Content marketing is well understood these days. It’s pretty easy to decide on a topic, and then employ tried-and-true writing and distribution tactics to get your content operation off the ground. It’s so well understood that most content looks and feels almost exactly the same. And this is a real problem.
It feels like content marketers are stuck in a catch-22. Do you stay loyal to the best practices that have clearly worked for plenty of other companies? Or do you stray from proven tactics to try something new, uncertain if your efforts will bear fruit?
The truth is that you need some of each. Best practices are best practices for a reason. The key is to avoid some of the traps that search and social algorithms set for you. Whether they intend to or not, platforms like Google incentive formulaic content. Once people understand how to reverse engineer the algorithm, everyone follows suit.
Formulaic content is so common that you might not even realize your role in creating more of it. Some of this is unavoidable—there are only so many ways to match query intent—but there’s a more significant problem. Animalz VP of Content Ryan Law explains in his post on copycat content:
In chasing search traffic, companies are sleep-walking into intellectual plagiarism. They’re fixating on their keyword research tools and SEO briefs at the expense of originality and personality. They’re curating other people’s work, instead of creating their own. They’re choosing to make content longer, instead of better.
This is a broad problem, but I’d argue that it’s actually really easy to avoid some of the common content creation mistakes that lead to the “sleep-walking” that Ryan is referring to. For each mistake, we’ll also talk through some ways to level-up. Let’s do this.
Mistake #1: Over-promising, under-delivering
This is the cardinal sin of content marketing: dramatic, clickbait headlines that lead the reader to uninteresting content. This trend started in the media world, where publishers earn revenue for clicks and impressions. This kind of media isn’t exactly what most consider content marketing, but it’s trickled down to the B2B world many of us work in.
Assuming you want more than a single click, you have to earn the trust of anyone who lands on your site from any other destination, be it search, social or a referral. The experience has to be better than whatever that person expected. This is mostly about setting the right expectation. Clickbait titles are actually great, assuming you can delight the reader once they arrive.
Take the title of this post as an example. I’ve tried to set the right expectation—that you’ll read it and come away with a few handy ideas for better content. If I’d promised it would be “The Ultimate Guide to Content Creation,” you’d surely be disappointed, thereby losing trust in me and this blog.
Here are a few suggestions for titles that tease the reader just enough, but don’t overpromse:
- Real experts are almost always understated. They don’t need to beg anyone for attention because it shines through in their work. Understated is a word that may belong in your style guide.
- Try to blend thought leadership into your SEO work. This means bringing in opinions, anecdotes and examples to breathe life into otherwise stale writing. Additionally, write in the first person. This will almost certainly sink your Clearscope or MarketMuse scores, but it’ll help your writing resonate with your readers.
- State the subject of the article clearly and plainly. Marketing Exists to Make Sales Easier is a great example. As is The Difference Between a First Draft and Second Draft. Start as simple as possible, then “season to taste”—i.e. refine it a little at a time until it feels just right.
And, oh yea, make sure the article is really good. A fantastic article can over-deliver on even the most dramatic headline.
Mistake #2: Writing for keywords instead of customer problems
Talk about the importance of learning from prospects and customers, through sales call records, case studies, surveys, etc.
Keyword research is useful, but it only tells you what people search for. That’s obvious, but consider for a moment that people often search for solutions to small problems, but have other methods for solving larger problems.
In my time as the salesperson at Animalz, I turned up dozens of great blog post ideas simply by running sales calls. I learned all kinds of things that keyword research could never have discovered. We would be working with a massive blind spot if we relied solely on keywords.
Here’s an example. Over the course of a few months, I heard from several prospects that the company was moving upmarket. The content team was tasked with adjusting its plans to account for the company’s new go-to-market strategy. A shift like this raises tons of questions. Who is our new target persona? How are their problems different from our SMB users? Can we repurpose our existing content? Do we need more sales enablement content now?
Moving upmarket isn’t some simple task—it affects every facet of the business. Google doesn’t have answers because the work is far too nuanced and complex for simple solutions. And so people sought out professional guidance. After hearing from a few people about this problem, we put together a guide for companies navigating the same situation.
The guide wasn’t terribly difficult to create, especially after spending a few hours talking to potential customers about all the many questions, challenges, unknowns and dependencies.
I think you get the point. You need regular access to prospects and customers to really understand them. There are tools that can help—Gong and Chorus come to mind—but there’s nothing to replace direct conversation with the people you hope to sell to.
Mistake #3: Cliched writing
If I see another article that starts with, “It’s no secret that [insert obvious trend]…” I’m going to scream. It’s the first signal that the writer doesn’t know the topic. The lack of subject matter expertise left them with only a few overused cliches to work with. I’m out.
The words you use matter. Choosing the right ones conveys confidence and wisdom. Choosing the wrong ones triggers irritation. If you manage to get a qualified reader on the site, you don’t want them wading through keyword-heavy content marketing to try to figure out if you know what you’re talking about.
Here’s an example of an intro I really like (from this post). The writing isn’t even very good, but I can sense the confidence and curiosity of the writer. It’s direct, original and thought-provoking:
I've been comparing notes with people who run corporate engineering blogs and one thing that I think is curious is that it's pretty common for my personal blog to get more traffic than the entire corp eng blog for a company with a nine to ten figure valuation and it's not uncommon for my blog to get an order of magnitude more traffic.
I think this is odd because tech companies in that class often have hundreds to thousands of employees. They're overwhelmingly likely to be better equipped to write a compelling blog than I am and companies get a lot more value from having a compelling blog than I do.
Now, imagine if the writer chose a typical, cliched content marketing-style intro instead:
It’s not secret that corporate engineering blogs are well-staffed and funded. They have all the tools and resources to create great, so why do some personal blogs get more traffic? In this ultimate guide to corporate engineering blogs, we’ll explain why.
I know, I’m being a little dramatic, but I think you get the point. In the post, the writer just gets to point by using clear, direct (if not wordy) language. It doesn’t sound like content marketing and that’s exactly why it’s so easy to get lost in his article. (And yes, this is a meta example. I recommend reading that post.)
An important part of this is allowing each writer—including yourself—to find their own voice. This often can’t be done within the confines of SEO content, so consider creating a lane for thought leadership content so people can write the way without constraints.
Mistake #4: Not talking to subject matter experts
This is closely related to the above mistake. A lot of content marketers fake expertise and try to cover it up by citing a lot of quotes and stats they find on other blogs. Never fake it. It’s always better to facilitate someone else’s subject matter expertise than to pretend you have it yourself.
You can’t possibly be expected to be a genuine expert on every single thing you write about. But you should be expected to interview experts, run surveys and find data (and not just numbers from an outdated infographic). The term “content creation” can mean writing about your own experience (see above) or extracting someone else’s expertise and then packaging it up in a very accessible way.
Prospects and customers are experts on their own problems, but there are lots of other ways to seek out industry expertise. This is where Twitter, LinkedIn and Slack communities can be really useful ways to connect with other people. And while not everyone is the expert they may claim to be on the internet, there are plenty of extremely knowledgeable people out there to interview. Other good sources are college professors, professional associations and journalists. Try to find people who are experts and don’t flout their expertise on social media. This means almost sure to uncover something new and unique to include your writing.
Mistake #5: Leaving your first draft in the final product
First drafts are for YOU, second drafts are for the reader. Don’t mix them up.
This mistake isn’t unique to content marketing, but it sure is prevalent. Here’s exactly what I mean. When you write a first draft, you are still in the process of figuring out what you want to say and how to say it. Your writing is probably sequential, meaning that you write in the order that you think. You spend a little time warming up, then get around to some examples and then finally share the takeaway near the end. That’s great since it’s an important part of the creative process, but it’s the polar opposite of what readers want.
I like to think of the first draft as writer-centric and the second draft as reader-centric. First, I write all of my thoughts down. Some of it will be great, most of it won’t make any sense and neither matters. The point is just to get the thoughts on paper so I can start to make sense of them. The second draft is all about the readers. The most important stuff is first. The arbitrary thoughts are gone. The extra words are cut. Everything flows smoothly for the writer.
This sound easy, but is actually really hard. As Greg Ciotti wrote, “Easy reading is damn hard writing.” Hopefully you have access to a good editor, but if not, there are all kinds of ways to edit your own writing.
Next up: Develop conviction and taste
Your skills as a writer ultimately boil down to two things. First, do you feel conviction over your words, or are you simply trying to satisfy an algorithm? And second, can you clearly identify the tiny elements that make for good or bad writing? This is called taste.
Content marketing isn’t a well-respected art like journalism or poetry, but it’s a wonderful platform to build a great career as a creator. A writer with conviction and taste is destined for a long, interesting and satisfying career in content marketing. Not only will your work appeal to more readers, you’ll find more joy in the pursuit of it.