Three Content Marketing Buzzwords That Need to be Put in Their Place

Storytelling, Authenticity, and Transparency: Unscrambling the Buzzword Buzz

December 7, 2015

Content Marketing Buzzword

Ask practically anyone and they’ll tell you the trick to great content marketing is ___________ (insert trendy catchword here). Storytelling, Authenticity, and Transparency are the three darlings right now. Don’t get me wrong. These words show up everywhere because the concepts they represent are powerful tools that can strengthen relationships at every stage of the buyer's journey. But used at a superficial level, you might as well aim that hammer right at your thumb. Let’s look at how to transcend the jargon.

“Storytelling” is about moments, not elements.

Storytelling is hard. There’s all that “essential elements” business – involved discussions about “showing versus telling,” “narrative building blocks,” and so forth. It’s easy to get overwhelmed, but for many marketers, the stress and strain is really unnecessary.

When you think of storytelling, don’t go automatically to the Chipotles and Visas of the world for inspiration. They do a tremendous job of telling stories about their brands, but they also have huge budgets to support those efforts. That may be you, but if it’s not … go ahead and step out of the storytelling storyline for a moment.

Consider this: What really matters to your audience? Often, it’s not the big, grandiose narratives that make people sit up and take notice – it’s the tiny anecdotes: The pithy, behind-the-scenes photo. The down-and-dirty how-to video. A moment they can connect to.

Think of it this way. If you write an autobiography, you’re pretty much one and done. (If you want to add to it or revise it later on, maybe you could commission an “unauthorized” version.) If you write a memoir about a part of your life, however, you can do as many versions as you like.

That's where I think storytelling is heading for today’s marketers. Many of us have to move too quickly to get through an entire “story.” By the time we’ve pulled off our magnum opus, the point is old news. The customer has moved on. Instead, keep the focus single-pointedly on that customer. What does he or she need now? And now? And now?

When you understand, at a gut level, what makes your customers get up in the morning and lie awake at night, then you know what they need in the moment. Instead of thinking in terms of some meandering tra la la down storytelling lane, focus on the lessons learned. The ah-ha insight. The tagline that gets to the crux of the customer’s story in three words or less.

“Authenticity” is about relationships, not products.

You hear it in every industry. “Authentic Travel.” “Authentic Leadership.” Even the “Art of Authenticity,” as though being real is some secret formula for success. Sure, honesty leads to credibility, which leads to brand trust (and the ankle bone connects to the shin bone, so tell me something every grade school kid doesn’t already know). At this level, the advice to be authentic seems aimed at hacks because it assumes marketers lack integrity and need to be told not to lie.

Honesty by itself, however, is not the be-all, end-all method for building relationships. Take one look at the Dalai Lama’s honest opinion about a possible female Dalai Lama, and you’ll know why. And yet the accusations of sexism are already dissipating because he’s got a track record of being epically, profoundly likeable.

Authenticity is about relationship. Building trust. Confronting hard issues or customer complaints directly, instead of dodging them. Prudential’s “Bring Your Challenges” campaign, for example, takes on the very real fact that saving for retirement is hard, and builds an engaging community platform around it. Key to the whole experiment is how products take second place to the idea that Prudential cares about its customers enough to build the platform, do the research, and engage people in conversations that matter.

“Transparency” is an action, not a descriptor.

Open book management,” a term coined in the 90s, conveys the idea that, rather than holding your corporate cards close, you should share company financials with employees, to enlist them as partners and help them make better decisions. “Open source software” was born that decade, as well: Let outside developers “get under the hood” to see how products work, and even modify and share them.

As content marketers, we don’t necessarily need to bare our books and bits, but we do well to take this shift toward a more open, democratic business mindset to heart. After all, corporate deception is becoming harder and harder to pull off in this digital age, as MIT’s Michael Schrage pointed out in the the wake of the Volkswagen emissions scandal. “Your best customers increasingly have the ability and incentive to become your worst enemies, should you deceive them.” No one understands that fact better than VW marketers right now.

It’s our job as marketers to continually nudge the companies we represent off their “story” pulpits, to make sure we meet customers where they live, talk, and make buying decisions. That place is on social networks, yes – but more specifically, within the burgeoning stream of data- and consumer-driven analysis about how well products work and how well companies live up to their promises.

Openness, honesty, and the ability to communicate ideas in compelling ways are baseline for any marketer today. Turn down the namby-pamby elevator music advice and crank up the volume on really useful content, and you’ll be golden. While you’re at it, crank up the volume on some hot metal, too. It won’t solve all your problems, but it might help you get in the groove.

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