7 simple metaphors to explain content marketing

Mar 21, 2017Original Thinking

This is an adapted version of an article Lee wrote that was originally published by the Content Marketing Institute.

Content marketing often gets overcomplicated, but it’s a simple idea: give people the substance they’re seeking and they will come to you.

Nevertheless, most businesses struggle with the concept. Executives can’t shake their impulse to make their sales pitch as direct as possible. Why waste time and money creating something that doesn’t immediately push people to hand over their money?

Fortunately, there are all kinds of examples from outside the marketing world in which an indirect, non-intuitive approach is actually most effective. Here are just seven such metaphors.


People aren’t naturally adept at knowing the best technique for getting others to make a certain decision. If you don’t already feel that this is empirically true, consider this example from Nobel-winning psychologist Daniel Kahneman.

In “The Undoing Project,” Michael Lewis tells the story of Kahneman and his incredible research collaboration with Amos Tversky, at one point relating a lesson Kahneman taught his undergraduate students about getting people to change. Drawing on previous research, he was explaining how pushing people to do something can be counterproductive.

“Imagine a plank held in place by a spring on either side of it, Danny told the students. How do you move it? Well, you can increase the force on one side of the plank. Or you can reduce the force on the other side. ‘In one case the overall tension is reduced,’ he said, ‘and in the other it is increased.’ And that was a sort of proof that there was an advantage in reducing the tension. ‘It’s a key idea,’ said Danny. ‘Making it easy to change.'”

It’s the same with content marketing. It’s the realization that telling people to “Buy now!” can create resistance, whereas offering up articles and videos that proactively answer their questions and solve their problems can make an audience much more relaxed and attentive.


Typical outbound promotion is about pushing people to take an action. Content, conversely, is about pulling people in. It’s a new dynamic, and in many cases pulling offers more leverage than pushing.

Consider the martial arts. Annette Simmons, in her great book The Story Factor, compares storytelling to aikido, a martial art in which you use your opponents’ momentum against them. You actually pull an attacker toward you, destabilizing the person, and then moving the individual in the direction you want that person to go (typically the ground).

Simmons makes the analogy to content: “The physics of story may run counter to your instincts when faced with a situation where you want to influence so much that every fiber of your being tells you to ‘do something!’ If you push, you activate resistance. The pull strategy of story taps into the momentum living in your listeners rather than providing momentum for them.”


Everyone’s heard the old personal-finance line, “Don’t work for your money; make your money work for you.” That’s smart advice if it leads you to investing in funds that grow in time using the power of compound interest. See Prudential’s brilliant, record-breaking branded video series for evidence of that.

Interest is powerful in content marketing, too. If people are interested in your content, more and more people will find it and share it, continuously generating returns over time. If it’s something that’s not interesting to your audience, few people will seek it or share it, limiting its ROI.

CMI’s Joe Pulizzi has made that point exactly: “You can increase the bottom line while, at the same time, help your customers live better lives or get better jobs. Content marketing is the only kind of marketing that provides ongoing value, whether you purchase the product or not.”


Dating is a classic analogy to explain effective marketing. When you’re dating, you’re marketing yourself, and we all have some experience seeing what techniques work and which approaches are downright embarrassing.

Here’s how David Beebe, vice president of global creative + content marketing at Marriott International, explained it to The Washington Post: “It’s kind of like being on a first date. If all you do is talk about yourself, there’s not going to be a second date.”

Most businesses approach marketing like walking into a bar, going up to every attractive person and saying “Want to come home with me? Let’s leave now!” It’s intuitive in that situation that such an approach is desperate, suspicious and probably going to scare away people who might otherwise be interested. It’s very similar in marketing.


We’ve all had friends we’ve fallen out of touch with over the years. You might have been best friends with someone years ago but now you never talk to them. Instead you have a new set of friends you talk to every weekend. Maybe you had a falling out, maybe you no longer have anything in common, or maybe you both just stopped communicating for no particular reason.

In business terms, customer relationships can change for all the same reasons, like a bad service experience or a change in lifestyle. Similarly, if your company is only out there promoting its products and services, and not what your audience is really interested in, you’ll only get tuned out. Audience-centric content marketing is a way to make sure you keep communication channels open; that way you’re still in touch when they consider a purchase decision.

At a recent Contently event, Mark Walker, head of content marketing at Eventbrite UK, explained this comparison: “Marketing is like a friendship. There are lots of pivotal moments in a friendship, like parties, but you don’t get invited if you’re not part of the regular conversation.”


We often get so myopic thinking about “the consumer” that we forget who the consumer really is — your friends, your family, and yourself. Would you share a sales deck with your friends, a promotional brochure with your wife or husband, or read some other advertising collateral in your spare time? Of course not. Why do we think other people will?

The idea that marketing should be interesting and entertaining for the intended audience isn’t a new one. David Ogilvy said the same thing about advertising decades ago: “Never run an advertisement you wouldn’t want your family to see. Tell the truth but make truth fascinating. You know, you can’t bore people into buying your product. You can only interest them in buying it.”


Can a sales call be a metaphor for marketing? It’s so much a part of business you’d think it wouldn’t offer a different enough perspective, but even effective salespeople don’t solely push a product or service!

Consider this example from a piece of content marketing itself. In 1908, a niche oil-and-chemicals company named Houghton International launched a magazine for its sales agents named The Houghton Line. The company president was also editor of the magazine, and in the debut issue this is how he described his editorial philosophy: “All the talk is not going to be relative to our goods or details of their sale, any more than all the talk of a personal call would be so.”

Isn’t that a clear and compelling rationale for why content marketing shouldn’t just focus on selling? He’s absolutely right — no savvy, effective salesperson only talks business. Meanwhile, people who make good small talk, share personal information, and tell entertaining stories are more friendly, trustworthy, and charismatic.

So, do you want to use smart psychology to win fights, invest intelligently, get second dates, earn friends, serve your family and be charismatic? That, quite simply, is the logic behind content marketing.