Blake Snow

content advisor, recognized journalist, bodacious writer-for-hire

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Top 10 ways to fix content marketing

Content marketing has been around for centuries—ever since the first newspaper figured out they could sell ad space against stories that interested people. But it wasn’t until the last few years—even after mostly failed corporate blogging efforts—that content marketing has become a staple of modern marketing budgets in the social media age.

Consequently, commercial brands, communication departments, and Fortune 500 marketing arms are hiring former journalists, editors, and content strategists at an astonishing rate. One well-known software maker I consult for even has a bona fide news department. The place bustles like the New York Times newsroom. Their editorial content is generating executive interest and finding traction with online audiences.

That said, we’re still in the wild west of content marketing. Here are 10 ways to lay claim on the new frontier.

1. Realize that content marketing is a full-time job. Far too often, I consult with well known companies that mistakenly think they can get by charging already inundated communication interns, PR reps, or so-and-so that took a journalism class in college to produce content in their free time. Problem is, these employees don’t have any free time, and even if they do, they’re usually not qualified to ensnare, engage, and build audiences, so their content marketing fails. To be effective, you need to commit long-term to content marketing and hire accordingly.

That said, good writers aren’t enough. You need ones that have a proven track record of reaching, trapping, and engaging at least thousands of readers, preferably millions. Furthermore, even if you or someone on your team has a history of storytelling, chances are they wear other hats and/or you hired them for other reasons—not to grow your audience and expand your total reach and influence.

But most importantly, you need to hire full time writers that are audience driven, not corporate driven. The latter results in unread marketing copy. The former results in audience growth.

content marketing chart2. Follow the leaders. Big brands hire editorial talent because they know it’s the best way to market in a social media world. They hire professional writers, produce content often, and attempt to engage their audience (the two biggest challenges of content marketers—see chart). You should hire editorial talent, too.

But that’s only half the equation. Many content marketers are still too subjective, and many of their ideas get overlooked by audiences for not being bold enough, failing to have a likable voice, and failing to grab readers attention with effective headlines. Either that or they fail to deliver on a well written headline. Case in point, I’ve clicked on several strong sponsored headlines, only to be be underwhelmed by the full story which are way too conservative to get people talking.

Obviously, some content marketing is better than no content marketing. And it’s good to see some of my clients warming up to the idea of interviewing competitors in an effort to paint the most objective story possible, which readers will trust and share more. But you need vision and boldness as much as you need editorial talent to make content marketing work.

3. Profile your audience. Before you start producing content, you’ll need to audit your target audience’s current content diet, consumption habits, and popular angles. Once you understand that with the help of analytics and research, you’ll be in a better position to deliver content that interests them.

4. Find your voice and make it consistent. Your content marketing department will never be able to beat a reputable news organization. Nor should it. But that doesn’t mean you can’t scoop stories in your own industry. And it doesn’t mean you won’t find your own niche within your field of expertise. The sooner you embrace what you’re really good at, the sooner you’ll be able to tell effective stories on your behalf. For many, finding your voice is the hardest thing to fix. And don’t forget to interlink your dialog. It gives context to your content, makes it even more congruent for the reader, and results in better search traffic.

5. Tell the larger story. Yes, people want to know what you do and how you do it. But they really want to know why you do it. That’s not always an easy story to tell. It’s certainly not a one time story found on an “about us” or “our history” web page. It’s an ongoing dialog about what drives, inspires, and excites you as a company. Telling your ongoing story in a passionate way is the best way I know to make content marketing stick. The reason: Because no one can tell your story better than you. And regardless of the industry you’re in, people care about your story, especially if they can relate to it.

In short, tell your story—past, present, and the future as it develops.

6. Beware of ad agencies that double as content farms. Content marketing is so trendy right now that even ad agencies are hiring and reselling “content departments” to clients. Some of these are good at what they do. But make no mistake—agencies still specialize in brilliant emotional ads and often fail to respect the detrimental line of copy vs editorial. You’ll need both to achieve successful marketing. But you’ll need the latter if you want successful content marketing and social media influence.

7. Focus on exclusive content. While content syndication, sponsored stories, and native advertising can give you a much needed spike in publicity, exclusive stories are the only way you’ll be able to build an audience, as opposed to piggybacking on someone else’s audience (i.e. a sponsored section on forbes.com). Not only does exclusive content establish home-grown audiences, it results in long tail referral traffic, which in turn ensures lucrative search rankings. To keep it simple, address a thorny problem you understand well in an interesting, well told, and engaging way.

8. Write better headlines. You need to understand that headlines drive 60-70% of all click throughs. True story, at least in my 11 years of experience. To do this, you’ll need a crafty copy editor. To do it even better, you’ll need A/B testing and ongoing headline optimization that use data to serve up the most effective headlines that tickle readers in all the right spots.

9. Use must-click visual aids. I’m talking photos, charts, illustrations, and video. Save only for headlines, nothing is better at inducing a click than a relevant and effective visual aid. Use them wisely and you’re content will perform even better.

10. Follow analytics as much as your heart. Gifted writers have the hearts and minds to write great stories. But with analytics, you can add a layer of science to your content marketing, which will only make your next story, headline, and its delivery all the better.

2016 blake mugshotFor me, content marketing is best summed up by Howard Gossage: “People don’t read advertising, they read what interests them, and sometimes that’s advertising.”

So long as content serves its intended audience first (i.e. readers) while delivering the message with objectivity (it’s the information age, after all—no more pulling fast ones on uninformed audiences), companies will find themselves at the intersection of shared customer interests for a successful content marketing campaign.

I wish you success and hope you’ll consider me if there’s a fit.

This rerun first appeared on April 10, 2013. Thanks for reading and sharing if you liked it.