The Contrarian Guide to Content Marketing Part II

Posted by Sean Carton | May 20, 2015 | 4:20pm

In April we looked at all the reasons why you shouldn’t do content marketing with The Contrarian Guide to Content Marketing Part I. If you’ve made it through that contrarian outlook and still want to tackle content marketing, then you need to devise a convincing strategy, which starts with defining what a strategy actually is.

Strategy vs. Tactics

Before we get started, let’s get one thing straight: “strategy” and “tactics” are not synonyms. The web is littered with advice billing itself as “strategic” that’s really nothing more than a list of tactics. There’s a big difference.

There are plenty of complicated explanations out there describing the difference between strategy and tactics. Some are better than others. But if you’ve read them and are still confused, here’s an easy way to understand the difference:

Strategy solves a problem.

Tactics are what you use to get to that solution.

Let’s look at an example. Suppose you want to get from the proverbial “point A” to the equally proverbial “point B.” No problem, right? Normally no, but in this example there’s a barrier between A and B that you’ll have to overcome.

A ——— B (easy)

A———BARRIER —–B (problem!)

The solution you come up with to get past the barrier is your solution. You might go over the barrier (let’s call this “Strategy X”). You might pump up the RPMs and try to smash through the barrier (we’ll call this “Strategy Y”). Or you might just decide to wait at A until the barrier somehow goes away (“Strategy Z”).

Executing these different strategies requires different steps (aka tactics). Getting Strategy X to work might require selling your car, buying an airplane, learning to fly that airplane, and flying over the barrier to point B. Strategy Y might require you to buy a bigger car (or, perhaps, a dump truck), finding sufficient room to build up enough speed, and praying that you don’t die as you smash into the barrier. And while executing Strategy Z might seem easy, it may depend on you figuring out how you’re going to live long enough for the barrier to dissolve (and what you’re going to do while you wait for that to happen).

In advertising terms “strategy” is usually the “big idea” behind a campaign that serves as a foundation for what you do and the “tactics” are the different ways you try to reach your target audiences. If you had a waffle shop and wanted to attract new customers, your strategy might be that your campaign is going to emphasize the convenience and versatility of your waffles as a food one could eat at any meal. How you get that message out – an email marketing campaign to a list of people in your area who have purchased frozen waffles in the past, a drive-time radio campaign encouraging people to stop by and pick up waffles for dinner, a giant waffle-shaped balloon floating over your shop touting “Waffles! Hot and NOW, good for breakfast, lunch, dinner, or a late night snack”—are all tactics based on the strategy you created.

A successful strategy is one that best solves the problem you’re faced with. But as all of us learned in one way or another as the problems we faced grew more complex the older we got, it’s impossible to develop a solution if you don’t understand the problem.

In order to develop a successful content marketing solution, it’s vital that you fully understand the marketing problem that your content marketing program is going to fix. And understanding your marketing problem in its entirety isn’t easy. You have to understand your audience and their motivations. You have to understand your organization and what’s motivating those inside the organization to look for more effective marketing tactics. You need to understand the logistics of running a content marketing campaign and how you’re going to pay for it. You need to know what success looks like and you need to be able to identify failure so that you can avoid it. And, even scarier, you have to use the understanding that you accrue to make decisions about how to proceed.

Normally in articles like this you’d get presented with a laundry list of questions to ask yourself (and your team) in order to gather the information you need to create a comprehensive strategy. And that approach works. But many times it doesn’t.

Why? Because asking questions like “why are we doing this?” requires people to go out on a limb and declare to the world that they know the answer to a very complicated question. But as we’ve seen in many of the strategic planning sessions we’ve attended, many people are afraid to go out on that limb, especially if they have to take an unpopular position or face the scrutiny of those higher up in the company. The result, unfortunately, is that in many cases people shy away from the great (but risky) ideas in favor of the mediocre (but safer) ideas. The result is, equally unfortunately, often a muddled mess that doesn’t really move the ol’ innovation needle.

On the other hand, while people may often be reticent to offer positive solutions to problems, they’re often not so sanguine about offering their opinion when it comes to more, shall we say, negative options. While it’s scary to answer the question “what should we do?” it’s a lot less frightening to answer the question “what shouldn’t we do?”

If you want to test how this works yourself, try the negative approach next time you’re standing around with your colleagues trying to decide where to go to lunch. Unless you work somewhere where only one choice exists, deciding where to go can be a nightmare because nobody wants to step on anyone else’s toes (or expose themselves to criticism) by offering a solution. Eventually one person (driven out of a combination of hunger and frustration) will declare where they’re going and everyone follows suit, glad to be done with the polite (and highly irritating) group indecision.

If, however, instead of asking for suggestions of where to go you ask for suggestions where not to go, you face a very different dynamic. Everyone will make their preferences known by listing the places where they don’t want to go and, in most cases, you’ll be left with a very limited number of choices that no one has objected to. Bingo! Decision made!

Eliminating what’ s not going to work often leads you to what will work. As Sherlock Holmes said in The Sign of the Four, “when you have eliminated the impossible, whatever remains, however improbable, must be the truth.”

This is how collaborative contrarian strategy development works: rather than asking people to take a risk by offering up a positive idea or observation, the collaborative contrarian approach allows them the safer “out” by merely asking them to define a negative. And, to paraphrase Sherlock Holmes, once you eliminate those, whatever remains, however improbably, must be the answer.

Elementary, dear reader!

Here are the 10 contrarian questions to ask when developing your content marketing strategy. Each question (in bold) will be followed by the more traditional “positive” question so that you can see what kind of understanding each is attempting to develop. If you use this in a group, make sure that you present the contrarian question first and hold the positive question in reserve unless your participants are really confused.

One final caveat before we get started: some in your group may be tempted to get a laugh by offering up some pretty outlandish answers. After all, if you’re asking people to identify a potentially-infinite number of choices, the more…ummm…creative may see it as an opportunity for some fun. Just remind everyone to keep it in the realm of the not-totally-ridiculous.

Ready? Let’s go!

  1. What will happen if you don’t try content marketing? (What are you trying to accomplish?) OK: we know that the world probably won’t end. But what will happen if you don’t take the leap into content marketing? Will your competitors who are already doing content marketing gain market share? Do you risk your products/services becoming commodities because you’ve lost thought leadership? Will you miss developing sources of new leads in hard-to-reach audiences? There’s no one right answer, but listing all the things that could happen will lead you to better understand why you need to take the leap…or not.
  2. What audiences aren’t you trying to reach? (Who are your audiences?) Often times it’s difficult for people who are “too close” to their products or services to understand who they shouldn’t waste resources trying to reach. True, there are many products or services that could potentially be used by a great number of people, but when you’re forced to think of who wouldn’t use them you can begin to better define who would. Are the audiences outside of your target of a certain income range? Do they reside in specific geographic areas? Do they have certain characteristics that make them unlikely to buy what you’re selling? Does their age matter? Questions like these can help you eliminate audiences it doesn’t make sense to market to.
  3. What would turn your target audiences off? (Why should they care about your content?) What could you do that would send your customers and prospects running for the (virtual) door? What kinds of topics would drive them away? What kinds of topics would they consider irrelevant? What would bore them? What media formats might they have trouble with? By identifying the answers to these questions you’ll not only eliminate unproductive avenues when it comes time to brainstorm content ideas, but you’ll probably get a good laugh (or more!) as well.
  4. What don’t we want our audiences to do? (What do you want them to do?) Obviously you don’t want them to ignore you or go to your competitors—those are no-brainers—but try to figure out what kinds of possible actions might be unproductive. You probably don’t want your audiences leaving your pages without engaging somehow. You probably don’t want them to avoid sharing your content with friends and colleagues. You probably don’t want them to unsubscribe/un-follow/or de-friend you. You probably don’t want your audiences laughing at you. Unless, of course, that’s the point.
  5. What kinds of performance indicators don’t matter? (How will you measure success?) This one isn’t as easy as it sounds, especially if you’re collaborating with unsophisticated/inexperienced folks. People like results and it’s often the least important results that are the easiest to get. While it’s nice to be able to report “hits” or “pageviews” to your boss, if the point of a campaign is to generate leads or direct sales, these performance indicators don’t matter unless they’re accompanied by an increase in leads or sales. This question often provides the opportunity to have a productive discussion about why certain numbers are important and why others aren’t.
  6. Who in the organization won’t be involved in content marketing on a regular basis? (Who’s going to do the work?) Questions about workload can be toughies. The, shall we say, less than ambitious might do everything they can to avoid added responsibilities while the eager beavers might take on more than they can handle. However, asking who won’t be involved can reveal potential workload issues quickly because people don’t feel badly about pointing out what’s in their realm of expertise (or their job descriptions) in the context of potentially avoiding an outcome that would be detrimental to them. For example, if everyone “opts out” of the campaign, it should be pretty clear that either 1) you’re working with a bunch of lazy people; or 2) you really don’t have the resources necessary for success.
  7. What kinds of channels don’t we care about? (Where’s it going to be published?) This is another question that’s more about sparking the discussion of what matters by way of what doesn’t. Like the audience question, it’s tempting to want to be everywhere. However, when you’re forced to identify the kinds of channels that don’t matter, it rapidly becomes clear what does.
  8. How are you going to restrict the distribution of content to those who don’t need to see it? (How are you going to get the word out?) Unless you’re dealing with secret information, chances are you want the world to see what you’re doing and you want them to share it. By discussing potential ways that the content flow could be limited (e.g. require a password to view the content), it quickly becomes clear what kinds of limiting—albeit sometimes attractive—options you should avoid.
  9. What are we doing that absolutely can’t be changed because of this effort? (How are you going to sustain this effort?) Your organization might have unlimited resources (if so, give us a call!), but chances are that the resources you have are limited in one way or another. If you’re going to make a concerted content marketing effort it’s going to require that you shift resources from one place to another. Identifying what can’t change – what’s vital to your organization’s success—can help you identify what kind of changes have to be made in order to sustain a continued content marketing program.
  10. What happens if you limit the scope of the effort to a specific period of time? (How long should we sustain this effort?) Some content marketing efforts (e.g. company blogs, Facebook pages, or Twitter feeds) imply by their existence that once they start they’ll exist forever. Others (e.g. campaign or event-specific hashtags) are created with a limited scope in mind. What are the consequences of limiting (or, in the case of a campaign) extending the scope of your content marketing effort? What will happen if you do? What will happen if you don’t? How long is long enough?


Content marketing may have roots that go back centuries but there’s a reason for its recent resurgence: it works…and it works better than it ever has before. The Internet has provided us with a communications channel of unprecedented scale and scope, allowing all of us to connect with a global audience ready and (willing…provided what we give them is worthwhile) able to spread our messages far and wide.

Content marketing may be vintage, but it’s no fad.

While this new world of content offers enormous benefits, it’s important to remember that no matter how efficient and effective a channel seems, it’s important to maintain some critical distance and constantly question what you’re doing. If the idea is to get on a personal level with your audience through content tied to your business, then your brand will rise (or fall) with the quality of your content. A contrarian, evidence-based stance that questions everything, takes nothing for granted, and is grounded in a clearly-articulated strategy, means that what you’re doing isn’t guesswork: it’s just great marketing. And that never goes out of style.


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