Content Marketing: Solving your problems or making you think? 

Abraham Maslow said that if you only have a hammer you see every problem as a nail. He was getting at the instrumental way some folks can get locked into a single way of problem solving. 

Something I’ve noticed about marketing management content on the web in general and marketing blogs and LinkedIn posts in particular is that this content falls into two camps. 

Approach 1 – prescriptions 

Instant problem solving information typically expressed like 3 ways to do this or that, or a the best method to win more business, keep customers happy etc. The aim being to share best practice.

Approach 2 – provocations 

Thought provoking discussions that raise critical issues and perspectives such as the complexity of value or the challenge of making sense of a changing world. The aim being to challenge taken for granted assumptions. 

Approach 2 content doesn’t actually provide a specific solution to a specific marketing management problem rather it invites the reader to think more deeply about the complexities of marketing practice and how sales and marketing practioners make sense of their world and their work. 

One criticism of approach 2 is that it can seem like ‘intellectual claptrap’. Often the content looks at what we actually mean by commonly used marketing terms such as value or relationship marketing. In academia we call this ‘deconstruction’ of meaning. This where commonly used terms are shown to be difficult to define and much more ambiguous than you might think at first glance.

Take for example terms like marketing, strategy or leadership. It’s easy to assume there is common agreement on what these terms refer to but just scratch the surface and you can see they can mean very different things to different people. It’s hardly surprising then why miscommunication and friction can be caused in companies when people have very different views about core management ideas.

Sometimes approach 2 content offers a critical take on everyday marketing practice by challenging the assumptions on which it is based such as the hot topic of ‘account based marketing’. This marketing buzzword is high profile at the moment and touted as a new way of doing B2B marketing. The question becomes what is the basis for claiming ABM is new and different. 

So is approach 2 content really intellectual claptrap? a waste of time? a waste of effort? 

Marketing content approach 2 is targetted at what is called the ‘thoughtful practioner’ rather than the action only practioner. This is someone that Donald Schon describes as the Reflective Practioner, somebody who thinks on and in their practice. These are very different people to those who just act to a formulaic script without ever asking if the formula or the script needs to change, or who get stuck in sorting out symptoms rather than causes. 

Audiences who favour approach 1 are people who react best to an immediate answer and not, as they see it, wasting time examining these underlying causes. They rationalise their approach as ‘getting things done’.

For content marketing approach 1 audiences problems are ‘tame’ – a clear problem needing a straightforward solution. On the other hand thoughtful practioners see problems as ‘wicked’ – where problems complex and multi-faceted that need subtle and systemic solutions. See the writing of Rittel and Webber.

What is in play here is the relationship between theory and practice. Often the cry goes up that something is too ‘theoretical’. Now this is interesting because it reveals an underlying assumption that theory are separate things when in reality they are deeply connected. As Kurt Lewin observed ‘there is nothing so practical as a good theory’ 

Part of this practice or theory problem is down to what we mean by theory. Content marketing approach 2 alert!

Marketing management theories are fundamentally an informed explanation of a management phenomenon that occurs in the real world. They are a more robust explanation of something than a mere opinion. 

These theories can become prescriptions for action (normative theory) and it is this type of theory that surfaces in management writing because it is directed at problem solving. 3 ways to write compelling blog copy is actually a theory even though it comes across as practical! 

Content marketing approach 2 is typically what is called ‘explanatory theory’. A framework or model that helps us reflect and make sense of something rather than a recommendation of a solution. 

Think of any elite sportsperson. Would anyone suggest that they don’t reflect on their performance? They don’t just train to improveme technique they also think about how to improve their frame of mind and their overall approach to training and their discipline. It’s a meta approach. 

There is ample evidence on the executive management courses I run with my colleague and co-author Simon Kelly that experienced business people want to know more about how to problem solve by simply learning a few management problem analysis tools. They really want to challenge assumptions and beliefs.

Often our tutorials on achieving competitive advantage and creating customer value resolve out into discussions on lack of internal alignment, poor communication and lack of company agility and all of the ambiguous invisible stuff that goes on between people and how they communicate.

These issues are not the stuff of the ‘3 ways to improve’ variety of approach 1 they are to do with how people make sense of their worlds, what they actually mean and how to change what they do. 

People who think the approach 2 way don’t have fixed egos. They are open minded and have a deep sense of curiosity. They realise that management problems can’t easily be resolved with set template or process map or a 2*2 management matrix. That’s because their design and interpretation require assumptions or a theory of what matters.

Of course a balance needs to be struck. As commercial people we want applied knowledge and effective results and this means we can rarely if ever indulge in introspective consideration of business issues in the same way that medieval scholars debated How many angels can dance on the head of a pin. Doing the managerial equivalent of this metaphysical navel gazing might justly be criticised as an example of intellectual claptrap. 

If you only have a hammer however you run the risk of being fixed in your thinking. If you are fixed you will probably feel you are on an even keel or and not acknowledge you might be complacent. If you avoid complex and challenging ideas that don’t dump an obvious solution in your lap then you risk inhibiting the agility and competitiveness of your business. Being anti-intellectual in management might save you time by cutting to the chase and it might also lock you inside a simplistic psychic prison to which your competitors have the key. 

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