How to survive the content horror show…

Content was once the new marketing hero, but now it’s at the mercy of a many-headed backlash – spreading confusion and mayhem among marketers. But don’t panic! Find out here how to survive the 2017 horror show...

I hope you had a great Christmas… mine was pants. Confined with my extended family in a small space I began to think about slasher movies. (Sorry). But instead of acting on this, I holed up with my laptop and devoured all those blogs giving their marketing trend predictions for 2017. They did not make me feel any better! As this year is turning out to be quite a horror show for most marketers, I thought I'd give you my take on how to survive the content carnage intact.

To give you a flavour of the apocalyptic predictions that were out there, here are a few lines from Marketing Week’s 2017 prediction round-up:

I like the ‘stern’ review of measurement – not just a review but a seriously stern one. Because it’s all about attribution this year, as a result of the (horrific) fragmentation of channels.

That’s before we even get to the new stuff we’re supposed to be doing – like augmented reality. An adult nightmare coming to a marketing budget near you.

At best, it’s enough to give you a vague sense of unease, at worst escalating panic. We’re partnering with the Ministry of Stories this year, an education charity that runs the awesome Hoxton Street Monster Supplies. Where you can buy an edible ‘vague sense of unease’, or even some heebeejeebies if you don’t already have them.

Here’s one guy with a serious case. This is a genuine email that came into Sticky a few weeks ago:

Aside from the killer acronyms (we were stumped by MCLs… anyone?), I think there’s something bigger and darker going on.

What’s really freaking everyone out and the biggest terror of 2017 is The Fog. That dirty dense fog of content that yours is probably hopelessly lost in right now. 

There’s an article that ran in The Onion back in 2014 with the headline ‘STUDY: Online content creators outnumber consumers 2,000 to 1’. I’ve been using it in speeches and training sessions since then as a joke. Now we’re no longer laughing. 

So look out! If you’re spending time on me-too calendar-led content with no strategic direction and no spend, you’re about to get got. 

The 1st victim of 2017: bland always-on content for the sake of it 

Don’t panic though, folks. It is possible to survive this. To do it, we’re going to need some horror survivors to learn from. Like all women of a certain age and all good feminists, my favourite is of course Ripley from the Alien movies...

What did she have? A strong, unwavering sense of who she was and what she stood for.

Survival tactic no. 1: Stay true to yourself

Does your brand have a clear identity everywhere in all formats, on all channels? Is it clear what you’re about and why? Do you know why anyone would like you, let alone 8 different customer segments across 5 different funnel stages?

Here’s a fairly obvious example but it’s one worth highlighting because it’s just so good... 


Nike Women. Yes, big budgets. Yes, big production values. But one clear purpose across everything they do – to empower women to take part in fitness and sport. And not for the sake of it, but because there’s still significant growth left in the women’s fitness sector compared to the men’s.

If you do stay true to your core identity and mission, audiences will go with you when you try new things. Did you see Nike Women’s Netflix-style mini-series last year, Margot vs Lily? The first few episodes ran as 6-minute pre-rolls. Reach tailed off with the spend, but was huge – with overwhelmingly positive sentiment according to Brandwatch. It’s original, a bit cheesy – but 100% Nike Women so 100% true to itself, and for that reason hard not to like. 

Survival tactic no. 2: Get real

My next plucky survivor is Roy Scheider, who had the unlikely hero name of ‘Martin’ in the Jaws movie. Why have I picked him? To talk about dealing with reality. I’m sure you can all remember the famous line from the movie. To make it through 2017 unscathed you need to get real about the challenges that are out there and, yes you’ve guessed it, get yourself a bigger boat.

Here’s what I mean… 

Here’s a brand, in this case Zara on Facebook, blithely swimming along on the surface. Do they know the dangers that are lurking? May be, but from the outside you wouldn’t know it.

Product shots with soulless hashtag captions and links to off-platform web editorial, interspersed with the usual customer service exchanges. Oh dear, lovely Zara. This is dangling a bloody leg at the starving shark of 2017. If you have no real channel strategy and a bunch of catalogue shots, prepare to be eaten.

The 2nd victim of 2017: mixed use of channels.

Here’s Zara on Instagram... 

Lovely looking shots and 16 million followers and hundreds of thousands of likes. Ha! I bet you’d like some of that… But are they smugly out of the water? I don’t think so. And that’s the real horror story of 2017. If it weren’t for the massive high-street presence they’d be fishfood already – because the story and the sense of identity here is not strong enough. 

Beyond Instagram, we all have to deal with the reality of how kids are using and sharing content. To survive 2017 you not only need to embrace influencers front and centre of your strategy, but also consider messaging. The reality we have to deal with is that messaging is massive and it’s dark; visibility is low to non-existent. 

Here’s an example I like of a brand embracing that reality and trying something new... 

Did you hear about Adidas’s Tango League campaign? It was a full-on big boat assault on reality. They partnered with 100s of small football influencers, working with them to use Adidas in their messaging on What’s App and Snapchat.

What’s scary about it? No real sight of metrics or potentially even the content created. Lots of ‘could bes’ in their thoughts about it, above – it is a gamble, but it’s one that deals with reality.

Now meet the the ultimate horror movie survivor...

This is Ash from the Evil Dead. You think you’ve got challenges this year? Here’s a dilemma for you... Never mind whether to work with micro-influencers or not, what about 'Do I saw off my own arm now I suspect it has become infected with the zombie virus??!'

I wonder what Ash would do with this dilemma if he were a digital marketer – go to a conference maybe, to try to engage with some arm-saving case studies from bigger brands? Read up on industry blogs, perhaps; half would tell him to cut it off, half insist that under no circumstances should he ever cut it off. Maybe he’d ask his agencies for advice and end up forking out for a curated zombie hackathon…

Instead, he calls it. And swaps it for a get-wrecked chainsaw! You too need to own the challenges out there in 2017 and make your own decisions, because there are no right answers.

Survival tactic no. 3: Regroup and think!

Survivor no. 3 is Nancy Thompson from Nightmare on Elm Street. She figures out a way to beat Freddie Krueger during the daytime – when she has a break from the relentless assault of her dreams. Why am I bringing her into it? Time out is going to be essential this year because the battles we’re facing as marketers are almost as epic as Nancy’s. We’re grappling with data vs. creative, traditional vs. digital, and the biggest one of all – people versus the robots.

Both of us need to co-exist, but if you don’t want your job to go to an algorithm, use your human brain and think! Apparently, AI struggles to take learnings from one context to another (Lord knows what it would make of this piece). But real-life marketers are good at that. You need to use your experience and your own common sense and apply it to the data you’re presented with.

Here’s a fairly basic example...

This is from a recent article in AdAge.

When I showed this slide at Marketing Week Live, everyone started writing that down as gospel. But think! Realise that 8% of 1,000 followers is 80 people, and 1.7% of 1 million followers is 17,000 people. Are you in the business of getting messages to people or not?

That doesn’t mean there is a clear right answer, but understand what you’re looking at before you make a decision. 

So here’s a really gruesome picture just in case you’re getting bored...

Do you know what this is? No? It’s what I think a real customer experience journey map might look like. If you've evet sat through a session where you try to plot all the permutations of how someone might arrive at your product, you'll be with me on this one. It’s like plotting the back-end of one of those 'choose your own adventure' novels. In my view you may have spent the time more usefully studying your own entrails. 

It’s another one that will bleed out in 2017. There are no pieces of paper big enough to diagram this effectively. All you are capturing is what you would like to happen, in a lovely linear/binary way. It’s comforting detail to get lost in, when the real big picture is terrifying. 

Victim no.3 of 2017: Customer experience journey mapping

This section is about regrouping to think. I wanted to mention Kit-Kat because I noticed something about their activity on Facebook. Every couple of months they ‘have a break’ (who knew?). After time spent analysing results, looking around at the competition and generally just thinking, they always come back with a stronger, fresher and more relevant campaign or set of creative ideas. Their content doesn’t get stale or lazy, it’s not copycat or dull. Same sense of identity though (remember Ripley). 

To be able to do this you need to take some time out from the relentless pace of always-on. This can be a brave step if you’re locked into the idea that you have to post something 5 times a day. You don’t.

Survival tactic no.4:  Stay vigilant 

Things that can seem like your cute and fluffy marketing friend… may alas turn into nightmare Gremlin distractions. 

I read this in a post in a Linked-In group a couple of weeks ago:‘It’s your job to overcome the barriers to cross-channel personalisation…’  

Is it though? No. It’s this woman’s job to sell me personalisation software. This is unlikely to be your job unless you have the title ‘Cross-channel personalisation manager’, in which case I feel very sorry for you.

Stay vigilant and keep your focus. There’s no refuge in our mad world – especially not in software, not even in data. As well as false friends you need to watch out for false insight. We were invited to a briefing recently at a bank who’d been working on personas and targeting. Not inconsiderable time and money had been spent on research resulting in a piece of insight that revealed that young people... felt uncertain about their futures

Wow.

They wanted us to come up with some ideas to grab them with content that would make them feel more secure, and so place the bank in a position of certainty in uncertain times.

Is this genuine insight, or the bleeding obvious? Since when have young people been certain about their futures? Isn’t that the whole point of being young? That you have many different futures open to you… before you end up in marketing. Quant analysis has to meet qual.

Be vigilant too about the next big thing. This is The Thing...


It’s wont to sprout new legs and heads. Wearables turned out to be not such a thing for most marketers. IoT still not a thing. It’s okay to watch before you commit to taking it on.

Everything is potentially a thing to be grappled with now, and everyone is out to get you now too. Have you really grasped quite how many competitors you have in 2017?

You need to see off:

  • Everyone producing similar products
  • Everyone targeting the same customers
  • Everyone producing content on the same topics
  • Everyone using similar content formats
  • Everyone on the same channels

And don’t forget everyone’s dog too. There are dogs with 3million followers on Instagram.

If all that’s left you feeling like there’s no point trying, remeber there's one sure-fire way to survive this and every other horror story…

Survival tactic no.5: Be attractive

Be the best-looking. Your ugly friend will cark it early on but you’re guaranteed a panting, pouting, still-breathing finish. The same is true of content winners.

This is a screengrab from the app Musical.ly...

It was one of the fastest growing apps of 2016 and one of many dubbed ‘the new Snapchat’. It’s a lip-synch video making and sharing app. These are the top ‘musers’ a couple of weeks ago. You may not be able to see what they all have in common; they’re exceptionally good-looking. Check out brothers Max and Harvey, cute as a button and 822,000 hearts (likes), in the UK, one Sunday. Yes, you read correctly - that’s 822,000 in one day in one country. 

It’s not just looks. Attractiveness is about confidence and mystery too. And, on Twitter, it’s often humour. On Insta? Well that’s wall-to-wall beauty isn’t it – the people, their things, their clothes, their friends, their homes, their food, their dogs… 

So many brands and companies realised last year that they needed to come across as more human. In 2017, that’s not enough. You need to be an attractive human. 

Adobe and Forrester put out some research recently about companies that invest in design having a significantly higher market-share, in all sectors.

So if you only do one thing this year and only take one thing from this long and rambling piece, I’d say make your content look as good as it possibly can.

In summary, to survive 2017:

Good luck!

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