4 Content Lessons from a 17-Month-Old
I knew when I decided to have a child that the experience would change me, but I didn’t realize quite how deep those changes would go.
For example, he’s changed the way I think about words.
I’ve made my living from and dedicated much of my free time to the written word. I’m a big believer in the power of the “best words, best order” – or anyway, I was.
Then I met Malcolm. Or rather: Malcolm (my son) started talking. And now I have a whole new outlook on words: what they should do, what they need to do, and what they can do.
Here are four things he’s taught me so far that (you guessed it) are valuable to anyone running a content marketing program.
Lesson 1: Not All Impact Is Captured in Today’s Metrics
Last winter, Malcolm was just a few months old. He was too young to wear a mask, there were no vaccines, and it was below zero in Chicago for… a long time.
We spent a lot of time in our apartment, me trying to find ways to occupy a person who could barely hold up his own head.
We live right next to the brown line tracks, so one of our (my) regular activities was waving hello to a train whenever it passed. “Hi, train,” I’d say, waving, holding Malcolm in my free arm. And then I’d do another circuit of our rooms.
Some days I thought I’d lose my mind.
Me trying to teach five-month-old Malcolm about blockchain
But then, one day in April, when Malcolm was sitting up and managing a little supported standing, a train went by and he waved at it.
But also: shocking. All those months he’d felt like a blob in my arms, he’d been paying attention, processing what I was doing, learning how to engage with the world by watching me.
At times, content marketing can feel as pointless as I sometimes felt last winter. Maybe the traffic to your site is increasing but not as much as you hoped. Maybe conversion rates are only so-so.
But keep in mind that content marketing is a long game. If you’re putting in the work to craft high-quality, useful content that delivers value to your audience, keep doing it. You never know when someone is steadily consuming what you publish, trusting you more and more, understanding better and better how what you do can help them.
This is incredibly unsatisfying in our metrics-crazed world. The impact of a regularly published blog may be impossible to measure with Google Analytics: maybe sales conversations are a little easier because your blog primed the pump.
Maybe your SEM ads convert better because your blog has won your audience’s trust.
Maybe, five years from now, someone will hire you because of the piece you published last week.
The effect of content marketing, like the effect of communicating to a child, is cumulative. For best results, keep going.
Lesson 2: Words Matter, But the Stuff Around Them Matters Just as Much
Malcolm’s first word was “again,” but he pronounces it “oggin.” It’s still his favorite word. I’m continually amazed at how many ways he’s found to use it.
“Oggin oggin!” he’ll say (over and over) when he wants to eat something that isn’t quite ready.
“Oggin!” he says when a train goes by and he wants to see another one.
“Oggin,” he says when I finish reading a book and he wants to hear it again.
One word, so many meanings. And yet the meaning he intends is almost always clear, thanks to gestures, tone, timing, and more.
The lesson here: getting the words right is only part of the work of content marketing. Timing matters. Format and layout matter. Font size and color matter (if you want people to see what you're publishing). Images matter.
In this instance, “oggin” meant “I am commandeering your peach, dear Mother.”
For me, this was an encouraging reminder that my words don’t have to be perfect. It was also a reminder that the non-word elements of content have to pull their weight.
Lesson 3: Comedy Works, but It’s Super Context-Dependent
My child thinks I’m hilarious.
When he was four months old, I’d do this really great bit where I dangled a cloth in front of his face while he lay on his back. Had him in stitches.
These days, his humor is a little more nuanced. For example, I sometimes offer coffee to our Count von Count doll and have the Count say, “A-no thank you!”
It’s also a great reminder that humor is incredibly context dependent. Malcolm can reliably make me laugh by saying his version of “Darn!” when he drops something. I can get him going by pretending to eat his feet.
Malcolm cracking up at me pretending my hand is a trumpet
I’m not a comedy professional, but I do know that neither of these would be particularly funny in, say, an email newsletter.
When it works, comedy tends to work really well. Get your audience to laugh, and you’ve relaxed them. You’ve gotten on their good side. They’re receptive to whatever you ask for next.
But if you don’t get the joke just right, you risk – at best – sounding awkward and – at worst – really upsetting the people you care about.
So if you don’t have a clearly established relationship with your audience or (be honest) aren’t that funny, skip the comedic gestures to be safe.
Lesson 4: If Your Audience Loves You, They’ll Forgive a Lot
If Lowe’s sent me an email about the Christmas tree I ordered that said “oggin oggin oggin darn!” I would be – well, confused, for one thing.
But also angry: I paid good money for them to send me a tree. That’s the extent of our very transactional relationship. I’m not interested in decoding what that string of sounds means.
For Malcolm, though, I’d be all over it. (And in fact am often engaged in the work of decoding what any particular “oggin” means.)
In this case, “oggin” meant “More smoothie, please” or maybe “Give me your phone.”
I’m not saying you should try to get your audience to love your brand as much as I love Malcolm (good luck), but if you work on building a strong relationship with them, they’ll be more likely to forgive you when things go wrong, whether that involves a joke that doesn’t land or a project that doesn’t go as promised.
They’ll also be more likely to give you honest feedback, refer you, and return to you when they need your help.
Every Challenge Is a (Content) Opportunity
Maybe the most important lesson Malcolm has (re)taught me: Because content marketing is a long game and because the content you create should work to build relationships with your audience (inherently a long-term proposition), pretty much everything your startup encounters can make for good content.
For example: working while having a kid is much harder than working while not having a kid! But also: being a parent has pushed me to think about and engage with my work in new ways (case in point: this blog post).
Whatever challenge you’re currently going through as a startup or a person in charge of content marketing at a startup can fuel your content program. And it should: there are no meaningful relationships that involve only one topic. So get out there. Be messy. Be human. And for goodness’ sake, use a font big enough for me to see it!