40 reasons good people make crap content
This is the last post in a triad marking the 5-year anniversary of the publication of the Crap slideshare.
The first looked at the impact Crap made on us and what it taught us about content marketing.
The second looked at the predictions made in Crap and suggested some ways to fight against the content marketing deluge.
This one’s about something that has always fascinated me: why do so many smart, talented people make so much mediocre content? What happens between intention and delivery?
But first, a little context…
The dude in the picture above is sitting on the shoulder of Theodore Sturgeon, a sci-fi writer of the 40s, 50s and 60s.
When a journalist asked him why 90% of sci-fi was crap, he didn’t say what you’d expect him to say. He didn’t defend sci-fi as a valid genre. He didn’t quibble with the numbers. Instead, he stated the obvious—and captured an eternal truth. He said:
“90% of everything is crap.”
And of course, he’s right. 90% of operas. 90% of novels and movies and restaurant meals. At least 90% of poems. 90% of songs, slideshares, paintings and YouTube videos.
His disarming reply went down in history as Sturgeon’s Law, a principle that has outlasted even his greatest works, including Killdozer, the epic novella detailing the rampages of a bulldozer rendered animate (and angry) by a meteor strike:
A cool digression (well, I think it’s cool)
Killdozer was made into a movie in 1974. You can watch the whole thing here. (The phrase ‘best quality’ in the YouTube description, I assure you, does not refer to the script).
The movie starred Clint Walker (born Norman Eugene Walker – I think you’ll agree, Clint suits him better). Here’s Clint, pondering the best (or indeed any) way to neutralize a menacing earth-mover:
Clint also played Cheyenne Bodie in the 1950s hit TV series Cheyenne. (Check out the wooden-yet-thrilling fight scenes from Series 1). He went on to win an award called, I kid you not, The Golden Boot, celebrating excellence in Westerns.
He also co-starred in None But The Brave, the only movie ever directed by Frank Sinatra.
I watched it as a duty to you, my ill-advised reader. Suffice it to say that, in going back to crooning, Frank made the right career decision.
Here’s my point (yes, there’s a point, wise guy):
Theo Sturgeon not only invented Sturgeon’s Law, in writing Killdozer, he proved it.
Theo and Clint and Frank—three indisputably smart, talented maybe even gifted people… still made an awful lot of crap in their golden-booted careers.
I find that really, really interesting (and also kind of scary).
The killdozer-sized question here is this:
WHY do good, smart, well-intentioned people make crap?
Zooming in, why do so many excellent marketers, award-winning agencies and top-notch marketing teams make so much mediocre content? More urgently, why do I?
Here are 40 reasons (If I missed any, add them in the comments section):
1) Aiming Low
Not even trying for a home run.
This is the #1 killer. For most content creators, ‘good enough’ is just fine.
If you’re not even aiming at great, your chances of hitting it dramatically decrease.
Maybe we all need to put sentences like this into the brief: “We want to make the single best piece of content on the Internet on this subject.”
2) A Crappy Brief
Look under the hood of most crap content and you’ll find a weak, fuzzy brief with unclear or un-achievable goals.
Even more common, you won’t find a brief at all. (FFS).
3) Mojo Deficiency Syndrome
Bad content always suffers from a lack of confidence – either because the maker is not an authority on the subject or because they’re just not good storytellers.
Confidence is the secret ingredient of all great work. If Crap is the enemy, The Other C-Word is the target.
4) Missing your Sweet Spot
Every brand and every content creator has a sweet spot – where the things your audience cares about overlap the things you’re an authority in. Write from outside this zone and the result will be flimsy and inauthentic.
The fact that your audience cares about an issue, doesn’t mean they care to hear about if from you. What’s your unique take?
5) A Misplaced Service Ethic
“My boss or my client wants X so I must give them X.”
No: our job is to make them want the right things – only then should we give it to them.
The Art of Compromise, a Velocity training document released into the wild, talks all about this.
6) Attention Deficit Disorder
Assuming you’ve already got people’s attention is fatal. You haven’t. Earn it.
Attention is different from other goals, because if you fail at it, you don’t have a chance of achieving any of the other ones.
Look at your topic, title, story arc, design, format… do they really feel like they’ll get your prospects to stop what they’re doing and do this? Have you put a fresh spin on this issue or just assembled a sensible summary?
7) Me-too marketing
Doing it because everyone else is doing it is a common crap creator.
Senior Marketer A: “I keep seeing shitty infographics. Why can’t we have a shitty infographic?”
Less-Senior Marketer B: “We can, boss. We sure can.”
8) Me-Me-Me 1
Yes, it’s so obvious as to be a cliché, but: great content is always about the reader/viewer. Not the brand paying for it.
Even if it’s a bottom-of-the-funnel data sheet, your quest is to make it about the prospect.
When you hear the sentence, “We need content to support Product M.”, secretly replace it with the sentence, “We need content to serve audience Z.”
9) Me Me Me 2
Just because it’s about them doesn’t mean you’ve done enough empathy homework. Real, deep empathy with the audience is essential to great content.
When was the last time your writers sat down with your target prospects? Persona documents aren’t a replacement for this hard work, they’re where you capture the output from it.
10) Fear of Stealing
The compulsion to be 100% original is hugely destructive.
Everybody steals. Even the people you steal from.
They don’t plagiarise the thing itself. They just pillage the things that made it great.
11) Stealing from the wrong places
If you’re going to steal, steal from the smartest, most powerful content out there – not just the credible, professional, average stuff.
Follow The Frog is great. Charles Joseph Minard’s epic data visualization on Napoleon’s disastrous march into Russia is great. Kendall Jenner diffusing racial tension through the novel medium of the Pepsi can? Not so much.
12) Lazy stealing.
Just copying is lazy and counter-productive.
Make it yours. Spin it into new places.
(We’ve had people copying and pasting whole Velocity posts into their blogs, with no attribution. How must that feel?)
13) Stealing but leaving out the one thing that worked.
A lot of people steal without really analyzing or understanding what worked in the original.
When I was a freelancer, a client paid to get Julian Clary in to do a radio spot. They then edited all of the double-entendres out of the final piece. (The guy built his entire career on dry, deadpan double-entendres).
Another once asked us to to repeat the success of our influencer-studded blogger relations video—but, this time, without the influencers.
14) Borrowed interest.
If you think your subject is boring, you’ll grab anything interesting that passes by and try to weld your story to it. That’s lame.
Halloween has nothing to do with Supply Chain Management. Trying to forge a connection between them will create (wait for it) (wait longer) a nightmare.
If you find your subject boring, dig deeper until it becomes interesting. Or find a new job.
15) Comedy without the comedy.
Trying to make your content laugh-out-loud-funny is a low-percentage game.
It’s like Evel Knievel trying to jump the Snake River Canyon: falling even one foot short still ends in total disaster.
Charm and wit, yes. Comedy? Leave it to the professionals.
We fell into our own canyon of shame with a video called Stepping Into The Future! I still think it’s hilarious. In this, as in so many things, I stand alone.
16) Surface Skating
People who crank out crap tend to start writing before they start thinking.
This lack of insight is fatal.
Make sure you have something new to say before the saying starts. Re-stating the obvious is a bad look.
17) The Hand of Cack
Even when there are some good ideas in it, crap content tends to display a total lack of craft. Lousy writing. Clunky design.
Just because talent is subjective doesn’t mean it doesn’t exist. It does. Find people who have it and throw money at them. Also praise and food.
18) Chickening out.
Most great content ideas die long before they get anywhere near the market because of the assumption that some stakeholder will kill it. “They’ll never go for it,” is a terrible reason to kill a great idea.
Don’t kill your own babies – make the bastards do it.
19) That’ll do
A refusal to kill our own mediocre work (or even revise it) is the fast track to crap.
Edit. Be honest with yourself. Be brutal. Start over.
David McCandless, one of the world’s best data journalists, kills a huge number of ideas that just don’t pan out. But when a team and an agency agree to do something, they tend to deliver it as scoped, even if it patently doesn’t work.
Stopping. Re-thinking. Calling it quits. These are important skills.
20) Split Persona Syndrome
A lot of crap content tries to tell one, unified story to very different audiences. That can be okay if the audiences have things in common, and if the best messages for one target won’t alienate the other.
Otherwise, the target clash is a killer. Focus in on one audience at a time and give them your best story.
21) Tunnel vision
Crap content can stem from a false sense of integrity: “I have an agreed brief and I will stick to it at all costs”. But what if you learned something important on the way that changed your mind? Honor it and pivot. They’ll thank you.
Some of our best pieces of content started out aiming somewhere else.
22) Lazy Bastard Syndrome
This is depressingly common. Great content almost always reflects hard work. Crap comes from not doing your homework, adding value, putting in the time and effort.
If the path of least resistance ever led anywhere good, I’d take no other route. Sadly, it rarely does. Set your GPS for the path of extra resistance, fruitless sidetracks and crippling doubt.
23) Self Censoring
“I Can’t Do That!” kills lots of great work. Why can’t you? What if you did?
Safety sucks. Do the un-doable and see what happens.
If it doesn’t make you nervous, maybe it’s not very good.
24) The Curation Crutch
Curation is often billed as the easy way to generate lots of content. Yes, if quality isn’t a concern. Curation without added analysis and critical thinking adds very little value to the world. It’s nice that others said stuff. But what do YOU think about what they think?
Put in the work and curation can be a fantastic way to facilitate conversations in your market. Sling un-examined links at your audience and they’ll click away for good.
Fear kills fun. Fuck fear.
26) Lying Bastard Syndrome 1
Sometimes content is used to paper over things a company wants to hide. Spinning shite is legal but it’s not honest.
27) Lying Bastard Syndrome 2
The insistence on putting your “Best Foot Forward” can actually undermine your credibility and erode trust.
We’re huge cheerleaders for Insane Honesty in content marketing: putting your worst foot forward. And I’m still baffled that it isn’t practiced more widely.
28) Hidden Agenda Syndrome
Bad content is often a thinly-veiled sales pitch. Hint: the hidden agenda
isn’t really hidden. So expose it.
Marketing isn’t a dirty thing you do to someone.
If you believe in your products, it’s a nice thing you do with someone.
Instead of leaping to conclusions, walk your audience there, hand in hand.
Using trickery to generate traffic (like riding an irrelevant news story) might get you the clicks, but it undermines your content brand – and that’s fatal.
Content marketing is a long game. Tricks and gimmicks that game your short-term metrics aren’t a sustainable strategy.
31) The cliché reflex
Most of us jump to truisms and clichés as a first response to anything. Your first thought shouldn’t be your last. Examine. Challenge. Go deeper.
32) The Naff Detector Failure
It’s easy to get carried away with a ‘novel’ idea and never stop to notice it’s a dog. Hosting Your Windows 7 Party is my all-time-favourite example of this.
I love Microsoft for keeping it up on YouTube as a warning to us all. (I also love Microsoft because Bill Gates is giving so much of its profits away instead of building an embarrassing yacht, like Larry Ellison did).
33) Obsession with the rational
B2B marketers are obsessed by the rational at the expense of the emotional.
We’re so keen to make people think something that we forget to make them feel anything. The research of some very thinky people proves that this is not how people make decisions. Are there any ‘heart’ pieces in your content mix?
34) Voice Failure 1
Nothing kills content faster than stiff, corporate writing.
The old B2B voice tried to earn trust by being big, solid, venerable and authoritative. The new B2B voice earns it by being open, honest, authentic and personable.
Even senior decision-makers are people first.
35) Voice Failure 2
In an effort to avoid Voice Failure 1, it’s easy to cross the Cute Line. That’s only okay if you’re selling tea cosies, Disney princess merch or Natasha’s unspeakably beautiful cats. I know of no other exceptions.
36) Stickler Syndrome
Grammar pedants. Rule slaves. Consistency addicts. Systematically heat-seeking signs of life to stomp out. FFS.
(None of those were complete sentences. Sue me.)
37) Crazy deadlines
I like fast but the pace of marketing is getting scary. Ironically and invariably, crazy-haste backfires and slows everything down, forcing avoidable re-starts and unnecessary iterations. We really would go faster if we slowed down.
Wouldn’t you almost always trade a week or two for something way better?
38) The Crap Committee
Consensus kills content. Every person has a filter that removes things that bother them. Stack enough filters together and only the most inoffensive gets through.
Inoffensive should be deeply offensive to us all.
39) More is Less
This one happens all the time: over-burdening content by cramming everything in as if your readers will never be back (hint: do this and they won’t).
I love content that does one thing well instead of trying to say everything all the time. In Epic Split, Volvo Trucks decided to demonstrate a single feature—precision steering in reverse—and do it really, really well.
40) Where is the Love
Underneath everything there is a real passion for the topic… or there isn’t.
You care about what you do, right? Get that into the content.
Wow. That’s a lot of root causes.
I know, right? And there are lots more (suggestions welcome below).
When you actually count the forces acting on even the cleverest content marketers, it’s not surprising at all that there’s so much crap out there.
In fact, it’s a miracle that great content ever finds its way through the Labyrinth of Death that is the modern content marketing assembly line.
Maybe instead of getting discouraged when we ‘do a Theo’ (or a Clint or a Frank), we should recognise that the 40 battles above are the most important challenges in the job we signed up for. That we need to address them directly before they cripple our work.
The problem is that we only deal with these team dynamics and organizational psychology issues in the context of the project at hand. So these important issues are all mixed up with the actual copy in draft 9 and the deadlines in the project plan.
Maybe we need to isolate the things that are repeatedly preventing great work in our organizations and call them out. Get people to see them for what they are so we can build better ways around them.
If the last five years were the Crap era, let’s make the next five The Enlightenment.
Let’s break Sturgeon’s Law.
The Golden Boot awaits.