The power of surprise in content marketing

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Doug Kessler

30. 01. 2014 | 2 min read

The power of surprise in content marketing

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Most marketing looks, feels, smells and tastes like marketing.

That’s a shame because marketing that doesn’t look and feel like marketing has a major advantage: surprise.

Great marketing is almost always surprising. Unexpected.

But to harness the power of the unexpected, you need to understand what is expected in any given situation.

In marketing, what’s expected is that “Company X  is about to say something great about Company X”.

Or, “Company Y is about to push their agenda”.

So what if you didn’t do that?

What if you did the exact opposite?

That would be… surprising.

The pseudo-neuroscience of surprise

When any of us receive a message, we do a cool little calculation:

  • We listen to the message
  • We bring up our file about the sender of the message
  • And we compare the two

If the message is consistent with everything we know about the sender, we yawn and look elsewhere for stimulation (or food or sex or whatever).

But if the message clashes with what we know about the sender, we stop in our tracks and send a signal to our eyebrow that says, “Initiate raising procedure.”  Then we do something really really important: we pay attention.

And attention is what it’s all about.

Take the obvious and do the opposite.

One technique for exploring surprise is Negation: make a statement that you’d like people to hear. Then say the exact opposite thing and see how it feels and how you might tell a story that leads with it.

So: You expect BurgerCo to say, “We’re not just about fat and salt — we do healthy salads too!”

What if they said, “We do burgers. They have fat. Fat is the thing that tastes good in burgers. We prefer burgers that taste good. Don’t eat one every day. But when you do eat one, enjoy the hell out of it.”

And you expect an energy company to say, “Here’s us in a green, green field helping a farmer and an orphan save the planet for us all.”

What if they said, “You got a problem with oil? Don’t use it. But if we stop pumping it, the economy grinds to a halt and your ass is out of a job. Till something better comes along, we’ll do oil.”

Now that would be surprising. And refreshing. And effective.

Give it a go.





Image by Nick Maxwell at

Published in:

  • B2B Content Marketing

  • content-marketing

  • copywriting

  • marketing

  • writing

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  1. Ann Handley

    January 30th, 2014

    First, that cat is pretty much me during any given workday.

    Second, YES! “Do something unexpected” is a content rule (and the #8 Content Rule, now that I think of it!). Also, funny how the “surprise” approach in both of those examples you cheekily suggest above is actually the truth. Being disarmingly honest can be a surprise, don’t you think?

    Third, I used “cheekily” because you live in the UK, and I’m trying to seem familiar to you.

    Nice post, my friend!

  2. Doug Kessler

    January 31st, 2014

    Thanks Ann!
    Gotta love that cat.
    Ann, you spotted the honesty theme — new eBook on this is imminent.
    Next week, I hope…

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