The sun was setting as I wrapped up the workday, taking my final call with a former colleague who had recently raised seed funding and was the CEO of a new startup. We were both based in Toronto, known more for its biting cold winters and less for its booming technology scene.
The conversation started with the startup and its possibilities, eventually meandering into community and content. The CEO knew he was interested in content, wasn’t sure if the timing was right for it yet though, and asked me, “What are some startups that do content marketing well?”
I rattled off a short list of usual suspects (Groove, Intercom, and Slack), which was met with approval and another question. I’m sure these references helped, though after the call, I wasn’t satisfied. After all, to paraphrase, content marketing is the answer, but what was the question?
There’s no shortage of business cases—pains—for writing. As a few starting points: marketing, sales, recruiting, corporate culture, and communication and productivity. Each of these points are also variations of the question, which will help determine the purpose of the content.
Like many others, the CEO saw content marketing—which is usually business jargon for writing—as a play for increasing sales. I responded accordingly, and wished I’d actually used the moment for investigating and calling out a greater opportunity. Certainly a blog is a chance to get someone to buy your product, similar to how a party is a chance to get a new job. Treating a party like a networking event is probably one of the quickest ways to make sure you don’t get invited to another one, though.
Similarly, treating your blog like an occasion to sell trot out Avon or Cutco knives is the quickest way to make sure that the reader doesn’t come back to buy whatever you’re selling. For me, it was a missed opportunity, because a lot of CEOs face many different problems that writing can solve.
If we’d figured out the right question to ask, it would eventually lead to a different answer: content marketing might still be a part of it, though the real answer we would’ve discovered was branding.
Branding is one of those words that probably would’ve made the CEO—who used to be an engineering director at one of Toronto’s most prominent technology firms—cringe. Yet for what it’s worth, there’s plenty of opportunity in technology to create a strong brand and to differentiate it. Stripe is one such example—its brand is an inherent part of its product.
If I could respond back to the CEO, I would’ve actually suggested looking well beyond technology to see who did branding with writing well:
Momofuku’s Lucky Peach
That the team let LuckyPeach.com expire and the domain now leads to a spammy website full of the best link juice you could find is indicative of its management woes. Still, Lucky Peach got the most important things down right: it told some great stories. Putting the awards aside, it earned the reader’s attention and no shortage of praise for its writing, editing, and design. David Chang describes the three criteria for thinking through Lucky Peach in his memoir, Eat a Peach:
- “It must be educational.”
- “It must fund the creative efforts of the restaurant.”
- “It must reflect what I stand for and depict the industry in a fair light.”
If you were to channel your writing efforts into writing (or if you must, “content marketing”), that’s probably not a bad way to decide on the direction of the publication and the stories you decide to tell.
Being probably the last brand to ever use the words “content marketing” publicly, Aesop chooses to call its structure a digital reading room. The room’s name is The Athenaeum. As to be expected, there are very functional guides to antioxidants in skincare and a history of fragrance. There’s another publication entitled The Fabulist, which explores fiction and non-fiction writing. There is—still!—another one that covers the Taxonomy of Design. Let’s not forget the book.
I know it’s not the most popular example, and I’ll acknowledge that the Aesop halo effect could also be blinding me here. I’m a sucker for businesses who try hard with writing. I particularly enjoyed this read on Aesop’s brand and how they think about things.
What can you teach people? What can you give? How can you serve your customers and industry? What do you want to represent? Why are you doing what you’re doing? These are the questions that the answer—writing or content marketing—needs to consider.
If you want to do it well, I would suggest that you substitute any virtue of ROI, or even strategy, simply with curiosity and candor. There’s a furniture store in Toronto that I’ve only visited once—Mjölk on Dundas West—and bought its beautiful, and independently published, magazine. The store is decidedly much smaller than a venture-funded technology startup. Yet still, its editorial ambition is much stronger, and makes a much more lasting impression than most.
There’s no shortage of content that comes out each day, or even minute; if you are to stand out, you must write something that will stand out above and beyond the rest. If you do something that you’re not interested in, you can be almost certain that no one else is interested either.
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