September 19th, 2016
A few weeks ago, I spent a morning at a lecture for the creative community in San Diego. The guest speaker was Scott Lewis, the Editor-in-Chief of the Voice of San Diego, a non-profit local news organization. The theme of the lecture was love, but Scott took an interesting approach to the theme; I thought I was in for a lecture about romance, but Scott surprised me, instead focusing on the importance of vulnerability, transparency, and opening-up to tell our stories.
According to Scott, vulnerability is more than feeling weak or feeling exposed; it’s about being transparent and open about who you are, what your goals are, and what you want from the world. Vulnerability in the telling of stories — news stories, content, or even conversations – is opening yourself up and being clear about what you are aiming for, why you’re telling each story, and what you want to receive from your conversations.
As I listened to this lecture, I realized that these goals of transparency and vulnerability could apply equally well when it comes to content marketing, and the benefits of creating a narrative about the most vulnerable aspects of your business. In a world of inauthentic marketing and advertising, being authentic and transparent in your content marketing is a way to stand out and build established relationships with your audience.
Good content involves readers and makes them interested in your company and your story. An engaged customer or prospect is more likely to think of and trust your brand when they are ready to make a purchase. This is one of the main goals of content marketing.
But often, when companies are developing a content marketing strategy, they focus on telling only the positive stories, the ones that place them in a good light. This makes sense, as you’re more likely to share things that show your company as a positive entity, and sharing positive news about your company doesn’t make you vulnerable – you aren’t likely to lose a sale if you share a feel-good story about your last volunteer outing, or your latest client win.
Do these rosy marketing stories embody the reality of any company? Most likely, no, they do not. A business is a complicated endeavor, with personal relationships, corporate goals, and a lot of behind the scenes mechanisms. Companies face real consequences if they release information that is proprietary, or tell stories that paints them in a negative light. Despite these realities, there are benefits to being transparent about your company in your content strategy. When transparent content marketing is a goal, there can be some terrific results. Transparency can be used as a way to break through the inauthenticity of traditional marketing, and build a community of likeminded people that see your company as a leader. With all of these potential benefits, you may want to weigh the risks, look at your content strategy and ask – is it time to become more vulnerable?
A number of companies have made radical transparency a large part of developing their content strategy and sharing their brand story. Companies like Buffer, Zapier, and Elite SEM have built part of their brand and content strategy around being transparent, and sharing the losses as well as the wins.
For example, Buffer shares the experience of working in a rapidly scaling company in their Open blog, which they describe as: “Our journey to great productivity, more transparency and a happier work culture.” Open is focused on what it’s like to run a startup, how they have developed their benefit plans, their salary formula, and even features a monthly financial report that shares revenue from the last month. It’s transparent – radically so – and it has been a huge benefit for the Buffer brand in building authority and authenticity with their customer base.
Buffer has also documented how being transparent has been a boon for their business. In “The Transparency Movement: What It Is, Why It’s Important and How to Get Involved,” Buffer tracked their financial performance and found that their transparent approach to their content coincided with a change in their revenue trajectory – resulting in greater profits over time.
Can we conclusively say that the transparent nature of Buffer’s blog solely influenced their earnings? No, but what we can say is that it did drive attention to the brand, and since they had a strong product offering, they were better positioned to drive revenue.
(A graph showing a correlation between transparency and revenue for Buffer)
In “Tough News: We’ve Made 10 Layoffs. How We Got Here, the Financial Details and How We’re Moving Forward” Buffer Founder and CEO Joel Gasciogne took radical transparency as far as it can go, and shared the mistakes the company made that led them to laying off 10 members of their staff. The post holds back nothing, goes into financial errors, management decisions that didn’t go well, and how that ultimately resulted in 10 people losing their jobs. It’s the perfect example of a company being radically transparent with their blog content.
Even in cases where Buffer shared negative news, the news was met with generally positive response (and a lot of media coverage), again positioning them as an industry leader, and making their content instantly engaging and uniquely informative.
The reality is, radical transparency like Buffer’s Open blog is simply not a feasible strategy for most marketing departments. The structure of most companies is not set up to share everyone’s salaries, share monthly financial statements, or even talk about some of the missteps behind the scenes; but this doesn’t mean you can’t make transparency a goal in your content marketing strategy.
Transparency, vulnerability, and truth are ways to build trust with your readers and market your brand as authentic. One of this biggest missteps in content marketing is to be inauthentic; inauthentic content is misleading, and assumes consumers aren’t well informed – and how could you ever expect success when you don’t treat your customers as an informed audience?
One way to avoid this inauthenticity is to be transparent in your content marketing. As an example, one of Main Path’s goals is to share expert advice and opinions with high-authority websites and their readers. We have been published on websites like Entrepreneur, Marketing Profs and Tech.co — relationships we were able to establish by writing articles that shared actionable insights into digital marketing that we learned from our own experience working in the field.
When we first started reaching out with posts we had written, we found that publishers were more interested in what we had to say if we were authentic: when we gave advice without selling a service or our brand, and instead shared information and advice about our industry. When we were authentic in offering advice, we were able to show that we had valuable expertise to share with our community. Instead of telling our readers how great we are, we showed them, by sharing genuine insight, and proving that our company is engaging and informed.
If you have a goal of being more vulnerable in your content strategy, there are few small ways to start.
There is no harm in sharing where you gleaned your information – even when you are trying to position yourself as an expert in your industry. Experts are not only intelligent, but they are also well-informed. Being well-informed involves reading about the experiences and expertise of other people in your industry, and even outside your industry. Sharing an idea without sharing how you came to it is inauthentic, and poor practice as a writer.
When you write a blog post, always include an author bio so people can find out who you are, and what makes you a trusted authority to speak about your topic.
Instead of sharing only positive news, consider sharing lessons you’ve learned by making mistakes, and (here’s the key) how you fixed these mistakes. Hearing what went wrong and how someone worked to fix it will always be more interesting than hearing about a win without the background. This will make you uncomfortable, and even vulnerable in some cases, but it will result in better content that resonates with readers.
This is an advanced goal, but if you have buy-in from your team, think about developing content focused on making your strategy more transparent. Sharing your goals, how you are working towards them, and what you have learned is a great way to build authentic, actionable content that people are interested in reading. Make vulnerability a goal, work towards it, and measure the results.
 – Creative Mornings is a lecture series held in over 150 cities across the world, where creative people gather to hear a lecture from a community member about a chosen theme. (These events are held once a month and are a great way to meet other people in the creative community in your city – you should check them out!)
Author Bio: Heather Ferguson is an editor, project manager, and Content Manager at Main Path Marketing. She is an unapologetic supporter of early mornings, rainy Sundays, dark roast coffee, and the Toronto Maple Leafs.
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