Our 6 Must Reads on Content Marketing
PR & Marketing

Our 6 Must Reads on Content Marketing

Exceptional content marketing — and its accompanying, loyal audience — takes time to build. Here are six tips to help you start creating resonant and enduring content today.

Exceptional content marketing — and its accompanying, loyal audience — takes time to build. That may be why, when it comes to delivering content that connects and endures, there’s often a knowing look to the horizon:

  • “Don’t expect magic overnight. Plant the seed and be patient.”
  • “You have to invest the time and energy in writing. And accept that it takes a long, long time to write something good.”
  • “There’s the short game of hitting quantity targets. And then there’s the long-game of building quality: engagement, loyalty, love and respect.”

This excerpted counsel is from Joe Coleman and Tara-Nicholle Nelson, just a few of our Review subjects. But similar words are frequently part of the advice that we hear from people who’ve built careers and companies on content that resonates and lasts. And certainly, as your editors of the Review over the last four years, their words ring true to us.

But patience doesn’t mean stagnancy. As is part of our manifesto, we aim to bring you the tactics that you can institute right away to better execute and elevate your work. So even if effective content marketing requires consistent and compounding efforts, we believe there’s still more that can be done to accelerate and control results.

So here, in a functional area of expertise that hits closest to home, we present you with the six must-read articles with tactical content marketing tips. We hope you find them valuable — and that they help you lasso that horizon and bring it a bit closer.

Write down any question you hear from customers more than twice. That'll feed your content marketing.

As oft-referenced as “content marketing” is these days, Contently CEO Joe Coleman says he’s continually surprised by how many companies of all sizes (including the Fortune 500) don’t know what to write, what to track, or what their objective is, even as they pour millions into content production. In many cases, companies branching into content are tempted to run before they can walk. “They think, ‘Okay... content strategy. We need a blog, social media, an email list, all at the same time. Go!’” he says.

Instead, talk to existing companies as your first step. “Get your sales team involved. Have them constantly share the questions they get, or the challenges they people have, and build a heatmap. Really mine that data to figure out what you should be writing about,” says Coleman. “You have to be really honest with yourself at this stage. It’s not just whether you should and can produce content. It’s whether you can do it without half-assing it. Otherwise, you can do real damage to your brand.”

Part of this process might be figuring out you don’t need content at all, or that it’s not the right time. Audience analysis should precede bringing on someone to run content marketing full time.

This is advice is just one component of nine content marketing commandments that Coleman has seen work again and again. Read the rest here.

Good content marketing requires finding product-market fit all over again.

Swap clickbait for a customer map.

Clickbait is tough to quit. Content publishers don’t do it for the heck of it. They do it because people click the links and add their email addresses to popup form fields to get to the content behind the gates. It’s growth above all else.

That is, until the growth slows, content performance declines and ultimately people stop clicking.

Marketing maven Tara-Nicholle Nelson (Trulia, MyFitnessPal and Under Armour) has seen these clickbait-driven boom-and-bust cycles before — and encourages startups to veer away from them. So if you’re stuck on the clickbait treadmill or otherwise struggling to build engagement through content, Nelson assures that there’s a better way.

Tara-Nicholle Nelson

Instead of conceding to the temptation of clickbait, she implores marketers to build what’s called a customer map. “Sketch out your customer’s actual, everyday struggle to solve the problem your company exists to solve. Circle points of friction. How do their motivations, capabilities and aspirations relieve or exacerbate these points? The goal is to become an expert in how they do or do not achieve their goals,” says Nelson. “This isn’t easy, but it unlocks an incredibly rich trove of fodder for creating content that people will actually be eager and excited to read. What you get out of a customer map can literally change lives.”

For a step-by-step guide on how to navigate these types of customer maps — including one for MyFitnessPal and how it worked — read on here.

It’s easier to do clickbait and it’s scarier to go deep with people. But I can tell you that deep calls unto deep — and that drives engagement.

Avoid these seven sins of startup storytelling.

Andy Smith is an author, entrepreneur and advisor who specializes in the intersection of psychology, social media and marketing to help brands tell great stories. As he’s worked with startups, he’s seen how business stories too often fall flat or spark unnecessary fires. In his Review article, he tells of the seven deadly sins of startup storytelling, which, if internalized, can help startups prevent such missteps. Among them is using jargon, telling instead of showing, and scrubbing out conflict.

One of the most counterintuitive tips from Smith is to not start from the beginning of your story.

“Unless you’re telling the story of how to land a plane safely or the proper assembly of an IKEA bookshelf, resist the urge to begin at the beginning. Chronology matters much less than having your story follow an interesting arc,” he says. “And as luck would have it, the stuff you need to hook people doesn't tend to happen early on. Events need to build, one after the other, emotionally rather than sequentially. To really impact people, your story should describe increasing risk and increasing consequences until the final, inevitable conclusion — but not necessarily the one that the audience expects.”

To cue up the narrative the right way, he offers an exercise: “As you think of the elements of the story you want to tell, imagine them as modules, first capturing them on Post-Its, then mixing them up. This easy exercise will break you of the oppressive habit of presenting things in order,” says Smith. “Now, Post-Its in hand, think like a movie-maker. Open on a moment of truth. Make people feel it. Engage the senses. Then reach back to the past to savor the contrast. Even if people know how your story ends — it’s usually the product you’re asking them to buy — you can breathe life into the journey of how you got there, how your other customers discovered you, and why it’s made a difference.”

For an example of a successful case study showing this in action, read on here.

Audit whether social sharing “enables” or “disables” your content.

For many who geek out about new products from startups, Product Hunt needs no introduction. By the time AngelList acquired it, the platform where people find and upvote startup products was driving over 100 million product discoveries for 50,000 companies.

The Review interviewed Ryan Hoover, its founder, less than a year after Product Hunt launched. Though it may have started as an experimental side project, in many ways its meteoric rise was keenly manufactured. One of the tactics that Hoover used to capture attention early on had to do with how Product Hunt allowed its content to be shared.

Early on, Product Hunt didn’t give users a bunch of options to share content on their social channels. At the time, they had the option to tweet a new product, and that was pretty much it — and that was fundamental to the site because users would log in using their Twitter identities. As a visitor, you can click through to see products, and if logged in, you can upvote or comment.

Hoover didn’t want to allow sharing to distract from Product Hunt’s primary goal. Here was his rationale at the time: “This is really intentional because we want to keep people focused on the content they’ve come to see. Our core metric that we use to tell if we’re doing a good job is how many people are actually clicking through and visiting product pages. That’s how we know people are continuing to find value in what we’re doing and everything follows after that — traffic, engagement, etc.”

The takeaway: weigh the cost and benefit of making something shareable before you make it an option for users by default. For Product Hunt, in most cases people want to share or “hunt” a product on the site in order to look smart, savvy, connected. They want to comment to build intellectual credibility and a point of view among other influencers.

So for Hoover, it was a balancing act — one that only Twitter helped achieve at the time. “It’s in our best interest to make it easier for people to both share and then feel rewarded for sharing,” says Hoover. “We don’t want to get in the way of this with a bunch of other features, and we don’t want to sacrifice the content itself by giving people too many chances to click away or do something else.”

For more on Product Hunt’s rise and how it leveraged its one social integration, read on here.

Trust is earned in drips and lost in buckets.

Scrap to gain content (and trust). Show restraint when you’ve got it.

Most new tech companies simply would not work without consumer trust. People wouldn’t list their home on Airbnb or even buy shoes on Zappos if they didn’t trust those companies to deliver a high quality, secure service. UrbanSitter sets the bar even higher: It connects families with babysitters on the Internet. There are few things that require more faith.

CEO Lynn Perkins found that content marketing can go a long way toward solidifying expertise in a particular field, whether you’re in the enterprise or consumer market. UrbanSitter publishes articles that tackle all aspects of the childcare experience. They even interview parents and sitters about what makes sitting better and easier. “We might write something like the top 10 questions to ask a babysitter in an interview,” says Perkins. “We end up attracting parents to our website through these articles and simultaneously build our brand awareness, while converting them into customers.”

Lynn Perkins

But UrbanSitter doesn’t just stop there. It reaches out to parenting bloggers and provides content through other newsletters. In addition, the company makes connections with schools and seeks to partner with organizations that already have a lot of credibility so that they can absorb some of that trust. “This may sound completely unscalable, but it really helps build initial brand awareness,” says Perkins. “Once we hit word-of-mouth scale we can start in with paid search and Facebook ads, SEO and things like that.”

As important as content marketing is, it’s even more critical that you don’t go overboard. “You can very quickly damage the value of your service and your network when you become spammy,” Perkins says. “Because we leverage Facebook so much, and we have all this information about who you’re connected to, we’re very careful to not take advantage of that, and I’d advise other companies to be very careful too.”

For more on how how UrbanSitter uses content and got people to trust its product, read on.

Privacy concerns are a dealbreaker. Balance your need for user information with your desire to use it to benefit your company.

Pick a CMS that lets you display different content to different markets.

When Gixo co-founder Selina Tobaccowala joined SurveyMonkey in 2009, 85% of its business was done in English. It was solidly a domestic company making slow inroads overseas. A little over five years later, the company was supporting 17 different languages and 28 currencies.

It’s challenging enough to come up with content to suit a range of users in one market, let alone for several global markets. This geographic expansion has massive ramifications on a company’s content marketing. “No matter who you are, or whether you have a commerce app or a content app, you definitely have sites where you're trying to sell people on your product or your company. The sites have to be different for every market.”

For example, homepages in Japan are brighter and busier than homepages designed for U.S. audiences. Japanese homepages are consistently filled with dense images and content. That’s a stark contrast to U.S. websites, which typically have a clean design. The difference in aesthetics can change the way people perceive your brand — and the content you share.

“To create a flexible marketing site, you have to think about the content management system you're using,” says Tobaccowala. “You need to pick something that will let you display different content to different markets. It's not just about translation, but truly different content for each market.” Given how much work it takes, you don't want to switch content systems later in the game, even if you're not going global right now.

For more on how Tobaccowala approached content at SurveyMonkey and how she helped it crack the international market, read here.

This is far from the end of the Review's wisdom on content, check out the full articles referenced above as well as others focused on startup stories every manager and leader must be able to tell, the one key customer profile you need to know inside out, and ways to land amazing customer stories. And for some of our thoughts on content marketing and The Review, read here and here.

Illustration by bs-photo/The Image Bank/Getty Images. Photos by Bonnie Rae Mills and Michael George.