Author   |    Speaker   |    Chief Content Officer

When a franchise like 50 Shades of Grey enjoys crazy success, is it a signal that content doesn’t have to be good to be crazy-successful?

Popularity is only one measure of success, of course. And for most of us in the content marketing world, it’s not a very good one.

Yet popularity is still very often the thing that persistently defines value. (Witness the popularity of popularity lists.)

On the one hand I get it, and on the other, I think it’s weird.

Is it the goal for your business to have the most followers on Twitter? Or is it to attract more customers than your competitor?

“Best” is rarely the same as “popular,” as Seth Godin has pointed out. And “most-read” is rarely the same as “most-loved,” as I’ve talked about here.

“If you become popular it is always because of the worst aspects of your work,” Hemingway famously said.

(It’s practically like Hemingway was prescient enough to anticipate the 50 Shades franchise, isn’t it? But I digress…)

The 50 Shades of Grey movie made an estimated $30 million at the box office when it opened this past weekend. The book by sold 100 million copies worldwide.

I don’t begrudge any author any success. If 100 million of us loved this story enough to buy it… well, should I judge? Should any of us? No.

At the same time, any thinking person would have misgivings. In the battle against content mediocrity, it’s kind of depressing that a poorly written piece of content gets this much love, isn’t it?

So, does our content need to be good? Or should we aim for a new 50-Shade-inspired metric of Good Enough?

(Here, I’ll ignore the broader, cultural issues about the storyline of the book and movie. But I will say we should all have misgivings on moral grounds, too: Will our kids’ generation grow up thinking that abusive relationships are kind of hot — among other troubling issues?)

Quality Does Matter

Your content needs to be ridiculously good for the audience you are trying to reach: It needs to be empathetic, useful, and inspired.

The imperative of any content publisher is to generously create value for an audience—to focus on their needs. In a content marketing context, that kind of mindset makes it easy for people to trust you and believe in your company, and to also rely on you.

Contently, a content management platform, suggests that those creating content on behalf of brands should actually adhere more strictly to publishing standards than mainstream journalists do, because people are naturally skeptical of something produced by a brand.

I’d also say that we need to try a little harder creatively: “In this world of omnipresent omnimedia, the most successful companies will be those whose superior content draws consumers routinely and repeatedly,” wrote my friend and IAB President Randall Rothenberg in Adweek last week.

In my mind, the best content creators we have out there feel a kind of responsibility to create great content—maybe just because they can.

I’m thinking here of Basecamp, Airbnb, the Humane Society of Silicon Valley, Salesforce UK, Doug Kessler, Moz, Mash+Studio. To name but a few. (Actually, to name eight.)

Am I naïve? Maybe. But so be it.

I’d rather strive for excellence and fail than be okay with mediocrity.

“A book must be the axe for the frozen sea inside us,” Franz Kafka once wrote.

The best content marketing can do something similar: It can transcend the business driving it to shape our understanding of how the world works. And, “at their very best, [storytellers] can empower our moral imagination to envision how the world could work better,” wrote Maria Papova in Brain Pickings.

So how does that mindset translate to your daily work life?

If you have a big budget: Tell inspired stories using all the tools you can.

If you have a small budget: Understand what good content looks like, and get some training and advice on how to do it better.

And no matter your budget:

  • Understand your customer. Tailor the value of your content to your specific buyers by looking at their behavior, not just demographics.
  • Hone your tone of voice, because it’s the secret sauce in your content barbecue.
  • Use an editor. I’m astounded at the number of blogs and websites that are hiring writers like crazy but think editors are optional.Editors are not optional; they are necessary. Editors are to content what a gem cutter is to a raw diamond: They don’t make the stuff, but that stuff is not as pretty or as valuable without them.
  • Remember, “Done is better than perfect.” At the same time, don’t take that as a pass to produce less than your best work.
  • Forget about viral. Fifty Shades of Grey is a reminder of why you shouldn’t worry about “popular” or “viral” as a measure of your marketing.Don’t fret about popularity. Don’t worry about lists or Twitter followers or vanity metrics. Just offer the best value to the people who matter most to you.

The Next Time Your Boss or Client Asks You for Viral Content

Let’s end this post where we started. 

The next time your CEO or your boss tells you to create a viral video or asks why yours isn’t the top blog in some random list, you should drop what you’re doing, run out and buy a copy of 50 Shades of Grey (real-time update: 100 million and one copies sold!).

Sit him or her down in a windowless conference room, open the book randomly, and read aloud. Together. You’ll be forced to say passages like the following, and if the words don’t feel thick and sluggish and stupid in your mouth, well… I don’t think we can be friends:

“His voice is warm and husky like dark melted chocolate fudge caramel… or something.”


“I feel the color in my cheeks rising again. I must be the color of The Communist Manifesto.” 

And perhaps my favorite, because it’s unnecessarily and weirdly specific, like the EL James spent a little too long trolling WebMD:

“And from a very tiny, underused part of my brain—probably located at the base of my medulla oblongata near where my subconscious dwells—comes the thought: He’s here to see you.”

Side note: Katrina Passick Lumsden kept careful tally of the irritating repetition in the book (“irritating repetition” is another phrase for “zero creativity”).

In a hilarious and now classic review on Goodreads, she counted and published the number of times the book repeats key words and phrases, including “Oh my” (79), “crap” (101) and “murmur/murmurs” (199).

So do the reading. Then ask your boss: We can do better than this crap, can’t we?

Oh crap, she’ll murmur. Oh, my… Yes, we must.

Because we can.

Header image: Vermont Teddy Bear Co.

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40 Responses to 50 Shades of Mediocrity: Does Content Have to Be Good, or Just Good Enough?

  1. I’m pretty sure you’re confusing “writing” with “content”. Simple mistake made by non-writers all the time. Content is to writing what “beverage” is to collectable wines. Content doesn’t have to be good or bad (and leave it to you to have the ego to make that distinction). GOOD content drives traffic. PERIOD. Don’t broke what ain’t fixed!

  2. Mike Myers says:

    Ann: I couldn’t agree more. But maybe there’s an upside here. If this crap (using one of the phrases the author seems to love) can garner so much broad-based attention, there has to be even more love just waiting out there for content that’s actually good. I know, that’s pretty glass half full of me (and I usually don’t go to those meetings) but there has to be a silver lining here…right?

    I believe the content marketing focus in 2015 will shift to the promotion of great content. I think people (brands, etc.) are starting to get the message about creating great content, but people still need to find it in order to love it.

    Hate it or not, this ‘story’ was well promoted.

  3. Doug Kessler says:

    Terrific post — and a great reminder that popular is not synonymous with great.

    With things like 50 Shades, 100 million bought it before they read it. So they were voting based on hype and buzz and (let’s face it) horniness.

    I don’t want to begrudge success — it’s hard enough to get anything to market much less get it wildly accepted. But I do think it’s dangerous to equate popularity with quality.

    The Buzzfeed ethos makes it very tempting to do this. If it’s shared, it wins. No shades of grey there. But Buzzfeed’s only job is to get things read and shared. As content marketers, our job is to get people to do something. A much tougher challenge.

  4. John Bottom says:

    Ann – I’m with you all the way in the battle for quality content over mediocrity. But that’s mainly my ego and sense of personal pride taking over. The important thing is to write for your audience. If they want low-grade erotica and don’t care how it’s written, then it’s someone’s job to provide it because they’re going to make money doing it. You and I work to the same formula: give ’em what they want. I just hope and pray we’re operating in a different market.

    • Ross Howard says:

      I completely agree that if the audience wants it, it’ll get created and consumed. I think that we are indeed in a different sort of market, and different relationship with the reader.

      I think the blessing (and curse) of content marketing is that we are writing with two objectives. Give ’em what they want, and give them what we want them to understand and appreciate.

      We’re supplying truly impressive content that delights the audience, but it’s underpinned by a business objective – to raise the readers opinion of us and drive them closer to becoming a customer.

      Quality content is the means, quality conversations with the brand (or sales team) is the end goal.

  5. To me, “good enough” isn’t good enough. It should be the BEST you can do, even when time is short and other tasks are looming. Your name is on it, people — do you want to make readers think you don’t care enough to do a good job?

    Good-enough vs. good writing is like the difference between a Happy Meal and a steakhouse meal. Both are food. Both fill you up. You won’t remember the burger and fries an hour later.

    Good writing is appetite. Good-enough writing is habit.

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  7. Samar Owais says:

    I feel that no matter how good our content, it simply will not appeal to the readers who like their content brain dead. So our job isn’t to appeal to the masses (okay, the 100 million folks who like their content brain dead and unimaginative) but to the folks who like their content to be intelligent, insightful, and entertaining at the same time.

    My biggest gripe with 50 Shades (apart from the questionable material) is with its editing. Any editor worth his/her salt would never have let this book see the light of the day until the writer had been pushed for more word choice at the very least.

  8. Melissa says:

    Ann, I LOVED this blog post. So many good points. It can be so easy to focus on vanity metrics because they look so good (and they’re easy to monitor), but I really appreciated your reminder to focus on creating something that’s ridiculously good for your audience. And FYI, I actually chuckled out loud when I read the final lines.

  9. Julie says:

    I agree, Ann, that you should strive for excellence instead of intentionally starting with mediocrity. With TV writing it’s more important to be fast and prolific. When you turn on the TV, something has to be there, whether it’s brilliant or not.

  10. Tam Francis says:

    I think you’re underestimating the power of hitting emotional buttons. We can define “good writing” by adhering to all the rules, but there is something to be said for tapping into an emotional psyche. There are many books about sex, with just as graphic sex scenes, but for some reason they were/are not best sellers. I think it may be that James hit on an emotional need in women with her characters.

    Most reviewers don’t seem to understand it’s not about the S&M and the controlling Christian, but the fact that he thinks what’s her face (sorry can’t think of her name), is the MOST beautiful, sexy, woman in the world. Every woman wants to feel her man thinks that way about her.

    Not only that, any sane woman recognizes it is not Christian that has the power in the relationship, its the woman.

    50 Shades certainly is not on my recommend list (although my mother urged me to read it, and I did–much to the happiness of my husband–LOL). I like to pretend I’m a pseudo-intellectual and am more analytical than most my peers, (admit it, you do, too).

    But why can’t we have different measuring sticks for different kinds of books and why can’t emotional appeal trump narrowly defined ideals of good writing?

    Everyone needs to get over and congratulate her on finding her niche and brazenly flogging those emotional buttons.

    ~Tam Francis~

  11. Danielle Antosz says:

    I haven’t read the book, but the quotes you listed were…something else. While I agree that we shouldn’t settle for mediocrity, its also important not to fall into the ‘perfection’ trap. Sometimes done is better than perfect.

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  13. Tanvi Gala says:

    This is awesome!

  14. The consideration of how useful content is, depends on who finds it helpful and it has nothing to do with popularity, especially in the wake of Social Media. I love the way you used Fifty Shades of Grey to show that ideas can seem senseless but still be entertaining and popular, depending on the context of the presentation. The best part is that you were still able to share your formula for creating innovative content in a concise manner and you put the idea(s) surrounding the movie at the boardroom table. I guess it should be very obvious that you know how to give a presentation and not put everyone to sleep.

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