Why Your Agency's Content Marketing Sucks

Or, how understanding tacit thought leadership can improve your content marketing

I have a friend who’s world class at running workshops. I’ve run a fair number of workshops myself but they’re on another level. If they ever make a film like Jiro Dreams of Sushi but about workshops then my friend is going to play the star role.

Their ability to design, orchestrate and execute an effective workshop with a big company where multiple stakeholders are involved is just incredible. I’ve never seen anything like it.

The first time I participated in one of their workshops my jaw hit the floor.

We’ve had plenty of conversations over the years about helping his agency “do thought leadership” or “start content marketing” or “blogging”. Each time I stress the importance of demonstrating their expertise - their product is so differentiated it’s not even funny!

They’ve been blogging and such for a while now and… it’s not bad, but it’s kind of generic. They write articles like “Avoid these three pitfalls with email marketing” or “Black friday holiday tips for ecommerce sites”. The content is fine - and keeps them moving forwards - it shows up on their site, in their emails. There’s good tips!

But it’s not thought leadership.

I can see that there’s an extreme level of expertise and operational excellence at my friend’s agency, but it’s not well articulated in their marketing and content.

This story is, unfortunately, very common. Agencies and consultants who are great at what they do but produce “content marketing” and “thought leadership” that is generic, bland and not very effective.

Why is that?

Enter Tacit Knowledge

The answer to this puzzle lies in understanding tacit knowledge. This from Cedric Chin’s just outstanding series on tacit knowledge:

Tacit knowledge is knowledge that cannot be captured through words alone.

Think about riding a bicycle. Riding a bicycle is impossible to teach through descriptions. Sure, you can try to explain what it is you’re doing when you’re cycling, but this isn’t going to be of much help when you’re teaching a kid and they fall into the drain while you’re telling them to “BALANCE! JUST IMAGINE YOU ARE ON A TIGHTROPE AND BALANCE!”.

The crucial part about tacit knowledge is that it’s extremely hard to teach and pass on to others:

How do you teach tacit knowledge? How do you teach bike riding, for that matter?

When I was a kid, I taught myself how to ride a bike … by accident. And then I taught my sisters and then my cousin and then another kid in the neighbourhood who was interested but a little scared. They were zooming around in about an hour each. The steps were as follows:

  1. Pick a small bike, much smaller than the body of your learner, and therefore not far off the ground. This is useful for the learner because they will be able to put their feet down and save themselves at any moment. It’s also less scary to be not far off the ground.
  2. Have them push with their legs and go forward a short distance, again with their feet only inches off the ground. Do this repeatedly, by pushing off, putting both feet down, then stopping and repeating.
  3. Make the pushes harder and the distances longer. Eventually, they will spend tens of seconds gliding with their feet held up. The goal here is have them learn how it feels like to balance on a bike.
  4. On one of those glides, once they feel ready (and likely a little bored — the point is to get them to do step 3 so many times that they’re feeling secure and eager to move on) — well, once you reach that point, tell them to start peddling.
  5. Voilà. You have a bicycling kid.

Notice how little verbal instruction is involved. What is more important is emulation, and action — that is, a focus on the embodied feelings necessary to ride a bicycle successfully. And this exercise was quite magical for me, for within the span of an hour I could watch a kid go from conscious incompetence to conscious competence and finally to unconscious competence.

In other words, tacit knowledge instruction happens through things like imitation, emulation, and apprenticeship. You learn by copying what the master does, blindly, until you internalise the principles behind the actions.

One of the most fascinating things about tacit knowledge is not only that it’s hard to teach - but once you have tacit knowledge you might not even understand how it works…

Again, quoting Cedric’s posts (you really should read the whole series) - he talks about this situation where expert tennis players are able to detect the type of serve within a 100 millisecond window:

Now we cut to black before the racket hits the ball. And the experts are still able to say what type of serve that is — they haven’t even seen the racket hit the ball, and they can tell you 85% of the time whether it’s a kick, a flat, or a slice serve. And they can even predict backhand or forehand side on the return. And at that point the novices performance pretty much drops off. Now if we cut it back a little bit further, they’re both down to random (prediction).
So now we’ve defined our window of expert advantage. From 50 milliseconds before contact, to 50 milliseconds after contact. There’s a 100 millisecond window in there when the experts have a distinct advantage over the non-experts. So that’s the research finding.

But! The plot thickens - the experts can identify the serve but they can’t explain why:

The experts can’t necessarily see what they’re seeing — they almost put it in the ‘ESP category’. [...] And if you press them enough, they’ll start making stuff up. The way that experts do, because they want to give you an answer. So you really need to start ascertaining where that is.

What a phrase - the experts can’t see what they’re seeing.

Let’s come back to my friend the master workshopper - the Serena Williams of workshops. In conversations I grew frustrated - “If you could write your 10-part guide to running workshops it would be an incredibly useful piece of content that would get referenced everywhere and by everyone”.

But with our understanding of tacit knowledge…. maybe my friend can’t see what he’s seeing? It’s not a failure of effort - he finds it almost impossible to produce this series on running workshops.

In reality you struggle with questions like:

  • What’s the right level of abstraction?
  • How do I explain the ideas clearly?
  • Which bits should I include and in what order?

And the effort to produce the ultimate guide to workshops stalls and loses momentum.

Is all hope lost?

Enter ACTA - Applied Cognitive Task Analysis

The good news is that there’s research and methods on how to extract tacit knowledge from experts. Sneaky eh? The simplest approach is ACTA. From Cedric once again:

A Quick Recap of ACTA

ACTA is a protocol of three interview methods and a presentation format, designed to help a practitioner extract information about the cognitive demands and skills required for a task. The three interview methods are:

  1. You first create a task diagram. This is a broad overview of the task in question, and identifies the difficult cognitive elements.
  2. You do a knowledge audit — which identifies all the ways in which expertise is used in a domain. You also extract examples based on actual experience.
  3. You do a simulation interview — you give the expert a simulation of a single incident, and then probe the expert’s cognitive processes over the course of that simulation.

Finally, you present the extracted information in a cognitive demands table.

In that post Cedric actually walks through an applied version of ACTA to extract John Cutler’s product expertise. And I think it’s compelling - I think it’s the same process that my friend should go through to build an outline for the “ultimate workshop guide”.

It’s not going to solve all of the problems - and it’s not trivial to do - but it provides a framework and process to follow that gets to a reasonable outline of where the expertise lies. In short, how to produce content that focuses on the expert insights and not the generic “how to” advice.

How do you start? Small b blogging!

This all seems quite cumbersome and heavy handed - going through an ACTA knowledge extraction process sounds like hard work, and doing it from a cold start might not be very effective. Instead if you find yourself trying to get better at thought leadership or content marketing I’d encourage you to go through a process that looks something like this:

  • Step 1: You first need to start creating content (writing, podcasting, slide decks etc) that allows you to expose your thinking. Thick data - rich in context. Don’t focus on tightly polished and absolute statements and “how-to” but focus on questions, context and musings. What you want is less “5 ways to run a remote workshop” and more “Unanswered questions and thoughts about zoom workshops”. Some inspiration:
  • Step 2: Small group feedback! Once you’re producing this kind of rich context content you should be getting input and feedback from a small group of peers / respected contacts / prospective clients etc. The key idea here is that you don’t need distribution, you just need to listen! Simply email 5-10 people and ask them what they think - have conversations with people about the ideas. This will begin to expose the shape of your tacit knowledge - the things you’re writing about and the way you’re framing your thinking will naturally start to expose where the real insights and expertise lies. This will build confidence that you “have something to say” and might even begin to point out some areas of tacit expertise.
  • Step 3: Commit to deliberate conversations on the topics you’re writing about. This can be with peers, friends, co-workers etc. Personally I find that podcasts have been great at helping me articulate and talk around subjects - repeatedly touching on key ideas helps you find clear ways of talking about them but also helps you realize which bits are “aha!” moments for your audience.
  • Step 4: Run an ACTA workshop! Find someone who knows a bit about your field - ideally a peer - and have them run through an ACTA workshop with you - formally extracting, shaping and articulating the tacit knowledge.

I think this process would be very effective - both in building a public presence and in building confidence. You can see how if you follow this process you will begin to build an audience (albeit very small!) and you’ll get more confident and articulate at writing and thinking in public - and eventually you’ll reach the output from the ACTA workshops that will give you a clear outline for producing world class content - world class thought leadership that matches your world class expertise.