Today, good enough, isn’t.
For years, you’ve been dealing with over 2 million blog posts published each day.
And if that wasn’t bad enough, 55% of your site visitors are leaving within the next 15 seconds.
Here’s why your next blog post is going to fail (unless you address these common issues first).
How to Deal with the Content Marketing Arms Race
As the competition has increased, gotten savvier, better funded, and more sophisticated, the bar keeps rising exponentially.
Buffer knocked out epic post after epic post, regularly taking a minimum of three hours. Ross then piles on with 10x content, which is expanding into ‘boring’ industries. Pretty soon, the savviest marketers are spending at least half a day (if not a full one) on a SINGLE blog post. Not to mention infographics, videos, ebooks and other long form pieces.
Oh, and this is assuming you actually know what you’re talking about. And that you can write.
So if you’re not a subject matter expert, or at least, a decent writer, a single piece of content might take you days (plural). The minimum investment required is too high to publish mediocre stuff. Anything less than great will be lost in a sea of obscurity.
And generally speaking, there are two primary reasons why commercial content fails:
- The content is too boring or uninteresting.
- The content doesn’t link back to your business objectives.
Fortunately, my vast experience with failure has taught me a few tricks along the way.
Here’s how those two problems manifest themselves, and how you can fix them once and for all.
Problem #1. Your Content is Too Boring or Uninteresting
Commercial content needs to inform and persuade customers about why you (and your products) are the perfect solution to their problems.
But that doesn’t mean it has to suck, too.
This is especially true in B2B, technical environments where companies feel the need to prove how many MBA’s or engineers they employ. The dastardly duo of technical jargon and meaningless business cliches make for an illegible mess. Throw in a healthy dose of the curse of knowledge, and you’re staring at a recipe for disaster.
Here are three ways to avoid selfish, dry content that fails to grab reader’s attention and interest.
Tip #1. PAS Formula
In Toastmasters, there’s a little segment called Table Topics that poses a question to someone at random, who then has to speak extemporaneously for at least one minute on the topic. The first few times I tried this, I would answer the question directly, immediately, and then have another ~45 seconds to embarrass myself, stammering to uncomfortably fill dead air.
The trick, a wise old sage taught me, was storytelling.
In other words, don’t answer the question directly. Start by telling a story, then weave your way back to answer the question indirectly towards the end.
Undoubtedly, you’ve heard that facts tell, stories sell. And that’s because storytelling has been a primary method of communication since the Stone Age. If people want facts, they can go to Wikipedia or read a technical manual. Instead, they want solutions to their problems.
The old copywriting ‘PAS’ formula can help this, providing an easy way to structure or frame pieces of content. For example:
- Problem: Your blog posts suck. Each one published gets crickets. And you’re wondering why you even bother.
- Agitate: Here are a bunch of daunting statistics about how difficult it is to compete in the content game today…
- Solution: … unless you read this blog post and follow these tips.
Cool, sounds great. But where does storytelling come into play?
Made to Stick, the most brilliant book about content creation that’s NOT about content creation, highlights three successful story plots to employ when you want a message to resonate:
- The Challenge Plot: This is the classic underdog, rags to riches, or sheer willpower triumphing over adversity. You know, like Rocky.
- The Connection Plot: A story about people who develop a relationship that bridges a gap — racial, class, ethnic, religious, demographic, or otherwise. Think Romeo and Juliet
- The Creativity Plot: This involves someone making a mental breakthrough, solving a long-standing puzzle, or attacking a problem in an innovative way. The Da Vinci Code is a great example.
People won’t care about your solution until they understand the weight of their problem. Start there with storytelling.
Tip #2. Tone
You’re not worthy. Your puny palette isn’t sophisticated enough to appreciate the mind-bending qualities of these ingredients. If you’re senseless enough to enjoy those other frizzy, ‘light’ beverages… well, we can’t help you.
Stone Brewing is known for many things. Subtle isn’t one of them. The label on their Arrogant Bastard ale says as much:
Stone is one of the fastest growing craft breweries in the world, expanding internationally to Germany (who like their beer). They’re rated ‘world class’, and have some of the highest rated (not to mention hoppiest) beers around. Their headquarters in Escondido, CA is the largest tourist attraction in the county (over Sea World, the Zoo, two professional sports teams, freakin’ Coronado Island and the Gaslamp District).
Like other brands with strong, dedicated followings – they polarize. You either love them or hate them.
This goes perfectly with Seth Godin’s concept of Edgecraft, which says people tend to only pay attention to things at the ends of the spectrum when faced with an overwhelming choice.
You can’t stand out, and fit in, at the same time.
Improving your content’s tone by injecting personality (whatever that personality is) will instantly provide a huge upgrade to the dry, listless stuff you’re currently publishing.
Tip #3. Headlines
Today, people don’t find content by going to their browser, typing in the exact URL and hitting enter. Instead, they see a brief preview shared via email, scanning blogs, or in social feeds. That little preview dictating whether your content’s popularity or obscurity is your headline.
The best, reach down into our monkey brains by stroking vanity or inciting fear.
Specificity helps grab attention, while urgency creates a reason to act now.
And surprisingly, BuzzFeed just might be the best headline writers around:
Wow. Talk about eye-catching. But beyond the hyperbole, there’s a proven formula:
Trigger Word + Adjective + Keyword + Promise
This ‘Cliffhanger’ style headline is one of their specialties, where they reveal just enough of the story to tease, but then lead readers to click to get the full answer.
(Fun fact: this article’s very headline was inspired by it.)
Problem #2. Your Content Doesn’t Support Business Objectives
Oh sure, BuzzFeed is an easy example. They can publish any old crap, and as long as it gets page views, it’s successful. But what about everyone else?
How do you take content that’s interesting and entertaining, but somehow link it back to also increase brand awareness, thought leadership, drive new leads and get paid?
Here are a few places to start.
Tip #1. Customer Personas
After working with clients from start-ups to large enterprises, all around the world, I’ve learned that most are experts at understanding who their customers are. You know, like demographics.
Most are terrible at understanding what motivates them.
And when you don’t intimately understand why customers buy from you (instead of the other guy around the block or on the next browser tab), you inevitably compete on price. Maybe not today. Or tomorrow. But ultimately that’s the only thing separating you in the minds of customers.
Here’s how to figure out what drives them.
The first step is focus on those that see your widget as an investment, and not a cost. No matter how hard you try, there’s nothing you can say or do to convince nonbelievers.
The next is to look for patterns. Could be the industry they’re in. Or perhaps the role. Better yet, the purchasing occasion. The goal is to zero-in on a segment of people to study (qualitatively and quantitatively), figuring out their problems and pain points first.
- What are their daily routines?
- What are their goals or aspirations, and why haven’t those been fulfilled yet?
- What’s stopping or preventing them?
Effective customer personas aren’t static, two-dimensional renderings of a bunch of statistics about age, race, and location. Instead, they’re vibrant, dynamic representations of real people struggling with commonalities that you just might happen to be able to solve.
Tip #2. Market Positioning
Chances are, you’re not a unicorn.
There are other people that do what you do. Sometimes better. Sometimes worse. If not directly, indirectly. Point is, there are other alternatives available to customers besides you.
In order to know how you should frame yourself in relation to those, you need to start with a basic understanding of the market. For example, go to competitor’s websites and try to understand how they’re positioning themselves (and to whom).
Once you have a basic lay of the land, it’s time to read the Blue Ocean Strategy.
(WAIT. WTH. Another book? I came here for tips. Just tell me how many words to write and what kind of headlines work best and I’ll be on my way.
Unfortunately, it doesn’t work like that. Great, business-generating content only comes from having a solid USP. Fix that, and only then will the resulting content perform.
The Blue Ocean Strategy says that you should do the following things against the competitors in the marketplace to determine how to create a defensible, unique position to compete from:
- Raise – Which factors should be raised well above the industry standard?
- Create – Which factors should be created that the industry has never offered?
- Reduce – Which factors should be reduced well below industry standards?
- Eliminated – Which factors that the industry takes for granted should be eliminated?
Yes. SUPER theoretical. But the thought exercise helps tremendously. The book uses Cirque-du-Soleil as an example, comparing them to more traditional circus and theater productions:
Once you’ve gone through this exercise, it’s time to bring it all together.
Tip #3. Content Plan
People don’t buy drills. They buy holes.
Your content should be organized appropriately. Instead of approaching it from the bottom-up (i.e. “Our product XYZ does this.”), you should go top-down:
- Customer Obstacles & Pain Points. AKA — WHY PEOPLE NEED YOUR WIDGET
- Desired Outcomes / End Results. AKA — HOW PEOPLE WILL OVERCOME OBSTACLES
- Product / Service End Results and Outcomes. AKA — WHAT MY COMPANY DOES BETTER THAN OTHERS TO DELIVER SOLUTION
(OMG, that kinda resembles the PAS formula from earlier?!)
Summarize what you’ve learned so far about (a) what motivates your customers, and (b) how you can deliver it to them better than anyone else. The result is what your content should address. It’ll provide topics for your editorial calendar, and keyword opportunities to base your content around.
Each blog category should align with a primary messaging theme directed squarely at a specific customer persona. Four or five of those should provide a well-rounded foundation to come up with content topics that will resonate with people who will hand you their money in droves.
From there, you can use basic engagement metrics (like Time on Site, page scrolling, etc.) to A/B testing or even conversion data to help you uncover which messaging angles work best.
The good news is that it’s not rocket science. And you’re not locked in stone.
But it does require a little more thought than simply throwing up another 3,000-word list post that gets a ton of traffic and social shares, but little else.
The Catch 22 of content marketing is that your stuff needs to be interesting and entertaining enough to grab attention, while somehow also persuading enough to motivate people to give you their credit card.
That ain’t easy.
Especially in world where the minimum requirements to stand out keep rising .
The PAS formula (with a little help from storytelling), along with a memorable tone can instantly give listless content a lift. While a superior headline gives you that extra edge to stand out.
The best commercial content can’t just entertain at the end of the day. It also needs to strike a chord with what motivates your customers and separate yourself from the other possible alternatives in the marketplace.
If those things are all done correctly, your content plan should fall into place. You’ll immediately understand which topics work, from those that don’t.
And you’ll know before investing a few days into a new piece of content, that it’s sure to succeed.