Why Data Driven Content Fails Alone

Have you read any recent content marketing articles? Today’s articles feature shiny objects to distribute content through (hi, Snapchat and Periscope) and platitudes about impact. Largely trend pieces with statistics, they fail to help marketers grow and become better. Worse, the new account-based marketing trend — which is just hyper-targeted data-driven content marketing — focuses on precision provided by analytics, but not the technique used to create niche content.

To be clear, a marketer’s job is to connect with and compel people; usually, but not always, their customers. To do that, content needs to tell a good story.

In many ways, trends like social media tools and data analysis provide new powers for marketing, much like an electric drill works better than a hand crank. So we have a bunch of marketers walking around with power tools drilling holes in a wall hoping they hit the right spot. Even though they have data and the latest networks, they miss the mark more often than not. They don’t understand the wall and its dimensions. As a result, marketers destroy the wall.

What we have is a data problem. Too much focus on data and trends, not enough on creating compelling content.

To be crystal clear with this post: Data and trends in content marketing are nice. They inform creativity. They do not replace creativity.

Impact Requires a Story

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Results in communications are contingent on compelling stakeholder groups — by groups of ten, by the thousands, or entire market segments. Regardless of where the content lies in a company’s user experience, it needs to impact someone’s journey. That is true of the consumer, that is true of the business stakeholder.

Why else would someone act? Buying is an emotional decision. If your content doesn’t create positive emotion for someone — even if it is just allaying fears — then you have a problem.

I love media and how it empowers us to communicate with each other. What I find most interesting is how people use those media forms to connect, and the outcomes these connections create. Why was that Periscope video successful? How did that article help someone come decide to engage with the “build your own” tool on your site? Why did that series of personal case studies increased conversions of your software product?

Stories. Content must tell stories or help people envision their own narrative. The media changes, the methods allow for more precision, there are more distractions now, but once you get someone to try your content, it has to compel them.

How Data Helps Storytelling, But Doesn’t Replace It

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Let’s use another analogy: Just because Google Maps can tell you the fastest route, doesn’t mean it can teach you how to drive. Your trip is not guaranteed to be timely, much less safe.

In my mind, data is beautiful. It provides a great deal of research to inform creativity. It points out who the customer is (demographics), what they like, and which media they use. In some cases, it provides insights into their behavior, concerns and interests with a particular brand. What more could a creative want? This information provides the means to create content that moves the stakeholder.

Yet when I am called into situations to analyze why a marketing or communications program isn’t working, I find that the tactics may beed tweaking, the data analysis needs improvement, but generally they are heading in the right direction. No, the problems come down to two primary groups of issues:

1) Lame content: Corporate messages instead of stories, dry style (e.g. it’s safe and uncompelling), antiquated style (for example long text with no rich media), no personal story or connection, no style, etc.
2) Poor distribution: Including lack of email, lack of native ad-spend, non-engaging social media, using the wrong channels, etc.

Poor distribution has always been an issue, and it is becoming an increasingly difficult one. I highly recommend you read Mark Schaefer’s Content Code if this is concerning you.

On the first issue, the actual content continues to be a problem. Style counts for a lot more than you would think. Data can always be used to better steer a communications effort, but the effort must be made. Data alone cannot deliver compelling media.

Storytelling Must Return

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Whether you call it creative, design, writing, PR or marketing, we build narratives with customers. There are many, many useful methods of telling stories that have been discussed, and as many ideas out there (this one 2014 post features 200+ blog article approaches) as there are distribution methods:

  • Some use an advertising approach, using imagery to tell, and words to compel (Think General Electric).
  • Consider the traditional social media approach of first person experiential tales (Gary Vaynerchuk has to be the best at this in our business).
  • There’s third person journalistic storytelling (Adobe does this well across all properties).
  • You have wonky, funny joke telling (Hello, Captain Obvious!).
  • Others provide historical context (National Geographic uses historical storytelling to sell adventures).

These brands use available data to inform their storytelling approach and build something compelling to people. It’s not enough to create targeted brochureware for what they believe people need to hear.

Content really needs to interest and then resolve the stakeholder’s raison d’etre. This is French for reason of being. Why are they investing time? The content better fulfill that reason or the brand will lose the prospective customer. This ethos is at the heart of the current user experience trend driving branding and digital design.

Trends come and go, but corporate and marketing communications [oops, content marketing ;)] always lives and dies based on stakeholder response. Response is the ultimate metric that every manager ultimately judges a communications program by. No response means changes are in store, from the micro to the macro.

That is why it is so necessary to build a compelling story that creates response. This is true regardless of purpose: Launch or customer experience, micro account-based level comms or social network-wide (organic and paid). Marketers better tell a good story that the audience relates with instead of highly targeted noise.

What Big Data Tells You About Exodus

Being an egomaniac author with an inferiority complex, I commissioned a Helix Review to analyze Exodus against all published works within The Book Genome Project as well as making specific comparisons to titles in the science fiction genre. The big data mash-up tells you a ton about how your book works and your particular writing style.

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So the first thing you can tell is that Exodus is short! In spite of its length, it does have a healthy vocabulary for its length.  Sentence length is average. While classified as a science fiction book, it tends to have longer paragraphs than most books within the genre.

The review also analyzes the text for complexity, dialog and pacing.  To help compare the book, I suggested Margaret Atwood’s The Handmaid’s Tale. Often classified as a science fiction book, The Handmaid’s Tale shares similarities with Exodus in that they are both dystopian future fiction books focusing on religious fundamentalism and oppression.

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As you can see, in almost every category Exodus exceeds The Handmaid’s Tale. It has more action, complex language, dialog and descriptive text.  My book is slightly slower paced than Atwood’s. It fits within the norms of the genre except that it moves slower than and has more complex language than other science fiction books.

Story

The final piece of useful information I got from the book was the general elements that fit into the story DNA.  I have been focusing on the religious conflict, but Helix shows time, rivers (lots of rivers in Exodus), conflict, combat, pain, rocky terrain and history as critical underlying components in the book.

Then Helix shows you how these elements rank against the general book project and your genre.

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So all in all, you learn a lot about what you wrote, and  how your book fits within the larger context of the Book Genome Project. Now if the big data analysis could only tell you if the book was good!

What do you think of big data barometers like the Helix Review?

I am on vacation until September 30th and will not be responding to comments. The floor is yours!

The Audacity of Corporate Social Media Failure

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Image by Rick Audet

It was interesting reading all of the social media criticism about Google’s privacy policy changes last week. A measured critical tone offers refreshing context to the usual outrage pundits spout when analyzing the latest corporate social media failure. These dramatic declarations of “FAIL” include the anticipated demise of the brand’s entire reputation, the stupidity of the management team, and a lament about companies “never getting it.”

Another example: Last December’s dissecting of Apple’s rigid social media policy that bars any meaningful discussion of the company by employees. There was no great shocker here given the company’s approach to product development and public blogs that leak Apple product news. Yet, the company was painted black and evil for it.

OK. Apple just reported $13 billion of profit last quarter, its best quarter ever. Meanwhile, its more social media friendly competition never get close to performing on this level.

Let’s be clear. Marketing is not about pleasing social media aficionados. It should deliver ROI or outcomes that boost a company’s bottom line.

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Give Them Something to Talk About

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President Obama and Jack Dorsey at the White House Twitter Town Hall

Everyone talks about relationships and the importance of two-way interaction in social media. Participation is a cornerstone of building strong community presence. But other than core subject matter evangelists, there is only so much you can do to interest people on a dry topic. That’s when you need to give the community something to talk about.

Social means sharing experiences and yes, talking. And frankly, a lot of what businesses and nonprofits have to talk about can put the most lively of children to sleep. How can you turn a dry topic into something a little more meaningful? Here are four ways to go beyond normal day-to-day interaction, and spark dynamic conversations:

Events

If an experience isn’t interesting, an event can be. In fact, events are everything that is social. They give people an opportunity to meet face-to-face, and provide a basis for conversation, networking, and critiques (positive and negative). People love moving the online experience into reality. Further, they like telling their social networks about the events during and after the fact with posts, pictures and updates.

Quality events are a great way to give people something to talk about (hat tip: Kami Huyse, from a recent conversation). They always have been, and the social era only makes them more special and visible.

Research

Find your subject matter to be repetitive and boring? Then dig deeper. Invariably, an organization has statistics and performance information that — if analyzed and extrapolated — can be shared with the larger industry or subject matter related community. Research provides context and a point of interest for folks to talk about, critique and learn from. Hubspot has been a master of this for years.

Analysis

Maybe you don’t have your own data to share, but there is plenty of external information. Round it up and provide a level of analysis that supersedes the average punditry in your sector. In essence, paint a bigger picture. This is what great bloggers do. Also, if you look at most infographics today, they visualize analysis, sometimes private data, but more often, larger industry trends.

Create the News

This is the hardest of the four suggestions, and the most attention worthy. Do something newsworthy. Not a gimmick, but something substantial. Raise a hundred thousand dollars. Build a company, hire new people, or make a big sale. Invest in a new community, or create different ways to engage your current customers. Create a new product that changes the game. Empower others to do great things through a crowdsourcing initiative.

How do you give your community something to talk about?