say. Besides, the ones that make great promises about content marketing… well, that’s their wave, and selling you that promise is how they earn their supper.

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  3. Ian Truscott says:

    Really nice post, I'm new to your blog and this is great stuff.
    Agree with the sensational titles and the need write as yourself - my most popular post was one where I described my social media experience and gave it a title that included the word "cock".

  4. Dig. All of it.

  5. Chris Butler says:


    I'm right with you on this point- it's not about the content so much as is about the value of the content. Our entire industry has gotten used to the idea that creating content is a necessary piece of maintaining a presence online (even now, online is a bit of an unneeded qualifier, isn't it?), particularly in order to make sure that search engines index their sites. That's just the beginning, yet that's where most stop. I just wrote our last newsletter (http://www.newfangled.com/who_are_you_speaking_to) on this very point, which I considered titling, "Robots Don't Read, People Do" (I went with "Who Are You Speaking To?") in order to continue to orient our readers toward the true purpose of all this content- creating value. Valuable content is material created for your prospects that engages their need and brings them into relationship with you. And you're completely right- that's not something that everyone is able to do. If all content was created equal, it would likely be equally meaningless. One other point I emphasized in my article was that more conversions come from human referrals than from search engine traffic. This doesn't render SEO obsolete, but it does mean that if SEO is your only motivation to write you needn't bother writing at all.

    Keep up the good work,


  6. ARJWright says:

    Really good post; and delightfully encouraging. Thanks for taking the time to write this, because its one part realistic, yet another part hope realized if one stays plugging away - despite the dearth of similar-hewned content areas.

  7. Excellent post. A much-needed reality check for the masses. Would love to see this mentality embraced by all the fluff-writing, news-regurgitating, link-baiting, roundup-creating, plagiarizing, traffic-crazy, unoriginal content "creators" everywhere.

  8. Ben Waxman says:

    Eric, saw your post through a RT by Seth Simonds. Well said. There is a reason individuals and marketing departments think they can become daily newspapers - $0 cost to entry and fools gold as a reward. And there is a reason they are unable to sustain or show ROI for the effort - running a newspaper is hard work and requires an operational system to write, edit and produce content with value as opposed to just content. Thanks for the blog post. - Ben Waxman (ben@btwaxman.com)

  9. Architela says:

    Good solid advice that you have to have something to say and you have to take it seriously. The fear of missing the boat drives so much social media drivel.

  10. Eric, I deliberately decided NOT to have a blog component to my portfolio site, because I felt that the world did not need yet another designer putting up content very similar to everyone else's just for the sake of having a blog in a paroxysm of me-too-ism.

    I write in detail on my process in the case studies I feature. I'd rather spend my time working for my employer during the day and then creating fun stuff for myself at night, rather than trying to keep up with content and adding to the already overwhelming amount of "stuff" out there.

    Perhaps if I was working for myself I'd make a different choice. But in the end, I decided that the world would get on just as well without another designer blogging.

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  12. Ed Martin says:

    So what is good content? Is it a beautifully crafted, well written blog post covering an important issue of the day, which few read, or is it some piece of dreck that lures in readers by the drove and turns them into buyers? I guess it depends on your perspective.
    An ineresting read. Thanks

  13. Josh Berta says:

    Eric, as always I enjoyed this. Was a good reminder to keep up with Pr*tty Sh*tty, which is a labor of love that's met with a lot of positive feedback, even if it's *far* from making me well known.

    Finally got a chance to read the sample chapter from your book, and liked it very much. Left me with some questions though... but maybe I should read the rest of the book before bombarding you with them.

  14. Walt Kania says:

    Ah. So true. Writing content that will resonate with large numbers of people is infernally hard. Marketers aren't as good at that as journalists, as you noted.

    Even harder still is writing content that will draw in readers who are customers and clients.

    I could be wrong, but judging by comments it seems like ideasonline is frequented mostly by other designers and the occasional copywriter.

    The ad contrarian, (http://adcontrarian.blogspot.com/) by Bob Hoffman, CEO of Hoffman/Lewis advertising in San Francisco, has an ardent following. But most readers seem to be other disaffected and cynical ad people, not clients, as I'm sure Bob would prefer.

    I see this alot. I wonder if blogging about what WE do isn't a good way to get clients reading.

    Maybe it should be more about what THEY do -- which is manage projects, please bosses, pick vendors, reconcile deliverables with strategic directives and such.

  15. Walt Kania says:

    Um. Make that ideasonideas.

  16. bob hoffman says:

    Eric: What a pleasure to read something about social media from a digital agency guy that isn't bullshit, hype or overblown nonsense.

    What so few agency people are unwilling to say out loud is that getting people to pay attention to you on line is a very, very difficult thing to do. It's a thousand to one shot. You better have something interesting to say and you better say it well.

    Good work.

    @Walt: my readers and I are not disaffected. We are very affected.

  17. John says:

    Sound insight and never a truer word. I now find myself more in demand as a provider of content than a copywriter, but hey... it's still the same 26 letters!

    This whole 'content' generation thing has got me thinking; we used to bang on about the importance of content over form, but now the notion of 'content' seems to have migrated over to the other side as shorthand for filler or the 'stuff' so beloved of every blogger byline.

    Now it feels like clients calling for content are just desperate for something - anything - to pad out the pages of their shiny new social website.

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  19. Kelly says:


    Expectations, LOLcats, and sizzle (but don't forget the steak).

    Dang. Over two years at this game and a couple of posts saying what has become of us as readers, is there ROI in decent content on any level, and what should a halfway-serious blogger do about it——though I've mentioned LOLcats as possibly skimming clients and leaving me with delightful raving fans instead, I've never given a primer as succinct as this one. Love it.


    As one of Bob's accolytes...

    Oh, geez. I forgot what I was going to say. ;)



  20. Mundir says:

    Very informative and thought provoking. Its time we got our priorities right. I read some content that is totally irrelevant and written for 'robots', not you and me.

    Keep the good stuff coming, bookmarked you!

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  23. CreativeAlys says:

    A very informative post, loved every bit of it. The following point, I totally agree with "When it comes to content, there’s one point that’s more important than all the rest: you have to give me (or your audience) a reason to care. This is a really, really, really, really big deal."

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