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.

Why content matters

In my last post I wrote about the need to treat your website as a key part of your business, rather than merely a place to park your logo and a few hundred words about what you do.

At the same time, I touched on the importance of regular content updates, both for SEO and brand positioning purposes. It’s an important point that often gets overlooked or completely ignored.

The reason is that creating great content takes time, and because time is money, that approach can gobble up a significant portion of an organization’s marketing budget—especially if it’s developed and deployed in a strategic manner. The alternative is to create content in an ad hoc fashion, perhaps assigning topics to key management personnel or employees and hoping that what they produce has some relevance to the business. This content typically ends up on the company blog, most of which are poorly maintained due to, you guessed it, a lack of time.

I get it: your people have finite amounts of time, most of which should be spent on activities that help drive immediate revenue gains, such as sales. Makes sense, right?

But what if I told you that creating the right kind of content would eventually support—and even propel—those sales efforts?

Content marketing can no longer be an afterthought

There’s a reason why leading organizations from Fortune 500 corporations to small and medium-sized businesses have been focusing so much of their marketing spend on strategic content development in recent years: it works (at least when it’s done right).

That’s why there’s a very good chance that your competitors have already embraced content as a key marketing and sales tool.

Case in point: a 2013 survey by digital marketing organizations The Content Marketing Institute and Marketo, found that 46 per cent of business-to-business marketers in the enterprise realm (companies with more than 1,000 employees) planned to increase their content marketing budgets in the coming year. At the same time, 20 per cent struggled to produce content that engages their target audiences. Perhaps it’s not surprising that fully sixty-five percent have chosen to outsource content creation to a third-party agency.

In other words, [tweetable]it’s no longer sufficient to treat your organization’s content strategy as a nice-to-have afterthought[/tweetable] that gets maintained in a haphazard way—if at all. Content needs to be a key component of any comprehensive marketing strategy because your competitors are probably already using these tactics to set their brands apart. Now it’s time for yours to catch up.

Create great content, get found online

Messages emanating from the leaders of major search engines such as Google have been consistent in reminding major brands and business owners about the importance of using strong content to enhance search engine optimization (SEO). The old days when search was largely based around code-based tools such as meta tags are over. Nowadays, a website’s design, functionality and, yes, content are what the search engines will use to rank your website.Search engines such as Google prioritize high-quality, relevant content over virtually everything else. They also actively reduce the rankings of websites publishing poorer-quality content. Unless your business functions without using online search to acquire new customers—and I think we’d be hard-pressed to name a business nowadays that doesn’t rely on SEO to land at least some of its sales leads—then being visible online is critical to your organization’s growth and success.

Don’t forget social media

There are still a significant number of businesses across North America that ignore social media as a marketing tool. I could write more on that tactical oversight, but let’s focus instead on the role that strong content plays in creating a meaningful social media experience for your followers.

As the Brafton graphic reminds us, “Social is SEO and content is social.” That simply means that social media channels such as YouTube, Facebook, LinkedIn, Instagram and Twitter are critical tools for driving website traffic. Many organizations that lack strong website metrics also lack a coherent social media program, hence their poor online visibility. The other key point is that content drives the social media experience. Without it, yours is just another business with a Twitter or Facebook account, and nothing to say.

A strong content strategy mitigates the risk of seeming vapid, disengaged or downright boring to your social media followers. Click To Tweet

Strong content will make people want to follow your business and will keep you top of mind amongst your target clientele. Perhaps most importantly when determining where best to spend limited marketing dollars, you can rest assured that it’s a drastically cheaper and often more effective approach than relying on traditional advertising. Not to hate on advertising (although I will for just a moment), but when was the last time you derived truly worthwhile sales leads from pay-per-click advertising? You probably can’t remember because with the exception of major consumer retail brands, PPC is relatively ineffective, particularly for B2B-focused organizations.

Become your clients’ trusted advisor

Advice-driven content marketing, on the other hand, is the equivalent of giving free news and insights to an existing client or prospect. And who doesn’t need useful advice from time to time?

The major reason why so many organizations prioritize content marketing is because they want to offer their advice to clients on a regular basis, not inundate them with meaningless advertisements. That could mean simply aggregating articles that your clients might find interesting, or producing your own native content. Whatever the tactic, the goal is to ensure that your company is the one providing that information on an (ideally) daily basis.

I often help clients produce white papers or reports that are distributed directly to both their existing and prospective clients, for example. The subject matter is always timely, relevant, interesting and informative—more on this magic content recipe in my next post—and is designed to provide value. The goal is to not only have them read the document (or in some cases watch the video or view the infographic), but to leave them with a sense that the producer of that content has a strong grasp on the subject matter and developments in their respective industry, while also having the best interests of their client in mind.

In the case of that one client, a series of white papers opened doors to C-level executives and landed at least a few new clients. I say ‘at least’ because the documents live on their website forever, so they’re likely to continue reaping the rewards of that relatively modest investment for years to come.

It’s not just about online content marketing

Although I’ve focused solely on the benefits of content development in the online realm, the benefits aren’t solely digital.

Your content can be deployed across more traditional printed materials, in trade show displays, in speeches or presentations to live audiences, in outreach to media outlets and in advertising (both online and off). In short, the best marketing strategies are the ones that maximize the use of content across media and leverage it in ways that make the most sense for your business.

We live in an integrated marketing world. Deal with it

Briefly analyze how some of the world’s leading brands are marketing and you’ll notice a trend. They’re largely deploying integrated campaigns that utilize a range of tactics and strategies to achieve growth-driving results.

There are still many CEOs who might view a content development strategy as being separate from one for social media or search engine optimization, for example. These are some of the same people who still isolate their marketing and sales teams from each other, allowing minimal collaboration between the two camps. Thankfully, these leaders are shrinking in number as they either retire or find religion in marketing integration. That means overlapping various marketing strategies and tactics to ensure they co-exist symbiotically and deliver consistent marketing returns on investment.

Why content matters

The key takeaway from this post is to remember that content marketing is a relatively inexpensive, yet highly effective, way to market your organization. When it’s done right, a content development strategy can deliver game-changing business benefits. Not sure how to create great content? Stay tuned for my next post.

Until next time.

Treat your website like a core part of the business

A rant is no way to kick off a new guest blog, so I’ll turn off caps lock—for now, anyway.

Indeed, as I write the first of many blogs that I’ll be contributing to this space, I’ll try to keep my prosaic indignation to a minimum. The real reason is that our target audience needs more than a digital dressing-down. What they need is help understanding that their website is also their digital storefront, and needs to be treated as such.

A shockingly neglectful trend across some organizations is to treat that storefront as an afterthought, allowing it to become aesthetically outdated—many treat the concept of a redesign as a grudging, once-a-decade necessity—invisible to search engines and utterly devoid of relevant updates. I could go on about the lack of a coherent and complementary social media or content strategy, but that might be overkill.

A challenge for organizations great and small

So, let me be clear. In the digital age, a robust, well-maintained website found easily by leading search engines is a must-have aspect of doing business. The fact that there are still some businesses—albeit small ones—that exist without a website is no less shocking. They, thankfully, occupy only a tiny minority.

But this isn’t a small-business problem, or one limited to B2C- or B2B-focused companies. Even many large organizations serving customers across the spectrum neglect their websites. In fact, they’re often the worst offenders. The reason is that when the time arrives to redesign their website(s), many become bogged down in bureaucracy and decision-making by committee. They watch helplessly as otherwise great designs become watered down to produce benign and barely-navigable online experiences that only serve to frustrate visitors.

In response, many abandon their attempts at digital rejuvenation or make tiny, ad hoc changes that do little or nothing to reinforce the strength of their brand.

A better way

Consider this a call to action, or maybe even an intervention.

If your organization has become handcuffed by its digital inertia, step back and don’t panic. There is a better way forward. It involves treating your website as a core component of your business and a driver of both brand perception and revenue. This is your digital storefront and, if you’re a B2B or online-only business with no brick-and-mortar presence, it’s probably you’re only point of contact with your target market.

That’s why it’s imperative that you breathe new life into your outdated website. Start by taking the time to review your entire marketing-communications infrastructure, from your company’s core value propositions and differentiators, to branding and communications strategy. Your website is the vehicle to deliver all of this messaging and makes the argument that yours is a great organization worthy of your target market’s business. Engaging in a full re-design is pointless until you’ve covered many of these fundamental points.

Get ready to redesign on a regular basis

Website design is fluid. Prevailing trends shift constantly, which means your website will need to be redesigned every two to three years. Rest assured this isn’t some self-serving pitch from a design firm to build a steady pipeline of business—it’s merely the reality of doing business in a digital world.

We’ll investigate design trends in detail in future posts, but it’s important to note that the redesign process should be handled by a small committee composed of key marketing or operations people in your company that reports directly into one or two senior managers. You may be ready to call out a seeming contradiction here: Didn’t he just say that design-by-committee was a recipe for web design disaster? Yes, especially in cases where that committee dilutes the essence of an otherwise worthwhile endeavour by clinging to outdated approaches or yesteryear’s design principles. But in the right situation, it can work.

Your committee will likely be comprised of a small handful of marketing or operations people who will analyze the design trends I mentioned above, as well as the company’s digital requirements—asking questions about whether the business has grown to the point where it needs a more robust online retailing functionality, for example, or whether it requires a social media presence to keep pace with competitors. In most cases, the committee will then select a web design firm to develop new concepts to present to management, who will make the final decision before the rebuild gets underway.

On a side note, redesigns cost money, so allocating budget on a regularly scheduled basis will help to maintain this process and ensure that your brand isn’t left in the digital dust.

Ask yourself: Would I like to navigate this website?

If we agree that form follows function, then a revenue-driving website needs to be navigable. If you can’t find information on your website, how can you expect your target audience to do the same?

This is where it pays to hire a design firm with expertise in user experience (UX) design, especially when it comes to mobile devices. This is especially important at a time when at least half (or possibly most) visitors will access your website using a mobile phone or tablet. Make no mistake—UX should be one of the biggest considerations during the redesign process.

Another key point that we’ll review in detail in a subsequent blog (as you can tell, our online conversation is going to continue for a while!) is to integrate a user-friendly, open-source content-management system such as WordPress into the redesign. This will allow you to make content updates on a regular basis without incurring ongoing development costs.

Now… update content on a regular basis

The last point I want to cover is the importance of updating your website on a regular basis. That means developing an ongoing blog strategy, posting white papers, updating key messaging, posting to relevant social media sites—whatever content makes sense for your business.

There are many reasons for creating and posting content on an ongoing basis, of course, ranging from search engine optimization—Google’s algorithm uses the relevance and frequency of content updates to rank websites, among many, many other criteria—to using it to turn your website into a strong sales platform or a leading thought leadership hub, depending on the nature of the business.

Not sure what to write (blog), record (podcast) or shoot (video)? If you own a business or manage some part of it, you should have something interesting to say about your industry, developments within your company, the challenges and opportunities you face running a fast-growing organization—the list goes on. This content should be timely, relevant, interesting and informative. It should engage your audience and make them think: This person/company knows what they’re doing and I need to buy their products or services.

A new way of thinking

Treating your website like it’s a core part of your business may involve a change of philosophy at the management level. That revised approach will likely take time to take root, but remember: the longer your organization delays in its embrace of this new way of thinking, the greater the risk of being overtaken by online competitors (assuming they haven’t already). DON’T LET IT HAPPEN TO YOU!

(Sigh) Looks like I broke my all-caps promise. Until next time.

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