The Optimists Die First: Why Hope is Not a Content Strategy

Crossing your fingers and hoping does not a content strategy make

by Andrew Hanelly |

If this post doesn’t go viral, I think I might die.

If only I could get one of those big names – Chris Brogan, Seth Godin, Brian Clark, I’d even settle for Jason Falls – to trumpet the piece I’ll be en route to cashing checks and speaking in front of sold out conference center ballrooms.

If only I could get it to catch on. Maybe it’ll happen this time. I really hope it does.


While we won’t readily admit to it – at least not out in the open on the internet – we often use hope as the primary driver of our content strategy.

“I hope people like this.”

Hopefully, it’ll get picked up by the linkerati.”

“We haven’t considered our resources, our audience, or our end goals, but we hope this [fill in the blank with a whitepaper, video, blog post, etc.] will do the trick.”

It’s good to be optimistic, right? We should believe that anything could happen, shouldn’t we? Isn’t it better to see the glass as half full, not as half empty?

Maybe that’s what our kindergarten teachers and psychologists tell us, but optimism in the world of content marketing is the quickest path to surefire disappointment and oftentimes failure.

Allow me to steal a lesson from Jim Collin’s oft-referenced masterpiece “From Good to Great“.

James Stockdale – a veteran who survived almost 8 years in a P.O.W. camp was asked if the people who didn’t make it had anything in common, he said this:

“Oh, that’s easy, the optimists. Oh, they were the ones who said, ‘We’re going to be out by Christmas.’ And Christmas would come, and Christmas would go. Then they’d say, ‘We’re going to be out by Easter.’ And Easter would come, and Easter would go. And then Thanksgiving, and then it would be Christmas again. And they died of a broken heart.”

“This is a very important lesson. You must never confuse faith that you will prevail in the end—which you can never afford to lose—with the discipline to confront the most brutal facts of your current reality, whatever they might be.”

Though the circumstances are drastically different (read: running a content marketing program is absolutely nothing like surviving a P.O.W. camp) the lesson remains the same: if you’re not ready to “confront the brutal facts of your current reality” you’re not likely to be successful.

Those brutal facts are:

  •  There are no overnight successes. Despite what viral videos appearing on the Today Show might lead you to believe (I’m looking at you, golden-voiced Ted Williams), a viral video doesn’t typically pave the way to sustainable success. It usually provides a temporary downpour of traffic and then a drought.
  •  Sustainable success takes commitment. The output of a top 10 blog in the AdAge Power 150 is astounding: On average, they’ve produced 2.4 posts per day with an average word count of 1,278 every single day for the last 7 years.
  • A lot of your stuff will be ignored. Not every hit is going to be a home run. In fact, you’ll probably strike out a lot. The key is to keep learning and improve your approach as you go.

We can be as optimistic as we want when it comes to our content strategy, but our hearts will usually end up broken, our sails will lose the wind, and we’ll constantly be refreshing our Google Analytics report hoping to see the visits adding up.

But when they don’t, we question ourselves, we question our ideas, and we question the entire idea of content marketing in the first place.

And sometimes we quit. After all, the optimists die first. The people that see it like it is, never get too high, never get too low, and always keep their nose to the grindstone are the ones that survive. And after enough of the grind, they thrive.

The bunny that didn't go viral

In other words, don’t end up like the bunny.

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About the Author

Andrew Hanelly

Andrew is SVP, Strategy for McMurry/TMG and for one semester in college, was a sociology major. He writes at Brain on Digital, as @hanelly on Twitter and here on Google+.