I wrote this guide as an internal resource but hope that it helps other content marketing teams as well. It’s a sort of content marketing 101 primer. You’ll learn the key principles of content marketing strategy as well as sophisticated ways to research, refine, and improve your team’s content marketing output.
This document will help your team:
- Brainstorm campaign ideas that broadly resonate in your market
- Create customer-centric content that generates leads
- Use data to better focus on your customer’s needs
- Boost your traffic and conversions with advanced selling principles
I. Content marketing principles
Whether you’re writing a blog post or thinking of a new webinar campaign, we’ve found these six principles to be at the heart of successful content marketing.
1. Make the customer successful.
Writing feels abstract. But our customers come to our website with concrete problems. If they don’t grow their client’s Instagram followers, they could lose the business. If they don’t find a faster way to create reports, they need to work late fighting with a frustrating spreadsheet. Before we try to hit our goals, we need to help the customer solve their problems. Everybody agrees with this. But often content marketing attempts to solve the company’s problems (tell people about our product features so they fill out a lead form) before solving the query that brought the reader to the page.
2. Make it real.
To make the customer successful, you need to write about what they actually struggle with. The best way to do this is to root content in a real insight. Talk to the sales team. Talk to customers. Look for concrete problems that people are trying to solve. Managing the corporate complexity of global and local teams is not a concrete problem. Instead, “how do I get our local offices to actually read our brand policies?” is closer to what people are actually trying to do in their daily job.
3. Make it simple.
Your reader isn’t dumb. And you are not smarter than your reader. But they also don’t have time to wonder what you meant by “integrate your workflows to drive higher revenue.” Use concrete language. Write so simple that a fifth grader can understand it.
4. Make it sound human.
Short sentences and short paragraphs work best. Avoid big words. When you find a sentence longer than 15 words, consider chopping it into two. Strive to include a mix of long and short sentences. Avoid generic language. A writer’s job is to destroy cliches.
5. Make your advice immediately actionable.
As Rand Fishkin noted in his content marketing manifesto, the reader needs to be able to walk away from your content and immediately do something differently to grow their traffic, use a new social network, or impress their boss with advanced knowledge. A lot of content offers generic advice (such as “optimize your social media profiles”) instead of giving people advice they can go and try out right after reading. Ask yourself: after reading this content, what can the reader go and immediately apply to their job?
6. Make things you’re proud of.
Don’t settle. Create things you are proud of. Fight for good work. When you encounter an obstacle, build a better way.
Five questions to stay on track:
- Does this help the reader? Are you actually solving their problem (“this is how you increase your sales”) or masking product information as advice (“how to increase your sales = book a demo with our sales team”).
- Is this rooted in a specific, tangible, and real customer problem? Saving time on social media is not a problem. But spending four hours trying to create social media reports for your boss in Excel is.
- Is this fake content? You know the problem (customer wants more sales from Instagram) but does the advice actually show them how to solve this? To make the customer successful, your advice needs to provide concrete steps that helps them solve their challenges.
- Is it actionable? After reading this content, what can the reader go and immediately apply to their business?
- Are you proud of this? Is it simple? Does it sound like a human? Is it something you’d share with your friends?
II. The best types of content to create
From blog posts to webinar presentations, here are the five best types of content we’ve found to drive traffic and attract leads.
1. Do the work for them
Spend five hours reading about trends in the industry and then summarize your findings. This saves your reader time—they only have to spend 10 minutes to gain what took you five hours to find.
2. Write about your company’s values
“To ensure you don’t go down the rabbit hole of forgettable content, write about what you know and write with conviction . . . the best writing comes from your unwavering belief in how things should work,” says Intercom. Express simple messages such as “social media is changing businesses” with stories. Such as: “how a wine-lover built a global business with his Twitter handle.”
3. Learn something and then share the how-to
Figure out how to do something (like setting up conversion tracking in Facebook) and then explain how to do this with clear steps. Make it real. Ask someone to try to do the steps after you write it—but before you publish it.
4. Share something they can’t find anywhere else
Share something only your company knows. For example, a study based on company data or a customer story you heard from sales.
5. Do the thinking for them
Spend an hour brainstorming marketing tactics a company could do. Then write a list post with your creative ideas. Most people don’t have the luxury to think. You do. Even a few ideas can help them look smarter in meetings.
III. Where to find new content ideas
Customer and product research
As the legendary copywriter Eugene Schwartz said: “Listen to your customers and the mind of your market. Learn more about the product. These two sources will never fail you.”
Trying to grow traffic by 20 percent in the next quarter? Stuck for a marketing campaign idea? Overwhelmed with creating a strategy to reduce churn?
The answer is in the mind of your market or in your product. There is no other source of inspiration.
This is a simple point. But teams rush to whiteboards, hoping their creativity will pull a solution from the air. As a result, you get generic strategies, pun-filled ad campaigns, and surface content. The role of creativity isn’t to produce ideas from nothing. Instead, creativity connects the dots between two sources of input: product and customer knowledge.
Go on a sales safari
One of our favorite strategies that we learned from Pamela Slim, a popular speaker and marketing consultant, is a sales safari. A sales safari helps you observe customers in their natural habitat. This helps you find ideas for products or campaigns by understanding the concrete problems your customers stumble over each day.
Use these five questions to guide your safari.
ONE, what is their knowledge level?
Does your company collect information about different deals that you’ve won or lost? If so, a good method to research an audience’s knowledge level is to look at these notes to see who is involved in typical deals.
For example, if the brief is to write for the travel industry look for a travel deal. Then look for the different people (the customer, not your sales team) involved in the deal, their job titles, and names.
With that information, go to LinkedIn and Twitter, find their profiles, and then look at the content they share regularly. You can build a search stream in Hootsuite and regularly see what they like to share and the level of knowledge they have about social media.
TWO, what is the concrete problem they are trying to solve?
This is harder to find. People don’t talk about it on their LinkedIn profile. The best place to begin here is to talk to sales. Book a meeting and ask about what their customers ask about on a daily basis. Even better, see if you can sit in silently on an actual sales call.
A few places to look:
- Look for a public Facebook Group where prospects talk about their daily struggles at work.
- Search Inbound.org, Quora, and Clarity for people asking questions. Varying results here but you can uncover some gold.
- Talk to real people. Talk to the sales team, interview an expert in the field (such as a consultant who works with the vertical), or interview a customer to learn about their daily challenges.
- Search for a book on the topic. Such as “Social Media for Dummies.” Then go to Amazon. Read through the reviews. You’ll get a human picture of the actual pain they were trying to solve by reading the book. Joanna Wiebe, an author and copywriter, first introduced us to this tactic.
THREE, what have they done already to try to solve this problem?
It’s rare people have never tried solving the problem your product solves.
What’s more likely is that they’ve tried to solve the problem, bought your competitor’s software, and failed. Copywriter Ray Edwards calls this your buyer’s “try-fail cycle.”
Good content says, “this is what you are struggling with, here is a solution.” But great content says, “this is what you are struggling with, here are the things you’ve probably already tried and why they didn’t work out. Here is what to do instead.”
FOUR, what’s the transformation?
This is where marketing skill comes in. Prospects will tell you basic outcomes such as “we want to increase our social audience.” But they won’t tell you their true desired outcomes: “I want this to be a big campaign win so that my boss keeps me on this important client account.” Great content speaks to the organization’s vision and the prospect’s individual career goals.
- Read the book “Crossing the Chasm” to learn how transformation means different things to different people. For example, a young disruptive company buys software for different reasons than established organizations.
- Go to your brand positioning for ideas. At Hootsuite, our cultural manifesto helps to align content strategy with our brand story. By expressing your company’s vision with customer stories, blog posts, and guides, you’ll avoid having too many messages out there in the market. It’s the glue that keeps your content thematic and memorable.
FIVE, how can the product help them?
At some point, you’ll need to show customers how your product helps to solve their challenges. Be an expert in your product. This gives you better ideas (such as ways to reduce churn or better onboard users). Use it in your everyday work. Read technical manuals. Master new features.
IV. Advanced principles to grow your conversions
Once you have a direction, here are a few things to help refine your content.
“Content marketing’s goal,” says Rand Fishkin, the founder of the software company Moz, “is not to convert customers directly.” The goal is to build familiarity, likeability, and trust. One of the greatest skills you can develop as a marketer is to learn how to give without asking.
Create more than unique content
Unique content isn’t enough. Being useful isn’t enough. People need to remember you. They searched for days for strategy advice. They found mediocre advice. Then they found your blog post. You cared and actually helped them. The goal of content marketing is to arrest the reader in their search. They’ve found their mentor.
Hide your obvious sales language
One of the first things you learn in sales is to sell benefits, not features. Completely true. But what you don’t learn is that the best salespeople hide their selling techniques. “Drive more revenue” sounds like advertising. It’s a benefit we’ve all heard before. Peter Thiel’s book “Zero to One” is a great resource. He shows that if you want to be good at selling, you need to learn how to hide your tricks.
Go advanced, rather than basic
“Don’t include advice, tips, or tactics that more than 20 percent of your audience already knows,” says Rand Fishkin. When in doubt, go for more advanced than too basic.
Make your CTA (call to action) congruent
AND NOW IT’S TIME TO SELL SOME BENEFITS. If you spent 1,000 words being a funny, likable expert, you don’t need to shift into your sales voice to get them to download a guide. This breaks the mirror. You’ve already built trust. So just tell them in the same voice what to do. Keep it casual. For example, “here’s a free downloadable template that will help you craft a professional social media strategy, including a PowerPoint template to present your strategy to your boss or clients.”