Is your content marketing too “self-exuberant”? (Yes, probably.)

A photo of a sign in a shop window. The sign boldly reads: "Come in, we're awesome!"

A recent psychological study revealed an uncomfortable truth: we’re all pretty boastful—and people are noticing.

While that should make us rethink the strategy at our next job interview or high-school reunion, it also has implications for content marketing.

The study, titled You Call It “Self-Exuberance”; I Call It “Bragging”, found that people tend to resort to bragging when asked to make a positive impression on their audience. The study also found a wide gulf between the positive impression braggers thought they were making and the level of annoyance that their audience actually felt.

Basically, however modest we think we’re being, we’re probably boasting up a storm. And the times when we’re most tone deaf are the times when we’re trying the hardest to get someone to like and respect us.

When we come across as self-important in a job interview, chances are we’ll lose the job. When we do it in a piece of content, chances are we’ll lose the audience. In fact, research suggests that “self-exuberance” doesn’t just sabotage human interactions, it also negatively influences relationships between brands and their target markets.

A 2014 survey by Kentico showed that the majority of people are very open to hearing from businesses: 74% said they trust content from businesses that aim to educate readers about a particular topic. However, the same survey showed how easy it is to break that trust. Simply ending an unbiased blog post or informative newsletter with a product pitch brings your content’s credibility down by 29%.

When it comes to content marketing, your audience may want to hear from you, and they may even want to hear about you, but they almost never want to hear YOU talk about you.

There’s no “I” in content

In an ideal content journey, your company might never mention itself explicitly at all. The matrix below shows how much there is for a company to say to its target market without talking about itself.



Talk about ideas.

Talk about customers.

Let others talk about you.

Help your audience understand what a specific topic, idea, or best practice is all about, why they need to know about it, and how the knowledge will help them.

Help your audience discover solutions to their problems or new opportunities to succeed by showing them what their peers are doing.

Help your audience explore and evaluate their options so that they can choose the one that’s best for them.

Avoid product and company information completely, except for a discreet “Brought to you by…” message.

Bring product and company information into the conversation, but only as it pertains to customer goals and achievements or broader industry trends.

Let trusted OTHERS, such as customers and analysts, do most of the talking, and focus on helping prospects make an informed decision.

Share best-practice guides, thought leadership, industry research, and surveys.

Share case studies and client insights.

Share guides, demos, ROI calculators, and feature matrixes.

“Best in class” is best crossed out

At every step, it’s worth keeping an eye on the language you use to describe yourself. “Puff” words—words that sound impressive, but signal to your audience that you’re a tiny bit full of yourself— can do more to damage your reputation and to the content experience than you might think.

David Meerman Scott’s “Gobbledegook Manifesto” came out years ago, but it’s still one of the best examinations of the puff words we marketers love to dazzle our prospects with, including “ground-breaking,” “industry-leading,” and “best in class.” It’s always better to show than to tell. How is your company breaking new ground? What are you doing that’s leading the industry forward? You can dramatically improve your credibility by taking a close look at the language you use and deflating the puff wherever you find it.

Avoid these self-promotion pitfalls

As the psychological study showed, the urge to self-promote is strong, and we all need to be more vigilant about keeping our self-exuberance in check. Here are three common ways that good content goes bad when we let too much me-talk creep into the conversation.

The switcheroo.

If you offer a piece of content titled, “The Definitive Guide to Widgets” (and especially if you put it behind a gate), don’t deliver “The Definitive Guide to Our Company’s Widgets and Why They’re So Great.” The bar for content continues to rise, and if your company continues to produce insular, self-serving content, it’s going put your more generous and savvy competitors at a serious advantage.

The puppetmaster.

Getting customers to evangelize on your behalf is incredibly powerful. But many companies ruin the opportunity by trying to wedge their own messaging into the customer’s mouth, and it comes across as inauthentic and stilted. Whether it’s a testimonial, a case study, or a round-table discussion on an industry topic, companies need to cut the strings and let customers share their experiences in their own words—the good, the bad, and the off-brand.

The sandwich.

When you place really great, useful content between two thick, stale slices of self-promotion, that’s a sandwich. For example, does your webinar kick off with a self-congratulatory overview of your company and its products, then segue into a valuable case study or master class, and end with a 15-minute product demo? You’re not going to win any friends by making people wade through the stuff YOU want them to see before giving them the stuff THEY want to see.

Most marketers are genuinely excited about the great work their companies do, and it’s natural to want to share that excitement with the world. But it needs to be tempered with a recognition that our audience wants to hear about themselves, not us—what we can teach them and how we can help them. If we can keep this reality in mind—and our egos in check—ours will always be the voice they look forward to hearing.


About the Author

Hayden Jackson

Hayden is DemandLab's Director of Content Strategy. She has 20 years of in-house and agency experience in marketing communications and content marketing. Her areas of focus include content strategy, content creation, and content performance. She helps clients deliver content experiences that engage the company's target audiences and align with its business goals.

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