An interesting question came up recently in a marketing group I follow on social media: “What content should we create?”
The first few comments on the post were what you might suspect. Some people encouraged the poster to interview people who fit their personalities to find out what they’re struggling with. Others spoke of overcoming writer’s block. Some suggested listing all the questions their potential customers had and writing posts about them.
The original poster responded by acknowledging the value of these answers but clarifying the question. They didn’t ask what to write to resonate with their audience. They looked for content ideas that would generate the most response. Period.
They wanted to create controversy, provocation and a degree of virality. The theory: Do something that creates a lot of buzz and inspires a boatload of people to respond, then the right people will pay attention to your other content focused on the things you do.
Predictably, the tone of the discussion turned into a fiery debate about the flawed conception (if not ethics) of this theory. Let’s save this discussion for another day.
But it got me thinking. Is there a case where it makes sense to deliberately post content you don’t like, disagree with, or consent to—with the express purpose of failing?
My answer is yes.
Why intentional failure can be a good thing
We all know that failure can be a productive outcome. There are entire books about how people tend to learn more from failure than from success.
But this concept is almost always treated in the context of failure when trying to succeed. In other words, you’re doing your best to achieve something—and something about that approach has failed. The lesson is that you should have done something differently.
I’m interested in what happens when you consciously try to fail or at least try something that the world thinks is wrong. Either you confirm what you expected, or you will be surprised by the results.
Of course, some activities lend themselves better to this approach than others. For example, I wouldn’t try to fail while learning to fly an airplane. However, in marketing – and especially in content – this approach gives you an invaluable opportunity to expand your toolbox.
According to Paul Schoemaker’s book Brilliant Mistakes, advertising icon David Ogilvy made many mistakes on purpose. He would run ads that he and the client team had rejected just to test their collective thinking. Most would fail. But some, including the iconic Hathaway eyepatch shirt ad, became iconic campaigns.
Consider dedicating time, money, or content to test your core instincts. I don’t mean running a simple A/B test to evaluate two good efforts. That only determines which one is better received.
I suggest you try a piece of content that represents an idea you flatly rejected. Or try investing in a channel that looks wrong from every angle. For example, I’m going to try TikTok later this month. I am 99.9% sure that I will fail spectacularly.
But what if I’m wrong?
There is a famous quote attributed to IBM founder Thomas J. Watson: “If you want to increase your success rate, double your failure rate.” It seems to me that there’s only one mathematical way to double your failure rate — and that’s if you occasionally intentionally try to fail.
How to intentionally fail
A friend and I had a funny saying that we used to tell each other when we failed an exam at school. We’d say, “I’d rather have a zero than a 59.”
Why? Because getting 59 means we tried and still failed.
Of course, we didn’t say nobody should ever try it. We were stupid teenagers.
In content marketing, we know the value of testing and experimentation. However, most tests are performed to confirm an initial assumption. In fact, a key part of A/B testing is to form a hypothesis first. You have an assumed or proven winner and are testing an alternate version to see if it performs better.
Making an intentional mistake is a little different. In these experiments you assume that you will fail.
What value could that have?
Well, there can be two valuable outcomes. One is that you validate your assumption of failure and learn something. The other is that you will succeed (in other words, you will fail because of failure) and that long-term effort could pay off handsomely. Even if you don’t, you’ve learned something.
There are different types of intentional mistakes. One of my favorites was created by a vice president of marketing at a large B2B company. Over the years, they had amassed tens of thousands of subscribers to their email newsletter. Each week they dutifully emailed nearly 90,000 newsletters, and each week engagement rates were extremely low.
So the vice president did something interesting. He emailed a large segment of the subscribed but unengaged audience with the subject line: Sorry to See You Go.
In the body of the email, the copy told the recipient that the company was sorry for unsubscribing from the newsletter. But, the text continued, if they thought this opt-out might be a mistake, they could respond by clicking through to a poll.
This step was clearly a deliberate mistake. Certainly most, if not all, of these subscribers would not interact with the email. But their marketing team decided it was worth making the mistake of risking losing 30,000+ subscribers to see if they stood a chance with this unengaged audience.
The result? About 60% never replied or clicked and officially unsubscribed from the newsletter. But 40% clicked and replied, “No, that was a mistake.” They hadn’t opted out. For a while, this email had the highest click-through rate.
Another surprising result? Of those who responded, about 10% said they would be interested in subscribing to another company topic.
The vice president of marketing told me, “We learned a lot from that ‘mistake’.”
There are a few key moments when intentional mistakes can make sense for your content marketing:
1. There is less to lose
Obviously, risk plays a role in how big a mistake you should intentionally make. Skydiving, for example, is not the best activity where a willful mistake is likely to pay off. You don’t want to publish content that is totally off-brand, run afoul of legal or compliance issues, or genuinely offend your audience. But like the vice president of marketing at this B2B company. What could they lose but a third of their email database, which wasn’t responsive anyway?
2. Rigid institutional rules
If you make a mistake on purpose, he’s more likely to go your way if the mistake violates some institutional rule or rigid, outdated convention. A good example of this is the marketing for the film Deadpool. It was a campaign riddled with intentional errors by most counts. Perhaps the biggest was the outdoor billboard campaign, which featured a pictogram of a skull and crossbones, a poop emoji, and the letter “L” with the premiere date. Adweek called the campaign “so dumb it’s genius.”
How about the rule that says never publish blog posts on weekends? Everyone says it can’t be done and posting these days is a mistake. Why not make that “mistake” and see what happens?
3. You are the newbie
A good time to make an intentional mistake is when you are unfamiliar with a particular problem or challenge. Then your listeners, customers or colleagues will most likely forgive your mistake – and then you can of course relate to the first moment above.
A good friend of mine was the CMO of several startup companies. He told me that when he joins a new company, he goes on a “listening tour” to hear from practitioners. He often introduces a marketing newbie mistake into the conversation to see if a practitioner will push it back, correct it, or just go with the flow. He certainly runs the risk of appearing inexperienced. But more important, he says, is that they start on an equal footing and that he can start a conversation with his new colleague.
Of course, not every intentional mistake leads to success. After all, sometimes a mistake is a mistake — and if you make it on purpose, you get exactly what you asked for.
Only one thing is certain: if you only fail when we don’t try, you may be missing out on the proof that you should trust your first instinct.
Get Robert’s take on what’s new in the content marketing industry in just three minutes:
Subscribe to to workdays or weekly CMI emails to receive Rose-Colored Glasses in your inbox every week.
Cover photo by Joseph Kalinowski/Content Marketing Institute