By Joe Pulizzi published February 17, 2016

Content Marketers: Your WHAT Doesn’t Matter if Your WHY Is Lacking


After listening to This Old Marketing Episode 116, Professor Marc Resnick from Bentley University responded with the following commentary:

“Which would energize me (or anyone) more as a creative business professional?

  1. Creating content that has the primary purpose of driving the sales pipeline and a secondary purpose of improving the life of my user.
  1. Creating content that has the primary purpose of improving the life of my user and a secondary purpose of driving the sales pipeline.

Clearly #2.

I find this to be a great value proposition for why organizations should use your content marketing approach. Having energized employees is great for productivity. It is touted as the Holy Grail for millennial generation employees. And unlike other management hypes, this one really works.”

I believe most marketers would agree with Marc in theory but not in practice.

Switching the mission

In the documentary The Story of Content: Rise of the New Marketing, River Pools & Spas co-owner Marcus Sheridan shares the following about the company’s turnaround from near bankruptcy to the global leader in Fiberglass pool education (26:54 mark):

The moment we stopped saying, ‘We’re pool builders,’ and started saying, ‘We are the best teachers in the world about Fiberglass pools and we just happen to install them as well,’ … that was one of the most prosperous days of our lives.

Before this, River Pools was like every other pool company – it installed pools. What became the difference in River’s success was moving the product from primary to secondary in the mission.

What do you sell? Most likely, what you sell is primary to your company’s mission, which is then passed down to your content marketing mission. Do you know what this creates? Self-serving content that does nothing for the audience and wastes time and resources of the brand.

Let’s consider a large enterprise like 3M as an example of what you should be doing. Over the next five years, the majority of 3M sales will come from new products. If 3M focused its mission around specific products and services, it would not only be impossible (3M provides thousands of products), its mission would constantly change because the products change.

In reality, 3M’s mission is all about helping people live a better life through advancements in science. This is a noble mission on which to base the direction of its content – focused on the needs of the audience with a specific content tilt (science).

More than ourselves

This is why most marketers are so terrible at content creation. The “why” to most marketers is about driving demand and selling more widgets.

Kirk Cheyfitz, CEO of Story Worldwide, says that “like a decent human being, brands need to be about more than themselves.”

Like a decent human being, brands need to be about more than themselves says @KirkCheyfitz #contentmarketing Click To Tweet

It seems too simple, but yet almost all brands get this wrong. We focus on what our organizational goal is and create content we believe drives that organizational goal. This works in advertising, why shouldn’t it work in content marketing?

Sadly, it doesn’t.

Sure, the organizational goal (e.g., sales, savings, customer loyalty) is important, but to hit that goal, we have to put all focus on the needs and wants of the audience. How can we be so useful and impactful to the audience outside of the products and services we sell?

To Marc’s earlier point, the primary goal has to be focused totally on the audience, and the business goal needs to be secondary. Or, maybe better said, you can’t reach the business goal without first serving the needs of the audience. Once we deliver consistent value to our audience – and they begin to know, like, and trust us – then we can extract value from that relationship.

Do you want a better lead-generation program? Then focus all your energy on building ongoing subscribers to your content, and THEN create leads from your subscriber base. We’ve worked with hundreds of B2B companies in the past six years and literally no one does this.

Focus on building ongoing subscribers to your #content, & THEN create leads from your subscriber base. Click To Tweet

Let’s take CMI for example. We believe in Marc’s point in both theory and practice. Our mission is to advance the practice of content marketing so that enterprise marketers can be more successful in their jobs – getting buy-in for the practice, showing return for the investment, and organizing the approach so they are successful.

That’s the primary focus for CMI. How do we “show” return for our efforts? We build an audience of subscribers to the content itself. Once we have an ongoing relationship with them (around their needs), and they begin to know, like, and trust us, then (and only then) do we present products (like Content Marketing World) in front of them that align with that audience need and helps CMI’s bottom line.

Marriott believes that if it can solve its audience’s travel problems consistently, that audience will be more likely to stay at a Marriott. Indium believes that if it can solve its audience’s needs around industrial soldering equipment, the audience will be more likely to buy Indium’s soldering equipment.

In contrast, if the real why to creating your content is an internal business goal, odds are 99-1 against success.

Your ‘why’ affects your ‘what’

You may be asking why this is so important. Here it is.

This video from comedian Michael Jr. was going around Facebook last month. It’s worth the three minutes. Go ahead, I’ll wait.

When people talk about their content marketing, they talk about the WHAT … the blogs, the podcasts, the videos, the events, the social posts. But the WHAT doesn’t matter if the WHY is lacking.

The WHAT doesn’t matter if the WHY is lacking.

Nobody cares about your products or services. If your why is based on selling more shoes or consulting services or routers, your WHAT will have no soul. Your content will be wanting.

Why you exist is not your product. Your why is the problem your product solves.

Why you exist is not your product. Your WHY is the problem your product solves via @joepulizzi Click To Tweet

Next steps

If you are reading this far, odds are you are in this exact situation. Changing your WHY is desperately challenging. It’s a cultural shift, which always takes time. IT MUST BE DONE.

Start slowly but begin now. Presenting a visual content audit could be a solid first step. Just place samples of your content in front of your executive team and have them engage with the content you produce. Is the content in line with your brand’s deeper mission or does your content exist solely to pitch your product?

Your findings may uncover that some of your WHAT should cease to exist until you can get your WHY straightened out. Good luck.

Want to learn more and be inspired by businesses that follow a subscriber-first model? Check out Joe’s newest book, Content Inc.

Cover image by Joseph Kalinowski/Content Marketing Institute

Author: Joe Pulizzi

Joe Pulizzi is the Founder of Content Marketing Institute, a UBM company, the leading education and training organization for content marketing, which includes the largest in-person content marketing event in the world, Content Marketing World. Joe is the winner of the 2014 John Caldwell Lifetime Achievement Award from the Content Council. Joe’s the author of five books, including his latest, Killing Marketing. His third book, Epic Content Marketing was named one of “Five Must Read Business Books of 2013” by Fortune Magazine. If you ever see Joe in person, he’ll be wearing orange. Follow him on Twitter @JoePulizzi.

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  • Aaron

    Nice article, I’m just starting to encourage my new employer to adopt a content strategy. What’s the best way to find a content tilt for B2B in quite a dull industry? I’m finding it really hard to think of something to make it more interesting than just solutions to problems….

    • Joe Pulizzi

      Hi Aaron…I would start with focusing on the “why” you are in business and the “who” (the specific who) you are talking to. When you decide on your overall content mission (like a media company would do an editorial mission), focus on the needs and wants of the audience first – the specific persona, not multiple personas – and then determine how a better relationship with those customers/prospects can/will help your business. Most of all, be sure to ask yourself “are we telling a different story?”. Most companies don’t. Good luck.

      • Aaron

        Thanks for your reply Joe! I always just think of the amazing examples of ‘the content tilt’ you’ve given in your writing and presentations. I suppose the tilt in B2B really is telling a different story to your competitors and really differentiating yourself. Every company just seems to follow the other. Thanks for your advice! 🙂

    • russellsparkman

      Aaron, if you don’t mind a soft pitch, I’d be interested in talking to you. Our niche is purpose-focused content marketing. Here’s a post to give you some insight into our thinking.

      Does Purpose Play a Role in Your Content Strategy? If Not, Here’s Why It Should.

      I’m happy to get on the phone to chat, if for nothing else to give me an opportunity to see what we could uncover as a purpose focus within a “dull industry.”

      • Aaron

        Hi Russell,
        Thanks for the offer but I’m not in the position to make buying decisions. I’m just trying to make a company change its approach and perspectives to marketing. It’s a job in itself to convince them content is worth spending the time on.
        Luckily I’ve checked out our main competitors and it seems they all have the same self-centered dull content as each other. Hopefully won’t be too difficult to gain that competitive edge (and maintain it of course).

  • Hephzy Social

    Great thought Joe!. I was reading the about page on fisher tank’s website recently and what I saw really amazed me. They wrote “We solve problems”. We build tanks, but we’re really in the problem-solving business”. This really reinforce what you said in this article – “Why you exist is not your product. Your why is the problem your product solves”.

    • Joe Pulizzi

      Love it!

  • Mike Myers

    Um…YES! This is perhaps the best explanation/justification for separating strategy and tactics that I’ve seen. How can you possibly do the ‘what’ if you don’t know the ‘why’ (of course, that’s rhetorical, we all do it)? Thanks, Joe!

    • Joe Pulizzi

      Glad you liked it Mike!

  • russellsparkman

    No surprise, Joe, I agree with your main emphasis on Why, but with my own twist. I find that answers to the question “What’s our Purpose?” provide a proverbial “North Star” for strategizing and uncovering content that will matter, content that will engage. Winston Churchill once said “There is in the act of preparing the moment when you start caring.” When your content strategy process begins with questioning why you’re doing what you do, what is your purpose beyond profit, you start to uncover ways in which you can demonstrate to your customers and constituents that you care. In my humble estimation, caring and being meaningful is to content marketing in 2016 what “being relevant” was to content marketing in 2010.

    • Joe Pulizzi

      Of course, love the “purpose” angle. Keep spreading the word.

      • russellsparkman

        Will do. Check out my latest posts!


    Ya you are right content marketing is very important role in business point of view

  • Jay Thompson

    Spot on, Joe. Earlier this week we decided to adopt a new tagline for our consultancy: Put Your WHY on the Web. It’s an effort to direct the conversation with businesses that want to improve their online marketing, away from technology, away from tactics, away from data analysis of what time of day is best to post on Facebook.

  • sammy_macdonald

    One of the best content marketing articles I’ve read in a while. Hits the nail on the head of content marketing’s true purpose.

  • isawelvis

    Bull’s Eye! I believe my profile actually says something like, “You worry about your product, I’ll worry about your audience.”

  • Aaron

    Thanks I’ve contacted you 🙂

  • Joe Pulizzi

    Thanks buddy! I’ll check it out.