I tweeted out the headline of this post and my friend, Doug, simply tweeted back, “Don’t.” Still, somehow, I couldn’t stop myself.

As everyone now knows, the British people voted, by a 4% margin, to leave the European Union. Markets are in a turmoil and David Cameron, the British Prime Minister, has said he will resign.

What can content marketers learn from the successful “Leave” campaign?

Focus on Fear

It’s worth checking out the deck created by the Vote Leave side of the debate. After an overly wordy slide with a typo in the headline (“Why should we Vote Leave on June 23” – no question mark), the deck quickly hits you with three visuals.

The first is the “money shot” and emphasizes how much money the UK has sent to the EU:


The second contextualizes the money issue by showing (thanks to a rhetorical sleight-of-hand – it really doesn’t make sense to to compare the amount the UK “sends to Brussels” with the amount spent by the NHS on cancer drugs, but, whatever) could have gone:


The third makes it crystal clear what the UK “gets” for the money:


The central message of Vote Leave – enshrined in their URL, voteleavetakecontrol.org – revolves around control, control specifically of money and borders. It’s a simple message that appeals first to tae basic psychological need (control), and then appeals to fears about health (the NHS) and safety (from invading immigrants).

Focus on Hope

By contrast, the Vote Remain camp pursued a campaign based on hope, as can be seen on the Stronger In website.


By playing up the positive – jobs, prices, rights – Stronger In relies on an aspirational message, one that reinforces the notion of strength, rather than control.

Interestingly, rather than going with slides, Stronger In relies on video. From a messaging standpoint, the video is much more clear than the Vote Leave deck. It quickly and simply lays out six reasons for staying, with the sixth directly addressing the money question:


In other words, Stronger In made a succinct case emphasizing the benefits of EU membership, especially on the jobs front. And, yet, they lost.

Content Marketing Lessons

I believe there are three lessons that content marketers can glean from the results of yesterday’s referendum.

1. It’s hard to tell what’s going to work

Based on what you might assume are “best practices,” the content created by the Vote Leave team was not as compelling as that created by Stronger In. The “Case” deck has way too many words and is difficult to wade through. And, while the “immigrant” image is red meat to some in the electorate, the other images used in the deck are ambiguous and forgettable.

By contrast, the Stronger In video was slick and to the point (though, admittedly, a few of the six reasons proffered were a bit wobbly).

It could be that the “Take Control” message was simply better than the “Stronger” message. Similarly, playing to the fears of your audience may be more psychologically effective, in the end, than playing to their hopes.

The fact of the matter is, however, both sides thought they were doing something that would work, but only one side was correct.

2. Lessons always come after the fact

Content plays a central role in everything that happens in today’s highly mediated societies. Here in the US, for example, we’re swimming in content generated by the current presidential campaigners, their advocates and opponents, and the mass media.

Unfortunately, only the outcome of that race, for example, will let us know what we can learn from all this. Why? Because content only matters if it influences the outcome you seek.

Art is an end in itself. Content is not. Only what content actually accomplishes tells us if it was any good or not.

3. It might not be about the content

Frankly, no matter how many downloads the “Case” got, or how many views “6 Reasons” got (a mere 135K, as it turns outs), it is highly unlikely that this content influenced voting on either side. People tend to form their political views on a gut level and only use content like this to reinforce their pre-existing inclinations.

The question is, does this hold similarly for content in the business world? That is, do people make decisions to buy or not to buy based on the content they consume? Or do they consume content in order to confirm a purchasing decision they have already made at a gut level?

For my part, the content a company produces may influence my perception of the company on a brand level – “Wow, these people seem smart” or “Huh, I expected something more from them” – but only third-party content (reviews, articles) sways me when it comes time to buy.

What about you?

Image Source (Creative Commons): Abi Begum.

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