How much promotion is too much promotion? And once we’ve decided to put something out there, how much control do we have over how it’s heard and the conversation it sparks?
These are questions that we all have, not just once — the first time we summon the courage to hit “Publish” — but over and over again, even years and years and millions of words later. Why? Because it never stops being risky to share information. Most of the time, of course, it’s not risky. But the more important the information you share is to you — the more, say, it speaks to your point of view on a complex subject, or even just the nature of your business and how you actually get paid — the more likely it is to challenge someone else. And that’s where the risk comes in. But the risk is worth it. I’ve learned this lesson many times. Most recently, just this week. I’ll get to some thoughts about those two questions specifically, but first, let me tell you what happened.
I wrote something, and then…
It all started when I published an article on Monday about how we are thinking differently about our business’s role in the digital marketing landscape. I wanted to share a piece of that story — of how Newfangled is continuing to reinvent itself — and connect it back to a specific approach we’ve taken to interaction design for many years now, one which used to define us and now no longer does. I called it, “On Letting Go.” Sharing this story was meant, primarily, to be an encouragement to our readers at creative agencies all over the world who, I know, are always in the process of reinvention, too. I believed that the primary value of sharing this story wasn’t to teach someone how to do something — the sort of content we have had at Newfangled.com in abundance — but to simply offer up our experience to anyone who might benefit from hearing it. I have benefitted greatly from other people I admire doing the same thing. In fact, I often think that I’ve benefitted more from their transparency and public reflection than I have from the very good, structured and educational material they also share. In any case, if you haven’t read the article I’m describing, I’d love it if you took a few minutes to look it over. My guess is that, while you might find the intended value and encouragement in it, you won’t find it nearly as exciting as the comments beneath.
The day after I published this article, I sent an email to our subscriber list with a brief note describing the article and an invitation to them to read it. By Wednesday, an unusually high number of our subscribers had read it, many of whom emailed me to express with interest and excitement that our story sounded very much like the conversations they were having behind closed doors. But one person wasn’t into it, and they made that clear in a comment posted to the article itself. “Wasn’t into it” is a bit of an understatement, actually. Here’s a bit of what the commenter, “Tully,” wrote:
“While I realize that agency blogs are a tool for marketing purposes at their hearts, this article reads more like a plea/advertisement than anything else I’ve read recently on this site. It should be marked as a ‘sponsored post’, in fact, because it offers no value outside a lot of self-congratulatory back-patting and the information that if I sign with you I don’t need to use your custom CRM or the other things you bring to the table. Which also reads as “we’re losing business and we think this is why”…I’d like the five minutes I spent reading this ad back, please.”
I got a notification of this comment just as I was wrapping up a meeting, and I fired off a very quick, but intentionally cordial, reply:
“I wish I could give you your five minutes back. I appreciate that you did read it, although it sounds like you got a message I certainly didn’t intend. Yes, I ended the article with an invitation. But, the article isn’t a sales pitch. It’s simply a reflection upon our experience as both the digital marketing landscape and our role in it have evolved. While that story may not be of interest or use to you, it absolutely is to others (I received numerous emails yesterday saying exactly that). In some cases, that’s because those readers are agencies who have expressed interest in working with us but had some technical barriers — hence the single sentence I concluded with, which is probably the closest thing to a ‘sales pitch’ I’ve ever written here — and in others, it’s because readers are experiencing a very similar evolution of their own. It seems to me that our company blog is an entirely appropriate place to share this story. Given that no one else writes here but us, I’m not sure why we’d ever need to tag a post as ‘sponsored.’
How Much Promotion is Too Much?
Here’s the thing: The “invitation” I referred to was just a single sentence I added to the end of my story. After talking about letting go of some of the steps in our process in order to better collaborate with our agency partners, it seemed natural to mention that, hey, if that opens a door to working together that had previously been shut, let’s talk about that. It just didn’t seem like a misfire to me.
Nor did it, frankly, to others outside of Newfangled, who have joined the conversation since the first comment. But it’s interesting, isn’t it?
Content marketing is about making people aware of solutions you offer to the problems they struggle with.
What, exactly, is content marketing? Isn’t it simply the way we share our expertise? Not just for fun, of course. Not for charity, either. But for the specific purpose of making people aware of solutions we offer to the problems they struggle with. Solutions we sell. Solutions our customers are thrilled to pay for. Content marketing is business, isn’t it? If talking about what we sell is off limits, then it seems to me that the whole thing collapses, doesn’t it?
But as Mark pointed out in his reply, it’s not a zero-sum game. It’s not a matter of either only sharing free advice or only writing advertisements. There’s a balance that needs to be struck. He mentions Blair Enns‘s ratio: One promotional piece for every three educational. That sounds like a pretty good balance to me. And, again, as Mark pointed out, it’s one we’ve fallen short of pretty much since the beginning of our content marketing efforts. Historically, we’ve been almost 100% educational. We want need to talk about what we do. Otherwise, what, exactly, are we doing? This was the central point of another article I wrote last fall, about an agency principal who had once said to me, “We got so deep into content marketing, that we forgot to mention what we actually do.” Boy, ain’t that the truth.
Comments or No Comments?
Meanwhile, I reached out to Blair to get his read on this whole thing. That first comment wasn’t really enough to get me to seek a second opinion, but after I replied, the negative commenter came back with even stronger words. I thought he was wrong, but I was open to hearing from someone I trust whether he had a point — whether maybe I could have written my story differently, or whether it needed to be written at all. In typical Blair fashion — which had me smiling — he wrote,
“That’s why I don’t allow comments on my site. Cutting them off was one of the best things I ever did…You guys are very transparent about how you work and lots of people read your site to get a sense of the future of the business. The only mistake made was responding…so politely. Some people just need to be ignored. Let your readers take care of him, as they did.”
I’m glad we’ve kept commenting alive on our site, for this very reason — it makes the transparency that Blair mentions all the more authentic, and sometimes even prompts valuable insights and conversation. The price, of course, is a Tully every now and again. But that doesn’t mean we didn’t, in a moment of weakness, consider deleting the negative ones this time. But we stuck to our conviction that, if you’re going to have comments, you have to accept some derision. For me, censorship — except in cases of hate speech or violent threats — is just not an acceptable alternative. I first learned this lesson back in 2009, when I wrote an article offering A Practical Guide to Social Media. It just so happened that while a few negative comments were being posted to that article, Mark and I were on the road and couldn’t respond. But our readers did, and what emerged was a really great conversation about the nature of social media and business. Just as I am now, I was grateful then for what taking the risk of allowing comments made possible.
But, I don’t necessarily disagree with Blair’s perspective on comments, either. I think that comments can be extremely valuable, both as a rich stream of words that bolster the weight of the material to which they are attached, but also as a lightning rod for honest and diverse opinions and conversation. I certainly never expect everyone to agree with me on everything, and I’m actually energized when someone doesn’t. That’s where things, for me, anyway, get fun. But we all have to make that choice, and as I mentioned at the start of this post, there is risk involved.
So what do you think? How much promotion is too much? Is all content marketing just advertising? And do public comments enhance the value of what we write, or are they too much of a distraction that we can’t control? I’d love to hear your thoughts.