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Creative Content: 3 Behaviors Driving Marketers

Editor’s note: You may have missed this article when CMI published it last year. We’re sharing it now because it’s the time of the year when we like to talk cold sweets (and remind you about the qualities needed for 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 – 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!”

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: They make the process the point, not the end results. And as a result, they get better end results.

Too much #contentmarketing goes through the motions. The best find joy in the process, says @JayAcunzo. Share on X

There’s a psychological benefit to that behavior too. (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.

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

Here’s the science behind 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.

The opposite of something intrinsic is “telic.” When an action is telic, it is done for the final results – created for a definite end. When you focus too much on that end result, i.e., when an activity is entirely telic, it becomes something nobody wants to complete and few people do with gusto: a chore.

Here’s the rub, my friend: Marketers have turned content marketing into a telic activity. We want the formula. We want the best practice. We want to skip to the end result as quickly, cheaply, and repeatably as humanly possible.

Another way of saying this: Too much content marketing goes through the motions. But the very best among us find joy in the process. They LOVE creating the stuff, tinkering on their framework for doing so, and testing their process and workflow — just because, just for enjoyment. And this actually yields better end results.

Example: Julie Kim, director of content marketing at Slack

Slack is now the fastest-growing business app EVER. Its internal communication and chat tool has reached near ubiquity, especially among tech-savvy companies. And its content focuses on the content itself, not the results generated from it – and Slack gets better results in the end.

It all started with a focus on tone of voice. Slack is hell-bent on being “clear, concise, and human.” Most organizations in their shoes would focus on the leads or subscribers they wish to generate, or perhaps a self-aggrandizing statement like, “Our aim is to be the industry-leading source for jargon in the jargon-jargon space.”

In other words, Slack knows the right order for this work we do to succeed: Content. Then marketing. (Seriously, it’s called “content marketing,” not “marketing of content.” Sometimes I think we all need a sign in the morning over our beds: “Pants first. Then shoes.”)

One shining example of Slack’s amazing tone of voice is its podcast, Work in Progress, created in partnership with the branded podcast agency Pacific Content. Work in Progress is so good it’s syndicated to satellite radio. Listeners spend 20 or more minutes a week with Slack’s stories. (Remind me again how much we spend to get a few seconds from people’s day with most ads?)

Top to bottom, Slack’s organization knows why they do content: to produce great content. To be clear, concise, and human. To make work meaningful for others. Those are the first principles, the fundamental truths, behind the results they wish to deliver. Syndication to radio and millions of downloads for the show are just signals of success – signs that they’re doing great, INTRINSICALLY motivated work, not telic.

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

Slack is. Are you?

2. Truly creative content marketers view the “quality or quantity” debate as a false, misleading choice – a debate not worth having

At Content Marketing World in 2015, I remember asking about 10 people before my speech whether they preferred to produce high-volume work or high-quality work. Everyone said, “High-quality, of course!”

But one intrepid content marketer named Colin paused. He looked at me and replied simply, “Why not both?”

I swear I almost hugged him. (I’m Italian. That’s my default greeting for other humans …)

I want you to imagine that one content producermarketer or otherwisewho WOWs you with his or her ability to make a TON of things, all incredibly well. 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: Our audiences want a lot of quality content. They don’t want a few things done well. They want EVERYTHING done well, all the time.

Audiences crave things they love. And when they get them, they want more. And more. And more.

Audiences crave things they love. And when they get them, they want more. @JayAcunzo Share on X

I asked a journalist friend once, “Do you write for quality or quantity?” He laughed in my face. “Both,” he said, “or I’m fired.” And the reason he can say that isn’t because he has some kind of superpower. It’s because he has a plan. He knows how to write an article. He knows terminology like lede, hook, and out. As a podcaster, I’ve learned about cold opens and episode rundowns.

In other words, the path toward doing more work at higher quality is the framework of HOW you do your work. You don’t need more budget, time, or team. You need a plan. In the same way that you can describe marketing to someone in terms of funnels and traffic patterns you should be able to describe HOW you write your blog posts. You should be able to teach HOW you create that podcast episode. When structuring your 800 words or 25 minutes, what are the component parts?

You need “content IP” where the “IP” does not stand for “I Produce.” If you can’t teach the creation part, you can’t scale without dumping increasing levels of crap onto the world.

Example: Andrew Davis, keynote speaker

Andrew is one of the most prolific speakers in marketing. Every year, he speaks everywhere from San Francisco to Sweden, to audiences ranging from fire chiefs to chief marketing officers. Andrew is a guy who absolutely has to deliver high-quality speeches and stories every single time he speaks, and he is speaking more and more times each year.

Quality. Quantity. Colliding. Feeling sick yet? Not our friend Mr. Davis, because he has some IP behind his speeches.

Andrew uses something called a “donut,” a term he pulled from his days producing television. A donut, as Andrew once explained to me, is a missing piece of content surrounded by repeatable or predictable content. Drawn as a circle, it resembles a donuta spot you must fill to fill in that circle.

If you’re delivering a speech, you might know the major problem you speak about, but you might have a hole for an illustrative story that you need to customize depending on your audience. After all, the same story that resonates with a group of content marketers might fall flat when presented to HR managers. Your story represents a donut.

Throughout Andrew’s 45-minute keynote talks, he has a handful of these donut holes, which he identifies for a given talk. He can curate stories or interview subjects in various industries. These stories, too, have a series of “beats” (yet another TV termthe moments that make up a good story, or the story style you’d like to tell). A “beat” might be something like, “Introduce me to the person by name and profession,” or, “Show me or tell me where they work and live.” These are the component parts to the story in the way that donut holes are component parts to the overall speech, which contains stories and other moments, like teachable lessons, data, and questions.

With every speech he delivers, Andrew fills in his donut holes with relevant stories.

With every story he researches, Andrew documents the appropriate beats to tell an Andrew-style story.

From a handful of speeches a few years ago, to 50-plus keynote talks last year, plus books, podcasts, blog posts, videos, and moreAndrew is scaling his output like crazy, maintaining quality all the while.

Your problem isn’t the tension between quality and quantityit’s the lack of preparation ahead of time so you never even feel it.

Your problem isn’t the tension between quality & quantity. It’s lack of preparation, says @JayAcunzo. Share on X

3. Truly creative content marketers are voracious consumers of their own material

We talk about “empathy” a lot in marketing. Empathy is the ability to understand and share the feelings of others. (This is not the same as sympathy, which we also need to feelbut only when our audience encounters our competitors! HEYOOO!)

Ahem. As I was saying: empathy! We need it. But it’s not like we’ve taken empathy courses. Nor is our boss sending us an analytics report in a panic because the data shows we’re not empathetic enough.

So how do we actually execute this idea of empathy? How can we understand what our audience will feel and therefore improve our ability to trigger a response?

We need to be our own biggest fans.

Now, a quick disclaimer: I don’t mean you should go home and pin your content marketing to your fridge, although that’s a nice little treat for the kids to stop daydreaming about being a firefighter and set their sights on our noble profession instead.

No, I mean simply this: We have to constantly consume our own work. Not edit it. Not audit it. Consume it.

As a senior in college, I used to mentor younger students who were also English majors. My favorite trick to make others better writers was to ask that they read a section out loud, either to me or softly to themselves. Instantly, you begin to uncover all the flaws or the areas you’d like to improve.

Sure, you’re not the customer. But that shouldn’t stop you from viewing your content through their eyes.

Example: Tim Urban, creator of Wait But Why

Tim Urban is a great writer. He’s built a blog audience of millions by publishing witty, stick-figure-ridden articles about complex topics like the unhappiness caused by using Facebook or the tricky concept of what “you” are. (Your brain? Your body? What IS the self?) Tim has given a TED talk about procrastination and was asked by Elon Musk to write about topics like colonizing Mars or the memory functionality of the human brain.

Tim is an amazing thinker and content creator, that much is clear. And while it’s unclear whether he consumes his own work, my guess is that he eats it up. I think he picks over the bones of an article like a hyena on a gazelle carcass, sucking and gnawing and clawing at every little scrap of the idea. How else would he use the tiniest of details to trigger the biggest of emotions in his readers?

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 uses 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 creaturehe’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.

Want to wield empathy like a weapon? Want your audience responding with passion to your work? Don’t just ship your stuff into the abyss. Consume your own work. Act as your biggest critic. Be your biggest fan.

Content first. Then marketing.

As content marketers, we complain about the noise. But noise is not your problem. Sameness is. And while creativity can free you from making more commodity junk, you misinterpret what it means to be creative. So here’s the truth:

Creating something great doesn’t require a moment of genius. It demands a thoughtful, repeatable process.

Creating something great demands a thoughtful, repeatable process, says @JayAcunzo. #contentmarketing Share on X

Standing out isn’t about being bigger, better, or louder. It’s about being different.

And creativity isn’t a gift you’re given. It’s a work ethic.

So get to work.

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Cover image by Joseph Kalinowski/Content Marketing Institute