You can improve your content marketing without investing in best practices
Content marketing best practices are great. They represent the culmination of hours of research and hands-on practice from the industry’s best thought leaders. They’re inspiration for content marketers who are reaching for the golden ring.
But they’re not always practical, especially for those of us who haven’t even made it to the carousel yet: SMBs, solopreneurs, middle-market businesses, etc. We need practical content marketing advice that gets us to the next level, things that a former boss of mine would have called “a blinding glimpse of the obvious.” The problem is that they’re not blindingly obvious when you’re wandering around in the dark…only after the lightbulb goes off.
So here are some things I’ve learned via those “lightbulb” moments. I hope they help you improve your content marketing, too.
Add the golden section to your content briefs
“What do you want the audience to think, feel, or do after they read this?”
I’ve worked with dozens upon dozens of content briefs over the years. Some have been useless; some have been pretty good. But not a single one has included that question. Sure, some of them have a section that addresses the content’s purpose, but that’s pretty general. My question — what do you want people to think, feel, or do after they read this? — digs deeper.
Let’s say I get a call from some folks who run a dog rescue organization — one of those national organizations that has a “pony express” network of volunteers willing to take rescued dogs to new homes in another part of the country. They want me to write a blog post about keeping your dogs safe and comfortable during the hot summer months.
The obvious purpose — and it may even be in the content brief — is to protect dogs from harm. But after doing a little digging I discover that they’re about to launch a major fundraising campaign and hope that the article will attract the attention of animal lovers — people who aren’t activists but who may become donors.
What’s the difference? For the first article — the one intended to educate the general public on how to protect their dogs from common summer hazards — I’d write a straightforward, thorough article with links to statistics and recommendations from veterinarians. For the otherr article — the one with fundraising as a secondary goal — I’d include the same basic information. But instead of statistics and quotes from vets, I’d use personal anecdotes about “what could have happened” situations. And for each section, I’d include a photo of a cute puppy. (Because one of America’s favorite pastimes is sharing pictures and stories about cute puppies.) I’d focus more on traffic generation than education, on the assumption that a lot of the people who came to the site because of the cute puppy post would be likely to click a strategically placed “Donate Now” button — even if they’ve never been directly involved in dog welfare advocacy.
Same topic, same stated purpose. But digging into the question of “What do you want people to do, think, or feel” results in a much different article.
So add that question — that specific question — to your content brief template. It can spell the difference between creating content that matters and content that just takes up space.
Make sure you’re talking to the right people
One of the most common mistakes I see among small business is that, instead of writing for people who might buy what they do, they write for people who do what they do. When I first started this blog, I produced content for writers. It made sense at the time — you’re supposed to blog about what you know — but eventually I realized that other writers were very unlikely to hire me. I was inadvertently aiding and abetting the competition by helping them improve their game.That’s when I pivoted and began writing for people who need help with content marketing.
I also see this a lot with startups. They’ll blog about the challenges of being a startup, not realizing that the only people who will care are other startups. They forget to think about what their potential customers might want to read.
So one of the most important things you can do is to make sure you’re producing content for people who buy what you do rather than for people who do what you do.
Hire (whether internal or outsourced) at least one really good devil’s advocate
A whole team of writers who are constantly challenging the status quo and hammering you with questions could seriously gum up the works. But you need at least one to keep you from doing things that don’t make sense.
I’m a world-class devil’s advocate, and it hasn’t always garnered me a lot of good will among stressed-out people who just want to get the job done. But it has helped me prevent clients from making embarrassing mistakes. One client in the construction industry, for example, wanted me to write a post on how to prepare for an OSHA inspection. But OSHA conducts surprise inspections; they don’t schedule them. And there can be big consequences for giving somebody a whispered heads-up.
A lot of writers would have just written the article, either because they assumed the client knew what they were doing or because they didn’t want to rock the boat. But writing the article the client requested could have resulted in a pretty embarrassing situation. And it would have put a big dent in the thought-leadership they were trying to build.
That’s why you need at least one devil’s advocate to throw out the red flags when needed.
Make sure people can find your blog
I used to write for a major retailer who was frustrated with the lack of traffic to their blog. I still suspect that the main reason was that they hid their blog deep in the footer. You’d only find it if you were looking for it, but that was unlikely, because nobody knew it existed.
Don’t hide your blog. Put it in your main navigation bar.
Beware the curse of knowledge
This is another common mistake I see. People who have been experts so long that they’ve forgotten that they weren’t always experts tend to write over their customers’ heads. I experienced this myself recently when I was migrating my website to a new host. The person doing the migration for me was very nice and answered all of the questions…but even the answers were over my head, because he assumed I had more tech knowledge than I do.
The bottom line: Determine the knowledge level of the people you’re creating content for, and meet them where they are.
Verify your assumptions about your customers
Everybody knows that you’re supposed to write content that speaks to your audience, solves their pain points, etc. But do you really know those things, or do you just think you do?
I’m not suggesting you invest in expensive customer research. For small businesses, it’s a lot easier than that, because you — or at least someone who sits close to you — probably has daily contact with customers. What questions do customers ask?
- When customers call for support, what challenges are they having? If everybody is asking the same question, answer it in a blog post, an FAQ, a knowledge base article, etc.
- How are customers using your product or service? If they’re using it in a way you didn’t anticipate, write a blog post about it. Send a little love the customer’s way, and help show other customers what’s possible.
- When prospective customers choose not to go with your product or service, why? What need did it not meet, and what led them to think it would? Is that something you could correct through content, so that you don’t lose other customers?
- Are the people who buy your product the same people who use it? 50% of all products marketed to men, for example, are purchased by women. And women make 85% of consumer purchasing decisions overall. That’s an important thing to know when you’re targeting your content — a blog post about how your men’s body wash attracts women might not be such a good idea when a woman is doing the purchasing.
If you’ve been creating content based on faulty assumptions about your customers and their needs, this one tweak could make a big impact.
Stop doing things that don’t make sense (for you)
Back to the best practices thing again…I have a Twitter stream set up for content marketing, and almost every single Tweet is touting some sort of advice. A lot of it is really, really good. But a lot of it is expensive and time-consuming. That doesn’t mean it isn’t worth trying, but don’t just keep doing it if there’s no ROI. Especially if doing it means paying the person who recommended it.
I’m not a hypocrite — of course I hope that my advice leads new clients to my doorstep. In fact, almost everyone who publishes content is doing it, on some level, to generate business. And there’s nothing wrong with that. But if the only reason you keep doing something that’s not working for you is because such-and-such expert said you should, it’s worth asking whether they have a vested interest that may be influencing their advice.
Spending hours on things like keyword research can absolutely work — if you have the resources to do it at scale. But if you’ve got a small businesses, it’s not helping you accomplish your goals, and it’s costing too much money or too much time away from your core businesses — just stop.
The ability to write engaging content that keeps readers coming back for more is a huge advantage. But people who are already interested in what you do, or who rely on you for accurate answers, will put up with a bit of dull writing. Mistakes are a whole ‘nother thing (that’s a Southernism, not a typo!). Typos and grammar mistakes indicate sloppiness and lack of attention to detail. If you’re sloppy in your content, it’s not much of a leap to assume that you’ll be sloppy when it comes to your products or services.
I don’t think twice about dropping a contender from my short list if their web copy is full of mistakes. I don’t share mistake-ridden content on social media, either, even if the information is good. As a writer, I may be a bit biased. But trust me on this much: More people notice and care than you might think.
Make sure you’ve got the basics covered
There are some “best practices” that are really content marketing essentials — you won’t succeed if you ignore them. Those include things like:
- Page speed (Google factors page speed into its ranking)
- Mobile readiness (Google is pushing a “mobile first” initiative, so how well your site performs on mobile has a huge impact on your ranking)
- Basic SEO (the simple stuff like optimizing your metadata, making sure your images have appropriate alt-text, etc.)
Nothing else you do really matters until you’ve got these basics covered.
This post is kind of long because I wanted to make sure I gave you all the information you needed for implementing these content marketing strategy steps. But if you go back and glance through it, most of my suggestions are quick-hits. They’re not hard to do and could have a huge impact. So please give them a try, and let me know how it works out. In the mean time, I’m always available to help, whether you need a one-time coaching session or ongoing help with your content marketing.
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