Do you have a creative content marketing idea? Here's how to tell whether it'll be received as clickbait… or an ongoing investment in a valuable audience.
Creativity Creative Thinking

Clever Strategy or Cringey Clickbait? Determining If Your Content Ideas Will Bring Lasting Results

8 Minute Read

“Oh, that’s good,” blurted our analyst, eyes wide. “That’s the money idea right there. It’s hilarious. That could go viral . . .” My mind was already elsewhere. A viral hit would likely mean a new segment of the population we were not ready to serve.

The spike in views would be great, sure, but our ideal buyer was a buttoned-up decision maker under intense pressure. Would unexpected hilarity give him what he needed in the middle of a busy work day?

Or would our clickbait idea delight millions while neglecting—possibly even repelling—our smaller, more valuable target audience?

The idea in question aligned with pop culture’s trending conversation. Competitors were weighing in on the subject, and our digital strategist said we should, too. Still, something was off. I hesitated.

“Wait,” I spoke up. “If our content brand is really a valuable gift to niche business leaders, and if our goal for this microsite is to challenge them to rethink the status quo by agreeing to a customized demo, then . . .”

“Then, what?!” begged our director, sensing the same internal warning. He wanted someone to articulate what we all intuited.

“Well, this idea is a stunt. It would distract our executives from the pressures they’re facing today. It would give them a temporary escape instead of tangible help navigating the gauntlet. If a reader appreciates this inanity, then he’s not our target buyer.”

In the end, we decided to scrap the stunt and stick to our plan by focusing on our defined objectives, rerouting our creativity towards supporting and equipping genuine leads.

Still, in the digital age of instant news updates and trending topics, it wasn’t long before we were faced with another opportunity to veer off course and try to capitalize on the latest buzz. What kept us focused when parsing these ideas for true value was keeping a simple question in mind: Do these ideas serve the original goal? If not, they were tabled.

Over time, we learned which measured risks would pay off, strengthening our enduring relationships with the content brand’s audience, and which were self-indulgent stunts that attracted a client persona we couldn’t nurture.


Image attribution: Ryan Crisman

Even when you’re operating with your brand strategy in mind, your marketing team will face times where you’re hit with brilliant ideas that simply don’t fit into the plan. When this happens, the only question is whether you can tell the difference.

Anatomy of a Stunt

Public relations stunts are usually easy to identify by flash and exposure alone. Yet what about those creative content marketing ideas from your team that teeter on gutsy, bold, or pioneering? Just because a content idea pushes boundaries doesn’t necessarily make it a stunt. However, you may want to reconsider exactly what your greater goal is in running a piece is if it displays any of these often tell-tale gimmicky techniques:

  • Hijacking a headline or seasonal celebration

  • Taunting a competitor

  • Staging and recording a dramatic or unexpected event in a public place

  • Piggybacking on someone else’s successful buzz

  • Planting something huge or surprising in an unsuspecting crowd

  • Jumping into an irrelevant online conversation

Just because you’re not floating something down the Thames doesn’t mean your creative idea fits into your brand’s content marketing strategy. Some zany ideas just need a little further examination to decide if they’ve got more substance before you decide to hit publish.

People + Goals + Time = Strategy

Thankfully, there are three questions you can ask that pave a clear way to sort potential content creations cleanly into each bucket.

First, determine who the content serves and the scope of your potential target audience.

Is this content meant to broadly delight and entertain the viewer rather than compel them to a specific aim? Will your traditional superiors appreciate the “bump in ratings”? Are you speaking to the gajillions of people out there who don’t need your product or service?

If you answer yes to any of these questions, you’re likely about to deploy a stunt.

stunt man

Image attribution: Renhai Li

But if the content selflessly serves your clearly defined target audience members with an insider look at something only they understand (or need), then you may have successful content percolating. While it might be intimidating to have to reassure your higher-ups that the resulting slow, steady growth of your idea will outperform the vanity metrics that temporarily look good in PowerPoint, this is actually a sign that your creative idea may be a winner for your brand goals.

A second way to determine if an idea aligns with your brand strategy: Compare it to your original plan objectives. When combating the stunt mindset, it’s important to remember that increasing revenue is only one of a whole list of things you could plausibly achieve with content marketing. Just because an idea will earn your brand a lot of money doesn’t mean it won’t also fulfill any of your other aims like educating your audience or nurturing your existing community.

For example, Lockheed Martin’s Field Trip to Mars virtual reality experience could have been considered a content marketing stunt if it weren’t for Generation Beyond, the company’s ongoing middle school STEM curriculum. The content brand’s objective is to inspire the next generation to channel future passions into their STEM-heavy industry. A space-themed bus ride could certainly spark a kid’s imagination, but it’s the message of ongoing education that really fans the flames of interest and loyalty—all while achieving Lockheed’s long-term objectives.

The final way to identify a content marketing stunt before giving it the green light is to ask the group, “What’s our follow-up plan for this?” Joe Pulizzi, founder of the Content Marketing Institute, recently said one of the number one reasons content marketing initiatives don’t take flight is because of a lack of consistency and commitment. “Generally, it takes 12-18 months for a content marketing strategy to start delivering revenue of some kind,” he told Forbes. “Sadly, most brands do not deliver consistently over that period.”

One example of making an experiment consistent is the famous Tour de France. In 1903, Henri Desgrange, editor of a new sports publication, organized a bike race to try to boost sales. Again, this could easily have been criticized as gimmicky theater if not for the long-term thinking of Desgrange and his team. They gave French citizens the gift of an annual competition, and gave themselves exclusive coverage year after year as the event’s popularity grew. That’s right—no other journalists were allowed to cover the race for the first 20 years. What might have appeared to be a stunt at first (the 1903 racers included chimney sweeps, acrobats, blacksmiths, and butchers) matured into one of the longest standing, most successful content marketing examples in history.

Tactical Experimentation

Our discussion so far leaves us without answers to one of the most important questions when forming a content marketing strategy: What if your team wants to test an idea? Run a pilot program? Try something that might flop?

I’m glad you asked.

Experimentation is a healthy ingredient in any content creation team. A content brand that failed to launch is not a stunt. Again, if your goal was to serve a niche segment selflessly over time to achieve a defined business benefit, then content that simply doesn’t resonate (or gets the axe) should be considered a learning experience.


Image attribution: Bill Jelen

Pineapple Magazine is a good example of this creative tinkering. The print publication, created by Airbnb back in 2014, made headlines for the online rental site’s ambitious foray into an entirely new medium. Sadly, though, the initiative was killed after its first print run. Two years later, Airbnb revisited the idea of a print publication and partnered with Hearst to launch a travel magazine, now with a more reader-focused mission. They informed its content with the billions of data points Airbnb collected to understand which topics and angles will resonate most with their readership. As any content marketing practitioner will tell you, this new magazine is better positioned to succeed because the brand learned from its past experimentation.

Pressure to Get Rather Than Give

Some of the best marketing ideas are born out of the pressure to zig when everyone else zags, to get the world’s attention. And then, to do it again. Unfortunately, though, some of the worst, most destructive clickbait ideas have originated from these same practices. To alleviate the pressure of caving to directionless distractions in your content marketing, educate yourself to quickly identify the more purposeful, altruistic, unfading content gifts.

And next time someone suggests your team tries to break some sort of world record to get attention, remind them that a beer brand created the ultimate Book of World Records to achieve the goal of serving their audience better—in true strategic content marketing fashion.

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Featured image attribution: Mohamed Nohassi

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Bethany Johnson is a multiple award-winning content marketing writer and speaker. Her work empowers marketers to ditch interrupt advertising in favor of original content that converts passive readers into active followers. Thriving brands like Tom's of Maine, MasterCard, ADP, Fidelity and the Content Marketing Institute currently rely on Bethany's fresh style to connect with audiences daily. As a consultant, she combines simple change management principles with her insider knowledge of freelancing to show traditional marketing teams how to flourish in today's gig economy. For more, visit

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