Newbie Does Content Marketing World: The Good, the Bad, and the Orange

This is not a top 10 takeaways listicle. Or a shameless crop of speaker quotes to get retweets. This is a story of a thrifty writer who went to Content Marketing World in Cleveland, the apparent “Capital of Content,” thanks to doubling down on promo codes.  It was everything—and nothing I expected. 

Cult of Orange Kool-Aid

If you didn’t know this by now, the Content Marketing Institute LOVES its orange. A lot. I urge you to bring shades if you go to CMW. Be prepared for hordes of attendees that wear it on various parts of their bodies; from hats to shoes to everything in-between. Then there are the signage, carpet, and yes, even orange food-colored products (that I did not imbibe in). In my complete ignorance of Planet Orange, I thought it would be mildly amusing to wear my coincidentally-coral top to the first evening reception. Bad idea. I became an instant, unwilling cult participant. Part of me likes the rah-rah team spirit and the other thinks it’s a tad creepy. I do love purple, so maybe if it was Planet Purple I could have gotten into the color craze more.

Run With Precision of Surgery

Speaking as a former event planner and attendee of a bajillion conferences, it’s my second nature to find mistakes or mental note what I would change–-you know for the fun of it and to feel superior. But I was hard-pressed to find any major boo-boos no matter how hard I tried. CMW was a well-oiled logistics machine from start to finish. The sessions started on time, the speakers were 90% top notch, and the events were memorable. Even the most basic details like lunches—normally a hassle when you have to leave the conference or sit in a stuffy banquet room— were grab-and-go to run to a session or hang out at the convention center. It’s a detail, but one that makes a difference in the overall experience. The opening reception held in the newly-revamped Flats area had it all: food, drinks, a pool, networking, groovy lighting, content geeks awkwardly dancing. But it worked. Cheap Trick concert in one word: epic. Though I loved them when I was a teen, I wasn’t that excited, thinking they were more AARP than OMG. Boy was I wrong, these badasses put on a rockin’ show. I even got one of the guitar picks that was tossed in the audience! #groupiemoment

Mix and Match Theme

Make no mistake: the theme of the show was “Content Strikes Back” and there were Star Wars posters everywhere, cheesy references to it in most presentations, and the grand stage opened with Joe Pulizzi on a starship deck that looked like it came from community theater (I think on purpose?). Added strange bonus: Pulizzi’s ending included a contentized Matrix scene, replete with Keanu Reeve’s trademark black jacket. Similarly, many attendees, including myself, wondered what the hell the former Luke Skywalker could contribute to the content conversation. But we were wrong—the guy proved to be an engaging, funny, and honest speaker about celebrity content and could talk a good game about his Twitter-follower competition with Carrie Fisher. He even trashed Star Wars franchise for making him lose 50 pounds for his one scene in “The Force Awakens”that only showed his face. Other daily keynotes were engaging—in fact the speaker with the highest rating automatically gets top spot at the start of the conference.

Attack of the Corporate Packs

There are an estimated 3,500 people that attended CMW event from 50 countries and 50 of the Fortune 100. In other words, the vast majority are from a corporate environment, which was evident through the massive content marketing teams traveling in packs. Armed with occasional orange clothing and an expense account, the roamed the convention center hallways in droves. Admittedly, I did feel like an oddball as a freelancer. But there were plenty of friendly people to network with. It would have been more inclusive, however, to have sessions catering to us content outliers.The closest was one on best practices to hire freelance writers (you can bet I was there). There was also a “Writing Salon” for consultants  in the spiffy new Hilton, away from the action. In the future, I would like to see more events for corporate and freelancers to network directly.

Dare to be “Different” or Die

Remember I said this won’t be a list of takeaways? Indulge me with my few random observations. Speakers in many of the sessions said in their own unique way that content has reached peak so you must think and do differently. As content marketers, we can no longer crank out the same old stuff—with so much noise you absolutely, unequivocally must stand out. Obvious yes, but how to get around it? Idea-planting included: call attention to a provocative question that no one else answers in the industry; take a stand on an industry issue; find that missing stat and capitalize on it in a big way; extract insight from data for a non-obvious answer; dig for interesting correlations and weird ideas to pounce on; come up with “unthinkable” ideas no one else is doing (like freeing gated content or doing a negative campaign that speaks the truth). Though none of these ideas were exclusively new, together they lent a shot of creativity and deeper thought to bring home.

Fuzzy Line Between Journalism and Content: Demolished

As a former journalist (and a cynical reporter at heart) I was surprised, elated and deflated to see that the rise of “brand newsrooms” (oxymoron anyone?) is a real, established thing. Among content marketers and journalists alike, there is a resigned acceptance that newspapers are dying, content is thriving, and a way to make a buck on the side (which has become the main entree). As one speaker and former reporter put it: journalists don’t think they need anything from content, but content marketers know they need journalists. A journalism style brings a dose of reality to content. In essence, the mindset of journalism can lead to greater content marketing.  We should always be asking ourselves with every piece of content we produce: will it pass skeptic test? The only thing I disagreed with: that the pace of content marketing is significantly slower than daily deadlines of journalism, but then again, maybe it’s just my clients (and you know who you are).

KISS Principle lives aka no Friction

Several speakers focused on the importance of content simplicity from writing to delivery. Cut the resistance between where you are and where you want to go to make it easier for your readers. We’re not just left-brained or right-brained about decision-making. Our reptilian brain likes simple choices and hates change. This or that. Chocolate or vanilla. Try or buy. That also means that content should stay away from any sort of difficult, interruptive reading experiences, like rotating banners or tons of links. We need to prepare and communicate our content simply, elegantly and concisely, whether it’s an ad campaign, landing page, a blog post or even social media post. Another fact: Consumers don’t care where they get their information from, they just want it. So don’t be concerned about “credit,” be concerned about giving readers what they want—they’ll thank you later. Again, not rocket science, but  good to remind ourselves of every time we’re producing content, it’s not about us, it’s about freely delivering value and and solving problems for our readers. In other words, the fantastically-jargonny word: customer centricity.

My content marketing awards

Unsurprisingly, the award session didn’t include best freelance content marketer of the year or other  honored oddities. However, I’ve devised some of my own to fill in the gap. You’re welcome.

Best opportunity: 1% on the web are creating content, the rest are lurkers and contributors; this means infinite opportunity for content creators who want mindshare to be a leader not sheep

Best reality check: You may have great content, but quality alone cannot overcome the competitive landscape

Best quote: If you’re writing for everyone, you’re not writing for anyone

Best anti-best practice: Don’t follow best practices, great marketers craft their own

Strangest buzzphrase: “children of personas”: I dare you to bring it up in your next content strategy meeting just to see the dazed expressions

Most unrealistic concept: “empathy meetings”one presenter said, is when he meets with clients weekly to discuss and solve core problems; My empathy starts when I have to go to a meeting at all

Most overused word: Friction—it just rubs me the wrong way

Best live tweeting: Selfie Humblebrag aka @Shumblebrag. Brilliant at keeping the pretention, ridiculousness, and conference clichés in check. We need more of that—everywhere.

In a nutshell, I think CMW was worth the price (including my discounts, of course). It was some good learning, easy networking, and fun entertainment—but please don’t expect me to wear orange next year.

Author’s note: Next post I’ll be taking a look at the content produced by CMW trade show exhibitors to assess who is eating their own dog food and who needs to bulk up.

 

 

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What Becomes of Content in 2015?

cwordThe word “content” has supplanted itself as The Marketing Word in 2014, to the point that I’m hard-pressed to find a digital headline or article without it this past year. Then there are the white papers, conferences, books, and even the Content Marketing Institute (sounds very heady, doesn’t it?). You get the idea. But let’s get some perspective here: Content, in all its incarnations over the years, was simply called something else—be it copy, copywriting, promotion, website content, marketing blurbs, plain old writing, insert big etcetera here. With the rise of social media and other digital marketing to further a brand—whether posts or podcasts, vines or viral videos—this marketing expansion now sits under the same umbrella: Content. One and all. The blending of terms combined with the craving for sky high shares brought to the forefront big changes swirling around in advertising, journalism, and marketing the past several years. Some good, some not so good. I believe we reached a tipping point in 2014 and are venturing to the point of no return. Sure, there is plenty of smart, insightful, and creative content out there, but it is overshadowed by junky digital filler caused by “content mania” and insatiable need to feed the social media sharing beast. Let me explain.

Sponsored Content, aka Native Ads

This kind of promotion has been around for ages in other forms (corporate advertorial in trade magazine, anyone?) But online sponsored content is a bit more dangerous in such prolific quantities. Why? It’s more than a hoodwink; it confuses consumers expecting unbiased articles, whether they care or not.

Sponsored content has seen explosive growth in the past few years due to the expansion of digital publishers, coupled with news outlets desperately looking for a panacea to cover plummeting ad profits. Mission definitely accomplished, but the tricky (read: ethical) part is the barely-there line between “real articles” and those brought to us by our favorite and not-so-favorite brands. Even the bastion of buttoned-up news, the New York Times, got into the sponsored content business. You see, the lines have really (really) blurred, even for the Gray Lady. The FCC stepped in to help consumers identify sponsored content, but many readers eat it up if it’s “interesting” no matter how indigestible the thought of brand involvement might be. Studies show it decreases trust of content, but it doesn’t stop them from clicking.

Brand Journalism

Which leads us another trend from the content explosion—brand journalism—companies who deploy articles the way a news reporter might—factual information? Yes, but with words that supports the brand’s message, liifestyle, or agenda. This content fuels brands with a great resource for well-written blogs, C-level ghostwriters, and sponsored content, not to mention spawning new careers for jaded journalists, frustrated fiction writers, and corporate careerists looking for a fresh start.

Hootsuite’s CEO Ryan Holmes even nonchalantly dropped a reference to its corporate “newsrooms” at a conference earlier this year. A reach perhaps, but it appears to be the future of The Brand. Welcome to the new blurry world of the “news” where articles you read might not have a clear bias but the source of the materials will.

Attack of the Content Creators

Another way content has taken hold lately is the crazy-big growth of “content creators,” “content experts,” and other fill-in-the-blank content titles (full disclosure: I brand myself this way too). Hardly anyone is simply a “writer” anymore. Sure, including a white-hot industry in your title might make your keywords stand out more, but consider the downside: lots of competitors use this title too, making it a crowded field.

Digital publishing outfits like the Huffington Post, Gawker, and other media companies large and small often won’t pay or divvy out peanuts based on article shares. After all, if you won’t write for free, someone else more hungry for the lure of digital fame will. The more that writers that offer their services without compensation or laughably low pay, the more devalued the profession becomes. This cannot be undone (another disclosure: I have written for zero pay to get my name out there). I get why it happens—it’s called supply and demand—but there is collective power in writers holding out for what we deserve instead of giving in to this pressure.

On their own, none of these trends is necessarily catastrophic for content. But when you put them together it gives me great concern to think where content is going in 2015 with the jumbling of words, images, and audio breeding only as share fodder, the cocktail of news and brand agenda, coupled with the cheapening of writing as a craft, I wonder if we’ve lost some of our core quality standards and beliefs in what content is about. Like the “click-bait headlines” that trick us into thinking we’re getting one thing instead of another, we’re fooling no one but ourselves to say it doesn’t matter in the future.

Image: Velocity Partners

The State Of Content With Martin Jones

martin jonesAs we hit the halfway mark on 2014, it’s time to see how brands are living up to the hype and promise of content, clearly the biggest marketing trend of the past few years, with no indications of slowing down. For an expert view, I talked with Martin Jones, Senior Marketing Manager at Cox Communications, and a leading authority on all things content. Martin first caught my attention with a presentation at New Media Expo earlier this year and one of the most Twitter-worthy soundbites of the conference: “Social is how customer hear about you, search is how they find you, and content is how they’ll remember you.”

Let’s start with the content marketing trend for companies. We know thousands of companies are doing it, but who actually gets it right, and why?

I’m happy to say a lot of brands are doing it right. General Electric, Whole Foods, Home Depot, to name a few. They are going beyond Facebook and social across multiple channels. People are turned off by seeing the same content on all platforms. Take Home Depot, for instance: With 160K followers, they are continually updating and making it relevant to their different audiences—by seasons, interests, etc.

We’ve been hearing the term “content shock” lately. With so much content out there, eventually the barriers to entry will increase and only the strongest (best) content will win. Agree or disagree?

One of the arguments against content shock is that whatever you give to your consumers must have purpose. Don’t just throw content up on your site to meet some sort of quota. Unfortunately we still see a lot of decisions made in marketing, PR, IT, and other silos, which can lead to this. There is not always a strong discovery process for content programs or campaigns. Always start with a question about the consumer and ask it. Figure out what problems you can solve for them. Otherwise, people have this natural filtering process and get burnt out on content. What’s important to consumers cannot go by the wayside.

So what can small businesses do to leverage content marketing with teeny budgets and resources?

There are a lot of small business tools out there: Ones like SocialEars let you plug in different terms and see who the influencers are, letting bloggers and marketers quickly see what things are being talked about and what’s the most engaging content right now. It’s critical to know what to talk about by monitoring, rather than falling back on what you know best. It should be about what the consumer is interested in and gearing your content towards that.

I was surprised you mentioned GE: Something I often hear is that B2B brands have difficulty making their content resonate with customers. What do you think the trick is there?

With B2B, it’s about personalizing content in the right voice—your voice. Again it comes down to relevant content. You have to be careful not to alienate your audience if all of a sudden you try to change to the snarky, cheeky Taco Bell-style. It’s not going to work. What’s important is that the content is going to be helpful to the consumer, that it’s personalized, and it answers questions. That’s what your audience cares about most.

What are content marketers still struggling with?

There’s talk of the sales funnel being dead, but it’s really that marketers are creating a lot of content on top of the funnel and then they get to the middle and don’t know what to do with these people. This is where evergreen content really pays off, along with paid media. Your content can still be providing leads to the organization and can move them through the sales process.

What are some of the trends we’ll be seeing as we get closer to 2015?

Deeper content and, again, more consumer-focused. One shift we’re seeing more of is horizontally rather than vertically-focused content on products and services. For example, what are your readers’ passion points? What are they interested in? Talking to companies about growing your business, how to scale, engaging in common interests. Recently I was at a conference where one of the speakers said “Social media is the new golf course”: now that conversation is happening online. Consumers don’t want to talk about products and services, they want to carry on a normal conversation.

 

Rise in Consumer Power Center Stage at NMX


Austin-Social-Mediavegasnmx2013

Fresh off the heels of New Media Expo (NMX) in Las Vegas, a blogging conference that has grown into an all-inclusive social media extravaganza, I thought my brain would explode from all the things I learned (you’re welcome for the visual). But now the mish-mash of thoughts, concepts and unexplainable words has miraculously gelled into some cohesive language. Here are the top takeaways for me that not only reinforce social media’s growing role, but reveal a tilting of power to consumers like never before.

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