Five years of Crap content: an anniversary of sorts
Five years ago, to the day, we published a slideshare called Crap: Why The Single Biggest Threat To Content Marketing Is Content Marketing. This one:
Until that day, our content about content marketing had performed pretty well. Our blog was starting to hit some semblance of a stride. We were happy to get a few thousand downloads and some very nice comments about The B2B Content Marketing Workbook (now a bit dusty) and The Big, Fat B2B Content Marketing Strategy Checklist (still ‘selling well’).
We were really, really proud of all that. We loved making content about things we cared a lot about and we loved it even more when it seemed to resonate with people we respected. All super-encouraging.
But if a market can have things like nerves, Crap seems to have hit one.
The fucker took off.
We published it on a Thursday. Put out a tweet or two. Told our friends in the biz about it. No special promotional campaign.
By the end of the day, we’d hit 700 views.
By the end of Friday, 1,400.
On Monday, Martha came into the office (our tiny, first office in the old Printworks. Her desk was an Ikea extension to the kitchen counter) and said, “Did you see Crap? 20,000 views!”.
I thought she’d accidentally added a zero.
She hadn’t. And throughout the day, people would call out a new number. “30!” “35!”.
Not gonna lie: it was really, really fun. So much so that I wrote a blog post about the ride: Behind the Crap: What it feels Like To Go Viral.
The post ended by reporting that Crap seemed to be settling down and had just reached 168,338 views. Boy were we thrilled.
Nine months later, I updated the post, giddily reporting that Crap had been seen 352,176 times.
The thing wouldn’t die.
Helped out by some guest posts and embeds on great marketing blogs like Marketing Profs (Thanks, Ann!), The Content Marketing Institute (Thanks, Joe!) and Hubspot (Thanks, Dharmesh!), Crap just kept climbing.
Today, it’s clocked up 4.7 million views.
(Maybe not teenage-YouTube-narcicisst viral, but as close to B2B viral as we expect to get.)
An agency built on Crap
In the five years since we published Crap, Velocity has gone through enormous changes—pretty much all of them good. (Humblebrag Alert: won CMA Agency of the Year…opened in NYC… grew to 50+ weirdos… got bought by Next 15, the coolest, hottest independent digital group on the planet… quite a ride).
All that was thanks to a dance card full of amazing clients who took a punt on a foul-mouthed agency-with-attitude hiding in leafy West London and a windowless WeWork in New York. (Big shout out to our spirit animal soulmates at Sprint in Kansas City: your early, irrational faith in us told other guys—like Salesforce, Xerox, Amazon Web Services and Informatica— that we were trustable with some big briefs. ‘Gratitude’ is too small a word for the way that makes us feel).
So yes, Velocity is very much an agency built on Crap (and for a few years we were referred to as ‘the crap guys’. careful what you wish for). It’s hard to quantify the impact but it put us on the map; drove up all of our favourite vanity metrics (web traffic, views, downloads, shares); got us speaking engagements; made us new friends… and attracted new clients.
It also lifted the performance of all our other content, from our blog to the pieces we produced before and after. Some of the earlier pieces got 5-10 times more views post-Crap as they’d had pre-Crap (with zero additional promotion).
But the most important Crap effect wasn’t quantitative, it was qualitative: as it turned out, the marketers who were attracted by the attitude and energy of Crap were somewhere between 20 and 100 times more likely to be our kind of marketers. The piece (and our other content, I hope) resonated with confident, ambitious marketers who wanted to do great things. It also alienated timid, corporate, rule-monkeys.
And both of these effects made us who were are today. Because when you attract your ideal prospects instead of just any prospects, the work is better, more profitable and more fun.
We like to pretend that all of this was a strategic decision (dressing it up as a ‘psychographic targeting’ model). In truth, it was dumb luck. The simple consequence of being ourselves in public.
But when all of your clients are your kind of people—people whose definition of great marketing is the same as your own—everything becomes possible. It’s a thousand times more fun than trying to drag Luddites into the light and it’s the only way to attract the kind of talent that refuses to be associated with… crap. (Um, yes, we’re hiring).
(I’m a bit embarrassed, no deeply ashamed, to admit it now, but the fact that content marketing really does work—that it just might actually transform a business—came as a bit of a surprise to us. It’s disconcertingly unfamiliar when the things you’ve been telling people (like clients) turn out to be true. It’s also quite a relief.)
What we learned from the Crap experience
Before looking back at the predictions and prescriptions made in the Crap deck, I want to share a few things that it taught us:
A good rant can be a healthy thing – Helpful, how-to content and high-minded thought leadership all have their place in the content marketing mix. But sometimes a big, unabashed howl into the void is exactly what your audience wants.
Most of your content will be about what you think about your market. But don’t be afraid to tap into how you feel about it.
Timing beats brilliance – Crap shared a real fear and it happened to be a fear shared by a lot of marketers. It didn’t find an audience because it shined a light on a new idea; it found an audience because it expressed something a lot of marketers were already feeling.
Think about making content that taps into the moment. That captures what’s happening now and explores the implications.
Go negative – Somewhere, someone must have written a book that told marketers to always be positive. That’s utter nonsense. No, you don’t want to be seen as a brand with a chip on its shoulder. But you do want to be honest about the world. Crap is all about fear and doubt and neurosis. (Rand Fishkin of Moz, did another ‘negative’ slideshare called Why Content Marketing Fails. It got 4.4 million views.)
Don’t let anyone tell you that you can’t be negative. Hate is powerful stuff. Just be sure you’re hating the right things: the obstacles to your prospects’ success.
Dig for meaning – We’re big fans of Simon Sinek’s TED Talk all about getting to your ‘Why’. Part of Crap’s resonance may be that it touched on why we do what we do, instead of just how. And the only one of our pieces to come close to its success, The Search for Meaning n B2B, is all about meaning. Maybe Sinek is on to something.
Try content that digs down into why you do what you do. Do content whose only job is to celebrate what you believe in. It doesn’t try to teach or preach. It just celebrates your beliefs. Start with Why.
Unleash the attitude – For some reason, people stiffen up when they write and get all pedantic when they edit or review someone else’s writing. As Ann The Handley preaches, the best writing is when you let you be you.
In crowded, noisy markets, attitude can be a hugely powerful—and sometimes the ONLY—differentiator. Go for it.
Go long –Marketers are petrified of the fabled disappearing attention span of the new digital human. And they respond by making everything ‘snackable’. Well, I like snacking as much as the next guy, but sometimes you need a proper meal. When it’s good, long content dramatically out-performs short content. Crap is 50 pages (about a 5-minute read). Rand’s deck is 87. Engagio’s Clear and Complete Guide to Account Based Marketing is 142. They all do much more than a shitty little meme or a content-free infographic.
Make sure there are some big, chunky, definitive pieces in your content marketing mix. Work hard for your audience. Don’t be lazy.
Be fast – Our best stuff is written quickly, goes through fast revision rounds with a very few readers and is designed and coded in one big push instead of months of back and forth. The final pieces are better when they retain that energy, spontaneity and momentum. (Crap was written in an hour, edited over the course of a week and designed in three days).
Overthink and death-by-nitpick are sure-fire mojo-killers. Go faster. Respectfully dis-invite people from your review cycles. Just ship it.
Think about embeddability – I love Slideshare and YouTube because the content on them is embeddable (it’s also why we made our own String format embeddable). If a blogger likes your piece, they don’t just link to it, they embed it on their own blog: the ultimate endorsement. Embeds account for a half of Crap’s views. But you don’t just get embeds by being on an embeddable medium: you also have to make content people with no connection to you would be happy to share.
Think about the kind of content someone else in your market might be happy to embed. Do that. (Hint: zeitgeisty stuff good; self-promotion and hidden agendas bad).
Have fun – Fun is the best, most reliable guide to doing things other people might like. If you’re having fun making content, it will show. If you’re not, it will really show.
Make fun an actual metric in your marketing team. Follow the fun and good things will happen. Like the aero-geeks who made GE’s wonderful Paths of Flight.
Be lucky – We’re all quick to blame our failures on bad luck. But no one ever ascribes their successes to good luck. In truth, luck is without doubt the single most important contributor to success. ‘Be lucky’ may not be very actionable advice but you can increase the chances of luck striking: with an experimental mindset. (Crap was part of a wider experiment in using Slideshare as a proper medium—now quite common—instead of a place where presentations go to die).
Experiment more to increase your chances of getting lucky. Try new things all the time.
Don’t believe the data – I love to quote the 4 million ‘Views’ of Crap, but it’s actually a shameless lie. Slideshare defines a View as every time someone loads the page that contains the piece. If that’s a ‘view’, then I’ve ‘read’ James Joyce’s Ulysses 19 times and ‘climbed’ the Matterhorn twice (Real World: picked up the former, drove past the latter). The Velocity String format lets us see drop-off rates: how many people start a piece but don’t finish it. It’s not just humbling, it’s downright degrading.
Go ahead and flash the vanity metrics around town. But don’t let them go to your head. Divide by umpteen and you’re getting close.
So did Crap come true?
The central prediction of Crap was that the days of easy wins from content marketing would soon come to an end.
Was our advice for fighting against this by building a great content brand good advice?
That’s the subject of the next Crappiversary post… (Give me a few days).