This Is Your Brain on Content Marketing

The late Mr. Jack Schread is the hero of my career story. He was my English teacher junior year at Notre Dame, the all-boy Catholic high school I attended in West Haven, Connecticut. And although he was widely regarded as a strict guy whom some students feared, he wasn't exactly an imposing figure. He was short and unathletic looking, though he was an avid cyclist. Give him a subject he loved, whether his favorite bike trails or last week's ND football game, and he'd bluster on about it until he was red-faced and sweaty. His wispy gray hair and round glasses would both bounce as he launched his diatribes on the best New Haven parks or that new freshman wide receiver from Hamden.

Of all the characteristics people with commanding presences are supposed to possess -- chiseled jawlines, charming smiles, booming voices -- Schread had none of them. But in his classroom, there was no mistaking who was in charge. Yet to me and to hundreds more like me, his lasting memory was his ability to inspire not fear and good behavior but creativity and passion. He made it okay to feel emotions and to embrace that we are creatures of emotion and contemplation, even as we lead increasingly frenetic lives ruled by operational efficiencies and technology.

THAT was his greatest lasting effect on my life and my work. It's about feeling stuff.

I've tried to protect that idea and reflect on it as I've forged a career in business. It's important to embrace and understand and take pleasure in the art and emotion of things when you're surrounded by an industry that wants to optimize and industrialize what you love.

And, thanks to Mr. Schread, I love to write.

Ever since that junior year English class, I was hooked. I wrote as much as I could. I wrote for the school paper, covering a few odd stories here and there. I went to college and wrote for the Trinity College paper. I wrote for the Hartford Courant, the country's oldest continually-running paper. I wrote for ESPN's Communications department.

But along came content marketing, and it ruined me.

I started blogging in 2005 as an extension of my offline columns. All Star Blog was born during a time when most blogs were online diaries. It was built on the same platform that coined the phrase in the first place: Blogger.

I moved to Boston, home of the Red Sox, where as a New York Yankees fan I saw hilarity and story wherever I turned. Thus Cranky Yankee Fan was born. Then I got all meta and decided to blog ABOUT sports blogging. Enter Blog Don't Lie. Then And now, finally, Sorry for Marketing. After working in sales at Google, I also led content production at two startups -- Dailybreak Media (acquired) and HubSpot (IPOed).

As I moved from one to the next, sucking up internet habits as I went, my writing changed.

I began to write in one-sentence paragraphs.

I wrote in pseudo-sentences. Short quips. Not real sentences.

I wrote much more in the first-person, which I personally don't think is always bad, but if you ask me, I'd say I'm convinced doesn't always make for great writing, at least according to me.

I wrote opinions and advice like some sort of village elder despite the experience level of a toddler. (This is especially ironic when you consider that the academic definition of "expert" requires 20+ years in a field...which none of us have, given the constant reset button that is the internet.)

I wrote tips and tricks and listicles and all that search optimized bullshittery until I was blue (or, really, orange) in the face.

I served pageviews and subscribers and leads -- Oh, almighty leads! -- rather than craft and story and emotion and CUSTOMERS!

And it all felt awful. Just fucking awful.

Schread would have looked at our industry and laughed to himself. He wouldn't have gotten angry or bitter like I too often do -- that wasn't his style. He had the confidence of knowing what he knew and being content in that. And he would have known that we were doing it backwards, trying to engineer an outcome from writing rather than genuinely write well. As Kevin Spacey said, "Start with the story and everything else follows."

Schread knew that. And again, he wouldn't chest-beat about it if he were here today and worked in our industry. It wasn't about how he carried himself so much as how the books he read seemed to carry him. That's how you knew he was in love with the craft of the written word.

He'd make Huck Finn seem like a friend down the street. You'd think they'd hung out just this past weekend, given how excitedly he told the story and how detailed he could get. All from memory. For hours on end.

He'd make Gatsby feel somehow present in the room. The moment would suddenly feel much grander as he read Fitzgerald's words, pushing his glasses up his nose in a not-so-grand kind of way. As he read, "Stretch our arms farther," Schread would stand on his toes, one arm balancing a tattered copy of Gatsby while the other stretched...STRETCHED...STREEEETCHED towards an unseen point outside the room.

Nothing was out there. But something was unmistakably out there.

Those moments gave me chills. I was a high school student whose entire world was built on wildly changing but ultimately fleeting emotions, but THOSE MOMENTS were the emotions that remained rock solid all these years. In content marketing, the notion that we should write for the engines, create for the metrics, and skip everything else in between? This idea that there's no art in this? That we can turn this into a cheap, purchasable formula and ignore the craft? I feel sorry for anyone who thinks that way. They're missing the best part. Truly, they are.

Those moments with Schread made me understand: Writing to feel and to make others feel isn't a benefit. IT'S ALL THERE IS.

It's a simple enough idea yet so terribly hard to master. And if you shrug that aside as a sappy sentiment, again, you're missing the best part.

*       *       *

I recently got to thinking about John "Jack" Schread again. Before he died in 2011, he moved away from Connecticut, and many of us lost touch with him. When my high school posted the sad news of his passing on their Facebook page, I remember that the comments -- hundreds of them -- were full of one particular sentiment: gratitude. And this profound feeling of thanks was delivered by each individual through the most appropriate of vehicles: stories. Snippets of his life and moments in time of Schread helping make each person better.

At Content Marketing World last week, we heard Jay Baer challenge us: Will you go back to your work and make more content or will you make a difference?

Schread made a difference. For me. For all of us who knew him. He didn't do it by over-engineering his lessons to have broader reach. He didn't wake up saying, "How can I be great?" He didn't sketch out strategies for being the most beloved teacher at the school. He didn't start at the end. He started at the means. He perfected the means. He truly meant it when he said he loved reading and writing. And that ended with him reaching more students, being a great teacher, and being loved by many.

Will you create more content? Or will you make a difference?

I aspire to make a difference. I'm sure you do too. But if we really want to do that, rather than keep up with the hollow charade of the marketing Joneses, we need to know what Schread knew all along: Stories that are created and told for their own sake, in order to trigger emotions in others, aren't the side result. They are the entire point. Despite an industry that might resist, we should, like Schread, stretch....STRETCH...STREEEETCH towards what really matters.


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Posted on September 14, 2015 .