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Why BuzzFeed Shouldn’t Blow Your Marketing Mind


“Roll up! Roll up! Ladies and gentlemen, prepare to be amazed! In this tent is something truly horrifying. Gentlemen will shudder. Ladies will swoon. Children will scream. Can you bear to look upon these monstrous freaks? Enter … if you dare!”

We all know the game by now. Carnival barkers use showmanship and staggering levels of hyperbole to make passers-by so curious that they just have to give a coin to find out what is beyond the gaudily painted tarpaulin. The disappointment they usually experience inside the tent is almost expected, but that’s part of the fun. There’s an unspoken agreement to play along. After all, it doesn’t cost too much, probably only lasts a few minutes and – importantly – they go to the carnival in search of exactly this kind of cheesy thrill.

But I challenge any business to look at the carnival as a lesson in how to attract more customers into a high-street store.

Which kind of marketer are you? Take the short quiz.

It’s easy to see the huge success of content sites like BuzzFeed and Upworthy, and look to them for lessons on how we can drive more traffic from social. Easy, but wrong.

BuzzFeed, Upworthy, and others like them use social media like a boss, with extremely clickable headlines. No argument. But they have business models that rely on traffic, not sales. It’s still the same old advertising model based on impressions and clicks, optimized for a world increasingly dominated by social media.

That’s not a bad model. I’m not criticizing. It works and works well.

However, content marketers need to do far more than just persuade people to click. Traffic from social media only gets the reader to your content. After that, your content still has to be persuasive enough to achieve your broader marketing goals. The success of your strategy relies on the content being informative, memorable, and persuasive enough to convince the reader to do something else. Otherwise, what’s the point?

Excuse my soapbox for a moment, but if the primary goal of your content is better SEO, then you’re an SEO practitioner, not a content marketer. If the primary goal of your content is to have something to put in your email newsletter, then you’re an email marketer, not a content marketer. And if the primary goal of your content is to attract more social media traffic, then you’re a social media marketer, not a content marketer.

Of course, content marketers should still care about SEO, email, and social. But if you’re a content marketer, your content goals come first and everything else follows. The clue is in the name.

You’ll never guess what happened next!

The “Buzzworthy” approach to social media relies on generating what has been termed a “curiosity gap”. Give as little away as possible while teasing maximum interest.

The theory is that if your headline is too specific or the description contains too much information, people won’t feel the need to click to find out more.

Stuff the curiosity gap. Let me be very clear about this. If you really think you can give too much away in 140 characters (including link) to make the content itself redundant, then you probably need to rethink the depth and substance of your content.

Your content is far more than a fluffy distraction. You don’t want to attract readers who are merely curious to find out what you’re about. You want to attract an audience with an interest in your chosen topic area that cannot be sated in 10 words or less. Otherwise, your content marketing strategy is targeting the wrong people with the wrong content.

Five steps to promoting content in social. (No. 3 will shock you!)

What should your social media updates include? How should you promote your content in social?

STEP 1: Start with a fantastic piece of original, relevant and useful content. Well duh, right? But I feel it needs to be said (and repeated) because I still see so many marketers skipping this step in favor of cheap ploys to gather more likes, followers, and clicks without providing anything of real substance.

STEP 2: Describe the content in highly descriptive and relevant terms, particularly if the title itself doesn’t make it clear. “Five Ways to Boost Your Business” is far too vague.

STEP 3: If space allows, add a little context. Avoid generic, cut-and-paste phrases such as “Here’s our latest post” or “This week’s edition of the Brand X newsletter is out.” These are wasted characters that could be used far more effectively. I write every update from scratch so it always feels spontaneous, fresh, and relevant.

STEP 4: Choose the right hashtags. I would recommend sticking with only one or two, researching them beforehand to make sure they’re appropriate and capable of reaching the right audience. More than two? Mix it up in future updates.

STEP 5: This should be a no-brainer, but add an image. Oh, and make sure the image is worth adding. That cheesy stock photo or clichéd vector graphic implies your content may be equally unremarkable. Your choice of image is another way to indicate relevance or topic, so choose descriptive imagery and don’t get too abstract. Our brains read images far faster than words so make the right impression in those crucial split seconds.

OK, so No. 3 probably didn’t shock you. (Did you really think it would?) But then again, I hope my content is a bit more valuable, memorable, and worthwhile than a carnival sideshow. If you start with great content, the right people will find their way into your tent.

This article originally appeared in the June issue of Chief Content Officer. Sign up to receive your free subscription to our bi-monthly print magazine.

Cover image by Joseph Kalinowski/Content Marketing Institute