This one’s about something that has always fascinated me: why do so many smart, talented people make so much mediocre content? What happens between intention and delivery?
But first, a little context…
The dude in the picture above is sitting on the shoulder of Theodore Sturgeon, a sci-fi writer of the 40s, 50s and 60s.
When a journalist asked him why 90% of sci-fi was crap, he didn’t say what you’d expect him to say. He didn’t defend sci-fi as a valid genre. He didn’t quibble with the numbers. Instead, he stated the obvious—and captured an eternal truth. He said:
“90% of everything is crap.”
And of course, he’s right. 90% of operas. 90% of novels and movies and restaurant meals. At least 90% of poems. 90% of songs, slideshares, paintings and YouTube videos.
His disarming reply went down in history as Sturgeon’s Law, a principle that has outlasted even his greatest works, including Killdozer, the epic novella detailing the rampages of a bulldozer rendered animate (and angry) by a meteor strike:
A cool digression (well, I think it’s cool)
Killdozer was made into a movie in 1974. You can watch the whole thing here. (The phrase ‘best quality’ in the YouTube description, I assure you, does not refer to the script).
The movie starred Clint Walker (born Norman Eugene Walker – I think you’ll agree, Clint suits him better). Here’s Clint, pondering the best (or indeed any) way to neutralize a menacing earth-mover:
Clint also played Cheyenne Bodie in the 1950s hit TV series Cheyenne. (Check out the wooden-yet-thrilling fight scenes from Series 1). He went on to win an award called, I kid you not, The Golden Boot, celebrating excellence in Westerns.
He also co-starred in None But The Brave, the only movie ever directed by Frank Sinatra.
I watched it as a duty to you, my ill-advised reader. Suffice it to say that, in going back to crooning, Frank made the right career decision.
Here’s my point (yes, there’s a point, wise guy):
Theo Sturgeon not only invented Sturgeon’s Law, in writing Killdozer, he proved it.
Theo and Clint and Frank—three indisputably smart, talented maybe even gifted people… still made an awful lot of crap in their golden-booted careers.
I find that really, really interesting (and also kind of scary).
The killdozer-sized question here is this:
WHY do good, smart, well-intentioned people make crap?
Zooming in, why do so many excellent marketers, award-winning agencies and top-notch marketing teams make so much mediocre content? More urgently, why do I?
Here are 40 reasons (If I missed any, add them in the comments section):
1) Aiming Low
Not even trying for a home run.
This is the #1 killer. For most content creators, ‘good enough’ is just fine.
If you’re not even aiming at great, your chances of hitting it dramatically decrease.
Maybe we all need to put sentences like this into the brief: “We want to make the single best piece of content on the Internet on this subject.”
2) A Crappy Brief
Look under the hood of most crap content and you’ll find a weak, fuzzy brief with unclear or un-achievable goals.
Even more common, you won’t find a brief at all. (FFS).
3) Mojo Deficiency Syndrome
Bad content always suffers from a lack of confidence – either because the maker is not an authority on the subject or because they’re just not good storytellers.
Confidence is the secret ingredient of all great work. If Crap is the enemy, The Other C-Word is the target.
4) Missing your Sweet Spot
Every brand and every content creator has a sweet spot – where the things your audience cares about overlap the things you’re an authority in. Write from outside this zone and the result will be flimsy and inauthentic.
The fact that your audience cares about an issue, doesn’t mean they care to hear about if from you. What’s your unique take?
5) A Misplaced Service Ethic
“My boss or my client wants X so I must give them X.”
No: our job is to make them want the right things – only then should we give it to them.
The Art of Compromise, a Velocity training document released into the wild, talks all about this.
6) Attention Deficit Disorder
Assuming you’ve already got people’s attention is fatal. You haven’t. Earn it.
Attention is different from other goals, because if you fail at it, you don’t have a chance of achieving any of the other ones.
Look at your topic, title, story arc, design, format… do they really feel like they’ll get your prospects to stop what they’re doing and do this? Have you put a fresh spin on this issue or just assembled a sensible summary?
7) Me-too marketing
Doing it because everyone else is doing it is a common crap creator.
Senior Marketer A: “I keep seeing shitty infographics. Why can’t we have a shitty infographic?”
Less-Senior Marketer B: “We can, boss. We sure can.”
8) Me-Me-Me 1
Yes, it’s so obvious as to be a cliché, but: great content is always about the reader/viewer. Not the brand paying for it.
Even if it’s a bottom-of-the-funnel data sheet, your quest is to make it about the prospect.
When you hear the sentence, “We need content to support Product M.”, secretly replace it with the sentence, “We need content to serve audience Z.”
9) Me Me Me 2
Just because it’s about them doesn’t mean you’ve done enough empathy homework. Real, deep empathy with the audience is essential to great content.
When was the last time your writers sat down with your target prospects? Persona documents aren’t a replacement for this hard work, they’re where you capture the output from it.
10) Fear of Stealing
The compulsion to be 100% original is hugely destructive.
Everybody steals. Even the people you steal from.
They don’t plagiarise the thing itself. They just pillage the things that made it great.
12) Lazy stealing.
Just copying is lazy and counter-productive.
Make it yours. Spin it into new places.
(We’ve had people copying and pasting whole Velocity posts into their blogs, with no attribution. How must that feel?)
13) Stealing but leaving out the one thing that worked.
A lot of people steal without really analyzing or understanding what worked in the original.
When I was a freelancer, a client paid to get Julian Clary in to do a radio spot. They then edited all of the double-entendres out of the final piece. (The guy built his entire career on dry, deadpan double-entendres).
Another once asked us to to repeat the success of our influencer-studded blogger relations video—but, this time, without the influencers.
14) Borrowed interest.
If you think your subject is boring, you’ll grab anything interesting that passes by and try to weld your story to it. That’s lame.
Halloween has nothing to do with Supply Chain Management. Trying to forge a connection between them will create (wait for it) (wait longer) a nightmare.
If you find your subject boring, dig deeper until it becomes interesting. Or find a new job.
15) Comedy without the comedy.
Trying to make your content laugh-out-loud-funny is a low-percentage game.
It’s like Evel Knievel trying to jump the Snake River Canyon: falling even one foot short still ends in total disaster.
Charm and wit, yes. Comedy? Leave it to the professionals.
We fell into our own canyon of shame with a video called Stepping Into The Future! I still think it’s hilarious. In this, as in so many things, I stand alone.
16) Surface Skating
People who crank out crap tend to start writing before they start thinking.
This lack of insight is fatal.
Make sure you have something new to say before the saying starts. Re-stating the obvious is a bad look.
17) The Hand of Cack
Even when there are some good ideas in it, crap content tends to display a total lack of craft. Lousy writing. Clunky design.
Just because talent is subjective doesn’t mean it doesn’t exist. It does. Find people who have it and throw money at them. Also praise and food.
18) Chickening out.
Most great content ideas die long before they get anywhere near the market because of the assumption that some stakeholder will kill it. “They’ll never go for it,” is a terrible reason to kill a great idea.
Don’t kill your own babies – make the bastards do it.
19) That’ll do
A refusal to kill our own mediocre work (or even revise it) is the fast track to crap.
Edit. Be honest with yourself. Be brutal. Start over.
David McCandless, one of the world’s best data journalists, kills a huge number of ideas that just don’t pan out. But when a team and an agency agree to do something, they tend to deliver it as scoped, even if it patently doesn’t work.
Stopping. Re-thinking. Calling it quits. These are important skills.
20) Split Persona Syndrome
A lot of crap content tries to tell one, unified story to very different audiences. That can be okay if the audiences have things in common, and if the best messages for one target won’t alienate the other.
Otherwise, the target clash is a killer. Focus in on one audience at a time and give them your best story.
21) Tunnel vision
Crap content can stem from a false sense of integrity: “I have an agreed brief and I will stick to it at all costs”. But what if you learned something important on the way that changed your mind? Honor it and pivot. They’ll thank you.
Some of our best pieces of content started out aiming somewhere else.
22) Lazy Bastard Syndrome
This is depressingly common. Great content almost always reflects hard work. Crap comes from not doing your homework, adding value, putting in the time and effort.
If the path of least resistance ever led anywhere good, I’d take no other route. Sadly, it rarely does. Set your GPS for the path of extra resistance, fruitless sidetracks and crippling doubt.
23) Self Censoring
“I Can’t Do That!” kills lots of great work. Why can’t you? What if you did?
Safety sucks. Do the un-doable and see what happens.
If it doesn’t make you nervous, maybe it’s not very good.
24) The Curation Crutch
Curation is often billed as the easy way to generate lots of content. Yes, if quality isn’t a concern. Curation without added analysis and critical thinking adds very little value to the world. It’s nice that others said stuff. But what do YOU think about what they think?
Put in the work and curation can be a fantastic way to facilitate conversations in your market. Sling un-examined links at your audience and they’ll click away for good.
Fear kills fun. Fuck fear.
26) Lying Bastard Syndrome 1
Sometimes content is used to paper over things a company wants to hide. Spinning shite is legal but it’s not honest.
27) Lying Bastard Syndrome 2
The insistence on putting your “Best Foot Forward” can actually undermine your credibility and erode trust.
33) Obsession with the rational
B2B marketers are obsessed by the rational at the expense of the emotional.
We’re so keen to make people think something that we forget to make them feel anything. The research of some very thinky people proves that this is not how people make decisions. Are there any ‘heart’ pieces in your content mix?
The old B2B voice tried to earn trust by being big, solid, venerable and authoritative. The new B2B voice earns it by being open, honest, authentic and personable.
Even senior decision-makers are people first.
35) Voice Failure 2
In an effort to avoid Voice Failure 1, it’s easy to cross the Cute Line. That’s only okay if you’re selling tea cosies, Disney princess merch or Natasha’s unspeakably beautiful cats. I know of no other exceptions.
36) Stickler Syndrome
Grammar pedants. Rule slaves. Consistency addicts. Systematically heat-seeking signs of life to stomp out. FFS.
(None of those were complete sentences. Sue me.)
37) Crazy deadlines
I like fast but the pace of marketing is getting scary. Ironically and invariably, crazy-haste backfires and slows everything down, forcing avoidable re-starts and unnecessary iterations. We really would go faster if we slowed down.
Wouldn’t you almost always trade a week or two for something way better?
38) The Crap Committee
Consensus kills content. Every person has a filter that removes things that bother them. Stack enough filters together and only the most inoffensive gets through.
Inoffensive should be deeply offensive to us all.
39) More is Less
This one happens all the time: over-burdening content by cramming everything in as if your readers will never be back (hint: do this and they won’t).
I love content that does one thing well instead of trying to say everything all the time. In Epic Split, Volvo Trucks decided to demonstrate a single feature—precision steering in reverse—and do it really, really well.
40) Where is the Love
Underneath everything there is a real passion for the topic… or there isn’t.
You care about what you do, right? Get that into the content.
Wow. That’s a lot of root causes.
I know, right? And there are lots more (suggestions welcome below).
When you actually count the forces acting on even the cleverest content marketers, it’s not surprising at all that there’s so much crap out there.
In fact, it’s a miracle that great content ever finds its way through the Labyrinth of Death that is the modern content marketing assembly line.
Maybe instead of getting discouraged when we ‘do a Theo’ (or a Clint or a Frank), we should recognise that the 40 battles above are the most important challenges in the job we signed up for. That we need to address them directly before they cripple our work.
The problem is that we only deal these team dynamics and organizational psychology issues in the context of the project at hand. So these important issues are all mixed up with the actual copy in draft 9 and the deadlines in the project plan.
Maybe we need to isolate the things that are repeatedly preventing great work in our organizations and call them out. Get people to see them for what they are so we can build better ways around them.
If the last five years were the Crap era, let’s make the next five The Enlightenment.
In the final one (promise), I’ll try to figure out WHY so many smart, talented people still make so much crap (it’s more feel-good than it sounds).
In this one, I want to see whether the predictions outlined in Crap came true, if its advice holds up and, if not, what the hell we can do about it now.
Did it happen?
The central prediction in Crap was pretty simple (and not especially clever or brave): that when content marketing went mainstream it wouldn’t work so well anymore.
We weren’t the first to worry about this and we sure as hell won’t be the last. (In 2014, Mark Schaeffer hit a major home run on a similar theme with his Content Shock post. In it, he said we’d just passed a critical point beyond which the amount of content in the world exceeds our ability to read it all. I disagreed with the science but could hardly argue with the sentiment.)
So let’s look at the main ‘sky is falling’ statements made in Crap, one neurotic whinge at a time:
The days of easy wins from content marketing would soon come to an end.
Yeah, that happened. In most markets, it’s not enough to just do content marketing (everyone is doing content marketing). Today, you have to excel at content marketing.
When the web was new, the first company in a market to have a website enjoyed a real advantage. Today, a website isn’t an advantage. It’s the price of entry. Not having one will kill you. Having one? No big deal. Unless it’s great.
Same with content marketing. You can’t not do it (who the hell would want content-free marketing?). But just doing it is no big deal anymore. You have to do it better than the other guys.
Must work harder.
We’d all soon be buried in shitty content and that this would ruin the discipline for all of us.
Well, the first part kind of happened: as buyers, we’re inundated with offers of content that claims to help us do our jobs better.
But are we actually ‘buried’ in content? Not really, because we won’t allow ourselves to be buried. We simply get more selective. Buyers are besieged by content offers, but they’re accepting fewer of those offers.
Five years ago, a new ebook from, say, Marketo or Eloqua or Hubspot on, say, analytics or lead scoring or email deliverability was a fresh thing. A valuable thing. It might well have been the only piece on the subject—and it was free. Compared to brochures and case studies and data sheets, this was a breath of fresh air.
Today, an ebook from a vendor can go either way. It might be helpful, authoritative and well-written . But it’s just as likely to be a collection of leftover ideas, obvious advice and self-serving analysis (ending in the surprising conclusion that the best course of action is to invest in the solutions of the company whose logo is on the front—Eureka!).
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Our prospects would start to raise the Marketing Defense Systems that this weird, new approach coaxed them into lowering.
Yuh-huh. That did happen.
Content marketing was so incredibly successful because it broke most of the major conventions that marketing had been built on: it started with the buyer not the brand; it was helpful instead of hard-sell; it delivered value instead of interrupting value.
Done well, content marketing was marketing that didn’t look, sound and smell like marketing. It was different. Unexpected. Interesting. Empathetic. So people leaned in and gave it their attention.
Today, content marketing has dissolved into marketing and has developed its own set of conventions. Most of it (not the best) looks and smells like marketing again, so buyers are again deploying their Marketing Defense Systems to fend it off. If we want them to lower the barriers, we need to earn that.
Must work harder.
The content bell curve
Looking at the content created in the last five years, how much of it is total crap?
Not a lot, actually. Like almost all other human endeavor, content quality falls into a bell curve. My AI-enabled fake-statometer has determined that about 4% is amazing. About 6% is utter shite. And about 90% falls somewhere in-between. Credible but nothing to make you jump up on your desk and belt out La Marseillaise. (Spontaneous French National Anthem Renditions—SFNARs—are a critical KPI for members of the Content Marketing Surrealist group on LinkedIn).
Marketing is full of smart, professional people who learn fast. When content marketing arrived, we all jumped on to the learning curve and started to figure this thing out. (That’s still happening and it’s still one of the most rewarding parts of this work).
To learn about it, marketers looked around and imitated what they saw. They didn’t necessarily imitate the best content marketing, they just imitated things that were content marketing. “See that hamburger-centric infographic? Let’s do an omelette-based one.”
The result wasn’t total crap. In some ways, it was worse: it was mediocre.
Five years on and we’re looking at a LOT of mediocre content. Because—and this is the part that hurts—the teams that created it weren’t even aiming for great. They were aiming for the mean. For credible. For something that would survive the slings and sabres of all those internal ‘stakeholders’. And they hit the target. (SFX: pfffffft…)
The bar keeps rising.
The problem with aiming for the mean is this: the mean keeps moving. Rising.
As a discipline, content marketing has matured incredibly quickly. Last year’s Content Marketing World was as different from the 2013 event as a primary school art fair is from the Venice Biennale. The list of conference tracks from CM World 2017 (not sessions, tracks) tells the story:
Content Creation • Demand Generation • Social Media • Content Strategy • Tools & Technology • Sales • Advanced Measurement • Email • Intelligent Content • Native/Interactive • Process & Workflow • Content Distribution • Performance/ROI • Findabiity • Multi-channel • Visual Storytelling • B2B • Conversion • Global Strategy…
This a discipline that’s inventing and iterating and advancing on twenty different fronts, all at the same time. Last Wednesday’s average is next Tuesday’s piss-poor.
One more prediction from Crap:
Most marketers would see diminishing returns from their content marketing efforts.
Happened (to most, but not all of us). The CMI/Marketing Profs annual surveys of the last few years show a discipline that’s becoming a bit disillusioned by content marketing. We’ve passed the peak of the hype curve and are settling into the fabled Trough of Disillusionment. (Don’t worry, it’s only up from there.)
The inevitable backlash has started and, like most backlashes, it blames the entire discipline for its worst practitioners (The CMI/Profs surveys show that those most disappointed with content marketing are the ones without a documented content strategy.) (D’oh!).
Our brand new wand wasn’t magic after all.
Attention is a big ask. It has to be earned. And, today, earning attention costs more than five years ago. We have to invest more in the content itself just to compete on any given topic. And—unless we’ve built an audience eager to receive our next Chalk Talk—we have to spend a lot more to get that content discovered by the right people.
Now that the social platforms have squeezed out organic reach in favour of paid advertising, we can’t just tell our ‘followers’ about our latest ebook. Only 1-3% of them will see the tweet. (Turns out, Twitter and Facebook were in it for the money. And turns out our ‘followers’ were never really following us. Who knew?).
To get all that ‘inbound’ interest we now have to get good at outbound. We have to spend money: either long-term, by building our own audience or short-term, by renting someone else’s.
What about the Crap advice?
If the central predictions in Crap came true, the central piece of advice still holds, too. To defy the diminishing returns from content marketing going mainstream we all have to do one thing: build a great content brand.
A great content brand is a killer advantage in any market. It tells its audiences that if this piece comes from that company, it will be worth their time. It will be smart, informative, entertaining, fun, helpful or all of the above.
Weirdly, every marketer knows how valuable that would be. But great content brands are still incredibly rare (far less common, even, than great product brands).
I’m sitting here struggling to think of any in B2B (a fragrant blend of modesty and look-in-the-mirror honesty forbids citing our clients here). Maybe GE? Definitely a16z.
(Shame-faced aside: B2C is swimming in great content brands: they’re invariably the leaders in every sector from running shoes and raincoats to cream cheese and cycling shorts. Why there should be such a B2X gulf is a topic for another blog.).
Great content brands don’t happen by accident. They always reflect the underlying convictions of the companies behind them, that:
Every piece of content, even the lowliest BOFU data sheet, shouts brand messages. And every experience with our customers and prospects is an important opportunity.
When we honour their experience and value their time, they are more likely to come back, welcome us into their Inbox or click on our bait.
When we don’t, we deserve what we get: the disappointing metrics of the ‘me-too’ merchant.
Over time, great content brands build loyal, high-quality audiences of like-minded people. And that kind of audience is one of the most important assets ever to not appear on a balance sheet. It’s worth its weight in Bitcoin (on one of its good days).
That’s why Joe Pulizzi and Robert Rose tell us that the first job of every content marketer is to build our own audiences.
Building a great content brand: the Crap advice
Crap suggested Six Tips for building great content brands. Do they hold up? Mixed bag:
Be the buyer – Not really debatable: empathy is the foundation of everything great in marketing (and probably in life).
Be authoritative. Stay in your sweet spot. – Never bad advice but not exactly a silver bullet. (Still, lots of brands stray from theirs).
Be strategic – True but too obvious to call out any more.
Be prolific – Well, prolific enough. But not so prolific you’re churning out mush.
Be passionate – Duh. (Actually caring about the content’s topic is still rare, though).
Be tough on yourself. – More true than ever: laziness in content marketing is so ubiquitous you’d think someone out there is actually teaching it.
So, okay, these six nuggets may have been helpful when content marketing was still taking baby steps; but now that it’s a gangly teenager, they feel a bit… tired.
Looking forward: a few big themes
So if Crap stumbled on a geist that happened to reflect the marketing zeit, what would the equivalent piece say today? What’s the burning challenge for content marketers right now?
It may not be as exciting as overthrowing the old order, writing bold Manifestos and inventing a whole new discipline. But today’s challenge is just as hard. Maybe even harder. Because the enemy is us.
For me, today’s big challenge for content marketers comes down to this: resisting the force of gravity that’s pulling the discipline down towards a corporate process defined and constrained by ‘best practices’ (the kind that Jay Acunzo decries so eloquently in his Unthinkable podcast).
This battle against gravity pops up in a lot of ways, presenting us all with new challenges and opportunities. Like these (forgive my preachiness and obviousness. I really do believe this stuff and just don’t see enough of it out there):
Figure out what ‘better’ content means
We know we can’t just do content marketing, we have to do it better than our competitors and everyone else bidding for the attention of the people we’re trying to reach.
Trouble is, the word ‘better’ isn’t a very helpful guide to winning such a daunting competition. What does ‘better content’ even mean?
Unfortunately, the answer sounds banal as hell: make relevant, timely, useful content. Start with the audience’s needs and work backwards. Get closer to your prospects. Be empathetic. Generous. Helpful. Authentic. Aim high. Yadda-yadda-yadda.
It’s not that the advice is bad. It’s just that it’s been said a thousand times—and it’s way, way harder than it sounds. Especially in the context of a busy, pressurized marketing department trying to do far too many things.
The good news is that aiming for great instead of churning out Velveeta® brand cheese-food is also way more fun. Making ‘that’ll do’ content is easy. Trying to make outstanding content that slam-dunks its goals and incites mobs to march on Rome is the kind of challenge worth turning off Netflix for (and building a career on).
Phase Two of the content revolution—this phase—is where we all start to grapple with what really resonates with audiences. I can’t think of a more interesting or exciting challenge.
Thought experiment: what would happen if you took the budget and resources and time that you’ve allocated for your next 5-10 pieces of content, and poured it all into one, impossible, difficult, ambitious, amazing piece.
I suspect that you’d get far more than a 5-10x uplift over all those easier pieces. Might be 100x. Might even be 1000x. That’s good business.
Working much harder and investing much more in significantly fewer pieces may be the best approach for many B2B brands. Even better if you can supplement the home runs with a steady cadence of high-quality blog posts or a super-helpful video series (like Moz Whiteboard Fridays).
InVision produced an outstanding documentary called Design Disruptors. I’m sure it took 80-340 times more effort than an ebook on the same topic. But it was 8,000 times more effective.
(The pieces on Account Based Marketing we helped midwife for Engagio run anywhere from 120 to 163 pages long. Jon Miller is way too smart to invest in such slow, difficult, expensive pieces if they didn’t generate serious pipeline—significantly more than he’d get from a series of easier-to-produce-but-far-less-definitive pieces.)
In the last five years, most marketing teams have become pretty good at making credible, professional content. The process has become grooved.
But a groove is always in danger of turning into a rut. And, unless you work for the Ditch Witch Trencher Company, great content doesn’t come from ruts.
The big challenge for content marketers today is to resist the cozy call of the comfort zone.
Proven processes, streamlined assembly lines, and well-worked-out workflows are great for manufacturing motorbikes and mudguards. But they also systematically stifle innovation and actively prevent inspiring content.
As more and more people have the word ‘content’ on their business cards, we’re in danger of over-systematizing content marketing—something that happened to old-school PR (with notable exceptions).
At Velocity, we consistently preach and sometimes practice the idea of a ring-fenced budget for content experiments.
We’ve seen far too often that safe, predictable ideas will always suck the budget away from cool-but-scary ones.—unless you commit to a protected budget pool, earmarked for experimentation.
The trick to content experiments is to get all your stakeholders to enter into the experimental mindset with you. To make sure everyone knows that failure is not an unlikely, unexpected or unacceptable outcome. And to design your experiments so that you can fail fairly quickly and cheaply (and pocket the learning).
Yes, we all know we can do another white paper on issue X. But what would the same story look like as an interpretive dance or kazoo cantata? (Okay, probably pretty stupid: pick better experiments).
GE’s science fiction podcast, The Message, could only have started as an experiment. No one knew it would get 1.5 million listens in its first two weeks and hit #1 on iTunes. But someone had a twinkle that it just might.
Flex new formats
Gutenberg has been dead for 550 years (almost to the day as I write this). Why is it that so much marketing content wouldn’t even raise one of his bushy, medieval eyebrows?
He worked in lead type. We work in protocol-powered pixels. Surely, we can find new ways to tell stories that aren’t inherently page-based.
B2B marketing teams are getting better and better at demand-generation content—the kind that populates nurture flows and accelerates purchase journeys.
But B2B marketers are really bad at brand-level content—the kind that celebrates who you are and what you believe in. The kind that talks about why you do what you do. (We wrote about that in this Simon Sinek-inspired post).
Nearly 40 years ago, International Paper did a great campaign (before it was called content marketing) featuring great writers giving advice on The Power of the Printed Word. The Kurt Vonnegut one looked like this:
Wait. Forty years ago? A paper company talking about the power of language instead of about… paper? Yes, and I still remember it forty years later.
Last year, Xerox (with Y&R) did a brilliant, ambitious series called Set The Page Free, enlisting 14 world-famous writers to talk about work and writing and collaboration. Really entertaining videos. A collaborative book. A dedicated site. I now know so much more about why Xerox does what it does—and I like them infinitely more because of it. (Discolosure: a Velocity… client but we didn’t do that one. Dang).
This is what B2B brands should be doing today: brand-level content that celebrates what you believe in—your why—working together with all that content about what and how you do it.
Content marketing teams have so much to do, we want each piece to cover as broad an area as possible. A piece that ‘covers’ three personas instead of one sounds like good value (until you realize that it didn’t actually touch any of them).
But in a post-diluvian content world, relevance lives in tiny niches. We need to explore content that serves smaller audiences. When we hit a winning approach, we can worry about scaling up that success. But let’s not let workload fears stop us from getting specific.
Informatica (a V client) produced The Salesforce Manager’s Guide to Verifying Customer Data as well as a more general piece. Their solution validates customer data across a huge range of platforms, not just Salesforce. Why limit the audience? To maximize relevance for people who live and breathe Salesforce. (The specific piece significantly out-performed the general one).
Slow the hell down
At Velocity, the best content marketing we do tends to be the pieces that force us to slow down and think. But the default setting of most agencies and client-side teams is ‘faster’.
That’s a shame, because your target prospects won’t ever know—much less care—that you published their ebook on time. But they will now whether or not it made them think or feel anything.
We were really, really proud of all that. We loved making content about things we cared a lot about and we loved it even more when it seemed to resonate with people we respected. All super-encouraging.
But if a market can have things like nerves, Crap seems to have hit one.
The fucker took off.
We published it on a Thursday. Put out a tweet or two. Told our friends in the biz about it. No special promotional campaign.
By the end of the day, we’d hit 700 views.
By the end of Friday, 1,400.
On Monday, Martha came into the office (our tiny, first office in the old Printworks. Her desk was an Ikea extension to the kitchen counter) and said, “Did you see Crap? 20,000 views!”.
I thought she’d accidentally added a zero.
She hadn’t. And throughout the day, people would call out a new number. “30!” “35!”.
All that was thanks to a dance card full of amazing clients who took a punt on a foul-mouthed agency-with-attitude hiding in leafy West London and a windowless WeWork in New York. (Big shout out to our spirit animal soulmates at Sprint in Kansas City: your early, irrational faith in us told other guys—like Salesforce, Xerox, Amazon Web Services and Informatica— that we were trustable with some big briefs. ‘Gratitude’ is too small a word for the way that makes us feel).
So yes, Velocity is very much an agency built on Crap (and for a few years we were referred to as ‘the crap guys’. careful what you wish for). It’s hard to quantify the impact but it put us on the map; drove up all of our favourite vanity metrics (web traffic, views, downloads, shares); got us speaking engagements; made us new friends… and attracted new clients.
It also lifted the performance of all our other content, from our blog to the pieces we produced before and after. Some of the earlier pieces got 5-10 times more views post-Crap as they’d had pre-Crap (with zero additional promotion).
But the most important Crap effect wasn’t quantitative, it was qualitative: as it turned out, the marketers who were attracted by the attitude and energy of Crap were somewhere between 20 and 100 times more likely to be our kind of marketers. The piece (and our other content, I hope) resonated with confident, ambitious marketers who wanted to do great things. It also alienated timid, corporate, rule-monkeys.
And both of these effects made us who were are today. Because when you attract your ideal prospects instead of just any prospects, the work is better, more profitable and more fun.
We like to pretend that all of this was a strategic decision (dressing it up as a ‘psychographic targeting’ model). In truth, it was dumb luck. The simple consequence of being ourselves in public.
But when all of your clients are your kind of people—people whose definition of great marketing is the same as your own—everything becomes possible. It’s a thousand times more fun than trying to drag Luddites into the light and it’s the only way to attract the kind of talent that refuses to be associated with… crap. (Um, yes, we’re hiring).
(I’m a bit embarrassed, no deeply ashamed, to admit it now, but the fact that content marketing really does work—that it just might actually transform a business—came as a bit of a surprise to us. It’s disconcertingly unfamiliar when the things you’ve been telling people (like clients) turn out to be true. It’s also quite a relief.)
What we learned from the Crap experience
Before looking back at the predictions and prescriptions made in the Crap deck, I want to share a few things that it taught us:
A good rant can be a healthy thing – Helpful, how-to content and high-minded thought leadership all have their place in the content marketing mix. But sometimes a big, unabashed howl into the void is exactly what your audience wants.
Most of your content will be about what you think about your market. But don’t be afraid to tap into how you feel about it.
Timing beats brilliance – Crap shared a real fear and it happened to be a fear shared by a lot of marketers. It didn’t find an audience because it shined a light on a new idea; it found an audience because it expressed something a lot of marketers were already feeling.
Think about making content that taps into the moment. That captures what’s happening now and explores the implications.
Go negative – Somewhere, someone must have written a book that told marketers to always be positive. That’s utter nonsense. No, you don’t want to be seen as a brand with a chip on its shoulder. But you do want to be honest about the world. Crap is all about fear and doubt and neurosis. (Rand Fishkin of Moz, did another ‘negative’ slideshare called Why Content Marketing Fails. It got 4.4 million views.)
Don’t let anyone tell you that you can’t be negative. Hate is powerful stuff. Just be sure you’re hating the right things: the obstacles to your prospects’ success.
Dig for meaning – We’re big fans of Simon Sinek’s TED Talk all about getting to your ‘Why’. Part of Crap’s resonance may be that it touched on why we do what we do, instead of just how. And the only one of our pieces to come close to its success, The Search for Meaning n B2B, is all about meaning. Maybe Sinek is on to something.
Try content that digs down into why you do what you do. Do content whose only job is to celebrate what you believe in. It doesn’t try to teach or preach. It just celebrates your beliefs. Start with Why.
Unleash the attitude – For some reason, people stiffen up when they write and get all pedantic when they edit or review someone else’s writing. As Ann The Handley preaches, the best writing is when you let you be you.
In crowded, noisy markets, attitude can be a hugely powerful—and sometimes the ONLY—differentiator. Go for it.
Go long –Marketers are petrified of the fabled disappearing attention span of the new digital human. And they respond by making everything ‘snackable’. Well, I like snacking as much as the next guy, but sometimes you need a proper meal. When it’s good, long content dramatically out-performs short content. Crap is 50 pages (about a 5-minute read). Rand’s deck is 87. Engagio’s Clear and Complete Guide to Account Based Marketing is 142. They all do much more than a shitty little meme or a content-free infographic.
Make sure there are some big, chunky, definitive pieces in your content marketing mix. Work hard for your audience. Don’t be lazy.
Be fast – Our best stuff is written quickly, goes through fast revision rounds with a very few readers and is designed and coded in one big push instead of months of back and forth. The final pieces are better when they retain that energy, spontaneity and momentum. (Crap was written in an hour, edited over the course of a week and designed in three days).
Overthink and death-by-nitpick are sure-fire mojo-killers. Go faster. Respectfully dis-invite people from your review cycles. Just ship it.
Think about embeddability – I love Slideshare and YouTube because the content on them is embeddable (it’s also why we made our own String format embeddable). If a blogger likes your piece, they don’t just link to it, they embed it on their own blog: the ultimate endorsement. Embeds account for a half of Crap’s views. But you don’t just get embeds by being on an embeddable medium: you also have to make content people with no connection to you would be happy to share.
Think about the kind of content someone else in your market might be happy to embed. Do that. (Hint: zeitgeisty stuff good; self-promotion and hidden agendas bad).
Have fun – Fun is the best, most reliable guide to doing things other people might like. If you’re having fun making content, it will show. If you’re not, it will really show.
Make fun an actual metric in your marketing team. Follow the fun and good things will happen. Like the aero-geeks who made GE’s wonderful Paths of Flight.
Be lucky – We’re all quick to blame our failures on bad luck. But no one ever ascribes their successes to good luck. In truth, luck is without doubt the single most important contributor to success. ‘Be lucky’ may not be very actionable advice but you can increase the chances of luck striking: with an experimental mindset. (Crap was part of a wider experiment in using Slideshare as a proper medium—now quite common—instead of a place where presentations go to die).
Experiment more to increase your chances of getting lucky. Try new things all the time.
Don’t believe the data – I love to quote the 4 million ‘Views’ of Crap, but it’s actually a shameless lie. Slideshare defines a View as every time someone loads the page that contains the piece. If that’s a ‘view’, then I’ve ‘read’ James Joyce’s Ulysses 19 times and ‘climbed’ the Matterhorn twice (Real World: picked up the former, drove past the latter). The Velocity String format lets us see drop-off rates: how many people start a piece but don’t finish it. It’s not just humbling, it’s downright degrading.
Go ahead and flash the vanity metrics around town. But don’t let them go to your head. Divide by umpteen and you’re getting close.
So did Crap come true?
The central prediction of Crap was that the days of easy wins from content marketing would soon come to an end.
Was our advice for fighting against this by building a great content brand good advice?
That’s the subject of the next Crappiversary post… (Give me a few days).
There are two kinds of content marketers in B2B: Plumbers and Persuaders:
Plumbers are focused on the pipes, couplings and elbow joints of demand generation.
They design increasingly complex nurture flows, set them up in their chosen marketing automation platforms and (I hope and trust) link them to their CRM systems so you can associate clicks to revenue.
Persuaders are focused on the things that go on within each content experience or interaction.
They spend their time thinking about the ability of a piece of content to actually move a reader (or viewer or listener). At things like voice, story, structure and strength of argument; at design, format and user experience.
Here’s the part where I say, “Here’s the thing”:
Here’s the thing:
Plumbers and Persuaders are both critically important.
If either fails at his or her job, the machinery of B2B sputters to a halt, the MQL reservoir runs dry and the EMEA VP of Accountability & Ass-Kicking comes thundering in to harvest someone’s head. (I’m picturing the bastard love-child of Quentin Tarrantino and David Brent).
If it’s an equation, it goes:
Great Plumbing x Great Persuading = Great Results
If either are set to zero, the output is zero.
Wonderful nurture flows full of lousy content? <fart sound>
Amazing content stuck in little islands? <quack quack>
Everyone would probably agree with that math (and those sound effects).
But here’s the other thing:
Today, B2B marketing is in danger of swinging too far towards the Plumbers at the expense of the Persuaders.
As the power of MarTech becomes clear to everyone, most marketing teams are spending almost all of their time, energy and resources on identifying the right tools, assembling them into a working stack and twiddling the many knobs and dials to try to optimize the machine.
That makes sense.
This is a new discipline. Marketing automation, analytics are new tools. So are all the other crowded boxes on Scott Brinker’s ChiefMarTech supergraphic (next year’s will come with a free electron microscope).
Getting good at all this new stuff takes focus.
But if we swing too far towards the plumbing of B2B, we lose sight of some important things:
Content is not a colourless, odourless fluid that we pour into our new machines, then stand back to watch the money squirt out.
If the content itself does not actually change the person reading/viewing/hearing it, you haven’t moved them along the mythical buyer’s journey (even if your nurture flow says you have).
Changing a person is still as hard as it’s ever been (maybe harder).
If this sounds like the desperate ravings of a frightened, aging, precious, old-school, Madison Avenue, copywriting snowflake that may well be because it’s the desperate ravings of a frightened, aging, precious, old-school, Madison Avenue, copywriting snowflake.
But it’s also the pragmatic warning of an enthusiastic, data-snorting, right-brained, bespectacled martech-geek who’s hugely excited about the power and potential of making B2B better through science.
Because here’s the last time I say ‘here’s the thing’:
What if we can master both?
If we can bring together the best Plumbers with the best Persuaders, we can build invincible marketing robots who will stalk the land, squashing all pretenders underfoot, micro-detecting every flicker of intent and suctioning the last ducat, peso, yen and rupee from the pocket of every unsuspecting prospect.
If we can build friction-free marketing machines AND fuel them with smart, clear, delightful, compelling content… we can conquer the world (or at least the world of supply chain management software).
If we bring together amazing content strategists, writers, designers, developers, marketing automators, analysts, demand-gen ninjas and data scientists—then get in some wood-fired oven-baked pizza and someone to remove the fucking pineapple… we can rock the night away and make sweet love till the dawn ignites the morning sky and… the… birds of… happy… sing their… songs of… (never mind).
Here’s the absolutely last time I say, ‘Here’s the thing’:
I’m a career-long Persuader wearing the dirty coveralls of an apprentice Plumber.
I’m deeply invested in both kinds of B2B marketing (I unashamedly believe we employ some of the best Persuaders AND the best Plumbers in the biz—though we’re always, eagerly, looking for more).
So this is not an axe-grinding thing.
This is a balance thing.
That content is not a node on a drag & drop process map.
It’s a story made to move a person.
If it’s made well, it will do that.
If it’s not, that node on that drag & drop process map is guaranteed to be a dead end.
So let’s work hard to become amazing plumbers.
But let’s never forget that what we’re plumbing is content designed to move people.
And that if we fail at this old job, we will never master the new one.
But in B2B tech? These are the main jobs that product names need to do.
There’s a reason for that.
Through some combination of your product’s name and marketing, your aim is to help your customers to find, identify and buy your product.
The name plays a role in that, and the marketing plays a role in that.
Which means that if you call your automated texting tool a ‘customer experience solution’, the name’s contribution is so feeble that:
At best it’s a wasted opportunity to help your customers find and identify your product.
And at worst, it’s confusingly off-putting for the people that actually need it.And not only that – it means you’re going to have to spend a ton more cash on marketing to do the job it’s failing to do: explaining what this thing is, or does.
Even just calling it an ‘Automated-Texting Tool’, would make it a lot easier to find, and ultimately a lot easier to buy. And that’s the game we’re in.
So perhaps there’s a compromise here.
In fact I’ll let you off.
On just one condition.
You can keep ‘solution’ in product names.
Just so long as you combine it with the minimum number of words** it takes to absolutely nail what this thing is, or what this thing does.
That way the name will make a more meaningful contribution to your sales, and you have to spend less cash on marketing.
Do we have a deal? I hope so.
Right, I best go. I’ve got an appointment at the foot pharmacy.
What was it called again?
*usually it refers to a product that’s part tech and part managed-by-actual-humans
I’ve been seeing a lot of ‘Mega-Influencer Roundups’ that ask the question, “What single thing would make the biggest difference to every B2B marketing strategy?”.
None of them have asked me yet, so I’ve decided to ask myself myself. And here’s my answer:
The single thing that would make the biggest difference to every B2B marketing strategy is to write a detailed profile of your ideal prospect and get everyone in Sales and Marketing to sign it. In blood. (Or, like, red ink).
I really do believe it’s the one act that will make the most impact on your marketing. And even though it sounds obvious—and you may feel you already do it—it’s incredibly rare in B2B.
This post is my endearingly naive attempt to change that, making the world a better place not just for marketers but also for every victim of marketing (including you and, especially, me).
A thought experiment
You’re about to give a short pitch to an auditorium full of people.
No: two pitches to two audiences. One in Room A, one in Room B.
Room A is full of people who your products are literally made for. Every one of them suffers from the acute pains that your products alleviate. They all have the perfect job titles in the right size companies in your target industries. They hate the things you hate and love the things you love. These are your people.
In Room B, the audience was chosen at random from a bunch of people who are milling and mingling in and around your market. Homo Sapiens. The sentient. A few of them might even be good prospects. Hard to tell.
Now think about how much easier it will be to talk to the audience in Room A. How much more rewarding when they start to nod in agreement as you sketch out their world and list their biggest challenges. How confident you’ll feel as you outline how your solutions slam-dunk those very challenges. How validating when they clap.
Now think of how deadening it will be to talk to the people in Room B. No real response. An oil painting. Maybe one guy in row Q looks up from his Android and coughs. No one asks any questions. You get feeble, polite applause (if any) as you slink off stage.
Well, today, we’re all spending a fortune to market to Room B.
Most B2B companies are so scared of closing down anything that just might, might, might turn into an opportunity (spoiler alert: won’t) that we cast the World’s Widest Net with the world’s smallest holes.
We try to appeal to absolutely everyone in our ‘addressable universe’, saying nothing that might alienate even the tiniest micro-segment.
Weirdly, this obsession to appeal to everyone virtually guarantees that we actually resonate with no one.
There’s a better approach and it’s the exact opposite one: instead of widening your net, narrow it.
Focus entirely on your ideal prospects.
Every B2B marketing team feels it has a good grasp of its target audience.
After all, there’s that detailed-but-kinda-dusty persona document lying around somewhere. In it, there are little stock photos of ‘Scott the IT Guy’ and ‘Miranda the Procurement Asshole’ (just me?). We even gave them cute little kids (Brett and Kayla) and token hobbies (Scott’s into carp fishing. Miranda likes pulling the wings off of flies.).
But these stereotypical snapshots are just job titles with false identities. Shady, out-of-focus characters enrolled in some kind of Prospect Protection Program.
They’re nowhere near your ideal prospects.
Who are your ideal prospects?
Your ideal prospects are defined by two things:
They’re the people MOST likely to buy your stuff – Not a little more likely, dramatically more likely. For a whole host of reasons we’ll touch on in a sec.
They’re the customers most likely to love you once they do buy – This is not the same as the first group. It’s a subset of the first group. They’re the people for whom your products are a perfect fit.
These people are as different from your generic personas as my mother is from a cardboard cut-out of a stock photo of an 83-year old man with the word “Doug’s Mother” scrawled across it.
Ideal prospects don’t just differ from ‘pretty good prospects’ in one or two ways (company size, industry). They’re different in about a dozen ways – from the superficial to the absolutely critical.
Bob Apollo from Inflexion Point produced a great guide on this topic called Identifying Your Ideal Customers. (When I’m elected Most High Emperor of the Council of B2B Elders, reading it will become mandatory. And there will be a quiz.)
In it, Bob helps you tease out all the many different dimensions that make a prospect ideal. He groups the dimensions into handy buckets, including:
Demographic – the company size, industry etc (where most marketing personas end but where ideal prospect definitions start).
For Velocity, our ideal prospects are B2B tech companies over a certain size (though size isn’t always that important a factor).
Structural – their market position, growth strategy, competitive products used…
For us, it tends to be disruptors shaking up their markets. Companies driving change in their own markets. They’re also way more likely to have CRM and marketing automation in place (if not yet firing on all cylinders).
Behavioural – this is about their decision-making processes, their appetite for innovation, etc.
We add beliefs and ‘psychographics’ to this category, so for us it’s: confident, ambitious marketers with some power inside their companies. Data-driven, results-monkeys who know why a strong brand and clear voice are important things.
Situational – they’ve recently experienced some kind of trigger events, like a change in management, new investment round, big market shake-up…
For Velocity, this might mean a new CMO, a recent acquisition or a plan to enter a new market. Also, maybe a failed or faltering demand-gen initiative.
Bob’s piece then helps you build a table where you score each of the dimensions you’ve identified (and spot things that ‘qualify out’ a prospect). Then shows you how to turn that table into a short narrative.
As you think about your prospects in this way, something weird starts to happen. That fuzzy target you’ve always been aiming at suddenly snaps into focus.
And once your ideal prospect is clearly in focus, the zillion decisions you make every day as a marketer become a lot clearer.
Re-thinking your metrics when you focus on ideal prospects
The most important metrics in sales and marketing all get dramatically better when you stop focusing on ‘bipeds who walk upright’ and start focusing all your efforts on ideal prospects.
Opens, clicks, bounce rates, time on site, pages per session, conversion rates, email sign-ups, product trial rates, trial-to-purchase rates, product usage, loyalty, renewals, positive reviews…all go up.
Yes, a few vanity metrics might go down: web traffic may decrease. But the traffic you do get will be so much better that you’ll run around showing the declining Google Analytics chart to everyone.
(Joe Chernov, the uber-smart VP of Marketing at InsightSquared, said that, when he took the job, his goal was for his blog traffic to stay flat or decrease a bit—but for the traffic to be replaced with people from their named account list. How brave is that to say out loud?)
Also (and this may be tough to think about) the number of so-called “Marketing-Qualified Leads” might go down. That’s probably because it was a lie anyway. These leads were no more qualified than if you threw a rock into the crowd at an Anthrax concert and plucked out the guy it hit after bouncing off the guy it hit first.
If your leads really were MQLs, then the number won’t go down much when you focus on your ideal prospects. But if they were actually just people who downloaded a whitepaper, then, yes, you will pass fewer of these to Sales. As well you bloody should.
(You may want to buy Sales a frappuccino to discuss this new, ‘a-bit-fewer-but-way-better’ dynamic. Otherwise, it could get ugly.)
The big upside of focusing on ideal prospects
Let’s look a bit more into the benefits you get when you stop worrying about attracting everyone in the market and start focusing on the best fits:
You multiply your chance of resonating with these most important people. Pause to consider that: you multiply your chance of resonating with the people most likely to buy. You want this. You definitely want this.
Your sales cycles will accelerate – Selling to every shlump who stumbles over your welcome mat is hard work. Selling to ideal prospects is largely a matter of answering their questions as quickly and truthfully as you can. Salespeople really prefer this and will thank you for sending them more of these and fewer shlumps.
Average order values go up – Because these folks value what you do.
You’ll get a lot less churn – When you sell to the wrong people, they tend to figure it out… and leave. When you sell to the right people, they tend to stick around… and spend.
Which means more and louder customer advocates – Happy customers tweeting and instagramming their enthusiasm are worth their weight in Bitcoin. They’ll also be more willing to give you a case story, act as a customer reference and speak at your events. Ka-ching.
And marketing’s stock within the company shoots up – Because the revenue pipeline you create and influence has real revenue in it instead of imaginary revenue (the kind that makes up 86% of most ‘pipelines’ out there).
All this goodness happens when you concentrate your budget on the people most likely to buy and love your stuff instead of spraying your budget in a fine mist across some job titles.
The downside of focusing on ideal prospects
There are some downsides to the obsessive focus on ideal prospects—but they’re far outweighed by the value we just talked about.
Re-focusing your marketing machine in this way will require some change. And change demands change management: talking to all your stakeholders; getting executive sponsorship; evangelizing the need to change; marketing your successes…
Frankly, it’s a pain in the arse. But not nearly as much as the alternatives.
Remember: when you focus on ideal prospects, you still get plenty of heat radiating out from this hot center. You aren’t refusing to sell to anyone else, you’re just laser-focusing on ideal prospects. Others loitering nearby will hear that conversation, and some will be compelled by it into becoming ideal prospects themselves.
Still others will continue to approach the edge of your funnel… and some will fall in.
A virtuous circle
As you find your ideal prospects and serve them slavishly, you kick off a feedback loop that keeps making your company better.
Think about it: if your product marketers get their feedback from a mixed bag of happy and not-so-happy customers, the product development will get distorted accordingly. Making your product decreasingly appealing to the next ideal prospect.
But when they gather feedback from ideal customers, the product roadmap will become increasingly ideal-customer-optimized. Your products will get better and better for the people who matter most.
That feedback loop works inside the marketing team too. Your laser-focused efforts will be rewarded while your blind punts will not. So you’ll do more of the focused kind.
How your ideal prospect focus will shape your content marketing
Marketing in general—and content marketing in particular—is a game of choices. Lots and lots of choices.
When everyone is marching under a flag with the picture of your ideal prospect embroidered on it, those choices get a lot simpler.
Does that piece of content reflect everything we know about our ideal prospects?
How likely is it to resonate with these specific people?
Are we casting too wide a net, hoping to get lucky?
Do our ideal prospects hang out where we’re promoting our content?
Are the issues we’re discussing the ones they care most about?
Are we talking the way they talk?
Typical B2B marketing tries to not alienate anyone (including your ideal prospects).
Ideal-prospect-obsessed marketing tries much harder to resonate with the few—by being willing to alienate the many.
How an ideal prospect focus worked for Velocity
Nothing is more liberating than a clear idea of who will love your company and its products and who will just look at them and go, ‘Meh’.
We know this because this exact strategy transformed our own business (okay, we call it a strategy now, but it was really dumb luck).
When we started out as an agency, we looked across our client base and noticed something: for some clients, we did great work, had a ton of fun, made good money and had a happy, productive relationship.
For other clients, everything was like pulling teeth. Projects were painfully slow. Our margins disappeared. The team got demoralized and the clients weren’t happy.
So when we started to publish our own content, we wrote it for the former types (confident, ambitious marketers who had earned some power in their companies). We did it knowing that we’d probably actively alienate the second kind of client: the ones we’d be out of sync with. We weren’t just okay with that, we were eager for it.
As we were increasingly approached by our ideal marketers, the business changed dramatically. Today, our dance card is filled with the kind of marketers we love working with. They have the same ideas about what makes for great marketing. They’re up for trying new things. They enjoy marketing the same way we do.
Turns out, that’s not just a whole hell of a lot more fun, it also leads to way better work and a much stronger business.
(This effect is probably magnified because we’re in a relationship business. Getting it wrong is a high-ticket mistake. But the same principle applies to makers of ball bearings: if you sell to sphere-o-philes who desperately need to reduce rotational friction while supporting radial and axial loads, you’re on a better-smarter-faster track than if you sell to ‘people who need metal things’).
If you don’t have a super-clear idea of who your ideal prospect is, everything you do in your sales and marketing will be much, much harder.
But if you do have a clear idea, everything gets much, much easier.
So I urge you to do that.
Focusing on your ideal prospects depends on everyone agreeing on what an ideal prospect is.
So it’s critical to get everyone who will ever review or comment on or benefit from your marketing to agree on this ideal prospect profile.
Achieving alignment around this might be hard work. But it’s important work. Probably the most important work you will ever do.
So you know when you get married and your new spouse takes you on a tour of family members—Uncle Freddie with the magic tricks, Aunt Olga with the lovely laugh, Ernie who yodels on demand—just so you can feel a part of the whole crazy thing?
And we want to introduce you to some of our new sisters, brothers, cousins and mad uncles.
Some of our new family members won’t be all that relevant to B2B-marketing-obsessed readers (like ODD who do awesome things in fashion; and Connections Media who work with public affairs clients).
But a lot of them are really, really relevant to the B2B marketers like you.
So here’s the first of an occasional series on our super siblings:
Meet the Family: Introductions to B2B Agencies You Really Ought To Know More About.
Like the world-famous ‘Let’s Steal From’ series, this one will appear whenever the hell I can manage it, like poorly-constructed clockwork.
I promise I won’t push anything at you that I wouldn’t recommend to our own clients. And I won’t pretend to know more than I do about them. But as we get to know this really quite impressive group we stumbled into, it feels only right to share our discoveries.
So here goes.
Meet Encore Digital Media, the B2B programmatic advertising people
While all the other programmatic media companies are out there zagging after consumer budgets, the smart folks at Encore decided to zig straight into the deep end: the much harder challenges of long-cycle, multi-buyer B2B markets.
Turns out that was a really good call. Because B2B needs programmatic every bit as much as B2C does but there are very, very few media agencies who understand B2B.
That’s why clients like Cisco, IBM, HP, SAP, Sage, CA and Google have become clients. And why they’ve grown like wildfire since launching in 2013.
And why Next 15 invested in them.
If programmatic is hot. B2B programmatic is cult-TV-series-with-‘Thrones’-in-the-name hot.
We’d met Daniel Shaw, one of the founders, a while back and had already done a project or two with them (which went quite well). So as soon as we joined Next 15, we invited him to visit us and tell the V team all about programmatic and the Encore approach to finding and targeting precise audiences.
He came in with Doug Green, commercial director, and Kristen Sesto, data consultant, and, together, they… blew us away. If you’re trying to reach B2B buyers and have noticed it’s getting harder and harder to do, you need to know these guys.
10 things you should know about Encore’s B2B programmatic approach
They work with you to build audiences – targeting super-specific audiences like “IT people in healthcare companies with over $3bn in revenue” or “CMOs in consumer marketing companies who also love golf”.
Then they go out and find those audiences – using your first-party data and their own data from over 70 publishers, database owners, jobs boards, events companies… adding up to a massive store of cookie data they can build lists from. Then supplement that with third-party data from vendors like D&B, Bombora and Grapeshot.
B2B programmatic campaigns run from 2 months to forever – using a defined list of approved sites (none of the dross that the ‘content discovery networks’ will stick you with). With accredited viewability partners, so you know you’re getting what you pay for.
Goals tend to be Awareness-related – but they can also build a content funnel that move people to progressively more intense content, one ad at a time. And can target named accounts to support your ABM program.
It’s all privacy-compliant – Encore anonymizes all data and aggregates it into tight segments, so you don’t breach any regulations (like GDPR).
They price their B2B programmatic campaigns on CPM – the maximum you want to spend per thousand impressions. Then you cap your monthly budget. As a guideline, you can start in the £10k/month range.
They use the best tech platforms out there – instead of trying to develop their own, in-house stack, Encore uses advanced platforms like Blue Kai and Media Math as its DMP and DSP.
They also do B2B retargeting (but cleverly) – serving the right ads to people who hit your landing pages. With smart frequency capping so you don’t spam the shit out of the people you need to make friends with.
They generate insights into your audiences – showing you all about the people visiting your sites and what they do pre- and post-campaign.
They’re smart, super-nice, service-oriented people – who will steer you to the best strategies based on deep experiences – and who won’t take your budget if they can’t help you.
A great time to do B2B programmatic advertising.
If you think about it, the entire programmatic advertising ecosystem was built to serve consumer brands with enormous audiences.
That means, if we’re smart, B2B folks can use the ecosystem in incredibly cost-effective ways. CPMs are really affordable and audiences are relatively small, so you can do a lot with a little budget.
And because the social media platforms have strangled off all organic reach, you’re going to have to use paid media to get your content and your brand in front of the right people.
Programmatic gives you the upside of advertising (broad reach and awareness) without the huge wastage that drove B2B brands away.
At Velocity, we’re always looking for smart, cost-effective way to get content in front of the right audiences. B2B programmatic advertising is already becoming a big part of that.
I expect to see more and more of the Encore folks.
A lot of big brands are getting absolutely slammed on the Internet lately.
Sometimes it’s for something one of their employees got caught doing. Like United dragging that guy off the plane because he… bought a ticket. Or banning two kids for wearing… kid’s clothes.
Sometimes it’s because of what management got caught doing. Like Barclays Bank rigging the Libor rates. Or their CEO trying to out a whistleblower.
But, increasingly, the brand-shaming is brought on by marketing. Like the stunningly tone-deaf Kendall Jenner Pepsi ad (I joined in on that one, in this schadenfreude-drenched post).
Another recent one is Dove’s ‘Real Beauty Bottles’ campaign.
How Dove got slammed
If you missed it, Dove put out a set of ‘limited edition body washes’ (there’s a phrase I never thought I’d write) with six different, kinda-woman-shaped bottles.
It was done by Ogilvy London, the UK branch of the agency behind their massively successful ‘Real Women, Real Beauty’ campaign.
“Beauty comes in a million different shapes and sizes,” says the Dove website, “Our six exclusive bottle designs celebrate this diversity: just like women, we wanted to show that our iconic bottle can come in all shapes and sizes, too.”
Ogilvy London’s creative director Andre Laurentino told Ad Age, “The Real Beauty Bottles is one of those rare ideas which condenses decades of a brand’s legacy in two seconds.”
Here’s the video:
Celebrate the many shapes and sizes of beauty | Dove - YouTube
When this one went live, the Internet (that billion-headed beast) paused for a few seconds to decide what it thought.
And gave it a massive thumbs down.
I’m never sure how these things start. (It would be cool to study the outbreak of an Internet scourging).
Maybe it starts with some negative tweets, like these:
With Pepsi’s Jennergate, it was clear where the brand got it wrong.
With the Dove bottles, I really don’t get it.
The criticism seems mostly based on two objections:
Why would anyone buy a body wash to match their body type?
This is weird because Dove never said people should try to match their own body type when they buy. Just that bottles (like women) can come in all shapes and sizes.
I don’t need no soap brand to tell me I’m okay.
This one hurts, because it’s true: we really don’t need brands helping us with our self-esteem. (Of course, this objection would kill a zillion ads).
What I really don’t get is why did this idea cross the invisible tripwire?
Dove has been sponsoring self-esteem messages for decades now. The Real Women campaign was almost universally celebrated (in marketing circles – it did get some shit elsewhere). And it added billions in value to the brand.
Why was it okay to talk about women’s self image issues for so many years and all of a sudden become not okay?
Teen Vogue has no idea either: “We’re all for celebrating what makes us unique, but this literal approach seems to miss the mark.”
But WHY does this one miss the mark?
The Washington Post speculates, “The revamped bottles seem more tongue-in-cheek than they do a sincere way of celebrating women’s bodies.”
Maybe it’s that. That it’s a gimmick that somehow betrays the perceived sincerity of the original campaign.
But I think the backlash is pretty unfair.
I think it’s a fun, clever idea, well-executed. A bit gimmicky but pretty much on-strategy. And I’m genuinely surprised by the outcry over such a small play.
Funnily enough, it’s not like anyone really cares that much. But when The Internet turns against you, it looks and feels like a huge thing. The sheer number of mini-posts, each carrying a payload of bad vibes, adds up to a really big sound.
A million “Tsk”s (that tooth-sucky sound) becomes a deafening roar.
The Internet has spoken. And the poor guys at Ogilvy London have their day in the marketing stocks.
I feel bad for them.
I don’t think they did anything wrong.
They just crossed an invisible line and – boom – life turns to shit for the brand team and the agency.
And there’s absolutely no use fighting back.
No amount of explanation or defense will turn people around or erase the damage.
They just have to scrap the whole (super-expensive) campaign and slink off to lick their wounds.
And that sucks.
Because this was an innovative idea with good intentions and a solid strategy – and it was brave to actually make it happen. They could have just Photoshopped an image and saved themselves all sorts of meetings, budget and, as it happens, pain.
Think of how much work went into this. To convince the client to go for it. To cost the thing up. To tool up a whole bottling line for the new shapes. To make the video and the web page to launch it.
All that… to get shat on on the most public stage of all.
Are there any real lessons here?
It’s hard to find anything more helpful than “Don’t cross any invisible lines.”
And can turn a brand into an overnight hit… or take away all that mojo on a whim.
Be very afraid
I like corporation-bashing as much as the next guy (actually slightly more than the next guy but not as much as the guy next to the next guy) – but this trend scares me.
Public beatings like this will make all marketers a lot more timid.
They’ll inevitably lead to the premature death of tens of thousands of good ideas (and, to be fair, hundreds of thousands of bad ones).
If the price of trying something different is this high, we’ll all aim low.
To steer straight for the middle of the road.
Where it’s safe from the collective ‘Tsks’ of the Internet.
Because no one ever slams yet another soap ad about smoother, softer skin.
The real lesson
Maybe the real lesson here is that brands shouldn’t overstep their boundaries in their search for ‘deeper meaning’.
Maybe people are starting to get sick of brands pretending to have deep values and beliefs when really they’re just… products with a sprinkling of connotation on top.
If so, we’re entering an interesting time. Because, for the last decade or so, every brand has been chasing it’s ‘Why’. Looking beneath the obvious performance benefits of a product (‘Cleans your face without drying it’) to discover something way more important (‘Celebrates women of all shapes, sizes and colours’).
Simon Sinek told us that no one buys what you do, they buy why you do it. That’s what made Nike Nike and Apple Apple.
But maybe a new generation of consumers is starting to get tired of that game. To see right through it.
Maybe people have figured out that beers can’t care. Only people can care. And if those people are on brand teams, then that caring may be hiding another agenda (um: beer sales?).
If that’s what’s happening, brand stewards have some choices to make:
Think hard about attaching your brand to things that matter way more than your brand ever could.
If you do decide to go that route: walk the talk. Paying for one child-of-a-veteran’s college education, then spending 90 times more to broadcast that fact to the world (as Bud just did with Adam Driver), may not work any more. (It did for them… whew).
In short: know your place.
Recognise that the real role you play in people’s lives might just be cleaning their faces or satisfying their thirsts.
And that maybe that’s all people want from you anyway.
But we can’t help but feel that, as an industry, we B2B content marketers haven’t really gone fully… digital-native yet. To find new content formats that use our big and small screens for what they do best.
Let’s not pull our punches, a lot of the content formats B2B marketers use would still feel familiar to Johannes Gutenberg (YouTube would probably blow his pre-hipster beard off but you know what I mean: were kind of still in a pixellated version of ink-on-paper).
Coinciding with this digital storytelling restlessness is a voracious appetite for data about how audiences consumer our content.
Our content performance team is getting really, really good at linking web analytics to marketing automation and CRM to start to piece together whole customer snail trails.
Having tasted the insight generated by this data, we’ve gone all greedy. We want more, more more.
So one day, we were eating lunch at the tables in front (Feel Good Bakery sandwiches. Yum.) and a few writers and designers started chatting to a few developers about the need for new formats that would feed back more data. Really granular data about how each user experienced each story.
And the devs got that look in their eyes and slunk off to their dark, pizza-strewn corner of the Velocity Towers campus (Think Googleplex but without the budget.)(Or taste, scale, ambition and sense of entitlement).
And, like a month later, they called an informal meeting to show us something cool.
The cool thing was an HTML presentation tool called Reveal.js – a framework that re-creates the functionality of Slideshare but on a web page. With potential for a whole lot more.
Fast forward a few months and the team had extended the core reveal.js framework to give us more developer control and better analytics. And, voilà, we had ourselves a new digital format called… (drumroll…. hold it…. longer…. cymbal crash!)
Introducing Velocity String™ – a new content format
A Velocity String™ is a new digital format for telling stories. And we’re really, really excited about it.
String (we’ll dispense with the TM from here on — who are we kidding, we haven’t trademarked it yet) combines a lot of things we like about our existing formats into a new thing that has user experience, creative production and analytics benefits.
Here’s a summary of its main features:
User Experience things
String is born for the screen, not the page. But it still creates familiar experiences that people will recognise and feel at home in. It has stuff like:
A slideshow viewer – the core metaphor
A range of transitions – kind of limitless; but you don’t want to over-use these
Video – for backgrounds or whole embedded videos of any length
Audio – embedded and played automatically or on clicking
Animations – cool little twiddles or full-on SVG animations (don’t know what that means but love saying it).
Drill-downs – so you’re not tied to the one, linear path
Branching – so you can let users fork into different paths and storylines
Navigation – via on-screen arrows or the keyboard arrow keys or links
Interactivity – with buttons or sliders or things to play with
Other embeds – like whole slideshares or any other i-Framey thing
Forms – with data capture behind them (or push it right to your Marketo or whatever)
Already, you can start thinking beyond the slavishly linear formats and consider the potential of non-linear experiences. On top of that, you get massive gains on accessibility and SEO – with every page scrape-able, so friendly to search spiders.
Each slide also has its own URL, so you can send people links to an inner page.
And it’s device agnostic, so gives a good experience on mobiles and tablets too (there’s room for improvement on this but it beats serving a desktop web page to iPhones and Androids).
Finally, it’s embeddable! (Which is how we dropped in the examples below). That’s great because people who love your Strings—and they will—can easily drop the whole experience into their own blog.
Creative production things
Since it’s based on a framework, Strings have a lot of re-usability. The more we make, the more components and modules and code snippets and bells and whistles we put into our library.
So we can deliver big user experiences without re-inventing the wheel every time. And get richer stories to market faster.
Compared to PDFs, Strings can be easily updated too. So if you see that everyone is dropping off at Slide 11, you can hop in and change it. Already we’re seeing some surprising things that we could never see in our eBooks or Slideshares (the latter calls it a ‘view’ when you load the page – even if the reader got to slide 2 and buggered off).
Considering what a rich content format they can be, Strings are pretty lightweight (if you don’t throw in too much HD video) so page load times are snazzy. Google likes that.
We’ve always loved Slideshare and YouTube and other third-party content-sharing sites. But they really don’t give you much on the data and analytics front. Even worse, the data you do get from them tends to live in silos, disconnected from your web analytics.
With Strings, you get really granular analytics that you can plumb right into your existing analytics package (Google Analytics, Adobe… whatever you like), including things like:
Time on each page
Time in the whole String
Form fields filled
Pretty much anything you can measure you can capture and send to your chosen analytics package. That means you can create detailed reports not only about String consumption but also about where each experience fits in the wider customer journeys. (Neil loves that).
I can’t think of a content format with the potential for such granular analytics. And we’re already seeing the benefits.
Here are some Strings used in B2B content marketing programs
Usually, when we try something new, we have to produce one for ourselves before we can recommend it to clients. (We never could have sold in ‘rants’ if we hadn’t done the Crap slideshare first. Now it’s a core content format for Velocity.).
But with Strings, Jodie presented it to our wonderful clients at Sprint and they wanted one right away, sight unseen. So here’s our first ever String, the Agile Business Manifesto:
Click on the title slide, then use your keyboard’s arrow keys to navigate this (we’re working on getting clicks & swipes to work in embeds as well as they do on the page or smartphone or tablet):
Whenever we do a new content format, it takes a few goes before we really learn what it’s good at. In this case, I think the learning is happening pretty fast. We still need to master drill-downs and branching stories – things no other content format does very well – but for the core experience, we’re starting to feel at home.
Onward and upward – but also sidewards –with new content formats
Clearly, a Velocity String isn’t a complete re-invention of the web experience or an entirely new content format. Instead, it combines a lot of well-known elements into something new.
But what I love is that Strings address real content marketing problems – in the way we tell stories, create content and measure impact – in a simple, efficient, elegant way.
We’ll be posting more about our experiences with Strings, so watch this space. And there are some more digital-native content formats in the pipeline. Turns out, instead of satisfying our itch for new ways to tell stories, playing with Strings has just made us hungrier.
Here are links to two more recent Strings. Happy clicking:
If I’m ever asked about my ‘favourite marketing metrics’ (it happens when you live the B2B thug life), I usually start with a stock phrase, “Well, revenue is the mother of all metrics, but short of that, I like…”
But, even as I say it, I know in my heart that it’s wrong. (Then why do you say it, jerk?)
Revenue is not the end goal of all marketing.
Revenue is itself a leading indicator of the most important metric in business.
The most important metric in business is profit.
Businesses exist to make profit. They do it by generating margin-bearing revenue.
You can go out of business – many have – by growing the wrong kind of revenue, the low-margin, no-margin or negative-margin kind.
There are no prizes for the top line. Investors only reward the bottom one.
As the creative snowflakes of the business world, marketers don’t tend to worry our pretty little heads over this distinction.
But we should.
Because a strategy that chases any revenue will be far less effective than one that chases high-margin revenue.
Part of the problem is that we’re allowed to define ‘effective’ for ourselves, and we tend to stop at revenue — after all, it’s hard enough. Let the salespeople and finance folks worry about maximizing profit, our job is to herd every sucker with a budget into the hopper.
But if we change that mindset our marketing will not only make a bigger impact on the bottom line, it will also have a better chance of lifting all the metrics along the way, from traffic and likes and shares to time-on-page and pages-per visit to MQLs and ‘pipeline’.
Say you have two products, a licensed software product and a cloud version of the same thing. Turns out, the cloud version costs less (generates lower revenue) but is way more profitable – the margin is higher from the first month of the subscription and gets even better over the lifetime of the relationship (among other things, it’s way cheaper to maintain and support the single cloud version than the nine licensed versions).
Marketing that chases revenue would just promote the core benefits of the software and create content programs and nurture flows all around bringing in people who want that functionality. Then you’d let them choose their own path to cloud or licensed version.
The ‘pipeline’ would look great (I always put the word ‘pipeline’ in finger-quotes because I’ve seen the rates at which they tend to convert). The ultimate topline revenue would look impressive too. Prizes, pizzas and promotions all around.
But if you decided to chase profits instead of revenues, your whole program would change.
The first thing you’d do is to try to isolate the audience segments most likely to go cloud.
To understand everything you could about them.
To analyze every existing cloud customer to see how they differ from your on-premise* software customers.
You’d run some predictive analytics to spot cloud-likely prospects as early as possible, then treat them differently so you could turn their absent-minded purchase ramble into a lubricated water-flume of love.
If you succeed in this kind of marketing (and you will. I can just tell), you will make a lot more money for your company. Not revenues. Money.
But here’s the thing:
In optimizing around profit, you’re also optmizing around your ideal prospects instead of around your average prospects.
The cloud-bound instead of the licensed laggards.
Ideal prospects are those who most value most of the things you offer.
They’re the folks most in sync with your business. They love your strengths way more than most people and don’t mind your weaknesses at all.
That’s why they’re high margin.
People pay more for things they value more. (Not always up-front but over time, you extract more value from ideal prospects than average ones). (It’s kind of a tautology).
Ideal prospects also buy faster, are easier to support and more likely to say nice things about you on Twitter.
When you orient your marketing around these people, you start to resonate more with them.
You speak their language, not the language of the average prospect.
You make content designed to attract and help them instead of the run-of-press stuff fit for the broadest prospect base.
And, over time, you fulfill your destiny. The reason God made you Head of Demand Gen, EMEA.
The result may not be more revenue than the other Head of Demand Gen, EMEA in the control group (she raked in the topline, got a standing O at the ‘pipeline’ part of the Dashboard Scrum and won the trip to Vegas… but her company went bust).
What’s weird is that a lot of marketers don’t even know which of their products are the most profitable and which are low- or no-margin.
It’s not a conversation we’re used to having. (We’re too busy cutting out shapes and colouring them in.)
So these are the Action Points for this blog post (what’s a blog post without Action Points?):
If you don’t already know, go find out which of your company’s products are the most profitable. (If you do know… sorry I doubted you).
Sketch out what a profit-driven marketing strategy would look like instead of a revenue-driven one.
Go ask for a massive budget to execute that strategy.
Find a B2B content marketing agency that gets this stuff to blow that budget in one fell swoop [Editor: Surely, ‘Invest that budget in one, long-term, considered and measurable ROI strategy.’].