The Devil on My Shoulder: Content Marketing Strategy Lessons from the Frontlines

The Devil on My Shoulder: Content Marketing Strategy Lessons from the Frontlines

9 May 2014

5 Reasons the Art of Storytelling is More Important than Ever

Content Marketing Strategy

Comprehension Requires an Attention Span Greater than That of a Gnat

Can you commit 5 minutes to reading this article on content marketing strategy in its entirety, with no interruptions?  This means no texting, no IM, no drifting off in the middle to check Facebook to see whether or not people you may not want to visit your home did something that looks like it was fun for them.

It sounds like a commitment, doesn’t it, the uninterrupted attention span?

And the reason that it sounds like a commitment is because, with the state of media these days, we are bombarded by distraction from a variety of screens, windows and other sources of stimulation simultaneously and constantly.  We are living in an era of disruptive communication, wherein news anchors on television talk while we viewers are intentionally distracted, by the folks producing that very show, with a scroll on the bottom of the screen that gives us highlights of other stories – and the only reason those stories aren’t yet navigable as a jumping off point is because cable, somewhat intentionally, hasn’t caught up with the self-service content model of social technology yet.

That being the case, as consumers of content our undivided attention is a commitment.  But it’s a commitment that we as people need to make in order to really understand what’s in front of us – whether that be a marketing message, a television program, or the friends, family and pets who really are right there in front of us.

Yes, I am essentially telling you to stay present.  Yes, I do live in Northern California and I do a lot of yoga.  But seriously, friends, it’s good advice for us as people, and it’s especially good advice for us as marketers: with that mindset, we can envision the sort of content marketing strategy that tells a meaningful story to our customers.  And in doing that, perhaps we can hold their attention, at which point we may not find it necessary to break a fundamental rule of marketing (and basic human conversation) by interrupting people who are, already, paying attention to us.


Good Content Marketing Strategy is Storytelling + Digital Marketing Skills

When I first started writing this article, it was called, “5 Reasons Lists are Bullsh*t – What Not to Do in Content Marketing.”

And it was called that not because I believe that all marketed list articles are crap – Buzzfeed may be junk food, but it’s exceedingly popular junk food and it services one lofty purpose of content marketing, which is entertainment – but because I know five things about digital marketing:

1) Numbers in titles get more clicks.

2) People like reading lists of things.

3) “What You’re Doing Wrong” articles are more clicked on than “What You’re Doing Right” articles.

4) B2B email subject lines get more clicks when there are more than 16 words, so “5 Reasons Lists are Bullsh*t – What Not to Do in Content Marketing | Content Marketing Strategy Lessons from the Frontlines” gets a number, a list, a catchy curse word, a warning about what not to do and a whopping 19 words in there.

5) A lot of posts entitled “5 Ways to [insert a marketing phrase]” are, in point of fact, bullsh*t: the rush for content has people scrambling to fill gaps, and in doing so we’re seeing a lot of regurgitated and straight-up ripped off content where we don’t need it.  Rather than offering opinions or viewpoints, the content waters are rising the same way that bad, spammy websites and link farms came about: with unnecessary content that’s being written to attract search engine traffic or clicks for our KPI’s.

Content Marketing as a discipline is not a direct marketing discipline, nor is it a copywriting position.  Content marketing is a combination of digital marketing strategy and brand storytelling – and that combination leads to a very tricky push and pull between the digital marketing tactics that we know drive critical metrics (traffic, clicks, pageviews, time on site, repeat visits) and those that give us the “softer” marketing metrics of impressions, engagement and brand sentiment.

At the end of the day, the goal of content marketing is a lot like dating: to create and nurture a relationship with a person who might like us for the right reasons – and for more than one night.

Good Storytelling Slows Down the Twitchy Consumer

The average attention span of an online user is 9 seconds.


And, as marketers, this is partially our fault.

We’ve spent the past 8 years watching and wondering about what social media, in particular, was going to do to the marketing industry.  And the answer is: it’s made it a lot more twitchy, and as such it’s made it a lot more single-serving.   And this is because it’s fundamentally changed the way that people are communicating with each other, and marketing is about communicating with people.

Unlike traditional broadcast television, the content that flows on channels like Facebook and Twitter are essentially banner ads surfaced as relevantly as possible so that users will “engage” – and by “engage,” we mean “click.”  Facebook and Twitter have changed peer:peer communication in a way that has us as humans using our phones more as status update devices than a phone; content curation sites like Medium are democratizing content marketing in a way that gives my Mom the same digital marketing conversion metrics that I’ve been using to measure my own effectiveness for years.  (Check out this article on influencer marketing for more on that).

And so, we must take a second, and slow down, and pay attention to what we’re doing, and ask ourselves some hard questions.  What does it mean – not just for marketing, but for society – when we Marketers and Product Managers are gamifying our products with vanity metrics and features to the point that we’re training people to adapt their own social communications to the best digital marketing result?  When did we as a discipline stop focusing on the storytelling skills that build a real relationship with a customer?

Real Engagement is More than a Click

That last question I asked isn’t rhetorical: if you follow the history of marketing and advertising, you’ll see a hyper-increased focus on direct marketing metrics right around the time that Google became the most important player in driving revenue for online brands.  Before the internet, “direct marketing” was mostly brochures and catalogues and phone calls: it’s a discipline that is based on a single-sale conversion.

Instead of creating content for our customers and paying attention to lifetime customer value and overall brand sentiment, we started creating direct marketing content for Search Engines and paying attention to short-term goals like click-through metrics.

In the hot pursuit of the almighty and easily tracked direct marketing dollar, a lot of us marketers have lost sight of the importance of the relationship marketing discipline.

When I told my bossfriend, Marc Cowlin, that I was about to dive in and write a much longer than suggested article on the state of content marketing, the state of both traditional and social media, and our responsibilities as Marketers, he said, “But what’s the keyword?”

Now, I’m not going to give Marc too hard of a time here: the reality is that I’m writing for a corporate blog, and any good

content marketing strategy

(see?  keyword) requires a well-developed SEO strategy that creates “side doors” via posts like this, so that when people google something like “content marketing strategy,” our content is bringing the right people here.  In our case, we sell software: PR monitoring software and social media marketing tools, to be exact.  (See?  Backlinks.)  So we’ve made a well-reasoned assumption that someone searching not just for “content marketing,” but “content marketing strategy” is someone who might be, at some point, in the market for our products.

That being said, I have simply seen too many posts being written because of a keyword.  If you find yourself writing an article for the sake of it in order to do some keyword stuffing, you’re not treating the eyeballs that might land there with the respect they deserve.  The eyeballs that land on our content belong to people, and if we’re doing our jobs well, they belong to people who might actually be in the market for our product.

If we’re doing our jobs really well, those eyeballs belong to people who enjoy our content and feel compelled to take notice of the brand who gave it to them.  Content marketing is not about driving traffic; it’s about driving the right traffic, but more to the point it’s about creating the sort of content that the right people actually want to read, share and remember.

Content marketing is a relationship marketing discipline, plain and simple, and it services a multi-touch awareness effort.  Content marketing is not about getting someone to give it up on the first date, but rather introducing ourselves to someone so that they stick around for awhile.  Long journeys don’t typically start with a sprint, after all, and the long term economics of customer value are simple: it’s cheaper and easier to keep someone happy than it is to get someone new to commit.

Good content marketing strategy requires us, as marketers, to make sure that we’re not throwing out the baby with the bathwater: yes, catchy headlines (with numbers in them) and listed blog posts (with numbers in them) are great for clicks.  But if the twitchy tricks of the trade are more important than telling an honest and cohesive brand story, we’ve done both our consumers and ourselves a disservice.

Brand Storytelling isn’t Bullsh*t: Ask the Numbers

As I was finishing up this article, Contently published an excellent e-book on the State of Content Marketing 2014.   In it, Joe Lazauskas – Contently’s Editor-in-Chief – notes that – now that the audience is truly in charge (take note, Comcast) – there is a content revolution happening that will require those of us in this discipline to get back to the fundamentals of storytelling.

Says Lazauskas,

…the recent success of brand publishing (and long history) indicate that the practics is more than a fad, and that those that refuse to embrace it may find themselves in a difficult position in a few years.

If you’re in marketing, you’ve likely heard the buzz – Red Bull’s magazine circulates to 2 million people a month; American Express attracts millions of small business owners to its stories on; Dove’s “Real Beauty Sketches” video became the most viewed “ad” of all time.  In response, creative and PR agencies are adding “content marketing” to their lists of offerings and hiring away some of the traditional magazine world’s best editors to run publications for their clients.  Brands building newsrooms in house are doing the same.


The report then goes on to list some pretty compelling data backing up the rise of content marketing as direction marketing is heading:

  • The same, increasingly tech-savvy consumers were no longer interested in or fooled  by banner advertisements. Click-through rates steadily declined; attention to 85 percent of the ads came from the same 8 percent of people — mostly older or not technically astute. This created problems for the vaunted journalism institutions we’ve trusted for decades, who once again had to downsize or find new revenue.

  • In the past 12 months, nearly every major media company in America (and 90 percent of online publishers) has either launched or talked about launching a sponsored content program.


Contently also recently published an article  that’s essentially a case study about Coca Cola’s content marketing strategy, and those sorts of case studies are the sorts that smaller businesses look to when planning their own marketing.  So there’s no mistaking that the marketing trend is moving away from “click here” and into “hey, let me tell you a story”; the question is whether this trend will hold…

…and how it might affect the way that we people communicate with each other.

Whether it’s our responsibility as marketers to think about how the products and messaging platforms we bring to market affect the way that people actually communicate with each other in their day-to-day is up for debate.  I do, after all, live in Northern California, and I do a lot of yoga.  As such, and as both a consumer and a content marketer, I hold high hopes that demonstrating the value of longer format storytelling is one that might help us all take a little more time and thought in our own communications, including the ones we have with friends and family.