Disasters start small and grow quick. That’s what Edward Lorenz found in the earliest years of the 1960s. The meteorologist had been trying to run weather simulations on his LPG-30 desk computer. But what should have been predictable repeats of earlier work … weren’t working. In fact, the calculations were all over the place.
He had entered thousands of bits of data, and was deflated by the thought that he may have entered them wrong. Maybe, he thought, I can find a glitch in the calculations. He poured over his printouts, and soon enough, discovered where the glitch was. He’d been rounding figures, dropping the last three decimal places. Many years later he described that process—where tiny fluctuations have massive ramifications later on—as ‘the Butterfly Effect’.
In this, the last part of our content disasters series, we look at how content marketing fails play out like the Butterfly Effect. Something very small rapidly grows to become a large hassle. The good news is, the solutions to these problems can be very small too … if you catch them at the right time.
Content disaster number 5: Running out of ideas
For many people, running out of story ideas is a worst-case scenario. Every time we start down the content marketing road with a new client, their first fear is that we won’t have enough stories to fill the magazine or blog. We always say the same thing: ‘In a few issues, your biggest problem will be having too many ideas.’
I know that might not sound convincing. But believe me when I say I’ve produced, on average, 38 magazines a year for the last ten years and 100 weekly newsletters for the last couple of years. We haven’t run out of ideas, and we’re not going to any time soon. And it’s not because I’m some magic ideas machine.
The magic trick for generating ideas
The simple trick in generating more ideas than you need is to change the way you approach your writing. People who are afraid of running out of ideas are thinking they can only write about their products.
That’s common. Often, when you’re thinking about a blog, you try to think of what your company wants to say to people. It’s almost like asking yourself, ‘How many press releases can we put out?’ So try something different. Ask yourself: ‘How many customers do we have?’
Because each of those customers has a story to tell that interests you. Each of those customers had a problem of some kind, and ended up using your product or service to solve that problem. If you talk to those customers, you will come up with heaps of interesting stories.
It’s possible you’ll say to yourself, ‘But these stories aren’t going to be published in a newspaper any time soon—they’re not interesting enough to a broad slice of the population’. That might be true.
But your business probably isn’t pitching itself to a broad slice of the population. You’re telling stories to appeal to that narrow slice of the population that is interested in your products and services. For those people, who are actively seeking information through search engines or social media about stuff that you have written about, your articles and your customers’ experiences are fascinating.
Content disaster number 6: Unfortunate imagery or typography
Schadenfreude. You’ve heard the term. It’s a German word which means the pleasure we get from seeing the bad luck of others. It translates directly as ‘harm-joy’. And it’s the word you apply to everyone who has published anything and smirks when they see this picture:
You also shudder, of course, because we’ve all been there. It might be a missing comma, or mis-spelling a word, or heaven-forbid, getting someone’s name wrong on the front cover. It might be an unfortunately placed sticker which obscures enough of a word to make it read like something else. You can spell-check a website or magazine a million times, and still find yourself in the situation our art director did a few years back.
She had designed a custom magazine for a large government client. Hundreds of thousands of copies were to be printed. They wanted an ‘edgy’ image on the cover, so she went out with her camera to photograph some graffiti. When designers work on magazine files, they often only use low resolution or ‘screen resolution’ images, because otherwise the files get too large to work with. Everyone had loved the slightly blurry, low-resolution graffiti pictures she had suggested for the cover. Everyone read every coverline a dozen times to make sure they were all spelled correctly. No-one thought to look at a high resolution version of the photograph.
It was only when the magazine came back from the printer that they noticed the words F**K OFF clearly written across the wall in the centre of the cover photo.
The reason these problems happen, usually, is someone who is meant to spot something missed it because they were getting other stuff done. That happens naturally, and it’s why publishing companies have hierarchies of editors to check pages multiple times. Of course, most content marketers don’t have access to those resources. But you don’t need them. What you need, instead, is to create hurdles in your production flow, to stop it in its tracks.
Once you start producing content regularly, you get into a rhythm. That rhythm can be your friend, but can also make it easy to skip over parts of the process. Because you know what will happen next, so if something seems hard, you just jump to the next stage.
But you don’t want to. If you can, budget for an editor, or at least a proofreader, to do a final read of your files before you publish them. What that person is doing is slowing the process down. If you can’t, choose someone on staff and give them the job, then proofread their changes yourself. If you’re in a large organisation, compliance people and legal are great for this. Nothing makes lawyers happier than spotting a misplaced comma.
Content disaster number 7: Distribution disasters
We used to do a shopping centre magazine which had a nervous client and a two-pronged distribution strategy. Half the magazines we printed were delivered to the shopping centre. They were placed in racks at strategic places in the centre for people to discover. The other half was delivered to a local letter boxing service. This firm hired people to hand-deliver the plastic-wrapped magazine to doorsteps of houses in the shopping centre’s catchment area. The client was nervous because printing a large number of magazines was an expensive business, and they wanted to know this content marketing project was picking up new customers for the centre. “Don’t worry,” we said, “we’ll survey the readers!” And when the surveys came back, we realised we had a big problem.
We got a lot of survey responses. Those responses were fantastic. The readers loved the magazine. They all said they purchased things from the centre as a direct result of the magazine. But about 80 per cent of respondents said they had found the magazine inside the shopping centre. Virtually no-one said they came into the centre after reading the magazine at home. The results seemed strange, so we rang the letter-boxing service. They agreed it was a strange skew, and OK’d us checking up on their delivery people. With the next issue of the magazine, we went out to spy on them.
We sat in a car at the top of a long suburban street and phoned the head office of the letter-boxers. Yes, they said, we’ve got word from our people that they are in that street right now. They are in a white van, they said.
We could see the entire length of the street. “There’s no white van here,” we replied. They suggested that maybe their people were in the next street over. So we drove over there. No white van. That afternoon, we drove through every street in that suburb. There was no white van, and no evidence of any magazines having been delivered.
Seeding the list
It is simply good practice to seed every distribution list you use. And it doesn’t matter if that list is for postal distribution, letter box drops, or an email list. If we’re working on a client’s custom magazine, I will always add my name to the mailing database so I know when an issue arrives. If it’s something delivered by hand, I will set aside half an hour on the day of delivery to check one or two streets in the delivery area to ensure it’s there. If it’s email, there are a couple of options available. One of them, I think, is the safest.
We tend to email our weekly newsletter out at 6.45am on a Friday morning. I seed that list by making my email address the return address for bounce-backs and out-of-office replies. I check my email on Friday mornings on the way in to work, and if no bounce-backs have dropped into my inbox, I know the newsletters haven’t gone out. So as soon as I arrive at work I can log in, check what the problem is, and correct it before most people realise the newsletter is late.
From little things, big things grow
The challenge faced by those people producing regular content is keeping focus on both the big picture and the details. As trained, clever and strategic marketers, many of you will be a lot more comfortable keeping control of the big picture. And there’s nothing wrong with that, as long as you remember that someone needs to take care of the details too.
One of my goals in writing this blog is to alert readers to some of the details they may not be aware of. No-one tells you these things until you find yourself in the middle of a problem. And often, the only way to know the best way out of the problem is to live through it. If you’re curious, look back at part one of our content marketing disaster series, which dealt with disasters outside of your control. Or part two, which dealt with how to plan for recovery before disaster happens. Still, if you’re interested in learning from our experience (or laughing at our stuff-ups), please feel free to sign up for our monthly(ish) newsletter. We’ll use that to share the hurdles we’ve faced, and tips and tricks for overcoming them. You can sign up for the newsletter here.
And if I’ve missed anything in our disaster series, let us know in the comments—it’ll either be a brand new experience we can all share (or commiserate), or it will jolt my memory to something so traumatic, I’ve forgotten all about it.