Why we create crap content: We’re afraid

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crap content

By Mark Schaefer

An industry “thought leader” recently characterized me as a “loose cannon.”

I found this surprising since this implies there’s a set of standards and expectations that I am not following in a lockstep fashion.

His statement pissed me off (momentarily), and I am not easily pissed off.  Who is setting these industry expectations and rules? And who believes they are in a position to judge me, or anybody, for honest opinions that may not swim in the marketing mainstream?

It occurs to me that this sort of elitist arrogance is precisely why so many people create crap content.

We create crap content because we’re afraid.

Afraid of getting fired.

Afraid of being wrong.

Afraid of standing out.

Afraid of rocking the boat.

Afraid being criticized.

Afraid of not fitting in.

Afraid of being a loose cannon.

The social media/ content world is one of immense pressure for conformity because we want to fit in so we are invited to speak at an industry conference. Because we want to make a “list,” or gain a mention or a tweet from “an influencer.”

This dynamic came home to me in a very personal way the other day when somebody told me, “It’s not easy questioning an influencer like you.”


Who am I to you? If you took a stand against me or another “influencer,” wouldn’t the world be a better for it? Wouldn’t YOU be better for the debate and the fact that people would observe you as somebody who is willing to take a stand?

Social media and professional fear

This idea of professional fear in the social media world is nothing new. The first “controversial” post I wrote was published seven years ago. I pointed out that the social media world is a country club where people just say nice things to each other all the time in hopes of returned favors. I was new to this world of clannish protectionism and pointed out that without debate there is only stagnation and “group think.”

I was so nervous when I hit the publish button that day! But here was the reaction from many readers: “Thank goodness somebody finally had the guts to say this!”

How can you be “authentic” without ever disagreeing with anybody? How can you be interesting and human without being honestly curious, bemused, or conflicted once in awhile?

Over the years I have publicly challenged an opinion from nearly every “influencer” out there, including Jay Baer, Mitch Joel, Marcus Sheridan, Gini Dietrich, Jason Falls, Gary Vaynerchuk, Chris Brogan, and many others (and they have all taken their shots at me too!). And guess what? We’re all still friends. The Earth did not split open and swallow me up because I had a dissenting point of view.

I never attack people, I attack problems, and if you’re a professional, why wouldn’t you appreciate and even enjoy that type of dialogue?

Adding your voice in a meaningful way

If you have a worthy insight, share it. If you have data that suggests somebody is incorrect, why not have the courage to say so? Is the risk of challenging the status quo real, or perceived?

To stand out today, you need to come up with something better than the same old “10 Ways to Create Better B2B Content” crap. How many times has that been written?

Do. Something. New.

To stand out you need to be original, and to be original, you must have the courage to add your own story and ideas, opinions, passions, objections, dissensions, and observations.

If you don’t believe me, there is research to back me up. Buzz Sumo did an analysis of the content that gets the most shares and links (shown to be an important factor in search engine ranking). The top posts in the world had these characterstics:

  1. Authoritative content that answers popular questions, such as ‘what is ..?’
  2. Strong opinion posts
  3. Content that provides original research and insights
  4. Content that leverages a trending topic but that also provides practical insights
  5. Authoritative news content on new products or developments

Authoritative. Strong. New. Insights. Original.

Content that is bold, takes a stand, and goes against the grain makes a difference. Perhaps it is your only way to stand out on the web today.

I’m not suggesting to be controversial for the sake of controversy. That is not a sustainable strategy. That makes you a bully. But when you are unafraid to say what is in your heart and mind, and you say it in a professional and caring way, that establishes you as a true thought leader.

And we all benefit from loose cannons like that.

SXSW 2016 3Mark Schaefer is the chief blogger for this site, executive director of Schaefer Marketing Solutions, and the author of several best-selling digital marketing books. He is an acclaimed keynote speaker, college educator, and business consultant.  The Marketing Companion podcast is among the top business podcasts in the world.  Contact Mark to have him speak to your company event or conference soon. 

Illustration courtesy Thomas Heaton

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  • If you’re a loose cannon, please fire away. The “country club” still exists, but, to misquote Groucho, why be a member of a club that would have you? The country club has its members and they have their orthodoxies. But, as Nietzsche said, “A casual stroll through the lunatic asylum shows that faith does not prove anything.”

  • Just remember that a loose cannon can be more easily moved around to shoot at the right target.

  • When I read your first line, I went, what? That implies shots across bows instead of the thoughtful content you write, but as I kept read,ing you made me smile. And then nod. Yes, we need to be brave in this brave new world. Our ideas need to be challenged, tested for strength and durability. So thank you for being a loose cannon, though I’d rather call you a good teacher. I’ve learned so very much since I stumbled across your blog.

  • I only follow loose cannons. #disrupt

  • Loose cannon? Where? I love loose cannons?

    No, seriously, if someone’s producing content that just echoes what they’re seeing everywhere else, why bother?

  • Pingback: Why we create crap content: We're afraid | Wood...()

  • Great post. I would add that “we” or in this case “I” create crap content by not being willing to sometimes put in the hard work needed to create something that matters. Deep down, I know when i have written something that I really want to someone to read and share versus the times (fortunately not too often) where I create just to keep to my publsihing goals.

  • Mark, as often I totally agree with you. We all tend for want to be part of a group, whether it’s the social media people, the content marketing people, the content strategy people or whatever. The downside of it is that so many publish the same sh*t than everyone else, with a slight nuance to it. Because you want to rank for it as well. Because that’s what “thought leaders” say. But all those people kind of drown in a sea of similar content… (by the way, allow me to quote the great M. Porter: “The granddaddy of all mistakes is competing to be the best, going down the same path as everybody else and thinking that somehow you can achieve better results.”)

    Its easy to create tweetable stuff that sounds smart. But actually sounding smart is something else. You are one of the only blogs I keep coming back to, because I know your ambition is to be thought provoking with each post. And it take some “out of the box” thinking for that. Keep doing what you do! 🙂

  • ^ rocket fuel! : )

  • True Patrick, it does take commitment.

  • Exactly.

  • Me too

  • Aww. You made my day. I am a teacher in all I do. Even when I rant : )

  • Ha! Rumble on.

  • Well said.

  • Who called you a “loose canon”, Mark? Did I miss a fight somewhere????
    Regardless of who called you that, you already proved your point in the first two lines. It takes some element of conflict to craft a good story. Otherwise it’s just… wel… not a good story. Journalists know this. In this content marketing era it puzzles me that marketers are just slowly starting to understand this pretty basic requirement to master storytelling.
    We need more voice and less how-to-articles. Thanks for reminding us, Mark.

  • Agree with that point and thanks for commenting!

  • Fahad Javed Siddiqui

    “To stand out today, you need to come up with something better than the same old ’10 Ways to Create Better B2B Content’ crap. How many times has that been written?

    Do. Something. New.”

    Couldn’t agree more with this statement Mark! Sadly, originality is often sacrificed in order to get hasty results. That must always be avoided!

  • Goodness! Absolutely loved this article Mark. I was just thinking to myself the other day (and also chatting with a biz bud) about this exact subject…there are too many “YES” men (and women) out there in the blogging and social media world.

    As far as crap content goes…. yes there is definitely a lot of that going on. After reading your book the content code, I have been trying my BEST to stay away from writing content that blends in with what everryyyyyybody else is writing.
    As someone else stated below — surprised to hear that someone called you a “loose cannon”? — Because you challenge the norm? Sheesh…guess we all should walk around as “wind up and go dolls” 🙂
    Have a great day Mark!

  • I’m a realist. Sometimes you need hasty results! But I agree with your point Fahad!

  • Rock it Kim. You are going to be great. Unleash you.

  • Ironic that none of the commenters are disagreeing with you. So let me be the first to partially disagree and shoot my cannon.

    First though, what I agree with. Having a different point of view and expressing it are immensely valuable if done constructively. We don’t learn anything when everyone always agrees and tries to be just like the cool kids. No question, it’s gratifying when everyone agrees with you, but it’s not helpful, especially if another perspective could have been added, or an error identified, or an unasked question surfaced.

    My disagreement is with the notion that people create crap because they’re afraid. I think some may be afraid to express a different point of view, but that’s not the reason they produce crap — it’s more likely a reason to produce nothing at all, because putting yourself out there, even if you agree by and large with the consensus opinion is risky and invites criticism no matter what you say.

    I think the bigger reason is that it is damn hard to produce good content, as Patrick adds below. It’s a lot of work, and it takes time, commitment, skill and brainpower. It means saying no to listicles and other click bait which has no other real purpose. It means editing your work so that its not only meaningful, but well-crafted and captures attention and interest. It means having something different to say (which can be surprisingly difficult sometimes). It means that if the idea needs 2000 words to dig in deep, instead of the more common 200 that everyone says you should stick to, you write the longer piece and trust that intelligent readers will be drawn to it.

    Mark, you are a skilled writer, who can not only tell a good story and express himself well, but because of your training, you can also do it quickly, efficiently, and persuasively. I don’t know if you underestimate how rare that combination is, but let’s face it, there’s a reason other than your salesmanship that you are a best-selling author of multiple books.

    I think we need to recognize and admit that quality is difficult, but then also acknowledge why it’s worth doing, even when you are less skilled, slow, can’t find the time, and are tempted to just do the easy thing because it’s easy. If we frame the benefits of investing that hard work and contributing a novel perspective, that is more likely to be the motivation and encouragement people need to create quality.

    And yes, some times people are afraid of being the ‘tall poppy’.

  • We don’t disagree. I never said quality is easy. It’s very hard work.

  • True, you didn’t say that. But you did say crap gets created because we’re afraid. I don’t think that’s the reason.

  • Rats, been out and totally missed all the fun! I’d argue the ‘thought leader’ you mention, isn’t. If we all keep ‘firing away’ things will progress. If we don’t, the issues being challenged will run over us like the proverbial ‘freight train’.

    Most ‘thought leaders’ are just promoters of the status quo.

  • It’s one reason.

  • Thanks for the support on that Steve.

  • Pingback: 6 Reasons to Follow {grow} If You Are in The Business of Growing! – #CBUS111: Content Creation()

  • catherine philibert

    I had a real good time reading your post. Congratulations. Lots of what’s going on around us is a matter or having or not having the guts to speak loud. When you are en employee, it’s probably more secure to produce crap that pleases your manager than taking risks to produce good content your customers or prospects are looking for. Thanks for sharing! (sorry about the mistakes, I am french).

  • Merci, Catherine!

  • I wanna say I hate that post, you know to stand out, but I just can’t. Fantastic work and thanks for saying what so many of us are thinking.

    I would expect over the coming weeks to see a flurry of copycat posts, meaning that my Twitter feed will be full of article after article about how to be original. That’s some top-level irony right there.

    Maybe I’ll write about that… 😉

  • Stay centered and persevere. Thanks for commenting.

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