About 30% of the public is currently trying to reduce their gluten intake. Why?

6% of the population is believed to have Non-Celiac Gluten Sensitivity (NCGS), which has an assortment of symptoms. So, certainly, the knowledge of that sensitivity is driving people to cut back. And the knowledge of it was largely driven by a well-performed 2011 study.

Part of the effort to cut back might also be driven by books like Grain Brain, which postures that certain diets (gluten-heavy included) can produce neurological issues.

Some folks might just see it as an opportunity to re-think a bread-heavy, American diet.

That’s a lot of people making big changes, and those changes are backed by science! Well done.

Oh wait, hold on—what’s that? NCGS might not actually exist at all? Shenanigans! Who did that recent study? Oh, the same guy who did the first study? Hmm.

So, where does that leave us?

Truth Belongs to the Most Recent Trustworthy Research

It leaves us where we always are, we just rarely get the chance to see the same person debunk themselves. Most of our scientific understanding of how anything works is only as stable and complex as the most recent research we have.

It’s always been this way, and will likely always be. New information coalesces with what we still know to be demonstrably true, and we allow our worldview to adapt.

Industry “best practices” are not immune. Ever tried to figure out how often you should blog? When you should post to your social media accounts? How to get a better email open rate? How to increase conversions?

If you read more than one article, you probably figured out that there’s rarely consensus. Even when industry leaders talk about how often to blog or when to post on social accounts, the answer is still “it depends”.

No matter how much data is collected en masse, no matter how much is parsed by smart people—”best” will always be a moving target.

“Best Practices” Should Yield to Approaches

Your knowledge of “best practices” should help you adapt your existing strategy—not help you create one. It’s easy to put the cart before the horse by letting “best practices” dictate how often and in what way you speak to your audience. Instead, you should be focused on the outcome you want and the way you want to be perceived.

For instance, if you asked Neil Patel for “best practices,” he’d lead you to very conversion-driven copy, popups, and other tactics designed to drive revenue. He’s clear on that, and I believe him. He’s an expert. But, such an approach can definitely become annoying and distracting. Is that worth the trade-off? Only you could know if that would work with your approach for your purposes.

This is why I give talks like No one cares about your content (yet): the data designed to help formulate best practices should inform a broader strategy to connect with the right people in the right way.

So, take a break from looking for this week’s new “best practice” and make sure you have a more solid approach that can scale. The former should always inform, but yield to, the latter.

May 30, 2014 — Leave a comment — In Blog, Content

In “content marketing”, the definition of these two words with the same suffix can help your project succeed. In fact, simply having a definition for them helps.

It sounds simple, but it’s not easy to commit to—especially in a team environment.

  • What is the intent of this project?
  • What is the content of this project?

I spent most of 2013 giving talks on this idea, but it boils down to consensus around and execution of the answers to these two questions.


Yes, “defining intent” is another way of saying “set expectations and goals”. The issue is that there can easily be dissonance; you are aiming for pageviews or social shares, but your boss might be aiming for advertising revenue.

It matters.

It matters because intent directly affects content’s effectiveness. It’s the container, the package, the presentation of the message. There may be fantastic coffee in that cup, but it’s leaking and OW! IT’S HOT AND THOSE ARE MY NEW PANTS WHERE ARE THE NAPKINS—

…ahem. The point is: delivery can get in the way.

Jared Spool defines design as “the rendering of intent”, and we know that users will reject a site’s content wholesale based purely on their perception of that design (Source [PDF]). You can see how things can start coming unravelled quickly. If intent is off, than the design cannot work effectively. Consensus here is necessary for both immediate effectiveness and the ability to experiment.


If your intent is anything other than the dissemination of information or edification of readers, your content is no longer just your words. For more social shares, you must consider that interaction part of your content. For more ad clicks, the ads themselves are part of the content. For more form submissions—you get the idea.

  • Is the form inviting and worth submitting? What do I get in return?
  • Does the ad come across as worth clicking? Where will I go, and what will happen?
  • Will sharing this content on a social network make me look smart?
  • Was my time well spent reading this?

Be Particular

Intent and content should be specified at each level. I’m telling you, it’s easy to just let each piece of content get sucked up into a vortex of vague techniques. But, even “content marketing” itself has its own intent and content that can get confusing.

Content marketing’s purpose is to attract and retain customers by consistently creating and curating relevant and valuable content with the intention of changing or enhancing consumer behavior. (CMI)

  • Intent: “attract and retain customers” and/or “changing or enhancing consumer behavior”
  • Content: “consistently creating and curating relevant and valuable content”

At any rate, the overall goal of a content marketing strategy is to get attention through creation and curation. That intent, then, is rendered through the design of how these things delivered, and the content (by our definition) is the consumption of those things.

Even here, words fail because words like “content” have gotten vague. Particular attention must be given to each component of a content marketing strategy.

It’s not enough to say writing consistently great content will just work. You need intent and strategy to be defined at every level.

Otherwise, you just fall victim to the Field of Dreams fallacy: if you build it, they will come. Sorry—that only works for baseball-playing ghosts in cornfields.

January 31, 2014 — Leave a comment — In Blog, Content, UX
This entry is part 7 of 7 in the series Building Better Content

ScoutmobYou don’t always need to create all new content to publish something useful for your readers.

Scoutmob has been publishing articles called “What To Do This Week, [Dates]” or “What To Do This Weekend, [Dates]” for a while now, and includes them in their newsletters. It’s a simple concept, but it perfectly complements what they offer (local deals).

In these posts, they list events by day, with a link, and address, a couple sentences, and a nearby Scoutmob deal. Here’s an example from this weekend’s:

Thursday, November 28, 9 p.m.
Wowser Bowser, White Gold & Special Guests
The Earl, 488 Flat Shoals Rd. (East Atlanta Village)

Need to flee your extended family? Shake off that tryptophan coma and head to the Earl, where old friends Wowser Bowser are once again alighting upon this town for a night of dancing away those Thanksgiving meat-sweats.

Deal nearby: The Graveyard Tavern

The magic is in the triumvirate of good content-writing techniques.

Useful, Trusted Content

The content is just plain useful already, but Scoutmob has established themselves as a trusted curator of local culture. Just by seeing an event on their list, you know you’ve got a good shot at a good time. It’s a trusted source giving you timely, useful information that helps you out—and with no trickery. You don’t have to give Scoutmob anything to get a link to that event. Be wary of adding friction.

Personality in Curation

If you’ve read or seen anything by Scoutmob, you know they’ve held steady on a certain personality in all their marketing. Suggesting events is no exception—even here, they offer two sentences that are not only brilliantly crafted (as usual), but also helpfully concise. Resist the urge to overdo it and detract from the value you’re giving the user. Besides, it wouldn’t be like Scoutmob to get in the way of the information itself—wouldn’t you like that reputation?

The Tie-in

Their call to action is fairly subtle, but it works better that way. They know that you’re likely to plan either a meal or drinks around an event, so they go ahead and recommend their nearest deal—that’s it. They don’t have to hit you over the head with it, because it’s contextualized and relevant.

Let Scoutmob inspire you if you’re looking to nail brand personality. Beyond that, though, they can teach us plenty about meeting people where they are and meeting their needs (aka offering services) when and how they need it.

November 30, 2013 — Leave a comment — In Blog, Branding, Content, UX

Summary: You don’t need quirk to apply personality to your content. Embracing that existing personality, in context, will help you create better content that’s more relevant and engaging.

I’ve given a talk many times over the past year called “No one cares about your content (yet)”, which is primarily designed to help give a framework for consistently relevant content creation. I argue therein that the focus on consistency in output (“we need to blog every day”) often leads to less helpful or interesting content—if you don’t have a way to stay relevant. I then propose that viewing content as a conversation can lead to being sustainably relevant because it forces you to impose social mores and understand a user’s underlying assumptions.

That’s a whole talk, but I want to briefly focus on the concept of “brand personality” in content creation.

PersonalityI gave a very focused version of this talk this past week at Conversion Conference in Berlin, and I spent some time on the idea that personality is what we look at in others that often determines whether we enjoy their company or not. It’s something that simply matches up with others and creates great friendships. Just as well, a personality can repel us from others, or cause others not to engage with us at all. Though it can be somewhat divisive, it’s useful for ensuring everyone’s needs are met.

In this same vein, I propose that brands need to find their personality and express it fully. This concept isn’t original to me; I borrow heavily from the popular Designing for Emotion by Aarron Walter. But, after some discussion following my talk in Berlin, I understand how this can be confusing for many companies—after all, the example I gave for personality was Wistia, and Aarron showcases brands like Tapbots and Carbonmade.

“We can’t have quirky cartoon mascots or funny animations. We don’t have a heartwarming, emotional backstory. We just do X.”

Here’s the thing: you still have a brand personality—it’s the context that’s different.

When you (as a person) interview for a new job, you’re essentially just sitting at a table with a few different people and talking about work. If you’re like most folks, you want to be yourself, but you also want to make a positive impression. Now, consider how these two situations would differ:

  • You’re meeting three people you’ve never talked to at their office, which you’ve never been to.
  • You’re meeting three people you’ve never talked to at a bar you’ve never been to.

Just that singular shift in context will likely affect your dress and demeanor—probably even your body language. You’ll adapt your personality to suit your context. But, in either case, you’ll want to show that you’re smart, well-spoken, friendly, and appropriately funny (maybe).

If your company provides enterprise-level IT security, you probably don’t want bright colors and animations and sarcasm defining your brand. That doesn’t mean that you don’t have a personality, though! You’re intelligent, attentive, alert, and focused. You don’t need quirk to apply personality to your content.

A great, basic step to discovering this for any brand is to talk to your existing customers and ask them to describe you as a company. See what adjectives start popping up, and compare those with adjectives you’d like to see used. Pick a few of those, and use that as a starting point. Filter every piece of content through those adjectives. When you’re ready to write a new blog post, ask yourself, “Is this article X, Y, and Z?” If you’re not sure, ask someone who’s not involved in the process, and get a truly objective opinion.

Embracing your personality, in context, will help you create better content that’s more relevant and engaging.

November 11, 2013 — Leave a comment — In Blog, Branding, Content
This entry is part 6 of 7 in the series Building Better Content

The vast majority of companies who send me advertisements in the mail are wasting their time and money—but not Trader Joe’s. I always look forward to reading their monthly Fearless Flyer and I’m not alone. Far from just a periodical listing of groceries on sale this month, this nearly 20-year-old publication is engaging and fun while also letting me know what the latest deals are. That’s a crucial distinction.

How do they do it? In their own words, the Fearless Flyer is:

A cross between Consumer Reports and Mad Magazine, The Fearless Flyer is kind of like a newsletter, a catalog and a bit of a comic book all at the same time.

To me, the most important thing they choose to do differently is choosing to write great descriptions of products (that feel much more like stories) instead of stuffing the entire page with name-image-price blocks. For instance, here’s a snippet from their latest edition.

Aioli Garlic Mustard SauceAioli Garlic Mustard Sauce

No Mere Mustard, This.

Trader Joe’s Aioli Garlic Mustard Sauce takes the very idea of mustard and stands it on its head, throws it for a loop, and flies it in the face of expectation. Literally translated to “garlic” (ai) and “oil” (oli), aioli is what gives this creative condiment its cachet. With a base of not-too-pungent mustard, the mixture of garlic, oil, and egg contribute a smooth, mellow, garlicky creaminess that makes this mustard unique among its peers. The mustard flavor shines through, with a garlicky accent that improves everything it touches. Dipping sauce for fries? Check. Spread for a burger or hot dog bun? Check. Ingredient in one-of-a-kind salad dressings? Check. Dip for veggies? Check. Only 10 calories per serving? Check, please! We’re selling each nine ounce jar of Trader Joe’s Aioli Garlic Mustard Sauce for $2.49, a price you’ll definitely want to check out. You’ll find it in our grocery aisle.

Sure: after reading that, I know what the product is, how much is costs, and where to find it—but I’m so much more interesting in finding out what this would go well with than I ever would have been with just a name and image.

In addition to great copywriting, Trader Joe’s has also made an online version available (and useful) without making the print version irrelevant. They’re two unique experiences without having to rewrite all the content!

The Fearless Flyer is a case study in engaging writing, personality, and stewardship of mailing lists (both electronic and traditional). How can you make your product descriptions something that customers look forward to reading?

August 5, 2013 — 1 Comment — In Blog, Branding, Content, UX