The Dark Side of Content Marketing

I don't consider myself a very good content marketer. The number of people I know of that can consistently and frequently produce amazing content on a calendar is pretty small, and I'm not going to risk offense by naming anyone here, so I'll leave it at this--if you don't think this applies to you, then it doesn't. Fair enough?

Content marketing is an enormously powerful tool, and it can be used for good and for evil. The recent fall from grace of noted author Jonah Lehrer is a useful cautionary tale for the latter. Lehrer, author of How We Decide and the pulled-from-the-shelves Imagine: How Creativity Works, has become something of a pariah, but a recent, superb piece in New York Magazine makes the point that all Lehrer did by plagiarizing himself and others, and by making up "evidence" out of whole cloth was, essentially, what was asked of him by "the system."

I do not excuse this, and "I was just doing what I was expected/told to do" has often been offered as a thin excuse for far greater crimes than Lehrer has committed or is even capable of committing. It is, in fact, a terrible excuse, and the first refuge of those that need to justify reprehensible or questionable behavior. And, let's be clear--Jonah Lehrer himself has never proffered this excuse, though the writer of this (superb) piece has dangled it as a tantalizing possibility. But this article, too, is content marketing.

So is this blog post.

I've given a number of talks over the past year or so disparaging a brand of "research" that we often see in social media--data provided for the purposes of content marketing. Some infographics fall into this category, as do studies that aggregate social media data to give you the "right" way to tweet. They aren't designed to help you--not really. These things have nearly no applicability to your specific situation or your business. They are designed to get you to click on them. To sign up for a white paper. To register for a webinar. To make you, in other words, a lead.

You know this, surely. But even knowing this, we often fail to close the circle here--that data produced for the purposes of content marketing is inherently incurious. As I've often written here and elsewhere, "incurious" is as vulgar a word in my business as I can possibly muster. It's the professional researcher's equivalent of the F-Bomb.

But we thirst for content. The social web is, in fact, a vast, insatiable mill for content. Providing content has become a viable career, and I do not disparage this. But the dark side of this is that the content marketer is often mistaken for an expert in the field in which he or she is creating content. In the case of Jonah Lehrer, he was riding on the coattails of absolutely the most influential thinker in my professional life and career, Nobel Laureate Daniel Kahneman. My entire post-MBA career has been spent studying Kahneman's work and his insights into consumer behavior and behavioral economics.

Kanheman's work has been translated, popularized, and extended by a wide variety of writers, ranging from Dubner and Levitt (Freakonomics), to Barry Schwartz (The Paradox of Choice) to Daniel Ariely (Predictability Irrational.) Jonah Lehrer's How We Decide also built upon Kahneman's work, but there is a crucial distinction here. Lehrer was a smart guy--I'm not belittling his intellect--but he was at heart a content marketer, not a scientist. Otherwise, he would have been a scientist, no? He popularized the insights of researchers like Kahneman, translating them for laypeople and finding the anecdotes and case studies that would entrance and captivate readers, but he did not extend those findings--he moved on to the next topic, the next book, the inevitable Ted talk and speaking circuit to which that grants one access.

I don't judge him. I cannot judge him (hell, I'd love to have a Ted talk.) But whether you see Lehrer as a James Frey-esque congenital liar or as a victim caught up in the trope of the writer-as-expert (as opposed to the expert writer), the fact remains that Lehrer became popular. He delivered what we, the buying public, wanted. He was hardly a scientist. But thousands believed he was a scientist, because he wrote like a scientist. He fed the content mill, and he did it very effectively.

The tale of Jonah Lehrer, whose career as a content marketer appears to be effectively over, is a cautionary tale, and it applies to pretty much all of us who do exactly what it is I am trying to do here--market myself as a thought leader/thinker/consultant by dint of a few blog posts. And I take that cautionary tale to heart, both as a creator and as a consumer of information. With that in mind, here are three things I take away from the story of Jonah Lehrer:

1. The content beast, though oft-fed, is insatiable. You are only as good as your next book, your next blog post, or your last talk. I don't write very often here or at Brandsavant, as this has long been a trap that I have resisted. For every blog post I publish, there are five or six others that never see the light of day, because they just aren't good enough. I only publish what I am proud of, and for that reason this space sometimes can lie fallow for weeks at a time. I'm ok with that. You, of course, need to find your own way, and you may be eminently capable of producing quality content more frequently than I.

But, if you cannot, the surest way to fall into the Lehrer trap is to write to a schedule, and not in the service of ideas. The tyranny of the content calendar is responsible for a lot of weak content on the web. Keeping up that pace out of deference to some kind of received wisdom about publishing frequency may not by default lead you to the kind of intellectual dishonesty of which Lehrer was guilty, but it does place stress on the system, as it were. My Brandsavant blog became much more important to me when it became a showcase for my best thought, and when it became important to me it became a better blog. At least, that's my hallucination.

2. There are experts about things, and there are people who can write about things. Those that can do both exceptionally well are exceedingly rare. I have enormous respect for writers like Brian Greene, who can not only translate science for laymen, but also do the science. That's a gift. A rare gift, as it turns out. We should celebrate those that have it, but also acknowledge that rarity.

Today, we see a lot of very gifted writers blogging about trends in social media and business, and we cannot help but be influenced by that writing and those thinkers. But we also have to acknowledge the fact that the folks doing the work and the folks writing well about the work are rarely the same people. Jonah Lehrer is a gifted writer. But, as a behavioral economist, he's a gifted writer. Our ability to share our content on the web, especially on social media, is wonderful and has presented me with opportunities that I never dreamed of 5 years ago. But the ability to disseminate content should never be mistaken for skills as a scientist, sociologist, human resources professional, operations manager or any number of disciplines that require actually doing the thing.

To that end, allow me to suggest that the best way to mitigate this phenomenon is to be sure and augment your reading/follow list/Google+ circles with the voices of the not-so-popular, the contrarians and the practitioners of the disciplines we follow. We are bombarded with content marketing that invokes psychology, organizational behavior, leadership principles, change management and corporate culture. Yet, very few of the popular voices who talk about how social media has transformed business have much actual expertise in areas outside of marketing and PR.

I do not denigrate those voices--far from it. I often range far afield of my own educational background and experience in my writing--but do be sure to balance those voices by seeking out HR specialists, psychologists, management consultants and CEO's who, though they may not have the platforms held by some popular bloggers, have just as much if not more to say about how social has transformed business as anyone.

I do not fault those who produce content in those areas--again, the system almosts demands it--but that very same system requires that we start holding content marketing to a higher standard.

3. Finally, the great crime of writers such as Lehrer (and one of my least favorite popular writers, Malcolm Gladwell) is this: they confuse information and evidence. I still believe that this post, on the difference between the two, is one of the best things I've written, and it is certainly the one that best sums up my personal approach to my job.

What writers like Lehrer, Gladwell and any number of currently popular business writers do is this: they start with the insight, and then seek out data to prove it. Lehrer certainly did this: he began with an idea, and then (as the writer of the excellent New York piece linked above noted) sought out the data required to serve as the scaffolding of that idea. There is a saying in my business: the plural of anecdote is not data. And while some popular "data-driven" writers and bloggers often have compelling anecdotes to illustrate their beliefs, those insights were not data-driven.

Anyone can cherry pick anecdotes in the service of an idea--Gladwell's "10,000 hours to mastery" myth is a prime example--but that doesn't mean that those insights actually came from data. And when we start with the idea, and then look for the data, then we no longer treat facts as information. We treat them as evidence; discarding that which does not support our idea, and elevating that which does. And this is one of the greatest crimes committed by some of the worst content marketing that I see on the social web.

And if you are using any of this content marketing to support business decisions, then it isn't a victimless crime.

Still, content marketing runs the gamut from helpful to innocuous to potentially harmful. How can we seek the light, and eschew the dark side? Well, as my lovely wife Tamsen reminds me, there is a simple trick to dealing with the geyser of information being spewed daily by Twitter, Facebook, blog posts and other content outlets: always seek to disconfirm, or, as I mentioned to Jay Baer in his excellent post here, don't seek to prove yourself right, prove yourself wrong.

That doesn't mean being a critic, or even a cynic. And it doesn't necessarily mean taking what we read in content marketing with a grain of salt, as it were. Instead, it means that what we read might be true--in fact, we can even hope that it is true--but our first obligation is not to believe it. Our first obligation is to wonder. When we are confronted with a new piece of data, or some new prescriptive article about the best way to use social media, the enlightened reader wonders if it is actually true and applicable to their situation, and then seeks to disprove it.

This has nothing to do with doubt and everything to do with confirmation bias. If you cannot disprove a thing after putting it to the test for your specific situation, then you have a genuine insight. But if you can readily disprove it, then you know to keep looking. And I don't know about you, but I keep looking, each and every day.

So, I have a love-hate relationship with content marketing. I acknowledge it. I use it. I embrace it. But I also recognize that that there is a truly dark side indeed to content marketing. What say you?

18 responses
Bravo, Tom. I could not agree more.

My initial desire to become a journalist was to become a science reporter, as there are few with the grounding and the gift for explaining. There's a huge gulf between explaining the known in an enlightening manner and glossing over the unknown with candied prose designed to transition the reader to the desired conclusion.

I'm glad you brought up infographics. I've made people visibly angry while whittling their precious works of Stat Art to nothing, merely by questioning premises and methodology. We've got enough problems with visualizations that should never have been visualized -- we don't need 3D pie charts from the Excel Smart Art Factory from people who can't define selection bias, standard deviation, or the difference between mean and median.

You are a damn fine human, Ike. Explaining the the complex for laypeople is an enormous gift, and infographics are a part of that, for sure. It's a poor potter who blames the clay, and demonizing infographics as a medium is not helpful. It's the crap use of them, given their ease of dissemination, that has done such violence to the truth.

You keep comin' back now.

The thirst for those who teach or work as content creators are always aware that they must continue to create on a regular basis. Creators create, consumers consume. I believe they do so out of fear that if they stop or pause the creation, if they take the route to create genuine content to be proud of that consumers might disappear far before they accomplish their goal.

The better path I believe is yours (and mine, though not nearly so elegant as you). I want to create something that I know is valuable, something that my heart is in, and share that with people.

Wondering, questioning, applying theories to each unique situation allows us to come away from that piece of information that will in one way or another teach us something. Which allows us to make new discoveries for ourselves and perhaps teach them to others if we are ever so lucky.

Tom - I will readily cop to having used statistics rhetorically or, as you would have it, evidentionarily (?), in order to make a specific point, regardless of the methodological integrity of said statistics (though, to be fair to myself and my audience, if the source seems inherently biased, I will point it out in the spirit of caveat lector and CYA).

I will also admit that my unshakeable gullibility generally drives me to side with an author, accepting his or her arguments if they seem reasonable, rather than viewing them critically from the outset. Thus, I could and did interview Lehrer without raising any questions about his claims, asking him instead to explain them. More fool, me.

However, on a niggling point, I must point out that, for good or ill, Lehrer was in fact trained as a scientist (or a "neuroscientist" anyway) at Columbia. At least that's what the web tells me!

...And I studied geology as an undergrad. :)
Tom, thanks for permission to write well and when it is important instead of on a schedule. My guilt balloon just deflated and landed in the bin where it belongs. Also, this post shed a new light on a recent blog series I published and my own bias. Course corrected.
But, to your point, I also find myself siding with the author--after all, I bought or made the commitment to read their book, so there is a selection bias already inherent. It's OK to believe, and indeed, to want to believe. We all--and I put myself foremost here--simply need to do the work to determine whether or not the author's thesis is actually applicable to us or not. And that requires an effort to *disprove*, not to prove. We can always find evidence to prove what we want to prove.

And yes, Lehrer has an undergrad science background, and a gift for explaining the complex. I do not denigrate him for leaving the sciences to pursue that noble goal. But leave science--and the scientific method--he did. You are no fool, Matt, and I bought How We Decide, and enjoyed it immensely. It's a complex issue, and I'm not sure there is a "side" to take here.

Thanks for reading.

Some people I know can write both well AND on a schedule. It's a real gift. My friend Jay Baer has it, but I also know that this "gift" is really a result of the priority he places on quality content marketing. But I've never been a frequent or even regular blog poster. That doesn't mean I don't write a lot.
Chel-thanks so much for your thoughtful comment. I hope that nothing I have written here stifles content creation. God knows I stifle my own just fine. But my response to ANY new study/research/content marketing finding is to question whether or not it is actually applicable and relevant to me. The best content is--but content, in and of itself, is not, until I hold it to the candle of reason.
Tom,

You sir, are brilliant. I share a lust of knowledge and try to learn as much as I can because I believe it impacts content that I, as a marketer, develop and manage. But it's being aware of those variables that is important. I also don't post as much as I "supposed" to or along with the others feel compelled to. My question is how do you create so much content? How are you doing work for your clients?

I would rather create posts that makes one think or start a conversation by writing occasionally than just putting out content that is adding noise to the already din that is part of our lives nowadays.

I get irritated at myself sometimes because I don't seem to fall in love as easily with "popular" authors as I should, fiction OR nonfiction. Everyone dives into JK Rowling's fantasy universe full of spells and striped scarves, and I stand at the edges and mumble something about overwrought prose. Everyone burrows like avid, brain-hunting squirrels into Malcom Gladwell's prodigious curls/words, and I squint a bit at what I perceive as a shiny, modern cocktail shaker full of reductionist theory and bombast.

In fact, I look at what I just typed and think, WHY CAN'T YOU BE NORMAL ABOUT STUFF?

(I have a Justin Bieber song on my iPhone and I love McNuggets, so I know for a fact it's not intellectual snobbery... just my own randomly selective cultural absorption.)

And I feel that same way about half of what I read online, too -- especially the writing writers do in the service of "content marketing." You can sniff it out by the topic, the structure, the title, the amount of time between when the piece before was written and when the piece after arrives... and I want MORE.

I want people to write when they have something to say, and they've put the work into backing up their arguments and offering something new on a topic.

I also want people to write for fun sometimes, about nothing anyone is Googling, and about things that will do little to build their reputation or expertise as anything but an interesting person... or a goofball.

But I write for clients who need content to fill up their marketing calendar, too. I like to think I do it pretty well, even when I'm not totally versed on a given topic and have to do some scrounging to find something salient to say. I'm absolutely doing what you're calling into question here. And I should be thankful for it -- it pays the bills.

But there's a reason my personal blog goes absolutely dead for months at a time, and why half the posts are completely ridiculous when I do update it. I'd kind of rather say nothing (or something amounting to nothing) than pretend at being valuable... before I've come up with anything actually valuable or different or bright to say.

Tom Webster / Brand Savant for TedTalks 2013!!!
My writing "career" started as a journalist, it is what I originally went to college for. I loved the investigative work, the responsibility of seeing and understanding bias in others and in myself.

Though not a scientist by practice, I am by nature. Following the evidence, the data, without bias to your own belief and insight is certainly not an easy thing. Your message on seeking to disprove rather than prove is a welcome reminder on how to stay on the right path. Data without context is dangerous enough. Data without unbiased context even more so?

Careful Tom, writing like this is akin to running naked all week at Burning Man, in some marketing circles. We are awash in content, and most of it has simply degraded to something that in my gut feels like the great blast furnaces of the early 20th century American steel factories. And to make things worse, we have to contend with the oft misplaced notion of storytelling as savior in modern marketing. Meanwhile, companies can't even accommodate the most basic of human pleasantries, like listening, responding, saying please, and thank you, and really meaning it. Not in words, but actions. We have this incredible opportunity with the advent of all things social, and marketers still cringe at the thought of actually having adult conversations with customers. You may consider yourself a bit of a contrarian, but believe me when I say that it is a badge of honor.
Thanks, Marty! I don't know that I'm much of a contrarian, really. But I am a skeptic. And I'll turn that skepticism right back towards me before I'll examine the motives of others. I hope I'm not just feeding the blast furnace. Thanks for your considered comment. 
Great post, thanks for believing in it and publishing this one.

An Australian friend had a great analogy that I think fits with the state of content marketing. His take, that there's too much filler vegetables in marketing overall. When you order your takeaway meal and there's loads of cabbage and little meat in your spring roles, or extra potatoes in your curry, or a plate of nachos with a teaspoon of salsa.

There are far to many things that add no flavor - just bulk.

This, is all taste!

Tom brilliant post in the face of a content deluge.It is one of the reasons I am such a strong advocate for thought leading content and preferably thought leadership that delivers new insights, sparks disagreement, re-frames a debate or long-held belief, challenges the status quo and forces us all to think differently, to shift our shemas.

That to me is content nirvana.

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