Content strategy is like prom—there’s a lot that can go wrong, and there’s a decent chance you’ll do something really embarrassing that will haunt you five years from now. (I may have once pitched “Real Housewives for mommy bloggers, but on Twitter.”)
And as a result, there’s a natural tendency to play it safe. You started out planning to crush it, but now you’re just standing around making repeated comments about the punch. (Or posting DIY punch recipes on your brand blog.) It feels like the prudent move, but, in fact, you’re dooming yourself. By playing it safe, you’re merely guaranteeing failure.
Today, I want to talk about the biggest content strategy mistake I see from brands: completely failing to have an opinion.
If you don’t have an opinion, you won’t have an audience
Conventional wisdom says it’s not safe for brands to take a stance. (You should buy our product doesn’t count.) Having an opinion means saying something that people will disagree with, which sparks fears of ostracizing potential customers. But as our VP of Brand Development Elisa Cool wrote last week, the biggest possible audience isn’t always the best. If you cater to the lowest customer denominator, you’ll never end up talking to the audience you actually want to reach.
I’ll take that one step further: No one will want to read your content, and you won’t have an audience at all.
Think about the publications you like to read. Chances are, your interest is rooted in the opinions and perspectives they consistently cover. From The New York Times to Gawker, publishers build loyal audiences by presenting ideas that readers can agree with, disagree with, or just plain contemplate. As humans, we love being told stories that makes us think—that up our intellectual game in some way. No one gets excited about reading a fact sheet. This might seem pretty obvious, but it tends to get overlooked when brands craft content strategies.
Even when brands are aware of this idea, a lot of them try to address it by asking, What does our brand believe in? This isn’t a bad question to ask, but it’s not quite the right one. A better question is What do the people who represent our brand believe in?
When you wonder what your brand believes in, it’s easy to land on something bland and broad that would sound ridiculous if it came from a person. We believe in happiness. We believe in togetherness. We believe in innovation. These are not things you would tell someone at a dinner party. (So glad you believe in happiness, Bob. Now please pass the Chardonnay.)
If you focus on what the key people in your company believe, it increases your chances of coming up with interesting content. Your CEO doesn’t believe in the general concept of innovation; he believes that very specific things lead to success in your industry. Our co-founder Shane Snow doesn’t believe in content, but he does believe that brands will win if they invest in telling great stories instead of intrusive advertising, and that a combination of great technology and superb creative talent are the keys to actually accomplishing that mission. This belief informs our own content strategy, guiding us in the right direction.
When you get specific and have a clear opinion, it makes content strategy easy. It unleashes your creativity, fueling story ideas. It forces you to figure out how to support your points through data, reporting, and other storytelling fundamentals. It forces you to figure out how to tell those stories—the medium you’ll use, the CMS you’ll publish on, and the channels you’ll distribute them through. It prompts you to figure out the crucial elements of your strategy, turning the process from a stiff and sterile exercise into something that flows naturally.
When you look at the brands with the most successful content strategies, they’re all driven by a unique perspective. GE’s excellent content has been powered by Beth Comstock’s belief that her team has a responsibility to spur innovation by tirelessly reporting on the next-level experiments going on inside the company. Virgin’s content empire has been built on the back of Richard Branson’s unique and irreverent take on the world. Moz has built a diehard audience thanks to Rand Fishkin’s devotion to helping marketers in any way he can.
As Fishkin once told me, “We really don’t think about content marketing as being part of our funnel. It’s part of our mission.”
An evolving process
When you go past bland platitudes and actually capture what ideas your company stands for, you’ve gone a long way toward creating a culture of intellectual curiosity within your brand. But like all aspects of content marketing, you can’t just do something once. It has to be a constant, evolving process.
The culture of discussion we have here at Contently is one of the biggest reasons we’ve been able to build a devoted audience of over 200,000 monthly readers. Internally, we’re always debating what we believe on various industry topics and issues. Our Slack chats and team meetings often more closely resemble a liberal arts class than a tech team meeting.
These debates have sparked our most interesting and widely read articles—like this piece on Twitter and the future of platforms—especially the stories that were born from disagreement. Although we all believe in the same basic principles as Shane, every person on our team has slightly different views on the future of media and marketing. I’m a little more fanatically bullish on the future of chat apps and platforms in general than Shane or Sam Slaughter, our VP of content; Dillon Baker, our associate editor, and I have different takes on where adblocking is headed; Sam and Ray Cheng, our VP of marketing, think about ROI in slightly different ways.1 These different viewpoints force us to come up with more nuanced and interesting angles for our stories and back them up with compelling evidence.
It’s obviously easier to work through ideas inside a 100-employee startup like ours than an organization with 30,000 people. But the fundamentals remain the same:
1. Identify the unique perspectives of your key brand representatives.
2. Use those perspectives to guide your content strategy.
3. Never stop debating—keep asking your stakeholders what they believe in and embrace all of the perspectives you have at your disposal.
If you do that with your content strategy, it’ll end up the way prom never did: with everyone satisfied and free of regret.