Is “professionalism” killing your content?

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Content Marketing Professionalism

How content reshapes “professionalism” in pursuit of engagement

Professionalism is frequently defined as a threshold of conduct that absolutely cannot be crossed if a company’s dignity is to be maintained. It constitutes a web of (usually unwritten) workplace rules we begin to instinctively accept and operate around. Whatever your workplace may be, you likely have an idea in your mind what professionalism in the workplace means. You likely also realize that what constitutes professionalism at one workplace is not the same for everyone.

With this in mind, content marketing requires output that best serves the desired message while remaining “professional.” But consider how varied the definition becomes when one targets content at a wider audience that extends beyond individual workplaces — an entire market sector, for example. In such a context, content creators are faced with several questions:

Which exact definition of “professionalism” must content marketing strategies be guided by when addressing such a broad audience?

How do content marketing efforts function without risk of drawing negative feedback for being “unprofessional”?

How does content stand out from the crowd while still adhering to the expectation of professionalism that helps define that crowd?

When it comes to content, focusing on serving professionalism rather than one’s content objectives can be a debilitating obstacle. Keeping professionalism as the priority over the messaging can force content creators to shoot for the most restrictive definition. Why? Because they are only willing to risk upsetting the least amount of people. As a result, the content’s ability to engage (and thus inform) will likely suffer for it.

How the idea of professionalism stifles engagement

Russell Oliver Cashman Content Marketing ProfessionalismDespite often believing “professionalism” sets a standard for all things related to our workplace, content marketing simply does not function that way. (Not if it wants a good chance of engaging its audience, anyway.) The most successful content often goes beyond the boundaries of commonly defined professionalism. It is more than just passing along information and a message. It also entertains and keeps one’s attention. This is so even if the content outwardly seems ridiculous. Let’s look at an example.

If you are from the Greater Toronto Area, you are familiar with Russell Oliver and his decades-long TV campaign. In his commercials, he does everything from cover himself in gold paint to running around in spandex as “Cashman.” He is also constantly uttering his ridiculous “oooh, yeeeeaaah” catchphrase. (And I’m sure if you are not from the GTA, you know of a local business with similar commercials.) The commercials are annoying, cheaply made, and I doubt you’d find anyone who would claim they suffer from an abundance of professionalism. But do you know what else his commercials are?


People remember his commercials because Russell Oliver understands something fundamental about his marketing content. His commercials are about getting his audience to look in his direction and come through his door. However, they do not necessarily reflect the “professionalism” he expects in running his business and dealing with customers.

When you are creating content, your priority is to engage the audience — to get them looking at it. If you cannot do that, everything else about your content is irrelevant. Yes, successful content marketing absolutely must also inform or have some manner of messaging or call to action. But does any of that matter if your audience is not paying attention to you, to begin with?

Limiting content creation to your employee code of conduct’s standards of professionalism confines your content’s potential in a way that may not reflect its audience’s interests. Instead, accept that a different definition and standard of professionalism applies to your content. This standard must exist within a context of representing your message and brand to your audience.

Professionalism as a skill set and process

When it comes to content marketing, “professionalism” means using available skill sets to get the job done in the best possible way while remaining true to the brand. Much of this process includes experimenting and trying new things. If you stick to what everyone else is doing and expects, your content will not stand out. Sometimes this means coming conflicting with what people traditionally consider to be “professionalism.”

Professionalism in the workplace is about relationships with peers and coworkers, as governed by a code of conduct. With content, professionalism is about relationships between the brand and the audience. This process is governed by the objectives sought concerning both. These latter relationships are very different from the former. As such, do not hold them to the same definition and standard as staff or volunteer policies. A business creating engaging content while retaining its professionalism thus needs to redefine a new standard for this particular context.

Unfortunately, not everyone will like the results.

Dealing with negative feedback

A common concern among content creators is how to avoid complaints and how to deal with them should they happen.

From the start, just accept there will be consequences once your content’s definition of “professionalism” slides away from that of a workplace. Not everyone will agree with your choices as a content creator or how you represent your brand. You have raised the previously mentioned minimum threshold of risking upsetting someone, so you will likely have to deal with complaints. The larger your audience, the more likely this will prove true. So long as you are going to experiment with new ways to elevate your content marketing engagement, negative feedback is inevitable. But accepting this doesn’t mean you have to fear getting complaints.

Don’t dismiss complaints out of hand. You are, after all, stepping outside the usual perceptions of the norm, so you have taken too big a step. Listen to what the individual complaints have to say and weigh them together to identify patterns. Some complaints may be fairly extreme, going so far as to demand public apologies, retractions, or even firing the content creator. Listening to complaints does not mean you have to comply with any or all demands, however.

No matter what, creating engaging content means being honest enough with yourself to evaluate the standards of professionalism you are working within. Have you moved too far too fast beyond what your audience expects? Is your content too outrageous or sideways to be understood? Has it gone beyond engaging and become offensive or confusing?

Remember, a content creator’s version of “professionalism” relies on them getting the job done. If no one is getting your jokes, you are not meeting your objectives. You are failing to maintain the standards of professionalism demanded by your business’ goals and brand. Objectively measuring your failures can be difficult.

Even if your content is getting much attention, you need to consider how well this traffic is converting to your goals. A lot of traffic but low conversion likely means your content has missed the mark for one reason or another. People are watching, but they are not responding as intended. This, coupled with complaints, makes it likely your content failed to resonate.

Negative feedback as a positive

Many content creators do not know how to react well to negative feedback, especially claims against their sense of professionalism. A complaint is an opportunity to learn and improve. This is true whether the feedback makes a good point or is someone being overly sensitive, seeking attention, or trying to hammer you with their subjective tastes.

A legitimate, honest complaint provides a closer look at your audience’s expectations. This applies to how it defines professionalism regarding both your business’ brand and the content representing it. It also gives you an idea of how far outside of the box your audience is willing to go. Negative feedback may also inform you that you need to slow things down with your engagement experiments.

Even when negative feedback is clearly off-target (e.g., someone who likes to pick fights online), examine their complaint. If possible, figure out how to cut off such complaints before they can happen next time. Most complaints can still teach something, even if the complaint itself is unfounded or absurd.

But never become afraid of negative feedback. Similarly, don’t confuse complaints with failure until your numbers say the same thing.

Pushing the boundaries of content professionalism without breaking them

Every business’ content marketing efforts are going to be different, just as their audiences differ. Because of this, I can’t tell you exactly what you need to do to increase your content’ engagement while maintaining a position of professionalism. I can, however, offer some suggestions I use to govern my own work. Use or discard them as you feel appropriate:

  • Don’t be afraid to be a bit silly and use humour. If you have a good joke that fits your content’s message, don’t be afraid to run with it.
  • Shape your humour to fit your content’s message, don’t shape your message to fit the joke.
  • Don’t be silly for the sake of being silly; if you’re being silly simply to get attention, you risk attention being diverted from your message.
  • Humour is okay, but stay away from off-colour humour with large audiences.
  • Be certain your audience will get the joke. If you unintentionally make an “inside” joke, you waste your audience’s time and risk confusing them. Also, no one likes feeling like a joke was made, but they don’t understand it.
  • Be respectful of your message and your audience. Using either as the target of any humour must be done carefully so that the joke is laughing with them and not at them.
  • With successful content comes trust. Your content should always also seek to earn the audience’s respect and build your brand’s dignity.
  • Engagement doesn’t always require Big and Bold techniques. Sometimes the subtle, understated approach is best.
  • Nothing has to be perfect, and don’t be afraid of making mistakes. Your audience is more forgiving than you know so long as you keep them engaged and informed.

When it comes to content marketing, “professionalism” is what you make of it — so long as your audience ends up agreeing with you.

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