Content Therapy is Managing Editor’s twice-monthly advice column, where Paul Chaney empathetically responds to your questions about the messy dilemmas content marketers face in their work. We are (obviously) not licensed therapists, but we’re here to support you. Send us your questions!

Help! I’m Creating Content for a Boring Product!

Dear Content Therapist: We all know that great content marketing can elevate your brand and contribute to business success. But not everyone has the most exciting brand, product or service. Sure, the offering might be reliable or effective, but promoting it feels hopeless. What are the best ways to stand out with your content if your product or service is boring? — STUCK WITH A BORING BRAND

Paul Chaney: I feel your pain. I’ve written lots of content for what many people would consider boring companies (and their respective products and services). But what’s boring for one isn’t for another. 

Take, for example, a comment from this publication’s managing editor, James daSilva

“My years editing newsletters for professional associations taught me how passionate people could be about the automotive aftermarket, cleaning products, wholesale distribution and countless other industries. By understanding the intended audience, I could understand the news and information they eagerly wanted to receive — even if I didn’t necessarily want to work in those fields.”

Examine his statement: “Understanding the intended audience.” That is the key to creating engaging content, even for seemingly boring products. You have to put yourself in your audience’s (i.e., customers’) shoes and ask why they think it’s not boring. What garners their interest? That’s called market research. 

It wouldn’t matter if the brand you’re creating content for had the sexiest product since two-piece bikinis — research is the starting point. Without it, you’re doing little more than throwing spaghetti at the wall and hoping it sticks. 

Ask Customers What They Think

One of the most effective ways to conduct research is asking customers what they think. Their feedback is a direct window into their needs and preferences. Get this feedback through one-on-one interviews, surveys, focus groups, customer reviews, social media or data segmentation and analysis. 

In an unbiased manner as possible, find out what motivates them — get into their heads and hearts. Then, distill what you learn into your own words and insert those into advertising, long-form content, social media posts, etc. Understanding the customer also helps you speak their language authentically. 

Something else to learn — perhaps the most important — is the pain points the brand, product or service alleviates. What problems does it solve? Then, build campaigns around those. 

One of the best ways to do that is to put the customer out front through case studies, success stories, video interviews, testimonials, etc. Make them the voice of the brand to help potential customers see themselves in concert with you.

Do the Unexpected

Another crucial aspect is stepping out of the boring B2B box, getting creative and doing something unexpected. Creativity is the key to making your content stand out and capture your audience’s attention.

An excellent example is the diesel truck manufacturer Volvo Trucks. The company created a video campaign for their big rigs featuring the actor Jean-Claude Van Damme. 

The video starts with a closeup of Van Damme, looking serene but determined. We hear a voiceover about his current state of mind. Then we notice he’s standing on the rearview mirrors of two huge trucks. 

Next, the two trucks delicately change their angle and Van Damme slides into one of his famous full splits, his face showing no hint of strain. Only at the end of the video do viewers understand the point: to illustrate Volvo’s steering precision. 

Or, how about Electronic Data Systems, the IT services company later acquired by Hewlett-Packard, with their famous Western-themed Super Bowl campaign featuring cowboys herding cats

Learn to Love What You’re Doing

Something else you’ll have to do is get excited about the brand, product or service itself. If you work for the company, it’s your employer; if an agency, it’s your client. Either way, you’re being paid to step up and produce the best content deliverables possible. (Sorry if I sound like your boss.) 

I believe that excitement won’t come artificially once you’ve spent time with customers. I’ve found that their enthusiasm is contagious. 

I recall doing a series of videos with employees of a company I served as digital marketing manager. After those interviews, I was so fired up about that company I could not contain my enthusiasm, which led to concerted efforts to market the brand as effectively as possible. 

You’re a marketing professional; it’s your job to turn dull content into dynamic. That starts by understanding your customers, discovering what excites them about the brand, feeling their pain and changing your attitude.

Is Organic Reach Dead?

Dear Content Therapist: It feels like engagement is falling everywhere. SEO is a mess with AI, social networks don’t appear to reward organic content anymore and even email performance is more challenging to measure than it used to be. Now I see the news that basically every type of content on LinkedIn is doing worse. It’s frustrating to see reach and engagement down, mainly when we’re judged in part by hitting certain goals. My company doesn’t necessarily have the budget to pay for the reach we’d need, so I’m looking for any alternatives. What should content marketers be doing to get their content in front of the right people? — WORRIED ABOUT CONTENT PERFORMANCE

Paul Chaney: You’re right. SEO is a mess with AI-generated content, and search professionals are having a hard time figuring it out. Social networks aren’t rewarding organic content in their algorithms like they used to. It’s a pay-to-play world, and your message gets hidden if you don’t have the bucks. 

I disagree with you regarding email, however. Despite repeated prognostications of its death, email is still one of the best ROI-achieving mediums around. According to Litmus, email returns an ROI of $36 for every $1 spent. 

But let’s say you’re right, and email isn’t fail-proof. Where does that leave us? 

Do’s and Don’ts From Joe Pulizzi

Joe Pulizzi, known as the “godfather of content marketing,” frequently highlights the dangers of building your content marketing plan on “rented land.” 

His analogy highlights the risks associated with depending too much on external websites, search engines, social media networks and other such platforms to host and distribute your information. Instead, he advocates the long-term sustainability of owning your content distribution platforms.

There are numerous reasons why he argues against relying on “rented land,” all related to a lack of control and ownership

We know that relying on third-party platforms puts you at their mercy, as their policies, algorithms and rules are subject to sudden and arbitrary changes that affect your content strategy. For instance, a modification to Facebook’s algorithm overnight may drastically reduce your posts’ organic reach. And just look at what happened when Elon Musk took over Twitter. Aside from the questionable name change, the site’s reputation dropped dramatically, causing a decline in active user, advertisers and organic reach. 

“Over-investing in social media means you’re risking your content marketing budget on platforms you don’t control,” says veteran marketing expert Robert Rose. (Rose and Pulizzi co-host a podcast called This Old Marketing.) 

Speaking of failures, think about Google’s failed attempts at social media: Google Wave, Google Buzz and, more recently, Google Plus. Add to that fails like Friendfeed, an early social media platform, Meerkat, Friendster, Vine, MySpace — the list goes on. 

Control applies in other ways, too. You own and control content on your platforms, such as your blog or website. Direct data collection and analysis is possible, which is essential for comprehending your target market and refining your approach.

Let’s look at what Pulizzi advises doing instead: Be strategic about “rented land,” build an owned audience, and publish in multiple places. Let’s start with the platforms. For most of us, a presence on social media is imperative to reaching a larger audience. However, Pulizzi suggests using these channels to direct people to your owned media assets, such as your email list or website.

If you’re going to drive people to your channels, you need to earn their devoted following by publishing regularly and offering something followers can’t get elsewhere. Doing so helps you reduce the risks of using third-party platforms while creating a longer-lasting content marketing plan.

Finally, avoid putting all your eggs in one basket. Spread your material over various platforms to lessen your reliance on them — and that includes SEO.

Build Your Castle

Here’s a plan to consider: Think of your website and email newsletter as your “content castle,” around which you build a “content kingdom” consisting of webinars, blog posts, ebooks, whitepapers, podcasts, videos, etc. Then, publish that content to “outposts” (i.e., social and content networks like LinkedIn, Instagram and YouTube and search engines.)  

Just don’t make those outposts your castle. They serve two purposes: engagement with larger audiences and to direct prospective customers back to your castle. Your castle gives you the best chance to enhance them meaningfully and lead them down the sales funnel. 

The temptation to take the fast road to ROI leads to an over-reliance on third-party sources like social media. But the risks are inherent. It’s better to take the high road and build your content strategy around the land you own. Will it take longer? Probably. Does it ensure better returns on your investment? Possibly. 

But if what you say about SEO and social media (and even email) is right, isn’t Pulizzi’s approach worth trying? 

Disclaimer: The advice offered in this column is intended for informational purposes only. It is not intended to substitute for advice from a licensed mental health provider, health care provider or legal professional.