What Watching Nightcrawler Taught Me About Content Marketing

Can a Hollywood film about a sociopathic freelance cameraman teach us anything useful about content marketing?

Absolutely it can! But before I dive into the lessons, here’s a quick synopsis for anyone who hasn’t seen the film.

The central character is Lou Bloom – played by the typically excellent Jake Gyllenhaal – who lives life on the fringes of LA, stealing and quoting self-help mantras he’s read online.

Then by chance, he sees a car accident, and the vulture-like cameramen who make a living from filming the wreckage. Shameless and ambitious, he thinks he can do this too, and everything builds from there.

While Lou is not a nice character, I think that setting aside his questionable morality, there are 6 important lessons we, as content marketers, can take away from the film. So here is the Nightcrawler guide to content marketing.

1. Find your purpose and pursue it

Lou’s personality makes him uniquely qualified to be successful in his chosen career path – making a living from pursuing and recording human misery – because he is willing to go further than anyone else to get the story. His mix of ruthlessness, ambition and lack of empathy with the victims gives him an edge.

He also loves what he does, and dedicates all his spare time to understanding the ins-and-outs of the trade to become better at it.

The combination of knowing what you’re uniquely good at (as a company or a person), and what you’re passionate about, is where you can find the magic for your content marketing programme.

There’s no point writing about topics you like, or think will resonate with your target audience, if they have nothing to do with your company and what it’s good at (you’ll never convert them to a sale); but if you just write about your product or in a conservative, corporate voice, you’ll lose the humanity and passion that can make you successful.

Together, your unique skill set and passion make for a winning content marketing combination.

2. Focus

A related lesson to the above is that, once Lou has discovered what he’s good at and what he enjoys, he doesn’t stray from the path.

Through highs and lows, challenges and tempting opportunities, he has a relentless focus on what he wants to achieve and how he’ll achieve it.

How many companies are able to maintain that level of focus? There are always shiny new objects to chase, new KPIs introduced or a new tactic/format/theme to play around with.

While I don’t advocate a sclerotic content programme, unable to accommodate changing demands and new waves of opportunity, I do think pursuing ‘new stuff’ can often come at the cost of focusing on what is working and building an unassailable momentum behind that.

3. You can start off small

Lou starts off his new career path with a shaky hand-held camera and a dusty old police radio to listen in for accidents, going up against incumbents with the latest and greatest camera and audio equipment and state-of-the-art studio-vans.

However he trumps them by getting unique angles of the victims. This is his unique value proposition. He gets in closer, or ventures into places he shouldn’t, in order to offer something no fancy equipment can.

If you’re new to content marketing and there are well established competitors with a ton of traffic and resources, can you also start off small and build?

Of course you can, so long as you find your unique angle.

If you do roughly what the incumbents are doing, but smaller, then you’re destined to fail. You need to find a unique voice, or format, or distribution medium (think back to point 1); this will set you apart from your bigger rivals and means you no longer compete with them directly. You’ll have some blue ocean to swim in, and this is where you can establish yourself and grow from there.

4. Learn from your competition

Pursuing a strategy of differentiation doesn’t mean you should just ignore your competition. They can probably provide you with a ton of valuable lessons about what does and doesn’t work in the marketplace.

In Nightcrawler, Lou eavesdrops on his competitors to understand how the industry works, who to sell his footage to and what a fair price is. He takes what he needs from them and then executes on this knowledge in his own unique way.

Using tools like BuzzSumo, SEMRush, Moz and social media it’s very easy to get an understanding of your competition’s content marketing (it’s hardly secret, after all). Use this to inform your own strategy, understand what works, and how you can improve on it – or where you want to do things differently.

5. Find supporters

One of the other main characters in Nightcrawler is newsroom veteran Nina Romina, played wonderfully by Rene Russo. Without her early support, all of the ambition in the world might not have helped Lou’s ascent as a successful cameraman.

Nina provides him the guidance and industry ‘in’ that is necessary for him to go from rank outsider to a gradually improving professional.

However this isn’t a purely altruistic relationship. Lou understands what drives Nina, what she wants, and he helps deliver it. He offers value up-front and early on, which is how he gets her in his corner.

Content marketers also need champions and supporters – those who believe in what you’re doing and are willing to help you. However rather than asking for favours and thinking ‘what’s in it for me,’ consider first what you can do for them?

What do they want or need? How can you help them? How can you show value early-on in the relationship. Building a mutually-beneficial relationship will create a stronger foundation than one that relies on their good-will, and should help you and them be more successful in the long-term.

6. Invest in the right tools

I mentioned earlier that Lou starts off with an old analogue police radio and an entry-level, amateur camera. Well, he doesn’t have them for long.

As soon as he can afford to, he upgrades all of his equipment to provide him with a technological edge, to compliment his skill set and personality. He buys a fast car so he can race to accident scenes first, digital scanners and professional camera equipment.

If you’re a professional content marketer, it will pay off for you to invest in professional tools. It’s fine to start off with nothing more than your favourite writing app, a Google sheet for your editorial calendar and whatever free tools you can find.

However at some point this might not be enough to allow the continued evolution of your content marketing programme. To keep your edge, to give you the ability to execute at the highest level, you’ll probably need to invest in the right tools at some point.

Conclusion

Lou is certainly no role model, but we can still take some valuable lessons away from his character.

We should align our content marketing to our passions and unique skill sets, be focused, find our unique angle, understand competitors, build relationships and use the right tools. Avoid his sociopathic tendencies and you should be on a pretty good path!

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