Content marketing: What’s your subtext?


In theater, subtext is the message that the actor is delivering beyond or behind the explicit dialog. It’s an important core of so-called method acting.

What does subtext have to do with content marketing? Everything.

One of the core tenets of content marketing is to generously give content of value to the reader – by giving you will build relationships. In his blog What type of content should my company produce? Mitch Joel refers to this as value-based content.

Or, as the Content Rules book so aptly puts it, “Share or solve, don’t shill.”

But … content marketing isn’t all rainbows and unicorns. Behind every generous best practices white paper or actionable e-book, there’s a subtext. Readers will feel or sense the subtext. It’s not cheating, it’s what makes content marketing work.

Examples of good content marketing subtext
The exact subtext will vary with every piece and with the stage of the prospect in the lead lifecycle. Here are a few examples of explicit value compared subtext:

Customer story:

  • Explicit message: Here’s how company X solved their problem, and some lessons learned along the way that might be helpful to your business.
  • Subtext: We’re helping companies like yours – maybe we could help you.

Best practices white paper:

  • Explicit message: Here are useful best practices that you can act on to solve a real business problem.
  • Subtext: We understand the business problem – you might want to talk to us when you’re ready to take action on this problem.

In every piece of content you generate, it’s worth identifying that subtext, to be sure that it comes through loud and clear. Sometime it’s as simple as “We’re good people here, not just corporate shills.” Sometimes it’s more subtle, as in “Our approach is really better than what you’re doing today.”

Beware of inadvertent subtext
Think of the bad actor who inadvertently sends the wrong messages (I’m not sure of my lines… is that my uncle in the second row?) The same thing can happen to your content marketing.

For example, a best practices white paper that’s filled with jargon and unclear might give the reader the following message: “I’m not even sure what our solution does – only the engineers get it. You should buy our stuff anyway.”

Website content that is rife with “all about us” text and with nothing about the business problem sends the following message: “It’s more important that I make the CxOs happy than that I serve the you, the reader.”

And a poorly researched paper tying your technology to current “hot topic” (compliance initiative, cloud computing, etc.) may communicate the following: “I don’t think you’re smart or attentive enough to research this on your own, so if I just mention this buzzword enough I can scare you into at least talking to one of our sales guys.”

Do you have other examples of inadvertent subtext in marketing content misfires? I’d love to hear them.

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