Creating content doesn’t just help you get links for SEO. And search engine optimization doesn’t exist to just bring in traffic.
Content marketing — when done correctly — can help create brand equity and improve market positioning. In return, a company can enjoy stronger customer relationships and improved profitability.
But there’s a catch-22.
Because the best popular content on the internet typically has no commercial slant.
Somehow, someway, a company needs to connect their content back to the underlying purpose and philosophy that guides your business. Otherwise it doesn’t make sense. And it won’t return on your investment.
So therein lies the dilemma. And it’s why most business content fails.
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.
Keep the topics broad. The storylines even broader. But make focus and purpose tight. And start with the end in mind.
We’re going to take a look at a case study with one new start-up, and look at 5 steps you can use to develop your own content marketing strategy that drives new business. But we’re going to make three quick assumptions before we dive in:
- We’re assuming your product/service is actually beneficial, has traction, and provides value.
- We’re assuming at this point you intimately understand your customer segments. If not, go back to creating personas and understanding what motivates their purchasing habits.
- We’re assuming that content can refer to virtually anything — website copy, blog posts, webinars, emails, social updates, etc. — that requires specific messaging, focused communication, and starts with a script.
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Step #1: How does you product solve 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?
We’re going to look at Picmonic, which provides research proven audio-visual mnemonic products to help students master critical information and retain it, to illustrate each step and provide real examples.
Picmonic’s original 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 in deeper and find out their existing process for improvement, or other struggles they’re experiencing.
What is the desired outcome or result your customers want?
People don’t purchase features or deliverables — they’re purchasing an outcome or end result.
For example, when they purchase consulting, 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 will people 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 stronger motivator.
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.
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.
Step #2: What are Your Product Benefits and Features?
One of the first rules of selling is to sell benefits, not features.
Software or tech companies are often guilty using specs, stats and jargon to make their case. But features don’t motivate people to purchase. And unless your customers are extremely technical, they probably won’t immediately understand what your product does or how it’s going to help them.
Instead, figure out what your company does better than others to deliver the solution. Not features, but real, tangible benefits.
For example, Picmonic:
- 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 (virtually) 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 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 and purpose.
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 customers lives. And it establishes thought leadership and improves your brand positioning without even 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, on 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 & 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
Content marketing only helps if it’s consistent. You can easily manage the entire creation process — from idea to distribution — by setting up systems or workflows.
For example, a simple content marketing channel overview will highlight some of the major features or deliverables expected over the coming months.
Once you have all of that organized, it’s time to start tracking everything.
Keeping a basic editorial calendar is essential if you’re going to have any consistency managing project with many others involved.
Specifically, you need a fluid, flexible way to keep track of new topic ideas, responsibly and projected dates. Using a simple spreadsheet or Google Docs is fine to start 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.
Step #5: Create a Uniform Content Template
Last but not least, it’s time to start creating individual content.
When you’re trying to create thought leadership and keep a consistent point-of-view and ton, it’s important to have a uniform understanding of what you’re looking for. 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
Let’s continue using the example of written content, like a blog post, to dive into specifics.
We should also take into account people’s reading style online. We’re constantly scanning and 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.
Article Example: Deconstructing the Finished Product
We’re going to take a look at a recent article, Why Med Students “Fail” USMLE Step 1 (And How to Make Sure You Don’t). (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 have to always 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 delivers the solution, then content marketing becomes easy.