How Studying Dream Teams Helped Me Get Better At Content Marketing

When I was a teenager, I decided that if I ever wanted to get a girlfriend, I would need to learn to skateboard.

This made sense to me at the time. But the point of this story is not about faulty teenage logic. It’s that once I started skateboarding, suddenly every piece of concrete looked like a skate park. I started seeing the world a bit differently, noticing things I didn’t before. And to this day, whenever I walk by a Wendy’s with a nice curb on the drive-through, I think, “Hm… someone could skate that.”

The same thing happened to me a couple decades later in a much more useful (albeit still dorky) context: when I started writing a book about the science of human collaboration. That book became a 3+ year project, and it just came out! (Check out Dream Teams here!)

I had set out to understand teamwork so I could do a better job as a leader at Contently. I wanted to study the paradox of why most growing groups slow down or break down—while some rare teams make incredible breakthroughs together—so we could build an awesome company and a great place to work. But in the course of studying the principles behind dream teams, I started seeing them at play in all sorts of contexts besides just growing a company.

And one of them was content marketing.

Here are three quick principles I learned in Dream Teams that can help you be a little better at building audiences and relationships through content.

1. The more diverse your inputs, the more potential for breakthrough ideas

Teams that beat the odds have several things in common. One of them is cognitive diversity. That’s to say, teams made up of similar people rarely become smarter or more inventive than their smartest team member. But teams with lots of different people with different perspectives can add up to more than the sum of their parts.

This is how creativity works in general—when we connect dots that have never been connected before. You can have cognitive diversity inside your own head or among a group. But either way, you need diverse inputs in order to connect dots and make something new and awesome.

As far as content marketing goes, I’ve started noticing that the cleverest brands do a good job of mashing up different perspectives or industries or tactics—like Taco Bell’s video about fries that turns a thriller suspense movie trailer trope into a hilarious piece of branded content. Or they mine their internal organizations for disparate people’s stories and ideas, and bring them out for the world to see, like GE does with GE Reports, a site we’ve referenced a lot over the years (for good reason).

2. Breakthrough content tends to be self-aware

One of the most important skills a person can develop to become an indispensable collaborator on a team or in a community is something called Intellectual Humility. This virtue is basically the ability to understand your own limitations and be willing to change your mind. (You can take my quiz to find out about your own Intellectual Humility here.)

Great content marketing does something that reminds me of this. People are not dumb. They can tell when a brand is bringing them content. They know that the brand wants them to buy something at some point. So they appreciate when brands don’t try to hide this—or even better, when they acknowledge it in a way that makes the elephant in the room not so intense to look at.

This could apply to anything from a blog post to a TV commercial to a tweet. This Valentine’s Day, Denny’s, the gold standard of social media self-awareness (and ridiculousness), posted a tweet that doesn’t shy away from its intentions.

Being self-aware isn’t always easy, but it is that simple.

3. Awesome content is not a solo project

This principle is perhaps the most intuitive of all, but it bears spelling out. Whether you’re working on a book or a blog post, the quality of your work will boil down to how well you collaborate with people to make it better than your original drafts. Dream Teams went through 10 rounds of editing, four editors, a fact-checker, six sensitivity readers, and a dozen critics marking the pages where they got bored. If not for all that, it would not be a very good book.

Same goes for any branded content program worth its salt. One of the best investments you can make is a great editor who can polish your stories and make them shine. Another worthwhile investment is someone who can bring your work to life with photography, video, and illustrations.

Beyond that, the new imperative is making content worth reading or watching instead of whatever’s popular on Netflix right now. That just doesn’t happen withoutpeople pushing you to make your work better.

So lean into that. Like, perhaps, you’d lean a skateboard against your closet wall now that you’ve picked up marketing as your main vocation.

Shane Snow is founder at large of Contently and author of Dream Teams and The Storytelling Edge.

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