Wanna create well-performing content and be original too? Then it might be time to stop digging into data and try something scary instead, like listening to your gut. Let the numbers work for you, not against you.
Now, don’t get me wrong – taking a data-driven approach to your content marketing strategy today is not just smart, it is necessary. Content marketers simply need numeric insights to make good business cases, forecasts and plans. Same goes for measuring results afterward. But when it comes to content creation, not everything should be a numbers game.
The main reason why it is risky to look at numbers as the ultimate (or only) way to get valuable insights, is that they can easily be misinterpreted. Although it is advisable to keep yourself well-informed about best practices and trending topics, it is less favorable to regard them as ‘golden formulas’.
Numbers on their own are indicative at best. The type of content and information people are interested in, is ever changing and the way a story is best told, is ever evolving.
Starting from an original place
To come up with something original, sometimes you need to begin from a more unfamiliar place. Or as the tale of the origin of The Lion King so nicely illustrates: the most promising ideas begin from novelty and then add familiarity.
In short: it was the first time Disney created an original movie from scratch, that was not based on their proven ‘golden concept’ of making movies based on existing (fairy) tales. The script writers came up with the idea of building a great story told by animated lions. And although they had been influenced by Shakespeare’s classic Hamlet, that was never their starting point.
Because Disney had the guts to try something completely different than what they already knew to work well, they created something even more successful.
‘Copypasting’ what worked for you before, or worked for others, is not per se the best you can do. Here are 7 risks of data-driven content creation and 8 tips how to avoid them:
Risk 1: Getting trapped by tunnel vision
When (overly) focussing on numbers, we focus either on what is, or on what has been. This can easily lead to tunnel vision:
Let’s assume you have set up a certain system for yourself to measure what content is ‘hot’ and which is not. And let’s assume you have done the same to measure the results of your own content. Then it is very likely that you will find out that you have not yet tried all the stuff that is working for others. And depending on your resources, you probably never can.
But you might also discover that while you were focussing on what’s popular or working well within your scope, completely new things emerged somewhere else. New content platforms for instance.
If you are publishing articles on Medium for instance, the potential audience is much bigger, than when posting on a new content platform like Ello. Where your target audience is most active however, could change over time. By fully focussing on a single platform, you could overlook such changes and miss out on great opportunities.
Also, the things you are measuring (clicks, shares, likes, conversions etc.) may very well be accurate, but the context in which they are measured could change over time.
If you are tracking the popularity of content on a certain platform for instance, 100 likes, shares or interactions may seem like a lot today, but tomorrow the given platform might be so popular, that only the least interesting posts receive that amount of responses.
Even though there is much more to be seen by now, you could still only be seeing exactly that what you were focussing on in the beginning, simply because that was once a perfectly fine starting point.
Tip 1: How to broaden your scope
Assume you don’t really know the answer, even if the numbers are pointing in a certain direction. Keep asking questions. This may sound like a rather exhausting method of going about things, but unfortunately, being exhaustive is key to learning and getting ahead.
Also, make it a habit to discover new things. If you dedicate a set amount of time per day to ‘opening yourself up to whatever might be out there’, you will soon be learning about new platforms, media, tracking methods, tools and all kinds of things that may not have existed yesterday but do today. And those are potentially very helpful to you.
Follow new platforms, watch TED-talks (like this one by Kevin Allocca on Why videos go viral), listen to both young and old entrepreneurs, read articles on sites that you wouldn’t usually visit, etc. You will find things that could help you in your mission to create original, well-performing content.
Make it a habit to Google your content topics and related ones (preferably in an incognito window), even if you have set up alerts for them.
And last but not least, if you want to broaden your scope, do not get attached to your current input system. Even if it took you a lot of time to set up, even if you had to invest time and money to learn how to work with certain tools, if something else turns up in the meantime that works better, drop it. Your learning still remains, you’ll just need to apply it somewhere else now or add something to it.
Detachment from whatever you are currently doing is key to rapid learning and adjusting (just like eating chocolate).
Risk 2: Losing Efficiency
When you are determined to create content according to what worked best either for yourself or others in the past, there is a slight risk of getting stuck in the process.
There is so much information available and there are so many different things you can measure, it’s easy to get lost in data or data collection.
Before you know it, another hour has gone by doing research and you’re still in the stage of ‘dreaming’ output, instead of actually producing it.
Also, if you don’t know exactly what it is you’re looking for in the first place, you may find a lot of great insights, or content examples, but still won’t know how to use this knowledge going forward.
Tip: 2 How to zoom in and let go
To prevent yourself from ending up in rabbit hole after rabbit hole like some sort of Alice in Content Wonderland, it’s important to know when to start and – especially – when to stop.
It is easier to zoom in on data and let go again, if you set a certain time frame for yourself in which you do your research. Being strict on the time you allow yourself, also requires being smart about what to focus on. Win win.
The best way to stay sharp and efficient when it comes to data-driven content creation, is to zoom in on data only in order to answer very specific questions. What do you really need to know at this point to get ahead?
If you want to improve the conversion rate of your blog pages for instance, then stay focussed on this subject in your research. Otherwise, you will soon be looking at ways to increase traffic to your pages, all sorts of new types of content or other very relevant and interesting things. But you won’t be solving the initial problem you started off with. And you will definitely not have started to create that well-converting content you were after.
Every time you need to answer a certain question be aware of the effort it takes for you to answer it too. Assume there is a great tool out there for every data query you have. There is (in 99% of the cases you are not the only one who wanted to uncover this intel)! Make sure to use those tools and automate processes.
Personally, I find Zapier very useful for automation. You can set up triggers in your favorite tools to lead to automated actions in other ones (like sending contact form entries to a spreadsheet). The better your overview, the less time you lose finding the data you need, time and time again.
Risk 3: Losing creativity
Another risk of diving into data before you create anything new, is pretty much becoming incapable of coming up with anything new. This may sound like an exaggeration at first glance, but data-driven content production can turn you into quite the copy cat. And the worst part is, you might not even notice it yourself.
Even though it may seem like you are becoming smarter every time you dive into those numbers about what works and what doesn’t (and you are), you are also prone to limit your creativity to the boundaries of what already exists. Stuff that is either on your own site, or elsewhere on the world wide web.
Of course, this also means you are simply being practical. Don’t mistake this for a suggestion to reinvent the wheel each time you create something new. But if you are (sub-)consciously creating some sort of template in which everything you create anew must fit, you could wind up not only boring your audience, but also yourself.
Knowing which formulas work, can be an incredibly limiting factor for your creativity. You could get trapped in a ‘databox’. And if we all devote time only to what works, at some point the internet may become completely saturated even by lists like the one you’re reading right now. Or by Ultimate Guides to (…).
The effects of overuse could come between you and your goals.
Tip 3: How to creatively use and ignore your data
Let’s take a look at Shiseido for a visual content example. This brand is fairly successful on Instagram – with 208k followers and lots of engagement – by consistently posting three related photos in a row to create a beautiful content overview. But by doing that exact same thing as any other beauty or fashion brand, success would not be guaranteed (as there is obviously more to do to gain followers and be engaging), nor would it be original.
@Shiseido on Instagram
You could, however, use the idea of forming patterns, but twist it completely to discover your own way to stand out.
This is an example of how @kidfuture_ (Nike brand marketing) does it for instance.
@kidfuture_ on Instagram
It’s fine to use such best practices as inspiration, but only to build on top of them. Aim for something different.
Or look at WeWork, another successful brand on Instagram. Even though the simplest of quotes turned out to be their most engaging post up to date, does that mean this is what all companies should do? Or that WeWork should stop posting anything else?
@WeWork on Instagram
There is more to creating content than simply recreating what works best on any given content platform. Otherwise, all of us would end up posting baby animals, memes and quotes. This might work for some, but I doubt it is a smart way to go for every business.
Want to release data insights without losing your ability to come up with something that is totally original? Combine the data. Mix them up. Turn them upside down. Or simply ignore them for a moment.
Not every blog post has to be a numbered list or how-to article, even though we all know these work well at the moment (otherwise, just check this Ultimate List of Blog Post Ideas for 2017).
Try to imagine an alternative universe in which all of your findings were invalid. How would you go about creating your content then? Start from that point and fill in the blanks with data later.
One of my favorite methods to regain creativity, is to look at the same numbers you usually would, but now for content in a completely different industry.
Or imagine that the insights you have on your target audience are 100 percent false. Instead of targeting 35-year-old males in suburbia for instance, you are now going after 75-year-old females who live in the city. What would you do differently? This method helps you identify the assumptions you have about your target audience and could point out angles that you are currently overlooking.
Risk 4: Forgetting that people are not numbers
As much as we’d like to think we can predict how people will respond based on their previous behavior with similar content, the truth is, we can never be sure.
People are ever-changing, not all behavior is predictable and not everything is visible in numbers. The most important thing to keep in mind when looking at data, is that people are not data. We can measure and predict a lot, but not all.
Tip 4: How to keep actual people at the center of your thinking process
This may sound ridiculous, because it’s so obvious, but talk to them. Offline. Having real life conversations with individuals that belong to your target audience is more important than anything if you want to fully understand their need.
Make it a habit to speak to whomever you are trying to reach once every other week or at least each month. Ask for their perspective on the trends you discovered. The insights you will gain are valuable beyond measure, because they can point you in directions where the masses haven’t gone yet.
It also helps you see your content and products from their perspective. Understanding how small or big your role in these people’s lives usually is – often a lot smaller than you would like to think – keeps you aware of the fact that you are dealing with people who are living full lives, just like you, and have a lot more common denominators than the (potential) interest in your product.
Try to understand what people want even better than what you want from them. That is key to valuable content creation (and product development for that matter). Give people what they want, and a little more than that, by listening to them first.
This way you’ll avoid creating content that does not need to be written, because it simply has no value whatsoever. Like the example below:
This post was probably written with one goal in mind: ranking on a few keywords. But it being of any value to an actual person is highly doubtful.
Risk 5: Looking at the wrong numbers
Which numbers do you look at in order to decide whether or not something worked? Clicks, views, sessions, interactions, new versus returning visitors, conversion rates, social shares? All and more probably. I am not trying to be exhaustive here, but I am trying to make a point: there are as many things you (can) track as there are explanations as to why X worked better than Y.
And just because you track it, does not mean it has relevance, or that it is the most relevant information.
Or, as Susanne Gebauer put it in her post False Assumptions and Wrong Metrics: ‘it might seem natural to assume that more followers will produce more clicks, and more visitors to your site will necessarily produce more sales. But in truth, there are many other factors that play a role in this: How well targeted are your followers? How well does your shared content match the interests of your followers? How well optimized is your website to convert visitors into buyers? How much do people actually want/need your product.’
Not all the available data is relevant to take into account whenever you start to write or produce. Looking at the wrong numbers can get you sidetracked, or even derailed, and this can take up a lot of your valuable time.
Tip 5: How to find the data you really need
The easiest way to avoid the trap of looking for answers in the wrong place, is to focus more on the why. Why do you want a question to be answered with data in the first place?
Be critical. What do you really need to know in order to decide on, let’s say, a topic, the length of a post or the visuals you will use? And why do you need this information?
You might discover more often than not, that you were just looking for confirmation or reassurance in data. If you already know X is the case, don’t focus on finding a lot more proof of X. Your time would probably be better spent, focussing on why X is X and not Y.
Ask a colleague – with a different job description – for feedback on what you are measuring or where you are gathering your information. But find an honest and critical one. Remember that you are not looking for compliments, but for chances to improve your system.
Risk 6: Drawing the wrong conclusions
Just because numbers seem related, does not necessarily mean they are. You would not be the first to make false assumptions or draw the wrong conclusions based on data.
How do you drill down which exact element of each individual piece worked?
What does it mean when a certain post is getting more traction than another? Was the timing better? Was the headline better? Was the targeting better? Did a famous person share it? Did you take the garbage out that day? Was it raining?
You may already assume some of these questions don’t belong in that list, but mind you: we don’t know the context.
Until you do a controlled experiment, you can’t make a cause-and-effect conclusion based on relationships you find. A-B testing can point you in the right direction, but this method may not be suitable for all of us, as it requires a large amount of impressions in order for it to be reliable.
What is feasible for everyone though, is posing a new question after each individual finding. Otherwise, there is a great risk of oversimplifying things when looking at numbers.
Tip 6: How to make a habit of thinking first, and digging into data later
Instead of using data as your starting point, do some thought experiments first. Create a list of all the questions you think you should answer in order to create the best possible content for your target audience. And don’t forget to define what ‘best possible’ means for you too.
Try connecting some dots yourself before you dig into the data. You have that amazing capability, use it before you lose it.
Risk 7: Becoming obsolete
Ultimately, purely data-driven content creation is killing our game. If we are only following the rules, content could probably be created far more efficiently by robots in the end.
It may not be long before we can easily create assignments like this: ‘@contentbot create a blog post of 1000 words about Content Marketing in the same format as the most popular posts in the industry and publish it on my blog’. Next level content automation.
Tip 7: How to beat the bots
Well, we probably can’t. But content marketers should not let data take control over their every content move. People are still better at communicating with people, because they have these social skills that bots don’t have.
Always try to create new things on top of what already is and make it your goal not just to do more of what works, but to create things that work beyond your imagination. And stay in the driver’s seat as long as cars still need drivers.
You ask the questions, bots give the answers. We still outperform robots when it comes to posing new, original questions and creating things from scratch that no one ever thought of doing before.
Tip 8: How to get better at following your gut
If you want to get better at following your instincts, the best thing you can do, is to keep experimenting with new stuff. Go with the ideas that are making your energy rise.
Things change all the time. And unless we remain open to trying not-yet-proven edgy or even slightly weird content approaches, we’d all be boring each other in no time.
Remind yourself that not everything that counts can be measured either. Leave some room for the unknown and the unexpected and embrace the fear that comes with that. It’s easier to see the light (that amazing content idea!) when you’re in a slightly dimmed room, than when there are spotlights all around you. When data is constantly everywhere, you may end up unable to see the wood for the trees.
There is no need to disregard all the useful information that’s out there. Use it. But when it comes to creating new content: flip it, twist it, tweak it, change it. Separate the data collection process, from the content creation. Not only will this keep things interesting for your audience, it will also make you feel more alive and energized on the job. And these two factors are still the ones that can make the real magic happen.
But whatever you do, be sure not to stay focussed on what is too much. Keep an eye out for what is not yet, but might very well be in the future. This way you just might be the one who creates the bandwagon, instead of the one jumping on it after everybody else did too. But to not fall behind, here are 5 Content Marketing trends of this year and beyond.
Dive into the ‘data versus common sense’ topic some more? Thinking our way through the fog. By Stephan Sigrist (W.I.R.E.) is a very interesting read.
About the Author: Sofie Angevaare is a content manager and writer from the Netherlands.
She currently lives on the island Malta (Europe) and has accumulated her content knowledge in various roles (ranging from PR consultant to inbound marketer) for international employers and clients. You can reach her on Twitter and Linkedin