Is documentation good content? Is all good content documentation? In this episode of Marketing Made Difficult, we talk about some of the rules for producing good content.

Justin: Is your marketing content journalism, which has its own existing set of best practices, or is it documentation, which also has its own best practices?

We also talk about:

The two different types of marketing content

Justin: Is your marketing content journalism, which has its own existing set of best practices, or is it documentation, which also has its own best practices?

SEO

Vincent: One thing that makes it hard to find content that’s valuable and worth reading, [is that] marketers are optimizing for organic search, or a lot of them are. They’re using tools that are helping them to find, what are the topics that are in demand? [And then] they may not actually be creating content that meets that demand, but they might use a headline that does.

The minimum requirements for good content

Vincent: The minimum requirement is that the content delivers on the promise that the headline made.

We love getting feedback and comments. Leave them here, or find us on Twitter @vincentbarr and @jwyattd.

Full Transcript

Justin Dunham:

Hi, I’m Justin Dunham. I’m here with my co-host, Vincent Barr, and we are here for episode three of our podcast, Marketing Made Difficult. There are a few things we want to talk about this episode, but we actually wanted to kick it off with a question. How should you decide what to read? What makes good marketing content?

Vincent Barr:

This is a great question and a hard one, given how much content the marketing community puts out. The first question is, where should you look for it? Should you rely on a certain social media platform, like Twitter or Facebook? Should you be going to websites? Should you be going to conferences? Because arguably these are all ways you could education yourself or consume content. Should you call a coworker and try to network within your local marketing community?

Justin Dunham:

How should somebody learn, is the real question. What’s the best way to learn as a marketer? Part of the reason this came up and I wanted to talk about it is when I prepped for this podcast, I spent a lot of time trying to go through the news and things that are coming up, and articles, and I would say there’s maybe a 10% success rate on the stuff that I actually looked through to see if it’s actually useful to talk about. Here’s a great story from this past week. I have Hootsuite. I tweet things out automatically, marketing content that I’ve created, and I talk about talks that I’ve done, articles that I’ve written. I tweet out this podcast every couple months. I have the same tweet that I’ll just put out there again.

That’s number one, which as I just confessed that I literally repurpose the exact same content. Piece number two of that is, one of my tweets it turns out has a broken link in it where the link doesn’t go anywhere, and I checked the amount of engagement of that link versus all of my other tweets, and it was exactly the same. Number of follows was the same. Number of likes was the same. Number of list adds, everything like that, which suggests to me that not only is the content … Perhaps, maybe my content’s not that great, but that there’s a huge automated force out there that is not paying any attention whatsoever to either consuming or producing quality content.

Vincent Barr:

This is really interesting, because when you were describing that you had the same amount of engagement on the link that was broken, I’ve seen on Facebook people that are commenting on an article based solely on its description, the summary or the headline, and then if you actually read the content the point is counter to what the headline might lead you to believe. Okay, this person didn’t even read the article, which is interesting. I think it would be a really fun experiment to purposely put out tweets where you maybe just have this snippet of content, but it doesn’t actually point anywhere, and direct them to homedepot.com or something. Because I wonder, how do we even consume content? What I find is that when I do come across the articles that are valuable, I bookmark them for later, because typically they’re pretty long and they’re pretty dense, so if I’m reading on mobile or I’m on the go, I want to be able to read that and focus, and if there’s anything I want to record from it, that’s a helpful way for me to actually remember-

Justin Dunham:

There are a few pieces to what you’re talking about. One is this idea of long form versus short form content. I would argue, it’s not even about length. It’s really about how much you have to think about what’s actually being said, and the interesting stuff is stuff that you have to think about. Versus, what content marketers often try to do is create little bite size pieces of content, or the popcorn philosophy of creating content, which might be contributing to a lot of this not great content that’s out there. That seems to me to be one really interesting piece is, as a marketer, how you learn, you seek out some of that longer form stuff that is hard to do, and if you’re able to read it right there, maybe that’s a sign that you actually shouldn’t be reading it.

Vincent Barr:

Yeah, I think that’s a fair point.

Justin Dunham:

Was that too controversial?

Vincent Barr:

I’m trying to think of an exception to that rule. I can think of one exception when it comes to app content. Google has this app called Primer.

Justin Dunham:

Primer, you can download it to your mobile device. It’s a great little app that is basically a set of lessons on specific marketing topics. Is that right, or is it other topics as well?

Vincent Barr:

Yeah, that’s right. It covers branding, writing a creative brief, ad buying, everything, so yeah, it’s pretty interesting.

Justin Dunham:

It is intended, the opposite of what I just said, to be something that you can download and read little pieces of it as you go.

Vincent Barr:

Yeah. Clearly, they did this very intentionally, because what happens is you go through the content, and there’s an exercise where you are applying what you just learned to your particular situation. If you’re a small business owner and it’s about developing a value proposition, they’ll introduce the lessons, then you’ll complete it as the small business owner. Then once you complete a lesson, it enables a different feature in the app, which is like the cheat sheet, which is a highlight of what you just learned.

Justin Dunham:

If I think about things that I’ve produced, coming back to the whole podcast idea in the first place, creating good content is really hard, and when I try to sit down and do written content and have it actually be valuable, it takes a really long time. The long form thing, that comes back to why we even created this podcast in the first place is we were finding that it was really difficult to actually sit down and create something that was worth reading, or write something that was worth reading. Whereas the podcast format is something where it is a little bit easier to consume, because you do have to be intentional about it. You’re not going to find us by just clicking around. You’re probably downloading this onto your device and listening to it while you’re doing something else.

Vincent Barr:

I think it’s a different use case, too. If I’m trying to learn actionable things like, “Here’s exactly what I might do today,” or the how of doing something, then I would prefer the content, but I think another big part of marketing is managing expectations. It may be communicating the value of what you’re doing, and lots of other things that I think it can be more helpful to learn those things rather than reading about it, by speaking with someone. One thing that makes reading marketing content or finding content that’s valuable and worth reading, one thing that makes that hard, marketers are optimizing for organic search, or a lot of them are. They’re using tools that are helping them to find, what are the topics that are in demand? They may not actually be creating content that meets that demand, but they might use a headline that does.

A great example of this is, I was working at a company that would put on a big event once per year, and tying offline sales to online marketing is really challenging. We went through all sorts of exercises to figure out the right way to track it, and so on and so forth. We won’t go down that road right now, but I just saw this article. It came on my Twitter feed, and it was on Search Marketer Land or something, and it was about the challenge of event marketing. It proposed a solution in the headline, as though this person had cracked the code on how to get measurement and attribution right. Then I skimmed through the entire article, and it basically just summarized the problem in six pages if I were to print it out. I was like, “Okay, well that’s not exactly helpful.” Granted, a good problem description is important, but, I’m not sure I would even call it that, and it could’ve been reduced to four bullet points.

Justin Dunham:

Let’s come back to this question, because I think there are two topics we’re dealing with now. One of them is, how do you learn as a marketer? I think based on what we’ve just talked about, my test of it has to be long form or you have to sit down, maybe that all goes out the window, because as you pointed out, there are different aspects of marketing that you’re going to be learning about in different ways. There’s how to stuff that’s going to be much better to consume when you’re sitting down and thinking about it. There’s management side of things. There’s other more creative things that might come out of listening, or that might come out of little bite size pieces of content. That’s one part of what we talked about. I think the other part is, coming back to our original question of, what in your view is quality content? Would quality content, in that case Vincent, have been, you clicked through and they actually solved it for you?

Vincent Barr:

The minimum requirement is that the content delivers on the promise that the headline made. The second thing is novelty. If you’re saying, here are three innovative ways to do X, Y, and Z. Granted, if I see an adjective like that, I’m probably going to dismiss the article anyway.

Justin Dunham:

Don’t use innovative in the headline. Got it.

Vincent Barr:

No adjectives in the headline. If I go there, I’m hoping to either find something told in a way that I hadn’t consumed it before and that for me resonates in a way that it hadn’t, so I think novelty is one property of good content.

Justin Dunham:

Are content marketers rewarded for creating good content?

Vincent Barr:

Not necessarily. What do you think the reward is for good content, or what should it be?

Justin Dunham:

Of course it depends on your objectives. Are you trying to do thought leadership, or are you trying to create website traffic? Are you trying to generate leads? At the fundamental level, we know that content has to be engaged, when it’s to achieve any objective whatsoever. Is the reason for all of this not great content floating around that it actually does work, that people do engage with it, and that you, Vincent, may actually be wrong about the things that you like, or you may not be representative, and I’m talking about myself, too, by the way. One of my bullet points for this was the idea that Twitter is actually an anti-pattern for a marketing community. Because that’s another question. What do you read as a marketer? How do you learn? How do you know what community to participate in? I check Twitter all of the time, and I follow lots of marketers on Twitter, lots of fellow marketers. I occasionally click through their stuff, but a lot of it is not great, so are we wrong about the things that we really engage with or care about?

Vincent Barr:

I am not representative of the marketing population at large, and I think that’s been proven to me. We had a conversation the other day about my preference to go directly to the documentation of whatever platform I’m working with first, because you can learn how it works, all of the features and functionality, some of which might not be available through the UI that you need to access via API. That said, there is a lot of value in synthesis as well.

Justin Dunham:

Is good content documentation on some level? I’m trying to carve out a place here for … I think some part of what makes good content is that it’s entertaining or it makes you feel a certain way. I think for marketers, sometimes good content can be content that makes you feel like you’re learning something or engaging with an issue. Maybe that’s what a lot of content accomplishes, is it’s very quick to produce and it’s not super valuable in and of itself, but it gives people this idea and this feeling and this engagement with you that maybe is not the exact type of engagement that we prefer. Then the other part of what I’m saying is, maybe everything else is documentation, and documentation is always good content.

Vincent Barr:

I think documentation is always good content. I think it’s necessary content, even if it’s internal, institutional knowledge, how you make decisions or how you spend your time, or this is the data and the metrics we look at. It’s valuable because it saves everyone time, there’s no redundancy. You have a source of truth. This makes me wonder, when it comes to marketing, do you like to read articles that tell good stories? Is storytelling important in marketing content?

Justin Dunham:

I hate storytelling in marketing content.

Vincent Barr:

I do too, and I think it’s because I don’t trust it.

Justin Dunham:

Exactly. Yeah, right. There are two types of storytelling I don’t trust. Three types. One is, I had this personal experience which is very interesting on its own, and I’m going to try to apply it to marketing or how to run a company. I actually wrote an article like this once. I was trying to rank on Hacker News and I had just read a book by this famous journalist named Studs Terkel. The entire book is about different people’s professions and what they do. I wrote a blog post about it. It’s still up there, and it’s called What Studs Terkel’s Working Taught Me about Being a Product Manager. It really didn’t teach me that much. The lesson that I took from it, I could have put into a longer form article about how to do product management or something like that, but I gave this narrative about this totally unrelated topic. I think that’s one way that I don’t like storytelling.

Another way that I don’t like storytelling is articles where there’s all of this very specific context related to a specific situation, like how we produced a 6x lift in our blog traffic using Twitter in 30 days, which I either don’t buy or I think is likely to be very specific to that situation. That’s the second type, and I guess the third type is related to that. It’s, our product is awesome, and here’s how everybody else uses it to do this other thing. A company that I’ll call out a little bit as doing this a lot, this company called Influitive. They seem to have a really interesting product, but a lot of what you hear from them is about how their product drove XYZ across all these different use cases, and it’s hard for me to believe some of the claims that they make.

Vincent Barr:

It sounds like a long humblebrag, too.

Justin Dunham:

It is a long humblebrag, and it sounds like a really interesting product, but the way you sell me as a marketing technology person is helping me understand how it will do that for my business. The social proofs thing is important. I certainly don’t blame them for doing that, but there’s a very limited amount that I actually find valuable.

Vincent Barr:

I feel the same way. In the storytelling, maybe there are two or three points where I’m curious about, how exactly did that happen? Or there are some critical details that actually might make the article, in my opinion, worth reading. I would be like, “That’s sort of interesting. I wonder exactly what happened,” or, “Do they have the data behind this to show?” I think often, yeah, they obstruct some of the facts that you would care about. It’s like an enterprise software website where they’re burying the pricing or the contact form or the screenshots. It’s like, “Show me the app.” Give me some standards by which I can compare this to everything else. Some of the stories just aren’t told well.

Justin Dunham:

Yeah, that’s a good point. Maybe that brings out another way to think about it. Is your marketing content journalism, which has its own existing set of best practices, or is it documentation, which also has its own best practices? I think most marketing content that’s out there really ought to fit into one or the other, but it doesn’t. The other thing I’m going to put out there too, and we talked about, what should marketers be reading and looking at? We said, there’s documentation which has its own value, and then maybe there’s journalism, which has a value but it’s more limited or it requires great storytelling. I would put into that category some of the things that get written about how I created an app that got a million users in ten days really should be journalism, versus it trying to be documentation. One thing I actually have been doing a lot lately which I find helpful is reading fiction. I threw that in the notes for this, and I stopped reading fiction for a long time, and I also gave an example before of how I was saying that I read this book and it applied in this way that it didn’t really, but … Do you read fiction, Vin? Is that something-

Vincent Barr:

I used to love reading fiction.

Justin Dunham:

As a marketer, a really big part of your job is listening to people. I think it might be the most listening oriented profession in business, although listening is a valuable skill for anybody, but especially for marketers who are trying to connect with people and you’re trying to do it in a very scalable, mass oriented way. Fiction, when you’re reading a book, you’re just sitting there listening for a really long time. I’ve found that improving that skill of listening helps me not get attached to certain outcomes, and it helps me make better decisions. For example, we recently ran some tests on some of our pricing pages, and I had invested a lot of time into a new variation of a pricing page that I thought was going to be a lot better, and it totally wasn’t. Totally was not, but if I were not out there really trying to listen and pay attention to what’s going on, it would’ve been a lot more difficult to actually accept this result, versus trying to say, “We made this change or we did this other thing that affected it.”

Another really good example is I run technology marketing ops as part of my job, and people come to me with ideas that would require a lot of work. My inclination as somebody who is resource constrained is to say, “No, we shouldn’t really do that.” I’ll admit it. I’ll admit it. Any marketing ops person should admit that this is their bias. Any efficient person should admit that your bias is going to be to say no to a new idea, but the better you can listen to it, the more you can find ways that you can do the thing, or do some variation of it, or keep it in mind for later. For some reason, I’m finding fiction very helpful in cultivating some of that.

Vincent Barr:

Is it partly because as you’re reading, you’re learning. It could be the story’s about multiple characters, they’re in their voice.

Justin Dunham:

Exactly. It’s learning about other people’s stories and what’s important to them, which you and I have a very data oriented, growth oriented bent, but we also work with marketers who don’t care about that stuff and are all about storytelling, for example. It helps us understand them a little bit better.

Vincent Barr:

When you’re reading how to on analytics, or how to on product management, I am the active person in that book. I’m the one that’s the recipient of all this information. The author is speaking directly to me, whereas when you’re reading fiction, you’re this passive observer in this world that’s going on, so it’s purely listening.

Justin Dunham:

I think that that points to another point which we probably won’t have time to address on this podcast, which is, separating different stages of your thinking process. There is a great book by a guy named Edward de Bono called Six Thinking Hats. He talks about the roles of different types of thinking and different stages of the process, and one of them which I think is the black hat, they all have colors which are essentially arbitrary, is the critical hat, the hat that you use to cut down alternatives. There’s another hat that you use to build up alternatives and brainstorm. I think a lot of times, people try to mix all of that together into one area, and it’s very hard to think like that, whereas when you do go out and read whatever it may be, it’s a lot easier to be purely in one mode or another. I think one thing not to take away from this podcast is that as a marketer you shouldn’t be reading. There’s stuff out there to read, but the question is, what is it and what constitutes a good example of its type?

Vincent Barr:

For me, I always think, it’s always easier to add more ideas of what we could do and what we should do, and much more difficult to have the discipline of, “This is the process we’re going to go through to get at a good result and here are the activities we’re going to pursue and why, and we’re going to try to abstain from adding more things because it’s really easy and tempting.” That said, I think I might be biased because maybe my natural tendency is to be like, “What do we focus on?,” and making it into a process.

Justin Dunham:

It’s really hard to do. I think we talked about a lot of things, but coming back to where we jumped off, this idea of learning, read fiction, I guess. Read documentation. Read journalism. We didn’t really get to the idea of participating in a community, which I think is maybe a topic for a future podcasts. What makes a really great marketing community? Can you think of community oriented stuff that you’ve done, Vincent, that you’ve really thought was good or enjoyed?

Vincent Barr:

I think the community content is really hit or miss. There are some websites I would recommend. One person that comes to mind is Avinash Kaushik. His blog is great, and his book, Web Analytics 2.0, is great.

Justin Dunham:

Great. Well, that wraps it up for me and Vincent for this episode of Marketing Made Difficult. Check us out on Twitter. Vincent is twitter.com/vincentbarr, which two Rs, and I am twitter.com/jwyattd. Thank you so much for listening, and we’ll see you next time.