Content marketing is tough. It really is.
You’re busy, your customers are busy, and you’re trying to create content that isn’t intrusive but instead, catches your customers where they need help. That’s a hard act to maintain. Content marketing done right looks different for each team, but there are three elements they all have in common:
- Understanding their audience.
- A solid content foundation.
- An editorial calendar.
You know who you’re talking to, you understand what they want to hear, and you have a tool that keeps it all in order.
1. Understanding Your Audience
Traditional marketing runs screaming from the concept of connecting to an audience. Instead, it wants to push its message in front of every face possible, whether they would be interested or not. That doesn’t work anymore.
Your Audience Is Human
Audiences are made of individual people who don’t want to be treated as an anonymous crowds or mere demographic statistics. The have names, careers, families, interests, and concerns, and those are the things they care about the most. They don’t care about your advertising.
To connect with these people, you create content by focusing on what matters to them, not us. You need to connect with them as specific individuals. The more specific an audience you can identify, the better your content will be. In order to find your audience, you have to:
- Get past fear. Stop worrying about excluding people. Not everyone is your audience, and aiming for everyone out of fear of leaving someone out means you water down your content so that no one is interested.
- Own what you know best. Our niche is what we know. Our audience are those people who want to hear what we can talk about easily.
- Pour back into your audience. It’s easy to get sidetracked even if you’ve done a good job of identifying your audience. Keeping an audience is the same as building your audience. It means you always ask “does this fit my niche?”
Your Audience Has Pain Points
Above all else, your content must solve problems.
Every business is in the business of solving problems, but usually we see those problems differently than our customers do. We tend to see these problems through the lens of “features” that our business offers, rather than the benefits they provide. For example, if we sell insoles, we might think we’re solving the problem of sore feet. But what about the problem of an aching back, or being cranky at work?
There are four areas that the solution of pain points can fit into:
1. Fulfill a need. People are motivated to buy something because they need it. When it comes time for them to make a purchase, they will seek out products that best meet those needs.
2. Provide a service. Similarly, they will do the same when they are in need of a professional service. Sometimes services are provided for convenience purposes.
3. Alleviate a frustration. This category includes some of the most common sales triggers, like saving time and money. Customers are motivated to purchase what makes their lives easier.
4. Provide enjoyment. Customers desire to be entertained. These types of purchases don’t reflect upon a person’s needs, but they do fulfill wants and desires. They are often emotionally-based decisions that vary from one person to the next.
Once we understand what “pains” our customer is looking to relieve, we can connect our content to doing just that.
So, how do you understand your audience?
You start seeing them as real people, you figure out what they need and want, and you learn what their pain points are. If you know all of that, you understand your audience and you’re ready to create content for them.
2. Why Are You Creating Content?
Why are you creating content? The answer to that question might be tough to face. Hopefully, you are motivated to gain customer trust. And hopefully, you’re willing to do the one thing it takes in order for that to happen: giving.
Learning To Give
Creating content means you have to be willing to dish. As in, you have to be willing to give some things away in exchange for customer trust. Keeping your best ideas and content for yourself, behind a paywall, won’t inspire customers to try you, much less trust you.
You might not be comfortable giving away your expertise, but let’s look at in different terms to help dissuade your fears:
1. Don’t be afraid of losing. Giving things away sounds crazy. Giving our best talent away could destroy an entire business model, right? No. Stop thinking about abilities as products to sell, and start thinking of them as a trust-building strategy that creates a loyal customer.
2. Be real about marketing costs. Marketing costs in two ways: in time, or in money. With money, we try to buy attention, and that’s pricey. With time, we give away great content in order to gain trust. Which do you think you can sustain: attention you have to keep paying for, or great content your customers come back for on their own?
3. Content is a gateway drug. With your content, you’re not giving away the farm, just starting with a couple of chickens. That convinces your customers to come and visit the farm more often. You might be telling them how to remodel their kitchen, but you’re not giving away lumber. They still need you.
4. Make it easy to approach you. What kind of hoops do customers have to jump through to get to you? Does it involve boring sales copy, web forms, and automated phone systems? Your content is a bit like magazines in the waiting room: give your customers something right now, on their way to see you. Great content makes it easy for them to access you right at the start.
The Battle Of Inbound vs. Outbound
Outbound marketing focuses on a one-time sale, while inbound marketing focuses on long-tearm loyalty. One pushes out, the other draws in.
Content marketing is completely inbound. You attract, acquire, and engage your target audience, turning them into customers. Not convinced? Let’s take a look.
1. Outbound marketing is throw-away. Direct mail pieces (i.e. “junk mail”) get thrown away almost half of the time. People skip through TV commercials. Ads are blocked on the internet. The worst part of all of that? You had to pay beaucoup dollars for that outbound marketing. It’s like storing your money in the garbage.
2. Inbound marketing is come-hither. Content sources like blogs, ebooks, or social media attract an audience. Lo and behold, where do your customers come from, but your audience? People come to you on their own terms, pay attention to you, and become trusting customers. It’s like storing your money in the bank.
Blogging Is Your Secret Weapon
Have a website? You should have a blog. A blog is a storehouse for words, which are powerful, transformative, and your secret weapon. Blogs put words to work for you, like content mercenaries.
They create that inbound traffic, and they entice Google (and other search engines) to stop by and bring some visitors with them. And, surprise side benefit: blogs help you explore new ideas and challenge our thinking. They make you think as you write, challenging your own expertise and validify your thoughts enough to write them down for the world to read. Blogs are conversation starters, virtual water coolers, and town squares. People gather to talk, and some leave their email address and turn right into a customer before you know it.
You’d be surprised, then, that most blogs only survive three months. Those are either tough odds to beat or a sad statement on how serious people take inbound marketing and the value of a loyal audience.
So, why are you creating content?
Because that content is what brings your audience to you, keeps them with you, and turns them into trusting customers. It might happen through great SEO, social media word-of-mouth, or a referral, but the idea is the same: content brings in people.
3. What Will You Talk About?
Typical marketing tells us to use a kind of ‘corporate voice’, as if we were impersonal beings lording over our audience. Content marketing tips that on end, and gives us permission to talk with our audience like a real person. By doing that, though, you do something incredibly scary, something traditional marketers would run screaming from.
You give up control of the message.
Great content marketing comes with a kind of relief that we stop sounding like a brochure and chase down anyone who takes our words out of our mouth. We can talk to our customers like friends we know and trust. It doesn’t matter if you’re a great and powerful wizard; you have to step out from behind the curtain some time and be real.
“The more I open up and share my real self with the world, the more successful I become.” — Corbet Barr, internet entrepreneur and blogger.
What You Should Say
Now that you’re not hidden behind marketing-speak, what are you going to talk about? It’s not as bad as you think. Actually, it makes perfect sense and you’ll like it much better once you shed the old habits.
1. Talk about your expertise.
What you know best is your expertise.
You don’t have to be the expert, but it’s likely you know more than the average person about your niche topic, otherwise you wouldn’t be in business. So you’re an expert. Let’s put feelings of inferiority aside or you’ll never write a sentence worth anything to your customers.
The beauty of you talking about what you know best is that you create value around your product or service. Would you rather hire a plumber who confidently talks about all things plumbing on his blog, or the guy who just has a website that says “I’m a plumber. Hire me.”
2. Speak your customer’s language.
If you have any empathy for your fellow human beings, leave the jargon at the door, please!
If you’re selling light bulbs, you don’t talk about ohms and electrical resistance and how many electric trade associations you are a member of. You talk about how long the lightbulb will last.
Remember, no more corporate voice, meet your audience’s needs–these core concepts ought to prevent you from using jargon or purposefully trying to shame, confuse, or impress a customer with industry language, but it’s so easy to forget! You rattle off features when you could be telling them about the benefits.
You’re not looking to be the industry expert (unless your audience is business-to-business), but an expert for your customer.
3. Just focus on the bennies.
People don’t buy a toaster based on how hot the heating elements can get, but rather, that it gets their toast done pretty fast in the morning so they aren’t late for work. Heating element = feature, fast toast = benefit.
When you write your content, talk about benefits, not features. People connect to benefits, because they tell them how your product meets their needs. Features only interest the sellers because they make an impressive list for those in the industry. The content you create has to find a way to translate those awesome features into real-world benefits so your audience can say, “Oh, yes, that would be helpful for me.”
4. Yes, you can talk about that.
There’s a lot of peripheral content connected to what you think is your main focus. And yes, you can talk about that.
Let’s say you sell running shoes. You could blog all day about the new shoe styles, shoe sales, shoe trends–you could be very shoe-centric. After all, that’s your gig.
But think about your customer. The guy buying those shoes is…a runner. And, as a runner, he is interested in more than just shoes. He wants to know about running events, training options, the latest running mobile apps, outdoor trails, hydration, knee health… Wouldn’t you sell more shoes if you wrote about all of the things runners are interested in?
Your content should definitely include your core content (in this case, the shoes), but also write about connected content (that other stuff). That’s what your audience wants.
Some Things You Shouldn’t Say
Controversial content is what gets conversation cooking. It’s like adding some hot sauce to your baked potato; you make it more memorable, but too much is just pain.
Don’t shy away from difficult topics and bold statements. Don’t be afraid to stop hedging your bets and go out on a content limb. That’s the stuff that gets conversation going, and that makes for a “sticky” post. People link to it, share it, and it generates buzz.
You shouldn’t say offensive things towards or about people. You shouldn’t slander your competitors. You shouldn’t call down fire from heaven onto your blog with inflammatory or inciting language, because that’s how you kill an audience, not retain them. Get people thinking, but don’t make them leave.
So, what will you say with your content?
In your audience’s vocabulary, focus on what you can do to benefit them and write about that. Write about the content that’s related to your core content. Write memorably, but don’t be a jerk.
4. What Great Content Marketing Looks Like
So, you say you’re a writer. Well, then, let’s start creating that great content. You’ve got the theory behind why you should under your belt. Now it’s time to figure out how.
Before you get into the nitty-gritty details of how to create great content, you should understand what kinds of content you have to choose from.
1. You can provide relevant information.
Most of your content will fall into this category. It includes things like industry news, upcoming events, new ideas you have or share from other experts in the field. This will be the easiest content for you to create, because it comes naturally and it doesn’t fall too far into “I’m giving away trade secrets!” territory.
2. You can teach them how to do something.
Tutorials and how-to content is extremely powerful, and often where businesses balk at content marketing. It feels like giving away the farm (but remember, we’re only giving away chickens!). Tutorials do the best job of providing value to your customers, and directly meet their needs.
3. You can start a conversation.
Conversations surround content that intrigues, questions, touches emotions, and pushes. You’re not looking to dive full on into controversy, but it doesn’t hurt to dip your toes into it at the edges. You don’t want to rely on this kind of content too much; you’ll burn out yourself and your audience. When in doubt, make sure it’s more conversational than controversial.
4. You can inspire your readers.
How can you encourage your readers to do more and feel better about themselves? If you can answer that question with the content you create, you nailed it. People want to feel good about themselves, and if you can help them do it, they’ll come back for more. Besides, your audience is made up of real people, and encouraging people is always a good thing.
5. You can entertain your readers.
The world should not be all doom and gloom, and neither should your content. Have some fun without going off the deep edge. Tell a funny anecdote. Share a funny story that happened to you. Entertaining content is great at keeping that human real-person voice.
Tell A Great Story, Above All
“Blah blah blah.”
Never give your reader a chance to sum up your content with those three words. You must tell stories, not push lectures. Stories can be true stories, customer stories, your stories, or anecdotes. They can serve as a metaphor for a complicated topic, further the discussion, or put a face on an idea.
If the internet is a series of tubes, stories are a series of hooks. Stories, from the most complicated to the most basic, work with hooks. The traditional fiction pyramid can still be applied to your blog posts.
1. The headline is the first line of the story.
It really is. It’s the first thing your audience reads, and what convinces them to continue. Bad headline, but great content? Fail. Headlines can lead to the next level below it, or stop the flow altogether.
2. The opening line/paragraph of the story is a sub-headline.
Notice, it’s still like a headline. It has the work of sending the reader on down into your content even further.
3. The first line of every paragraph is like a headline.
Guess what? It’s relentless, this drive to keep readers reading. But that’s a story. It hooks, hooks again, and repeats itself until the end.
“I sell widgets! How do you expect me to write a story about that?!” you might be thinking.
How The Widget Changed The Future As We Know It
It was the 12th century. The monks were under siege, surviving only on their ale. Each day, the anxiously kept watch around their monastery, armies as far as the eye could see. Their vast libraries contained the last copies of many of the classic works we enjoy today, and their downfall meant a tremendous loss of historic knowledge.
And then their ale began to dwindle. The siege dragged on. They needed a widget.
Where The Widget Came From
Widgets were invented in the 12th century by monks. They used it to make ale. The ale kept them alive during difficult times. The widget has changed little from that time to today, where you can purchase one at our store.
Look at the examples. Which one do you want to read?
In the second example, the opening sentence answers the question the (boring) headline prompted in the reader’s mind. Why read any further? In contrast, the first example doesn’t spill the beans immediately and, in fact, it suggests additional questions that make the reader want to stick around to the end (i.e. who was doing the siege? why? why did the monks have the books? what does ale have to do with it?).
In everything, you can find a story because it is a story. Create mystery, save key details for the end–keep your reader on the line until the last possible moment.
People like stories!
5. Setting Up Your Content Goals
Without a goal, you won’t know if you’ve arrived. In fact, you won’t even know if you’re on the way. Content marketing easily goes off the rails and tumbles down into tangents if you don’t have goals defined.
Mix It Up, And Publish Regularly
So, you take this secret recipe of five great kinds of content, mix them up, and regularly serve on your blog. (In case you missed it, the two most important words in that sentence were “mix” and “regularly.”)
The perfect mix for you is one you figure out over time by paying attention to audience reaction on social media, analytics, and comments. You won’t get it right immediately, but you’ll soon learn what your audience wants to hear.
Then, be regular. Consistent content marketing is the only content marketing there is. Inconsistent content marketing is also known as “that blog that fails in three months.” When it comes to publishing content, consistency wins. No audience shows up at the concert hall if they aren’t certain there will a performance. The same goes for your blog.
Here are the unfun nuts and bolts:
1. Develop a publishing schedule.
Greatness doesn’t accidentally happens, and great content marketing is no exception. Use your editorial calendar to set up a schedule that you (and your team) can handle. Follow it. Decide how many blog posts you’ll publish each week, how many social media posts you’ll post, and how many larger pieces of content you’ll do each month/year (i.e. videos, ebooks, whitepapers, etc.)
Schedules do a couple of amazing things. They force you to not let writer’s block win, and they guard against content gaps.
2. Decide where you’ll publish content.
Your blog will get your main content focus, sure, but where else will you publish?
We don’t encourage sharecropping the bulk of your original content, abandoning it to platforms with tricky terms of service and fair use policies that could pull the plug at any moment, but you shouldn’t rule out reworking content to fit appropriate platforms. Social media networks are a perfect example.
Share your blog post on Google+, for instance, and accompany the link with thoughtful commentary or discussion starters. Write about a topic in a different way on Medium, perhaps, and share a link back to your original post under the guise of “further reading.”
Choose places where your audience is likely to frequent. If you’re not sure, look at your competitors. They have an audience. You can piggyback on it by joining in discussions and using the same platforms. Not every platform is a fit, and you don’t want to sign up for every social network. That would be impossible to manage and you’d end up with angry followers who see that you’re ignoring them because you’ve forgotten about that social channel.
3. Plan your peripheral content.
“Complete social media content marketing in just an hour a day!” Sounds gimmicky, but it’s not off. Do you really want to be spending more than an hour on tweets and Facebook posts? No. This plan is a tricky one, but returns great results when you get it right.
Start by figuring out what your audience wants on each network. For example, five tweets an hour might be too much, and no tweeting after 6 pm. Don’t give them an excuse to unfollow you. Know your audience, know the social network’s unwritten etiquette, and use that as your guide.
Then, find tools that shave time off of your plan. Time is money. Use one or two tools instead of five and an extra hour. Find good tools, and spend the money. They’re going to be a workhorse for you and you won’t regret an excellent tool that makes this easier.
With your plan in place, you now know what happens when a blog post is published. It might go something like this:
a) Publish blog post
b) Tweet post immediately with “New Blog Post: [title] [URL]”
c) Share post immediately on Facebook and Google+.
d) Tweet post 2 days later with “[title]”
e) Tweet post a week later. Ask it as a question.
f) Tweet post a month later with “[title]”
g) Share on Facebook two months later.
How Will You Measure Your Success?
Success is a tangible thing. It’s not vague. You’re investing time, money, and creativity into content marketing; you’d better be able to measure your success so you know if it’s working.
You can’t measure success unless you define it first. You have to know what it looks like. Success is commonly measured using:
Some of these might be important to you, others not. Figure out which ones are. Put a system in place to measure them. Start a spreadsheet and track the numbers, if you have to. Make a habit out of reviewing those numbers. Change things, do some A/B testing, and see what happens.
Is your content marketing a success? Only you can determine that.
6. Creating Your Editorial Calendar
There is a constant theme that runs all through great content marketing. Have you picked up on it yet? It’s the ultimate four-letter word: plan.
No one stumbles onto having an amazing blog. No one accidently gets great at writing content. No one haphazardly picks up 10,000 Twitter followers. Greatness does not happen in one day. Anyone who swears otherwise is either selling snake oil or just isn’t aware of the planning and work they’ve really been doing on their blog.
This is where an editorial calendar comes into play.
What Is An Editorial Calendar?
An editorial calendar is a tool that helps you plan out your content. You can use it as a solo blogger, or with a team.
Editorial calendars approach your content creation from both sides. They encourage you as you start to see your content as it will be, and they kick you in the pants as you see your content as it should be.
And yes, you need one. Even if it’s just you blogging.
If you’re thinking “my blog isn’t very big, I don’t need an editorial calendar,” the editorial calendar will reply with “that’s why your blog isn’t very big.” Let’s own up to the Catch 22 and hop on board. If you’re serious about your blog, the smaller it is the more you need a tool that helps you focus your content and ups your publishing rate.
How Do I Use An Editorial Calendar?
Editorial calendars can be something as simple as a paper calendar with sticky notes. You can use a collection of apps and tools like spreadsheets. Or, you could use a dedicated editorial calendar app like CoSchedule.
Once you’ve determined what method works best for you, you’ll begin planning your content for the year, and then by month.
Planning for the year.
Getting a full year’s view of your content is the ultimate bird’s-eye-view. You will plan for events and for broad themes, marking them out on your calendar.
Events include holidays, in-house events, or industry events, such as conferences. You will likely want to publish content associated with those events.
Themes include content that is related or connected to each other, such as a blog series. Themes are helpful, because themed content can easily be turned into additional content, like an ebook.
One other thing you’ll want to plan on at a year level is the type of content. For example, you might want to publish an ebook in January, April, and July. You might plan on making a video for September. These are the kinds of content that take more prep and planning, and are a bigger commitment in time and money to create. Get ‘em on our calendar, or they won’t happen.
Planning for each month.
By this time, you’ve learned that you need to decide on how often you’ll publish content, and where you’ll publish it. Great news: you’ve already done the foundational work for this part of the calendar! Now, you just have to plug it into your calendar for each month.
You can organize this any way you’d like, but two common ways people arrange content at a monthly level is by category and by author.
Planning by category only works if you’ve been judicious about keeping your blog’s categories under control. This method works best with four to ten categories.
Planning by author is for team blogs, where you want to be sure each person writes the allotted amount or on the day you have decided will work best.
Let’s give this a dry run.
1. Let’s say you’ve decided you can handle publishing three times a week. Traffic dies off on Fridays, and is highest on Mondays. So, you decide to publish on Monday, Tuesday, and Thursday.
2. You have one other author who can handle writing once a week. This means two of the posts will be yours each week.
3. You have six categories and you’d like to see them evenly covered. So, in a two-week period, you’ll publish a blog post that uses each category.
4. On your calendar, even if you don’t have headlines, you can lay out posts on Monday, Tuesday, and Thursday. You can note that you’ll write Monday and Thursday and assign Tuesday to your team member. You’ll then note one category on each post in two-week cycles.
What just happened?
You know who will write, when they will write, and what they will write. It’s the end of day-of-blog-post panic.