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3 Unthinkable Behaviors Behind Truly Creative Content Marketers


Before we get into all that delicious content marketing stuff, let’s talk about eating ice cream for a second. (Stay with me, folks. It’s gonna get weirder before it gets normal again.)

When you eat a bowl of ice cream, is your goal to get to an end result as fast as possible? Do you turn to a friend or maybe a professional ice-cream-eating freelancer and say, “Hey, can you finish this bowl of ice cream for me? I just really want a messy bowl.”

That’d be insane, right? The best part of eating ice cream is the process of eating the ice cream. And since we’re so infatuated with the process itself, some interesting behaviors unfold – namely, we tinker. We make the ice cream better. We add toppings. We put it into things, onto things, and next to things.

Because of our focus on the process of getting to the end – not our obsession with the end itself – we innovate.

What does this have to do with content marketing? Nothing. I just wanted to talk about my favorite dessert.

Kidding – of course the answer is “everything!”

Because if you study the most creative content marketers, it turns out that they approach their work much like most of us approach a bowl of ice cream. There’s a psychological benefit to that behavior, which as a result makes those content marketers more creative. That’s right – science is at play here, not just one man’s ramblings on frozen treats.

And that science is just one of three key behaviors driving the most creative among us.

Let’s dive into that list. (Full disclosure, all of these themes and examples are studied in more depth in my new show for content creators, Unthinkable.)

1. Truly creative content marketers make work intrinsic, not ‘telic’

Here’s what’s happening in the ice-cream metaphor: When you eat ice cream, you’re intrinsically motivated to eat it. You do it for its own sake regardless of the end result (a messy, empty bowl or the time, or even cost, it takes to complete it).

We’ve all likely heard the word intrinsic. Something that we find intrinsically motivating is something we’d gladly spend time doing.

Now, in marketing, we often approach our work in the opposite way — for extrinsic reasons, whether pushed by a boss, a client, or a desire to reach some kind of future goal. Unfortunately, this transforms how we behave in a very dangerous way — we turn our work into something known as “telic” activities.

A telic activity is something done for the end result alone, i.e., a chore. It’s tedious to do and so you look for easier ways to get to the end.

Here’s the rub, guys: Marketers have turned content marketing into a telic activity. They want the formula. They want the best practice. They want to skip to the end result as quickly, cheaply, and repeatably as humanly possible. Another way of saying this?

They go through the motions of content marketing.

But many of us got into this work to do the creative part – the c-word in content marketing is what we care about most. I definitely did, and I’m sure many of you did too. And we HATE going through the motions. We reject shortcut culture and hacks. Instead of wishing we could skip to the end, we adore the process of creating for its own sake.

And that makes us better at the work.

Those we admire have mastered this idea of focusing on the process and the intrinsic instead of the telic. Like this guy …

Example: David Beebe, vice president of global creative and content marketing for Marriott, and creator of M Live

M Live is Marriott’s internal content command center. It’s responsible for dozens of inspiring projects, hundreds of pieces of successful content, and a world-class content marketing strategy. It’s produced an award-winning online movie, a personalized travel magazine, and even dabbled in virtual reality through Oculus Rift, the technology owned by Facebook.

But the behavior driving David, a 2015 Content Marketer of the Year finalist, and M Live isn’t their desire to skip to that end result – the “what” of their work. It’s all about how they embraced and evangelized the process – the why and the how. They hired a team of story-first creators from marketing or media. They documented their process in a giant binder that helped cut through red tape. They evangelized and taught their process across the company. They found allies in departments like customer care, while involving different business units in content creation. And they made so much noise that even Bill Marriott occasionally pops down to M Live to absorb it all.

Top to bottom, the intrinsic value of creating great work drives that organization to better projects and therefore better results.

As Apple CEO Tim Cook once said, “We aren’t focused on the numbers. We’re focused on the things that produce the numbers.”

We aren’t focused on the numbers. We’re focused on the things that produce the numbers via @tim_cook Share on X

(Maybe you’re so good at all this stuff that you’d question the mastermind behind Marriott’s content AND the CEO of Apple. But if we’re picking sides, I’d like to be on theirs, please and thank you.)

How to start this behavior: Celebrate the stuff inside your content

The next time your company produces a piece that you personally consume – whether it was your teammate, your boss, your freelancer, or an agency – make a point to applaud (publicly) something about the piece regardless of results.

While it’s fine that we celebrate a piece with tons of views or shares, once in awhile, a content producer just really needs to hear, “Hey, I really loved that piece. The way you opened the article had me hooked.” Not only will you all start to notice ways to improve the process of creating great content that resonates, but the person receiving that feedback will feel great and think, “Huh, she liked my intro paragraph for some reason. Maybe I should look to do more things just like that.”

Good things happen when you study content for its own sake. Good things happen when you treat content creation like ice cream – not like sweeping your floor.

2. Truly creative content marketers question the biggest debate in our industry

Quick, pick a side: quality or quantity? Do you do a few high quality things or a ton of things this week, month, quarter, or year?

At Content Marketing World last year, I asked about 10 people before my talk to answer that question. One intrepid content marketer named Colin mulled it over and replied, “Why not both?” I swear, I almost hugged him.

Just think about that one content marketer you know who has the uncanny ability to produce a ton of work, all of which is great. Aren’t you downright jealous?

For us to even have a chance at being that good, we need to start in a much different place than asking, “Quality or quantity?” As soon as we see those two things as juxtaposing ideas – or, worse, a choice we actually make – we’ve lost.

To the rest of the marketing world, on behalf of us create-first content marketers, allow me to clarify something: Both we and our audiences want both quality and quantity. Together. At the same time. We aspire to do better AND we aspire to do more. Audiences crave better things and, once they receive them, they want more.

Create-first #content marketers & our audiences want quality & quantity at the same time via @jayacunzo Share on X

The most creative in our industry don’t start with this bizarre debate of quality versus quantity. These are simply not opposites. I asked a journalist friend which he’d pick and he just laughed at me and said, “Both, or I’m fired.”

Quality and quantity are not opposites. That’s true based on the words’ definitions AND in practice (just ask any journalist, highly sought software engineer, successful craft brewery, local baker, barista, etc.)

But we marketers like to hide behind this quality-or-quantity excuse. We proudly defend quality so we feel better about not doing more. We smolder against fluffy ideals because “I’m a business professional” and apparently professionals do the bare minimum it takes to generate a result. (“Operational efficiency” is how we make that sound OK.) And so this group picks quantity as a way to justify not having pride and not aspiring to do better work.

But the most creative among us? We know this choice is a false one.

Example: Erik Devaney, creator of ReadThink, HubSpot’s Medium publication

In 2015, HubSpot pursued an executive audience for the first time in its nearly 10-year existence. It had found success helping marketing managers and content marketers from entry level through middle management – its core users – but as a newly public company, HubSpot believed a key to continued growth meant leveling up its content sophistication.

Only one problem: Reaching sophisticated, skeptical, and busy execs can’t be achieved by pumping out dozens of listicles and how-to articles each week. HubSpot needed to go much deeper on much more complex topics, telling more ambitious stories, while publishing regularly enough to grow a new audience.

Do you pick quality? Do you try for quantity?

Said Erik to himself, “Why not both?”

He set about researching and writing things that felt wholly and refreshingly original, while maintaining the cadence needed to build a publication from scratch. He published articles like Why Don’t Billionaires Quit Their Jobs, The Last Thing You Want Is to Get Into a Career Path (an interview with Patagonia’s vice president), and A Tale of Quinoa and Chia Seeds (how diet trends affect CPG retail and marketing).

Erik is a content creation star, and we’ll be hearing his name a lot more because he has that envious talent – he can create a lot of stuff, all of which is insanely good.

How does he do it? Well, in addition to avoiding viewing content as telic, he hones his skills using an approach available to us all.

How to start this behavior: Tinker on side projects

If we want to get stronger and more flexible physically, what do we do? We hit the gym. We go for a run. We do some yoga. We eat right.

What if I told you that we could all get stronger and more flexible creatively? It’s true, by the way. Making is a muscle, and we need to work it out. And the best way to do so is to launch a side project.

Side projects are our creative gyms. They allow us to try new things in a safe space, which can plug directly back into our day jobs. They also allow us to stay well-rounded. In a world where technology seemingly changes our industry from under us about once a year, flexibility and well-roundedness are crucial.

In Erik’s past, he’s tinkered on any number of side projects. These include:

  • Writing and performing Irish music
  • Writing a personal blog about whatever pops to mind
  • Carving driftwood into gifts for friends and family
  • Playing around with Medium and Photoshop to turn aimless thoughts or drawings into beautiful essays or designs

In the end, it’s not the “what” of these that matters. It’s the why.

In the end, every truly creative content marketer has a superpower. What’s yours?

3. Truly creative content marketers have extreme empathy for their audience

Empathy is the ability to understand and share the feelings of others. This is not the same as sympathy, which is about feeling bad for another’s situation. (We need that too, of course – when our audience consumes our competitors’ content. #burn!)

Every great writer, designer, podcaster, videographer, developer, or creator of any kind possesses an extreme sense of empathy. This allows us to do a number of things that most traditional marketing – sans content – never really required, such as consuming the experience the same way your audience will before you launch into the world. You use that awesome trait only humans possess – anticipating and imagining something – to improve your content and ensure that it’s something audiences would enjoy.

Some people call this “taste,” which isn’t a bad way to describe it. There’s absolutely a degree of creative taste that you need to produce good content. In music, if you’re tone-deaf, you might not want to lead a solo of Happy Birthday to nana. If you’re clumsy, it might be a bad idea to try a spin move on the basketball court since it’s more likely to become a trip-and-fall move – or a kick-the-ball-into-a-fan’s-face move. (Oops!)

Taste matters. Talent matters. But if you frame it as empathy, you can both identify and strengthen yours.

Example: Tim Urban, creator of Wait But Why

Tim Urban is a great writer. That much is clear. But at first glance, what’s unclear is how Tim built a massive audience by writing less than once per week. After viral posts like Why Gen-Y Yuppies Are Unhappy and a series of articles informed by one-on-one meetings with the great Elon Musk, Tim has turned his blog into a business, with merchandise, paying subscribers, and even a TED Talk.

Does he hack into some almighty truth of the intertubes? No. He hacks into an almighty truth of the human species: empathy.

Tim loves long-form, text-heavy essays. But not everyone wants to plow through 5,000 words on the Fermi Paradox or why it gets harder to make great friends the older you get.

Tim knows this. He helps us get through these massive articles by using all kinds of illustrations, summaries, footnotes, and even something called blue boxes, which are mini articles and tangents set inside the larger piece that you can easily skip or read later.

Of all those elements, Tim’s illustrations are where his empathy shines through the most. He uses stick figures and frameworks he invents to explain complex issues. For instance, rather than say, “We’re about to enter a period of rapid technological advancement,” he might draw this:


Additionally, if Tim is trying to make you feel something or react a certain way, he’ll use subtle details in his drawing to trigger that reaction, which he can do because, again, he’s seeing his work through your eyes. For example, when he writes about why people procrastinate, he introduces the concept of the rational decision maker in your brain and the procrastination monkey like this:


Note the person first. He appears self-assured and reasonable, smiling and staring straight ahead. The copy reinforces this simple-yet-confident persona.

But then there’s the monkey. He’s saying something negative (“Nope!”), but Tim draws him with a big smile and raised arms. Those little effects ensure that the joke lands. The monkey is positively giddy in telling your brain, “Get something done today? No chance!” In a small drawing with little copy, you instantly get the tone of this little creature – he’s troublesome and he relishes that fact.

Tim’s blog is read by millions, and yet he’s known for publishing less than once per week. And the secret behind it all is Tim’s ability to empathize with his audience and what they’d react to, from initial topic all the way through the tiniest detail of his writing and cartooning.

How to start this behavior: Become your own biggest fan

This sounds weird and maybe even selfish, but you need to constantly consume your own content. I don’t mean “edit” either – though that’s essential to do as well. Instead, ask yourself these questions:

  • Am I LIVING my content or just creating it?
  • Am I talking to CUSTOMERS or just my teammates?

Creating something isn’t about a moment of genius. It’s about informing your work in the reality of your audience. It’s about dozens of small decisions coalescing to form a greater whole. And the greater your empathy for your audience – the more you witness your own work through the same point of view as theirs – the greater the impact of your content.

When you witness your work through the same POV as your audience, the greater #content impact by @jayacunzo Share on X

These behaviors are not about marketing great content. They’re about creating great content.

This is all about how we approach our work. It’s about doing what others would believe to be unthinkable. It’s about the hard stuff, the creative stuff, the stuff that audiences are actually seeking when they consume our work.

If I assigned everyone reading this the same headline and half-baked blog post draft, you would each submit something unique. Why? Because content marketing is a fundamentally human endeavor.

We love agonizing over the marketing part of our work – and that’s important to do. But in a world where our audiences are more in control than ever, and where attention is the most precious resource, we need to dig deeper than simply following the latest tech or trend.

We need to study our process and ensure that this work becomes more intrinsically motivating because that’s what leads to better results. We need to tinker more and operate more like playful children than predictable robots. Side projects help us do that, and they help us get strong enough to withstand whatever the Internet throws our way next. And above all, we need to be the most empathetic people in our organization – right up there or even surpassing product managers and customer success teammates.

These are the behaviors behind truly creative content marketers. And they’re too powerful to ignore any longer.

Looking to take your content marketing to the next level? Download our e-book to get ideas from dozens of creative masters: Get Inspired: 75 (More) Content Marketing Examples.

Cover image by Joseph Kalinowski/Content Marketing World