Insights from Content Marketing World

Yes, these insights are from Content Marketing World 2015, but the speaker lineup was amazing, and the information below is still massively applicable.


I am a great believer in the philosophy (made famous by Jay Baer in his excellent book Youtility), that content, campaigns and initiatives that offer help, not hype, not only benefit an organization’s key stakeholders, but are also more successful from a revenue and profit standpoint in the long run. I’ve been delighted to watch this style of promotion, commonly referred to as content marketing, gain major traction in a variety of different industries over the past few years.

With the growing prevalence of content marketing comes increased competition. The size of the industry and the low barriers to entry make it difficult for content providers to stand out to
consumers and/or clients, regardless of whether they operate in the B2B or B2C spaces. According to Baer, the true differentiator between content that gets read, viewed or consumed and content that is ignored is the same today as it has been for more than 100 years: passion. In other words, our readers can tell whether or not we truly care about the mission or calling behind the content we’re creating and distributing.

Baer presented at the 2015 Content Marketing World conference, and one of my favorite quotes
from his session was “competition commoditizes competency.” In other words, if we all have
access to the same information, ideas and tools, we’re all essentially on the same level. What
separates the great from the good is people, and even more so, passion. So how do we ensure
that our materials and communications represent a differentiating level of passion? Jay’s
measurement tool is called “The Mom Test.”

Our mothers love us unconditionally, and are also uniquely unafraid to tell us the hard truth. If our Mom says that something “isn’t our thing,” it’s probably not our thing. Our Moms can also sense passion. With each piece we create, in the back of our minds, we should ask “What would Mom think of this?” Few things are better than a gushing email or phone call from a proud mother, and every piece of content we create should be designed to elicit the following reaction: “This, I can tell, is your thing.”

In the financial services industry, “The Mom Test” can be expanded to include writing/creating
content that Mom can not only understand, but that would also hold her interest. Our industry is
saturated with jargon and industrial language, and it can be easy for us as marketers to fall into the trap of writing in a way that only industry players can understand. It’s not enough to get our content in front of the right people at the right time; it has to be consumable and engaging as well. 

What’s the right amount of passion? Jay Baer entreats us to ask, with every piece: “Am I just
making content, or am I making a difference?”


The amount of radical change in the marketing industry over the last decade was one of the main themes of the overall conference. One of the biggest shifts lies in the steadily deteriorating
consumer perception of marketing and advertising in general. Think about your own buying habits.

When a company tries to aggressively sell you a product or service, do you simply trust that the
product or service is as good as “they” (marketers) say it is? Of course not! You use search
engines to check reviews from multiple sites, talk to your friends about their experiences and check competitors’ sites to look at similar products. If anything, you inherently mistrust a message that includes only the positives about a company’s offerings.

As a consumer, this mindset has likely become automatic and therefore may not seem like much of a change. For most companies and marketers, however, it represents a completely different way of looking at how to promote and sell products. Today’s marketers must answer fundamental and difficult questions that were not nearly as applicable 10 years ago:

First, in a world in which a staggering 27 million pieces of content are shared every single day, how can a brand cut through that noise with a message that resonates with its target market? Second, even if the right consumer sees the intended message, how can a company rebuild a consumer’s waning trust in a short period of time? I believe at least part of the answer lies in authenticity and transparency; yet, while simple in theory, both can be difficult to achieve in marketing practice.

One of my favorite presentations at the 2015 Content Marketing World event came from Doug
Kessler of the U.K.-based Velocity Partners: How to Practice “Insane Honesty” in B2B Marketing.
Given the content of the presentation, I think Doug has his finger on the pulse of what differentiates genuine, authentic marketing from the impostors.

The definition of “insane honesty” in B2B marketing is volunteering weaknesses in your product or service, unasked. Doug believes, and I wholeheartedly agree, that this level of proactive honesty is a fundamental facet of relationship marketing, as it:

  1. Shows that the company truly cares about the well-being of the consumer. Transparency and vulnerability let the consumer know the company doesn’t want them to have a poor experience because they weren’t told what to expect upfront.
  2. Shows that the consumer/client can trust everything the company says about the positive side of its products or services (because they were so honest about the flaws or downsides).
  3. Shows true confidence. Only a company truly confident in its value proposition would offer such a transparent look at its offerings.
  4. Surprises and charms the reader/viewer. If you want people to do a double take on your piece of content or advertising mechanism, telling the hard truth can be an excellent differentiator.
  5. Builds trust. Marketing messages shouldn’t be written in a different kind of language from the way we communicate with each other on a daily basis. In fact, using a “marketing” voice exposes a company now more than ever. Marketing content should build relationships, which build trust, which drives revenue.
  6. Alienates less likely buyers. This goes against every tenet of traditional marketing, which says “Alienate no one!” The bottom line is that we can’t be everything to everyone – if we can successfully identify our ideal prospects and craft personal messages that resonate with them, we shouldn’t worry if we alienate everyone else in the process.
  7. Focuses the company on battles it can actually win. By attracting ideal prospects and focusing only on them, insane honesty (in theory) allows the company to dedicate time to the consumers who might actually buy its product or service. One of my favorite examples is the Hans Brinker Hotel which, without waiting for the media or consumers to do it, went ahead and labeled itself as the “Worst Hotel in the World.”

As an extreme budget motel with small, dingy rooms and massively outdated appliances, the company knew it was never going to woo travelers seeking a nice family vacation or those who routinely stay at the Ritz-Carlton. So, Hans Brinker chose to alienate those people entirely through its marketing and advertising efforts. 

While the ads undoubtedly turned away more discerning clientele, it resonated deeply with the
company’s target market: young, extremely budget-conscious travelers looking for an all-night party in Amsterdam. Each advertisement reads like it was created expressly for these types of travelers, and the response was incredible –Hans Brinker quickly became one of Amsterdam’s most popular hotels (with its target crowd, of course).

Overall, the theme of Kessler’s presentation can be summed up as follows: In today’s hyper-aware and distrustful world, talking about how great your company’s products and services are no longer signals confidence; on the contrary, it can actually signal weakness. Actively seeking out weaknesses and sharing them openly may sound over the top in theory, but in practice, may actually be what sets a company apart from its competitors.


On the theme of authenticity, Ann Handley (CEO of gave a wonderful
presentation on how to tell bolder stories as a marketer. As marketers and communicators, all of us consider ourselves to be good storytellers to some degree. As we are in the Golden Age of
Storytelling, however, we each need to work to find new ways to rise above the noise.

Ann believes that tone of voice is a marketer’s bravest, gutsiest asset, and this is true today more than ever. As both readers and storytellers, we can identify with the visceral satisfaction that comes with a happy ending. It can be easy, however, to transmit these “fairy tale” endings to our brand stories. While there’s certainly a place for positive stories in a brand’s library, the most powerful stories may be those where everything doesn’t work out.

Ann used case studies as an example, as many (regardless of the industry on which they are
focused) tend to use the exact same formula: Identify the Problem, Discuss Challenges in Fixing
the Issues and Explain How [Company] Provided a Solution. It’s difficult to judge case studies too harshly, as the formula has certainly worked (and continues to work) for many companies and brands.

That said, the information in case studies is often incomplete, leaving out what can be important parts of the story. Specifically, case studies rarely include any mention of when things didn’t go according to plan or failures of any kind throughout the process. According to Ann, these portions of the story can provide major lift for a brand by giving readers/viewers a peek inside the inner workings of a brand. In other words, eschewing a “marketing” voice for a real one.

It is, however, one thing to understand the importance of authenticity in your communications, and quite another to execute on it. In my opinion, tone of voice is the single most important factor in achieving marketing and communications success. The concept itself is subjective and ethereal, however, and is thus one of the most difficult to perfect in practice.

According to Ann, to craft the appropriate tone of voice for your company/brand, you must take into account:

  • Who You Are – Are you super smart, really creative, scrappy, or a combination of all three? Don’t try to be everything to everyone; your tone should represent only the aspects of your brand personality that you feel are the most important and that define you above all others.
  • Why You Do What You Do – As Jay Baer said, passion remains the true differentiator. Don’t tell your readers/viewers that you’re the best in your given field, as that should already be demonstrated through your actions. Instead, make sure that “the fire in your belly and the light in your eyes” comes through in every piece of content you create.
  • What It’s Like to Deal with You – Nothing turns a stakeholder or consumer off like learning about who a company “is” through its materials and communications, then finding out it was all a sham when they actually interact with the organization. If you say you have a “unique culture” or you “treat employees and consumers like family,” it had better be true, or your brand will take a huge hit when consumers and stakeholders find out they’ve been misled.

Ann then takes the three items outlined above and represents them as part of an equation:
Company Culture (Who We Are) x Story (Why We Do What We Do) x Empathy (What It’s Like to Deal with Us) = Tone of Voice.

One important note about the equation is the use of multiplication instead of addition to string
together the components. In a multiplication scenario, if the value of any of the three items is “0,” then the product of the equation is still “0.” In other words, you can’t fake it.

Overall, in today’s ultra-saturated and commoditized world, a tone of voice that tells the real story gives brands an advantage over its competitors. Ann ended the presentation by encouraging marketers to ask the question: “If the label falls off, will your target market still know it’s from you?”

Put another way, “If you cover up your logo, would you recognize your company by the copy?”
Excellent food for thought.