I have been doing content marketing for fifteen years now. That is for longer than it has even been called that. Still, when I was writing reviews of travel destinations alongside ads for local tour providers, restaurants and accommodations, that was content marketing.

I’ve managed the content for Canadian employers and job seekers on both of the country’s largest career websites, and been the editor of the homepages of the biggest portals. It was in that role that I really got schooled.

When I took over the homepage of the Sympatico/MSN portal, I thought I would be able to influence the culture of millions of people. I could feature lesser known stories, events, and artists, and educate users about new topics that I thought were important.

That is why it took me a few months to become good at that job. Because I was wrong. You can’t influence your audience’s taste online. They educate you. Watching in real-time which stories and headlines off a portal homepage get the clicks is a dynamic survey of the public’s interest at any given moment.

A well-crafted headline will perform better than a dull one. The right image or illustration can draw eyeballs to a feature, but you can’t make people interested in something they don’t care about just because you think it’s interesting.

And that is the single most important rule of content marketing: the audience is never wrong.

You can publish what you believe is The Most Important Story in the World everĀ online, but it won’t matter if no one clicks on your headline. It won’t be seen or read.

When nobody clicks on your headline, the audience hasn’t let you down; you’ve failed them. Failed to find a piece that is actually interesting to them, or failed to sell it in the presentation.

So many times channel editors or product managers would come to me pitching stories for the homepage that I knew would generate no interest from the audience. They were important to us as publishers, because we had promised eyeballs on a story to partners or advertisers. But you can’t make an audience care about something just because it’s important to the advertiser.

That being said, there are no topics, no areas of life that do not have the potential for compelling stories. The role of the content marketer is to understand the audience, and to find the hook that can connect the subject matter with the reader.

I said that you can’t educate your audience’s taste. You can however, inform and influence your readers, once you have their interest. When they have established a relationship with you as a trusted source of relevant, useful, or entertaining information, you can become an influencer.

And that’s the true value of content marketing. Reaching new audiences with engaging content that motivates them to read, share, and think well of your brand. It keeps you top of mind with potential customers for your products or services.

Zig Ziglar said, “You can have everything in life you want, if you will just help enough other people get what they want.” And that’s how it should be. Providing genuinely useful content for your audience pays off far greater than trying to lure people into viewing messaging that only benefits you.

I had to watch stories go down in flames quite a few times to learn this first lesson. I couldn’t blame anyone but myself for a lack of engagement from readers, because the audience is never wrong.

(They can be weird though. One time we published a headline is the ‘Pets’ channel, “Why are white cats so different?” The clicks went through the roof. My phone was ringing with people asking about the sudden traffic spike. To this day, I don’t understand why that story was so big.)

The second, and equally important lesson was how to read an audience and bridge that gap between what you need to promote and what they actually care about. That’s a whole other article.

Originally published on LinkedIn Pulse.