The Perpetual Motion of Content Marketing

People have a natural desire to see the world as a series of beginnings and endings. Sunrise, sunset. Summer, winter. Life, death. It feels right when things start and finish. It feels resolved. Complete. And this desire for endings might be baked into the delicious nougat-centre of who we are.

Literary critic Frank Kermode used the metaphor of a clock to sum this up. When we listen to a clock counting down the seconds (you know, in the run up to lunchtime), we hear it merrily tick-tock away. But the sound a clock makes is actually just a “tick”. Our brains make up the tock so it seems different.

“Tick,” Kermode says “is a humble genesis, tock a feeble apocalypse.” The brains of our ape ancestors can’t just hear a sound being repeated forever. Something in us needs to split it into an initial tick and a closing tock. Start, finish.

In much the same way, some people will try and suggest that content marketing as something that can be “finished”. A binary state that, once achieved, can be ticked (or tocked) off. You’ve got your e-book, some blog posts around it, and some cool infographics for socials. Mission accomplished, on to the next big thing. What are these SEOs I’ve been hearing about? Let’s buy ten.

Now I’m sure you don’t need me to tell you that this isn’t the case. After all, you’re here. You’re one of the good guys. You know what’s up.

Content marketing isn’t a clock, just ticking away. It’s more than that. In fact, content marketing is about as close as humanity has come to inventing the perpetual motion machine.

Every piece you make generates a few more ideas, which can link back to the original. Then these ideas generate more ideas. Then other employees see these ideas and feel inspired, and come to you with their ideas. Customers get involved and share what they’d like to see, things you’d never even though of. And all that while that initial idea is still bringing in new people, as are all the subsequent steps.

See, content shouldn’t be that thing you have to do for a while to get people in. It’s not a necessary evil you have to endure in the modern marketing world. Content should be the reason you leap out of bed in the morning. It’s the story of who you are, what you do, why it matters and how you do it best.

The key is using constant goals to be started and completed. Complete your first e-book, set up that newsletter you’ve been talking about. Get ten blog posts under your belt. There should always be a goal that you’ll complete, a new achievement that you’ll accomplish, an artificial ending just around the corner to keep that monkey-brain happy.

But we know the secret. It’s never done, it just keeps moving, stronger than ever.

Maybe it’s time you started taking content marketing seriously?

Tick tock.

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Giving Databases Their Fairy-Tale Ending

After Fundraising Magazine named me one of their 25 Under 35, they invited me to be part of a talk they were giving. Of course I said yes – they appealed directly to my biggest weakness, the biggest weakness of any marketer, my ego (after which they then appealed to my second biggest weakness, the promise of a free breakfast).

That night I rushed out to excitedly tell my friends.

“That’s great!” they said. “What’s the talk about?”

“Database management!” I replied excitedly.

Their enthusiasm vanished.

Now databases can seem boring. Not to me obviously, hence why I’m writing a blog post on those bad boys. But some people definitely view the exciting world of CRM systems with a sigh, rather than a cheer.

So how do you get staff excited about your shiny new database?

Well, if you take the build-it-and-they-will-come approach, you will fail. If your approach is to try and get staff buy-in with talk of “a 12% increase in efficiency”, you will fail. If you go for a carrot-and-stick approach, hoping that if the habit is strong enough they’ll carry on using it even when you stop supplying weekly baked-goods, you will fail.

No, you use something far more powerful.

Stories.

Databases aren’t statistics. A database is the collection of fascinating people who want to be involved with the amazing work you do. Every single entry is someone who has given something to support you, whether it’s their time, money, or just an email address for now.

These are people who want to change the world. It’s your job to help them do that.

Charities have nothing to sell to donors. There’s no physical product, no service, no transaction that you can offer (besides the warm, fuzzy feeling, which is admittedly pretty damn nice). All charities have to sell is a story. So they’re usually pretty good at it.

So why not use those skills on our own people?

Instead of demanding colleagues get excited about data input and field values, give them a reason. Show them how it helps. Tell them the stories behind what they’re doing, and the life-changing impact it will have. They’re a dedicated, passionate workforce who care about your cause so make them hungry to get their hands on their new database and unleash its potential.

Tell stories like:

  • Sally graduated from university two months ago. She’s currently interning with a big law firm, making barely enough money to live in the capital, but she still manages to give £3 a month to support our cause. She doesn’t like direct mail (she’s renting so she moves around too much) but she reads all the emails we send her, and is interested in other ways to help.

  • Brendan got in touch a last week to make a £200 donation. After a call to thank him, it turned out the money was in memory of Tim, a member of Brendan’s football team who sadly passed away from cancer. The money was collected from all the other teammates, none of whom know much about cancer. They would love to do an awareness day or something, they just don’t know how.

  • As a retired nurse, Harriet can’t really afford to make a regular donation, but the W.I. group she belongs to hold a bake sale once a month to raise money for different causes. When it was Harriet’s turn to pick the charity, she chose us. She has an email address, but never really checks it, so would much rather have a phone call. She thinks that, with the right information, she might be able to get the W.I. to hold a special fundraising event.

A well-organised database makes all of this information available in a few clicks. It’s not about making more work for staff, it’s about knowing who’s in your army trying to change the world.

And of all the stories your cause can tell, there’s none more powerful than that.

If you want to get in touch and ask any questions about storytelling in the charity sector, check out my contact page.

My First Published Story

This week my writing hit a pretty special milestone. It was a milestone that I’ve dreamed of since, as an impressionable 10 year old, I met a writer and asked him how I could become a writer too (of course he said “Write.”).

This week I had my first ever story published.

Back at the beginning of the year I made my first submission to Writing Magazine. I’d never sent a story out before, to them or anyone else, so it was a bit nerve-wracking. What if they laughed at it? Or, in the case of the funny bits, didn’t?

Then a few months later I heard it was going to be on the site. (And a week or so after that I got a cheque in the post, literally doubling my income from writing in the 18 years since I met that writer). It took me two years of reading the magazine, and many more years of writing to finally send something off, but I’d done it and got through.

It’s amazing that a little story I came up with after a long day at work managed to not only get me selected, but received some wonderful comments from the judges. I’ve not had feedback on my writing since GCSE English. I’ve written a lot, and friends have all said nice things. I even won an award for my blog. But no one objective had commented on my work.

So I can’t begin to describe what a boost it was when I read this:

Like all the best short stories, though, at the core of Heaven is something that twists the way the its reader sees the world. It’s a very entertaining story that wears itself very lightly: beneath its whimsical humour, it is clever, witty, philosophical and at the end, profound and moving about the nature of love.

If I never write again, I know that a random story I made up after tea one day did, at some point, mean something to someone. And that’s incredible.

But instead of giving up and going out on a high, this has inspired me. So I think I’m going to carry on following that writer’s advice from nearly two decades ago.

I’m going to write.

You can read the story, along with the full judges’ comments, on the Writers Online website.

Taking a Stand for Lent

I don’t really do the whole “giving something up for Lent”, I found it was easier to just give up religion (which, as the same joke I make each year, is one thing I definitely won’t be giving up). But I’ve been thinking of something recently, and now seems as good a time as any to give it a try.

My plan is to try and only use social media on my phone while I’m stood up. And my reasons are thus:

1. Cutting down on social media

The first obvious reason is to cut back on how much I use it (which is currently “a lot”). I don’t think social media is a bad thing. Sure it has some issues (social media bubbles, everyone putting their best foot forward, and a keeping-up-with-the-Joneses issue that comes from seeing only other people’s best bits, etc). But I think I use it too much.

To me there’s a kind of faux-productivity which my brain rationalises by saying “Ahh, but to be a super famous successful writer, statesman and all-round wit of a generation, you need a social media presence!” And then after 45 minutes I’ve achieved little more than reading puns, looking at other people’s lunches and delving into a thought piece on what the rise of kale tells us about millennials. It’s not as productive as I might hope.

I do enjoy it, so I don’t feel I need to cut it out completely, but odds are not much has changed in the 15 minutes since I last checked.

2. I’ll, well, stand more

It’ll encourage me to stand up more. I imagine this’ll have close to zero impact on my waistline, but considering I’m sat all day at work, it will hopefully reduce the risk of me having a stroke or something in later life. Assuming I don’t use the standing up as an excuse to get a biscuit.

3. Making it a conscious action

I realised I don’t often consciously go on social media. I go on it often, but I never think about doing it, I just sort of… well, do it. Habit takes over and there I am wasting my time. I’m hoping this’ll make it more of an active decision.

My plan is to always have a book to read and a notepad to jot in so that when I get a spare 5, 10, 20 minutes, instead of killing the time on Twitter, I’ll actually have spent it well. And worked my way through the piles of unread books I currently own (and many more I plan to purchase).

I’m mostly sharing this as I have a terrible, terrible memory, so odds are I’ll forget I’m meant to be doing it. Probably hourly. So if you see me you now know I’m a weak individual who deserves you contempt and can throw things, jeer and otherwise publicly shame me.

But, if you do, I’m totally gonna tweet about it. Just while standing. And eating a biscuit.

Twas the Night Before Christmas 

T’was the night before Christmas, but no quiet for us,
As we join two children causing all kinds of a fuss.
Their father tried bribery, he begged and he pleaded,
Before thinking “I know, a story’s what’s needed!”

“I’ll tell them a tale of magic and wonder,
to send them both off into a blissful night’s slumber”.
“But stories are boring, why should we listen to you?”
“Because this story,” said Daddy, “is 100% true.”

“Once upon a time,” he said, for that’s how stories begin,
“At the North Pole lived a man with all of his kin.
But it’s not Santa we join, it’s someone much fickler,
For this is the tale of his daughter Nicola.”

Nicola was a touch greedy, and obsessed over things,
Each Christmas she’d cry “where are my French hens, my rings?”
So one day Santa told her of the nicest of boys,
In his 20 years he’d wanted nothing, not chocolate, not toys.

Now Nicola was confused and appalled at his taste,
How could he let Christmas go to such waste?
Santa said “Each letter he sent would have the same end”,
“I don’t want any presents, but I’d love a new friend”.

“I demand that we meet,” Nicola screamed with all might,
Until Santa conceded on Christmas Eve night.
When first they met the conversation guarded,
She focused on him, and with questions bombarded.

But slowly she softened, she just couldn’t help resist,
Her heart felt aflutter, her stomach atwist.
“Is there really no gift you want?” Nicola asked, feeling humbled.
“Just to see you next year”, was the answer he mumbled.

Come that following Christmas Nicola had not demanded her gift,
Until on Christmas Eve night she asked her dad for a lift.
When she met with the man again, they joked and had fun,
As it dawned on Nicola, that he might be the one.

“Is there nothing in the world you’d like from me next year?
Something big? Something small? Something fancy or dear?”
“If I’m honest,” he answered, “my one and only wish,
Is that next year you choose me a personal gift”.

A gift for someone else? That was new to Nicola,
But she had to get something for the faith that he’d put in her.
She thought long and hard and the answer seemed clear,
A plan was emerging for what she’d get him next year.

Christmas arrived, and with it visit number three,
And when he saw her the boy lit up like a tree.
“What gift bring you this time, oh pray tell me this.”
So she gave him the most magical gift, the gift of her kiss.

When her father returned he said with a worry,
“You’ll give up a lot for him, so with this decision don’t hurry”.
She replied “the unknown doesn’t scare me, and I hope that you’ll see,
It’s not him I’m doing it for, I do it for me.”

So Santa looked down with a tear in his eye,
Remembering his daughter from Christmases gone by.
“I see you speak truth, and it makes me so glad,
That your heart for once wants something free to be had”.

At their wedding Nicola gave up magic and wealth,
To have him beside her, in sickness and health.
They soon had two children and each Christmas brought Santa,
(But the kids, of course, knew him only as Grandpa).

At this point their mother arrived and said “Time for bed”,
But the older daughter, Sally, had a question instead.
“But you said it was true, so I’m rather confused.
Did you lie to us, daddy?” the daughter accused.

Father replied “magic’s alive on Christmas eve night,
Enough to give Nicola strength to conjure a light.”
And then out of nowhere, with a wave and a flare,
the mother made fairy lights which danced in the air!

The children’s jaws dropped and they looked at each other.
But, it couldn’t be… was Nicola their mother?
“Now get you to bed,” said mother, “and I don’t want a fight,
For Grandpa Claus won’t come if you stay up all night!”

Broad Comedy? We Should Be So Lucky

I’m sure it will come of no surprise that I’m not much of a fan of Mrs Brown’s Boys. You’d be hard-pressed to find many armchair critics who are. But while most of its critics argue it’s too broad, out-dated and that this kind of comedy needs to be retired (if not taken out to a field and shot) I would argue the opposite. I don’t think the show is broad enough.

I grew up on a steady diet of BBC sitcoms – My Family, My Hero and Birds of a Feather. These were the shows on which I built my comedy chops. Sure they may not be critically-lauded shows, and watching them now might not make me laugh like it used to, but I have such fond memories of sitting around the TV with my family and laughing together.

As comedy fans we watch a LOT of comedy. As such we’ve seen many jokes dozens, if not hundreds of times. I’m 27 and would confidently say that in my life I’ve watched more comedy than both my parents combined. Such is the benefit of DVD box-sets, online streaming and going to university meaning I didn’t get a “real job” until I was 21.

When this is the case you notice patterns, you see things that have been done before and broader comedy becomes formulaic. Lots of critically-acclaimed comedy is designed to de-construct the very nature of humour, with ingenuity and wit, or to ask questions about what it is to be human. Deep comedy, with lofty ambitions. By comparison Mrs Brown’s Boys is a man in a dress falling down. But without such shows to teach us the rules of comedy, how are we meant to grow beyond it?

Instead, my criticism of Mrs Brown’s Boys is that it takes this potential for shared family experience and points it squarely at adults. The DVDs are classified 15, so while it’s possible for families to watch it together (and I know some who do) it’s perhaps not advisable.

But, ultimately there seems to be a market for the show, with 9.1 million people making it the most-watched Christmas programme. And of course if you were to remove the adult themes and swearing from Mrs Brown’s Boys what you’re left with is an entirely different show.

Maybe what cuts closest it that it’s on the BBC. Arguments that the BBC should make such programming because it’s popular scare me. The BBC shouldn’t gain popularity by appealing to the base instincts in people, but instead educate and provide the best by offering something new, and challenging people where necessary, and building an audience because of quality.

Look at the news – the BBC is regarded as one of, if not the world-leading outlets for news. But it’s not the most popular. The day they start focusing on the latest break-ups or photos of celeb weight-gain they’d probably see traffic spike. But the BBC is more important than that.

It should be providing light entertainment to offer families something to watch together, your Keeping Up Appearances, My Family, or Citizen Khan. And it should be offering a chance to niche comedy – The Office, Blackadder and even Monty Python, all started off as a gamble.

Watch the Philosopher’s World Cup sketch by Monty Python. That’s what the BBC should be making. But it’s far less likely to exist in today’s world. Or at least be hidden away on BBC4 at some obscure hour before being retired for low ratings.

Mrs Brown’s Boys was never a gamble, any more than putting bikini-clad A-listers on the news would be. But without even gambling, somehow it still feels like we’re losing.

Austerity: A Modern (Un)Fairy Tale

Once upon a time there lived a woman called Helen. Helen was a fairly normal lady. She had two wonderful children, though she had sadly lost her prince charming. But she had a house, a life and was overall very happy with it.

Helen had an uncle, Uncle Banker, who was great. He threw lavish parties, got paid lots of money and generally had a great time. Helen didn’t really see much of him. He certainly never invited her to the parties with the rest of the wunch (for, of course, that is the collective term for bankers). But every time Helen saw her uncle, Uncle Banker said “don’t worry, Helen. If I’m doing well, we all do well. It trickles down eventually”. And he gave her a pat on the back, a wink, then went off to grab another magnum of champagne.

This continued for some time, until one day Helen got a knock at the door. It was Uncle Banker.

“Ah, right,” said Uncle sheepishly, “so there’s been a bit of a problem. Things went a bit awry at work and, well. I’m broke. Not only that, but I owe a lot of people a lot of money. I need your help.”

Helen agreed to do what she could. It was her uncle, after all.

“Atta girl,” said Uncle Banker. “And remember, I can make back all the money I owe, and then I can make back more money. We’ll all share in the benefits!”

Helen asked how much he needed.

“Ah, that’s the thing…” he replied sheepishly, before giving the amount.

Helen regretted asking how much he needed.

But Helen did what she can. She raided her savings, re-mortgaged the house, took out a loan and just about managed to get enough together. She was up to her eyes in debt, but she knew it was worth it. It was an investment.

“Wonderful, wonderful! And in return I want to introduce you to a dear friend of mine, Troy. I think you’ll get on, er, wonderfully!”

So Helen met Troy and he did seem wonderful. He was tall, handsome and great with money. He promised Helen things would be different. Things would change. That he’d help sort her debts out and give her and the kids everything they could dream of if they moved in with him.

Helen was hesitant. But she hadn’t really heard from Uncle Banker. She’d had a few phone calls cut short with a quick “don’t worry, I’m getting there. And when I’m doing much better, we’ll all be doing much better soon!”

But no money arrived.

After looking at all her bills, all the outgoings and wondering how she was going to make the repayments, Helen decided to move in with Troy. He’d be able to change things for her.

“Oh I’m so happy, you won’t regret it!” he said.

So she and the kids packed all their belongings into boxes and moved across to his house.

“Of course we’ll have to tighten our belts a bit, but don’t worry we’ll get through this. We’re all in it together,” he said, with a sympathetic smile. “Oh, and we’ll have to sell your house”.

Helen wasn’t sure. She loved her house, and it took her so many years to pay off her mortgage. Well, the first one.

“It’s a case of having to I’m afraid. We can’t afford the bills with all of our debts. We have to live within our means. Besides, my mate Larry is after a place, so he’ll take it off us!” said Troy.

Helen thought about it. It did seem a bit silly to be paying all that money out on a place that she wasn’t living in anymore… So eventually she agreed.

Troy handled the sale, and used the money to pay down some of Helen’s debts. But not much of it. Definitely not as much as she thought it would.

“Ah, you see it’s a tough climate, so Larry couldn’t give us as much as we hoped. But it saves us the running costs of the house, and it’s some money in our pocket, so it’s win-win!”

Helen wasn’t so sure. Her house was gone, at not even half the market rate. But what’s done is done, she thought.

“Oh, and I’ve got rid of the kids’ university funds. It’s about time they stop scrounging off us and make their own way in the world. They don’t pay anything towards the bills, so they shouldn’t expect a hand out”.

Helen didn’t think that was right. After all Troy and Uncle Banker both went to university without paying for themselves, and her kids had nothing to do with her financial situation. But, she guessed what’s done is done, so maybe it’ll make them work a bit harder. Make them pick a really useful degree so they can make money. That might not be what they wanted, but we’re all in it together, she thought.

The next morning Helen went to drive to work in her car. There was just one problem. It wasn’t there.

“Oh I had to sell the car, we couldn’t afford to have such a valuable asset just sitting there,” said Troy.

Helen explained that it wasn’t just sitting there, she needed it to get to work.

“But you can get the train!” Troy said.

It added three hours to her daily commute, but Helen did get the train. After all, we’re all this together, she thought. But the ticket prices are huge. In fact, within a few months, she’d paid out more on train fares than she’d made from the sale of the car. When she mentioned this to Troy he just said:

“Well Larry owns the trains, and he has to make a living! After all, do you want his children to starve?”

Of course Helen didn’t.

“Good, because he’s a top bloke. Got great business instincts too – he’s the one that bought your car, and managed to sell it for nearly twice as much as he paid! Definitely the kind of savvy bloke we want to have around. I mean, if he can make that sort of money, it’s bound to trickle down if we hang out with him more.”

It was all getting a bit much. Helen had to say something.

“Look, it’s not my fault you’ve got all this debt, is it?” said Troy, getting very defensive. “You lived beyond your means! You shouldn’t have gone on holidays, or fixed the boiler back when it broke, or bought all those books and toys for the kids. I mean, you were buying them new clothes almost every year! You shouldn’t have let them grow like that. If you’d been smarter with your money, not overspent, then we wouldn’t be in this situation.”

That didn’t seem quite right. Wasn’t she in this situation because of Uncle Banker?

“Of course not! If you’d had the savings, if you’d made hay while the sun was shining, it wouldn’t have been such a big hit. And now you wouldn’t need to be living with me, sponging off the hard work of others. We’re lucky to have people like Larry – did you know he’s offered to take some of the burden? He’ll take some of your debt off you, and get your Uncle to pay him back directly. That way we get a cash windfall to pay some of it down.”

This seemed very nice to Helen. Maybe Larry wasn’t so bad after all…

“Of course, he won’t pay the FULL amount. For every £100 of debt he takes, he’ll give us £50. But still, it’s off our plate that way, and he gets to make a little something for all his work.”

But. But. But. Thought Helen.

“Look I’m not going to argue. I’m off out so you’ll have to take care of your own dinner. Oh, and I’ve had to sell the oven and fridge. I got great deal from Larry. But there’s bread on the side and water in the taps. That’s more within our means. Right – I’m off out for dinner with your Uncle and Larry, I’ll send them your best wishes!”

And so Helen sat in the kitchen with her kids, eating stale bread with water to wash it down with. But she had to. After all, they were all in it together.