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Ann Handley

March 25, 2015 by Speakers' Spotlight

50 Shades of Mediocrity: Does Content Have to Be Good, or Just Good Enough?

Cited in Forbes as the most influential woman in social media, and recognized by ForbesWoman as one of the “Top 20 Female Bloggers,” Ann Handley is a veteran of creating and managing digital content to build relationships for organizations and individuals. A monthly columnist for Entrepreneur, a member of the LinkedIn Influencer program, and the co-author of the bestselling book on content marketing Content Rules: How to Create Killer Blogs, Podcasts, Videos, Ebooks, Webinars (and More) That Engage Customers and Ignite Your Business, Ann shows audiences how to create amazing content and marketing for businesses big and small. Below, Ann examines how to measure the success of content:

When a franchise like 50 Shades of Grey enjoys crazy success, is it a signal that content doesn’t have to be good to be crazy-successful?

Popularity is only one measure of success, of course. And for most of us in the content marketing world, it’s not a very good one.

Yet popularity is still very often the thing that persistently defines value. (Witness the popularity of popularity lists.)

On the one hand I get it, and on the other, I think it’s weird.

Is it the goal for your business to have the most followers on Twitter? Or is it to attract more customers than your competitor?

“Best” is rarely the same as “popular,” as Seth Godin has pointed out. And “most-read” is rarely the same as “most-loved,” as I’ve talked about here.

“If you become popular it is always because of the worst aspects of your work,” Hemingway famously said.

(It’s practically like Hemingway was prescient enough to anticipate the 50 Shades franchise, isn’t it? But I digress…)

The 50 Shades of Grey movie made an estimated $30 million at the box office on its opening weekend. The book by sold 100 million copies worldwide.

I don’t begrudge any author any success. If 100 million of us loved this story enough to buy it…well, should I judge? Should any of us? No.

At the same time, any thinking person would have misgivings. In the battle against content mediocrity, it’s kind of depressing that a poorly written piece of content gets this much love, isn’t it?

So, does our content need to be good? Or should we aim for a new 50-Shade-inspired metric of Good Enough?

(Here, I’ll ignore the broader, cultural issues about the storyline of the book and movie. But I will say we should all have misgivings on moral grounds, too: Will our kids’ generation grow up thinking that abusive relationships are kind of hot — among other troubling issues?)

Quality Does Matter

Your content needs to be ridiculously good for the audience you are trying to reach: It needs to be empathetic, useful, and inspired.

The imperative of any content publisher is to generously create value for an audience—to focus on their needs. In a content marketing context, that kind of mindset makes it easy for people to trust you and believe in your company, and to also rely on you.

Contently, a content management platform, suggests that those creating content on behalf of brands should actually adhere more strictly to publishing standards than mainstream journalists do, because people are naturally skeptical of something produced by a brand.

I’d also say that we need to try a little harder creatively: “In this world of omnipresent omnimedia, the most successful companies will be those whose superior content draws consumers routinely and repeatedly,” wrote my friend and IAB President Randall Rothenberg in Adweek last week.

In my mind, the best content creators we have out there feel a kind of responsibility to create great content—maybe just because they can.

I’m thinking here of Basecamp, Airbnb, the Humane Society of Silicon Valley, Salesforce UK, Doug Kessler, Moz, Mash+Studio. To name but a few. (Actually, to name eight.)

Am I naïve? Maybe. But so be it.

I’d rather strive for excellence and fail than be okay with mediocrity.

“A book must be the axe for the frozen sea inside us,” Franz Kafka once wrote.

The best content marketing can do something similar: It can transcend the business driving it to shape our understanding of how the world works. And, “at their very best, [storytellers] can empower our moral imagination to envision how the world could work better,” wrote Maria Papova in Brain Pickings.

So how does that mindset translate to your daily work life?

If you have a big budget: Tell inspired stories using all the tools you can.

If you have a small budget: Understand what good content looks like, and get some training and advice on how to do it better.

And no matter your budget:

  • Understand your customer. Tailor the value of your content to your specific buyers by looking at their behavior, not just demographics.
  • Hone your tone of voice, because it’s the secret sauce in your content barbecue.
  • Use an editor. I’m astounded at the number of blogs and websites that are hiring writers like crazy but think editors are optional.Editors are not optional; they are necessary. Editors are to content what a gem cutter is to a raw diamond: They don’t make the stuff, but that stuff is not as pretty or as valuable without them.
  • Remember, “Done is better than perfect.” At the same time, don’t take that as a pass to produce less than your best work.
  • Forget about viral. Fifty Shades of Grey is a reminder of why you shouldn’t worry about “popular” or “viral” as a measure of your marketing.Don’t fret about popularity. Don’t worry about lists or Twitter followers or vanity metrics. Just offer the best value to the people who matter most to you.

The Next Time Your Boss or Client Asks You for Viral Content

Let’s end this post where we started. 

The next time your CEO or your boss tells you to create a viral video or asks why yours isn’t the top blog in some random list, you should drop what you’re doing, run out and buy a copy of 50 Shades of Grey (real-time update: 100 million and one copies sold!).

Sit him or her down in a windowless conference room, open the book randomly, and read aloud. Together. You’ll be forced to say passages like the following, and if the words don’t feel thick and sluggish and stupid in your mouth, well… I don’t think we can be friends:

“His voice is warm and husky like dark melted chocolate fudge caramel… or something.”

Or:

“I feel the color in my cheeks rising again. I must be the color of The Communist Manifesto.” 

And perhaps my favorite, because it’s unnecessarily and weirdly specific, like the EL James spent a little too long trolling WebMD:

“And from a very tiny, underused part of my brain—probably located at the base of my medulla oblongata near where my subconscious dwells—comes the thought: He’s here to see you.”

Side note: Katrina Passick Lumsden kept careful tally of the irritating repetition in the book (“irritating repetition” is another phrase for “zero creativity”).

In a hilarious and now classic review on Goodreads, she counted and published the number of times the book repeats key words and phrases, including “Oh my” (79), “crap” (101) and “murmur/murmurs” (199).

So do the reading. Then ask your boss: We can do better than this crap, can’t we?

Oh crap, she’ll murmur. Oh, my… Yes, we must.

Because we can.

Ann Handley/March, 2015