4 mental models to help you solve content marketing conundrums

4 mental models to help you solve content marketing conundrums

You may know the value of content marketing compounds over time. But did you realize that compound interest is a mental model?

Mental models are frameworks that help people interpret how things work in the world. Having a set of mental models can help you overcome problems in new ways.

Next time you feel stuck making a decision about a content marketing program do it using one or more of these mental models. You’ll find new ways to look at problems and possible solutions – and make decisions with confidence.

Map is not territory

Scientist and philosopher Alfred Korzybski introduced this idea in a 1931 paper. I love this explanation from Shane Parrish, author of The Great Mental Models, who summarized the concept this way:

… (I) in our march to simplify reality with useful models… we confuse models with reality. For many people, the model creates its own reality. It’s as if the spreadsheet comes to life. We forget that reality is a lot more messy. Maps are not territories. Theory is not what it describes, it is simply a way we choose to interpret a certain set of information.

How to apply the model to content marketing

Assuming content yours doesn’t resonate with people you hope to attract and interact with. To solve the problem, check your map (or maps). One place to start is the map you’ve created of the audience you want – in other words, the buyer your or the subject’s personality .

Just like maps are not territories, personalities are not people – they are just sketches of a set of characteristics of the people in your target audience. They generalize the goals and behaviors of your desired (or real) audience.

Maps are not territories. Use this mental model to remember that #ContentMarketing personality is just a proxy – don’t get lost, says @chintanzalani via @CMIContent. Click for chirping sound If your content doesn’t resonate, think about the ways in which you present it that may not be accurate. Here are a few places to start exploring:

  • Be your character too wide? A personality that is too broad will not provide a detailed enough map to guide your decisions.
  • Are they built on too many assumptions? Because buyer personas are fictitious, marketers tend to make assumptions while creating them. Ask if pain points and other details of your personality come from accurate, up-to-date information — or someone’s best guess.
  • Are they outdated or built on stereotypes? Test your personality for pattern Ask if the details you’ve included are relevant to the buying process.

The solution to each of these problems is talk to existing audience and regular customers so you can stay up to date with changes in their needs and concerns. Then, refine your personality based on what you learn from your investigations. Your (personal) map is still not your territory (object), but your new understanding of the territory’s context will help you make better informed decisions about where to go .

Try these resources to learn more about developing and updating personalities:

Second-order thinking

Howard Marks explains quadratic thinking in his book, The most important thing Lighting :

First-degree thinking is simple and superficial, and almost anyone can do it (a bad sign for anything involving out-of-the-box effort). All the first-level thinker needs is an opinion on the future, as in “Favorable company outlook, meaning the stock will go up in price.” Second-level thinking is deep, complex, and complex.

How to apply this model to content marketing

Second-order thinking can help you distinguish your content from your competitors and generate better results for your business. It prompts you to look beyond the obvious to find better answers.

Here are some common content marketing considerations and the paths you can achieve through first-order versus second-order thinking.

Let’s say you want to generate a consistent flow of leads and qualified traffic to your website.

Superlative thinking: Pursue high-volume keywords.

Second-order thinking: Prioritize topics tailored to your audience and business goals. Find the pain points of the audience, then research what terms they use when searching.

Here is another example. Suppose you want to build backlinks to improve your site’s authority.

Superlative thinking: Send an outreach email gazillion based on templates shared by an SEO consultant.

Second-order thinking: Focus on creating something people want to associate with, such as thought leadership content, original research, or other types of content that naturally attract links . Make sure your content reaches your target audience with solid tracking distribution plan . Try to create a conversation in your industry and understand that links come as a byproduct of useful content. Your domain name or site authority will take care of itself.

Try these articles to help you approach your content marketing with insight and nuance:

Go through easy answers to the #ContentMarketing challenges. According to @chintanzalani via @CMIContent, quadratic thinking takes you beyond the obvious to find better answers. Click to Tweet

First rule

First-principle thinking requires reducing a proposition to its most basic assumption, one that is not based on any other assumptions. Although its origin is derived from Aristotle the strategy is also applied by entrepreneurs Elon Musk .

Here’s how speaker, writer, and marketing host Jay Acunzo explains it:

First principles are best practices, and best practices are simply more important best practices.

How to apply the model to content marketing

Break down your brand story down to its most basic truths to find creative content and messaging ideas.

Jay shows how creative marketing for Poo-Pourri comes from first-principles thinking that delves into the problem people buy bathroom spray to solve. The company’s viral video (43 million views) says: “How do you make the world believe your poop doesn’t stink. Or the fact that you never poop? ”

Read more examples of first principles applied to content marketing in Jay’s article Essential fundamentals for content success .

Break down your brand story by first principles – the most fundamental truths – to find creative #ContentMarketing ideas, says @chintanzalani via @CMIContent. Click to Tweet


Borrowed from chemical science, the activation energy mental model helps you understand the minimum energy required to initiate a reaction. One way of understanding it is the threshold that the synthetic elements need to cross in order to initiate the reaction and convert to the final product.

How to apply the model to content marketing

CMI founder Joe Pulizzi has speak It takes 12 to 18 months for content marketing to start showing results from content marketing. As you set up your program, make sure that everyone – especially the stakeholders controlling the budget – understand the activation energy it will need to make anything happen.

You can also use the activation energy model to think about SEO .

Take content to rank well with search engines can be a long process. Ahrefs began figuring out how long by studying the top 10 search results for over 2 million keywords. Research shows that most pages ranked in the top 10 of Google Search Results for three years or more.

According to a study by @ahrefs, most of the pages that rank in the top 10 of @Google Search Results are three years old or older, said @chintanzalani via @CMIContent. #SEO Click to Tweet

Does that mean you have to wait three years to see any results from your SEO efforts?


In a chemical reaction you can reduce the required activation energy by using a catalyst.

With SEO, backlinks can act as a catalyst for your content to rank higher soon.

In content marketing, the catalyst might be the purchase of an existing media property. You will reach the activation energy threshold needed to produce results faster by purchasing media assets with an existing audience instead of trying build both a new content platform and an audience from scratch.

Image source

RELATED CONTENT TO BE HAND-VIEWED: How to rank and read with Topic Cluster Model

Tools for thinking

Blind spots and assumptions can lead your content marketing astray, but you can train your brain to promote model spirit as a thinking tool. Start with the ones I shared in this post. When you feel more comfortable with this set, you can integrate other mental models meaningful to your work.

What kind of mental model do you use to overcome content marketing challenges? Let me know in the comments section.

Get more tips on how to tackle the big content marketing questions. Ordered CMI’s free weekly or weekly newsletter.

Cover photo by Joseph Kalinowski / Content Marketing Institute

By Nguyen Manh Cuong

Nguyen Manh Cuong is the author and founder of the nguyendiep blog. With over 14 years of experience in Online Marketing, he now runs a number of successful websites, and occasionally shares his experience & knowledge on this blog.

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