What Makes Content Resonate? Q&A With Doug Kessler

What Makes Content Resonate? Q&A With Doug Kessler

Lena Prickett 3/29/16

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If there’s one thing content marketers can safely say based on their 2016 experience so far is that content production isn’t slowing down. The amount of material buyers have at their current disposal is unprecedented. For a quick snapshot of what I mean, here are three quick facts:

  • The average social media user sees roughly 285 content pieces per day.
  • The average consumer receives 416 commercial emails a month — that’s before personal and work-related emails.
  • 76% of marketers plan to create more content in 2016 than 2015. 

That’s some stiff competition. What those facts really point to is that simply producing more content, even really good content, doesn’t cut it anymore.

So what can a marketer do? Well, the answer is not to create less content – that is also not an option. The key is to continue to create more content, but with an obsessive focus on what really triggers a reaction with your audience, with what resonates

Now, that is like 1,000x easier to say than execute. Creating highly-engaging and resonant content takes a lot of insight, creativity, and planning.

Fortunately, we recently had the opportunity to discuss content resonance with an expert in the category, Doug Kessler. Readers unfamiliar with Doug might still know his famous SlideShare titled “Crap” with a subtitle of  “Why the Single Biggest Threat to Content Marketing Is Content Marketing.”

Read on to learn Doug’s tactics in the creation process and what components help make a piece of content resonate.

1. So what does come to mind for you when you think about the word “resonance”? 

It’s a word I use a hell of a lot. There’s a whole lot of words people use for great content, but they’re not… none of them quite do what resonance does; so I do find myself using it a lot. I like the kind of visceral feeling of something resonating – like when you strike a bell and it vibrates and it puts out a sound. And so the idea that you can make a person resonate like that – ding ‘em in just the right way and they start humming.  

Every time we create content, from the very, very beginning, we think, “What will resonate with this audience?” You can’t just say, “What will resonate out there?” It’s, “What will resonate with this audience?” and that specific empathy seems to be the heart of resonance.

Understanding, putting yourself in the place of your target audience – the person you’re writing to – and, really thinking, “What will they care about?” What will make them not just engage with it but push them beyond engagement. I think that resonance is about inciting action, not just changing someone's mind about something.

So we’ll ask every client, “Please hook us up with some phone calls with your customers or people who haven’t bought.” And the calls we have, aren’t so much about the deep content of the call. We want to hear them talk. We want to hear them talk about their world, their challenges, their frustrations and how the words they use and the kind of person they are. Whenever we get it, we get that clicking sound of “Ah ha! Now I’m writing to this person,” and the chances of resonating go way up when you’ve got that in your head.

2.  In your famous SlideShare presentation, “Crap,” you described successful content as intelligent, useful, and entertaining. Do you think that resonance needs to hit on all three of those? Or can there just be one or two of those traits?

I think that you probably need at least two out of the three – to some degree. Like utility doesn’t actually have to be there. For instance, in B2C markets, or even in some B2B, it can all be about an idea, a feeling, or a thought. And it doesn’t have to be particularly helpful or useful. I do feel like, in a consumer market, simply entertaining could be absolute. If it’s just super entertaining, it can be super effective and resonate in that way. 

But it’s hard to get around intelligence. Certainly in B2B you want it to be smart. You want people to feel that you’re sharing something that is incisive and that really encapsulates the issue really well. And then of course, utility – what’s in it for me, the reader? Now if you can dial all those up for something useful, smart, and fun to read, easy to consume – it’ll have some real momentum. Put all of those together and it’s not a bad formula for resonance.

3. Obviously this is something that’s really, really hard for a lot of marketers. Why do you think that marketers have such a hard time with resonance? What makes this so difficult?

I think there are two parts – one is that I don’t think people are really trying. It’s not that they don’t care, but that they don’t really make it a goal. They want to make a credible piece of content, and they go through the motions to do that and they get it over a certain threshold and that’s fine; good enough, you know? I think that’s actually the lion’s share of why people make content that doesn’t resonate – it’s that they never actually set out to do so. 

Another thing is that it’s not the first thing that comes to mind when you sit to write. It’s not that first thing that hits your head. You need to torture test it – you need to rework it, you need to dump it if it’s not working, you need to listen hard to people and also fight for it. 

But then, often what kills concepts that might’ve resonated is the committee thing – too many people weighing in with too many worries and concerns. It loses that ability to resonate – that edge – and it gets all fuzzy and safe and middle-groundy.

4. For marketers in more of a demand gen role who run and plan campaigns, but are not necessarily the main creators of the content, how can they best guide or articulate the urgency for resonance to their team?

The most important thing I think a person can do is to set the ambition ceiling and set it really, really high. Inject ambition right up front and say, “I want this to be the best thing on the Internet for this topic. I want this to blow people away!”  The creators of the content have to care the most, you know? 

And I also think there needs to be a little bit of a hardass element to the process. We’re all very kind. Marketers are nice people, generally, a few assholes just like anywhere else, but mainly nice people. And sometimes, we don’t say the hard things to each other – the candor of saying “not good enough,” or “Nice try but it’s just not resonating with me.”  So don’t let it go if it’s not resonating with you. Send it back. You’re not going to make instant friends, but over time, people will respect you more and not give in to, “I don’t want Bob to have to do draft seven. He’s struggling. Let’s just publish.”

5. You mentioned that resonance should take someone “to the point of an action.” Do you think that there’s some sort of connection between an interactive experience and resonance?

I do. I think that the interactivity isn’t necessarily a prerequisite. But I do think that by definition, you’re engaging someone if you’re asking them to interact with your content, so the likelihood of resonating goes up. Your chance of resonating, your window of opportunity, is open for longer if you can get someone interacting with you and your content. It doesn’t mean that you’ll seize that opportunity. You could squander it and waste it, so the interactivity doesn’t guarantee that itself – but what it does do is create opportunities for it. Everyone’s so click-happy and getting away from stuff so fast that if you can slow them down, and get them to think and interact and engage, then you’ve got a way better chance of getting some resonance.

One of the first jobs is can you get someone to lean forward? What you do with that lean forward is your next challenge, but first you’ve got to get them to lean forward. They have to care enough to lean, and getting them interacting in an intelligent way would be a really strong way to do that.

6. Are there tools or techniques or processes that you rely on when you are producing a piece of content you want to resonate?

I would say a big thing is to not get to the paper too fast. I think you really need to frontload the creation and planning process. That’s where all the hard work is – knowing your story, your audience, your approach, and then start writing. And during that process, don’t always accept that first idea, because a lot of what resonates in marketing is marketing that breaks convention - that doesn’t look like marketing. 

So what we need to do is tease out those conventions, expose them and break or bend them. One popular technique is the Negation Technique, where the first thing that comes to your head is credible and reasonable and probably expected. But what would the opposite look like? How would you tell the exact opposite story if your first thing is, say, “CRM is essential to marketing success.” Well, what about the opposite? What would it look like to start talking about a world without CRM?

We try our best to build in playtime around ideas. Brainstorms can be play; they can be mind map kind of sessions where all bets are off, you’re not constrained much at all and you’re riffing on ideas.

I do think that great content has a kernel of insight; a little kernel of psychological insight, some truth, about that target audience. And that truth was that someone had it as an “Ah ha” moment and that was the seed of the great content. 

One great example is, “Dumb Ways to Die”, that wonderful piece about train track safety. It’s just absolutely brilliant and super successful and, I think the grain of insight there was, for young people especially: fear of embarrassment is actually a lot more motivating than fear of death. And that little “ah ha” moment – kids actually care more about the dumb part than the dying part – that released this wonderful idea into the wild. The agency, of course, executed it brilliantly, but it had that kernel of insight. That lovely little insight. And that may have come from some playtime.

Want to Know More?

Have a question of your own for Doug? We’ll make it happen. Sign up for our upcoming webinar featuring Doug Kessler, and our SVP of Marketing, Aaron Dun: How to Make Content That Matters: A Conversation With Doug Kessler About Resonance.


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