Content marketing fail? Ask your audience why.
Writing about Velocity’s countless, shimmering successes is way more fun than writing about our fugly failures.
But, in my experience, failure tends to be a lot more educational than success.
Success creates a reality distortion field that dramatically over-values all the things you did right and totally ignores the real reason you succeeded (generally, in my experience, blind, dumb luck).
But failure shines a bright, white light on your least resonant work, highlighting every oversight, short-cut and character flaw. (Compared to success, it sucks.)
Like most people, my first response to incontrovertible evidence of my own mediocrity is to run away from it, never look back and speak of it to no one, ever. That’s a shame, because hidden inside that flop is a powerful force for good: clear insight into your audience and the things that fail to move them.
So, following a recent content marketing miss, I decided to creep back to the scene of the crime and do something I’ve never done before: I asked our audience why they didn’t like the piece.
And boy did I learn a lot.
The piece our audience didn’t like very much
The piece is called Stepping Into The Future!, an ‘entertaining’ video based on black & white archive footage, with funny voices replacing the characters’ real voices (I put ‘entertaining’ in quotes for reasons you’ll soon see).
Take a look and we’ll meet below…
I didn’t want to use this post to dissect the piece itself, but knowing more about it will help you interpret the comments below. So here’s some background:
I worked with my brother Jason on this. He’s a filmmaker and has done a lot of really funny films that found real audiences. Some of them use this archive-plus-silly-voices technique — and I loved them. So I asked Jase to make one for us.
The brief consisted of a lot of phone calls between Jase and I, discussing possible themes, topics and approaches. We settled on analytics and the ‘science’ of content marketing because it felt timely, simple to get across and because we’re ramping up our content operations practice (analytics plus automation).
It was supposed to be a light piece of entertainment for fellow content marketers. With some inside jokes and a reference to the operations side of things. Just to get our name associated with the science of content marketing, not just the art.
At the time of pressing ‘publish’, I thought we had hit that target.
It landed with a dull thud. Very few views. Even fewer shares.
In fact, even the people featured in the film didn’t share it.
In short: tumbleweeds.
The feedback request
Instead of just deleting the video and pretending it didn’t happen, I decided to ask a few people in and around Velocity HQ why the piece didn’t work.
Most of them were too nice to say bad things about it. This is one of the downsides of a really friendly culture: you sometimes lose the candor that makes for great work. (The upsides of a friendly culture are awesome though).
A few said it was a bit long. A few damned it with faint praise. But no one gave it to me between the eyes (saving me the trouble of firing their asses).
So I put a post on LinkedIn, begging for honest feedback. Here it is:
I posted this in two places: on my public feed and in the Content Marketing Institute group. You can see the unedited threads there (I actually responded to every one but my responses were either private-ized or failed to post from my mobile, so I look even ruder than I am).
The feeback was fantastic.
Not in the sense that they said the video was fantastic (boy, did they not); but fantastic in the sense that it was exactly what I asked for: honest, unvarnished opinions about a piece of content.
I know this is hard to do. Nobody likes to come off as a party-pooper. So I take my hat off to everyone who took the risk and let loose with their views.
Here are some soundbites, grouped by gripe:
Too long and boring
Length and pace is clearly an issue here:
“…it looks right from the start that it’s going to be boring – and it is.”
“This really is too long.”
“…too long… didn’t make it to the end.”
“I left the video after 14 seconds. Here’s why: The music intro was 7 seconds. I learned nothing in that 7 seconds. Not a word was spoken.”
“It’s a gag video drawn out far too long. ”
Not funny/Beat the joke to death/Self-indulgent
This is probably the crux of the biscuit:
“Innovative!… but it beat the joke to death so much that it came across as self indulgent.”
“It tries to be fun and somewhat ironic but doesn’t hit the target on either.”
“…quite funny but a bit self indulgent maybe.”
“I think the problem is simply that the comedy doesn’t work.. And if it doesn’t work, it’s hard to watch (let alone share).”
“The exclamation point in the title telegraphs your feelings of self importance.”
“It’s difficult because comedy is an art not a science.”
“A little navel gazing.”
Some people hated the voices:
“VO was hammy.”
“I found the voices got samey/annoying quite quickly.”
“The voiceover/accent was extremely grating.”
Some people just hate profanity. I find that interesting as hell as this post on Swearing in Marketing shows):
“Take out the part showing the male testicles. That doesn’t pass the cringe test and is worse than the profanity in my book.”
“I left the video so soon that I didn’t even get to the profanity and the testicles.” [Good thing!]
“No need to say shit.”
Phil Brown had a contrary view here:
“Scanning the comments above, and seeing how many reactions there are to the profanity (goodness a swear word, how unprofessional) is data suggesting that folks are actually engaging at those points. Data is about what people do, not what they say. Keep that shit in.”
Bad production values
Some folks didn’t like — or didn’t get — the whole ‘dated archive with bad lip sync’ approach:
“It’s too homemade for my taste.”
“…the visual and sound quality of this frustrates my spoilt and, quite frankly, lazy senses”
“The problem might come from a low budget leaving you with a low production value.”
“Bad music and spinning word art aren’t going to establish you as a thought leader of any kind.”
“The overdubbing didn’t come across as professional.”
The technique itself felt old hat to some:
“…the black and white production angle isn’t anything new”
“Stepping into the future.” Whenever I see that (you’re not the first, nor the 1000th), I see $$$ signs ahead.”
Some people hated that we included content marketing luminaries in the piece. Felt too crass an attempt at ingratiation or too much of an inside joke:
“…there is an expectation that the viewer knows who the giants are.”
“I was tempted to shut it off once I saw the faces of the same people who do content marketing the right way.”
“The content marketing superstars are only well-known within our industry.”
“It’s a bit insidery when you drop in the Joe’s and co’s heads.”
Not useful or educational
Some people wanted value other than entertainment (or wanted value as compensation for the absence of entertainment):
“I struggled to relate the use case to my own work.”
“I watched a little more than a minute of the video without learning anything about modern content marketing or content operations… it wasn’t clear whether there would be any payoff beyond amusement, which was too mild to overcome my impatience.”
Some felt it came off as salesy:
“…might even be perceived as promotional in the end”
“The ‘content operations’ in the blog intro combined with the ‘content operations’ at the end of the video confirmed to me the video is meant to “promote” a service you offer.”
“Too much ‘message.'”
Just plain confusing
Many just didn’t see what it was even trying to do:
“I wasn’t sure of is who the target audience.”
“Good content marketing needs to engage us by being entertaining, informative or educational and this misses all those marks.”
(I told you it was unvarnished).
Some lessons learned
I learned so much from this exercise that I’m almost glad I did it. For instance:
There are LOTS of ways to lose an audience – I expected a lot of these notes but some took me by surprise. Maybe if the core of the piece had hit its target, people would be more forgiving about some of the other stuff.
If the goals aren’t clear, the piece won’t be either – When making this, we thought the goal was clear (to entertain fellow content marketers while pointing out it’s time for more ‘science’) — but I can now see that the goals were muddled. We fell between several stools.
We tried to have fun, entertain, evangelise content measurement, raise awareness that we do content operations, tip the hat to some influential friends… those are a lot of competing goals.
More than anything else, I think I failed to manage the audience’s expectations. (Which made me start a new blog post about that).
You can’t please everyone all the time – If you’re going to try new things, some of them will fail with some segment of your audience. And some of them will fail with almost all of your audience. It’s important – no it’s critical – to be okay with that.
When you start canceling the weird experiments to avoid that horrible, pit-of-the-stomach feeling of a flop… you end up in Safeville, the most boring town in the world after Scunthorpe. (I wrote about this in Two Ways to Fail In Content Marketing — jeez, it’s starting to look like failure is becoming my content sweet spot…)
Guilt and shame never hurt anybody (or, if it does, at least it doesn’t leave a mark).
Beware of a ‘format-first’ approach – Starting with a tight format or technique (like an archive-based video) and looking for a story to fit is often constraining or distorting. (We see this a lot with infographics: whenever the team decides to do an infographic before knowing what the actual story or data source will be, we hit a wall).
I don’t think it’s impossible to choose a format then go looking for a story to fit it. But you have to make sure the story really does fit the format and that your desire to play with a medium doesn’t overwhelm the goal.
One feedbacker (feeder back?) nailed this with, “I think it suffers from the constraints you imposed on yourself by trying to get a healthy dose of message injected into a script that had to fit the archive footage you were working with.”
‘Funny’ is a very dangerous target – There’s no such thing as almost funny. If you fall even an inch short, you’ve flopped. So if your piece signals ‘This is going to be funny!’, it had better deliver.
Charm and wit are much more reliably achieved. Funny is hard.
One reason is that, as you work on even the funniest piece in the world, it will inevitably stop being funny. A fresh, unexpected punchline or running gag (like the swear words in this one) won’t be fresh on the 19th time you’ve seen it in the editing room. When that happens, you need to try to figure out whether the flatness is due to repetition or due to the fact that the thing wasn’t all that funny in the first place.
As this piece took shape, I really thought it was funny (still do, in places, despite the market reception). But funny is such a personal thing. And that’s especially dangerous if you work with someone you grew up with (and love deeply): you’ll tend to have exactly the same sense of humour and will reinforce each other instead of challenging each other.
Me? 1950’s characters saying ‘shit’ is an irresistible giggle. I know that this is juvenile (I just didn’t know it was niche juvenile).
Mixing comedy with content is dangerous – Being funny is hard enough. Smuggling in a message — especially an overtly promotional one – dramatically reduces your chances of being funny. You’re competing with a million YouTube videos and Instagram posts (and paid comedians) whose only job is funny.
Opinions are not the same as reactions – Whenever I look at the results of audience research or focus groups, I have to separate people’s honest reactions to the creative (which are hugely valuable) from their opinions about it (which may not be).
That a CEO hates an ad is an important piece of feedback. That he thinks the headline would be better if it was positive instead of negative — not so much. On the first point, he is an expert. On the second he isn’t (and I am… or at least I’m way more so than the head of a company that makes ball bearings).
The feedback I got was all 100% valuable, in every case (and greatly appreciated). Their prescriptions about how to fix the piece varied a lot. Some feel right, some don’t.
When something flops, own it – Failing is no fun to own up to. On this one, I let my brother down by dragging him into a fatally flawed project (compounded by this even more public autopsy — which he graciously agreed to). Ouch.
It’s natural to just pretend it didn’t happen and move on. That’s my usual M.O. and it’s served me well over the years. But when I’ve resisted that impulse and actually admitted to myself and my co-conspirators that we missed our target, the ghost is exorcised.
Turns out, it’s no big deal.
And I’m actually really GLAD we did it.
When content flops, ask your audience why – This exercise was humbling but it was also good medicine. I will be way more careful about approaching comedy-with-a-message in the future — and if I do try it again, I can now see a whole lot of pitfalls to avoid.
True, some of the people who replied may not have been in the target audience. And others probably wouldn’t like anything we do (Velocity is a taste that many stubbornly fail to acquire). But a whole lot of these folks are smart marketers who get exactly what we’re all about and were still unimpressed by the video.
If I had done a post-mortem with Jason and Stan and other Velocitoids, I think we’d have reached some of the same conclusions. But there’s something visceral about hearing people articulate their distaste. The aggregated feedback was far louder and more memorable than the deafening silence that preceded it.
So, to those who responded to my plea: THANK YOU. You’ve made our next pieces better.
So what are we gonna do about it?
So are we going to use all this feedback to fix ‘Stepping Into the Future”? I don’t think so.
I originally thought it would be great to end this post with a New and Improved version of the video, reflecting the things we learned. But when Jason and I talked it over, we couldn’t see a way past the fatal flaws: the lack of a clear goal for the piece and the poor format/content fit.
Version 2.0 would certainly be shorter. We might have lost the story part and let go of the character continuity, maybe going for a random bunch of clips.
Maybe we’d move away from the sense that we’re evangelising analytics — everyone knows how important the science side is; they don’t need us to articulate it for them.
And I’d lose the Pulizzi/Handley/Rose/Miller stuff. What I hoped would be seen as hat-tips or hugs came off as ego traps. It feels like I treated my friends like ‘influencers’ and that’s not very nice.
But some things probably wouldn’t change. I still love the badly-dubbed archive thing. And I still like making gee-whiz-ain’t-that-swell characters use swear words (sue me). And I still love working with Jase (and my other brother, Lee, a terrific writer).
We’ll be back, you bastards.