On Goldfish

Give your readers a prize worth paying attention to.

Growing up, pets were a part of my life for as long as I can remember. It started with a rabbit named Katie—named for a girl I “liked” in my kindergarten class—who bit my hand, chewed electric cables, and was otherwise horrible in every way. We got our first family dog, Elke, not very long after. Along with these two mammals, my little brother Nate always seemed to also have some small creature living in his room. Hermit crabs. Tadpoles that never seemed to become frogs as far as I can remember. County fair goldfish that occasionally survived their plastic bags to live for a few months in a bowl on Nate’s dresser.

I only really remember one of these smaller pets by name: a county fair goldfish named, perhaps more appropriately than any other pet I’ve ever met, Goldfish. It was a common topic of conversation for the first few weeks at the dinner table: “Nate, what are you going to name your new goldfish?”

“Goldfish,” he’d say, like we were stupid for asking.

“But, Nate, it is a goldfish—what’s its name?”

“Its name is Goldfish,” he’d always say.

I’d go into eight-year-old Nate’s room to see what he was up to and find him sitting on his bed, maybe, or standing with his arms crossed on the dresser staring into the bowl. Inside, Goldfish was doing what fish did. He was a rather bright orange, as far as these ill-handled commodity pets go, and no larger than a strawberry. Say what you will about his creativity in naming animals, his love for anything alive was always clear. I can’t say for sure, but his excitement with a new friend to share his room with seems to be in some way connected with his choice in names. Nate had a new friend. He had a new goldfish. His goldfish. His Goldfish.

Twenty years later, it’s March in St. Louis and it’s miserably cold. I’ve spent the last three days doing everything I can, against my natural inclinations, to stay inside at the Union Station conference center to avoid going out into the spitting rain. Normally when I speak at marketing conferences, I can’t help but highlight a couple other sessions that catch my eye and otherwise spend my limited time exploring whatever city I’m in for the week. Not so much this time. Too cold for that.

I’ve spent these days going in and out of meeting rooms and ballrooms listening to some pretty smart people say a lot of smart things about marketing, but also a lot of things that have driven me up the damn wall. Currently, I’m sitting up on a stage at the end of a row of four other marketers for a panel on content creation, and I’ve got my notebook open to a busy page in my notebook. The sides are cluttered with doodles, and in the middle is a large set of tally marks with a bold label:


There are six marks under the heading at this point, and I’m pulling the cap off my pen to add another to the end of the list.

“I’ve heard a lot this week that we’re fighting against peoples’ really short attention spans with our marketing content,” says one person sitting on the floor of a full ballroom. “How can we combat that with the content we produce?”

Another member of my panel speaks up to offer some valuable advice about “getting in and getting out,” using bold headlines and keeping content as short as possible in order to make the biggest impact in the smallest space. Nice advice. Good advice. Advice I’m sure Ernest Hemingway himself would agree with. Advice that would send Nathaniel Hawthorne running for the hills. That’s a good thing.

Looking back now, I’m quite sure I interrupted whoever was speaking when I decided to hold up my notebook in protest. That was probably very rude of me.

“Here’s the deal,” I say angrily. “I’ve been keeping track of how many experts I’ve heard during this conference saying that people have no attention span, and we’re up to seven now.”


“There’s a lot we can do to make sure we confront this problem head on,” I continue, “but that’s only if we’re all willing to accept this apparent fact that people in the internet age cannot pay attention to something for more than thirty seconds. But I reject that if you have anything worthwhile to say that people won’t pay attention to it.”

“People are not goldfish,” I say confidently, and I see phones all around ironically lighting up as the room full of savvy digital marketers jump to tweet the admittedly juicy soundbite I’d just dropped.

I ramble on for a bit, expressing my frustration with the notion that all content has to be snippable, that people just won’t be bothered with reading anything longer than 500 words. I suggest that if people here are concerned with low average-time-on-page numbers in their analytics, maybe they should be thinking a little more about what they choose to publish, and whether or not their readers really care about it.

This conference panel is still fresh in my memory, as it was only a few months ago. But I don’t remember how Goldfish came to pass. I remember my mother telling a story about one day going into Nate’s room and finding a fish dead on the carpet, liberated from one prison but dried out in another. I think that was an earlier fish, though, and it would be a bit too convenient to be able to wrap up the tale of Goldfish the goldfish with such drama. More likely than not, Goldfish ended the way so many other commoditized animals have, floating belly up in a small fishbowl in a child’s room.

Nate cried when he found out. I say that not because I remember it happening, but because it was always what happened. As much as I love my dogs and Katie-who-bit because I can talk to them, I can touch them, I can play with them, Nate always had that same level of love for whatever animal was his own. It didn’t matter that Goldfish actually was a goldfish and likely couldn’t remember anything past the last minute or so. It didn’t matter that Nate couldn’t pet Goldfish, or teach Goldfish tricks. What mattered was that Nate cared about Goldfish. He cared for Goldfish. For a short time, he shared his life with Goldfish and that was something worth celebrating for young Nate.

I’ve come to believe that if marketers must use the goldfish as a metaphor somehow related to content marketing, it’s wrong to assume that our readers are the goldfish of the story. Rather, I think the pieces of content we publish are often the goldfish, these things we name and put in a bag in a tent at the county fair.. Things that someone somewhere used to lure customers in. Give up your dollar, throw your ping pong ball. If it lands well, you get this pet to take home with you.

Marketers put these words together and publish them. They become blogs that give away some free information. Maybe a bit of emotional validation. For a brief moment, when an ideal customer is in pain and needs something from a Brand™ they may find this blog, tied up in its clear little bag, ready to serve its purpose right now.

Next week, that customer may have forgotten all about the blog. They’ve flushed it away, never to be seen again. And that blog may again serve somebody new—it’ll come back as another goldfish in a bag for a new customer to win and take home. But there will come a day, who knows when, when that blog is read for the very last time. The numbers are gone. The traffic has disappeared. That blog is nothing but a memory. There is nobody else lining up to win the goldfish.

How much better would it be if we in marketing gave these goldfish of ours the care that any living thing deserves? The same attention and love that Nate gave Goldfish, for however long he did? It never mattered to Nate that Goldfish was just a goldfish. In the same way, it should not matter that our blogs are there just to serve our business goals. We should not, like so many pundits of the industry still seem to believe, think of our readers as just goldfish that can’t be bothered to keep reading.

Instead, we should be treating every reader as a real person and every piece of content we publish as something of real potential value. We won’t always succeed, but at least for a moment we can do our best to care about our craft, and to make our readers care about what we have to say, too.

Our readers are not goldfish. They are little kids sitting in their rooms, empty fishbowl on the dresser, and they’re ready to care about their new friend whenever it comes into their lives. Let’s give them a prize worth paying attention to.

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