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Field Notes #076: Is it a boring channel, or are you a boring marketer?

Is it a boring channel, or are you a boring marketer?

I admit, I still spend time on X (Twitter). 

Since forever, ads on twitter have been ineffective and I barely notice them. They, for lack of a better term, suck. 

Except the other day, I noticed this ad:

Source

Okay, so the tweet itself is catchy. It has a few noticeable brand names and the vague promise of intrigue and drama. I click. 

The article is hilarious.

It’s a fake press release filled with quotes about Brian Halligan, former HubSpot CEO, dropping the ball on certain features this company (Outseta) has developed because he quote “sat down to watch a Grateful Dead special on Netflix and became transfixed.”

Now, I don’t know what their conversion rate or ROAS is on this campaign, but from the outside, I just thought: Hey, Twitter ads don’t have to suck. Even B2B ones, the ones that are supposed to be boring and vague and talk about streamlining holistic synergies. 

There are no rules written anywhere, in fact, that say any channel, strategy, tactic, or play has to suck. 

Who wrote the playbook anyway?

One unbearable obsession of mine is why people believe the things they believe and do the things they do. 

This has led me down countless reading rabbit holes to academic fields like evolutionary biology, economics, sociology, psychology, and neuroscience. 

It also undoubtedly fueled my career in growth and experimentation. 

So when I see implicit best practices, unspoken playbooks, and limiting beliefs form, I have to wonder: where did these come from in the first place?

Here’s a quote from Tracey Wallace’s recent essay in her Contentment newsletter:

We actually caught up after she wrote this and had a whole discussion about it, centered around our mutual observation that junior employees, specifically, have a ton of ingrained beliefs about marketing. 

Like, for some reason, everyone converged on the idea of “SEO content” as being something like the skyscraper technique – analyze your competitors’ keywords, pick the highest volume ones that you don’t rank for, write an ultimate guide that is like 500 words longer, and build some links to it. 

At no point did anyone mandate this, not even Brian Dean or anyone who influenced the ideas that make up our collective understanding of “SEO content.” 

There are indeed algorithmic incentives dictated by a search engine’s goals (drive repeat searches and ad clicks). This does give you some guardrails on how a given piece on a given topic should be structured, given the goal of a search engine is to best match a piece of content to a user’s intent. 

But there was never a “playbook,” or a universal set of rules, that all of us needed to play by. 

In fact, it’s really just a small subset of B2B MarTech SaaS content marketers who seem to have propelled these beliefs (and then, ironically, lambasted these same tactics later as boring, dead, or trite)

This is the central idea in Ronnie Higgins’ amazing essay, “The greatest misconception in content marketing.” 

There’s a section worth quoting in its entirety:

“A lot of hoopla has been made about the “old” content marketing playbook is irreparably broken, leading many marketers to feverishly ponder when someone will finally fulfill some unwritten prophecy by publishing a “new” content marketing playbook that connects all the bits and pieces of advice being thrown out into the ether.

Well, let me be the one to break it to you, folks…

  • There was never any singular, monolithic “old” playbook to begin with. From 2008-2017, there were hundreds of thousands of disparate content pieces published, many created to shill SaaS products and services.
  • This mythical “old” playbook that people complain about doesn’t actually resemble what I was originally taught. But miraculously, a lot of the fancy “new” content tactics being touted do.”

Look, best practices, templates, and playbooks are useful in that you have to start somewhere, and they can give you scaffolding. But at some point, especially when you’ve built up some experience in the field, you have to move on, think for yourself, and realize: there are no rules. 

Doing something well doesn’t negate the need for distribution 

We need to distinguish what we do from how we do it. 

What we do – essentially, channel or customer acquisition strategy – sets the floor, the ceiling, and the feasible timeline for our results. 

In the ancient days (about 7-8 years ago), people talked a lot about scale, traction channels, and network effects. 

For example, I think a lot about this Andrew Chen essay on the few truly scalable channels for user growth, which he lists:

  • Paid acquisition
  • Virality
  • SEO
  • Sales
  • Other (basically, the rare partnership or make-or-break deal)

He calls these truly scalable because they have inherent feedback loops (essentially, they can compound upon themselves) and they have a “high ceiling on saturation” (which means there are a lot of people you can reach there). 

Public relations, for example, is typically a short spike of visibility, but it usually doesn’t have any feedback loops (unless you have a mechanism by which you turn some PR into more PR). 

SEO, however, builds upon itself. The more content you write, the more you rank, and the more you rank, the more organic links you build, making it easier to rank new stuff that you write. Additionally, you can build an owned audience through the channel, which gives you faster distribution to get eyes on new content. 

The channel dictates the total potential for reaching target audiences. 

But I see a lot of content on LinkedIn that sounds like this:

Source

I basically agree with the highlighted sentence. Even the evolving nature of SEO and changing user behavior due to LLMs (though that has been exaggerated up to this point). It’s just the disconnect between the content (product) and the channel (distribution) that I find lacking. 

Yes – create content that connects with people. But how are you going to reach them? You still need to pick a channel (the “what”), and then the “how” is sort of up to you (within the boundaries of platform incentives). 

(I wrote about SEO’s ever-evolving death last week, by the way). 

What you choose to invest in is a huge decision, influenced by company stage, funding, talent, competition, product, price point, saturation, and future growth of the channel. 

For example, one of these dimensions, price point, dictates the viability of your content strategy to drive positive ROI based on simple unit economics. 

If you have a freemium tier and a lot of high intent search volume in your industry, SEO may work extremely well. If your solution costs $100k and you have a TAM of like 1000 companies, it may not be the highest expected value. 

But you have to think in terms of best case scenarios: if we hit all the green lights on this strategy, if everything goes right, what does outstanding success look like?

If the answer, realistically determined through whatever market data or historical data you can collate, isn’t exciting, you may want to pick a different “what.” 

Like, in the best case scenario, will weekly webinars drive enough signups and revenue to make it worth your time and effort? You have to answer this honestly before moving onto the “how.” 

Breaking the brand and demand barbell

One of my favorite talks at Goldenhour conference was a panel that included Andrew Davies, CMO at Paddle. 

Amidst a whole lot of hyperbole around old playbooks dying and new movements being started, I really felt like Andrew Davies was a breath of rational air. 

Many of his remarks simply boiled down to this:

“We’re actually doing really well. We’re doing many things that are pretty typical like events, content, and performance, but we execute really well. We measure them like performance campaigns but they have massive brand benefits, too.” 

(Not his real quote – my words). 

He specifically mentioned a campaign about selling products in outer space. This was essentially a creative brand campaign, but ended up crushing in terms of pipeline and revenue attribution. 

All I’m saying is if you do things well, anything can be a brand campaign. 

Yes, your SEO content can build brand. Ask HubSpot. Or Zendesk, who ranks for Zendesk Alternative with a real (alternative) band and real music:

I’ve always been envious of that campaign, by the way. 


Yes, your paid campaigns can build brand. Ask Outseta. I mean, I can’t stand the guy, but Tai Lopez built his brand on a performance marketing YouTube ad that became an actual meme:

Yes, your webinars can build brand. Ask me, when I was running them at CXL and drove direct sales after every one, but also tons of impressions and email signups and backed into our core narrative of no-BS education from real experts in the field. 

Product can build brand. Look at Airbnb’s Icons experiences, like being able to stay in the Up house.

When we as marketers say “brand,” we often invoke the sense of creative, unmeasured, fun campaigns, but we forget that every single touchpoint someone has with a company impacts the gestalt “brand.” 

Hypothesis versus execution 

When I worked on experimentation, we would often have to delineate between an idea or hypothesis and the execution. 

In other words, an insight could be spot on, but the execution is off or needs iteration. 

Imagine we uncover an insight: we have a massive dropoff at the second stage of the signup form. 

We have a hypothesis that website visitors simply do not have enough justification to enter their information. There’s not enough motivation to sign up. 

So from that insight, we could develop several different solutions:

  • Add more social proof
  • Reduce the information required (lower friction)
  • Add micro-copy about privacy, security, etc. 

And even within each of these, there are pretty much infinite ways to implement. For example, social proof could be a single testimonial from a large client, a series of logos, a number displaying our active customers, a number displaying customers who signed up this month, a G2 badge, and on and on. 

Point here: is it that webinars don’t work for you, or you haven’t found the right iteration of webinars that actually works? 

Of course, there’s a point at which you have to give up and eat your sunk costs. 

But if you’ve mapped out your acquisition channel matrix, identified the most propitious channels for scale, competition, and viability, and have some belief or evidence that your efforts could pay off, the likelier scenario is how you’re doing it is just not great. 

Attention is scarce; people have a lot to choose from. Not only do I have thousands of podcasts I could listen to, including ones from big names like Lebron James or Tim Ferriss, I’m also comparing among mediums for my limited time. You’re not just competing with other podcasts, then, but potentially Succession or the latest TV show, or maybe just mindlessly scrolling TikTok. 

Asking, “why me?” may help. 

“Why do I deserve to rank for this?”

“Why do I deserve the LinkedIn algorithm’s blessing?” 

“Why should people listen to my podcasts?” 

No one has the privilege of attention; you have to earn it. 

Working backwards from there may very well find you some very fun, creative, and fulfilling options. 

So let’s collectively stop complaining about writing “SEO content” or doing checkbox marketing, because there are no rules, playbooks, or dictators making you do it in a boring way. 

Your boss may even be excited for some fresh ideas, as long as you can prove that it has business value and is not just an art project. 

Conclusion 

I basically just rehashed Rory Sutherland’s philosophy in Alchemy: The Dark Art and Curious Science of Creating Magic in Brands, Business, and Life here. 

There are many small ways to be creative, to spark delight. My dentist plays The Great British Bake Off while I’m getting my teeth cleaned. This is the CXL 404 page:

There’s nothing more boring than a 404 page or getting your teeth cleaned, so maybe consider breaking some rules in the other marketing channels you think are “boring.”

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Alex Birkett

Alex is a co-founder of Omniscient Digital. He loves experimentation, building things, and adventurous sports (scuba diving, skiing, and jiu jitsu primarily). He lives in Austin, Texas with his dog Biscuit.