Content Rules: Make ‘Em and Break ‘Em


Are you a rule breaker?

We want rules. We need rules. But we also want to break the rules. 

Would you:

  • Not return the shopping cart after taking it to your car?
  • Start a company without a business plan?
  • Share a streaming network password with a friend?
  • Use a sick day at work when you’re not sick?
  • Copy a friend’s MP3 file to add to your music collection?
  • Post something on social media out of bounds with the terms of service?
  • Not get a city license for your dog?
  • Selectively present (or avoid) market data to build a desired business case?
  • Send unsolicited email?
  • Expect your employees to work off-hours?

You probably feel OK about breaking some of those rules, but not all. Somewhere on that list, something crossed a line for you. (If it didn’t, what is wrong with you?! Return the shopping cart. It takes less than 60 seconds.)

People’s willingness to break the rules seems to depend on three things: the consequences, the social context, and their ability to convince themselves they should break them.

When it comes to modern marketing, that last one fascinates me.

Creatives are rule breakers

One study found that people with creative jobs like writing and designing were more likely to be rule breakers than people with roles like accountants or IT professionals. Why? The researchers concluded creativity plays an important role in one’s ability to tell themselves a convincing story about why they’re breaking the rules

In content strategy, this iconoclasm correlation to creativity is a big challenge to scalable governance, standards, and processes. Creative content and marketing practitioners usually loathe creating the “box” necessary for a cohesive and consistent content strategy to work. Other teams (such as sales, customer service, and even the C-suite) view content as an exercise in creativity that shouldn’t involve too many rules.

That’s the challenge. Creating and enforcing too many rules feels like you’re squashing creativity. But, without rules, you lose the ability to scale and measure the content.

Content needs rules because they codify what to do to achieve a predictable and preferable outcome. People break those rules when they don’t believe the rules work.

This creates an interesting paradox. If violating a rule creates a preferable outcome, then breaking the rule becomes the new rule.

But that paradox assumes one important thing – that a rule exists. Without it, there’s nothing to break and no way to know if one approach works better than another.

No rules mean no standard

As owned content platforms grow in importance in integrated marketing strategies, teams often struggle to juggle the increasingly chaotic demand for new content.

Last year, I worked with a financial services company that wanted to coordinate its content marketing functions. The organization had built multiple blogs, a thought leadership resource center, and a microsite with presentations from its in-person events. Separate teams managed each platform and (weirdly) competed for the same audience persona. The company had no common subscription base or editorial process. There were no common rules. 

So, was it OK when one platform “stole” a content idea from another? Apparently not, given the angry reaction of the platform manager. But the other team shrugged and said, “Well, sorry, but nobody said we couldn’t.”  

Was it OK that the sales-enablement team sent another team’s subscriber base a sales-oriented email? Same answer.

Was it right when one team kept their content secret until launch, fearing another might beat them to the punch? Weirdly, yes.

Ultimately, things improved when the company created a common content operations strategy that defined new roles, responsibilities, and rules to work cross-functionally (and a mechanism for senior management to enforce them). The teams became more organized, scalable, and creative.

The team leader compared it to the government: “We now have both a congress that can establish rules that work for all the individual teams – and an executive branch that can actually enforce them.” 

However, a year later, he told me the rules themselves didn’t provide the real benefit. The rule breakers did.

Here’s what he meant: After the new operational standards went into effect, groups would occasionally rebel. But, interestingly, the rule breakers sometimes got better results. And that would prompt the content team to evolve the operational standards. 

For example, a set of rules existed on how to prioritize social media channels against other content promotional platforms. One team broke those rules to integrate their promotional content into the other team’s promotions. Though they circumvented the standard, it produced a better result. So, the operational team changed the rule.

Operations is the heart of great content strategy

Working on playbooks, editorial standards, and operational policies is not nearly as interesting or inspiring as working on the content. It can be difficult to get colleagues to discuss rules. But it might be the most important part of becoming a more creative and innovative team.

A new rule is born by default when you break a rule and get a better outcome. The real value of setting rules for creating, managing, and measuring your content is that the creative stories you tell about why you broke the rule can become use cases for why the new rule should prevail.

A quote, usually attributed to Picasso, says, “Learn the rules like a pro, so you can break them like an artist.” For marketing, I would like to change that a bit:

“Set your rules like an artist, then change them like a pro.”   

It’s your story. Tell it well.

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Cover image by Joseph Kalinowski/Content Marketing Institute



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