An interesting question came up recently in a marketing group I follow on social media: “What content should we create?”
The first few comments on the post were what you might suspect. Some people encouraged the poster to interview people who fit their personas to find out what they struggle with. Others talked about getting over writer’s block. A few suggested they list every question their potential customers might have and write posts about that.
The original poster responded by acknowledging the value of these responses but clarified the question. They weren’t asking what they should write that would resonate with their target audiences. They were looking for content ideas that would drive the most reactions. Full stop.
They wanted to create controversy, provocation, and a level of virality. The theory: Do something that makes a lot of noise and inspires a boatload of people to react, then the right people will pay attention to your other content that focuses on the things you do.
Predictably, the tone of the discussion shifted into a fiery debate of the flawed notion (if not ethics) of that theory. Let’s save that discussion for a different day.
But it got me thinking. Is there a case where it makes sense to deliberately put out content you don’t like, agree with, or approve of – with the explicit goal of failing?
My answer is yes.
Why intentionally failing can be a good thing
We all know failing can be a productive result. There are entire books written on how people tend to learn more from failures than successes.
But this concept almost always gets covered in the context of failing when trying to succeed. In other words, you do your level best to accomplish something – and something in that approach failed. The lesson is that you should have done something differently.
I’m interested in what happens when you deliberately try to fail or at least try something the world deems incorrect. You either confirm what you expected or get surprised by the results.
Of course, some activities lend themselves better to this approach than others. For example, I wouldn’t try to fail while learning to fly an airplane. However, in marketing – and especially content – this approach gives you an invaluable opportunity to expand your toolkit.
According to the book Brilliant Mistakes by Paul Schoemaker, advertising icon David Ogilvy made deliberate mistakes frequently. He would run ads that he and the client team had rejected just to test their collective thinking. Most would fail. But a few, including the iconic eye patch Hathaway shirt ad – would become legendary campaigns.
Think about making time, money, or content available to test your core instincts. I don’t mean running a simple A/B test to evaluate two good efforts. That only determines which one resonates better.
I’m suggesting that you try a content piece that poses an idea you flat-out rejected. Or try investing in a channel that from every angle seems to be wrong. For example, later this month, I’m going to try TikTok. I’m 99.9% sure I will fail spectacularly.
But what if I’m wrong?
There’s a famous quote attributed to IBM founder Thomas J. Watson: “If you want to increase your success rate, double your failure rate.” It seems to me there’s only one mathematical way to double your failure rate – and that’s if you occasionally deliberately try to fail.
How to fail on purpose
A friend and I had a funny saying we used to tell each other whenever we failed a test at school. We’d say, “I’d rather get a zero than a 59.”
Why? Because getting 59 means we tried and still failed.
Of course, we weren’t saying no one should ever try. We were being silly teenagers.
In content marketing, we know the value of tests and experimentation. However, most testing is done to confirm an initial assumption. In fact, a core piece of an A/B test is to form a hypothesis first. You have a suspected or proven winner, and you test an alternative version to see if it performs better.
Making a deliberate mistake is a bit different. In these are experiments, you assume you’re going to fail.
What could be the value of doing that?
Well, there can be two valuable outcomes. One is that you confirm your assumption of failure and learn something. The other is that you succeed (in other words, you fail at failing) and that long-shot effort might pay off handsomely. Even if it doesn’t, you’ve learned something.
There are different flavors of deliberate mistakes. One of my favorites was made by a vice president of marketing at a big B2B company. Over the years, they had accumulated tens of thousands of subscribers to their email newsletter. Every week they would dutifully email almost 90,000 newsletters, and every week, the engagement rates were extremely low.
So, the vice president did something interesting. He sent a large segment of the subscribed but disengaged audience an email with the subject line: Sorry to See You Go.
In the body of the email, the copy told the recipient the company was sorry they’d unsubscribed from the newsletter. But, the text continued, if they thought this unsubscribe might be in error, they could respond by clicking through to a survey.
This move was clearly a deliberate mistake. Certainly most, if not all, of these subscribers wouldn’t engage with the email. But their marketing team decided it was worth making the mistake and risk losing 30,000-plus subscribers to see if they had any shot with this unengaged audience.
The result? About 60% never responded or clicked and got officially unsubscribed from the newsletter. But 40% clicked and responded, “No, this was a mistake.” They hadn’t unsubscribed. For a while, this email had the highest click-through rate.
One other surprising result? Among those who responded, about 10% indicated they were interested in subscribing to a different topic addressed by the company.
The vice president of marketing told me, “We learned a lot from that ‘mistake.’”
There are a few key moments when deliberate mistakes might make sense for your content marketing:
1. There’s less to lose
Obviously, risk plays a role in how big a mistake you should deliberately make. Skydiving, for example, isn’t the best activity where an intentional mistake is likely to pay off. You don’t want to publish a content piece completely off-brand, run afoul of legal or compliance issues, or really offend your audience. But like the vice president of marketing at that B2B company. What could they lose other than a third of the email database that wasn’t engaging anyway?
2. Rigid, institutional rules
When you intentionally make a mistake, it will more likely go your way when the mistake goes against an institutional rule or rigid, outdated convention. A great example of this is the marketing for the movie Deadpool. It was, by most counts, a campaign filled with deliberate mistakes. Perhaps the biggest was its outdoor billboard campaign with a pictogram of a skull, a poop emoji, and the letter “L” with the premiere date. Adweek called the campaign “so stupid, it’s genius.”
How about that rule that says never publish blog posts on the weekend? Everybody says it doesn’t work, and publishing on those days is a mistake. Why not make that “mistake” and see what happens?
3. You are the newbie
An optimal time to make a deliberate mistake is when you’re new to a particular problem or challenge. It’s when your audience, customers, or colleagues are most likely to forgive your mistake – and then, of course, you can refer to the first moment above.
One of my good friends has been the CMO of several startup companies. He told me that when he joins a new company, he goes on a “listening tour” to hear from the practitioners. He often introduces a marketing newbie mistake into the conversation to see if a practitioner will push back, correct it, or just go with the flow. Certainly, he risks coming across as inexperienced. But, he says, what’s more important is that they start on equal footing, and he can start a dialogue with his new colleague.
Failing to fail to fail
Of course, not every deliberate mistake will end up with a successful outcome. Sometimes, after all, a mistake is a mistake – and deliberately making it will get you exactly what you asked for.
There is only one thing that’s assured: If you only fail when we’re trying not to, you may just miss out on proof you should trust your initial instincts.
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Cover image by Joseph Kalinowski/Content Marketing Institute
What Will It Take To Drive Content Marketing Forward?
You’re doing everything in your power to craft amazing content.
You sweat over quality, optimize everything to the last keyword, and feed those greedy channel beasts more and more and more.
But the results you get don’t match the effort you put in. What are you doing wrong?
The game has changed. Simply doing the once-right things – and more of them – won’t guarantee wins.
Playing to win now means doubling down on strategy
“The content you create provides no sustainable competitive advantage for your business.”
Robert Rose kicked off Content Marketing World 2022 with that bold statement. Even the most exceptional work will be copied, remixed, reimagined, and reissued by other brands and consumers.
But don’t take that statement as a eulogy for our beloved practice. Instead, celebrate new and different ways of looking at your work, Robert said, starting with your strategy and structure.
Having the right resources (including the strategic roles, teams, and repeatable procedures) lets you fluidly change and evolve all the time.
And that’s where you’ll find your new competitive advantage.
Invest in a remarkable (and human) voice
Take Netflix, for example. The streaming giant made the strategic choice to invest in real, live humans to write the closed caption subtitles for its smash-hit Stranger Things. That choice paid off with the kind of online buzz no brand can buy.
Most streamers use automated transcriptions to help people with hearing difficulties follow what’s happening on screen. But Netflix assigned marketing writers to craft vivid descriptions of the sounds accompanying the Stranger Things action.
The evocative and unsettling words they used (wetly squelching, tentacles roiling) caught the attention of younger viewers – a segment that watches shows with captions on regardless of their hearing ability. Earned media mentions skittered across the web, entangling viewers in a whole new viewing (and reading) experience.
The lesson, Ann said, is that voice can carry your brand’s unique personality, even when your brand isn’t mentioned. Investing in it is a strategic choice that sets your brand apart.
“A warm, relatable brand voice is increasingly crucial. It’s how we need to start developing relationships with our audiences, especially in this world of content abundance,” Ann said.
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Do what others don’t dare
While writing a book about how mobile phones transformed communication, he hit on a unique idea. Why not put his phone number on the cover, so readers could reach out and continue the dialog?
His publishers balked. So, Bonin purchased the rights from them and published the book his way. Since 2016, more than 50,000 readers of Txt Me: Your Phone Has Changed Your Life. Let’s Talk About It have called to create a personal connection with him.
A co-founder of Group Black – a media collective and accelerator focused on advancing Black-owned media properties – Bonin built his groundbreaking marketing career by thinking differently about what others consider impossible.
Bonin offers advice on how to challenge convention into meaningful marketing actions:
- Aspire, but have a plan to see ideas through: While aspiration is a significant first step, you must develop the muscle memory to see your ideas to completion. Allocate the time, resources, and effort to execute the ideas.
- Operate in real-time: The set-it-and-forget-it mentality doesn’t work anymore. Think about how you can change your business to deliver products in real time.
- Be resourceful: Experimenting with content is not about how much money is available. It’s about how well you use the assets, talent, and resources you have.
- Operationalize innovation: Look for models you can reverse-engineer to guide the development of your ideas and create guardrails and structures that make innovation more manageable.
- Be curious: If you build the skill of curiosity, you can foster environments that create change.
- Don’t give up: A no from stakeholders doesn’t mean your idea is bad. It just means it’s not the right fit under the current situation. Keep workshopping it. If all else fails, consider developing it elsewhere or on your own.
Advocate for a clear content career path
People remain the most valuable (and expensive) content marketing assets. So cultivating content marketing careers is one of the most strategic choices an organization can make.
Upcoming CMI research shared at the conference shows most content marketers are at least somewhat satisfied with their current roles. Yet few feel sure about how they’ll grow in those roles. And of those who do have a clear career path, 20% say they’ll have to leave their employer to get there.
“We have to build a career path into what it is we do. There’s no way content becomes a strategic function in the business if we don’t look at this. It will always be just a content factory,” Robert said.
Jessica Bergmann shared how Salesforce did this. Working with the employee success team, Jessica and colleagues documented a career path for content team members to follow to progress from individual contributors to executive management.
Each company should build a path that suits its structure and culture. But Jessica shared some ideas any brand can use to start seeding opportunities and laying a professional path for content team members:
- Advocate for integrated content teams: “It’s important that you show up as one company with one voice. We can’t have all different teams creating content everywhere and showing up with different voices and perspectives,” she said.
- Define content roles and responsibilities clearly: Understand how content-centric teams across the organization collaborate and align their efforts to help content strategy get a seat at the decision-makers’ table.
- Create democratized performance dashboards: Empower company leadership to see each content asset’s performance without asking for it.
- Automate the ordinary: Using your automation tools to reduce time spent performing mundane tasks will allow content teams to focus on creating extraordinary and impactful content experiences.
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Set your vision on meaningful change
Perhaps the most urgent strategic question today is this: How will you create content that leads to a meaningful change in the world?
With trust declining in government and other institutions, audiences now expect brands to work toward something beyond their balance sheet. Robert Rose pointed out in his talk that the subhead for Edelman’s 2022 Trust Barometer is this: “Societal leadership is now a core function of business.”
Mark Harrison brought home the role of content (and individual content practitioners) in this function. A volunteer and entrepreneur who founded sponsorship agency T1 to work exclusively with impactful brands, Mark is committed to making a difference.
“I have a simple personal vision, and that is to create a world of belonging,” he said. “No matter what you look like, what you sound like, or where you come from, you will feel that you belong.”
Mark executes his mission by building what he calls the above-ground railroad, giving the nod to the underground railroad that helped thousands of enslaved people escape to freedom in the United States. The above-ground railroad activates networks of people to bring greater equity and opportunity to those who have been marginalized by society.
Part of that work involves amplifying their struggles and their strengths to those who have the power to increase inclusivity.
“Amplifying voices is not giving your social pages over to somebody that doesn’t look like you. It’s about showing real courage,” Mark said.
Mark shared a brand example that shows how powerful courageous content can be. When Harry Met Santa, a video from Posten Norge, tells the story of a developing relationship between a man (Harry) and Santa Claus. The video ends with a romantic kiss between the two, followed by this closing line: “In 2022, Norway marks 50 years of being able to love whoever we want.”
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How will you make content better for everyone?
These and other Content Marketing World conversations make one thing clear: You have your work cut out for you.
But you also have an opportunity to rethink your content strategy to create something remarkable. That strategy might include investments in:
- Talented creators who help develop your brand’s distinctive voice
- A clear career path that helps you keep your talent
- New and different approaches to content possibilities
- Making a societal impact
What takeaways resonate with you? Where do you plan to focus your strategy for the rest of the year and into 2023? Let us know in the comments.
Cover image by Joseph Kalinowski/Content Marketing Institute
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