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The Key To Content Marketing (And Business): Be Less Self-Centered

Shane Snow, founder of Contently, says to win at business, brands need to make content, and make it about their audience.

In a world where "every brand is a publisher," giving away audience-focused content is cheaper, more inspiring, and better for the world than interruptive marketing. And it works better, too.

When I graduated from high school, my uncle gave me Dale Carnegie’s classic self-help book, How To Win Friends And Influence People. I thought it was a joke. But being 17 and insecure, I read it anyway. In between cheesy stories about Abe Lincoln and Henry Ford, a nugget of truth stuck with me: People love talking about themselves. If you want people to like you, talk about them, not you.

Most companies suck at good conversation. They’re used to blasting out one-way messages about how great they are. Their product. Themselves. Me, me, me.

Today’s consumers don’t have to put up with that. Unfollow. Friend request denied. We want to talk about us, not you.

The companies that win friends and influence fans are the ones that give us content we want and unique experiences focused on us. For free. And those that do it well make a killing in business.

Birchbox, for example, grew its beauty sample service from zero to more than 100,000 subscribers (each paying $10 a month) in the past two years, according to MarketWatch. The New York-based startup drew attention in the noisy beauty products space in large part by producing a blog and magazine about grooming and makeup. Like Allure or Glamour or any traditional beauty mag, Birchbox talks about what its audience wants, and not about Birchbox itself.

"Content is the best way to differentiate your business and to create value," Birchbox’s director of content, Mollie Chen, told me in an interview last fall. "We give our customers useful articles, videos, and blogs in order to gain their trust, communicate with them, and keep them coming back to our site."

American Express (a customer of my startup, Contently), is another great example. Its small business news site publishes small business trends, how-tos, and entrepreneurial war stories at scale—dozens per day. Nowhere do the articles or videos slip in "…and you should use your AmEx card!" And, paradoxically, that’s what makes Internet users like AmEx. Two point four million Facebook fans and counting.

The secret to using free content as a business driver is to be the host of the conversation your audience cares about, not the subject of it. Great content transforms advertisers from interruption to destination.

This piece is part of a Collaborative Fund-curated series on creativity and values written by thought leaders in the for-profit, for-good business space.

Consumers don’t load up Firefox after work in search of banner ads about 0% balance transfer credit cards. They don’t pop out of bed in hopes of encountering Internet propaganda about deodorant. They want interesting stories. They want to be entertained, enriched, and to discover content that makes them look good to their friends.

I believe the successful businesses of the future will continue to invest in being good publishers, purveyors of education and knowledge. Their investments will yield not only goodwill and positive branding, but win customers and advocates at a fraction of the cost per acquisition of traditional advertising.

And yes, I have an interest in saying that (my company connects brand publishers with reporters), but I also believe it’s true. At Contently, giving away our secrets has won us loads of business. We make no effort to mask who we are on our blog and in our magazine, but we eschew talking about ourselves as much as possible. Though many of our readers become our customers, our content works because we strive to teach our readers how to be successful on their own.

Just like Mr. Carnegie’s did.

Shane Snow is founder of Contently.

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  • CarolynStevens

    I'm so pleased that I found your article.  I was only discussing "How to win friends and influence people" yesterday, whilst trying to get my business partner to understand the marketing tactic of giving rather than taking.

  • Joedimuro

    So simple.  So true.  So powerful.  Yet so simply overlooked.  Great brands emanate from their source of power; the consumer.  How it is perceived, engaged, consumed, and shared. 

    Very relevant stuff here and easy to adopt.  Good stuff.   Joe D 

  • Pawan Deshpande

    great article.  Giving consumers what they want is the bread and butter of
    a successful business.  As you mention, marketers need to identify
    themselves as publishers, responsible for telling stories that engage their
    audiences.  Since this is easier said than done, content curation- the
    process of finding, organizing and sharing content- is a great way to help
    marketers  find and vet the most timely and relevant content that
    audiences will truly benefit from. 

  • Linda

    Be less self-centred. Isn't that the key to any great relationship? And isn't that what business is trying to create through content marketing? The post is a great reminder - thanks!

  • D Newon

    This is a great article that discusses how important content is. I wanted to print it out to remind myself of it every now and then, but it's a bummer you can't print out the article.

  • Ермоленко Антон

    This is an amazing article! You put it simple and drive it to the point! Value-based, relationship marekting is the future

  • Masculinity University

    Great article. Very true that people love to talk about themselves. I also think it's great to provide the framework or "host" the conversation that THEY want to have, and not what you're company wants to have. Give them some great FREE information, and build the TRUST and goodwill that you mentioned. 

  • Pierre de Schaetzen

    Great article Shane! People love talking about themselves and that's indeed an opportunity for brands to create engaging content. But I believe there's an even more engaging way of doing content marketing. 

    Leave it to your community. 

    Inspire people to come up with ideas and give them all the support they need to turn these ideas into great content. Once you manage to create such a culture within your brand community, you will get a constant flow of new content. Highlight the best pieces by telling the stories of the people behind those projects. People will start fighting for your attention.

    To ignite this kind of movement within your brand community, start identifying interesting initiatives by your fans or customers and give them the support and visibility they could only dream of.

  • saisundhar

    This is a typical example of 'leading by example'. The reader's comments look bolder than the fonts you've used for your article. Could you be more symbolic? Reader engagement and opinion is highly valued here(at least, it looks that way). 

    Extremely insightful. Delighted to visit this website. 

  • Benjamin R. Sargent

    Good point, and that's about all I took from the book also. It seems easier when you have a product to sell, just create a community around the product, but what about professional services? I'm a CPA and it's been tough to make that interesting.

  • Pierre de Schaetzen

    You can build a community around professional services the same way you build one around a product. Look for online communities handeling that topic, find out what they're missing and contribute what you can to help those communities. 

    Here's an idea: find the most common questions people ask about professional accountancy. Start a blog. For every article you take one persons question as an example and explain the solution to his problem. This way you can build some kind of faq database for your sector, and position yourself as a key player in those online communities. Hope this helps.

  • Reginaldo Uamba

    Well, thanks for this article. It has changed the way i used to vew my buseness! How to win friends and influence people is a bible that i appreciated too. warm regards.