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Four Content Marketing Truths Discovered at Burning Man 2014

Aubrey Beck

Last month, along with 68,000 other earthlings, I made the pilgrimage to the inhospitable northwestern Nevada desert for Burning Man. It was my first burn and while it lived up to everything I imagined it would be (large-scale art, sweeping desert vistas, dance parties dripping with sex positive steampunk-circus -hippie-artsy types), it was also something I wasn't expecting: a life-lesson-dealing crucible.


Don't let anyone tell you differently - it's brutal out there in Black Rock. The temporary city is an over-stimulation chamber that burns 24/7 for a week straight, and it shows no mercy for the faint of heart, eyes or ears. At times, it feels like an anxiety attack served on a $2,000 plate; it's the kind of heart-cracking, self-realizing experience that's normally saved for "quitters" who take off on an 'Eat Pray Love' fashioned sabbatical.

So what does Burning Man have to do with content marketing? On the surface - absolutely nothing. But we all know superficiality is boring, so let's go deeper.

The Burning Man ethos is built on ten principles, the second of which is gifting. The gifting part of the culture revolves around acts of gift giving and the guiding belief that the value of a gift is unconditional and that gifting does not contemplate a return or an exchange for something of equal value.

This aspect of the event, the gifting component, correlates directly to the intentions that need to be embraced by those of us endeavored to building successful content marketing programs.
Here's a quick rundown on the four content marketing truths I discovered at Burning Man 2014:

1. Get Prescriptive, Be Helpful - While riding past a theme camp offering personality readings and foot massage, the basket on my bike came loose. A guy from the camp moved quickly to procure zip ties for my bike repair. He wasn't initially offering zip tie bike repair, but when he discovered a way to help me, it built rapport between us. I ended up hanging out at their camp for a bit and partaking in one of the amazing ice bath, coconut oil foot massages they were offering.

Forget about what you're selling for a minute and think about what you could offer your prospects for free that they might find helpful. Create an .xls template, 'how to' guide, or checklist that makes life easier for your prospects. Not sure what they'd need or want? Do a deep dive on your buyer personas, call people and inquire. Take a bit of time to think through what you'd like to receive if you were in their shoes. It's the "give what you'd want to get" rule, also known as the "no fruitcakes" rule.

2. Use Feedback to Make it Better - During the sunrise burn of Embrace, a man approached me to offer some hot cocoa. I turned him down. I didn't want or need hot cocoa at that particular moment. A few minutes later another person offered me an orange and I accepted. Had this been a scenario involving content marketing offers, we would have the opportunity to review the interactions, paying close attention to both the timing of the offers and the nature of the content offered within.

Moral of the story? Offer your gift without placing expectations on the receiver. We've all been the recipient of a gift that didn't quite hit the mark for our needs. It's the same with content marketing. Expect that you most likely won't get your content offer exactly right on the first go-round. Know your personas, create your best guess content and release it to the public. Then, sit back and observe to discover how you might revise future iterations of your content to better meet the needs and likes of your audience. Release, revise, repeat.

3. Focus on Relationships - A man approached me to chat while I had stopped my bike to take a sip of water. After a bit of conversation he pulled a necklace from his bag and offered it to me. It was a beautiful metal necklace engraved with the Burning Man symbol and he'd made it from the scraps of an old shed.

His offer created the opportunity for us to connect over something and we built a nice six- or seven-minute relationship in that moment. I never did, but had I crossed paths with him again somewhere else during the week, there is no doubt that we would have spoken again and I would have introduced him to my friends.

Giving gifts, and being open to receiving them, is foundational in building relationships. It's why giving content "gifts" works so well in developing a marketing program that drives long-term success. Focus on bringing value to your prospects and nurture leads with a focus on relationship building. A person might not need what you're offering today, but if you've built a relationship with them, they're more likely to talk about you to their friends. And who knows? Their friends might be in need of exactly what you're offering.

4. Remember, This isn't a Transaction - My first experience of the Burning Man gifting culture happened before I even entered the Black Rock City limits. My car, along with 2,000 other vehicles, was caught in the hail, lighting and thunderstorm that struck Monday morning as we attempted to enter the event. The rain turned the normally dry and dusty lakebed into a giant mud field and we were put in the position of having to wait 17 hours at the gate while the earth dried out and re-solidified.

As evening set in, and hunger mounted, a married couple from a few cars ahead of ours invited me to a makeshift dinner they'd prepared out of the back of their cargo van. The couple divided their dinner meant for two into six portions. They graciously offered a precious commodity - quinoa chicken salad with a side of hummus and crackers - and didn't request anything in return.

True gifting is not bartering and it's not trade; it doesn't contemplate remuneration. Your audience will spot self-serving intent. Move forward with your content marketing plans with a commitment to offering your expertise, talent, advice, templates - whatever it is -offering it as a gift. No strings attached.

So while Burning Man really has nothing to do with content marketing in particular, the experience has revealed itself to be one that teaches lessons that can be applied to all aspects of life, both personal and professional.

Till next year.

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