The Beginner's Guide To Content Marketing
We’ve all heard that this “content marketing” thing can do big things for our businesses. It can drive new users, lower marketing costs, and keep current users interested. All of this sounds great, but what does it actually mean? How can I use content marketing for my business? In 2008, Marcus Sheridan ran a pool company, River Pools, and he felt the recession heavily. To shore up his falling numbers, Marcus turned to content marketing. Writing prolifically, he answered hundreds of common questions that potential pool owners would ask, and he posted those answers on his website. Today? His pool business is booming, and Marcus focuses on his marketing consulting. If content marketing can work for a pool company - a completely offline business - imagine the possibility for yours. At the same time, content marketing isn’t the “magic growth hack”. (Those don’t exist.) If you want to create a truly epic content marketing piece, you must be prepared to invest 20+ hours of your blood, sweat, and tears. If you’ll invest the time, I’ll show you how to maximize your value.
1. Choose A Topic
Every content marketer has two choices: write dozens of blog posts and wait to see which randomly do well, or carefully choose a topic that has a high potential for a large audience. When I first started blogging, I didn’t use an editorial calendar, and I choose topics based on what I felt like writing about. My blog was like roulette for startups. It occasionally spit out new users, but often gave me nothing for my painstakingly written articles. Once I noticed that a few of my articles were attracting the vast majority of my visits, I realized that putting more time into the planning phase could improve my batting average.
Measure Something More Than Pageviews
“If you don’t know where you are going, any road will get you there.” - Lewis Carroll
Before you even start thinking about choosing a topic, first determine what you want this article to do for you. Are you driving pageviews? Getting email signups? Landing a job? Knowing this single important metric will dramatically influence the topic and format of your post. Traditionally, marketers use pageviews to measure the success of a particular article. As is often the case, however, this easily measured metric only uncovers part of the picture. If you are running a startup, neither your bankers nor your investors will actually care that you got 70,000 views on your blog post. Ultimately, they want to see new paying users. Never use content marketing for “brand visibility”. What specific number are you measuring?
Use Google’s Keyword Planner To Find Your Topic
Writers need readers. During the American War for Independence, Thomas Paine wrote a pamphlet titled “Common Sense” which inspired people across the colonies to rise and join Washington’s newly formed army. The pamphlet itself was well-written with stirring language and logical pleas, but none of that had any effect until people started reading. Knowing that distribution of his pamphlet would make or break the document’s success, Paine actually repudiated his copyright and encouraged printers everywhere to dash off their own copies (one of the first pioneers of what became today’s Creative Commons license). Like Paine, we have to do more than write amazing content - we also have to make sure that potential readers know about it. Before you write your article, use Google’s Keyword Planner to find the best sub-topics for which people are searching. As shown in the screenshot, Google actually even shows you how many people are searching for each term.
Treat Your Article Like a Startup: Solve a Problem
In the startup world, people often talk about whether a new product is a “vitamin” or a “painkiller”. Vitamins keep us healthy - they make a good thing better. Painkillers on the other hand take away our pain - they make us better (or at least hide the pain). With few exceptions, successful startups must sell painkillers. Out of all the hundreds of articles I read last week, one stands out: Charlie Hoehn’s “Preventing Burnout: A Cautionary Tale”. I’ve read plenty of articles that will help me improve my growth hacking skills, leverage Adwords more effectively, or read more important books, but Charlie’s article holds my attention because it solves a problem in my life: As someone who enjoys their work, I can spend too much time getting stuff done and attach too much importance to the success or failure of my projects. Reading Charlie’s article left me with two takeaways: (1) Addiction to work is dangerous and cannot be sustained, but (2) by stepping back and taking a more balanced approach I can continue achieving without becoming burned out. While many amazing articles can help me become a better growth hacker and a better man (vitamins), Charlie Hoehn’s helped solve a problem I saw in my life (painkiller). Winning in content marketing relies on providing consistent, high-quality content that solves people’s problems.
2. Plan Your Article
Through many years of writing in high school and college, I learned two things: 1. Writing is pain. Experience can shorten the time required, but it is always a new challenge. 2. Intensive planning can make the writing easier and the final product better. Before I write anything, I devote about one-third of my allotted time to brainstorming topics, creating outlines, and finding sources. Then, when I actually start writing I simply have to add words. I still remember the way Mrs. Barrett, my high school teacher, explained outlining: During the planning phase of an article or essay, the writer creates the skeleton structure. After all the bones are connected, the author writes the “flesh” to create the full person. An article written without an outline is like a blob of flesh without a skeleton - hard to understand and a little creepy. Do yourself a favor and start using outlines.
Use Stories To Show Me What To Do
Using stories to illustrate your points will not only make your writing more engaging and exciting, but it will also help your readers retain what they learn. If you’ve never read Jonah Berger’s book Contagious, you should. In discussing how virality works, Jonah shares story after story of how DARE’s anti-drug campaigns actually increased drug use and how one potential guerrilla marketing attempt at the 2004 Olympics majorly backfired. By going beyond the how and what of his topic, Jonah made his points significantly more memorable and interesting. At the same time, finding stories to use in your writing will probably be one of the most challenging steps. You can look for stories by searching the internet, but I’ve found that to be quite time-consuming. A better strategy perhaps would be to keep a commonplace book that documents all the interesting stories you’ve read about.
Back Everything Up With Facts
Peep Laja runs one of the most successful conversion rate optimization blogs on the internet. Many factors influence his popularity, but I think his intense focus on sharing useful numbers and case studies has been pivotal to his success. As Peep recently explained, every number on his blog is backed by strong evidence. Rather than simply sharing general theories, Peep puts in the work to find actual facts. Whether you are sharing statistics or even just stories, put in the extra time to document everything.
Choose The Best Format For Your Article
The internet isn’t your high school writing class. Instead of following the proper format for an essay, you get to choose from a wide variety of formats to best fit your personal style and target audience. You can use anything from an infographic to a basic list to a longer list/essay to a how-to guide. Just find a format in which you can enjoy writing and from which your readers can easily absorb the learnings you share.
3. Write Stellar Content
Once you have your outline in place, you are ready to start writing the actual article. Grab your laptop and a couple cups of coffee, find a quiet place, and start writing. The biggest challenge you will likely face in this step of content marketing is your own perfectionism. To write well, give yourself the freedom to make mistakes on your first draft, knowing that you will systematically improve the article before publishing.
Quickly Spit Out A First Draft
Contrary to popular opinion, the first draft is more about quantity than quality. By allowing yourself to just get everything out on paper right now, you will certainly lower the quality of the first draft, but you will also remember to include points that might otherwise be missed. If you’re like most people (all people?), writing the first draft will probably be the most painful part of the writing process. Sure, the outline helps, but writing the first draft still involves a lot of free-form thinking. To overcome this challenge, follow Tim Ferriss’ practice of setting yourself a bare minimum. Rather than setting an unrealistic goal, Tim gave himself the goal of writing at least two pages per day. Once in the flow of writing, he would often do more, but setting this low bar made starting feel much less frustrating.
After finishing your first draft, give yourself a day or two to clear your mind (perhaps start planning your next killer article?). Once your mind has had a chance to reset, come back to your first draft and ruthlessly edit. These are some key points that I often watch for:
- Replace passive voice with active voice
- Find synonyms for overused words
- Make your writing concise (pretend you’re writing on Twitter)
- Look for the obvious (spelling + grammar)
With so many different goals, though, editing can quickly become confusing and overwhelming. To simplify, I focus on two primary goals: reducing total words by about 30% (this forces conciseness) and reading the entire thing out loud at least once (this uncovers lots of hidden problems). This editing will set you apart from the vast majority of the internet and make your article more interesting and understandable.
Get Feedback From Friends
In the world of publishing, the editing process gets much more time than the actual writing process. Once the first draft is finished, the publishing company assigns a primary editor who carefully prepares feedback for everything from general themes to individual punctuation. As content marketers, we rarely get the privilege of a professional editor, but we do have an alternative. Much like user research for UX designs, feedback from friends will help you identify potential problems within your article. If you have the time, try to make time for a couple rounds of feedback. After you fix the issues noticed the first time, the next readers will probably notice something else.
4. Format Beautifully
Once you have created your “product”, you need to design the “packaging”. Much like Apple uses clean, sleek packaging to showcase their powerful devices, you need to optimize your pictures, headlines, and other elements to make your amazing writing easily accessible. According to a Nielson study, at least 79% of users will scan your page before they even consider reading. Will they be overwhelmed by a wave of text, or will certain key points stand out?
Add Pictures. Lots of Them.
When people are scanning your content, they want to see pictures. Pictures make your content come alive and stay alive in the reader’s mind. If you follow many blogs, you know that the internet is plagued by a major problem that I call “token picture fallacy“: Everyone knows that pictures are important; therefore, everyone adds one token picture at the beginning of each article. Try to add one picture per 200 words or even one picture per 43 words (full Buzzfeed mode).
Craft a Killer Headline (Use The Upworthy Hack)
How often have you slaved for hours over an article only to quickly slap on a headline and hit “publish”? No matter how amazing your content, most readers will never see it if they don’t click your headline. During 2013, Upworthy launched thousands of viral videos and landed more visitors than Huffington Post, Buzzfeed, and Business Insider combined. This wasn’t random chance. Among other elements, Upworthy’s repeatedly outstanding headlines helped catapult their content into Facebook feeds across the world. The secret to their headlines? Brainstorming at least 25 potential headlines per article. Since I’ve started using this technique myself, I’ve been consistently surprised how often my favorite headline is number 20 or even 24. If you really want to optimize for success, try brainstorming 50 headlines. By generating dozens of headlines, you essentially can force your brain into creativity.
Fun fact: “The Beginner’s Guide To Content Marketing” was the 48th headline I brainstormed. Earlier ideas included “The dolphin guide to content marketing” and “How to write like David Oglivy”.
Italicize and Bold Key Sections
When people are scanning your content, you need to prove that the article is worth actually reading. To do this, you can rely on the random chance that a reader might see something interesting, or you can use bold and italics to direct their attention. One of my friends, a skilled photographer, recently explained the importance of depth in photos. When every element is presented at the same level, the viewer is overwhelmed by being pulled in too many different directions, so professional photographers use depth of field to highlight the important elements. Use fonts, size, and emphasis to add depth of field to your writing. Bonus Points: If you want to take it to the next level, you can use something like Twilighter to make it easy for your readers to tweet key quotes in your article.
Technically Optimize For Search Engines
The best content marketing articles continue driving leads and signups for years after initial publication. How? By getting visitors from Google. In concept, ranking in Google will do amazing things for your content’s evergreen popularity, but actually getting in Google’s favor can be quite difficult. People spend entire careers testing and experimenting to find the best SEO (Search Engine Optimization) techniques, but the basics are actually fairly simple. When you first publish your article, make sure that Google knows what you’re writing about. Use they keyword you’re targeting in your post title, make sure your website is blazing fast, use alt tags on your images, and add a meta description. Just remember, checking your technical SEO boxes helps, but none of that will work if your content isn’t stunning. Focus on solving your readers problems.
5. Promote Your Content!
Take a deep breath, double-check everything, and hit “publish”. Congratulations! You’re halfway there. You’ve written a long, brilliant article and spent dozens of hours lovingly polishing, but none of that will matter until someone actually reads it.
“If a tree falls in a forest and no one is around to hear it, does it make a sound?”
Call your friends! Rally your coworkers! Recruit random strangers! Now is your chance to convince the world to read your article.
Email People You Mentioned
Remember that company you mentioned as a case study? That friend you referenced as an expert? They will probably be glad to read your article… and share it with their friends. Even more importantly than getting views for your article, reaching out to these thought leaders that you referenced will help build relationships. One of the first major breakthroughs of Ryan Holiday’s career actually came through reaching out to Tucker Max after writing about him in a school paper. That one simple email lead to further exchanges and eventually an internship that launched Ryan’s career. Oh, and it also drove lots of pageviews when Tucker Max featured the article on his site.
Ask Your Friends To Shamelessly Promote
People say that money makes the world go ‘round. They’re wrong. Reciprocity makes the world go ‘round. When Francine Lee wrote about her amazing Dropbox usability test, she reached out to her friends to share the article. Because of the quality of her article, this initial boost quickly launched the article into semi-virality - landing her thousands of views and even a few job offers. By now you’ve spent dozens of hours perfecting the textbook specimen of content marketing you now hold in your hands, so don’t feel shy about asking your friends to help. Be specific in your request and show your appreciation, most of your friends will be glad to do you a favor.
Share On Social Media (More Than Once)
Here’s how social media normally works: you share your new article and wait for it to go viral. Nothing happens, the post gets old, and you figure you’ll try again next time. Here’s how elite social media works: you share your article. Then you share it again with a slightly different angle. Then you do it again. Guy Kawasaki famously uses this technique of repeated tweeting to share his articles with followers in different time zones. Since only a small percent of your followers are online at any given time, repeatedly tweeting (or posting on Facebook) won’t actually annoy any people, but it will let you reach a lot of more people than you could with one lonely tweet.
6. Get Up and Repeat
“It’s hard to beat a person who never gives up.” - Babe Ruth
Want to know the secret to making all your content marketing pieces go viral? Sorry, there isn’t one. The “secret” to elite content marketing is realizing that part of success depends on chance. We just bend those odds in our favor by writing a steady stream of amazing content. As you become more experienced, your success rate will improve, but the key to content marketing success is always simple:
Elite content marketers have short memories. They don’t remember failure or rest on laurels.