We see what we expect to see.

Consider the musician who sat in the L’Enfant Plaza metro station in Washington DC a few years ago. When he began to play his violin, the beautiful, complex melody of Bach’s Chaconne filled the outside arcade. Of the hundreds of people who flowed by, only a few stopped. When the violinist finally stopped, no one had gathered. No one applauded. No one cared. No one knew that the violinist was the virtuoso Joshua Bell, who, two days earlier, had headlined a concert in Boston commanding $100 a seat.

In our rushed world, we make snap judgments. Some good. Others not so much. We see what we expect to see. In the case of the L’Enfant Plaza experiment, people failed to notice the brilliant musician right in front of them because they didn’t expect excellence in that context.

This is one of the main arguments I make when I speak with clients about the usefulness of creating content brands separate from their main website sales platform.

Context makes all the difference.

For example, last month I was working with a client that has created an amazing digital magazine with its own content brand. That magazine, which has attracted an engaged audience, continues to grow in both subscriptions and engagement. The pressure they face is a common one: Now that the magazine is performing, the new head of marketing wants to change the editorial strategy so that the calls to action focus on products and solutions – morphing the successful magazine into a resource center for sales and marketing solution content.

During that consultation, I suggested a different approach. I suggested that, instead of making the content brand more salesy, they launch a new experience – an experience tied to the original one as the business-focused version of the content brand. Switching editorial strategies will work in the short term, I said.

But ultimately, your audiences will see what they expect to see.

The real value of separating purposes (and thus the experience) is to help the audience see the value created by the engaging content experience and use that to help provide context for the resource center.

Think of it like this. The reason that the Forbes BrandVoice® has the success that it has is not BrandVoice itself. It is that Forbes, as a content brand, has trained the audience to see value in the content within it. Thus, when we see Forbes BrandVoice (as a solution focused on native advertising), we are the audience in the music hall, not the audience in the metro.

Now, it’s certainly up to us to make sure the music stays as sweet when we shift the context. The point is, creating a unique experience for our content helps our audience to make the connection to trust at their pace. We are simply reframing the introduction to our audience – just as moving a musical performance from a metro station to a concert hall would reframe the introduction of that experience for its audience. The reframing supports people in distinguishing that content’s value more readily.

Our customers can see things only when they see them. Their ability to see what we want them to see depends on many things – including their self-awareness and habits, in which we have no say, and including the frames in which we present the content, which we can do something about.

It’s like the Emily Dickinson’s poem Tell All the Truth but Tell It Slant:

Tell all the truth but tell it slant —

Success in Circuit lies

Too bright for our infirm Delight

The Truth’s superb surprise

As Lightning to the Children eased

With explanation kind

The Truth must dazzle gradually

Or every man be blind —

If this New England mystic had been a marketer in our day, she might have said, Don’t hit customers with your content and your brand in one big forced flash, or you’ll blind them. Make it easy for them. Be kind in your framing – in creating the context in which you deliver your content – to help your audience quickly appreciate your valuable content for what it is.

Your content must dazzle gradually.

It’s your story. Tell it well.


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