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How to Use Non-Obvious Thinking to Create Better Content

“We’re in the middle of a believability crisis.”

On the surface, author Rohit Bhargava’s observation in the keynote talk of CMI’s virtual ContentTECH this year doesn’t bode well for content marketing.

After all, to attract and retain an audience, we need people to believe the content we’re creating.

But don’t be discouraged by Rohit’s pronouncement. Instead, get inspired by the deeper meaning uncovered (true to form for the CEO of the Non-Obvious Company) in this crisis and other trends.

Rohit’s done much of the work for you, offering up a “stealable idea” for each trend he shared in the 2018 edition of his best-selling book series Non-Obvious: How to Predict Trends and Win the Future.


Here are three trends (and suggestions for what to do about them) Rohit predicts will have a big impact on content marketing this year and possibly in years to come.

Non-Obvious trend: Manipulated outrage

Media, algorithms, and advertising combine to create a perpetual stream of noise often intended to incite rage and illicit reactionary anger usually shared through social media.

Sometimes outrage is reasonable and justified. Sometimes it’s packaged and sold to generate clicks and views. Cable news, Rohit points out, is having a banner year because it’s selling outrage.

What’s the problem?

“When you think of yourself as a person who is outraged, you don’t give yourself permission not to be outraged because it doesn’t feel like you,” Rohit says.

He shares the example of Steven Crowley, who coped with his baby daughter’s illness by editing her image into a photo series of dangerous situations. When he posted the humorously altered images on social media, he was met by a storm of misplaced fury as people criticized him for endangering his child.

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Steal this idea: Rise above the clickbait

Can you use this outrage trend to improve your content? Rohit thinks it’s possible if you respect it’s there – and move away from it.

Before you go for the easy click prompted by outrage, shock, or fear, remember that those kinds of headlines rarely result in sustained engagement.

To understand why, consider how you feel when you fall for a headline such as “See what (your favorite childhood star) looks like now” or other clickbait ploy. Aren’t you a little embarrassed and possibly annoyed by the 45-page slideshow you wade through to get to the star? You click through a few slides, but as you progress you feel worse and worse about your decision – and turn away quickly.

“We know what this feels like,” Rohit says, “so let’s not go in this direction.”

Instead, he suggests, “put something more positive, useful, and valuable out into the world.”

I came across an example of content that deliberately rises above the ploys in the home design content industry. You’ve probably seen at least one “10 Trends We Hate” or “X Trend Is Officially Dead” article. They are popular and produce engagement – often in the form of heated comments defending or attacking one of the trends. But the negativity wears on the rest of the audience and the content creators. Take a spin through the comments on Apartment Therapy to see plenty of vitriol directed at the site content, content producers, featured design choices, and sometimes other commenters.

Design*Sponge founder Grace Bonney recently countered this trend with a thoughtful essay explaining what she’s learned about why people make the design choices they do, the reasons commonly given for criticizing those choices, and how she’s planning to change her site’s content to counter negativity.

My thoughts and feelings about design, decoration and the general world of creatives have greatly evolved over the years and as I recognize and work to rectify mistakes of my own, it’s making me realize how steeped in judgment so much design writing can be. This includes my own writing (I used to think it was my job to declare something ‘good’ or ‘bad’ and I could not have been more wrong) and it’s something that we are working, as a team, to improve upon and hopefully foster here in discussions on the blog and on social media.

The reaction? A thoughtful, nuanced discussion of design and content – an enjoyable and informative read all the way through the comments.

Non-Obvious trend: Brand stand

Reacting to a polarized media atmosphere, more brands feel compelled either by choice or necessity to take a stand and offer a distinct point of view about the world.

This trend isn’t new — Rohit points to REI, which took a stand against Black Friday consumerism starting in 2015 — but it’s definitely accelerating.

What has changed, Rohit says, is that “what you believe as a company has to be front and center in everything your company does.”

Why? Because people want to know.

A study from Sprout Social finds that most consumers (66%) think it’s important for brands to “take a public stand on social and political issues.”

Steal this idea: Create a reason to believe in your brand

You’re probably all too aware of executives’ skepticism of proposals that require investment but don’t directly lead to sales.

Imagine how they would greet a proposal to take employees out of their day jobs and send them into the community to walk people’s dogs or buy them some ice cream or a tank of gas.

The executives at SoCal Honda Dealers approved it. Rohit says they signed off because no one (wisely) tried to convince them free ice cream would sell cars. They bought into the idea of presenting their dealership staff as helpful members of the community to get more people to think of Honda (and visit Honda showrooms) when they’re ready to look for a car. After that, it’s the sales team’s job to close the deal.

Sure, the Honda dealers could have chosen to spend that money on advertising. But that’s what nearly every other car dealership does. Honda invested in a brand stand of random acts of helpfulness.

Rohit says a brand making a statement like that gives people a reason to believe in the company, a reason to come in and check it out.


Non-Obvious trend: Back-storytelling

Organizations uncover that ­­one of their greatest assets to inspire loyalty from customers and employees alike can come from taking people behind the scenes of their brand and history.

A mainstay of About Us pages and brand videos, origin stories have been hot for a while. Most likely your brand has so many more stories in its history and the potential to tell them in a way that’s unique to your brand voice.

One of Rohit’s favorite examples comes from the Hans Brinker Budget Hotel Amsterdam, which loves to say that it’s been “proudly disappointing travellers for 40 years.”

With a sense of humor consistent across social media and in its signage, the hotel has managed to turn its no-frills nature from a reason to avoid the place into a reason to seek it out.


Steal this idea: Find your meaning, then tell great stories about it

Rohit points to the brand documentary Make Haste Slowly: The Kikkoman Creed, which kicks off with a spectacular origin story, using artful but simple animation to depict the company’s founding by the widow of a Shogun warlord who fled her home with a young son in fear for her life. The 25-minute documentary also traces how the 16 articles established long ago still guide the company today.

I know I won’t look at soy sauce, an inexpensive grocery item, in quite the same way now that I’ve watched the company’s story.

One bonus idea to steal: Curate trends yourself

One of the best ideas to steal is one Rohit openly teaches – how to curate non-obvious ideas yourself.

Content marketers are natural curators, though it can be tough to find the gems that everyone else overlooks. To do that, Rohit recommends you develop five habits:

  1. Be observant. Pay attention to the things most people don’t. (Yes, you must look up from your phone.)
  2. Be curious. Ask more questions, especially about things not in your typical information circles.
  3. Be fickle. Don’t dwell on something. Capture it, process it, and move on to the next idea.
  4. Be thoughtful. Really consider the material you’re curating and come up with your own opinion about it.
  5. Be elegant. Simplify what you share with your audience.

By cultivating these habits, Rohit says, you’ll learn to spot the intersections between ideas. And, because you’ll be using sources others likely miss, you’ll come up with ideas others don’t.

Cover image by Joseph Kalinowski/Content Marketing Institute