Failing Without Knowing Why: The Tragedy Of Performative Content
(Editorial note: I originally wrote this post over on the Hit Subscribe blog. I’ll be cross-posting anything I think the DaedTech audience might find interesting and also started a SubStack to which I’ll syndicate marketing-related content.)
I’m going to dive into something today that I consider nuanced but profound. And I’m going to attempt to do this with some modicum of decorum, since most of the (non-freelancer) content I create for Hit Subscribe I intend specifically for clients and prospects.
It’s a risky “call your baby ugly but do it gently” kind of moment.
So let me inoculate a bit against the fallout by assuring you that I have, in fact, created performative content. I should banish this blog post from 5 years ago back to the performative ether from which it lumbered. But if I do that, the healing cannot truly begin.
In all seriousness, though, that post is garbage, and I probably knew it as I was creating it. I mean, come on, past Erik. Is it really necessary to explain to an audience of content marketers that tutorials are a kind of blog post?
But the insipid nature of that premise didn’t stop me, and it probably won’t stop you, from creating performative content—at least not until you understand the true, subtle problem with it.
Performative content is a recipe for slowly failing at content marketing, and more broadly at business, in a non-obvious way and without ever understanding why.
Defining Performative Content
Let me start with a heuristic, rather than a formal definition, to further your understanding of performative content.
- Non-performative (let’s call it “useful”) content casts the reader as the most important party to the content.
- Performative content casts the creator as the most important.
If you look back at my “here are some kinds of blog posts,” uh, blog post, who is this content for, exactly? Who is both a member of Hit Subscribe’s potential lead pool and also unaware that different content themes and the marketing funnel exist? Absolutely nobody.
But that’s not the point of the post.
The point of that post was, “Hey, look at us, we’ve written for different blogs! Also we know a thing or two about blog posts and even the marketing funnel!” The reader wasn’t the hero of that story. I was.
And that is the essence of performative content.
The Ostensible Reader Journey Here
Let’s walk, in detail, through the sequence of events that would make this approach work. But let’s do it from the reader’s perspective.
- A reader comes to the site and consumes the performative content.
- The reader thinks, “Gosh, what kind of grade would I give this content?”
- “Why I’d give it an A+ since this person clearly understands the thing they do for a living. Just top-notch stuff here! A person that understands the thing they do is probably good at the thing they do!”
- Finally, the reader then thinks, “My God, where’s my wallet? I should give money to the business whose site I’m on—right now!”
I’m exaggerating here for effect, but the sequence, is, at its core:
- Reader consumes content
- Reader gives creator a (hopefully good) grade.
- Reader hires content creator.
Does This Work? Let’s Hire a Plumber
To understand where, if anywhere, this fits into marketing to potential buyers, let’s reverse the roles here. Imagine that you’re not considering what content to create but rather that you’re hiring a plumber to fix a leaky faucet.
You probably start by googling “plumbers in my area” and seeing what comes up. And let’s put a pin in the subject of the undifferentiated commodity offering, since that’s the bucket that performative content puts you in. We’ll get to that a little later.
You’ve got a few plumbers in mind, with slightly different rates, and now you need to decide what to do next. Do you:
- Go to their blogs and see who has written the most compelling articles about the chemical composition of plumber’s putty and choose the most eloquent and knowledgeable plumbers? Or…
- Hire whichever one is relatively cheap and can come out quickly.
Or maybe you don’t do any of that, because you remember that your brother-in-law has a friend that’s a plumber, and that friend once gave you great advice that you didn’t need a new water heater but rather just a new part. Maybe you’d strongly favor the partner that had actually helped you with a problem over the one with all of the plumbing certs and pipe putty blog posts.
Resumes Are the Platonic Ideal of Performative Content
In the plumbers’ world, performative content seems absurd. And, I’d argue that it’s generally absurd, but it doesn’t seem that way since it’s baked into everything we do professionally and everything we did growing up.
To illustrate what I mean, let’s consider another instance of
- Create content as performance.
- Receive grade on content.
I’m talking about the ultimate piece of performative content, the essence of performative content: the resume. The resume is based on earlier pieces of performative content found in the scholastic world, such as tests, essays, and college applications, and it is the most word-dense imaginable piece of performative content:
- Pack as much vacuous, self-congratulatory content as possible into an 8.5 x 11 space.
- Send it out into the world for grading.
- Get a job and receive money.
This is, quite literally, how we learn from almost birth to secure advancement and money. Perform, earn grade, profit.
Performative Content Requires a Captive and Superior Audience
If you blast out of the employed world and start a business, you will learn, sometimes brutally, that winning business does not work this way. I hadn’t really learned that five years ago, but I understand it now. Most humans won’t bother to grade your performative content because it is profoundly uninteresting. (I once wrote an entire post about new business owners getting this wrong, if you’re interested).
Have you ever poured yourself a cup of coffee on a Saturday morning, kicked back, and read a few dozen resumes for fun?
Of course not. Resumes are the most boring imaginable content.
Personally, I am constitutionally incapable of reading resumes. When people send them to me, my eyes cross. And that happens when I’m actually hiring people.
But those with better attention spans than me for vacuous content may, in fact, actually read them in a very, very specific situation. Like when they’re forced to. When they’re trying to make a decision among otherwise undifferentiated options, they will, grudgingly, read your performative content, grade you, and pick you.
But for this to work, they must already have committed to considering you for whatever role or partnership is on the table. That means whatever else performative content may be (e.g., weak and obsequious sales enablement), it isn’t content marketing.
So, In the End, What Is It?
Because I am brevity-resistant, I’ve surrounded the idea without defining it. Let me close the section with a proposed definition.
Performative content is content that exists primarily to showcase its creator in a favorable light.
I would argue that content marketing that is fit-for-purpose comes with compelling answers to three core questions:
- Who is this content for? (The reader or “persona”)
- How will it help them?
- What do we want them to do next?
Performative content has comically self-serving and mendicant answers to these questions:
- Who is this content for? Anyone willing to give me money.
- How will it help them? It won’t.
- What do I want them to do next? Give me money.
Why Is This a Failure Pattern? Let’s Count the Ways
In defining the term, I’ve already alluded to some of the problems with the approach, but I want to get specific in terms of laying out content campaigns. Let’s go through that in bullet fashion.
1. It’s Profoundly Uninteresting, Meaning People Probably Won’t Read or Care
I suppose you could create performative content that was interesting, if pressed. I imagine that in the entire history of the resume, one or two people had enough creativity to elicit a laugh or inform in some way.
But this will really be the exception.
Content marketing requires helping, entertaining, inspiring trust, and other audience-centric goals. Talking about how great you are (or explicitly flexing toward that purpose) does none of that.
You’ll find it a real slog to get readership, let alone conversions. And when those conversions come, it’s likely they already had started considering working with you.
2. It Positions You as a Subordinate to Your Buyers
If you think about entrance exams, resumes, and grades for money, what does all of that share? Basically, it queues up this conversation:
You: I’m ever-so-smart, grade me and you’ll see.
Your customer: I’ll be the judge of that, junior.
Is this really the energy you want in your buying process and customer relationships?
It’s ironic, because performative content is meant as a flex and a demonstration of superiority. But for it to actually serve that purpose and help you convert, your buyers have to allow it by patting you on the head and throwing you an “atta boy.”
(I’ll talk about the fine line between thought leadership and performative content a little later.)
Appealing for grades in this fashion also strongly indicates that you have a commodity offering. After all, if you had some kind of USP or truly game-changing value proposition, why would you be acting like you were trying to get into Harvard alongside 10,000 other, similar people? Why wouldn’t you just lead with what you can do for your buyers?
3. Fear and Fretting Make You Inefficient and Indecisive
When you’re creating performative content, you’re mainly preoccupied with how you look. And performers are far more risk-averse than opportunity-seeking.
In other words, performative content creators are most concerned with avoiding bad grades from readers. This tends to lead to extremely banal, inoffensive content (“Dear Hiring Authority, my communication skills are excellent!”), but that’s not the biggest issue.
The biggest issue is that this fear makes performative creators optimize for (low-stakes) risk minimization. They’ll procrastinate, fret, obsess, and get genuinely and sadly worked up over trivial things. “We absolutely cannot post this content until we straighten out our stance on Oxford commas!”
And there is almost no content creation play that, from a business perspective, benefits from excessive fretting. Everything gets slower, more expensive, more painful, and generally more miserable when you think of publishing a blog post the way you think of defending a PhD thesis in front a panel of professors.
In fact, if this describes your content, consider it a total. If you truly want to minimize mistakes, you should minimize public content and find other ways to generate leads. Your entire content marketing spend is probably a waste.
4. Fear and Fretting Also Make You Insufferable and Create Morale Problems
The damage isn’t limited to the subordinate relationship with customers or limited, banal content that nobody reads, either. It also infects your org chart (particularly if the performative charter is coming from a founder).
Imagine a founder obsessed with how the brand reflects on them. Everything must be just so, or people will think the company (the founder) doesn’t know what they’re doing.
Now imagine that founder hires a content marketer with the orders to “go forth and bring me leads through content marketing.”
What do you think the turnover is going to be like in that role? If your answer is “staggering,” then we should party because we’re on the same wavelength. And that lines up with my, at this point, somewhat extensive experience as an observer of this dynamic.
When performative-content advocates occupy leadership roles, they wind up giving people in their organization impossible goals. “Bring me 100K visitors, but I want to go through every line of every piece of copy with a fine-toothed comb.”
If that subordinate is smart, they’ll reach out to an organization like Hit Subscribe and try to do what I think of as “outsourcing a miracle.” Someone is going to fail, so you try to make a vendor do it, not you. And while I appreciate the realpolitik savvy of this play, we’ve actually gotten pretty good at recognizing this from a pretty long way off and offering sympathy from afar instead of shared misery.
5. Performative Content Invites Dark, ROI-Resistant KPIs
Writing uninteresting filler content and doing it inefficiently is obviously…not great…for ROI. But the reasons that performative content is bad business go deeper than just ineffectiveness and inefficiency.
In the first place, performative content heavily courts vanity metrics. Content that exists just to exist begs you to consider “pieces of content produced” as an actual KPI, which evokes a tragicomic parallel to Dilbert’s boss considering “lines of code written” a good measure of software engineering performance. (If you want a pithy analogy as to why that’s a bad idea, Bill Gates has you covered).
But even if you avoid that trap, you’ll have no trouble convincing yourself that visits and impressions alone are critical. After all, the purpose of performative content is to demonstrate your awesomeness, so isn’t the ultimate KPI “
number of people you’ve successfully bored impressions?”
Pieces of content written and the number of people who have viewed that content are, at best, highly variable leading indicators of business outcomes (like conversions and revenue), and they’re often completely orthogonal. But if you don’t realize that because you’re in vanity-land, you can keep spending ROI-resistant money showing people that you know what a tutorial blog post is.
The second, more subtle issue is that the fear and vanity that drive performative content creates “dark KPIs.” Adults in a business context tend not to say things like, “I’m doing this because I want to seem smart,” even when that motivation drives actual action. So stated goals and KPIs (visits, conversions) become out of whack with the actual ones (absence of “you’re so dumb” in the comments section).
(An aside: as a long-time management consultant, I can tell you that dark KPIs in general are probably the biggest driver of business dysfunction there is.)
6. You Will Conclude That Marketing Doesn’t Work
Perhaps the saddest part of performative content as a failure pattern is the conclusion that performative content creators tend to draw. They wind up believing that content marketing doesn’t work.
By far the most common outcome for an organization with performative ethos is to stop producing anything other than changelogs and funding announcements.
In an earlier lifetime within my career, I used to help organizations fix legacy code situations, and doing that often required unit tests. Every company without the infrastructure for unit tests would say, “We can’t do unit testing here because we’re unique in ______ way.”
None of them were ever unique in any way.
It’s the same with performative content creators. When the performative content fails to attract readers and, eventually, even make it live, the performer will conclude that content marketing and all of the incompetents around them are broken.
“We can’t do content marketing here because we have _____ unique positioning.”
No you don’t. There’s nothing unique about being afraid of looking bad. Everyone feels that.
Signs That You or People in Your Org Are Doing It
So with all that in the books, how do you know when you’re in the middle of a command performance of content marketing faceplant? After all, it’s unlikely that anyone in an editorial calendar ideation meeting is saying, “Hey, you know what won’t work is content that really focuses on me, so let’s do a bunch of that.”
This is pretty heuristic in nature, but I’ll offer some signs that you should do a frank assessment. And what you’re looking for can run the gamut in terms of creator attitude.
After all, when creating that “look, blog posts” blog post, I wasn’t choking the life out of our content program or obsessing over my image. I was just in “hey, look at us” mode, which doesn’t demoralize anyone…but also doesn’t, you know, work. (Believe it or not, we have yet to hear a single lead say, “I was just wondering if I could write a discussion-starting blog post when I noticed your blog and decided to give you money.”)
1. People Creating Content Can’t Articulate Who Would Read the Content or Why
Remember these answers to “Who would read this, how will it help them, and what do you want them to do?”
- Anyone willing to give me money.
- It won’t.
- Give me money.
Those shouldn’t be the answers, but neither should “I don’t know.”
If you’re focused on the reader of the content, you’ll find that performative content simply drops out of the mix, almost like magic. After all, performative content is never useful to anyone, so focusing on a reader more or less precludes generating it.
2. “If You Like This, Let’s Schedule a Call” as a Pretty Smooth Call to Action
I want to be somewhat careful here because there are non-performative use cases for this type of call to action. But if you’re creating performative content, it’s going to feel like the most natural thing in the world to suggest at the bottom of every post or page that people give you a call.
After all, that’s the only thing you have in mind when conceiving of the content. What else would they possibly do after reading it?
Here’s my blog post about blog posts. I know a ton about blog posts, so if you want some blog posts, give me a call!
Genuine content marketing, meant to inform or entertain, rarely has buy-segues that are this car-salesman-slick. After all, your readers aren’t in a buying (or calling you, or thinking about you) mindset when they’re reading an entertaining rant or googling an error message. In those situations, calls to action will involve newsletters, further reading, joining communities, etc.
That should be most of your CTAs.
3. “Thought Leadership” Without Thoughts or Leading
Performative content will, almost invariably, masquerade as “thought leadership”—at least in the minds of performers. After all, isn’t the essence of thought leadership, “we’re smart and just over here doing smart stuff, so check us out”?
I find the concept of thought leadership (though I hate the term itself) extremely interesting and could probably rant for 3K words about it, but I’m going to reign in that unhelpful impulse and make it more bite-sized.
- True thought leadership will likely result in both “ah-has” and angry comments, turning some people off. It’s the equivalent of ignoring your teacher’s essay prompt, writing about something random, and hoping it’s so dazzling that you get a decent grade anyway.
- Performative content is nothing like that. You’re diligently pleasing your professor (who is literally anyone reading) in the hopes of a non-controversial A+.
Here’s a grenade of an example. I think the entire job interview process is something we should all stop doing immediately, and we have grown Hit Subscribe to its current size without ever conducting a single job interview.
A decent cross-section of you right now are reading this and thinking that I’m a liar, idiot, or lunatic, and that reaction is a hallmark of thought leadership (such as it is), rather than performative content. Thought leadership courts controversy and makes novel revelations.
4. A Formidable Inability to Create Engagement
Here’s a marketing trade secret for you. There are actual sites and venues with lots of readers that will accept your money to show their readers your content.
If you’re having trouble getting anyone to your site to listen to the deafening sound of your own awesomeness, you can pay to force people in other places to listen. But you can’t force them to engage.
Take the plumber example from earlier in the post. He could pay the local town newspaper to run a full page spread containing his article about putty chemical composition. But somehow I doubt it would lead to joy—or dollars.
If you find yourself talking a lot about your brand and yourself and you’re met with collective yawns, that’s not just “how it works.” It’s a sign you’re performing, rather than marketing. Content should have engagement.
5. Turning Critics Into Reviewers
From an organizational perspective, one definite tell of performative content and operating from fear is deputizing armchair editors as reviewers.
For instance, say you’re running an editorial calendar wherein people at the company can contribute content to the blog. One day, a member of the C-suite comes in and reads you the riot act about publishing Bill’s post since it completely doesn’t take into account the messaging around the upcoming feature release and it makes you look stupid.
If you have a brainstorm and that brainstorm is to have that C-suite person review every post, you’re in performative mode. C-suite is worried about looking bad. He’s made you worried about looking bad. And now you’ve immortalized fear of looking bad as a permanent feature of your workflow.
6. Inappropriate Org Chart Involvement
Speaking of C-suite blog critics, is this a good use of an executive’s time? Reading every single blog post?
Whatever mistakes (or genius gambles) Mark Zuckerburg is making with Facebook or Meta or whatever right now, one mistake I bet he isn’t making is reading every blog post any of his properties burps out.
At some point between your company’s valuation and Facebook’s market cap, “executive reading every blog post” won’t scale any further.
And really, it probably shouldn’t start.
If you find that members of the C-suite are taking a great deal of interest in the content profile you have, it tends to be a strong indicator of a bias toward performative content. This is doubly the case because of the outsize influence someone like that, versus a content manager and the like, can have on culture.
Is it understandable that an early-stage founder is worried about the blog and how it makes the business look? Sure. Is it healthy? Probably not. Is it a magnet for performative content? Most definitely.
Recovering Performers: What’s Next?
Having thoroughly defined and enumerated signs of the issue, I’ll conclude briefly with my take on what to do next, having recognized the problem. And, interestingly, that’s pretty simple and straightforward and doesn’t require any lists to summarize.
First of all, stop it. Whatever you do next, stop making performative content. There’s nothing but wasted money and failure down that path.
Next is a simple (but not easy) coming-to-Jesus moment about the nature of your business’s content.
Can you get over your collective fear of looking bad or not? And do you want to?
Scuttle Content All Together?
It’s a serious question, and there is no right answer. Some businesses, like boutique service firms, might reasonably decide that the only content to create is for RPFs and sales enablement, and then they’ll call it a day.
If you can’t let go of the fear, then you should produce as little content as possible and maximize its leverage when you do produce it. Focus on landing pages and gated collateral, and make it count. Then use other lead generation techniques to fill your funnel.
Or Grit Your Teeth and Make Some Money?
If you decide that the business upside of content marketing is too great to pass up, then you need to gut-check. To do that, I’d suggest leaning into the inevitable hate and sharpshooting that your content will attract. (And all content will attract it, however carefully researched, grammatically flawless, and generally “right” it is.)
Make your first negative comment, your first rage tweet, your first aggregator downvote, and your first death threat (and yes, these will come too if you’re popular enough) each a milestone and celebrate it. It takes about 100 views to get an engagement and probably 1,000 to get a comment. By the time you’re basking in the death threats, troll hate, and people ridiculing your business’s existence, you’ve got enough readership and leads that you’ve got what Marlo Stanfield would consider “one of them good problems.”
And, in the end, that’s really the rub—and the thing to ask yourself. Do you want one of them good problems? Or do you want to bask in the complete admiration of your 0 readers as you respond to RFPs or buy mentions on lists of SaaSes?
Personally, in almost every case, I’d recommend the “grit your teeth and make some money” option. You don’t build, run, and exit a business by acting like a nervous job applicant.
Interested in More Content Like This?
I’m Erik, and I approved this rant. Which was easy to do, since I wrote it. If you happened to enjoy this, I’ve recently created a Substack where I curate all of the marketing related content I create on different sites.
Totally free, permanently non-monetized, and you’re welcome to sign up.