Correlation does not imply causation. Or, as Wikipedia says: if you notice a coinciding drop in both ice cream sales and drowning deaths and assume that ice cream causes drowning, odds are you’ve never heard of winter.
In other words, just because two things happen at the same time, it doesn’t mean that one caused the other. They may be related. But to figure out if they are, you need to consider all the other factors.
Which is why I found it so frustrating when, sitting in a marketing webinar about 11 months ago, I heard the presenter say something like this:
As you can see from this graph of the relationship between video content volume and customer engagement, brands that produce a lot of video content tend to have a high level of engagement. Sony, for example, produces a lot of video and has very high engagement. Kohl’s, on the other hand, produces almost no video content and has very low engagement—so clearly they should begin to release more video content.
This bugged me. Why? Because there are so many other potential factors that could have led to Sony’s high level of content engagement besides the medium they used. Maybe, as a technology company, Sony was perfectly positioned to take special advantage of the video medium in ways that other brands couldn’t. Maybe they had a dedicated fan base that would engage with their content regardless of the medium.
Of course, maybe video is a factor and maybe I’m just blowing a single statement out of proportion. But I worry that if we begin to think of content marketing success as something you can just copy and paste without considering all the factors, we may end up looking a lot like Hollywood. And spoiler alert: that’s a bad thing. As Jay Baer says about social media, the goal isn’t to be good at social media; the goal is to be good at business because of social media.
The problem with investing in trends instead of good writing.
Here’s why I’m worried: in 2013, The Lone Ranger became one of the biggest box office bombs in history. If you haven’t seen it (and based on the box office, you haven’t), this was a cowboy movie based on a cowboy TV series from the 1950s—itself based on a cowboy radio series from the 1930s. Neat, if that’s your thing. The only problem was that this nostalgia piece inexplicably cost $375M to make and market, and would need to take in $800M just to break even. This was a problem because cowboy movies have never done well at the box office. Prior to The Lone Ranger’s release, the highest-grossing cowboy movie was the 2010 remake of True Grit. And that only pulled in $175M.
So that begs the question: why was this movie made so expensively?
The answer, according to Tom Reimann, is that Hollywood is obsessed with looking for trends—and often equates a single success with a trend. The success that prompted The Lone Ranger’s massive failure? Disney’s Pirates of the Caribbean: The Curse of the Black Pearl.
In 2003, Disney chose to invest $100M in the idea that Johnny Depp doing silly walks through one of their theme park attractions would be box office gold. Kind of a crazy idea, considering pirate movies had never made big money at the box office before then, but it worked. And when Pirates was a runaway hit—earning a mind-boggling $654,264,015 at the worldwide box office—it convinced studios that any idea for a movie, any unprofitable genre, could work if the budget was big enough.
The problem, of course, is that the budget wasn’t the magic part of the equation. The magic part was Johnny Depp and Jeoffrey Rush playing two amazingly well-written characters in an intriguing adventure. The $100M budget just allowed the filmmakers to fully explore that adventure. And by ignoring the core of the good idea for the medium (a nine-figure movie), Hollywood made one of the biggest bombs in movie history.
The moral of the story: tell stories.
If the one half-remembered quote that I’ve pulled out of context to provide a basis for this blog post is any indication, content marketers are on the verge of making their version of The Lone Ranger. Video and all the other magic bullets and shortcuts to success are just their version of Hollywood’s magic number ($100M).
If you really want content marketing to generate engagement and build an audience, you need to look at what people actually engage with. As Michael Brenner, CEO of Marketing Insider Group, has pointed out, content today has to compete with all the other stuff that’s demanding our attention on the internet, TV, our phones, and everywhere else. It has to be better than videos of puppies trying to roll over and getting stuck on their backs. And that is a tall order. But it is possible. And if you’ve paid attention to the subheads, you know where I’m going with this: the secret to engaging content is to tell stories.
Here are a few things to keep in mind about good brand storytelling, according to Lauren McMenemy of NewsCred:
1. Make your customer the hero. Your brand should be secondary in the story you’re telling—a supporting character in your customers’ lives. They don’t want to hear about how great you are. They want to hear what you enable them to do. If you sell hammers, for example, write about do-it-yourself projects you can do with just a hammer. Show them what you can help them accomplish.
2. Don’t think about what. Think about why. Why do you get out of bed each Monday morning? What made you want to do what you do? Share your passion for your product or service. What gets you excited about coming in to work. Prove that you care, and your customers will take quality as a given.
3. Be authentic. Consumers today can smell B.S. from a mile away. To really connect, you’ll want to figure out who they are, what they care about, and how your brand intersects with that so you can make it relevant. But don’t go telling a story about how your hammers help contribute to world peace (because they don’t) just because your customers care about helping people. Instead, tell a story about how Habitat for Humanity uses your hammers exclusively, and how rewarding it is that your hammers are helping build something bigger.
This is just the starting point. But the main thing to keep in mind is that content marketing isn’t about doing things “right” per se—about replicating someone else’s success. Content marketing is about finding the core of your brand and sharing it with the world. Drawing people in by telling relatable, interesting stories.
Do that, and you can be sure you’re on track to make Pirates of the Caribbean, not The Lone Ranger.