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First, a little intro for our younger readers: Before we had social media to turn to for counsel on our personal affairs, we had newspaper advice columnists. If you were dealing with a sticky problem, you wrote a letter (you know, one of those paper thingys in the envelope with the stamp that you see in museums?) to your columnist of choice and looked for your answer in an upcoming issue. Thousands of columnists have come and gone over the years, but few built as large and as loyal an audience as Ann Landers.

The funny thing is that Ann Landers … well, she never existed. The “Ask Ann Landers” column was created in 1943 by Chicago Sun-Times columnist Ruth Crowley, who handed the reins over to Esther “Eppie” Lederer in 1955. It was under Lederer’s pen that the column produced one of its most famous issues, “Ten Commandments of How to Get Along With People.”

While the original 1977 column appears to be lost (or at least unavailable online), the commandments themselves have survived, and they offer some surprising gems of wisdom to guide our content marketing journey …

1. “Keep skid chains on your tongue; always say less than you think. Cultivate a low, persuasive voice. How you say it often counts more than what you say.”

The people in your audience don’t know what you know, and as a result, they might be making some mistakes. Big ones. What they don’t need is an ersatz parent, finger pointed in their faces, waxing poetic on just how dumb they’ve been. They need a trusted, understanding advisor to gently guide them onto the right path.

This advice reminds me of an experience I had several years ago, when I went to a dentist for the first time in a lo-o-o-ong time. When I told her how long it had been, I braced myself for a scolding. “Well,” she replied in her comforting Texas drawl, “you’re here now, and that’s what counts.” That was over ten years ago, and I’ve been a loyal patient ever since.

Key Takeaway: Mind your tone, especially when pointing out missteps. Be patient, be understanding, and show your visitors how to correct their ways.

2. “Make promises sparingly, and keep them faithfully, no matter what it costs.”

If you think about it, our entire content marketing journey is a series of promises made and promises (hopefully) kept. Our brand is the promise, and each tweet, each blog post, each webinar, each video fulfills that promise to our audience.

Be conscious of that as you approach your day-to-day tasks. That blog post title makes a promise — does the content deliver on it? Does the sentiment of that tweet pay off the promise that your brand makes?

Remember that consistency in our publishing schedules also makes a promise. If you produce a podcast week after week, you’re making an implied promise that you’ll continue to do so, unless you inform your audience otherwise.

Key Takeaway: Be conscious of the promises you’re making as you proceed in your content marketing mission, and make a commitment to keeping them. If you must break one, do your audience the courtesy of offering an explanation.

3. “Never let an opportunity pass to say a kind and encouraging word to or about somebody. Praise good work, regardless of who did it. If criticism is needed, criticize helpfully, never spitefully.”

Take a look at your Facebook feed and you’ll see that kindness and encouragement are becoming rare commodities. If you’d like to see that change, remember that it starts with you.

Use your content platforms to celebrate great things being done. Praise your team, praise your customers, praise the city in which you live and work, praise the organizations that are special to you.

And never, ever say negative things about team members or, even worse, customers, even anonymously.

Key Takeaway: Let your content platforms be stages on which you highlight the accomplishments of others.

4. “Be interested in others, their pursuits, their work, their homes and families. Make merry with those who rejoice; with those who weep, mourn. Let everyone you meet, however humble, feel that you regard him as a person of importance.”

Yes, you’re an expert on your specific field, but your perspective is not the only one. Take the opportunity to invite different voices into your blog, your videos, your podcast. Those voices can come from your own team, experts at complementary organizations, book authors, speakers, and even customers.

Your audience will appreciate the exposure to different perspectives, and you’ll build valuable relationships with outside experts that can lead to surprising opportunities down the road.

Key Takeaway: Open up your content to other voices, from both inside and outside your organization.

5. “Be cheerful. Don’t burden or depress those around you by dwelling on your minor aches and pains and small disappointments. Remember, everyone is carrying some kind of a load.”

Every industry and every organization has its ups and downs. If you’re in a “down” cycle at the moment, don’t let pessimism seep into your content. Even if the near future looks bleak for you and/or your customers, focus on positive actions that can be taken today.

Key Takeaway: The web doesn’t need another Debbie Downer. Even when times are tough, we can always find reasons for optimism. Let those reasons shine in your content.

6. “Keep an open mind. Discuss but don’t argue. It is a mark of a superior mind to be able to disagree without being disagreeable.”

Ann Landers, Content Marketing Genius?The web offers us a golden opportunity to share our perspectives — perspectives that not everyone will agree with. It’s important that we respond to those disagreements with respect and courtesy. (Unless you’re dealing with a true troll, in which case ban the sucker.)

Keep in mind that people who post dissenting views on your blog, on your social media posts, or elsewhere have taken the time to share their perspectives. Thank them for their time and acknowledge the value of their input. If you want to turn the exchange into a conversation (a debate, if you will), just remember to keep it classy.

Key Takeaway: If someone takes the time to formulate and post a dissenting opinion, treat it it as a compliment.

7. “Let your virtues, if you have any, speak for themselves. Refuse to talk of another’s vices. Discourage gossip. It is a waste of valuable time and can be extremely destructive.”

“… if you have any …” Oh, Ann, you were the clever one …

If you’re in business, you have competitors. You may be all smiles when you run into each other at conferences, but you’re both chasing after the same customers, and you want to come out on top.

No matter how fiercely competitive you are, resist the temptation to call out your competitors in your content. If you know they’re engaged in an underhanded activity that your target audience should know about, you can call out the activity without pointing fingers.

By the way, did you ever notice how advertisers never mention their competitors by name? It’s always “other brands” or an equally vague reference. The reason? Even in a negative context, mentioning your competitors’ names puts them in the minds of your audience, and that’s a space you want all to yourself.

Key Takeaway: No mudslinging, even if the mud is 100% accurate.

8. “Be careful of another’s feelings. Wit and humor at the other person’s expense are rarely worth it and may hurt when least expected.”

Humor is a funny thing (pun intended). Each person’s sense of humor is slightly different, and one person’s hilarity is another’s grounds for outrage.

I always encourage clients to incorporate humor into their content, but to do so carefully. I’m sure the people at Kenneth Cole thought they were being incredibly clever when they posted this now-infamous tweet back in 2011:

Ann Landers, Content Marketing Genius?

The content universe moves at a million miles a second, but we can never be so eager to publish that we forego due diligence, especially where humor is concerned. If you’re on the fence about the appropriateness of a particular piece of content, run it by a few disinterested parties first.

Key Takeaway: Be humorous, but always be kind and considerate.

9. “Pay no attention to ill-natured remarks about you. Remember, the person who carried the message may not be the most accurate reporter in the world. Simply live so that nobody will believe them. Disordered nerves and bad digestion are a common cause of back-biting.”

This gem of wisdom was made for brands who deal with negative comments and reviews (not to be confused with the dissenting opinions we covered in #6), and it’s one place where I’m going to split hairs with Ms. Landers. In today’s environment, we must pay attention to negative feedback … but we must handle it wisely.

As Jay Baer pointed out in his excellent book Hug Your Haters, “Haters are not your problem. Ignoring them is.” Jay tackles the topic of dealing with negative reviews more eloquently than I ever could, so if you’re looking for advice in this area, pick up his book and read it.

I do love Ann’s admonition to “simply live so that nobody will believe them.” Isn’t that what reputation management is all about? Building up such a massive groundswell of goodwill around your brand that any negative quips amount to drops in the ocean?

Key Takeaway: Address negative comments and reviews appropriately, and stay focused on building up positive sentiment on your brand.

10. “Don’t be too anxious about the credit due you. Do your best, and be patient. Forget about yourself, and let others ‘remember.’ Success is much sweeter that way.”

“Do your best, and be patient.” Was there ever more eloquent and more appropriate advice for the content marketer?

If a cardinal rule of content marketing does exist, it would probably be this: It’s not about you. Don’t make every piece of content a thinly veiled attempt to get something from your audience. Be generous, be helpful, build relationships, and then trust that when they do have a need for your product or service, yours will be the first name they think of.

And that success will be sweet indeed.

Thanks, Ann!