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.