Shut Up About Yourself

Have you ever noticed how a lot of companies pay lip service to wanting to become a “thought leader” in their industry, and lead through great content, yet when they start writing all that comes out is self-promotional drivel that, let’s be honest, no one wants to read? I have.

Most businesses, in my opinion, don’t understand the difference between old-school “marketing material” and the new school of online marketing – thought leadership materials and other remarkable pieces. This has led me to one conclusion:

Everyone wants a brand experience. No one wants a marketing experience.

No One Cares How Awesome You Are

In today’s Internet world, the currency is information or entertainment, and often information about entertainment. Unless you’re TMZ or some other publication like that, the entertainment side often won’t fly, so we become information providers and instructors, giving away content and thought leadership because that is what resonates with people. In fact, it is so difficult to become noticed for something that is done really well (sure, anyone can create a viral cat video, but is that going to help your plumbing company?) that I’ve had startup CEOs say to me “Man, it seems like we all need to become publishers!” And that is exactly the point.

If you provide enough value to people, they will pay whatever you ask them to!

From my experience, people who overly promote themselves, without adding value to others, do so because they have no idea about branding or what their branding message is. In short, they lack vision for their company, just like SEOs who overly optimize do so because the business is weak.

When you do this, your traffic and leads will probably go thus (a real example but I cannot tell you who):

Or you could invest in adding value to your users and your traffic might go like this:

Yep, that’s a 150% increase in a year. Not bad, especially when going from 900k/month already to over 2 million per month!

Towards Brand Marketing

The companies winning today (not necessarily in the SERPs at this point, though) are the companies that have found and embraced their brand voice and provide information and good content to their readers and customers. They create content that sets them apart and furthers their company vision, and they do so without promoting themselves. Their content promotes them enough because it sets them apart from their competitors.

I’m not trying to bang on about content. I did that here. It’s just that the argument about not being able to create good quality thought-leadership style content doesn’t fly. This argument only arises when thinking fails to go outside the box.


A brand is built through a vision. Take Zappos for example. Tony Hsieh, the CEO and founder of Zappos, had this to say about Zappos’ vision:

“At Zappos, our higher purpose is delivering happiness,” said Hsieh. “Whether it’s the happiness our customers receive when they get a new pair of shoes or the perfect piece of clothing, or the happiness they get when dealing with a friendly customer rep over the phone, or the happiness our employees feel about being a part of a culture that celebrates their individuality, these are all ways we bring happiness to people’s lives.”

Coca Cola is declaring their new mission (or vision) as:

Our Roadmap starts with our mission, which is enduring. It declares our purpose as a company and serves as the standard against which we weigh our actions and decisions.

  • To refresh the world…
  • To inspire moments of optimism and happiness…
  • To create value and make a difference.

SEOmoz’s vision is wrapped up in the TAGFEE code:

Transparent, Authentic, Generous, Fun, Empathetic, Exceptional

Creative Content Creation

Content creation that drives a brand voice involves creativity. Often this content is crowd-sourced to an extent, guided by the company’s vision as talked about above, which enables the company to dominate the industry faster.

Lifestyle or Industry-Wide Companies

Companies that span an industry or lifestyle have many opportunities.

SEOmoz, for example, spans SEO and is starting to cover more inbound marketing, so creating content like The Beginner’s Guide to SEO makes sense:1

Hubspot (inbound marketing) does something very similar with their Internet Marketing eBooks, and they have almost 400 presentations on Slideshare:

Mailchimp (email marketing) has created resources around email marketing, as well as useful help guides for their users:

RedBull (energy drinks and action sports) has created a lifestyle company by allowing and encouraging its users to send in their own content, as well as publishing action sports content to its Youtube page, where they have over 276 million video views:

GoPro is doing this on their site (which is really what RedBull should be doing):

Small or Local Business

If you are a small local business, you have opportunities at your fingertips that the larger corporations do not. By engaging in the local community and building goodwill with those around you, you begin to separate yourself from the pack. Think about events that require you to create content, such as meetups. Put on a local informational meetup (for whatever your business is about), create a quality slidedeck for it, give the presentation and get people to follow you on the different social networks where you are engaging, and then upload the presentation both to your personal website and Slideshare.

An online example is DollarShaveClub:

Local companies doing it right socially include Luke’s Lobster in NYC:

And Cupcake Royale in Seattle:

Make that content work for you!

Developing a Brand Voice Strategy

A brand voice strategy is formed by the following:

  • A brainstorm (idea doesn’t have to be perfect);
  • Ship a strategy by planning out content for 3 months and delivering it;
  • Iterate once you have seen what traffic is doing (are people engaging?)
  • Ship (ship the adjustments, keep iterating)

Visualize it this way:

Every company needs a vision and a voice, but finding that vision is undeniably the hardest part. The great secret about branding, though, is that you don’t have to get it “right” from the beginning. The most important, and undeniably hardest, part is the start. You have to define it as well as you can and then go. After all, your culture, brand, and voice will probably look quite different when you are a 3 person team than when you grow to a 30 person team, but your brand voice will naturally change as culture changes anyway. A brand voice is never static, so all you need to do is start.

Developing a brand voice strategy is an exercise in wide-scale introspection and focus. The goal of the brand voice is not only to provide focus and direction for the company, but also to attract th right people to the company to help further that voice.

Plan out a schedule for producing content as early as possible. Create an editorial calendar that has you producing content regularly. Remember, your first few pieces will not usually do well, so you need to keep pushing through and establishing yourself in your space. Success is not usually a consideration of who is first to market, but rather who is able to maintain that momentum and turn it into future success as well. Ship it and keep shipping. And track it so you can adjust.

Commit, Ship, Iterate

Now that you have had some time to introspect, ship something. If you decided that knowledge guides might be a good idea, create a quality guide and publish it. Outreach to people and get feedback. Then iterate. Do it differently next time if you need to. The goal is not to be perfect, but to be working towards a steady voice.

Brian Clark over at Entreproducer recently wrote an article about content marketing and how the process goes. He said it so eloquently that he deserves quoting here:

[A]gile content marketing follows the same 3-step process:

  1. Start with an educated guess for a content approach
  2. Release content knowing it’s likely flawed
  3. Optimize constantly based on feedback

If you follow this thought pattern, eventually something will hit and resonate. Then, do more of that. Keep creating content related to your company and your industry without promoting yourself too much.


The rewards of finding a brand voice, and using this as a powerful driver for new business as opposed to other outbound forms such as calling and “interruptions marketing”, speak for themselves. Hubspot did a whitepaper about inbound marketing, which shows this disparity between cost-per-lead for inbound vs outbound marketing:

Not only that, but you will also consistently receive more traffic. At Distilled we spend very little on first-touch client acquisition, but we do try to continually produce great content. So our traffic has gone from about 5,000 visitors a week at the beginning of 2011 to 15,000+ last week. And we’re a consulting company!

What kind of company do you want to be? The thought leadership makes sense. The costs make sense.

The choice is up to you.

31 thoughts on “Shut Up About Yourself

  1. So very on point with a lot of things, John. I think many people gravitate toward these sentiments…

    I’ve thought this for some time…some brands/people aren’t built for modern-day online/offline marketing, especially when others are willing to ‘do more’ for consumers (and frankly, themselves – intrinsically and extrinsically).

    Very right about brands who need to talk about themselves. It’s kind of like the aggro/uber alpha types who constantly need to ‘fan their feathers.’ It’s pretty obvious they need to prove something TO THEMSELVES first and foremost. Secondly, they know they’re lacking; so, rather than creating value, they must attempt to ‘force’ the sentiment of value upon others…

  2. Great John!

    People maketh brands and on mass SEO hasn’t been concentrating at all on optimising the brand message or nurturing a brand’s industry ‘feelings’ in order to ‘tribe up’ with communities.

    SEO’s haven’t been optimising for emotions and seeing as this is what we do on social media everyday – it’s pretty vital to do so.

    For SEO’s to optimise the ‘things’ that supplement to emotional responses is essential social optimisation, just take a look at buzzfeed’s category model and listen to the founder Jonah Peretti’s lecture:-

    Big Respect John

  3. I agree John. Unfortunately it has been my experience that marketing budgets tend to get micromanaged and many times spending money on things that don’t have a direct “promotional” angle is hard to justify. It really comes down to embracing this model as a core business value, and then it isn’t marketing at all, its just every day operations.

    1. I like the idea of embedding content marketing into core values. It’s all about helping people at the end of the day. Once every one buys into the mindset, everything looks comes more naturally. And last time I checked, people like authenticity.

  4. Another great post John. Totally agreed that you have to offer that value. Unfortunately, most of the people that come to us are because they struggle to have that added value. Something I’m still trying to work on!

    Fingers crossed!

    As I said though, top marks on the post again.

  5. wow, well written John! I mean, I saw many (too many) sites that are talking about themselves and do not create something cool for the user.
    Really, I bet you consider yourself awesome already, that’s the purpose of your life and why you build the company right?
    so, now…deliver something and help “the world to become a better place”.

    thanks for sharing.

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  7. Sometimes self promotion goes hand-in-hand with the “perception” of first to market, one of the immutable laws of marketing.

    It’s a cheezy way to get there.

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  11. John, amazing piece of content, thanks for sharing!
    I am fighting for this approach at my company, as the web marketing manager.
    But the people I work with are difficult to persuade: a company website is “bound to be corporate”, and the web activities are a secondary thought because of their workload…

    I just wanted to report a small typo in your post: “attract th right people”

  12. Great stuff John!

    I took a look at the that you mentioned here and glanced at the video… mind blown. That has got to be the definition of viral content is!

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