By Robert Rose published April 16, 2012

How Asking “Why” Helps Us Get to Our Larger Story

asking why, Content Marketing InstituteIf you’re a parent, you’ve no doubt at some point had to master the never-ending onslaught of a “why?” session. Comedian Louis CK has a wonderful bit on this, where he talks about how his daughter’s asking “why” led him to mind-altering insanity as a question about going outside while it’s raining led deeper and deeper into the meaning of life.

But of course we were kids ourselves once. Remember? We had all the time in the world — and nothing was more important than understanding the wide world around us. Dr. Dawn Taylor, a psychologist at Penn State who specializes in child development said something that resonates with me: “Asking ‘why’ is one of the most important strategies children have for connecting with their caregivers and learning about the world around them.

It’s also one of the most important strategies for content marketing. Let me explain… why.

Using the 5 “whys”

As content marketers, getting to the “why” of our content is central. We are so trained to think in the classic “features and benefits” form of creating, that it can be hard to step back and tell the larger story. And, of course, that’s what we want to achieve with content marketing. Our content marketing should be focused on delivering value to our audiences beyond the product or service we provide. It should ultimately answer the question of “why” our consumers care about us.

There is a concept in problem solving called the “5 Whys.” It was developed by Sakichi Toyoda and was originally used within Toyota Motors during the evolution of its (now) famous Toyota Production System. It has since been adopted by a number of project management and other processes — namely Six Sigma.

The classic process is simple. It’s about stating a problem, and then asking the “why” question 5 times to get to the “root cause” of the problem. Here’s an example:

Problem: The living room is dark.

1st Why: Because the light bulbs are not working
2nd Why: Because the light bulbs are dead and burned out
3rd Why: Because the light bulbs are old and should have been replaced
4th Why: Because we didn’t know that they needed to be replaced
5th Why: (root cause): Because we don’t have a way to track how old the light bulbs are

So, the root cause in this case is that we don’t have a method to track the age of the light bulbs.  So, we can’t predict when they will go out, or the greater problem this will eventually lead to (darkness). So, fix the root cause and you can avoid the eventual problem.

Now, there are extensions to the 5 Whys, and its weaknesses are well documented. Not to mention that more complex problems can require asking why more than five times.

But from a content marketing perspective, an exercise in asking why five (or more) times can provide real benefit.  

Using our inner child’s eyes to arrive at the larger story

One of the techniques that I use in workshops to go from “tactical idea” to “larger story” is a classic exercise built on the foundation of the “5 Whys.” However, like a kid, I don’t stop at five, but rather go until I get at the larger story that we’re trying to tell. 

One of the most common questions I get asked during the sessions or workshops that I teach is, “How do we take the content we already have and turn it into engaging content marketing?”

It’s a wonderful question — and one piece of it is to ask ourselves what I call the “Story Whys.”  Now, this is a part of a larger education workshop that we do here at CMI — and is available through our Consulting Division — but it’s something you can certainly do on your own. Here’s how:  

Ask your group (or just you by yourself) to come up with ideas for content marketing. Chances are the ideas will look something like this:

  • Launch a blog that informs users on how to use the kind of product we sell.
  • Create a white paper series on the business benefits of the kind of service we provide.
  • Use a blog platform to curate news from our industry to position ourselves as thought leaders.

Now, all of these are fun and interesting content marketing ideas. But let’s take one of these — the “curate news” idea — as an example and run it through our “Whys” to get to the true purpose of that idea and how (if at all) it fits into our larger story. (By the way, this is from an actual workshop for a B2B company.):

Idea: Use a blog platform to curate news from our industry to position us as thought leaders.

1st Why: Why is curating news to position us as thought leaders important to our customers?

  • A: Because our customers will see that we have our fingers on the pulse of our business and have a point of view on the industry.

2nd Why: Why is it important that people see that we have our fingers on the pulse and have a point of view on the industry?

  • A: Because then our customers and prospects will have more trust in what we say.

3rd Why: Why is it important to our customers and prospects to have more trust in what we say?

  • A: Because developments in our industry are changing really quickly and our customers need a trusted partner to keep them on top of what’s going on.

4th Why: Why do our customers need a trusted partner to keep them on top of what’s going on in our industry?

  • A: Because they are really busy trying to be successful and a trusted partner can help them be informed.

5th Why: Why is it important for our customers’ success to be informed?

  • A: Because if they’re informed about the industry from a trusted source, they will be more competitive — and can then be more successful.

Pretty cool huh?  Within five “whys” we go from a blog that’s focused on “positioning us as thought leaders” to a blog platform that “helps our customers be more competitive and successful.” Go back and read those “why” answers in reverse and you have a pretty well formed mission statement for that blog. 

Now, if we’re not entirely satisfied with that question, you could continue on this “through our child’s eyes” exercise and ask a few more. For example, “Why is it important that our customers are more competitive?” Each “why” takes a bigger and more important leap toward understanding the larger context of their world.

That’s an important point. You’ll notice that in the questioning, I immediately put the emphasis on “why” this is important to the customers. They are the central audience here. It’s not about us. It’s about them. 

Now, you won’t have an epiphany every single time you do this exercise. And, in many instances you’ll find that the “whys” lead to a “meh” and you can safely abandon the idea. But it’s the process that’s important. Just like with a kid, developing the “whys” helps with the inquisitive mind and helps with learning how to solve problems in a creative way. And, most importantly, it encourages the idea of the joy of discovery. 

As the wonderful quote from Proust says, “The real voyage of discovery consists not in seeking new lands, but seeing with new eyes.” Asking “why” can certainly open them wider.

As always, it’s your story. I dare you go make it remarkable, and then come tell us about it.

“Why” image via Shutterstock

Author: Robert Rose

Robert Rose is the founder and chief strategy officer of The Content Advisory - the consulting and education group of The Content Marketing Institute. As a strategist, Robert has worked with more than 500 companies including global brands such as Capital One, Dell, Ernst & Young, Hewlett Packard, and The Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation. Robert is the author of three books. His latest, Killing Marketing, with co-author Joe Pulizzi has been said to “rewrite the rules of marketing”. His last book, Experiences: The 7th Era of Marketing, was called a “treatise, and a call to arms for marketers to lead business innovation in the 21st century.” Robert is also an early-stage investor and advisor to a number of technology startups, serving on the advisory boards for a number of companies, such as DivvyHQ and Tint. Follow him on Twitter @Robert_Rose.

Other posts by Robert Rose

  • Lawmed10

    So true. The why question and answer will set you apart from everyone else.

    Gerry Oginski, Esq.
    Founder, Lawyers Video Studio

    • Robert Rose

       Bingo!   As I often say – Differentiation means telling a different story – not the same one incrementally better…. Asking “why” gets to the larger story – and also helps us figure out WHY we are different…

  • Cathy Danahy

    We also learned at DemandCon that there are 4-questions everyone is asking at some time in their Buyers Journey:-Why? (35% of the population)-What if? (25%)-What? (22%)-How? (18%)
    The Bigger Question is how are we incorporating these questions into our content and are we actually driving a decision towards revenue generation?  Isn’t that why we are in business in the first place?

    • Robert Rose

       Cathy… Those are great…. Thanks for adding that data… Wonderful context…

      Isn’t it so interesting though that How? is half of Why? – and yet marketers (especially in technology companies) so often start with that in the marketing copy..  All you need to do is look at some of the biggest software companies out there and how many of them lead with “How we do it” or “technical” data….   

  • Judithwelltree

    Excellent article – really helps to clarify the thought processes!

  • denysedd

    Love it Robert, great reminder of how to get to the truth, or at least much closer. 
    RT’s and added to Buffer.
    Fancy a guest post on C3Centricity’s Blog sometime?

    • Robert Rose

       Indeed… the truth…. But remember our story in many cases is the “amplified truth”…  I like the Blanche Dubois version of that… Where she says: “I don’t want realism, I want magic!  Yes, yes, magic! I try to give
      that to people. I misrepresent things to them. I don’t tell the truth, I
      tell what ought to be truth.”  – In getting to our “why” we often get to what ought to be the truth – and that can be helpful for us too!

      • denysedd

        Great comments Robert. You are right, what is the truth after all? However, I would like to think the “Why” brings us closer to “reality” at least, if not the truth as such. Any comments?

  • Bethany Lee

    Love this post Robert. I’m going to use this process on my next post, and in my website development as a whole. Thank you!

    • Robert Rose

       I’m so glad it resonated…. It’s a fun process for sure… Let me know how it turns out (for either project)… I’d love to hear how it works…

    • Robert Rose

       You’re so welcome Bethany….

  • Gary Bembridge

    Thanks for sharing this, and in such detail! I agree the ‘why” technique is just brilliant at diving into and teasing out the key issues. I used it a lot in some training I used to do on finding consumer insights and to help marketers to get beyond just the facts and the obvious – and can confirm it works really well. Now, I need to go and of the “why” exercise on that point – as will be a great blog post to link to this!

    • Robert Rose

       Very glad that it struck a chord with you Gary….  There’s a bunch more to it – and I’m sure you’ll make up some new stuff as well… Let me know when you post your blog on it.

  • davinabrewer

    So glad I saw this… feels like I’ve been talking about the ‘why’ and motivation and influence forever. There are different whys, and yes it’s about the importance to the customer – their whys. One drawback of the ‘5 Whys’ model you didn’t mention: over-thinking. Yes, complex problems may take more questions, but often simple solutions are often the right ones. Unnecessary whys can be distraction, take away from getting more done. FWIW.

    • Robert Rose

      Davin…  So glad that it resonated.. I don’t disagree with you at all… That’s why I always say – just as many “why’s” as necessary and not one why more  🙂   If you follow that link that points out the weaknesses of the 5Why’s that’s one of the common ones…

  • Manya

    Thank you for this post.
    Because it is a wonderful reminder that as content creators we shouldn’t take everything at face value. Wanting to create something like a white paper or article and having a compelling reason to do are two different things. In this age of content overload, stopping to ask and answer this question is a huge step toward ensuring we are delivering value to our customers. Thanks!

    • Robert Rose

      Thank you so much  for those kind words… couldn’t have said it better myself…

  • Scott Crossin

    Right on, Robert. The “Why” questions are a purposeful approach that will lead to more relevant content. Sometimes I think my 4-year old son is destined to be a brilliant content strategist… “Why, Daddy?” Because blah. “Why blah, Daddy?” Because blah blah. “Why blah blah, Daddy?”…

  • Graham Bolton

    Hi Robert, I was lucky enough to attend your master class on the beach in Bloemendaal last month. I took your advice and applied the 5 Whys in order to produce a “hello, nice to meet you” first letter for some CIO’s that I hope to meet. I am very happy with the result, and want to share it with you here and perhaps encourage others to follow your advice. Here are our 5 Whys, in Q&A form:
    Q1: Why is an OSQR Application Development Portfolio Scan important a CIO?

    Because it helps him to locate and quantify wasted effort in software development teams.

    Q2: Why is locating and quantifying wasted effort in software development teams important to a CIO?

    Because it helps him to identify activities in which unexpected savings can be made.

    Q3: Why is important for a CIO to identify acitivities in which unexpected savings can be made?

    Because he can make unexpected savings in software development with no loss of productivity.

    Q4: Why is making unexpected savings in software development without loss of productivity important to a CIO?

    Because he can get better value for money from his software development suppliers and programmers.
    And here is the body of the letter that we produced, working back up the answers towards the first question:
    Dear Mr. Rose,

    My name is Graham Bolton, and I’d like to introduce you to The OSQR Group.

    Our goal is to help those responsible for software development to get better value for money from their vendors and programmers.

    Whether your development is done in-house or is outsourced, we can help you make unexpected savings without loss of productivity.

    The main task of every software development team is to produce source code. That code can be inspected. Enclosed with this letter is an infographic that explains some of the positive impact that code inspection has on productivity, system reliability and business agility.

    Given access to your source code and just four working days, we can identify applications in which unexpected savings can be made. If you would like more information, please call me direct on 0880 776 726.
    Producing the 5 Whys was not at all easy — we really had to think about what it would be like to be a CIO. And that means that the technique really works!

    Thank you for this golden nugget!

    Kind Regards,
    Graham Bolton