The following was updated and adopted from a hired-speech I gave to a group of 50 portfolio CEOs and senior partners in June 2015 at the headquarters of NEA, the world’s largest venture capital firm.
Since 2005, I’ve written for half of the top 20 U.S. media publications and dozens of Fortune 100 companies as a featured contributor, branded storyteller, and retained content advisor. In that time, this is what I know for sure: marketing is the way you let people know you exist. Content marketing is the ongoing explanation for why they should care.
As a discipline, content marketing (or brand journalism, executive editorial, and thought leadership) is important, because it allows companies to persuade highly-informed buyers in an increasingly noisy world. Not only is it the fastest growing marketing strategy in recent years, it’s also the most effective for supplying search demand, engaging target audiences, enabling messaging, and satisfying the buyer’s need to read and inform themselves before making a purchase.
What surprises people most that engage me? Here are the top five:
- 66% of content marketing campaigns fail. This is because they only talk about themselves instead of larger issues that interest their audience, don’t understand credible journalism, and don’t know their place in an over-informed media market.
- It’s better to offend one and reach another than be forgettable. Don’t let legal, marketing, or writing by consensus neuter your message. Political correctness, trite language, and perfectly-inoffensive stories are boring, colorless, and ignored. (For example, ask me about my experience writing for PepsiCo.)
- Your customer doesn’t care about your brand—at least not yet. The #1 reader/viewer question you must convincingly answer is: Why should I care? Even if you’re a recognized or iconic brand, you’ll still have to effectively answer, “What have you done for me lately?” or “Why should I keep listening to you?” Without convincing answers, your audience will quickly move on. In other words…
- You’re only as good as your last post. Having an established brand, existing reputation, and current audience means nothing to the future. For example, in the mid aughts, I helped launch two successful tech and software blogs. After being sold to buyers who were anxious to influence the combined half million visitors, both sites failed within two years because neither buyer knew how to market content, which is what the original publications did so well.
- Those who publish often reach wider audiences. Many take this fact for granted, but it’s worked ever since newspapers (aka the “original gangsters” of content marketing) were first invented in the 1700s. In other words, weekly (if not daily) publications and extroverted behavior wins. (Laura Hillenbrand and other geniuses like her being the rare exception.)
I believe everyone has an interesting story—even corporations (so long as they’re staffed by humans). The trick is finding: 1) your own voice; 2) the most appropriate narrative; and 3) the best tone to seize your audience’s attention.
To that end—and in an attempt to answer the overriding question of why the world should read your headlines, click your stories, and ultimately consider the ideas that are important to you (and hopefully them)—here are…
12 more things you must understand
- Voice is having something to say. If you don’t have anything to say, no one will ever listen to you. What have you learned? What do you believe? What do you have opinions on? How do your answers to those questions apply to your stakeholders and larger audience?
- Tone is how you say it. If you don’t say things differently than others, you’ll be ignored. For example, my dad taught me at a young age that people would listen to me more if I chose my words carefully, instead of resorting to familiar profanity or overused adjectives that have become diluted and meaningless. As a general rule to connect with wider audiences, I try to sound human as much as possible—especially when discussing technical or otherwise complex subjects.
- Clarity broadens your reach. No one has ever been ridiculed for explaining something in a way that a grandmother or seven year old could understand. In other words, never use esoteric language or abbreviations unless you know that every single member of your audience understands them. Zero ambiguity is priority number one. As Albert Einstein said, “If you can’t explain it simply, you don’t understand it well enough.”
- Build your audience with exclusive content. While regurgitating existing insights can keep your audience engaged, you must do original reporting if you which to grow your long-term audience.
- Success requires executive availability. Good content marketing requires access, priority, and attention from leading thinkers in your organization. It will fail if you don’t avail yourself (i.e. ask me about my work with Marriott International). Similarly, the more private you choose to be, the harder it is to connect with people. And remember: what’s being said is more important than how things look (i.e. in content marketing substance > style).
- Weather—especially seasons—affects reader psyche. For instance, you need to anticipate how new year’s optimism, summer excitement, fall pragmatism, year-end contemplation and other events affect the reception of your content. Doing so helps you adapt it accordingly and ride the wave of the greater collective perspective.
- Develop product first, content second. This may go without saying, but your product or service must be deserving of word of mouth attention to create lasting content marketing campaigns. Failed kickstarters with compelling content but underwhelming products are a testament to this. Again, substance trumps style here.
- Write the headline first. If you can’t sell your idea with a short headline, you won’t be able to sell it to your audience with 500—2000 words either. In my experience, headlines drive up to 70% of all click-throughs.
- Branded journalism in a nutshell. “This is how we think about the world and why we do what we do. If you feel the same, we hope you’ll consider us—if not now, someday in the future when the timing is right.”
- Writing by consensus is abating. Editing by one or two authorities is usually fine (and encouraged). But the more cooks that you have in the content kitchen, the more neutered and lifeless your stories will be as multiple voices attempt to inject their priorities and thereby steal its focus. To combat this, know that everyone’s perspective is important, but that doesn’t mean everyone gets a say in what’s being prioritized right now. Most will have to wait their turn, which is what a good editorial calendar should prioritize.
- Homepages work best as media sites. Buyers—enterprise ones very much included—don’t visit corporate homepages to be sold. They come to inform themselves. Content or editorial marketing is the only way you can do that convincingly and effectively in the information age. I believe it’s the most effective form of digital marketing in existence. It’s why Fortune 500 companies are turning their communication departments into newsrooms. It’s why the “Big 5” ad agencies are hiring massive amounts of ex-journalists. It’s what has kept me in business for nearly two decades. In short, content marketing is how buyers decide which brands to do business with. And it’s how you’ll need to convince the world that they should consider you the next time they reach for something.
- Persistence wins. Last but not least, habitual content marketing builds momentum, galvanizes the speaker (in this case your brand), and is even more lasting than inspirational content marketing. Done is better than perfect. Saying something that’s unique to you is better than staying silent.
It is my belief that commercial content marketing is in act II of its three act maturity play—halfway where it needs to be. When I first started, early content was largely long-form copywriting that went unread. Today, that content is largely editorial. But many brands, even leading ones such as Google (which I’ve advised and written content for), are still reluctant to stir the pot, use strong language, and report with full objectivity.
When that happens, content marketing will reach even more people and lead to even more satisfied customers. With your help and decisiveness, I’m confident together we’ll see that day sooner rather than later.
About the author: As an executive advisor, recognized journalist, and bodacious writer-for-hire, Blake Snow plans, produces, and tells epic stories for fancy publications and Fortune 500 companies. His work has appeared in places you probably know and respect. He credits his success to an insatiable curiosity, polite persistence, fortuitous timing, and the shoulders of giants. To learn more, please email firstname.lastname@example.org