3,500 people. 50 countries. Hundreds of breakout sessions. My experience at Content Marketing World 2015 (CMWorld 2015) was a whirlwind of activity, conversations, and lessons, and it’s hard to distill all that into bite-sized pieces. But I think it’s an important part of processing everything I experienced, so I’m going to give it a shot!
Are you making content, or are you making a difference?
One of my favorite points came from keynote speaker Jay Baer, who asked us: “Are you making content, or are you making a difference?” Jay asked us to consider a little thought experiment he likes to refer to as “The Mom Test.”
Basically, it boils down to this: On the one hand, your mother loves you unconditionally and will generally be proud of anything you do. But on the other hand, she’s probably one of the few people who feels comfortable being unabashedly critical of you. Jay shared a few anecdotes of his awkward dance moves and hamfisted attempt to fix his broken bicycle. His mom straight-up told him that he wasn’t good at those things. But when he was asked to deliver a eulogy for his brother, his mom saw how speaking and sharing his words with others was “his thing.”
Jay urged us to consider whether we are creating content just to check an item off a list or whether we are actually putting something into the world that will be beneficial to others. And this is the concept of “The Mom Test” as applied to content marketing.
Ask yourself what you can stop doing rather than what you should start doing
This came up during several of the sessions that I attended. Many content marketers fall prey to “shiny object syndrome,” geeking out over the latest trend, whether it’s a new(ish) format like podcasting or a novel social media platform (I heard a lot about Blab this year).
But instead of spreading our efforts and attention to an ever-fractured group of pursuits, perhaps we should just focus on doing one or two things and doing them exceedingly well.
Of course this sounds simple enough, but it can be a real challenge, especially in the fast-paced, trend-chasing world we’re living in.
Creativity requires time and space
This idea came courtesy of keynote speaker John Cleese, who provided us with several examples of the characteristics of creative thinkers. People who are genuinely creative make play a significant part of their practice, and they delay making decisions as long as possible.
Cleese gave the example of art school students who were asked to compose a still life. Some students snatched their items from the table and started sketching or painting right away, while others examined their objects for a long time before making their selection. They also seemed to not just look at their subject matter, but to perceive it through all their senses. This lengthy appraisal process eventually led to work that was significantly better and more creative than work from the students who made the snap judgment.
He also recommended a book called Hare Brain Tortoise Mind by Guy Claxton. This book contains further examples of how slow, deliberate thinking facilitates creativity, whereas quick decision-making and analytical thinking is better suited for other types of output.
One of my favorite concepts from Cleese’s talk was the idea of a “tortoise enclosure.” It can be a challenge to do your best slow, deliberate thinking when you’re in an open-plan office, for example. So it’s ideal to have a quiet place where you can go and just be. Allowing yourself a little time in a place like this can do wonders for your creativity. It sounds just dreamy to me!
Customers don’t care about how many followers, likes, etc. you have
This idea came courtesy of keynote speaker Kristina Halvorson. It’s easy to get caught up in these types of numbers, because they’re easy to measure. But when it comes down to whether our content is being truly effective, they have absolutely no bearing on it.
Anyone who is creating content needs to think about how they are helping their customers (or potential customers). A few questions that can help guide you are:
- What does my customer/potential customer need to do?
- How can I help?
- How can I be transparent about how things work in my company?
- How can I prioritize my customers over metrics?
So there you have it—just a few of the big ideas that stuck with me during CMWorld 2015. It’s funny because all of these concepts were already familiar to me before I attended the conference. But there’s something about hearing them in a new context, with new examples that makes them seem revelatory and significant.
Did you also attend CMWorld 2015? If so, I’d love to hear some of your key lessons and takeaways.
Let’s get something out of the way: when something bills itself as “a party game for horrible people,” you know it’s going to appeal to the wicked part of you. There will also be some NSFW language contained within this post, FYI.
If you’re not familiar with Cards Against Humanity, here’s a quick summary: You have a pile of black cards that work as prompts (e.g. “War. What is it good for?” or “What did Vin Diesel eat for dinner?”) and a pile of white cards that are responses to those prompts (e.g. “Passive-aggressive Post-it notes” or “Vigorous jazz hands”).
One player draws a prompt card and reads it out loud, while the rest of the players choose response cards and submit them anonymously. The player who drew the prompt reads off all the responses and chooses a favorite. Hilarity ensues.
If you’ve ever played the game, you know that the prompts and responses on the cards themselves range from benign to awkward to downright despicable. But I recently purchased the game for myself and the entire experience was so enjoyable (and the copy so consistently irreverent and hilarious) that I wanted to take a moment to celebrate Cards Against Humanity as my latest copy crush.
When you first click on the “Buy now for $25” button, you get taken to the store, where a little pop-up window at the top says “Our drones tell us that you live in the United States. Are we wrong?” Suddenly geographic targeting seems slightly more entertaining than ever before!
The bullet points for each of the items on offer combine factual, useful information with random humorous tidbits, like “0% of proceeds go to the Make-A-Wish Foundation” (a great way to ensure people keep scrolling to find out what silly thing they’ll find next).
But for a company that seems to appeal to the deepest, darkest parts of us, Cards Against Humanity also appears to have a conscience (or at least believe the people buying it will), because the proceeds from holiday expansion packs really do go to a good cause (The Wikimedia Foundation and DonorsChoose.org). A few days after I made my purchase, I received a nice email from a teacher at a nearby elementary school (see, those drones who identified my exact geographic location are good for something!).
When I finished my purchase, a button appeared at the bottom of the screen that read “Go outside.” Of course I had to click on it to see what happened. It brought up Google Maps and showed me all the parks in the area. (Again with those drones!)
The fun and games don’t end as soon as you pay, either. My confirmation email began: “Dearest customer, Thank you for spending your money all over our website.” It hits all the high notes—poking fun at the bland, automated emails we’re inundated with; describing the nature of our transaction with deadpan delivery; conveying sincerity AND somehow mocking it at the same time.
But my favorite line of all: “You can reply to this email if you have any questions.” Say what??? I can actually respond to this email and a human will answer it. Somehow this just seems pretty darn humane, doesn’t it?
And keeping in line with that same irreverent yet genuine voice, the letter that came in my package read: “Dear consumer, Thank you for buying Cards Against Humanity bullshit from our store. We’ve worked hard to keep Cards Against Humanity independent so that no publishers, distributors, or viceroys of the British empire can tell us what we can or can’t do with our game. We really like having a one-on-one relationship with our customers, and we hope we didn’t fuck it up. If we did fuck it up, please let us know.” And a bit further down the page: “The Cards Against Humanity store is new, and we’re still working out the bugs. Some customers report having received a burlap sack of broken Soviet appliances instead of their order. If this happens to you, please let us know.”
What a perfect way to complete the transaction and make me feel good about my purchase. Not only do I feel relieved that my money is in no way supporting viceroys of the British empire, but I know that if there had been a problem with my order, someone would be around to help me sort it out (and they would probably have a pretty good sense of humor about it as well).
So to my latest copy crush, Cards Against Humanity, I say: Well played, my friends. Well played.
Short answer? Yes.
For the slightly longer answer, read on.
Confession time: I’m not sure if I’m exactly the type of reader that Ann had in mind when she wrote this book. As best as I can tell, she wrote the book mainly for people who:
- have a strong aversion to writing, but need to write in their professional lives
- are what she affectionately terms “adult-onset” writers (in other words, people who were scarred by negative experiences and swore off writing for a decade or so)
- lack confidence in their writing abilities and need a friendly guide to coach them through some of the basics
I, on the other hand:
- have been obsessed with writing for as long as I can remember (My earliest masterpiece was some text I dictated to a preschool teacher to accompany one of my drawings. “This is a monster. He scared a ghost. The ghost scared the monster. Last night I saw a Dracula and three debils [sic].” Chilling commentary on the post-modern condition or a factual narrative of Halloween? You decide.)
- have loved every English teacher I’ve ever had (perhaps with the exception of Mr. Page, a cranky old Englishman who wanted us to write down everything he said verbatim. “It took me years to compile all this information and you’re not writing it down! TAKE NOTES!” But even he had a certain charm…)
- have devoted the majority of my career to writing and pretty much spend a good chunk of every workday writing and editing
And yet, I’m not too proud to say that I still have a lot to learn. Especially since I’m relatively new to this whole content marketing gig and at work I often get asked to write or edit things like marketing emails or landing pages (which were decidedly not on Mr. Page’s AP English syllabus).
Everybody Writes appeals to me because Ann strikes a perfect balance between informative, entertaining, and straight up hilarious.
In one of my favorite passages, she alters a quote from Mean Girls to make a point about high school-mandated writing styles:
“What you learned in high school might’ve once been a helpful guidepost. But it’s time to let go. As Janis says in the movie Mean Girls: ‘That’s the thing with five-paragraph essays. You think everybody is in love with them when actually everybody HATES them!’
Actually, Janis was talking about the school’s mean girls—The Plastics. Not essays. But same dif.”
Whether she’s offering tips on the difference between “bring” and “take,” a cool app that’ll prevent you from opening Facebook while you’re trying to draft your latest blog post, or just making a Tina Fey reference (because… why not?), Ann’s writing is clear and helpful. And friggin’ hilarious.
In Everybody Writes, Ann talks about having “pathological empathy” for your readers. Basically, you always want to think about what benefits they’ll get from reading whatever you’re writing. What’s in it for them? I love this concept. Because even though writing can feel like a very egotistical pursuit, if you leave it at that, most people won’t bother to read it.
So, in the interest of anyone who happens to be reading this, I’ll stop telling you why you should read Everybody Writes and just let you get on with it!
P.S. Do you have a long, boring commute? Do you get amped up about listening to audio books while going for a run? Or maybe you feel nostalgic for your childhood days when your parents would read to you? Whatever the case, there’s good news! Everybody Writes is now also available as an audio book on audible.com. Check out a little snippet of it here.