Creating Great Content

It takes a lot of work to produce great content.

You wouldn’t always know it, of course. That’s because most companies’ content is adequate at best, downright awful at worst. I’m not talking about brochures or website copy—although in many cases, organizations of all sizes could benefit from investing extra resources in these areas, too—but the content they create to establish thought leadership in their respective field. Some call this brand journalism or content marketing.

We call it essential to a company’s marketing success in an era when so much hinges on brand perceptions, social media visibility and search engine optimization performance. Now, that content could be everything from a CEO contributing a column to a popular website or newspaper, a sales manager blogging on new industry-wide innovations, or a CFO providing tips on how best to improve a company’s balance sheet. Whatever the topic or nature of the content, it’s all intended to showcase the smarts of the company’s key executives or staff.

Think strategically

That’s all fine and good, you might be thinking to yourself. But who cares? How will content marketing improve sales and bolster our organization’s bottom-line? It’s a very worthwhile question and one that many business leaders fail to ask before taking the content plunge.

Great content should be designed strategically to help your organization achieve its long-term business objectives. Simply writing out blogs for the sake of writing blogs won’t move the needle on the key performance indicators that inform your business model and determine success.

Instead, have a conversation about your marketing goals and how they tie into your organization’s sales strategy. Determine how your marketing department can provide the support your sales staff needs. Then ask: What audience/clientele do we need to target? What do they want to read/hear/see from our organization? How can we help them be better at what they do (if yours is a business-to-business focused organization) or live better lives/achieve their personal goals, etc. (if your target clients are consumers)?

Create a voice

Audiences connect with people as much (or more) than companies. So, determine who in your organization might be the best person to author your content. In some cases you might have everyone on your team writing blogs or posting to social media, for example. In others, you may want to showcase your CEO (and possibly ‘ghost write’ content if he/she is too busy to write it him/herself).

The goal is to establish a clear tone that aligns with your brand—the question I always ask clients is whether they want to sound more Google (i.e., light and playful) or more Microsoft (i.e., corporate and serious) in tone. There’s no right or wrong direction, just the one that makes sense for your brand.

Then be prepared to establish and maintain a regular publishing schedule so your readers know when to return to your website/Facebook page/Twitter feed, etc., for new content. You might even blast it out in quarterly newsletters or semi-annual white papers. The frequency and format is up to you, but the more important point is to maintain that schedule to remain engaged with your readers.

Now you’re probably wondering how to create that awesome content.

1. It has to be timely

We recently helped a client create and place a marketing-focused opinion column on the website of a major Canadian newspaper. The focus of his critique was the PR and social media outreach efforts to publicize a world-class sporting event, while the event was still ongoing. Within a day the piece received more than 23,000 views, more than 120 comments and 180 Facebook shares (and still counting).

Why such strong readership? The piece was timely, addressing a very buzz-worthy topic that resonated with readers who apparently held equally strong views about the event.

The point is that good content should appeal to what your target audience is thinking at that time. During the Great Recession of 2008-09, for example, I served as a senior editor at a major Canadian business magazine. Our main focus during my tenure was creating content to help entrepreneurs navigate the stormy economic seas that prevailed at the time. The tactic worked and our readership soared.

It’s not always easy to tap into newsworthy topics, particularly those as relevant as a major economic shock or a breaking news story, but you can tie into simple events such as the seasons (it seems rudimentary, but it can work!), annual holidays, or annual industry events or conferences. Those are just a few examples, but there’s almost always some timely topic that will resonate with your audience when you’re ready to publish.

2. It has to be relevant

There’s a lot of bad content on the Internet. That much we know, but there are still many business leaders who are stunned when a blog or white paper they’ve penned gets little or no readership.

The reason, quite often, is that they haven’t put the time into considering what their audience really wants to read. The content just isn’t relevant to the audience members’ businesses, so they won’t bother to read/view/listen.

Creating relevant content comes back to my earlier point about understanding your target audience/clientele. Once you know exactly who you’re targeting, you can pinpoint topics that might resonate with that audience. As an example, we work with a mid-sized accounting firm that primarily works with small and medium-sized organizations. Almost every time we post social media content on the topic of crowdfunding, our Facebook shares and re-Tweets spike. Why? Because their entrepreneur audience is always on the hunt for new sources of financing and crowdfunding could be the next big thing. Or not—but they’re still interested to learn more.

Analyzing the needs and interests of your audience, then brainstorming interesting topics, will go a long way towards creating relevant content.

3. It has to be interesting

Seems like an obvious point, right? Then why is it that so much content is downright boring? Great content should be delivered in an accessible and easily-digested format. Packing a blog with undecipherable industry jargon and trying to sound more intelligent by complicating prose is a sure fire way to alienate readers.

Instead, try to write in a conversational tone (please proofread for spelling and grammar!!) and present an opinion. If you’re telling me about a major legislative change that impacts your industry, explain why it is or isn’t a positive one. If you’re not sure, then give me both sides of the story and let me figure it out for myself.

Again, people connect with authors. So establish your voice, share an opinion or two, and always try to keep readers engaged with your content.

4. It has to be informative

Good content tells your readers something they don’t already know. It informs them about news that impacts their business, it might tell them about new products or services your organization is offering, or it could even update them on awards your company has won.

In most cases, your content will be focused on establishing your thought leadership on a given topic (I’d say about 80 to 90 per cent of the time), so it should offer your audience valuable information. The goal is to keep your organization (and the author of the content) top of mind with potential clients. Telling them what they already know is a complete waste of their time.

Creating great content takes patience, effort and practice. When you get it right, content marketing can help boost brand recognition, increase sales and drive your organization’s growth better than costlier tactics such as mainstream advertising.

Until next time.

Managing your creative service providers

Yes, you still need to manage your outsourced marketing service providers. Here’s why

In an effort to cut costs, the outsourcing of marketing and creative service providers has become a go-to strategy for organizations both large and small in recent years.

Why build your own marketing team when you can simply hire an outsourced firm to handle tasks—everything from graphic design and website development, to public relations and analytics—on your behalf? It’s just smart business strategy. (Full disclosure: Shockwave and Jackson Wynne essentially exist because companies have embraced this approach, so we’re more than a little biased in favour of outsourcing. But I digress)

The outsourcing strategy, however, comes with challenges.

There are many CEOs who assume that once a marketing responsibility has been outsourced, the initiative will be developed, deployed and, presto—instant marketing success. All that’s left is to simply sit back, serve the stream of new clients pouring through their real or virtual doors, and pay out the service provider. No fuss, no muss.
In reality, it never works that way.

A tough situation

Let me give you an example. A couple of years ago we worked with a global service provider, delivering high-level marketing consulting and management services to support their existing marketing department. Although we weren’t responsible for managing the outsourced agency that handled graphic design on the client’s behalf, we watched from afar as a tough situation snowballed into a disastrous one.

The trouble began when the design firm received little creative direction at the start of the relationship and quickly discovered that key management personnel—from whom they needed approvals—were almost always unavailable. Presenting work at stages during the months-long engagement was impossible. The engagement quickly turned sour when the agency delivered what they thought was a final product, work the client wholeheartedly rejected as being off-brand and off-message. The agency reminded the client that they had tried to engage various managers, but couldn’t.

At that point it didn’t matter. The client spent thousands of dollars on creative they didn’t love, but were forced to use due to their significant investment.

Some important lessons

All parties involved in that situation could have worked more effectively to ensure a strong outcome from the project. The agency could have taken additional steps to open lines of communication with the client, for example.

But, ultimately, clients need to manage their service providers to ensure a high-value engagement. Exactly how to do that depends on the organization and their structure, of course, but there are a few simple rules to follow to make sure your outsourced marketing relationships run as smoothly as possible:

Define objectives—One of the major challenges companies have at the very start of an outsourcing arrangement is a lack of clarity around their marketing objectives, and in turn, the expectation of the service provider. Before engaging a firm to outsource a marketing responsibility, determine what you need to achieve, how you want to do it and what a positive outcome will look like over the longer term.

Set a budget—Knowing how much you can spend on a marketing campaign or initiative is a first step in determining the kind of outsourced service provider you can engage. I’ll delve more into the topic in a later post, but remember that your end results will generally be a reflection of the initial and ongoing investment. Having a budget (even a rough one) in mind will help you narrow a list of potential service providers—which could include freelancers, a boutique firm or possibly even a national agency if your organization has deep pockets.

Identify key point people—Any experienced service provider will ask for you to identify one or two main internal point people to contact for ongoing questions and approvals. Without those contacts, they’re essentially working in limbo. Make sure that whoever you do appoint to manage the project or relationship has the time available to monitor the service provider’s progress and address any concerns they might have. These point people should also be prepared to provide the service provider with a creative brief, as well as background training or an overview of your organization’s employee culture, brand considerations and business operations to ensure the work they deliver is on-brand and on-message.

Stay in touch—Don’t assume that one or two meetings will be sufficient to manage an outsourced marketing relationship. Insist on semi-monthly calls or meetings with the service provider to assess their progress and answer questions. The call or meeting might only last for 10 minutes, but it’s a reminder that you’re serious about the project and expect results, while giving the provider an opportunity to present work, seek approvals and ask for clarifications.

Set regular milestones—Another important consideration to avoid project cost over-runs or delivery delays is to set short-term milestones for the service provider to achieve. These could be monthly or quarterly (depending on the nature of the engagement) and could even be tied to payment. This tactic will not only help you assess progress, but also helps keep the service provider motivated. From their perspective, it’s easy to drift and become lackadaisical about a project when even the client seems disengaged and indifferent about its outcome.

Until next time.

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