I’m writing this post very specifically for my younger self, who had no idea what he was doing as a content marketer. I hope other content marketers find this useful.
Here’s some real talk about what it’s actually like to do content marketing:
- First of all, you have limited resources. Let’s not sugarcoat that, because the more starkly you face this truth, the better. If you or your team run out of resources before you achieve your goal, it’s game over. You lose your shot. Let’s just keep that in mind.
- If you want to achieve your goal, you have to make stuff that people want. Otherwise your content, however clever or magnificent you deem it, is going to go untouched. (Meanwhile, the clock is ticking.)
- You don’t have the resources to help everyone, so you need to prioritize. You start by helping one person.
- You can’t help that person solve ALL her problems, so you have to focus on helping her solve one specific problem. (And solve it satisfactorily, otherwise you just wasted both your time and her’s.)
- To help her change one specific thing, you have to develop a deep understanding of why she is in her current state. (Developing this understanding is an iterative process. You can’t just do a bunch of reading and figure it all out overnight.)
- Are you still there? Once you understand the problem, you’ll have to figure out the steps that she needs to take to get to the next, better state. (The challenge is to pick things that are simple-enough-to-do, rather than perfect-but-unlikely.)
- Once you’ve written something that made this one person’s life marginally better, you earn her trust. (Hooray! This actually feels really good, and will motivate you to keep going.)
- Do this repeatedly over and over again, and it compounds as you build relationships. These relationships become an ‘unfair advantage’ that you can leverage to achieve cool things.
Does that sound good? Great.
Now let’s now talk about the mistakes you’re inevitably going to make.
There are an endless number of mistakes you could make, but these are the 4 most critical, in my opinion. If you avoid these 4 mistakes, you should be able to improvise your way through anything else.
- Not Specifying The Reader (“This ain’t for me.”)
- Not Specifying The Problem (“I don’t see why I should care about this.”)
- Repeating What Others Have Written (“I’ve read this before.”)
- Misallocating Limited Resources (“……”)
Let’s get right to them.
Mistake #1: Not specifying the reader. (When you write ‘for everybody’, you write for nobody.)
This might seem slightly counter-intuitive, but the more specific you get, the better. Here are some ideas to help you get more specific about your readers:
Write open letters to specific people.
In a funny, twisted way, people are more interested in reading what you have to say to one person than in what you have to say to everyone. We like to be spoken to directly, and we like secrets. Do a Google search for “open letter” and be amazed.
Write for the smartest, busiest version of your ideal customer.
Challenge yourself to write powerfully and succinctly. Write up, not down. If you write for the smartest reader you can imagine, you’ll never have to feel embarrassed about your work.
Start with Why.
Remember, the default, equilibrium setting for everybody is inaction. If you don’t grab somebody’s attention by appealing to something that matters to them, they won’t read it.
Dig into the gory details.
Having a specific person in mind when you write allows you to dig deeper into the flesh and guts of whatever you’re writing about, which always makes things more interesting.
Get to know your readers in person.
Buy them a beer and pick their brains. Find out what makes them tick, and what they want. You’ll save yourself a lot of trial-and-error.
Further reading: Here’s a great example of a quality persona by Ian Lurie from Portent. I’ve also enjoyed the following blogposts he’s written about the subject:
- Get In Your Customers’ Heads: Creating Great Personas
- The 4 Rules Of Creating Great Personas: Part 2
Mistake #2: Not specifying the problem. (If it ain’t sound broke, they ain’t gonna be fixin’ nothin’.)
Quite a lot of good stuff has been written about this, so I can just link you to it:
- UserOnboard.com has a short, simple post that captures this in less than 150 words, titled Features vs. Benefits.
- Belle Beth Cooper wrote a post about this too, with People Don’t Buy Products, They Buy Better Versions Of Themselves.
- Gregory Ciotti wrote about this compellingly with “Your World Before Our Software…”.
The central idea is conceptually simple: Humans are wired to think in narratives, using change and contrast to help us make sense of things.
So why don’t we, as writers, focus on the transformations that our content will give our readers?
We just haven’t had enough practice in modelling the minds of others so extensively.
Psychologist Matthew Lieberman points out that it’s pretty amazing that we can figure out what other people think at all, but this is a superpower we’re only recently beginning to refine and develop.
The ‘Curse Of Knowledge’ outright obstructs us from seeing things from a laypersons point-of-view.
Dan and Chip Heath described this in their book Made To Stick (here’s a great summary): Experts in a given domain have figured out for themselves why something is meaningful, and they can then think more effectively in abstractions and jargon. But this translates badly to passers-by to the domain, who don’t know why something is significant.
The disconnect is like a visual illusion: it doesn’t quite go away even when we realise and acknowledge that it exists.
The good news is, once you learn to think in a customer-centric, reader-centric, user-centric perspective, you’ll find that the responses, feedback and shares you get are vastly superior. You’ll get hooked on the feedback, and crave more of it.
Mistake #3: Repeating what others have written. (“Why should I read your stuff when someone’s already said it better?”)
I find that Clayton Christensen’s ‘Jobs-To-Be-Done’ idea is a particularly useful insight for thinking about content. People ‘hire’ a piece of content to ‘do a job’ for them.
Turns out that Gregory Ciotti (again) has already written a good post about creating content from a JTBD perspective. I agree with his assessment 100%.
Now there’s no point in me writing it. I can just refer you to Greg’s post.
This can seem depressing initially, if I fixate on wanting to have written it first. But it’s really quite liberating. It means that I’m now freed to think about what the next steps might be.
You create new value by beginning where the best writing has left off.
Brian Dean from Backlinko alluded to this when he described the Skyscraper technique.
Skip the stuff other people have already done.
Duplicate content is the bane of the Internet, and more crucially, it’s boring. Instead, change your lenses. If everybody is looking through telescopes, bust out the microscope. Look deeper. Look farther. Look broader. Make comparisons. Chase down the implications.
If you want to write something, and you discover that somebody else has already written it, just link to that and then build off of it.
Write what should come next. Write what should’ve come before. Ask questions that haven’t been asked yet, and then set out to find the answers to those questions.
“But everything’s already been written!” False.
I often catch myself thinking this too, and yet… every so often, somebody comes up with something that the rest of us recognize as fresh, high-quality content. How do they do it? What are they doing differently? Typically, they begin by examining some facet of the idea-scape to a greater nuance.
There’s no need to reinvent the wheel– and more importantly, you have neither the time nor the resources. Pick something specific and really dig into it.
Here’s a fun story about how this worked for us:
- We found a great series of interviews that Brian Honigman had done with successful entrepreneurs.
- We figured that it would be compelling to fit those interview passages into a single, coherent narrative, and so we did.
- That Slideshare subsequently got featured on Business Insider, making it a win-win-win for everybody involved (the interviewees, Brian, ourselves, readers.)
4: Misallocating limited resources. (BE VERY PROTECTIVE OF YOUR TIME. Seriously.)
The most counter-intuitive realization I’ve had about content marketing is that well-meant ‘research’ can ruin you.
Here’s a painfully true story:
- I once wanted to write a blogpost that compared the marketing of Oreo and Nutella. I wanted to demonstrate how they were similar, how they were different, and I wanted to use the juxtaposition to write an insightful essay about the nature of marketing itself.
- I wasn’t very clear about who I was writing the post for, or what the post was supposed to solve. My metric for “the post is done”, implicitly, was “when it satisfies me”. You can imagine how that played out.
- The solution, I thought, was for me to get more context. So I started doing more research. I spent 3 full weeks agonizing over the post. I would read more and more about the chemical compounds of chocolate, the way chocolate is grown, the psychological effects of eating chocolate, the history of NaBisCo (which owns Oreo), the guy who invented the Oreo creme filling, the history of the family business that owns Nutella. I probably know more about Oreo and Nutella (and Mars and Hershey… all very interesting stories) than 99% of people.
None of that stuff helped me.
The post was bloated and incoherent. It was a tremendous waste of time and energy, and it was deeply demoralizing.
The scary thing about doing ‘research’ is that it always feels like you’re making progress.
You’re putting in the hours, doing the reading, collecting the data. You’re getting more information about the space that you’re in. But that’s not actually helping you get to where you want to go. And the clock is ticking.
- You want to get to the peak of user satisfaction as fast as possible. That means you need to get insight, pronto.
- You want to identify the problem that needs solving, then allow that to inform the research you need to do.
Once you get that, you get useful feedback. You get shares, you get requests. You get more energy, you get more resources. And then you can afford do the more ambitious things that you were originally hoping to do.
- Write for a very specific person. I’m more interested in what Alice has written for Bob than what she’s written for everybody.
- Solve a very specific problem. If it doesn’t sound like a problem, then it’s not a problem and I don’t have to do anything about it.
- Begin where others have left off. If it already exists in a different form elsewhere, why should I care? Show me something different.
- Judiciously limit your research time. You have limited time. Spend less time collecting additional data (you still need some!) and more time focusing on the story you want to tell. Who is it for, and how is it going to move them? Start there.
- SlideShare – Why Content Marketing Fails, by Rand Fishkin
- Portent – Get In Your Customers’ Heads: Creating Great Personas
- UXMovement – The Importance of Tying Personas to Wireframes
- backlinko.com – Link Building Case Study: How I Increased My Search Traffic by 110% in 14 Days
- uxaustralia.com.au – Can you wireframe ‘delightful’?
- marketingland.com –7 Content Marketing Tips For When You Lack Time & Resources