The Most Unprofessional Trends in Content Marketing

on November 14, 2013

Evening at the ImprovBack in the 80s and 90s, the show A&E’s “An Evening at the Improv” was consistently the absolute worst showcase of standup comedy talent. It was also the most prolific, appearing five times a night with reruns cycling later throughout the evening. While some greats did appear on the show, it was mostly known for the not-so-greats who littered the stage.

I started working as a standup comic in the late 80s and all throughout the 90s. Friends of mine who never actually went to comedy clubs would watch “An Evening at the Improv” and tell me they saw some comedians, didn’t remember their names, and then proceeded to tell me how much they sucked.

Although they never bothered to come see me perform, it was an attempt to show they cared about what I did, make a connection, and then insult my profession.

Today I own a brand journalism business, Spark Media Solutions, and I continue to be brought down by my colleague’s crap. Even though I’ve been running a respectable business now for seven years with no complaints, I still on occasion get people who have never seen my work questioning the validity and quality of my content.

If you’re a lawyer, work in PR, or sell used cars, you’ve had to deal with this as well. Even if you truly are the most ethical and most talented professional in your industry, every negative story about someone else in your industry reflects badly upon you.

Given the rise in popularity of content marketing, we’re also seeing a rise in crap, but it’s hard to see because it’s effectively being cloaked in great headlines, a stream of quotes, and listicles (articles written out in list format – e.g., Top 20 reasons you should read this article). Like lemmings, content producers are trapped in a cycle of producing the same formulaic content.

The presentation, “Crap.  Why the Single biggest threat to content marketing is content marketing” by Velocity Partners sums up this phenomenon perfectly:  “The weak content will look from the outside a whole lot like the good stuff. Snappy titles. Come-hither subtitles. Friendly, open-design. It’s only when people actually eat the stuff that they’ll discover just how bad it is. And that will make them much more reluctant to trust the next content that comes along…your content.”

What follows is a list of content production trends that are unprofessional, and fall under the category of “crap content.” In an effort to not insult the offending content producers, who may truly be trying to do a better job, I’m purposely not going to link to any examples.

1. Creating an infographic without telling a visual story

There’s no doubt that infographics are tremendous link bait. That’s why you see an insane proliferation of them. Companies eagerly produce them, and some are excellent, but many simply echo similar information with different graphics, provide absolutely no additional insight, and fail to tell a story with the information.

2. Newsletters that aren’t readable on a mobile phone

Check your email inbox right now on your mobile phone. Open up each newsletter and count how many are readable on your mobile phone. Sadly, an overwhelming majority of email newsletters aren’t formatted for mobile. When I discovered that more than half of the readers to our newsletter, Spark Notes*, were reading it on their phone I immediately hired a developer and designer to reformat it for mobile. Go ahead and check out our newsletter on your mobile. If you’d like to subscribe to Spark Notes*, you’ll find a subscribe box in the upper right corner of this site.

3. Automated content marketing

unprofessional03How can I produce content daily, and yet do no work? That’s the promise of and other auto-generated online magazines comprised of the tweets and links of the people you follow on Twitter. When such a summary is designed for personal use, it can be an excellent filter of personal information. But once that filtered data is made public, which does via automated tweets, you’re spamming your Twitter feed.

These public online magazines are also a cheap ploy for attention from other content producers. The act @replying announces that the tweeter’s content has been “selectively” chosen for your “Daily” online magazine which is now available. Oooh. How exciting.

It’s an attempt to form some type of like-minded content producer bond.

“Hey look, I just published an online magazine. I’m a content producer too.”

No you’re not. Get out of our clubhouse.

4. Poorly presented content

unprofessional04You remember how ugly MySpace looked? The failed social network was a flood of advertisements, zero structure, poor presentation, and hideous color combinations. If that wasn’t enough, your friends were constantly flooding your personal pages with self-promotional graphics. The site was grotesque, it’s now gone, but MySpace’s legacy lives on.

It appears that many content producers haven’t learned from the financially crippling mistake MySpace made. If you want readers to respect your work, you need to first respect your own presentation.

These articles are very visible because it appears all available money was dropped into search engine optimization (SEO), not design. While their content may be subpar, their articles continue to rank well. Thankfully, some of the tweaks to the search engine algorithms are reducing their command of key search terms.

5. Endless introductions in interview videos

Giving someone a proper introduction doesn’t mean providing a personalized two-minute preamble in a five-minute video. It’s a lazy form of interviewing and it simply exposes your inexperience. Instead, just provide a one-line introduction, or just introduce the person with a lower-third graphic and get to your first question right away.

Similarly, I hate panel sessions where the moderator gives each panelist a few minutes to introduce themselves. In a 40-minute session this usually kills 15 minutes before the first question is asked. Show some friggin’ respect for your audience. For more, download and read “More Schmooze, Less Snooze: How to Deliver ‘The Most Talked About’ Panel Session.”

6. Producing unanswerable content

In content marketing there is an endless number of articles on “How to create great content.” Thinking you could actually write an effective article like this is similar to thinking you could write an article, “How to practice medicine like a real doctor.”

Even though it’s truly an impossibility to produce such an article, people keep searching this topic with the hope they can find an answer in 800 words or less. Everyone seems to completely ignore that “how to do a profession” questions really can only be answered with years of experience and/or years of schooling.

For many schlocky content marketers, it doesn’t matter if a question is unanswerable. If the demand exists, you’ll find more than enough writers willing to offer up an endless number of flashy headlines that purport to deliver the answer (Read: “Why I’m Annoyed by all ‘How to Create Great Content’ Advice”).

7. “Me too” content

This is the act of creating media that has been produced dozens if not hundreds of times before with absolutely nothing to add to the topic. Content from the previous unprofessional content tactic often falls under this category as well. It’s compelling to want to create yet another “how to” article. But if you can search the topic, just like anyone else could, and find all the information in 20+ locations, why bother writing it yet again if you don’t have a new way to digest or present the information?

8. “Dora the Explorer” engagement

unprofessional05Do you ask a lot of questions on your blog that simply go unanswered? You may be asking a “Dora the Explorer”-type question. Parents of young children have witnessed the awkward silent responses Dora gets from her banal questions. Even my three-year- old stares at Dora when she asks how many balloons she’s holding or if you can find the monkey that’s standing right next to her. If you want intelligent dialogue on your blog, you won’t get much response if you undermine the intelligence of your readers.

9. Jumping on the meme

unprofessional06You remember when the “Harlem Shake” video came out? Do you remember the one after that? And then the next 12,000 that came after that? It’s very easy to garner attention if you jump on a hot topic or “meme.” David Meerman Scott refers to the technique as “newsjacking.” If you can actually find a through line or story line from the meme or news story to your business, then it can be monstrously effective. Most content producers don’t do that. They just create yet another “me too” production. Thanks for adding to the noise.

10. The “just get something up” content strategy

This is usually the result of a schedule dictated by a consultant letting you know the optimum number of times to publish to your blog. When your staff isn’t passionately creating content, then it becomes a struggle to meet a once-a-day or once-a-week schedule. The failure to meet deadline often results in a manager yelling at a subordinate to “just get something up.” That “something” is inevitably crap and it only appeases the schedule enforcer. Words on a web page for the sake of having words on a web page is not a content marketing strategy.

I’m all for keeping a schedule, especially if you’re creating regular programming, like a podcast. It’s a good way to build trust with your audience. But forcing something, anything, to be on your blog once a week to show that the blog is active is good, but shouldn’t be done to demonstrate you’re capable of producing marginal content.

Experiment with content marketing, but don’t give up

unprofessional07A common practice in marketing is to test a campaign, measure it, and if it works, continue, if not, dump it. When you follow this process what you’re dumping is the campaign, not the entire concept of marketing. Unfortunately, this doesn’t happen with content marketing which is seen as a campaign in itself. Far too many companies experiment with content marketing over short windows with no ongoing efforts like what is normally done with traditional marketing.

How many magazines have a two issue run and then are dumped if those two issues don’t sell well? If you want to be a professional content marketer and you want your company to have a professional editorial/content brand, then you need to treat it like any other effort. Why should your podcast or blog be successful after five posts while everyone else usually takes at minimum a year to build their editorial brand? If it’s not working, fix it, don’t stop it.


Creative Commons photo attribution to gurana and Horia Varlan. Dora the Explorer image courtesy of Viacom and Harlem Shake image from “Sorry for Partying.”

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