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4 Mental Models to Help You Tackle Tough Content Marketing Questions

You probably know the value of content marketing compounds over time. But did you realize that compounding is a mental model?

Mental models are frameworks that help people interpret how things work in the world. Having a set of mental models can help you work through problems in new ways.

Next time you feel stuck when it comes to decisions about your content marketing program, work it through using one or more of these mental models. You’ll find fresh ways to consider the problems and possible solutions – and arrive at decisions with confidence.

A map is not the territory

Scientist and philosopher Alfred Korzybski introduced this idea in a 1931 paper. I like this explanation from Shane Parrish, author of The Great Mental Models, who sums up the concept this way:

… (I)n our march to simplify reality with useful models … we confuse the models with reality. For many people, the model creates its own reality. It is as if the spreadsheet comes to life. We forget that reality is a lot messier. The map isn’t the territory. The theory isn’t what it describes, it’s simply a way we choose to interpret a certain set of information.

How to apply the model to content marketing

Let’s say your content isn’t resonating with the people you’d hoped to attract and engage. To address the problem, check your map (or maps). One place to start is the map you’ve made of the audience you want – in other words, your buyer or audience personas.

Just as maps are not the territory, personas are not people – they’re just sketches of a cluster of characteristics of people in your target audience. They generalize your desired (or real) audience’s goals and behaviors.

A map is not the territory. Use this mental model to remember #ContentMarketing personas are only representations – don’t be led astray, says @chintanzalani via @CMIContent. Click To Tweet

If your content isn’t resonating, think about the ways your representation may be inaccurate. Here are some places to start exploring:

  • Are your personas too broad? Overly broad personas won’t provide a detailed enough map to guide your decisions.
  • Are they built on too many assumptions? Since buyer personas are fictitious, marketers tend to make assumptions while creating them. Ask whether the pain points and other details in your personas come from accurate, up-to-date information – or someone’s best guesses.
  • Are they outdated or built on stereotypes? Check your personas for stereotypical Ask whether the details you’ve included are characteristics relevant to the buying process.

The solution to each of these problems is to talk to existing audience members and customers regularly so you can keep up with changes in their needs and concerns. Then refine your personas based on what you learn from your investigations. Your map (persona) still won’t be your territory (audience), but your new understanding of the context of the territory will help you make decisions about where to go based on better information.

Try these resources to learn more about developing and updating personas:

Second-order thinking

Howard Marks explains second-order thinking in his book, The Most Important Thing Illuminated:

First-level thinking is simplistic and superficial, and just about everyone can do it (a bad sign for anything involving an attempt at superiority). All the first-level thinker needs is an opinion about the future, as in “The outlook for the company is favorable, meaning the stock will go up.” Second-level thinking is deep, complex, and convoluted.

How to apply the model to content marketing

Second-order thinking can help you differentiate your content from your competitors and produce better results for your business. It prompts you to look beyond the obvious to come up with better answers.

Here are some common content marketing considerations and the paths you may arrive at through first-order thinking compared with second-order thinking.

Let’s say you want to generate a consistent stream of leads and qualified traffic to your website.

First-order thinking: Go after keywords with high search volume.

Second-order thinking: Prioritize topics that are relevant to your audience and your business goals. Find your audience’s pain points, then research which terms they use when searching.

Here’s another example. Let’s say you want to build backlinks to improve the authority of your website.

First-order thinking: Send a gazillion outreach emails based on templates shared by an SEO consultant.

Second-order thinking: Focus on creating something people want to link to, like thought leadership content that shares an opinion, original research, or other kinds of content that naturally attract links. Make sure the content reaches your target audience by following a solid distribution plan. Aim to generate a conversation in your industry and understand that links come as a byproduct of useful content. Your domain or page authority will take care of itself.

Try these articles to help you approach your content marketing with deep and nuanced thinking:

Look past the easy answers to #ContentMarketing challenges. Second-order thinking takes you beyond the obvious to come up with better answers, says @chintanzalani via @CMIContent. Click To Tweet

First principles

First-principles thinking calls for reducing a proposition to its most basic assumption, one that doesn’t rely on any other assumptions. Though its roots trace back to Aristotle, the strategy is also embraced by entrepreneur Elon Musk.

Here’s how marketing speaker, writer, and showrunner Jay Acunzo explains it:

First principles are best principles and best principles are simply more important best practices.

How to apply the model to content marketing

Break your brand story down to the most fundamental truths to find creative content and messaging ideas.

Jay points to the creative marketing for Poo-Pourri, which derives from first-principle thinking that got down to the guts of the problem people buy bathroom sprays to address. As the company’s viral video (with over 43 million views) puts it: “How do you make the world believe that your poop doesn’t stink. Or, in fact, that you never poop at all?”

Read more examples of first principles applied to content marketing in Jay’s article Fundamentals Are Essential for Content Success.

Break your brand story down to first principles –the most fundamental truths – to find creative #ContentMarketing ideas, says @chintanzalani via @CMIContent. Click To Tweet

Activation energy

Borrowed from the scientific discipline of chemistry, the activation energy mental model helps you understand the minimum  energy needed to start a reaction. One way to think of it is as the threshold that the composite elements need to cross to initiate a reaction and convert into final products.

How to apply the model to content marketing

CMI Founder Joe Pulizzi has said it takes 12 to 18 months for content marketing to start showing results from content marketing. When you set up your program, make sure everyone – especially stakeholders who control the budget – understands the activation energy it’ll take to make anything happen.

You can also use the activation-energy model to think about SEO.

Getting content to rank well with search engines can be a long process. Ahrefs set out to find out how long by studying the top10 ten search results for more than 2 million keywords. The study found that most pages that rank in the top 10 Google search results are three or more years old.

According to a study by @ahrefs, most pages that rank in the top 10 @Google search results are three or more years old, says @chintanzalani via @CMIContent. #SEO Click To Tweet

Does that mean you have to wait three years to see any results from your SEO efforts?

Not necessarily.

In a chemical reaction, you can lower the activation energy required by using a catalyst.

With SEO, backlinks can act as a catalyst that makes your content rank higher sooner.

In content marketing, the catalyst could be buying an existing media property. You’ll achieve the activation energy threshold necessary to produce results more quickly by buying a media property with an existing audience instead of trying to build both a new content platform and an audience from scratch.

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Tools for thought

Blind spots and assumptions might make your content marketing astray, but you can train your brain to leverage mental models as thinking tools. Start with the ones I shared in this article. As you get more comfortable with this set, you can integrate other mental models that make sense to your work.

What kind of mental models do you use to work through content marketing challenges? Let me know in the comments.

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 Cover image by Joseph Kalinowski/Content Marketing Institute