How to do Content Marketing - (Almost) Everything you Need to Know
To go with our new site, we've created an even more comprehensive content marketing resource: our Content Marketing eBook which can (and should!) be downloaded here.
On Tuesday 20th November we attended the first Content Marketing Show in London, a new offshoot of BrightonSEO. As you can probably guess, it was a day dedicated to content marketing in all shapes and sizes, with a diverse line-up of speakers giving insight into how to source, create and promote your business using content.
We decided that instead of the usual conference round-up post, we would compile the best advice from the day into a complete guide to content marketing. We've also added our own insight based on our experiences at Silicon Beach as well advice from top industry experts. Hopefully this will serve as a one-stop resource to learn about content marketing - but don't forget that we do run regular content marketing workshops in Brighton! We also touch on content marketing from an SEO perspective on our SEO courses if you want to learn more about how content works as part of a wider marketing strategy.
We've picked our top 16 points, but if you feel we've missed anything then please let us know in the comments or tweet us @sbttraining and we'll be happy to add it in.
TL;DR - Tell Stories, Draw an Emotional Response, Everyone is Influential, Be Bold, Be Different, Be Nice, Know your Audience, Know yourself, Use the Tools at your Disposal, Use Data to Drive Content, Perfect your Briefs, Pitch it Right, Content Flows, and finally If in Doubt, Steal from the Experts.
People respond to stories. Whether it's a children's fairy tale or an anecdote from a mate down the pub, people get drawn in by a narrative. We are hard-wired to respond to the 'beginning, middle, end' structure because it's how we understand the world around us.
Telling stories was a theme that ran throughout the conference, with Antony Mayfield pinpointing some of the top lessons learnt from Brilliant Noise's work with Nokia. You can read the whole Stories, Numbers & Conversations study online, it's a great study of how telling stories worked for a large business.
Use stories to your advantage. Think about narrative when producing content, in individual pieces and as a way of tying all of your content together. It could mean creating a mythology about the way your business works. It could mean creating characters as conduits of your message. Whatever technique works, use it. And always keep the story in mind when creating content.
Ian Humphreys of Caliber argued that creating content in this way makes people comfortable and if they're comfortable they're more open to persuasion. He went on to say that the best kinds of stories are the ones that involve the audience. He used the great example of a dinner party - when somebody is telling you a story all you can think about is how you have a better story. Don't just tell a story, make your audience feel like it is their story.
Allow your audience to participate in the story, let them tell their stories. A great example of this is Google's recent Chromebook advert. It comes across as comfortable, using a mix of UGC from YouTube and their own content, it makes people think "I've done that!". Google have used narratives in ads before, featuring Dads creating scrapbooks and boyfriends using email to apologise. These ads were all about telling somebody else's story, the latest one has a wider scope that involves the audience more.
The importance of story telling translated into real life at the conference, with the best talks told as narratives. Stephen Leighton and Stephen Pavlovich did this excellently, presenting real life stories with a beginning, middle and end. Each was engaging, funny and most of all, memorable. No surprise they received some of the best comments on Twitter.
Think about the recent John Lewis Christmas advert that exploded on social media. They built a narrative that people could relate to with a twist at the end. It was closer to a short film than a traditional advert. It provoked a reaction, people went 'aww' after the twist at the end (no spoilers here!) and it made people cry like little girls. People loved it, shared it everywhere and parodies began to appear. You know you've made great content when people make an x-rated spoof of it.
What John Lewis did was provoke an emotional response, one that people will then associate with the brand. Which leads me onto my next point...
Draw an Emotional Response
Stories are great but not just any old story will do. Make the story relevant to your business, interesting and most importantly of all, tap into the emotions of the audience.
Tom Ewing from BrainJuicer (right) described the perfect formula for content - surprise + emotional response + a little bit of happiness. If you want your content to have an effect on people, appeal to their emotions not their rationality.
John Lewis's Christmas advert is a perfect example of this. Surprise at the ending, mixed sprinkled with emotional happiness.
Ian Humphreys also gave the example of the Chevy Advert which used its narrative to give the audience that little surprise and then warm feeling.
If I was to say the words "holidays are coming" what immediately springs to mind? That's right, it's the Coke advert that has now become ubiquitous with the start of Christmas. When you think about it, Coke has absolutely nothing to do with Christmas (apart from perhaps a matching colour scheme!). What Coke has done so well is tap into that little surprise/happiness cross-section (surprise because the advert comes on at the beginning of November!) and can now invoke the feeling of Christmas and therefore comfort and happiness from it's audience, even with just that one sentence: "holidays are coming".
Of course, possibly the most important part of Tom's formula is the happiness. Shocking and drawing emotion isn't great if that emotion is disgust or hate. Tom used the example of Oxy's zit popping ad as an example of surprise + emotion - happiness. Don't watch if you're about to eat, it's not for the faint-hearted.
Everyone is Influential
Philip Sheldrake of Euler Partners has been claiming for a while now that you are more influenced by the 150 people nearest to you than by the other 7 billion people in the world combined. Everyone is, in their own way, influential.
Think about Facebook. You may well have more than 150 friends (some of you will have a lot more!) but how often do you interact with most of them? The likelihood is you'll be in regular contact with no more than 150 and it's these 150 that influence you and who in turn, you influence.
When you make buying decisions, are you more influenced by your friends and family or by social media influencers?
If you're one of those businesses that uses Klout as the go to tool for assessing influence, you probably need to reassess your goals. Klout and similar tools are great for finding out how popular somebody is, but there is still no tool out there that can tell you how influential a person is. As in, can they change the mind of others and inform on buying decisions.
This way of thinking shocked Linkdex's Matt Roberts who previously subscribed to the Seth Godin strategy of influencing the influencers. In his talk he explained why he has switched from trying to get on the radar of the 'big' influencers in your niche and instead cementing the relationships you have with those close to you. Having solid relationships with 'little' influencers rather than a shaky relationship with a big influencer will lead to more sustained traffic and shares.
Stephen Pavlovich's wish.co.uk zombie shopping mall campaign is a great example of this in action. While getting a tweet from Simon Pegg meant they received a short term mega-buzz, it was only once they got the recognition on social platforms like Reddit and Facebook that they received sustainable traffic that could be converted into sales. People were sharing with friends who they wanted to share the experience with. It helped that it was an awesome idea.
On our social media courses we explain how the number of followers isn't as important as the impact you have on those followers. Don't shout in a crowded room where nobody will hear you, communicate with a select few on a personal level.
You Can’t Just “Do” Viral
Have you ever sat in a meeting where somebody (usually a CEO) has decided that they want to go viral. Whether you're an agency or in-house, at some point somebody will have asked you to 'do' viral, often after reading about it happening to competitors.
Unfortunately, content can't just be 'made' viral. You might be able to analyse successful content from the past and imitate it but that's no guarantee. You could add a catchy song, logo, quote, sneezing pandas, piano playing cats, baby monkeys riding backwards on pigs, babies biting children, talking dogs, Sean Bean in Lord of the Rings attire and Koreans dancing ... and it could still bomb.
Back to Philip Sheldrake again with a great quote on 'viral' marketing:
You can build it, but they'll only come if they feel like it.
Rather than striving for this nirvana of virality, make great content and maintain great relationships. Don't be disheartened if a big campaign bombs, learn from mistakes. Repeat what works and scrap what doesn't. Sometimes you just get lucky.
That all said, Stephen Pavlovich sort of smashed this idea during his talk, in which he explained exactly how wish.co.uk managed three viral campaigns - getting stories in big news papers, on massive blog sites and all over social media. How did they do it? By simply asking Stephen Fry and Simon Pegg to tweet. They did just that, and killed the wish.co.uk servers in the process. This proves that if you don't ask you don't receive, but you've also got to have something worth shouting about...
Those three wish.co.uk campaigns mentioned above were:
- A romantic weekend break for three
- A £250,000 meal at Downing Street
- A zombie shopping mall experience
The first two are fake, the third real. All of them have something in common - they're big, bold campaigns. Stephen Pavlovich identifies four key components for creating content that sticks:
Sex, controversy, celebrities and being topical.
Mix these together for a delicious content pie. So a sex tape of Barack Obama and Hilary Clinton released the night before the election would be the ultimate in sticky content (but not very appealing).
Facebook get this idea, it's summed up well by one of their now famous motivational posters:
Ask yourself that question when you create content and whatever the answer is, do it. It will probably be a bit crazy, edgy, maybe even offensive but it'll certainly be interesting. Let other people in your business edit you, make it your job to be as creative (and outrageous) as possible.
If that means taking risks, falling on your backside and looking ridiculous, so what?
Stephen Leighton of Has Bean Coffee really. loves. coffee. Beyond that, by being different, Stephen took a love of coffee and no money, and turned it into a hugely successful business.
When setting up his business, Stephen broke almost every rule of business - he was nice, he gave things away, he paid over the odds and he dealt with small independents. He also had almost nothing to spend on marketing and advertising. He also stuck to doing what he loved, not what other people wanted. Has Bean is coffee for coffee lovers - no frappucinos and pricey sandwiches, just good coffee.
When Stephen sells a coffee, he goes and meets the grower, he then brings the product back to the UK and roasts it himself. Finally he films himself tasting the finished product, which is broadcast through the InMyMug videocast. If you want, you can sign up to a coffee subscription so that you can taste the coffee along with Stephen. That product to consumer journey is incredibly personal, and it certainly puts Starbucks' name-on-cup idea to shame. As content it is amazing, you're not just buying coffee you are buying into an experience.
Being different can work for big businesses too. How many chocolate ads are there? What do they all have in common? A single message - we sell chocolate, it tastes nice, you will be better off for buying it. Most of them are sexual in some way.
However, Cadbury's decided to use a gorilla drumming along to Phil Collins - one of the most successful campaigns ever and nothing to do with chocolate. Talk about breaking the mould. Be different, stand out. Plus, if you decide to be like Stephen, there will be more nice people in the world, giving away free things, paying real prices and dealing with independents.
As mentioned, Stephen Leighton was a charming fellow and that niceness was a both a conscious and unconscious facet of his 'brand'. People respond positively to him because he gives out positivity.
Yes, it may sound all a bit Kumbaya, but you should never underestimate the importance of being nice: it'll get you a long way. It worked for this guy:
Désiré Athow, Editor of ITProPortal stated that when making inquiries, you should always remember that you are engaging with a human, not a robot, so don't forget to be polite and courteous. As a journalist, he will be more likely to respond to to a well-thought out, nicely written email than a blanket or generic-sounding one.
If you're approaching journalists with a pitch or other bloggers with a guest post request, you need to be nice to start a relationship. Nothing is worse than an impersonal email template with your name subbed in.
Being nice also works as a brand. Jen Lopez has done a great Whiteboard Friday on delighting the pants off your community over on SEOmoz.
Know your Audience
Knowing who you are writing for is half the battle when creating content says Sitevisibility's Mila MacLean Homburg. Pitching the tone and subject matter right means you'll be able to engage your target audience.
Is your audience some blurry idea in the background or do you know exactly who you are writing for?
Simon Penson has the great idea of creating detailed personas to write for. Make up an imaginary customer - what beer do they drink? What car do they drive? What clothes do they wear? Then when creating content, you can craft it around those interests.
Knowing the persona of each member of the audience you are targeting enables you to tailor your content appropriately. If your target audience's persona is they drive a Ferrari, drink Chateauneuf du Pape and wear Louis Vuitton, they probably won't be too interested on a piece about 'how to live on a tight budget'. Tailor your content appropriately and it'll have a greater chance of sticking.
As Tom Ewing said, make your content part of your audience's 'stock' and not just part of their 'flow'. Tailoring content to suit various personas is an excellent way of doing this because you are targeting people with things that they are already interested in.
Simon Penson went on to explain that knowing your audience alone is not enough, you must also know yourself. This means to be aware of your voice; what message and tone do you want to convey?
This is even more important if you work as part of a team of content writers who write as one entity, whether that's as conduits of the business or as an individual.
He gave an excellent example of how to create this cohesion with regard to 'voice': pick a celebrity/character you most associate your businesses message, tone and voice with and when writing, imagine you are doing so as them. What would they say? How would they say it? To borrow Simon's example think of Jack Sparrow. If you tell your team that your brand's 'voice' is Jack Sparrow, they'll all get it instantly.
Doing it like this also gives your team (if you have one) a clear and concise message as to the style that you want them to portray with their content. Telling them that you want them to write like Jack Sparrow is a much clearer message than telling them that you want them to write with a pirate-esque swagger, using 18th century bawdy humour and expressing an overt penchant for rum.
If your brand doesn't have a clear voice, then it's very hard for your audience to identify with you to the point that you alienate potential return visitors.
Use the Tools at your Disposal
Chelsea Blacker made the point that when you're stuck for ideas, don't forget you have a vast bank of resources to tap into. Think laterally about everyday aspects of your business that you would never have previously considered as sources of content.
Employees are a great start. If your business has been around for a while, it's likely that you'll have at least one experienced employee who knows the trade well. Chelsea's example was of Brian Weatherly, a lorry driver who after years in the industry, began to blog about it. Use these wise employees to create content for you, they probably know what they're talking about. Brian's going to know a lot more about trucking than any 'content writer'.
Saying that, if you have interns or recent graduates who are brimming with youthful joie de vivre then use that for your ends. Sure they might make the odd mistake or perhaps not be as knowledgeable about the industry as longer-term employees, but what they lack in experience they'll make up for in enthusiasm and a willingness to learn and develop. Don't be afraid to throw them in at the deep end, you'll be surprised at how well they'll swim. They could also end up becoming those industry experts in a few years - much better doing it through you than in their own time.
Other potential sources of content are presentations, pitches and your company history. If your business was started by a couple of brothers in the 1930s, sell that aspect of it in your content, hammer home its humble beginnings. If you've recently pitched to another business and a deal didn't come off, use it as a case study of what not to do or, if it did come off, what to do. This is interesting content that has the double bonus of impressing potential customers!
Presentations are again a fantastic resource to plunder. When practicing, record yourself - instant podcast! When delivering, video it - instant video resource! Post your slides online too. The added bonus is that people love multimedia content and by just doing those three things (which, let's face it, take minimal effort) you've ticked three different boxes.
If you're the one with the knowledge, learn how to become an authority yourself - the best way to establish your brand as an authority is to establish an authoritative writer for your brand.
Use Data to Drive Content
As much as content is about creating a story, you have to back up your stories with data. It doesn't own content, content isn't data's pet, but data certainly takes content where it needs to go. Data is the cabby and content the passenger.
Use data wisely. Using Lauren Pope's agile content strategy, digital content can be refined and edited until it's right. Use data to analyse what is and isn't working and edit accordingly. Don't be afraid to drop something if, according to the data, it has completely bombed. Equally, stay aware of anything that works and replicate and imitate the style (although as mentioned further up, that's still no guarantee it'll do well!)
Brandwatch's Andy Keetch argued that social media monitoring is essential as a means to know when and how to craft content. Of course, he would do as an employee of a social media monitoring business, but he definitely has a point!
Using data to take note of what people are currently buzzing about allows you to stay topical. You can tap into conversations that are already happening as well as try to spark a conversation based on the zeitgeist.
Don't just collect data for the sake of data. It's not how much data you have, it's how you use it that counts.
Again to return to Tom Ewing, it's about tapping into people's streams and feeding them content that sticks, and by using data you can judge what is likely to be 'stickier'.
Don't disregard data; it'll get you from A to B.
Perfect your Briefs
In content marketing it's rare that each piece of content is brainstormed, created and published all by one person. You might be head of an agency content team, you might be a business outsourcing content to an agency or to freelance writers. In either case it is absolutely vital that you get the brief right, or the writer might produce something very different to what you're expecting. It can be tempting to blame them, but most of the time it's because the pitch wasn't right. If there is any room for interpretation it's likely that yours and the writer's will differ.
If you're giving out instructions to anyone else about creating content then you need to be clear, concise and decisive. Textbroker is one of the world's most popular content sourcing website so it was useful to have Jochen Mebus at Content Marketing Show to run through some points about what makes a bad brief.
Give enough information to make it clear what you want, who you want to target and why, as well as how you want it to come across, but not so much that the brief is thousands of words longer than the content. A solid page or two of explanation will do in most cases.
Perfect your briefs and get perfect content back.
Pitch it Right
Knowing how to promote your content is an essential tool for any content marketer. When contacting journalists as mentioned previously, remain polite throughout and remember they're human too. An email enquiry plus a follow up phone call is Désiré's recommended method of contact as it's not too stalker-ish but still shows that you mean business.
Remember that the people you pitch to are busy, so a phone call out of the blue might annoy them rather than get your attention, although Chris Lee believes it's the only way to get on the radar of someone who receives a mountain of email every day.
Don't forget the importance of real, personal relationships either. Schmoozing is key. Complements, back scratching, long lunches - everything you've seen in movies with journos are still the most effective ways to persuade and influence them to jump on a story.
To return to Stephen Pavlovich's wish.co.uk - they approached the people that mattered in the right way. An email to Stephen Fry, Simon Pegg and national newspapers, as opposed to constant badgering, allowed for a natural snowball effect that people were more than willing to be a part of. But it was important that they already had those connections. You're more likely to get an email read if you're sending it to someone who knows you.
Simon Penson's concept of content flow is something that all content marketers should try and understand. For content to be consistently effective over time, it needs to be varied - there has to be peaks and troughs to maintain interest.
If you put out an amazing piece of content every day then the interest will be there. For big pieces to work, they need to be surrounded by smaller pieces. Don't fill the gaps with bad content, but make sure it's varied. If you write an epic 4,000 word blog post or put out a professional video - publish smaller bits around it like quick interviews and how-tos. Otherwise the content stream becomes clogged up and your audience doesn't know what to focus on.
Charlie Brooker's Rock Band/Twitter analogy sums this up quite nicely:
Don't make people stop responding by making them feel like they're playing Rockband, keep them involved with peaks and troughs in content.
If in Doubt, Steal from the Experts
So you've read through all these tips, you've absorbed all the advice and you're getting ready to write some amazing content and... still nothing comes out. Well listen, don't worry it happens to the best of us, everyone gets a bit of writers block (although there are at least 20 or so ideas outlined above for you to draw upon!)
The fact is, online media has a long way to go. The majority of content creators online have no formal understanding of how to create content. They've been told to blog so they blog, they know web pages need text so they write. Unfortunately this means that the web has become a big of a hodge-podge of muddled content with no clear purpose.
As a former magazine editor, Simon Penson thinks we should all steal from print content. They've had 100 years to perfect what they do, and yet this hasn't been translated online. It's easy to forget that content marketing is really just another name for publishing.
If your content strategy isn't working out, then head to your local newsagent and pick up some magazines in your niche. Reverse engineer the structure, look at how content flows and even steal ideas outright! As mentioned above, keep it fresh like magazines do with competitions, lists, opinion pieces, interviews etc.
How much more appealing are magazine layouts to most blog posts? Don't be constrained by a boring template - something that is growing in popularity these days is visual posts, where each article gets it's own layout. Time consuming, but impressive. With HTML5 and CSS3, it's possible to make digital content just as good as print content.
If you're still stuck for ideas even after all the tips given above, why not pull apart a magazine and steal their format.
A last word on stealing from print - Chelsea Blacker gave a great tip for brands that existed before the internet. If you have decades' worth of print content in the form of B2B magazines or mailouts, then put any content that still works online!
A Final Word
Hopefully this guide has given you some inspiration as to how to go about creating fantastic content for the web.
Remember: tell stories, draw an emotional response, you are influential, you can't force viral, be bold, be different, be nice, know your audience and yourself, use the tools you've been given, use data, get your briefs and pitches right, get content flowing and if in doubt, steal from the best.
Thanks to all the speakers at the show for the inspiration and to Kelvin for organising it. We're looking forward to the next one already.
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