Tom Webster, writing and speaking

The Content Marketing Treadmill

Added on by Tom Webster.

Several months ago, I wrote this on my personal blog, because it didn't (at the time) seem like it was "BrandSavant" material. In the months that passed, two things happened: one, Posterous--the host of my personal blog--was bought by Twitter, and Twitter made the company-but-not-user-friendly decision to shutter Posterous, so I need to preserve this content by the end of the month or lose it. Lesson learned (and for you, I hope.) The other thing that happened was that this post--on an unpromoted, bare-bones, personal blog--ended up getting more page views than the average post I write here. So, it resonated. While I figure out what I want to do with my personal musings now that the landlord has kicked me out of the building (and lets face it, that's what the Twitter/Posterous acquisition has done), I thought I'd repost this here for you.

Finally, I'll just add that I don't write to a schedule here at BrandSavant. I respect *the hell* out of the people who can, and do, write frequent content that is worth reading to a schedule. That's a pretty short list--a non-zero number, but I can count them on two hands. What I am beginning to understand is this: reading "how to excel at frequent content marketing" articles from these talented and gifted individuals might be akin to reading "how to dunk" articles from LeBron James.

Find your own path. And I hope you get something from this.

The Dark Side of Content Marketing

I don't consider myself a very good content marketer. The number of people I know of that can consistently and frequently produce amazing content on a calendar is pretty small, and I'm not going to risk offense by naming anyone here, so I'll leave it at this--if you don't think this applies to you, then it doesn't. Fair enough?

Content marketing is an enormously powerful tool, and it can be used for good and for evil. The recent fall from grace of noted author Jonah Lehrer is a useful cautionary tale for the latter. Lehrer, author of How We Decide and the pulled-from-the-shelves Imagine: How Creativity Works, has become something of a pariah, but a recent, superb piece in New York Magazine makes the point that all Lehrer did by plagiarizing himself and others, and by making up "evidence" out of whole cloth was, essentially, what was asked of him by "the system."

I do not excuse this, and "I was just doing what I was expected/told to do" has often been offered as a thin excuse for far greater crimes than Lehrer has committed or is even capable of committing. It is, in fact, a terrible excuse, and the first refuge of those that need to justify reprehensible or questionable behavior. And, let's be clear--Jonah Lehrer himself has never proffered this excuse, though the writer of this (superb) piece has dangled it as a tantalizing possibility. But this article, too, is content marketing.

So is this blog post.

I've given a number of talks over the past year or so disparaging a brand of "research" that we often see in social media--data provided for the purposes of content marketing. Some infographics fall into this category, as do studies that aggregate social media data to give you the "right" way to tweet. They aren't designed to help you--not really. These things have nearly no applicability to your specific situation or your business. They are designed to get you to click on them. To sign up for a white paper. To register for a webinar. To make you, in other words, a lead.

You know this, surely. But even knowing this, we often fail to close the circle here--that data produced for the purposes of content marketing is inherently incurious. As I've often written here and elsewhere, "incurious" is as vulgar a word in my business as I can possibly muster. It's the professional researcher's equivalent of the F-Bomb.

But we thirst for content. The social web is, in fact, a vast, insatiable mill for content. Providing content has become a viable career, and I do not disparage this. But the dark side of this is that the content marketer is often mistaken for an expert in the field in which he or she is creating content. In the case of Jonah Lehrer, he was riding on the coattails of absolutely the most influential thinker in my professional life and career, Nobel Laureate Daniel Kahneman. My entire post-MBA career has been spent studying Kahneman's work and his insights into consumer behavior and behavioral economics.

Kanheman's work has been translated, popularized, and extended by a wide variety of writers, ranging from Dubner and Levitt (Freakonomics), to Barry Schwartz (The Paradox of Choice) to Daniel Ariely (Predictability Irrational.) Jonah Lehrer's How We Decide also built upon Kahneman's work, but there is a crucial distinction here. Lehrer was a smart guy--I'm not belittling his intellect--but he was at heart a content marketer, not a scientist. Otherwise, he would have been a scientist, no? He popularized the insights of researchers like Kahneman, translating them for laypeople and finding the anecdotes and case studies that would entrance and captivate readers, but he did not extend those findings--he moved on to the next topic, the next book, the inevitable Ted talk and speaking circuit to which that grants one access.

I don't judge him. I cannot judge him (hell, I'd love to have a Ted talk.) But whether you see Lehrer as a James Frey-esque congenital liar or as a victim caught up in the trope of the writer-as-expert (as opposed to the expert writer), the fact remains that Lehrer became popular. He delivered what we, the buying public, wanted. He was hardly a scientist. But thousands believed he was a scientist, because he wrote like a scientist. He fed the content mill, and he did it very effectively.

The tale of Jonah Lehrer, whose career as a content marketer appears to be effectively over, is a cautionary tale, and it applies to pretty much all of us who do exactly what it is I am trying to do here--market myself as a thought leader/thinker/consultant by dint of a few blog posts. And I take that cautionary tale to heart, both as a creator and as a consumer of information. With that in mind, here are three things I take away from the story of Jonah Lehrer:

1. The content beast, though oft-fed, is insatiable. You are only as good as your next book, your next blog post, or your last talk. I don't write very often here or at Brandsavant, as this has long been a trap that I have resisted. For every blog post I publish, there are five or six others that never see the light of day, because they just aren't good enough. I only publish what I am proud of, and for that reason this space sometimes can lie fallow for weeks at a time. I'm ok with that. You, of course, need to find your own way, and you may be eminently capable of producing quality content more frequently than I.

But, if you cannot, the surest way to fall into the Lehrer trap is to write to a schedule, and not in the service of ideas. The tyranny of the content calendar is responsible for a lot of weak content on the web. Keeping up that pace out of deference to some kind of received wisdom about publishing frequency may not by default lead you to the kind of intellectual dishonesty of which Lehrer was guilty, but it does place stress on the system, as it were. My Brandsavant blog became much more important to me when it became a showcase for my best thought, and when it became important to me it became a better blog. At least, that's my hallucination.

2. There are experts about things, and there are people who can write about things. Those that can do both exceptionally well are exceedingly rare. I have enormous respect for writers like Brian Greene, who can not only translate science for laymen, but also do the science. That's a gift. A rare gift, as it turns out. We should celebrate those that have it, but also acknowledge that rarity.

Today, we see a lot of very gifted writers blogging about trends in social media and business, and we cannot help but be influenced by that writing and those thinkers. But we also have to acknowledge the fact that the folks doing the work and the folks writing well about the work are rarely the same people. Jonah Lehrer is a gifted writer. But, as a behavioral economist, he's a gifted writer. Our ability to share our content on the web, especially on social media, is wonderful and has presented me with opportunities that I never dreamed of 5 years ago. But the ability to disseminate content should never be mistaken for skills as a scientist, sociologist, human resources professional, operations manager or any number of disciplines that require actually doing the thing.

To that end, allow me to suggest that the best way to mitigate this phenomenon is to be sure and augment your reading/follow list/Google+ circles with the voices of the not-so-popular, the contrarians and the practitioners of the disciplines we follow. We are bombarded with content marketing that invokes psychology, organizational behavior, leadership principles, change management and corporate culture. Yet, very few of the popular voices who talk about how social media has transformed business have much actual expertise in areas outside of marketing and PR.

I do not denigrate those voices--far from it. I often range far afield of my own educational background and experience in my writing--but do be sure to balance those voices by seeking out HR specialists, psychologists, management consultants and CEO's who, though they may not have the platforms held by some popular bloggers, have just as much if not more to say about how social has transformed business as anyone.

I do not fault those who produce content in those areas--again, the system almosts demands it--but that very same system requires that we start holding content marketing to a higher standard.

3. Finally, the great crime of writers such as Lehrer (and one of my least favorite popular writers, Malcolm Gladwell) is this: they confuse information and evidence. I still believe that this post, on the difference between the two, is one of the best things I've written, and it is certainly the one that best sums up my personal approach to my job.

What writers like Lehrer, Gladwell and any number of currently popular business writers do is this: they start with the insight, and then seek out data to prove it. Lehrer certainly did this: he began with an idea, and then (as the writer of the excellent New York piece linked above noted) sought out the data required to serve as the scaffolding of that idea. There is a saying in my business: the plural of anecdote is not data. And while some popular "data-driven" writers and bloggers often have compelling anecdotes to illustrate their beliefs, those insights were not data-driven.

Anyone can cherry pick anecdotes in the service of an idea--Gladwell's "10,000 hours to mastery" myth is a prime example--but that doesn't mean that those insights actually came from data. And when we start with the idea, and then look for the data, then we no longer treat facts as information. We treat them as evidence; discarding that which does not support our idea, and elevating that which does. And this is one of the greatest crimes committed by some of the worst content marketing that I see on the social web.

And if you are using any of this content marketing to support business decisions, then it isn't a victimless crime.

Still, content marketing runs the gamut from helpful to innocuous to potentially harmful. How can we seek the light, and eschew the dark side? Well, as my lovely wife Tamsen reminds me, there is a simple trick to dealing with the geyser of information being spewed daily by Twitter, Facebook, blog posts and other content outlets: always seek to disconfirm, or, as I mentioned to Jay Baer in his excellent post here, don't seek to prove yourself right, prove yourself wrong.

That doesn't mean being a critic, or even a cynic. And it doesn't necessarily mean taking what we read in content marketing with a grain of salt, as it were. Instead, it means that what we read might be true--in fact, we can even hope that it is true--but our first obligation is not to believe it. Our first obligation is to wonder. When we are confronted with a new piece of data, or some new prescriptive article about the best way to use social media, the enlightened reader wonders if it is actually true and applicable to their situation, and then seeks to disprove it.

This has nothing to do with doubt and everything to do with confirmation bias. If you cannot disprove a thing after putting it to the test for your specific situation, then you have a genuine insight. But if you can readily disprove it, then you know to keep looking. And I don't know about you, but I keep looking, each and every day.

So, I have a love-hate relationship with content marketing. I acknowledge it. I use it. I embrace it. But I also recognize that that there is a truly dark side indeed to content marketing. What say you?