Updated: Jul 5, 2019
This is not a top 10 takeaways listicle. Or a shameless crop of speaker quotes to get retweets. This is a story of a thrifty writer who went to Content Marketing World in Cleveland, the apparent “Capital of Content,” thanks to doubling down on promo codes. It was everything—and nothing I expected.
Cult of Orange Kool-Aid
If you didn’t know this by now, the Content Marketing Institute LOVES its orange. A lot. I urge you to bring shades if you go to CMW. Be prepared for hordes of attendees that wear it on various parts of their bodies; from hats to shoes to everything in-between. Then there are the signage, carpet, and yes, even orange food-colored products (that I did not imbibe in). In my complete ignorance of Planet Orange, I thought it would be mildly amusing to wear my coincidentally-coral top to the first evening reception. Bad idea. I became an instant, unwilling cult participant. Part of me likes the rah-rah team spirit and the other thinks it’s a tad creepy. I do love purple, so maybe if it was Planet Purple I could have gotten into the color craze more.
Run With Precision of Surgery
Speaking as a former event planner and attendee of a bajillion conferences, it’s my second nature to find mistakes or mental note what I would change–-you know for the fun of it and to feel superior. But I was hard-pressed to find any major boo-boos no matter how hard I tried. CMW was a well-oiled logistics machine from start to finish. The sessions started on time, the speakers were 90% top notch, and the events were memorable. Even the most basic details like lunches—normally a hassle when you have to leave the conference or sit in a stuffy banquet room— were grab-and-go to run to a session or hang out at the convention center. It’s a detail, but one that makes a difference in the overall experience. The opening reception held in the newly-revamped Flats area had it all: food, drinks, a pool, networking, groovy lighting, content geeks awkwardly dancing. But it worked. Cheap Trick concert in one word: epic. Though I loved them when I was a teen, I wasn’t that excited, thinking they were more AARP than OMG. Boy was I wrong, these badasses put on a rockin’ show. I even got one of the guitar picks that was tossed in the audience! #groupiemoment
Mix and Match Theme
Make no mistake: the theme of the show was “Content Strikes Back” and there were Star Wars posters everywhere, cheesy references to it in most presentations, and the grand stage opened with Joe Pulizzi on a starship deck that looked like it came from community theater (I think on purpose?). Added strange bonus: Pulizzi’s ending included a contentized Matrix scene, replete with Keanu Reeve’s trademark black jacket. Similarly, many attendees, including myself, wondered what the hell the former Luke Skywalker could contribute to the content conversation. But we were wrong—the guy proved to be an engaging, funny, and honest speaker about celebrity content and could talk a good game about his Twitter-follower competition with Carrie Fisher. He even trashed Star Wars franchise for making him lose 50 pounds for his one scene in “The Force Awakens”that only showed his face. Other daily keynotes were engaging—in fact the speaker with the highest rating automatically gets top spot at the start of the conference.
Attack of the Corporate Packs
There are an estimated 3,500 people that attended CMW event from 50 countries and 50 of the Fortune 100. In other words, the vast majority are from a corporate environment, which was evident through the massive content marketing teams traveling in packs. Armed with occasional orange clothing and an expense account, the roamed the convention center hallways in droves. Admittedly, I did feel like an oddball as a freelancer. But there were plenty of friendly people to network with. It would have been more inclusive, however, to have sessions catering to us content outliers.The closest was one on best practices to hire freelance writers (you can bet I was there). There was also a “Writing Salon” for consultants in the spiffy new Hilton, away from the action. In the future, I would like to see more events for corporate and freelancers to network directly.
Dare to be “Different” or Die
Remember I said this won’t be a list of takeaways? Indulge me with my few random observations. Speakers in many of the sessions said in their own unique way that content has reached peak so you must think and do differently. As content marketers, we can no longer crank out the same old stuff—with so much noise you absolutely, unequivocally must stand out. Obvious yes, but how to get around it? Idea-planting included: call attention to a provocative question that no one else answers in the industry; take a stand on an industry issue; find that missing stat and capitalize on it in a big way; extract insight from data for a non-obvious answer; dig for interesting correlations and weird ideas to pounce on; come up with “unthinkable” ideas no one else is doing (like freeing gated content or doing a negative campaign that speaks the truth). Though none of these ideas were exclusively new, together they lent a shot of creativity and deeper thought to bring home.
Fuzzy Line Between Journalism and Content: Demolished
As a former journalist (and a cynical reporter at heart) I was surprised, elated and deflated to see that the rise of “brand newsrooms” (oxymoron anyone?) is a real, established thing. Among content marketers and journalists alike, there is a resigned acceptance that newspapers are dying, content is thriving, and a way to make a buck on the side (which has become the main entree). As one speaker and former reporter put it: journalists don’t think they need anything from content, but content marketers know they need journalists. A journalism style brings a dose of reality to content. In essence, the mindset of journalism can lead to greater content marketing. We should always be asking ourselves with every piece of content we produce: will it pass skeptic test? The only thing I disagreed with: that the pace of content marketing is significantly slower than daily deadlines of journalism, but then again, maybe it’s just my clients (and you know who you are).
KISS Principle lives aka no Friction
Several speakers focused on the importance of content simplicity from writing to delivery. Cut the resistance between where you are and where you want to go to make it easier for your readers. We’re not just left-brained or right-brained about decision-making. Our reptilian brain likes simple choices and hates change. This or that. Chocolate or vanilla. Try or buy. That also means that content should stay away from any sort of difficult, interruptive reading experiences, like rotating banners or tons of links. We need to prepare and communicate our content simply, elegantly and concisely, whether it’s an ad campaign, landing page, a blog post or even social media post. Another fact: Consumers don’t care where they get their information from, they just want it. So don’t be concerned about “credit,” be concerned about giving readers what they want—they’ll thank you later. Again, not rocket science, but good to remind ourselves of every time we’re producing content, it’s not about us, it’s about freely delivering value and and solving problems for our readers. In other words, the fantastically-jargonny word: customer centricity.
My content marketing awards
Unsurprisingly, the award session didn’t include best freelance content marketer of the year or other honored oddities. However, I’ve devised some of my own to fill in the gap. You’re welcome.
Best opportunity: 1% on the web are creating content, the rest are lurkers and contributors; this means infinite opportunity for content creators who want mindshare to be a leader not sheep
Best reality check: You may have great content, but quality alone cannot overcome the competitive landscape
Best quote: If you’re writing for everyone, you’re not writing for anyone
Best anti-best practice: Don’t follow best practices, great marketers craft their own
Strangest buzzphrase: “children of personas”: I dare you to bring it up in your next content strategy meeting just to see the dazed expressions
Most unrealistic concept: “empathy meetings”one presenter said, is when he meets with clients weekly to discuss and solve core problems; My empathy starts when I have to go to a meeting at all
Most overused word: Friction—it just rubs me the wrong way
Best live tweeting: Selfie Humblebrag aka @Shumblebrag. Brilliant at keeping the pretention, ridiculousness, and conference clichés in check. We need more of that—everywhere.
In a nutshell, I think CMW was worth the price (including my discounts, of course). It was some good learning, easy networking, and fun entertainment—but please don’t expect me to wear orange next year.
Author’s note: Next post I’ll be taking a look at the content produced by CMW trade show exhibitors to assess who is eating their own dog food and who needs to bulk up.