The most popular content on the internet typically has no commercial slant.
And that presents a Catch-22 for SEOs or inbound marketers.
Somehow, someway, a company needs to connect their content back to the underlying purpose and philosophy that guides their business. Otherwise, content marketing doesn’t make sense. And it won’t return on the investment.
So therein lies the dilemma. And it’s why most business content fails miserably.
You need to create content that’s unique-enough to create thought-leadership and compel organic sharing, but also make it relevant-enough to improve key marketing and business metrics.
We’re going to look at a five-step approach to developing a content marketing strategy, and use one of our clients, Picmonic, as an example.
Step #1: What are Your Customer’s Problems and Obstacles?
The best business content is focused on addressing your customer’s problems, while positioning (explicitly or implicitly) your company, product and service as the solution.
What’s in it for them? Why should people need your widget at all?
Picmonic’s primary product focuses on helping medical students study for the USMLE Step 1 test. So here are some common problems (that can also apply to other standardized tests like CPA, CFP, etc.):
- Quantity of rote memorization – “mountain of material”
- Need filter and prioritization from experts – need to improve application of select material — “no regurgitation”
- Evolving standards – “The MCAT exam will change in 2015 to keep pace with changes in medical education and health care.”
The best way to get this information is straight from the customers themselves. Start with short surveys that ask people what their main objectives are and what’s stopping or preventing them. Then follow up personally to dig deeper and find out their existing process for improvement, or other struggles they’re experiencing.
Another great tip I’ve learned from Joanna at Copyhackers is to go through Amazon reviews for related books, and pick up on the language that people are using and describing how it relates to them.
Step #2: What are Your Product Results and Benefits?
People don’t purchase features or deliverables — they’re purchasing an outcome or end result.
For example, when someone purchases consulting services, they’re buying a result (i.e. more leads and customers) — not your hourly wages. Or when someone purchases a SaaS product, they’re looking for it to serve a specific role or take care of a process that isn’t easily addressable. They don’t necessarily care about “how” you do it — they just want to know it will get done.
Start by thinking about what customers/clients will get after using your product or service. More often than not, there will be many answers to this question.
And while most companies are good at coming up with what people will gain (i.e. more money, better rankings, etc.), they usually stop short on loss avoidance triggers which are shown to be a more powerful motivator.
The key here is to be as specific as possible. Don’t stop at the general cliches like “waste time and money”, because that’s what everyone else says. And the more potential customer segments you have, the vastly different motivators you’ll need to uncover.
For example, Picmonic helps students improve retention and recall (which means less time studying and hopefully — less stress). But more importantly, they help students avoid disappointing important peers and other stakeholders, getting knocked out of the running to join competitive medical specialties and more. It does that in a few different ways, for example:
- Primary Benefit #1. Prioritizes specific, critical info. It was created by two medical students who knew exactly which concepts were important (and which you could ignore).
- Primary Benefit #2. Enjoyable, alternative style of learning. They use funny, nonsensical cartoons, audio and visuals to create a truly unique experience.
- Primary Benefit #3. More effective than other options. The product is founded on scientific research, so they have proprietary data that proves effectiveness (and countless real testimonials from satisfied customers).
Together, these benefits should position your product in a class of one, where (almost) no one else can make the same claims. The sum becomes greater than the parts.
Proper positioning also gives you pricing power. Not only are you more unique, but it’s also difficult to replicate your experience with any other product or service in the marketplace. That means customers can’t price shop and competitors can’t undercut or destroy your margins.
Step #3: Determine Your Messaging, Categories and Structure
MailChimp, arguably one of the best online brands with over 3 million customers on 290 countries, takes messaging so serious that they’ve created a microsite — Voice and Tone — to teach people about how to write for MailChimp. They make sure that everyone who touches a piece of content (whether that’s website, blog, email, or social) has the same understanding of the company’s vision, purpose and tone. For example, the image below is a screenshot I took when they linked to a BBC YouTube segment about alcoholic monkeys.
So now that you know exactly what your customers are struggling with, and how your product or service helps them overcome these challenges (more effectively than any other alternatives), the messaging and categories for your content becomes simple and straightforward.
For example, we came up with the following blog categories for Picmonic:
- Test specific information (including common problems and frequently asked questions)
- Life hacks (i.e. getting outsized results in studying, applying, productivity, etc.)
- School/student life (to reach customers earlier in the lifecycle)
- Proprietary data and research (that no competitor can claim or reproduce)
- Business origin and product vision (so we can start with why)
- Misc. product updates and events (to keep people up-to-date on improvements).
All of these categories relate to how your product specifically improves customer’s lives. And it establishes thought leadership while improving your brand positioning without directly referring to your product.
This content also needs format and structure criteria to keep a consistent voice and tone. For example:
- Prioritize “evergreen”, timeless, in-depth content
- To establish thought leadership, be more like the Economist, and less like the Huffington Post
- Avoid basic news stories, but highlight bigger trends and developments (i.e. how-to’s, interviews, personal stories or journeys, storytelling, case studies, etc.)
- Create articles with specific goals in mind (i.e. increasing awareness, using a Call-To-Action, improving social engagement)
Finally, social media publishing should be an extension of your overall content marketing strategy, so messaging needs to be consistent and thought-out in advance. For example, your Facebook publishing strategy commonly has three main points:
- Live, manual posts at predetermined intervals with images, titles, descriptions and links
- Promote blog content to drive traffic, sign-ups and repeat sign-ins
- Funny images/memes or topical content to increase user engagement
- Live engagement and interactions
- Monitor and respond to page posts and comments
- Use personal questions to elicit responses
- Monthly or quarterly promotion
- Partnerships or giveaways to increase awareness
- Interactive contests to increase engagement
Step #4: Manage the Creation Process
Executing a content marketing plan only works if everyone involved is up-to-date and consistent. So you can easily manage the entire creation process — from idea to distribution — by setting up systems or workflows.
Specifically, you need a fluid, flexible way to keep track of new topic ideas, responsibility and projected dates. Using a simple spreadsheet or Google Docs is fine to start off, and gives you basic collaboration features.
However depending on how many people are involved (and if they’re working virtually), using something more flexible like Trello or Basecamp is probably a better long-term bet.
Trello introduced a new Calendar feature that allows you view deliverables on a card, but also drill down into process with a Kanban-like workflow.
Calendar at a Glance
Drill Down with Kanban
Step #5: Create a Uniform Content Template
Last but not least, it’s time to start creating individual content. Here are some of the essential ingredients to each piece of content:
- Headline: Play on psychology to capture attention by using a “Headline Hack” (i.e. threat, zen, piggyback, how-to, mistake, or list)
- Hook/Lead: Build interest and anticipation through using an anecdote, intrigue and “pattern interruption“, a surprising fact or humor.
- Problem / Context: Explain common problem to create resonance and address underlying or unexpected issues involved
- Solution: Provide solution to root cause and relieve tension
- Conclusion / Wrap-Up: Highlight key takeaway, summarize main points, provide actionable tip, or use a call-to-action
Keep in mind that when you’re writing for the web, you’re dealing with distracted people who are probably multitasking. So web writing should be short, snappy and concise. Keep paragraphs shorter than 5 sentences, and don’t be afraid to write informally with simple words.
Let’s continue using the example of written content, like a blog post, to dive into specifics.
Article Example: Deconstructing the Finished Product
We’re going to look at a Picmonic article, Why Med Students “Fail” USMLE Step 1 (And How to Make Sure You Don’t), to see how the finished product might look. (If you’re familiar with sales or copywriting, then you’ll also notice that this follows the Problem-Agitate-Solution formula.)
Headline: The headline here hints at loss avoidance, and builds intrigue by making a bold statement and the solution.
Lead/Hook: The lead uses pattern interrupt to point out the “hidden” dangers of merely doing “good enough”.
Problem / Context: Before diving into the solution, we need to build up the problem and significance from the reader’s point of view.
Example & Evidence: The example builds up evidence and credibility for the point we’re trying to make. In this case, it also creates an “open loop” to keep people engaged and wanting to find a solution.
Solution: Now that people have read this far, you can provide the solution and talk about they key points or “takeaways” that will make reading this article worthwhile.
Conclusion: Last but not least, connect the solution and new paradigm back to your product. The best way is to connect the highlighted key points back to specific outcomes and end results your product produces.
Most business content is lackluster and uninspiring. It’s dry and technical. Or it hits them over the head with sales pitches.
But it doesn’t have to be.
The key to great content — no matter the purpose — is always storytelling. And the Achilles’s Heel of storytelling is always the hook that gets people interested and keeps them along for the ride.
The good news is that you don’t always have to come up with these from scratch. The main plot for the hit ABC TV show Revenge is loosely based on The Count of Montecristo which was originally published in 1884.
Movies, TV shows and novels contain some of the best ideas. But at the end of the day, it always comes back to a few primal ingredients like protecting yourself from a threat, avoiding dumb mistakes, and making your life simpler or stress-free.
If you can tap into these motivations, and figure out how your product or service delivers the solution, then content marketing becomes easy. And profitable.