The First Rule of Impactful Content: Show, Don’t Tell

“Show, Don’t Tell” is one of the most important principles of content marketing.

But this idea actually finds its roots in creative writing. 

Content marketing expert Neil Patel uses a quote from playwright Anton Chekov to illustrate this concept: “Don’t tell me the moon is shining; show me the glint of light on broken glass.” 

In fiction, this principle simply means targeting more descriptive language. Instead of saying the “the man was worried,” we would target something more like “the man furrowed his brow and took a long drink.”

So what does this mean for marketing?

Today’s online consumer is inundated with advertising, sales pitches, and content marketing schemes. We spend lots of time online, and much of that time is filled with (direct or indirect) marketing.

Consequently, today’s online consumer is growing increasingly savvy at filtering out direct sales messages.

Amid this sea of attempted persuasion, consumers are starving for content that’s genuinely informative, provides new data, and helps this solve real problems. 

Potential customers need to be shown why a product is right for them rather than told that it is right for them. 

This fact is only more salient for potential B2B technology customers. Business leaders want compelling information that helps pinpoint real solutions, not slick sales copy.

Of course, there’s nothing wrong with a direct sales pitch. Every marketing to sales funnel will eventually need to communicate some variant of “Buy now!” But we need to adjust our vision to reflect the digital environment.

In a pre-internet marketing world, companies had short, predefined snippets of media space to make their sales pitch. From radio spots, to billboards, to print magazine ads, marketing efforts needed to focus on directly communicating basic information alongside an explicit sales pitch.

In fact, these traditional marketing venues still have real value. But they work very differently from digital content, which provides a user-directed marketing experience that unfolds over time, rather than over a single 30-second interaction.

And yet, far too many websites today are structured and written as if they’re a print advertisement:  a few bullet points on basic product benefits and a buy now button. Even when deeper content like blogs are created, they often rely on simple re-framing of the same basic sales pitch from the home page.

Imagine we’re marketing a new app that helps automate SEO administration tasks. Consider two options for a blog post.

  1. 5 Reasons Why Our Technology is the Best Option for SEO Automation
  2. Is SEO Automation Right for You? The Ultimate Guide

The first blog post may be read by a few prospective customers who already understand the product and are deciding whether to buy. There’s a place for content like this.

But the second option drives much more value over the long term. And it does much more to nurture potential customers who don’t quite know what they’re looking for, just that there’s a problem they need solved.

If the underlying content delivers on the title’s promise for a truly informative guide, it’s likely to be:

  1. Bookmarked and returned to over time.
  2. Shared across professional networks.
  3. Shared on websites like LinkedIN.
  4. Used to educate customers who didn’t even know they needed this product.

Most of all, this guide will be a long term asset for building your brand’s reputation for authoritative knowledge and genuine dedication to solving problems. 

A reader who trusts you to “tell it like it is” as an expert in your field is a reader who is more likely to make a purchase.

At Stage 2, the “show don’t tell” approach stands at the core of our content marketing services. It’s an essential first step for building content marketing assets that generate organic SEO results while maximizing their ROI over the long term.