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Failure Is Always an Option (and an Opportunity)

Editor’s note: This article debuted in the July issue of the now digital-only Chief Content Officer magazine.

Do you remember your first real content failure? I’m not talking about the time you missed a massive deadline or when you caught that glaring typo in the middle of a big presentation as you were giving it. I’m talking about fall-on-your-face, punch-to-the-gut, ego-crushing failure.

I remember mine.

Confessions of a content failure

My first gut punch of a content failure happened when I was in my late 20s, right after I joined the No. 1 advertising agency in Phoenix.

I adored the company, my co-workers were brilliant, the clients were resume-building brands – I was living my professional dream. That is, until my first solo content project turned into a nightmare.

My first solo #content project turned into a nightmare, says @annabananahrach. Click To Tweet

Before the ink was dry on the scope of work for a new client, an up-and-coming sports equipment manufacturer, I was swept into a kickoff meeting and tasked with writing the new website. I should have walked out of that meeting ecstatic and ready to write. This was an opportunity my fellow writers, especially those with sports writing backgrounds, had been eyeing eagerly. Instead, I felt uneasy. It’s not that I wasn’t grateful, but the extent of my professional sports knowledge at that time involved knowing where the best beer carts were located around Chase Field.

But because I have the tenacity of a honey badger, I was determined to conquer this content project. I went back to my desk, sat down at my keyboard and …


For the first time in my career I had no clue what to write. That blank Word document taunted me with its incessantly blinking cursor. So, I did the only thing I could: I forced the words out, slogging painfully through each page. I turned in the copy and reassured myself this was just round one. Round two would be better.

Sitting in my boss’s office a week later, I’d forgotten all about my writer’s block. We were discussing upcoming projects and my workload when he opened an email from the client. He furrowed his brow. He went completely silent.

The email said a lot of things – none of them good. To this day, the phrase, “sounds like diner menu copy” still stings.

My boss excused me from his office, called the client, and gave the assignment to another writer.

I never got round two.

Fear of talking failure

I tell this story because the only stories marketers usually share with each other are of flawless success. Failure isn’t something our industry likes to embrace or talk about. But we all have stories like this one. We just tend to bury or ignore them, opting to share case studies, client successes, and campaign wins instead.

Failure isn’t something our industry likes to embrace or talk about, says @annabananahrach. #writingtips Click To Tweet

Advertising agencies: You’re not off the hook, either. The constant expectation to generate miracle metrics for every single client can be downright daunting. Combine that with back-to-back project deadlines built on best-case assumptions, and the pressure to perform at 100% all the time can become absolutely exhausting.

It’s as if simply believing every project will run smoothly is enough to prevent failure: “Wait. What do you mean the client is on vacation for the next two weeks? We need their approval tomorrow to stay on track, and they never mentioned vacation when we put the schedule together. And both of our new clients have ‘urgent’ turnarounds now? But our team is already at capacity!”

Don’t get me wrong: The wins we share aren’t lies. There really are many amazing content marketers, agencies, and organizations that have their efforts rewarded with massive success. And we can learn so much from success. Telling those stories isn’t a bad thing at all.

It’s just that, in telling those tales, it’s easy in retrospect to present the pathway to success as straightforward – even obvious. Left out are the trails of mistakes and mix-ups, dead ends and disasters, without which the path to success may have been far less clear.

Be honest: Success without failure is luck. Rather than hiding our marketing missteps, we should learn to embrace them because more than a few content wins come from our ability to fail well.

Success without failure is luck, says @annabananahrach. #contentmarketing Click To Tweet

Truth about failing

Why should we talk more about our content failures? Aside from anecdotes and stories locked away in our own vaults, we can look to Content Marketing Institute’s annual Benchmarks, Budgets, and Trends surveys.

Every year, these reports are packed with amazing bits of data and valuable insights, including some clear signs that, despite the success stories, many content marketers are struggling.

Here’s a quick TL;DR of the 2019 B2B North America edition of the report (although almost all editions include similar findings):

  • Success isn’t the norm: A startling 4% of survey respondents said they would rate their content marketing efforts as “extremely successful,” and only 23% would say “very successful.”
Only 4% say their B2B #contentmarketing efforts are extremely successful. @CMIContent #research Click To Tweet
  • Strategy is not a focus: Just 39% of respondents said they have a documented content strategy. This, above all else, absolutely makes my content-loving heart break.

Digging deeper into the report, it’s clear more companies are doing more content marketing than ever before. They’re throwing more money at content than ever before. But what they’re doing isn’t really working like they hoped – which may be because far too many don’t have a plan for what they’re doing – or fully understand why.

This is why we need to talk honestly and constructively about our content failures.

We need to talk honestly & constructively about our #content failures, says @annabananahrach. #contentmarketing Click To Tweet

Reframing failure

At this point, I could start throwing around lofty inspirational quotes from über successful writers and business leaders, describing failure as a speed bump on the highway to success … or whatever. Instead, let’s try a different approach.

To begin with, we can all agree that failure sucks. It’s flat-out awful. It leaves us feeling worthless, useless, and all the other -less words you can think of, too. But, while failure is inevitable, framed correctly it’s also a tool. For example:

Failure framed correctly is a tool, says @annabananahrach. Click To Tweet
  • A/B testing: Whenever we split campaigns, test different headlines, or swap sets of body copy, a clear outcome can be seen; one test wins, while the other fails. In this instance, knowing what doesn’t work is just as important as knowing what does.
  • Post-mortem meetings: After any big content project, website launch, or campaign, a post-mortem meeting should be held. This is when teams can get together to talk about what went well and, more importantly, what didn’t. Knowing which processes need to be fixed or what led the project astray creates a better, stronger, more stable foundation for the next project.
  • Content metrics: We tend to focus on top-performing content, looking for characteristics to replicate and scale up. But what about all the blogs and articles people aren’t reading? Instead of treating content failures as unworthy of deeper analysis, digging a little deeper can reveal equally valuable insights: which topics to publish less, which publishing times to avoid, which tactics need revising. Knowing what not to do can make editorial calendars more successful in the long run.
  • Personal mistakes and missteps: Ever sent a piece of content out for approval with a mortifying typo? What about that huge mistake in the presentation? Or maybe a campaign pointed to the wrong URL? How many times did those scenarios happen again? The answer should be “zero.” Rather than letting them shake your confidence and questioning your ability, acknowledging and acting on your mistakes can give you greater certainty next time. There’s a word for this: “experience.”

Failure doesn’t have to be a black-or-white, good-or-bad result. It can be both. And reframing failure isn’t a hall pass for sloppy work or letting epic mistakes slide, either. Instead of something to fear or deny, failure should be seen as a way to become more informed, leading to better decisions for the future.

HANDPICKED RELATED CONTENT: So Your Content Failed. Now What?

Removing the fear

To reframe what failure looks like – setting ourselves and our teams up to fail in all the right ways – we must first remove the fear:

  1. Lead by example: While mistakes and failures aren’t something that should necessarily be encouraged, acknowledge that they happen. Show people that failures and mistakes shouldn’t be hidden but, in many cases, shared and learned from. Otherwise, you’re creating a culture of fear. But it may not be enough to tell your teams, “It’s OK to fail.” We know that the Wizard of Oz approach to content failure – “pay no attention to what’s happening behind the curtain” – doesn’t work. If you really want to help your teams recover faster and learn from failure, start being open and honest about your own mistakes and failures, and they’ll start doing the same for their own. Unfortunately, this is something that companies and agencies often struggle with the most.
  2. Expect to fail: When has work or life ever gone according to plan A? Or even plan B, C, or D for that matter? If we expect nothing less than perfection and amazing results, we’re in for a world of hurt. What if the content doesn’t bring in leads? What if the campaign doesn’t show success? What if we need more than two hours to write a 1,500-word blog post? Don’t chalk it up to a total wash. Learn from the results and move forward armed with better data and information than before.
  3. Hire the right people for the right job: Avoid setting people up for failure from the start. All content creators and content marketers are not created equal. The background of each writer directly influences the type of content created, and the same goes for content marketers. Make sure you find the right content creator for what you’re trying to accomplish. For example, maybe a writer who cares more about what beers are on tap than which team is at bat at a baseball game shouldn’t create content for a sports equipment manufacturer when there are other, more experienced writers better suited for the job. Don’t set your writers, content marketers, or even yourself up for a “diner menu copy” situation.

When all else fails …

… there’s nothing left to do but laugh.

Like that one time I copied and pasted a typo. It happened to be “Virginia” misspelled in the worst way possible.

65 times.

And it was only caught after I sent it to the client.

Read more from the latest issue of Chief Content Officer magazine here. And subscribe to the now digital-only magazine to receive future issues in your inbox.

 Cover image by Joseph Kalinowski/Content Marketing Institute