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‘Bah, Humbug!’ Why Negative Content Turns In Such Positive Results

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‘Bah, Humbug!’ Why Negative Content Turns In Such Positive Results

People love to hate Steven Singer.

That “hate” is so pervasive that the jewelry retailer’s website is: IHateStevenSinger.com. The company is so committed to celebrating the “hate” that it doesn’t even own the domain StevenSinger.com.

What’s behind all that “hate” pervading Philadelphia radio and satellite airwaves? (The company says it’s the longest-running advertiser on The Howard Stern Show.) It’s the story of customer feedback (possibly apocryphal) that launched a marketing campaign that’s lasted for years.

It’s also a story about the power of contrarian thinking – a helpful reminder for content marketers.

@IHSS (I Hate Steven Singer) shows the power of contrarian thinking, a useful #ContentMarketing lesson, says @AnnGynn via @CMIContent. Click To Tweet

Contrarian strategy stands out in a gift-driven market

The website’s History page recounts the origin story: A Steven Singer customer returned 20 years after buying an engagement ring to buy another diamond ring for their anniversary. About nine months later, the couple returned to the jewelry store to show off their new baby. The wife exclaimed, “I love Steven Singer,” to which the husband responded, “Here we go again. We’re up all night with feedings and diaper changes. I HATE Steven Singer.”

(Here’s the audio explanation used in their commercials.)

1672335004 456 ‘Bah Humbug Why Negative Content Turns In Such Positive Results

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Steven Singer Jewelers turned that funny comment into a brand point of view.

A blog post called Why Hate Steven Singer explains recounts why big retailer jewelers hate Steven Singer:

  • Steven Singer Jewelers says it doesn’t discount because it offers the best price from the beginning and mocks other jewelers’ big discount sales
  • The independent jeweler criticizes the lower-quality diamonds sold by the big stores, referring to them by their industry name, “frozen spit.”
  • Steven Singer lets customers upgrade purchases from the company by giving them a trade-in value equivalent to the price they originally paid.

The contrarian messaging continues throughout the site. The site list the business address as “the other corner of Eighth and Walnut” in Philadelphia. Even the Oops message (shown below) continues the theme, declaring, “Steven hated this page … so he moved it. Try these instead.”

1672335004 346 ‘Bah Humbug Why Negative Content Turns In Such Positive Results

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How to craft a contrarian content marketing approach

A contrarian or negative approach can transform your content marketing strategy.

The goal is to get your audience to say, “Wait, what?!”

Subverting the expectations of audiences dulled to similar messaging gives them pause – and entices them to decipher what you’re talking about.

You can apply elements of opposite or negative thinking to individual assets or make it the “voice” of your content, as Steven Singer does.

A contrarian, negative, or opposite-thinking strategy is bold –some people may not understand what you’re doing. Just make sure your brand’s leadership does. Otherwise, they’ll stop it almost as soon as you publish it.

Here are a few ways to put that strategy into action (once it’s approved).

A contrarian or negative #ContentStrategy is bold. Not everyone will get it. Just make sure your leadership does, says @AnnGynn via @CMIContent Click To Tweet

Write an unexpected lead

Start small by crafting introductions to articles using opposite messaging. This small step can help you test whether your audience is receptive to this approach.

Try this exercise internally to ensure your team understands what you want them to do: Give the writers an article you already published and ask them to rewrite the lead following the contrarian, negative, or opposite-thinking strategy.

Example:

Fast Company published an article with this intro:

After nearly three years of a global pandemic and months, if not years, of working from home, the main thing drawing workers back to their offices is the desire to simply focus on their work. But at the same time, offices in the U.S. have hit a 15-year low when it comes to how effective they are for enabling focused work.

This troubling mismatch is one of the top takeaways from the 2022 U.S. Workplace Survey from the Gensler Research Institute, the research arm of the global architecture and design firm Gensler.

Contrarian-strategy revision:

U.S. workers don’t know what they’re talking about.

That’s the revelation from the 2022 U.S. Workplace Survey from the Gensler Research Institute.

Its survey found the most popular reason for workers wanting to return to the office is to focus on their individual work. Yet, it also finds U.S. offices are at a 15-year low in how effective they are for enabling focused work.

The original version focuses on what people say they want. The negative-strategy version exposes the mismatch between what people say they want and the reality of office environments.

The tone is eye-catchingly negative, and the sentence makes a U.S.-based audience curious to discover why they may be wrong.

Dig deeper for thought leadership content

You’ll attract a bigger audience if your thought leadership isn’t the same old same old. But that doesn’t mean you should take an opposing view if you don’t believe it.

The next time you tackle a thought leadership asset, research what’s already written or said about the topic and how it’s typically expressed. Then, ask if your view on the topic differs from your content competitors’.

If so, brainstorm the possibilities and pick the one most relevant to your audience. If not, you can still create something different by looking for an underdeveloped or unaddressed point or angle on this topic.

When reacting to published research, most people write thought leadership pieces around the first statistic or two. To create something that bucks the mainstream (without taking an opposite view you don’t believe), go deeper into the results. Find different stats relevant to your interest audience and frame your content around that.

You’ll attract more attention if your approach to thought leadership avoids the same-old story, says @AnnGynn via @CMIContent. Click To Tweet

Example:

Let’s use the 2022 U.S. Workplace Survey again. The Fast Company article focused on the workplace effectiveness chart presented on the webpage for the report (as the screenshot below shows).

Screenshot showing a research chart near the top of Gensler site page called How can we design a more compelling office of the future?

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Unexpected alternative:

But you can dig deeper into the research to find a fresh angle.

With most people focused on the first or most obvious chart, look for something less expected buried deeper in the research.

The chart at the bottom of the report web page (as shown in the screenshot below) looks at the respondents’ “ideal mix” of experiences for a company workplace. The chart shows the percentages for eight categories: clubhouse, coffee shop, library, creative lab, boutique hotel, residential, conference center, and corporate.

Screenshot showing a research chart near the bottom of a website page.

Image source

A content marketer in a relevant industry could craft a thought leadership piece around the office experiences workers want.

Think beyond content creation

While the Steven-Singer strategy makes sense for content creation, it also can work for other components of your content marketing program.

Marketers often want to know the best time and day to send an email, post to social, etc. You do a Google search and find Tuesdays are the best day to send emails. That same report indicates that the best time to send email is between 9 a.m. and noon.

Of course, since so many others will see that same window listed as a best practice, email inboxes get flooded between 9 a.m. on noon on Tuesdays. Why not send your emails later in the day or on a different day of the week?

Test the alternate send time for a few weeks to see if that opposite-thinking strategy works for your audience. If not, you can always switch back.

Don’t forget about your content formats, either.

CMI’s most recent B2B research found that most marketers (89%) use articles and posts of less than 1,500 words for content marketing. Other commonly used formats include:

  • Videos of any length (75%)
  • Case studies (67%)
  • Virtual events/webinars/online courses (62%)
  • Infographics/charts/data visualization/3D models (61%)
  • Long articles/posts (more than 1,500 words)
  • E-books and white papers (59%)
  • In-person events (49%)

‘Bah Humbug Why Negative Content Turns In Such Positive Results

On the other hand, only 17% of marketers use print magazines and books.

That’s an opposite-strategy opportunity. Could you develop a print magazine for your audience? Given how few marketers do, your content would stand out.

If print isn’t feasible, think about other lesser-used types, such as audio content (used by 33% of marketers), research reports (used by 30%), or livestreaming content (16%).

TIP: An opposite-thinking strategy for content formats doesn’t require you to abandon the original format. Look for ways to repurpose content planned for popular formats into less-used ones.

You can apply an opposite-thinking content strategy without rejecting common formats, says @AnnGynn via @CMIContent. Click To Tweet

Become the most ‘hated’ content marketing

Your content competitors will only continue to grow in the months, decades, and years to come. The need to stand out and attract attention and interest from your audience never goes away.

With that in mind, adopting a Steven-Singer strategy for your content makes sense. And who knows? It might just be the ticket to results that everybody likes.

Want more content marketing tips, insights, and examples? Subscribe to workday or weekly emails from CMI.

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Cover image by Joseph Kalinowski/Content Marketing Institute

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Why Even Crushing Content Failures Aren’t Mistakes

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Why Even Crushing Content Failures Aren’t Mistakes

Did you follow the Apple iPad Pro content debacle?

Here’s a quick recap. A recent online ad for the new iPad Pro showed a large hydraulic press slowly crushing various symbols of creativity. A metronome, a piano, a record player, a video game, paints, books, and other creative tools splinter and smash as the Sonny and Cher song All I Ever Need Is You plays.

The ad’s title? “Crush!”

The point of the commercial — I think — is to show that Apple managed to smush (that’s the technical term) all this heretofore analog creativity into its new, very thin iPad Pro.  

To say the ad received bad reviews is underselling the response. Judgment was swift and unrelenting. The creative world freaked out.

On X, actor Hugh Grant shared Tim Cook’s post featuring the ad and added this comment: “The destruction of the human experience. Courtesy of Silicon Valley.”

When fellow actor Justine Bateman shared the Tim Cook post, she simply wrote, “Truly, what is wrong with you?” Other critiques ranged from tone-challenged to wasteful to many worse things.

Actor Justine Bateman shared Tim Cook’s post on X, which featured the ad, and added this comment: "Truly, what is wrong with you?".

A couple of days later, Apple apologized and canceled plans to air the ad on television.

How not-so-great content ideas come to life

The level of anger surprises me. Look, the ad does show the eyeballs on an emoji-faced squishy ball popping under the plates’ pressure, but still. Calling the ad “actually psychotic” might be a skosh over the top.

Yes, the ad missed the mark. And the company’s subsequent decision to apologize makes sense.

But anyone who’s participated in creating a content misfire knows this truth: Mistakes look much more obvious in hindsight.

On paper, I bet this concept sounded great. The brainstorming meeting probably started with something like this: “We want to show how the iPad Pro metaphorically contains this huge mass of creative tools in a thin and cool package.”

Maybe someone suggested representing that exact thing with CGI (maybe a colorful tornado rising from the screen). Then someone else suggested showing the actual physical objects getting condensed would be more powerful.

Here’s my imagined version of the conversation that might have happened after someone pointed out the popular internet meme of things getting crushed in a hydraulic press.

“People love that!”

“If we add buckets of paint, it will be super colorful and cool.”

“It’ll be a cooler version of that LG ad that ran in 2008.”

“Exactly!”

“It’ll be just like that ad where a bus driver kidnaps and subsequently crushes all the cute little Pokémon characters in a bus!” (Believe it or not, that was actually a thing.)

The resulting commercial suffers from the perfect creative storm: A not-great (copycat) idea at the absolutely wrong time.

None of us know what constraints Apple’s creative team worked under. How much time did they have to come up with a concept? Did they have time to test it with audiences? Maybe crushing physical objects fit into the budget better than CGI. All these factors affect the creative process and options (even at a giant company like Apple).

That’s not an excuse — it’s just reality.

Content failure or content mistake?

Many ad campaigns provoke a “What the hell were they thinking?” response (think Pepsi’s Kendall Jenner ad or those cringy brand tributes that follow celebrity deaths).

Does that mean they’re failures? Or are they mistakes? And what’s the difference?

As I wrote after Peloton’s holiday ad debacle (remember that?), people learn to fear mistakes early on. Most of us hear cautionary messages almost from day one.

Some are necessary and helpful (“Don’t stick a knife in a live toaster” or “Look both ways before you cross the street.”) Some aren’t (“Make that essay perfect” or “Don’t miss that goal.”)

As a result, many people grow up afraid to take risks — and that hampers creativity. The problem arises from conflating failure and mistakes. It helps to know the difference.

I moved to Los Angeles in 1987 to become a rock ‘n’ roll musician. I failed. But it wasn’t a mistake. I wasn’t wrong to try. My attempt just didn’t work.

Labeling a failed attempt a “mistake” feeds the fears that keep people from attempting anything creative.

The conflation of failure and mistakes happens all too often in creative marketing. Sure, people create content pieces (and let’s not forget that there are always people behind those ideas) that genuinely count as mistakes.

They also create content that simply fails.

Don’t let extreme reactions make you fear failures

Here’s the thing about failed content. You can do all the work to research your audience and take the time to develop and polish your ideas — and the content still might fail. The story, the platform, or the format might not resonate, or the audience simply might not care for it. That doesn’t mean it’s a mistake.

Was the Apple ad a mistake? Maybe, but I don’t think so.

Was it a failure? The vitriolic response indicates yes.

Still, the commercial generated an impressive amount of awareness (53 million views of the Tim Cook post on X, per Variety.) And, despite the apology, the company hasn’t taken the ad down from its YouTube page where it’s earned more than 1 million views.

The fictional Captain Jean Luc Picard once said, “It is possible to commit no mistakes and still lose. That is not weakness. That is life.” The Apple ad turns that statement on its head — Apple made many mistakes and still won a tremendous amount of attention.

I’m not suggesting that people shouldn’t criticize creative work. Constructive critiques help us learn from our own and others’ failures. You can even have a good laugh about content fails.

Just acknowledge, as the Roman philosopher Cicero once wrote, “Not every mistake is a foolish one.” 

Creative teams take risks. They try things outside their comfort zone. Sometimes they fail (sometimes spectacularly).

But don’t let others’ expressions of anger over failures inhibit your willingness to try creative things.

Wouldn’t you love to get the whole world talking about the content you create? To get there, you have to risk that level of failure.

And taking that risk isn’t a mistake.

It’s your story. Tell it well.

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Cover image by Joseph Kalinowski/Content Marketing Institute 



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The Future of Content Success Is Social

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The Future of Content Success Is Social

Here’s a challenge: search “SEO RFP” on Google. Click on the results, and tell me how similar they are.

We did the same thing every other SEO does: We asked, “What words are thematically relevant?” Which themes have my competitors missed?” How can I put them in?” AND “How can I do everything just slightly better than they can?”

Then they do the same, and it becomes a cycle of beating mediocre content with slightly less mediocre content.

When I looked at our high-ranking content, I felt uncomfortable. Yes, it ranked, but it wasn’t overly helpful compared to everything else that ranked.

Ranking isn’t the job to be done; it is just a proxy.

Why would a high-ranking keyword make me feel uncomfortable? Isn’t that the whole freaking job to be done? Not for me. The job to be done is to help educate people, and ranking is a byproduct of doing that well.

I looked at our own content, and I put myself in the seat of a searcher, not an SEO; I looked at the top four rankings and decided that our content felt easy, almost ChatGPT-ish. It was predictable, it was repeatable, and it lacked hot takes and spicy punches.

So, I removed 80% of the content and replaced it with the 38 questions I would ask if I was hiring an SEO. I’m a 25-year SME, and I know what I would be looking for in these turbulent times. I wanted to write the questions that didn’t exist on anything ranking in the top ten. This was a risk, why? Because, semantically, I was going against what Google was likely expecting to see on this topic. This is when Mike King told me about information gain. Google will give you a boost in ranking signals if you bring it new info. Maybe breaking out of the sea of sameness + some social signals could be a key factor in improving rankings on top of doing the traditional SEO work.

What’s worth more?

Ten visits to my SEO RFP post from people to my content via a private procurement WhatsApp group or LinkedIn group?

One hundred people to the same content from search?

I had to make a call, and I was willing to lose rankings (that were getting low traffic but highly valued traffic) to write something that when people read it, they thought enough about it to share it in emails, groups, etc.

SME as the unlock to standout content?

I literally just asked myself, “Wil, what would you ask yourself if you were hiring an SEO company? Then I riffed for 6—8 hours and had tons of chats with ChatGPT. I was asking ChatGPT to get me thinking differently. Things like, “what would create the most value?” I never constrained myself to “what is the search volume,” I started with the riffs.

If I was going to lose my rankings, I had to socially promote it so people knew it existed. That was an unlock, too, if you go this route. It’s work, you are now going to rely on spikes from social, so having a reason to update it and put it back in social is very important.

Most of my “followers” aren’t looking for SEO services as they are digital marketers themselves. So I didn’t expect this post to take off HUGLEY, but given the content, I was shocked at how well it did and how much engagement it got from real actual people.

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7 Things Creators Should Know About Marketing Their Book

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7 Things Creators Should Know About Marketing Their Book

Writing a book is a gargantuan task, and reaching the finish line is a feat equal to summiting a mountain.

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