A Great Example Of Bad Content Marketing – And How To Avoid It
I was apprehensive of publishing this post. It’s not considered good form to point to others’ work and say that it’s bad. But I decided to publish it for three reasons:
- There’s already so much out there about great content marketing and far less about bad content
- Dissecting something bad can teach us a lot. I learned a lot about filmmaking and storytelling when I watched this funny teardown of Battlefield Earth, one of the worst films ever made.
- I’m protecting the author by not linking to the original piece and changing a few words here and there to make it difficult to google.
Towards the end, I am answering the question of what is worse: Publish late or publish poor content. Stick around (or scroll down) for that.
So let’s have some fun! And learn something.
It’s really easy to produce crap. I mean figuratively, and in the context of content marketing.
But what does bad content look like? What makes it bad? Often, we can’t put our finger on it. Well, not today – as it’s time to dissect in detail what makes a poorly written article, and learn from others’ mistakes so that we don’t repeat them ourselves.
So, without further ado – here is a great example of what Velocity Partners have predicted in their now famous 2013 slideshow about the upcoming deluge of Crap Content.
This example is an interview of an in-house recruiter of a large professional services firm. It is meant to give advice and teach lessons to other recruiters. It has been published a year ago by a company offering content and advisory services to HR and recruiting professionals.
The sleep-inducing headline:
“On hiring employees: Deloitte”
This headline is soporific.
A good headline should tell the reader what the article will be about and create curiosity to dive in. The only slightly interesting element here is that Deloitte is mentioned: For HR people (the audience of the article), Deloitte sounds good because the company is well-known for high quality HR work. But they could have done so much more with this asset. E.g. using one of the following title formats:
- How Deloitte turned a slow machine into an in-house recruiting rocketship
- Deloitte’s 7 recipes for awesome in-house recruitment
- Deloitte’s secret for in-house recruitment success
Takeaway: Learn how to write great headlines, e.g. with Jon Morrow’s Headline Hacks.
The crowd-dispersing starter
This is how the interview starts:
Every blog post is at a permanent risk of being abandoned, but especially so at the beginning. Readers have low commitment. This is why all writing advice will tell you – start with something interesting. Something that is most likely to hook people in and get them to continue reading.
So what does our author give us on this highly critical juncture, the place where you might lose the majority of your audience?
He gives us a fact that
- 99% of the target audience already know
- is googlable to the remaining 1% who have been living under a rock
- is irrelevant to the insights that will be provided
Three strikes – a real masterclass of crap content.
If anyone hasn’t left at the headline, they are gone now.
- Start the article with something interesting or provocative
- Avoid stating the obvious. It’s a waste of space and time. The few readers who don’t know something can google it.
The mechanical rattling through questions
The whole interview suffers from lazy interviewer syndrome. Interviewers are lazy when they have a set of prefabricated questions that they just go through with each interviewee, without picking up on anything their counterpart says. In the below, it looks like the interviewer copied and pasted questions and replaced <company> with Deloitte.
Here, for example, would have been a great opportunity to pick up on what the interviewee said:
The interviewee mentions gamification in the context of recruiting. Well, this is something new. I haven’t heard of that yet. But instead of saying “Oh, that’s interesting. Tell me more about the gamification you experimented with”, the interviewer just goes into the next question printed on her cheat sheet.
There was a spark of something interesting, a hint of potential – and reliably, lazy interviewer syndrome squashed it.
Takeaway: Have a conversation. Even if you do a formal interview with someone, you pick up on things they say and dig into interesting bits and ask for examples.
Allowing the interviewee to get away with BS
This is an interview with a person in a big company. So naturally, there is a risk of corporate jargon and bullshit bingo. That’s normal, and many people in formal interview situations retreat into the safety of empty phrases. As an author of online content, it’s also tempting to write BS because of the deluding comfort it provides: Both I can pretend that I’m writing something profound and you, the reader, can pretend that you understood that profundity.
But BS makes for cynical authors and jaded readers because at a sub-conscious level, we both know that we’re playing a game and are being fake. BS chips away at the credibility of your content brand.
If BS is rearing its head in an interview scenario, a good interviewer stops the other person in their tracks and goes “wait, what do you mean by that?” or “can you give an example?”
Of course, in this case, our interviewer is just a robot asking questions and recording whatever comes out of the other person’s mouth.
If BS could run, this passage would be Usain Bolt. There is nothing to learn from here, no interesting story being told. It starts with an awfully cliched sentence and only goes downhill from there. Empty phrases that leave the reader with the feeling “I just wasted half a minute reading this drivel.”
If someone in an interview scenario tells you an empty non-story like this, you have to follow up with
- tell me more about that turning point when things changed or
- what specifically was special about this experience? How was it different from other jobs you started in?
Sometimes, you will not get anything interesting, even if you ask follow-up questions. You keep digging for gold and only uncover dead rock. In that case, you have to throw out that passage. You absolutely must not waste your audience’s time with non-content. The “story” above should never have seen the light of day.
Takeaway: Bullshit is a big no-no for your content brand.
- Catch yourself if you are about to write it
- If your interview partner engages in it, ask follow up questions and uncover the real person or story
- If you can’t get past the BS with an interviewee, throw out that passage. Never serve BS to your audience.
Content that pretends to be insightful
Imagine you’re a graduate recruiter at a big company. You know your stuff. You know about assessment centers, university outreach, employer branding etc.
And then you read this:
Let me summarise what pearls of wisdom are being handed from Mount Olympus here:
- Allow for conversations between students and staff (whatever that means)
- Do online stuff
- And be present on campus
This is utterly worthless. If you’re an in-house recruiter in a big company and don’t know that to communicate your values, you have to talk to people, do online stuff and recruit on campus, you’ll be fired tomorrow.
On the surface, this is masquerading like useful content – but for its intended audience, there’s absolutely no takeaway.
A smidgen of usefulness would consist in linking to examples of Deloitte’s activity: Link to their media schedules, their webinars and places where they do online chats so that the audience can go “ah, interesting, THIS is what a Deloitte recruiting webinar looks like!”. But unfortunately, this is a very lazy interviewer who can’t be bothered to provide value to his audience.
You may say: But if we want to cover employer branding, specific recruiting activities and other meaty subjects, I have to be brief if I don’t want the article to be 3,000 words long!
This is a false choice. The author of this piece has not asked herself what brings value to her audience. She started from the question “what will be convenient for me to produce?”.
Either cover fewer subjects more in depth, or create a long blog post. (btw – there’s absolutely no problem producing 3,000 word posts. Google will love you for it) Whatever is useful to your audience. But it’s clear that this superficial skirting over complex subjects doesn’t help anyone.
Takeaway: Know your audience and tell them things they don’t know yet.
Irregular publishing or bad content?
Marketers are busy people, and sometimes there is not enough time to produce good quality content. At the same time, consistency in content delivery is really important. It’s like with magazines. If you’re an Economist subscriber, you expect a new edition to come out every Friday. Consistency is part of the brand promise.
So sometimes the clock is ticking and you’re facing the dilemma: Produce something so-so and publish it? Or delay delivery by a few days and use the time to create a quality piece of content?
You have to choose.
Most content marketers would say it’s worse to produce crap. Better delay things by a few days than tarnish your reputation by producing something bad.
I think it depends. Take into account that there’s different levels of crap content:
- Low-level crap: Content that is “meh”. Obvious insights, recycled wisdoms. This content is largely forgettable but contains a kernel of truth and is, at a basic level, interesting and useful
- High-octane crap: Content that is so laughably bad that you feel insulted while reading it. You actually resent the author for putting you through it.
The example we went through is definitely in the latter category.
Unless you are placing an unusually high quality bar on your content, I propose the following algorithm when weighing consistency vs quality:
Let’s say that your content calendar stipulates a new blog post every week.
- If the delay would be three days or less, always prioritise quality. So delay the publishing by a day or two and polish your material until it’s great.
- If the delay were to be four days or more, low-level crap is permissible. Skipping more than a half-week is disruptive to your audience and consistency narrowly wins.
- A maximum of one low-level crap piece of content in 10 high quality pieces is permissible.
- Never ever publish high-octane crap. This will damage your content brand far more than a delay would. Better go on content vacation and don’t publish anything for two weeks if you really don’t have time to create quality content.
Even a master of content marketing like Seth Godin sometimes has a bad day and publishes a yawner like this one. That’s probably unavoidable.
But understand that every piece of crap content slowly chips away at the credibility of your content brand, and people will notice.
It’s important to know what bad content looks like so you can avoid it. It’s like having a negative role model in childhood – it can help propel you to greatness if you don’t want to end up like an abusive parent or a black sheep family member.
I hope that by dissecting a truly awful specimen, we have helped you avoid producing poor content in the future.