Are You Pushing Phony Content? 3 Keys to Authentic Content Marketing

Are You Pushing Phony Content? 3 Keys to Authentic Content Marketing

“How would you know you weren’t being a phony? The trouble is, you wouldn’t.” — Holden Caulfield, J.D. Salinger’s The Catcher in the Rye

Content. Content. Content. We’re awash in it. And unfortunately, as Velocity Partners so eloquently puts it in their terrific slide deck presentation, so much of it is, well, crap.
If you’re a marketer like me, maybe you realize that you’re part of the problem. Maybe your company decided it needs to “start thinking like a publisher” but unfortunately somewhere along the line that got warped into “start trying to be like, Huffington Post, or (God help us) Buzzfeed.” That’s a failed approach on many levels.
As Sunil Rajaraman, founder and CEO of, puts it in a great post for VentureBeat, these sites are “content machines. They have more resources, huge editorial staffs, insane amounts of in-house analytics tools, and other bells and whistles you will not have access to.” Not to mention a large portion of the content they produce is throw-away ephemera.
But the bigger point is that these sites are doing exactly what they’ve been designed to do (and doing it really well). Your readers and customers don’t need you to try to give them the same thing. Besides, attempting to replicate their (or any other) approach simply implies you haven’t put in the time needed to figure out your own. And until you do you’re destined to come off as simply another babbling huckster adding to the noise. Or in other words, a big phony.

Rising Above the Racket and Earning Trust

It can be tempting to toss together another Top 5 or 10 list (guilty) or a “Lessons from the Latest Topical Movie/Show/Trend” (guilty again). Those posts are easy and can be fun, but do they really stand out or provide any real, lasting value? Are they going to stick with your audience? Do they tell customers something meaningful about you, or, even better, help them learn something meaningful about themselves? In other words, are they authentic?
The answer is likely “no” far more often than we’d like to admit. If we’re being honest, many of us produce content to fill quotas, to canvas search results, to get sign-ups and clicks. Not that there’s anything wrong with those things as results, but content produced with nothing but those goals in mind is not only hollow and misleading — it also shows. Customers aren’t dumb — they know fluff and filler when they see it — and they certainly know when they’re being sold to.
That’s why Chris Brogan comes right out and labels any promotional emails/blog posts “Selly Sell” and keeps that material separate from his standard posts that are full of personal stories and helpful, real-world advice (just one of the reasons why he is one of the most trusted and well-respected marketers online).
Treating content creation as a simply another task to check off or a trick to accomplish something else is a doomed approach that will fall flat and, worse, tarnish your reputation. Think about it: How many emails do you get from companies that you automatically delete/ignore — all because you’ve become accustomed to them delivering the same tired, no-substance content and/or asking you to sign up or do something else?
Do you want your emails or your newsletter or your blog posts to be seen that way?
On the other hand, actively treating your content as a vehicle for value can be transformative. But to do that means giving up the chase for shortcuts and recognizing there’s no easy path to authenticity. Creating genuine, authentic content takes a willingness to put in the hard work required to create something of merit and value, and to take on the risks associated with producing something original.

Transparency: Be Brave Enough to Be Vulnerable

If we want readers to let their guard down we need to let ours down first. For brands, that means stepping out from behind the protective shield of anonymity and dropping the ubiquitous “we’ve got all the answers” act. That means sharing stories that reveal something personal about ourselves and what we care about. It means openly discussing passions as well as mistakes, doubts, and rough spots rather than sweeping them under the rug, and it means actively seeking out insight as much as providing it.
Rand Fishkin
If you’re searching for an example of truly authentic, fearlessly transparent content, look no further than Rand Fishkin’s blog. There aren’t many founders/CEOs out there taking to their blog to candidly share their inner thoughts about their company’s direction, not to mention openly ponder how they’ve failed, succeeded, and can work on improving in their role.
What posts like this one and this one highlight so wonderfully is that while it’s easy to hide in generalities, to provide generic tips and vague advice, it’s far more valuable to ground content in real-world experience and share specifics. Which article would you personally find more interesting and worth your time? A short list of good common leadership qualities or a CTO’s personal reflection on how she struggled during her transition into her first management position and the valuable lessons she took away from the experience?
Kate Mats
It’s abundantly apparent that post from Kate Matsudaira, founder and CTO of popforms, took plenty of thought, time, and guts to write, but the payoff is just as clear — not only did it receive over 60 comments, it also personally prompted me to share it and immediately subscribe to her feed. And now I actually look forward to seeing content from Kate in my inbox, because I know it’s going to be 100x more worth my time than yet another blast of the same tired crap.
As a content producer, wouldn’t you rather knock your audience’s socks off with a few unique gems rather than inundate them with a barrage of so-so, ho-hum? I don’t know about you, but trying to convert me with shear quantity and show of force won’t wear me down — it will just make me kindly redirect your onslaught to junk. If that’s true for us when we think of the content we receive don’t we owe our audience the same respect?
With Kate’s approach I essentially navigated the cycle from awareness to conversion to advocacy over the course of reading just one blog post (and this was a couple of months or so after it went up).
That’s the power of authentic content.

Injecting Authenticity into Your Lifeless, Phony Content Strategy

So what exactly is it that makes a piece of content genuine and authentic? It’s easy to go down the “I know it when I see it route,” but Cheryl Conner has gone a few helpful steps further, creating a great list of 10 Commandments for Authentic Content for Forbes.
There are a few “commandments” I’d add to the list, and they each require a willingness from companies to be honest enough to be transparent, confident enough to be vulnerable, and unselfish enough to make their content not about themselves.

The Three E’s of Authentic Content

1) Empathy

It’s one thing to identify a pain point and prescribe a solution, but authentic content requires the writer to actively take on a problem and become personally invested in seeing it resolved.

2) Enthusiasm

The secret ingredient that makes the internet go around, enthusiasm is the motivator that drives us to share. Content created with enthusiasm contains passion, and not only is passion authentic, it’s also incredibly contagious.

3) Empowerment

The intent of authentic content is to empower others. It stems from generosity and a genuine pleasure in seeing others succeed. It focuses on users and customers, their challenges and wins. After all, what they’re accomplishing out there in the real world is what truly matters, and highlighting their success stories will never be phony.
As long as your content is driven by these three qualities you can rest assured it will connect, and that your brand will rise above the deluge.

Time to Share! What Are Some Good Examples of Authentic Content?

Who else is out there leading the way as trusted, genuine content creators?

Jonathan Crowe
Jonathan Crowe
Senior Content Manager

Jonathan Crowe is Senior Content Manager at Barkly. He was previously the Managing Editor of OpenView Labs.
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