How Great Content Marketing Mimics Good Friendships

by Jul 31, 2017Content Marketing Theory, Education, Strategy

We all know that good friendships are built on mutual enrichment, consistency, authenticity and trust. 

They also happen to be the best values for great Content Marketing.


Last week I was talking about company culture with Misha Gopaul. He said something really interesting:

“Strong values are the foundation of a strong culture. They create the organisation’s personality, so that in the same way you know what one of your good friends would do in a given situation, people in the company know how to act more autonomously.”

This friendship analogy made me think that great Content Marketing is, as well, like a friend to your audience.

Let me explain.

One of my favourite writers is Sam Harris. I listen to his podcast and have read most of his books.

Sam Harris

But unlike many other authors and thinkers I follow, Sam sometimes pops into my mind when I’m pondering a political or societal topic. I ask myself “What would Sam Harris think about this?”

That’s a rare status that normally only close friends have. You know, those types of friends who have unique views on the world and who make hours fly by when you’re engrossed in a fascinating conversation with them. This is now the way I view Sam Harris and his views, as if he were a friend I learn from, even though I don’t know him personally.

In other words, he’s a great content brand.

Let’s explore what we can learn from him for our Content Marketing work. Can we also become like friends to our audience?

(And no, you don’t have to agree with Sam’s positions to learn a lesson. If you hate his politics, try to see past that.)


1) Offer New Ideas

Lesson from Sam

Sam Harris is difficult to pigeon-hole. On the surface, he sounds like a political liberal, with his merciless criticism of Donald Trump and attacks on religion. But then there is his very nuanced stand on the topic of gun control which genuinely surprised me when I read it. Or his firm pro-Israel position which is not right-wing, but rather emanates from his brand of moral philosophy.

With his book “Waking Up”, he has removed the mystical woo-woo from mindfulness meditation for me, and I started a regular meditating practice which lasts to this day. And his book “The Moral Landscape” has introduced me to a completely new viewpoint on the question of Good and Evil.



Friends don’t need to have new ideas or dazzle you intellectually. But it makes a hell of a difference if they do. Say you meet someone at school. You’re both 14. Hopefully, as you age, you learn and gather wisdom. You stay sufficiently similar (e.g. you are both interested in career success, or have a friendly rivalry in an artistic area, or share the same sense of humour) but you aren’t carbon copies of each other, and therefore enrich each other with new perspectives.

With those people who don’t evolve alongside you, the friendship fizzles out. Especially when you feel like they are stuck in their old ways and haven’t come up with anything new to add to their life. White-picket-fence dullness.


The Takeaway for Content Marketers

There’s no way around it: You have to create something original. At least from time to time. It’s ok to do the occasional roundup post and retweet articles from other people. But to really matter as a content brand, you have to bring something new to the table. No one will be your friend if all you do is parroting others.

(And by the way: That is hard. This post took me 12 hours to write)


2) Be Consistent

Consistency in Substance

Lesson from Sam

Even if, occasionally, Sam Harris’s views come unexpected, they are, when you engage with them deeply, very consistent with each other. There’s a straight line connecting his position on the Israel / Palestine conflict with his book The Moral Landscape. Or take his very radical support for free speech that makes him criticise anyone across the political spectrum and defend the words of the indefensible.


Between friends, inconsistencies in substance are called … lies. Or dishonesty. In the best case, they are confusions of the mind. Hardly a good foundation for a friendship.


The Takeaway for Content Marketers

Consistency in substance drives trust. And while there are plenty of examples of public figures who seem to be getting away with flip-flopping on key issues, don’t be tempted by it. Unlike voters, your audience is not ideologically beholden to you, and is less likely to forgive you intellectual dishonesty, especially when they can smell opportunistic (read: financial) reasons on your part.

Admitting that you changed your mind is, of course, allowed, as long as you don’t change your mind so often that you appear mentally unstable.

Consistency in substance is also a commitment to quality. If you allow publish a sloppily researched blog post or a low-value white paper, your audience will remember. You’re letting them down.


Consistency in Form

Lesson from Sam

With a Sam Harris blog post, book, or podcast episode, I know I get the following:

  1. Intellectual precision. His choice of words is superb. He captures complex thoughts in a way that make me go “I kinda felt this way, but couldn’t have phrased it that well.” I’ve come to expect these brain treats from Sam.
  2. Calm tone of voice: Although he often deals with very controversial topics in a debate format, he almost never raises his voice.
  3. Dry humour: Sam has a great sense of humour and I can count on him making me smirk with his quips and absurd analogies – sometimes brouhaha funny, sometimes just incisive and smart.
  4. No arrogance: Despite being a first-rate intellectual, he never condescends. When he explains something, it doesn’t feel like lecturing, it feels like we’re exploring the topic together.



Friendships need consistency. You need to dedicate time to nurture them and you can’t be huggy and sweet one day, and cold and distant the next.


The Takeaway for Content Marketers

Be consistent in your tone of voice. That’s not going to be easy. Sam Harris is a one-man show and does nothing but writing all day. You, on the other hand, are a marketer with presumably many responsibilities, writing being one of them. Also, you will have colleagues and freelancers creating content for you.

Therefore, it’s important that over time, as you grow your content marketing practice, you establish a tone of voice and write down who you are, how you write, and what you stand for. There’s a great Acrolinx eBook on how to do that.

Another important consistency in form is you simply showing up. Kontent360 newsletters go out on Tuesday before noon. Every week.


3) Be Authentic

I know, the dreaded A word. It’s a cliché but one of the good ones.

Lesson from Sam

Sam Harris used to struggle with his bad conscience on eating meat, both in and outside the context of industrial farming. He implicitly admitted being a hypocrite by eating meat without being able to ethically defend it. 

For someone who has made his career on advocating the supremacy of rationality and often taking the moral high ground, it was a bold move at the time to admit such a lapse of ethical, reasoned thinking. 

Admitting to his own imperfection made Harris more relatable and authentic. He’s not hiding his flaws, like most other public figures would in this case. 

(btw – this may have contributed to a level of pressure which made him go vegetarian in late 2016.)



Friends show you their ugly side as well. They don’t sugarcoat it when they feel lousy and they let off steam when they are with you. And that’s great. It gives you the opportunity to crack open a beer and bond over tears or at least a good bitching session.


The Takeaway for Content Marketers

Admit to a struggle, whatever it is. It doesn’t have to be the most personal, and don’t use your audience as a therapist. But as long as it’s relevant to your field, and adds value to your audience, go for it.

For example, I did that by admitting to Kontent360’s shortcomings in the area of collecting email addresses on our blog. Too many how-to blog posts assume that time is unlimited and they expect the reader to implement everything one is suggesting. So I thought of giving my audience a break by admitting that I’m not perfect either. Particularly tricky because this is my field, so I should be best-in-class. 

By admitting that Kontent360 is itself falling short of that high standard, I hope I have made myself more relatable to all those Content Marketers struggling to fit everything into a 40 hour work week.

4) Don’t Have An Agenda

Lesson from Sam

Sam Harris isn’t looking for trends to jump on to grow his follower base. He just follows his interest, which makes his views all the more informed and insightful. He also doesn’t shy away from esoteric topics which few of his readers will understand or necessarily care for, such as cosmology, the foundations of science, or whether humans have free will.



Good friends don’t have an agenda. They spend time with you because they enjoy your company. They have their quirks and yes, sometimes it can get tedious when they tell you how great it was dressing up as Darth Vader at Comic Con. (Don’t worry, you also bore them when you mope about your ex boyfriend. Friendship’s a give and take).

This is also why network marketing is one of the fastest ways to lose friends. When you start selling essential oils or herbal supplements to your mates, you poison the pristine lake of true friendship with the sewage of a commercial agenda.


Takeaway for Content Marketers

This one is really subtle. Because you will rightly say that the whole idea of Content Marketing is Having An Agenda. After all, you’re not providing the content out of the goodness of heart. You want your audience to become customers.

My argument is:

  • In Content Marketing, most people in your audience know what game is being played and each side accepts the rules.
  • The rules from the audience’s viewpoint: I know you’re a company selling stuff. I know you want my money. But because you add value to me through great content, I allow you to come into my inbox. I am conscious that through this process, I am more likely to, at some point, buy from you. I accept you sending me occasional sales emails. 
  • The rules from the company’s viewpoint: I know you don’t want to buy now. Doesn’t matter. If you give me permission, I will send you high quality content to build a relationship over time. Maybe you will never buy. That’s ok, too. I will still send you great content. 
  • Because both sides KNOW what game is being played and are willing participants, there’s no agenda problem if the company wants their audience to buy something. The audience knew this would be coming at some point.

So what WOULD a company’s dishonest Agenda-Driven Behaviour in the context of Content Marketing look like? For example:

  • Segmenting those users who read but never buy, and subject them to a bombardment of sales emails (“might as well”).
  • Guilting your audience into buying from you.
  • Providing crappy content and hoping they won’t notice.
  • Selling email addresses or using them for another business of yours.

So: Stick to the rules of the game. Provide high value content without asking for anything in return (except the occasional email address and extra info).


Still – you can’t convert friends into customers, right?

You will correctly point out that the sole purpose of Content Marketing is to, ultimately, bring in new customers, and how does THAT carry over into the friend analogy? It would be awfully sad if the ultimate purpose of friendship would be the extraction of profit from the other person, wouldn’t it? After all, we DON’T want to be that network marketer who hawks those dubious supplements to his friends, right?

First of all, we’re all grown-ups here. I’m not implying that we’re building up REAL friendship with our audience. We’re just borrowing from the concept of friendship to build as good and as genuine a relationship with our audience as we can.

Second: Even transactions are part of a friendship. Friendships are a give AND take. We all know people who are just a bit too self-centered, they always talk about themselves. They’re the Me Monster. 

Me Monsters disrupt the transaction that is inherent in every friendship: We are friends to get our mutual social needs (listening, laughing, whining, seeking advice, sharing experiences) met. BOTH of us. Not just one side. If all a friend does is talk about herself, she will soon find herself without real friendships.

And that is why it’s ok to ask your audience to buy your stuff. You, as a content marketer, have done your bit. You added value to your audience through great content. When you ask them to buy, that’s like a friend saying “ok, can we briefly talk about my things now?”.

This does not mean that your audience are breaking their side of the agreement by never buying, because them never buying is part of what you, the company, signed up for. You knew this was very possible to happen.

To reinvoke the analogy:

By having friends, a person is getting their emotional needs met. The beauty of a great friendship is that it leaves both sides better off.

By having customers, companies are getting their financial needs met. The beauty of a good business transaction is that it leaves both sides better off.

See where I’m going with this?

When you build the customer relationship with the right person and have the friend framework in mind, then a conversion is like when you take someone’s number at a party because you want to hang out. Or when you invite a new friend into your existing group of friends. Or suggest a trip together. These moments of transition from one stage to the next can be awkward and uncomfortable. But if the other side says yes, then hooray! You just deepened the relationship and find yourself at a higher level with them. 



By bringing in the friend analogy into the field of Content Marketing, I don’t mean to imply that you should strive to actually become friends with your audience, or even to use this term with them. That’d be like the fakery of employers calling the company a family.

But remember the quote in the beginning – Misha was talking about how a good company culture resembled a friendship: Through culture, the team gets to understand the character of the imaginary person (the company) and acts like that person would act. I experienced this in my 3.5 years Google, where people regularly reflected on the “Don’t be evil” mantra, e.g. by asking things in conversations like “If Google buys Motorola and doesn’t give all employees stock options, is that evil?” 

And in the same way, a great content brand is like a friend. It offers interesting insights, is consistent, is authentic, and doesn’t have an agenda.

And it boldly attempts to deepen the friendship.


Image Credit: Matheus Ferrero on Unsplash, Wikipedia

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