31 March 2023 Inge de Jong

“What’s the point of content?” thinking beyond the white paper

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Deeply Digital founder Richard Strange is known for two mantras. The first one is: “What’s the point of content?” by which he means marketers should never, ever, create content for the sake of content. The second one is: “Is this idea useful, helpful and interesting?” which, ironically, often is the point of content. 


For years, Richard has used these two mantras wherever he goes, and I’ll describe what this looks like.


Imagine you’re in a pub after midnight, having a beer and laughing with friends. Then, out of the blue, one of those friends looks around the table, raises his hands and says: “What’s the point of content?” Not in a “What am I doing here? I wish I became a truck driver” kind of way; no. He expects an answer.


I’ve teased Richard about this for years. You know, because it’s hilarious. But then, I started working with him. Thinking about the point of content became a big part of my working life. Today, I believe it’s the key to great content marketing. In this article, I’ll tell you how this works. 


Format-thinking is broken

More often than not, marketers think of a marketing plan as one campaign per quarter (I know because I’ve been there). Per campaign, they launch a key content asset like a webinar or white paper and six to eight accompanying blog articles. Then, they share the content through their social media accounts and run paid ads to promote the key content assets. Every three months, marketers repeat this process, sometimes adding a webinar as they go.


This format-first approach is a very common way for marketers to look at content marketing. And it will definitely get them some results, if only because of the visibility it creates. Yet, there’s something (horribly) wrong with this way of thinking. 


If you focus on content formats rather than the actual message, you risk publishing content nobody needs. In marketing and sales meetings, instead of talking about messaging and customer needs, you talk about “what to talk about next”, which rarely results in something interesting. To use Richard Strange’s words: the content has no point. Running quarterly campaigns doesn’t mean all your content assets are useful, helpful and interesting. You’re just creating content: “stuff” that ends up in people’s timelines without making a point. 


You might meet all the deadlines, sure. But a met marketing deadline never meant anything to a prospect. 


Don't start by trying to write a piece of content

If content marketers aren’t allowed to focus on the format, what else should they talk about in their meetings? At Deeply Digital, the answer is good ideas and interesting stories. Instead of writing a white paper, we think of a concept or idea the target audience finds helpful, useful and interesting. Then, when those in the room have approved the idea, we talk about possible ways to write stories about it. And this is where the fun starts. 


Focusing on the idea rather than the format allows you to create multiple content assets. A white paper is just a white paper, but a good idea can be a white paper, a video, a web page, an interactive game, five case studies, a webinar and even a live event. And if your target audience likes your stories, you can repurpose them endlessly. 


By focusing on ideas and stories rather than content formats, you kill three birds with one stone:


  1. Your content has a point, meaning it will perform better. A great idea will naturally attract attention and engagement, whereas a format-focused approach may come across as inauthentic or forced. After all, those four webinars you planned might not all be valuable to your clients. When you start with a great idea, relevance is often built-in, or it wouldn’t be a great idea. 
  2. People remember stories. Marketing hypes come and go, but people have never stopped telling stories. And they never will. Stories engage and make it easy to remember things. It’s why you remember the plot of the last movie you saw but can’t recall the technical specs of the last iPhone you bought.
  3. You create multiple assets rather than one, meaning you work more efficiently and get more done. This way of working also allows you to publish work faster. After all, an article is often created more quickly than a white paper.


How to make the shift?

Completely changing your ways is hard, so let’s look at three things you can do to move away from format-thinking and create ideas and stories instead. Over these last few years, I’ve learned this works best:


  1. Talk to designers
  2. Pitch the idea without mentioning formats
  3. Make a list of five assets that you could create using one idea


1. Talk to the designer

Content does not equal copy. It equals everything you see on the screen: copy, design and concept. When you only look at content from a textual perspective, you miss 50% of the creativity. At Deeply Digital, our designers do more than create visually appealing websites, graphics and pdfs. They think about content from a completely different angle, which helps me develop better ideas and stories. That’s why I recommend you always involve your designers in content creation as early as possible.

2. Pitch the idea without mentioning formats

When we pitch campaigns to clients*, we pitch the idea rather than a list of assets. We developed an idea-first methodology that we build our campaigns around, creating room for creativity. So, instead of pitching “a white paper, five blog articles and an email workflow” to promote a new agile training for a cloud consultancy, we pitch “The game rules of the digital enterprise”, a story that we can translate into at least ten different content assets and an equal number of stories. 


*If you create content for your own organisation, you can do the same thing when pitching ideas to your colleagues or the board. 


3. Make a list of five assets

To stay away from format-thinking, I recommend you always create a list of five potential content assets for one idea. This forces you to think beyond the white paper and develop other format options. Again, designers play an important role as they can educate you on new and original content formats, including online games, interactive pdfs and dynamic web pages.   


Something to say

Now that the one-campaign-per-quarter approach is no longer the solution to everything, us content marketers can make our working lives more interesting by moving away from creating formats. Instead, we should develop great ideas and work with other creatives (primarily designers) to translate them into helpful, interesting and useful stories. Only then do we stand a chance to stand out in a digital world filled with stuff, as we will have something to say. 


Want to talk about great ideas with me? Reach out to idejong@deeplydigital.nl