How often do marketers talk about appealing to someone’s subconscious desires, or suggest that a person’s impulse buy is the result of an unexpressed, or repressed, emotion?
Or, how often do we — when noticing that someone is making assumptions about the unarticulated desires of others — explain someone’s claims as an instance of the speaker projecting their interests or aims onto someone else?
A quick exploration of the literature (Sophocles, Shakespeare, and Dostoyevsky) that Freud drew on to create his theory of the unconscious indicates that his system is really just a repackaging of human self-knowledge that had already been circulating for thousands of years.
That is to say, Freud’s system gave us language to describe things that people have always noticed about their unspoken wishes and motivations. We often use Freud’s terms because they’re handy for explaining the desires we see governing our own and others’ behavior.
Why do behavior and desire matter?
Anything that makes reference to Freud’s psychoanalytic theory typically begins with a caveat that goes something like: No, I don’t think we all want to kill one of our parents and sleep with the other.
That said, the concepts that Freud invented for thinking about what humans want and why they act as they do have had a lot of staying power in both academic and popular circles because they are useful.
The words “subconscious,” “repression,” and “projection” are just a few of the psychoanalytic terms that have made their way into everyday speech.
Those of us engaged in creating and capitalizing on the material used in content marketing have a vested interest in talking about and reflecting upon the desires of site visitors who seek out our content and the way it is perceived.
Content marketing requires us to try and get inside potential customers’ heads and understand the type of information and online experience that would drive them to buy a product.
For example, I’ve recently been listening to the podcast The Partially Examined Life (PEL). The guys who do the show read a given philosophical text and talk through what an author is saying and how his or her thought fits into the broader philosophical tradition.
As a student of literature and history, this type of content is extremely valuable to me, and I appreciate the time and labour those who run the site put into making sure the text they’re looking at is accessible.
Because I know how much work they’ve put in, I don’t mind that they promote various products and services in the podcasts and on their site. I recognize they’re giving me something for free — something they’ve worked on and refined — so I’m happy to listen to their sponsor’s pitch. I’m currently considering whether or not I want to become a “PEL citizen” and pay the monthly fees to get full access to all the benefits this membership affords.
However, the first few times I encountered their advertising, I was not really impressed. Some of the ads were long and distracting — which is especially annoying when you’re trying to focus on complex concepts. At that point, I wasn’t sure if I would continue to patronize the site.
There was a dissonance between my experience of the site’s value and my judgments about the creator-entrepreneurs’ motivations in providing the material I was consuming, namely that their motivations at first seemed off-puttingly opportunistic instead of earnestly helpful. If PEL wants to see me convert into a paying member, they have a vested interest in reflecting on how I receive their motivations for creating the site’s content.
It’s with these dynamics in mind that I’ve decided to draw on Freud’s terms to flesh out some of the tensions inherent to content marketing.
Freud’s model of the interaction between the unconscious, the conscious self, and the larger imperatives of society illustrates the tensions governing the production of marketing content and its consumption.
Content is in high demand these days.
The term itself — in its vague openendedness — speaks to its elusive quality. When we’re talking about as-yet-uncreated content, we often dress it up with adjectives like “quality” or “high value.”
These qualifiers don’t contribute much to our understanding of it; however, the specific shape of the content remains shrouded in the misty regions of its eventual creator’s mind.
For these creators, the things they make are supposed to be ends in themselves. That is to say, they should either be useful or aesthetically pleasing. Ideally, content should have an inherent value to a human being — someone who wants to discover a fact, look at the world in a different way, enjoy something beautiful, or have a laugh.
As we all know, though, these are not the only values content has. Content may also serve the purpose of drawing attention to a site as a means to make money for advertisers, business owners, and manufacturers.
Content, then, has at least two different types of value, and these values do not always exist in perfect harmony.
Further, those who produce content are subject to two different imperatives.
On the one hand, content creators must produce material that is useful and beautiful — which is inherently valuable in people’s lives. On the other hand, they must obey the imperative to turn a profit and consistently produce a great quantity of highly desirable content.
Freud’s model of the relation between the id, ego, and superego offers a useful paradigm for understanding this tension.
Almost everyone these days likes to use the iceberg analogy — as Google recently did on Freud’s 160th birthday — to represent the relationship between the three parts of the individual’s psyche: id, ego, and superego.
I still prefer the old-timey feel of the original conceptual diagram, which Freud created for his seminal 1923 publication, The Ego and the Id:
You probably remember a version of it from your college Introduction to Psychology class, and you’ll recall that Ich is German for the first person pronoun, “I,” while Es is the German pronoun, “it.” As Freud’s theory was translated into different languages, the German terms were swapped out for Latin equivalents: ego (I) and id (that).
Here’s a highly simplified explanation of how these three parts of the individual interact.
The id, or deep unconscious, is where the individual’s most basic drives and instincts reside. Describing the id, Freud says, “It is filled with energy reaching it from the instincts, but it has no organization, produces no collective will, but only a striving to bring about the satisfaction of the instinctual needs subject to the observance of the pleasure principle”.
The ego — the conscious self that engages with the rest of the world, or superego — acts as a barrier between the id’s impulses to satisfy instinctual needs and the social context the individual inhabits. According to Freud, the ego “attempts to mediate between id and reality, it is often obliged to cloak the Ucs. [Unconscious] commands of the id with its own … rationalizations, to conceal the id’s conflicts with reality, [and] to profess … to be taking notice of reality even when the id has remained rigid and unyielding”. The ego is really an extension of the id, which — like the rider of a horse — strives to master its wild impulses.
Like any mediator, the ego is in a tough spot, as its job is to satisfy both the individual’s most basic desires and the demands of society (the superego). The ego is shaped by this tension, which gives rise to the unique character of the individual and may also lead to psychological problems.
You’ll notice that, unlike later diagrams, the superego does not appear as part of the psyche. This is because the superego is a psychic manifestation of the social mores that constrain and shape the individual psyche. By definition, society precedes the individual, so the superego’s values are internalized by the ego and id over the course of an individual psyche’s life.
The relationship between the id, ego, and superego is an interesting model for understanding the processes that go into producing the content used to market products and services on the internet.
The drives of the id are like the web entrepreneur’s ambitions. The personal, financial, and business ambitions of those marketing their goods and services on a website create the need for content to draw potential customers to the site and make a sale.
When still at Harvard, Mark Zuckerberg built Facemash — a site that placed two pictures of students side by side and invited the user to choose which was more attractive — he mocked people’s appearances as a means to gain social cache with his frat brothers.
The project had no financial benefit, but it served Zuckerberg’s ambition to show off his abilities as a programmer. When the site become popular, he realized its potential financial value and built the prototype of what is now Facebook.
Mark’s projects were motivated by personal ambitions that quickly turned into financial ambitions.
If we think of these ambitions like the “striving to bring about the satisfaction of the instinctual needs” of the id, we will see an analogy with the web entrepreneur’s drive to succeed.
These drives may not only be monetary. The desire to make one’s mark, gain prestige, or best one’s rivals might equally impel an entrepreneur to enter the competitive world of online marketing.
These drives are incredibly productive. However, if they remain merely opportunistic and more self-interested than concerned with the well-being of others, they can impoverish one’s creations of meaning, beauty, and genuine usefulness.
This tension between the self-interest of the entrepreneur and the benefits to the public is a central feature of online content marketing.
The internet is both an egalitarian commons and an extremely lucrative marketplace. This is a tense situation, and it is partly this tension that Google has attempted to negotiate with its ongoing algorithm updates.
Google — as part of its effort to follow its corporate slogan, “Don’t be evil” — doesn’t mind if money is made off the internet. (We’re all aware of how much Google itself makes.) However, to a certain extent Google wants to ensure that, when people use their service to search for something, the things they find will be of real value and not merely vacuous advertising.
In this sense, Google is trying to preserve the idea of the internet as a commons, where people share beautiful or useful information, tools, and ideas.
As we all know, providing intrinsic value is not always the first priority of the average entrepreneur. In online business, the impulses of the id — what we’re calling the drive to make money — is a given.
The moral imperative articulated by Google’s slogan represents the (frequently unrealized) ideal of an internet community that prioritizes open source benefits for all its users through the free sharing of information and tools.
In many ways, this moral imperative is analogous to the moral imperatives of the superego.
In Civilization and Its Discontents (1929), Freud claims that the values of the superego internalized by the individual “coincide with the precepts of the prevailing cultural super-ego”. That is to say that, if a society reveres equalitarian, meritocratic, and democratic values, the cultural superego will censure any drives from the id that do not accord with the society’s moral ideals.
For now at least, equality, meritocracy, and democracy are important values many associate with the internet. To these users, the internet is not supposed to be merely another conduit for ambitious entrepreneurs to make their pitch.
Because of this, the acquisitive, monetary ambitions of online businesses (what we’re calling the drives of the id) are confronted with the sharing-oriented, communitarian ideals that govern internet culture.
The ego — which we will equate with content — is a manifestation of an effort to manage the entrepreneur’s drive to succeed and make it acceptable to the internet public (i.e. the superego).
Content must provide real intrinsic value to the site visitor if the site is to achieve a high rank in the algorithm updates implemented by Google.
This intrinsic value can take many forms. Take my earlier example of PEL, for instance. The people responsible for PEL provide a genuinely valuable — and free — service to students who are looking for a crash course in the history of philosophy. They explain their motivation for creating their episodes as stemming from a personal interest in discussing philosophy the way they used to back in grad school.
The pleasure and care they take in discussing philosophy makes their content interesting and useful. My good experience with their content makes me inclined to pay for the other services and products they advertise on the site.
Typically, it’s only after the potential customer appreciates the content that they will trust the site enough to give over their money for the products or services it promotes. It is at this point that the content/ego has succeeded in mitigating the negative impressions engendered in the user by the base drives of entrepreneurial ambitions/id.
In this analogy, we imagine the online business as an individual psyche.
In the site’s unconscious are all the monetary ambitions that lead to the creation of the web business. By and large, these ambitions are not acceptable to the meritocratic, communitarian values of internet culture (the superego), which typically expects websites to be focused on offering free intrinsic value to their visitors.
Content, or ego, arises as a means to mediate between entrepreneurial ambition (the id) and internet cultural values (superego). The ego bears the marks of the tension between id and superego. These markings are what form a web business’s character as it appears in the content they post — this content/ego becomes a site’s personality.
The schematic nature of the foregoing analogy is self-evident. Nevertheless, it reflects, to some extent, the predicament creative entrepreneurs find themselves in.
At a certain point, every creative person presents their ambition to the public in the form of the product or service they have created. This is a stressful moment for someone who serves or creates because there’s a very good chance that those in the market will not fully appreciate what they’ve made. Hence why many are terrified to launch — it is a matter of ego.
As soon as someone considers the possibility of adapting their vision to the demands they imagine the public is placing on them, they and their content become entrepreneurial — they seek the approval of the market, an approbation which is (unfortunately) measured in financial success and accompanying recognition.
Inevitably, the desire to have one’s work draw attention in the marketplace begins to affect the creative vision of the creator-entrepreneur. This tension often produces a dynamic that will take one’s work in a different direction than it otherwise would have gone.
For creator-entrepreneurs, there are areas where they are unable to modify their work, but there are also areas where they recognize that responding to the reactions of the public will enrich and improve their final product. It’s at this point — where the entrepreneur’s artifice engages with the public — that superego-approved content begins to take shape.
The content a given site produces will — like the ego reacting to the superego — internalize the demands of its internet audience with a view to gaining its approval in the form of interest and money.
At times, the content will be radically reshaped by the experience of disapproval from the online society/superego. However, it must be remembered that the id’s ambitious impulse to seek the quickest route to satisfaction can typically damage content and make it undesirable to the public.
When content is poorly constructed or thoughtlessly thrown together, your audience can tell.
It won’t be beautiful or useful, and it won’t receive as much attention because it doesn’t make the multiple connections that give a piece of writing, artwork, or tool true depth and utility. When this happens, the site’s content-creating ego has done a poor job of mediating between the ambitious id and censorious superego/web community.
All’s not lost, though. As in the ongoing process of psychoanalysis which forms the basis of modern psychotherapeutic practice, web entrepreneurs can reflect on how their own self-interested desires — the preconscious impulses coming from their ambitious id and manifesting in their content ego — have overdetermined the way they represent their business to the world.
With any site that relies on content marketing, there are always areas for improvement. At Craft Your Content, we’re always reflecting on ways for improving the written content of your site.
Just like the play between the id, ego, and superego, the content creation process is open-ended and ongoing. There are multiple past versions of every individual psyche in the same way that there are multiple front pages and blog posts for any online business engaged in content marketing.
Making and remaking this content is what forms an online business’s ever-evolving identity.
When he’s not refining prose and hunting down grammatical errors, Ben Barber reads paper books from brick libraries, traps Dungeness crab, brews beer, and stalks inspiration through temperate rainforests of the Pacific Northwest. His graduate degrees in English Literature have honed his editorial eye, while teaching him the importance of respecting the author’s unique voice. Feel free to drop him a line if you’re interested in discussing the nuances of semicolon usage, the metaphysics of the late-Romantic poets, Spinoza’s third type of knowledge, or recipes for baby back ribs.