Why Content Marketing Works: The One Skill You Need to Master

Ten years ago this week, I created my first content marketing campaign.

I was running an upstart news site, and a company asked us to write a series of articles to promote the launch of their new platform for crowd-sourced inventions. We were broke—like “eating at the $5 Chinese buffet once every two days” broke—so we said yes.

We decided to get weird. Instead of writing boilerplate blog posts about tips for inventors, we came up with the most ridiculous invention ideas possible and created gonzo stories about our experience pitching them. I suggested an edible frisbee for inebriated college students. Spoiler alert: The inventor community hated our invention ideas. But they loved our stories.

As I prepare for Content Marketing World 2018, I can’t help but reflect on how much has changed since then. Over the past decade, it’s become not only a booming, respected industry but also the core of all marketing functions. Gartner has even predicted that in a few years, content marketing won’t be a term anymore because all marketing will be driven by content.

Naturally, the conversation about content marketing has evolved rapidly as well. We just don’t talk about creating content anymore—we talk about personalization, artificial intelligence, automation, voice search, and every other big opportunity. Largely, this is a good thing. As marketers, we need to get better at serving the right content to the right people. But I’m also worried. Because when we talk about tactics like personalization, we often make a huge assumption that the content we’re personalizing is actually good.

Why content marketing works

Content marketing works because our brains are programmed for stories. When we hear a great story, the neural activity in our brain increases five-fold. Since neurons that “wire together, fire together,” as neuroscientists like to say, we retain much more information when we get them through stories.

The key here is that our brains only respond to really great stories. They don’t care about mediocre ones. The best personalization, sales enablement, or email automation strategy won’t save your business if the content isn’t really good in the first place—because people just won’t care.

When you look at all the truly successful content marketing programs—GE, Red Bull, Dollar Shave Club, Dove, Hubspot, GE, Adidas, Marriott, Chase, Nike, Monster—they all have one thing in common: a commitment to telling great stories. They give their content teams the freedom to take risks, and they hire brilliant creative people who will create content capable of competing with everything else screaming for their audience’s attention. Only a small percentage of companies have gotten to this level.

“Great content” may sound subjective, but it’s not. Over the past decade, neuroscientists have made incredible strides in understanding and measuring how different stories affect our brains. They’ve almost managed to pinpoint the elements of storytelling that have the biggest impact.

Studies show that if your content isn’t great—or at least very good—nothing else you do really matters. That’s why I wrote a book on the art and science of storytelling, and why (shameless plug) I’m excited to reveal some of the latest groundbreaking research on the neuroscience of storytelling at Content Marketing World this week. As part of my presentation, there’s also going to be a live experiment using a newly-invented neurosensor that could change how we measure content success.

If you’re like 95 percent of the brands out there, your content could be a lot better. So whether you’re writing about personal finance or edible frisbees, I hope you take the leap with me.

If you’re at CMW, come to Atrium Ballroom A at 1:30 on Thursday, September 6, to see my session: Stories for the Win: The Hidden Neuroscience of Content Marketing, and Why Great Stories Make Our Brains Want to Buy.

Image by Pexels / CC Zero

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