Content Rules could be dubbed “the encyclopedia of content marketing,” that is, if encyclopedias were (a.) still relevant, and (b.) written by disorientingly upbeat people.
Content Rules could be dubbed “the Bible of content marketing,” if only comparing a business book to sacred scripture didn’t counter-intuitively violate the authors’ own guidelines (banned words #18: “offensive phrases”).
So instead Content Rules is bucketed alone, which is, frankly, exactly what it deserves. After all, it stands as the single best book on the red-hot topic of content marketing since, well, since content marketing became a topic.
Blogging, consulting, marketing, reporting, entrepreneur-ing, social media-ing powerhouses Ann Handley (of MarketingProfs and ClickZ fame) and the omnipresent CC Chapman teamed-up to bring us Content Rules, the latest in marketing factotum David Meerman Scott’s New Rules Social Media Book Series (published by John Wiley & Sons). Given the pressure to produce something extraordinary, assembling a supergroup is slippery business. For every We Are The World there’s a dozen Damn Yankees. I assure you, the output of the Handley/Chapman collaboration is far closer to The Traveling Wilburys than it is to Power Station. (Ok, no more supergroup references for the rest of this review. Promise.)
In some ways, I resent this book. After all, I’ve carved out a nice little niche for myself leading the content marketing charge here at Eloqua, yet now anyone who reads Content Rules and puts the authors’ counsel into practice can match me step-for-step. If it wasn’t for those meddling kids, Handley and Chapman, I wouldn’t have lost my competitive advantage.
But my self-interests aside, this book should be cheered. It reads like a gift basket welcoming new neighbors into the content marketing community. It is friendly, accessible, humble and genuinely helpful. The authors love what they do, and they love that you are reading about how you can do it, too.
Content Rules is essentially three books: an actual book, a how-to manual, and a resource center. This three-books-in-one structure is a brilliant way to overcome what could have been the undoing of Content Rules. You see, the book speaks to a menacingly wide audience – so wide, in fact, that if the duo followed conventional wisdom and wrote for “the middle,” both hardcore content marketers and the local merchant would be dissatisfied. Instead, the clever structure allows readers to zero in on the aspects that matter most to their businesses. Want to be an expert on podcasting? There’s a section on that. Interested in learning how a business-to-business company rocked the content marketing world? See the case study on Kinaxis. Looking to understand the concepts that drive content marketing success? Check out the entire first section. Need to bone up on your SEO skills? Just look at the book’s “optimized” subtitle: “How to Create Killer Blogs, Podcasts, Videos, Ebooks, Webinars that Engage Customers and Ignite Your Business.” (Never overlook your single most important reader: Google.)
It’s like opt-in reading.
Yet, regardless of the section you find yourself reading, the voice is consistent, the counsel is valuable, and the stories are engaging. It’s not as if the publisher welded together three disparate books. The structure is clearly by design, and it speaks well of the care and forethought that went into all aspects of Content Rules.
While I will get to specifics in a moment, the most honest – and important – comment I can make about Content Rules is this: I will be better at my job for having read this book. Ok, now onto the fun stuff: quotes and tidbits from the authors.
- Marcus Sheridan of River Pools and Spa defines content marketing better than any social media analyst or content marketing influencer ever has. He says, “I want our web site to be an encyclopedia of pool buying.” Bingo.
- Reimagine; don’t recycle. This advice is thematic throughout the book. And it’s not only eloquent, it’s also brilliant. Your readers (a.k.a. customers) deserve more than a new headline placed over the same old text.
- Do something unexpected. This advice alone has had a massive impact on Eloqua’s business. In fact, it nearly led me to begin this review with the out-of-nowhere sentence: “I have a crush on Ann Handley.” But I rethought making that statement publicly.
- Start with an inventory of the content you already have. Exhibit A for Eloqua: The Social Media Playbook. This tip works, really.
- Show, don’t tell. Yup. Along with “do something unexpected,” this tip has been a difference-maker in my career. Take it seriously. Take it. Seriously.
- 18 business buzzwords we need to ban. Equal parts hilarious, squirm-inducing and mandatory. Great stuff here.
- “Create 10 things out of one thing.” Perfectly stated by Kirsten Watson of Kinaxis. And arguably the best advice in the entire book.
- “Share or solve; don’t shill.” I take the above bullet back. This is the best advice in the book. (More on this tip in a moment.)
Moreover, Handley and Chapman tackle some of the thorniest topics in content marketing, like “Should you put a form in front of your assets, or set them free?” and “Should you start with one mammoth piece of content and smash it into pieces, or should you begin by creating smaller pieces?”
Arguably the strongest content in the book is the section that centers on webinars. The authors dissect this content type with surgical precision, and they manage to make their point (“Too many webinars promise great content, but the hosts don’t really push the speaker to deliver on that promise.”) while making the reader laugh (“pitch slapped” is the act of being “sold” during what was billed as an educational session). There’s also some really (really!) smart advice in this section, like “go big or go tactical.”
There are, however, some areas in which Content Rules breezes over a topic that merits deeper discussion. For example, the “share or solve; don’t shill” concept arises regularly, but the authors stop short of offering examples of the dark side of content marketing. They give a good illustration of bad copywriting (Sealy Posturepedic), but the example is not shilling per se, it’s just lousy marketing. Readers would benefit just as much from learning what not to do as what to do, but the book is, at moments, deliriously positive.
Measurement is similarly shortchanged. I imagine this absence is a byproduct of the broadness of the book’s target audience. The wider the readership the more varied the objectives. A section on KPIs different companies have assigned to their content marketing efforts would have been helpful. Content marketing is so new that practitioners are more concerned with what they should be measuring than how they should go about measuring it. The authors were in a unique position to share at a very high level what types of benefits businesses are tracking against their content programs.
Looked at another way, Content Rules might not be a perfect book, but it is a perfectly human book. And if I were to reduce the counsel threaded throughout to one tip, it would be just that: Be yourself, be human.
Success requires a blend of skill, timing and luck. Ann Handley and CC Chapman are clearly two of the most skilled content marketers in the world, and their timing couldn’t be better (just yesterday, after reading a Content Marketing Institute post, a CMO friend of mine wrote me to say, “You are in a very good career lane.”). All that’s missing is luck. With a little luck this book will be the smash hit it deserves to be. Sure, that means I’ll have a lot more competition … but don’t forget that I also have Content Rules on my bookshelf.