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.

The Unadulterated Pleasure of Going Dark

The weekend is coming and I can’t wait. After returning from Africa on Monday, re-entry has been difficult, due in part to jet lag, but also because I really enjoyed my time off the grid. Going dark for days on end was really an unadulterated pleasure.

There was no Internet in Kenya and Tanzania for hours, and in a couple of cases for days on end.
More than anything, it was a relief. I missed my friends and some of their wonkiness, but I did not miss the grind of the social media industry. The need to be present and engaged disappeared. So did having to create content to fuel the beast (I ran reruns).

I got used to not checking in, not seeing what was going on, and not getting caught into little eddies of first world problems.

While I don’t think atypical portrayals of African suffering are accurate nor appropriate for the purposes of this post, I witnessed a base level of living there. Most people just want to work hard or find work so they can get a solar panel and little bit of electricity in their lives. That way they can enjoy the evening hours with their family.

When you see life in countries like Kenya and Tanzania, the online world loses relevancy. I know the online propels my day-to-day business, but I gained an understanding of what matters from a different perspective. It became easier to let go for that twelve day period.

When we returned to the Wildlife Works office periodically, I did my business (mostly posting pics from the trip for Audi) and shared a little bit of Africa. Then it was back into this amazing, different and untethered world.

I could breathe again.

The Luxury of Going Dark

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Going off the grid is becoming a common experience for the digital citizen. Many view going off the grid as a welcome experience, a refreshing get-away.

Escaping the wired world is rarely practical. Beyond the technical difficulties, after a while you become a loner.

Instead, it seems that going off the grid is a fantasy and a luxury. Perhaps a more realistic view of digital darkness is to consider it a means of rest and relaxation from the always on world of smart devices, smartphones and tablets.

There are more and morevacation opportunities for those seeking an unplugged break. Conde Nast calls these vacations digital detoxes.

I can definitely relate. Returning to the United States also brought a return to our always on world. And it is intense.

Escape is a luxury that one needs to pay for, like enjoying a great steak. At the same time, that very same escape is difficult for those that make their living off of digital media. It’s a difficult scenario. You come to understand the relevancy (or lack there of) online media, and yet you cannot leave it behind. Not for long.

A CTRL ALT Delete Interview with Mitch Joel

Canadian blogger and bald brother of another mother Mitch Joel released his new book CTRL ALT Delete today. The book captures the zeitgesit of workplace change caused by a universal shift towards digital media. Mitch discusses embracing digital change to survive and succeed.

To celebrate the arrival of CTRL ALT Delete, I asked Mitch several questions, including his take on Google Glass, the individual’s role in the workforce and more. Check it out, and don’t forget to pick up a copy of CTRL ALT Delete.

GL: CTRL ALT Delete focuses on change, and of course a big change may be coming with Google Glass. How do you see wearable computing hastening the mobile untethered (and somewhat free) work life?

MJ: I had the chance to wear and tinker with Google Project Glass at this past year’s TED conference. My expectations were not high and the product blew me away (big time). There has been a lot of online discussion about what it means to be wearing these pair of Internet-enabled glasses that made me think that this technology was not ready for prime time. That online discussion is wrong.

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Is Existing Online a Quest of Loneliness or Giving?

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Image by Den Den

Do you sense a lack of clear meaning in this online rat race? On one hand, existence stands in its purest form, reasons to be online, missions of the niche! Then we dilute existence with digital records of ice cream trips, Nike Fuel runs, and manufactured savoir faire.

Self determination now exists at its ultimate zenith, coupled with a bizarre sense loneliness.

YouTube star Jenna Marbles reflected recently in a NY Times article that with all of her online fame and popularity and friends, she finds herself in an odd state of loneliness. We have many boys and girls trapped in their own online bubbles now.

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Deconstructing Identity in the 21st Century

Andy Warhol saw Marilyn Monroe in many different ways...
Andy Warhol saw Marilyn Monroe in many different ways…

Never before has the individual identity been so empowered, nor has personal empowerment relied on others to this degree. Identity in the hyper-connected digital era exists in a paradox.

As we sacrifice privacy and more of our personal lives come online, the singular concept of a man or woman in control of their own manifest destiny falls.

While we share individual pieces of our lives, the image of ourselves we want people to see shifts. Our peers and family members add their own touches to the picture. Identity is no longer controlled by the individual, rather it’s painted in an impressionist or abstract fashion by their peers.

Further, identity is fractured, an overlapping jigsaw puzzle of roles. In one corner you have your work identity, in another family, and in a third, hobbies. On and on.

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