Before content marketing was my thing, I was a graphic designer. I loved (and still love) how colour, images and typography can transcend barriers and make you think differently. In the same way I gravitated towards design, I also fell in love with words. And more specifically of late, content marketing.
Words – a powerful drug
I’m a little bit addicted to words and their ability to communicate and shift boundaries. It’s the nuances in a sentence or a phrase that can turn a piece of content around and make or break it. A few positive words combined in the right way can lift your soul and make your heart soar. But equally, the same number of negative words have the power to wreak havoc and cause chaos. As Rudyard Kipling wrote, “Words are, of course, the most powerful drug used by mankind.”
Why it’s important to sweat the small stuff
What makes a piece of content or design work is the attention to those little things. And as the saying goes, “the devil is in the details”. For example, if someone wasn’t a designer they wouldn’t be able to tell the difference between an awful font or off kerning. But to the trained eye, you know almost instantly when there’s a widow or an orphan – or if something isn’t quite lined up.
As a self-confessed content geek, I know that close attention to detail can make content go from good to great. Think that hyphen doesn’t make a difference? It does. Skeptical that tone of voice could change an alienated reader to one that feels included and empowered? Think again.
Good content is content people want to read
So even if you know how to write in a compelling way for your reader, how do you create something that’s genuinely worthwhile? The beauty of working in the field of content marketing is that it’s not really pure marketing at all. Well, it’s not pushy marketing anyway. It’s all about creating and publishing content that adds value. It’s giving users access to content that’s been written to help solve their task or immediate problem.
Avoid going straight in for the pitch
One of the biggest mistakes any content marketer can make, is to assume the reader knows about your product and wants to buy. If you’ve ever read content that reeks of a “hard sell”, then you’ll know how off putting it can be. When content is written in a way that assumes the audience is ready to buy, it’s like someone asking to marry you after the first date! Finding the sweet spot with your content isn’t a quick process – but with the right mindset, you’ll get results. Be prepared to tweak, iterate and test your content. And of course make sure it’s relevant. If you earn your way in to the hearts and minds of your readers, you’re onto a winner.
Alter your content depending on the stage your reader is at
Different types of content warrant different approaches. For the content strategy mission statement I focus on, the aim is always to “earn our way in” to the hearts and minds of readers.
With the type of content I create, most of the traffic is organic (or comes from search engines). So it’s important to understand that they have stumbled across the content from a link in Google or Yahoo. And that they don’t know or care about your product or company at this stage.
It’s a mistake to assume that a first-time reader will a) know who you are and what you do, and b) think your company or product is the bees knees.
Why earning your way in is smarter than pitching
Engaging, educational and conversational content always wins. By using the the right combination of words, tone and language you can reach customers and prospects. And it’s possible to do this without going for the obvious “pitch” as soon as you have their attention.
People appreciate entertaining content that doesn’t blast messaging. Think of the last time you had a TV ad in your ears – did you mute it? If you did, the same theory applies to content.
Make your content easy to read
No one has time to wade through marketing fluff. So don’t let your dear reader down and make them have to read and reread your content. Respect their time and make sure every word you write works really hard to be there.
For example, I could write this piece of content:
“Business owners can drive real time-based productivity from cloud-based software when they effectively utilise the benefits given to them by new online applications.”
or I could rewrite it like this:
“If you’re a business owner you could save yourself time by moving to online software.”
What’s better? I know what I’d prefer to read. And writing in plain English speaks volumes about the amount of respect you have for the time of your audience.
Put yourself in your reader’s shoes and write about what they want
Let’s think about the example of business owners as your readers. And let’s say you’re in the business of selling invoicing software to that audience. When I think about most business owners, I’m pretty sure they don’t leap out of bed thinking “I want to buy invoicing software!”. No, they are far too busy paying the bills, keeping an eye on cashflow, finding new customers and keeping their head above water. When you get down to the nitty gritty of it, they are seeking content that makes their day-to-day tasks easier.
Your readers are not longing to linger on your campaign if it doesn’t add value. The harsh truth is, they may only give it seconds before skipping on to something more urgent or worthy of their time.
When I create content, I always try to answer the real need at hand. What does this person want? What’s relevant? What is fluff and just unnecessary jargon? Business owners don’t care about your product – yet. What they do care about is their immediate need. This could be tracking cashflow, or adjusting invoice payment terms or figuring out how much to pay themselves. Your reader has 99 problems and it’s your job to try and answer one!
Get some insight by doing keyword research
So now you might be wondering how the heck you figure out what your readers need. No you don’t need a crystal ball, but a great place to start is keyword research. Start looking at Google Keyword Planner for the terms that people would type into search engines. It’s there that you’ll find those magic questions.
For example, some phrases get a huge search volume, which can indicate how popular the topic is. You can also refine your search in Keyword Planner to specific regions, countries and even cities. For example, you could target the term ‘invoicing software’ to the city of San Francisco. These results can give you great insight into the terms people enter into search engines all over the world, unleashing the power of content marketing. And the numbers don’t lie! So why not answer people’s questions? Give them what they want. Content that people want to read is content that the reader has actively searched for.
Staying the course pays off
If you differentiate your content from the tsunami of product pitches out there, your content will stand out from the crowd. Have faith in the long game and dedicate time and energy into building up a pool of great online resources. I have no doubt that your readers will really appreciate and love you all the more for it.
Keep in mind the best content doesn’t just create fans out of your readers, but something even more powerful – it creates advocates. They will want to tweet about it, share it on Facebook and tell their friends. And that’s the type of content that gives you long-term, tangible business benefits. You’ll increase brand awareness, generate a positive reputation, build trust with customers – and of course boost your sales leads.
Finally, here’s a quick guide of my best practices in content marketing.
1) Make sure it’s something people want
Say something useful! Do your research and make your content the solution to their problem.
2) Make it personal
Keep your readers interested by including the word “you”. Doing this has been known to make content more memorable to readers.
3) Create “evergreen” content
This means it has less chance of being outdated quickly. With evergreen content you won’t get immediate results but you will gain trust, respect and authority in the long game. Be patient and stay the course because great content doesn’t date – it’s timeless.
4) Be conversational and friendly
Write the way you would speak to a friend and avoid using words that are stiff and formal. Making things sound more complicated than they are will only alienate your readers.
5) Make sure your content is easy to read
Never underestimate the power of plain English! If your content doesn’t score 60 or above in a Flesch reading ease test, then tweak it until it does.
6) Get to the point quickly
No one wants to wade through wordy content trying to decipher what the main message is. Content that’s just fluff wastes your readers’ precious time, so make every word count.
7) Tell a story
Be real and produce something that’s authentic. Readers want valuable, educational and engaging information – not advertising pitches.
Amy Stephens is content marketing manager at Xero. She is editor-in-chief for the Small Business Guides and Accountant and Bookkeeper Guides. She has a background in graphic design, comms and interaction design – and loves photography, illustrating and doing crafty stuff. Her Twitter account is focused on content strategy geek speak and all things business related.