marketing

Frank Underwood as Marketing Mastermind

ROBIN WRIGHT, people! Image cred: Netflix

ROBIN WRIGHT, people! Image cred: Netflix

Hopefully you've managed to finish the third season of House of Cards. But even if you haven't, the snippet of episode five that I'm about to detail isn't much of a spoiler. If you haven't watched any House of Cards... I don't even know what to say. Just... Robin Wright. 

Frank Underwood understands the power of stories. Think of his insistence that Russo leverage the recovering addict angle (lesson: vulnerability can win people over if it's balanced with strength and courage), or the reason he decided Zoe was a valuable ally (lesson: stories act like silver bullets if you manage to shoot first). It's as if he were flexing his marketing muscles throughout seasons one and two only to sink his teeth into the meat of his agenda in season three. At this point, as president, he's desperate to get the public on board with his America Works program in time for re-election. He again turns to the power of stories:

We need to sell America Works.... We need more than ad buys. We need the philosophy behind it, we need something of substance.... We need something that will capture the imagination.

He's talking to the writer who will carry out his next marketing maneuver: a book about the program he hopes will redeem his presidency. His point? Advertising isn't selling. Advertising is a tool people use to establish brand recognition and create buzz. But everyone already knows about his program; that's not his problem. The problem is getting people to buy in--selling the America Works program to the American people. So, what is selling if not advertising? Selling is persuading. You can't persuade people without words, and, as Underwood notes, it doesn't require overt manipulation. All you need is a story that's authentic and personal:

No sales pitch, just your honest curiosity.... I want something different, something unique--your voice.

While Frank Underwood typically demonstrates how political and marketing machines utilize manipulative tactics for persuasion, there's no denying the efficacy of his story strategy. I look forward to justifying my House of Cards binge habit with marketing wisdom again next year.

Content Strategy, a definition

That white goose black sheep knows how to position itself.

That white goose black sheep knows how to position itself.

When I introduce myself at networking events as a content strategist and copywriter, people usually ask me about the writing that I do but not the strategy. A few days ago, I was surprised to meet a fellow content strategist who asked me the question I'd been waiting for: what is content strategy?

According to the New Oxford American Dictionary, content is information made available by a website or other electronic medium. For instance, this blog post is considered content. Strategy, meanwhile, is the art of planning and directing. Keeping these definitions in mind, I've concluded that content strategy includes the following:

  • planning the information to be presented (the content itself, i.e. the words that make up the paragraphs of a website, blog post, etc.)
  • planning the execution of content (the context/schedule, i.e. Monday Emailing, Tuesday Tweet, Wednesday Blog, Thursday LinkedIn, Friday Facebook)
  • directing the presentation of content (the design, i.e. the amount of white space, the use of headings, format)

Wikipedia's definition mirrors the above: "Content strategy refers to the planning, development, and management of content--written or other media." The entry cites other useful definitions taken from the mouths of established content strategists.

When I first started this biz, I expected freelance writing to mostly involve typing away on my laptop, reading sources, interviewing clients, and typing some more. I soon realized, however, that writing isn't enough. I could write a marvelous blog post, hand it over to my client, and it might never see the light of day. If you want people to read your writing, you need to handle it strategically--you need to plan how it will appear on a screen and when it will appear on a screen. You need to make sure you're covering SEO and basic human elements, like humor and voice. Obviously, the most important thing is to make sure the quality of the content is mind-blowingly good, but content without strategy is no better than a letter lost to the bottom of your junk drawer.

Next time I introduce myself at a networking event as a content strategist, this is what I will say: "There may be plenty of people who know how to write a decent sentence, but there aren't many people who know how to create stuff that actually gets noticed."

Notes from Sinek

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Here are some essential takeaways from Simon Sinek's Start With Why, a book on business marketing and strategy that has deeply influenced my practice and philosophy.

  • To influence people's behavior, you can either manipulate or inspire.
  • WHY = the cause represented by the company, brand, product, or person; it's what inspires loyalty and it's what you should use to guide your decisions. "It’s not a debate about better or worse anymore, it’s a discussion about different needs. And before the discussion can even happen, the WHYs for each must be established first." (p. 49)
  • Humans crave the feeling of belonging, a sharing of beliefs and values. "The reason gut decisions feel right is because the part of the brain that controls them also controls our feelings." (p. 57)
  • Start with and focus on the 2.5% of the population that believes what you believe.
  • Innovative companies give their people something to work toward, not on. "If people do not trust that a company is organized to advance the WHY, then the passion is diluted. Without managed trust, people will show up to do their jobs and they will worry primarily about themselves." (p. 111)
  • Leader's job: ensure that team members believe what he/she believes and know how to build it. "Your role in the process is to be crystal clear about what purpose, cause, or belief you exist to champion, and to show how your products and services advance that cause." (p. 126)
  • Employees' job: clearly demonstrate the WHY to the world in what they say and do
  • The key to instilling trust and the perception of value in customers is to communicate WHY clearly through marketing, branding, products, and services
  • The hard part is to trust one's gut, stay true to one's purpose/cause/belief, and remain authentic/balanced, especially during periods of growth.

For more, I recommend watching Simon Sinek's TED talk on the subject.