How to approach content marketing

The value of content marketing

Ads fail for most companies. Sales fails for many of the rest. It's really good content that acts as an alternative. It can propel underdogs to market leaders.

Content is the most effective way to educate customers on why they should buy your product. Ads and landing pages can only do so much in the space they have.

Content is also your opportunity to build a relationship with audiences. It helps them respect your competency, invest in your journey, and join your tribe.

Even if you fail to acquire new customers via content, content still helps improve retention among existing customers: great content that educates and entertains increases engagement and loyalty.

We generate content in order to:

  • Create shareable content that attracts new customers.
  • Get traffic via search engine optimization (SEO).
  • Educate and engage existing customers.
  • Build trust and authority.
  • Close leads.

Write extremely high quality content

The first rule of content marketing is to write for extremely high quality. Until you've established quality in the reader's mind, they don't read closely. Instead:

  • They skim.
  • They don't fully appreciate your arguments.
  • They assume you're just trying to sell to them (instead of educate).

The antidote is to not shy away from great, in-depth content.

The truth is that people don't actually have short attention spans for content: They finish three hour Joe Rogan episodes and they binge fourteen hour Netflix shows. What they have is short consideration spans: they must be hooked quickly. To do so, ensure your first minute is incredible.

Extreme quality stems from four factors:

  • Engagement — Are you hooking readers with your intros? Are you exciting them about what they're about to learn? Are you effectively conveying how valuable the material is?
  • Concision — Are you conveying your points without fluff?
  • Depth — Are you offering a thorough analysis that exceeds the self-evident parts of the material?
  • Novelty — Are you sharing counter-intuitive thoughts that readers wouldn't have pieced together on their own? That's how you trigger dopamine hits.
Writing for quality is a separate topic covered in my other handbook.

High quality is critical to SEO

Writing for quality is not only important for retention, it's also critical for ranking on Google. Google used to be all about backlinks—but not anymore.

When someone finds your page through a Google search, Google measures your post's quality in part by whether someone bounces from it to read another site instead. To keep readers from bouncing, you have to hook them immediately, cover everything they're looking for, and do so concisely.

What to write about

Search-driven (SEO) content should fulfill these criteria:

  1. You have something comprehensive and actionable to say about the topic.
  2. Potential customers search Google or YouTube for this topic.
  3. The topic can naturally segue into a pitch for your product.

Sharing-driven (social) content should fulfill these criteria:

  • You have something novel and surprising to say about the topic.
  • The novelty resonates emotionally or intellectually, which prompts sharing.
  • The topic can naturally segue into a pitch for your product.

Generate content in both categories to see which break out.

Sourcing content ideas

Here are four tactics for generating content ideas:

Summarize trends

Sign up to receive notifications from every blog, newsletter, and Twitter influencer. (If you sign up for these alerts using Throttle, it'll aggregate all this spam into periodic email summaries.)

Whenever a topic trends throughout these digests, consider writing a roundup: Summarize what's happening in a concise, easy-to-reference post.

Related, use Google Trends to find the breakout keywords in your industry. Is anything exploding in popularity? Write about it.

Remix existing content

Find the news aggregators (e.g. Reddit, ProductHunt) that are influential in your space. Monitor them for content that flies under the radar—perhaps due to an unenticing title, boring intro paragraph, or poor writing. Then remix that content into something more engaging. Always credit your sources.

Piggyback off competitors

Run your competitors' blogs through Buzzsumo. It’ll show which of their posts were shared the most on social channels. This is a proxy for determining which type of content most successfully appeals to your mutual audiences.

Consider writing about these topics, but add something unique to warrant your entry into the conversation.

Talk to your customers

Ask your sales and customer support teams what customers are frequently asking for help with. Turn these questions into content.

Choosing the best ideas

With your content ideas in hand, narrow down to those that are useful and novel. My framework for identifying novelty is to collect ideas that cause you to react in one of these four ways:

  • Counter-intuitive — "Wow. That’s not how I expected the world to work."
  • Counter-narrative — "Wow. That’s not how people told me the world works."
  • Elegant articulation — "Wow. I couldn't have said it better."
  • Shock and awe — "This is insane. I can’t believe this is the world we live in."

When readers encounter a novel idea that triggers these reactions, they get a dopamine hit. This keeps them reading and makes them more likely to share.

Optional — Starting niche

If you're struggling to attract an engaged audience, you can start by catering to a small niche of very passionate people: write thoughtful, quality content that no one else is giving them.

They’ll be ecstatic that someone is finally talking about their interests, and they’ll engage deeply and shout your work from the rooftops.

Once you’ve saturated this beginning niche, repeat the process while incrementally expanding: If, for example, you began by targeting Canadian bicycling enthusiasts, next expand to Canadian and American bikers. Then to hikers and runners, and eventually to all outdoor enthusiasts.

Converting readers into customers

Content must not only attract readers but also convert them—into subscribers, purchasers, or some other meaningful status.

To understand reader conversion, first review the blog consumption funnel:

  1. They visit your blog post.
  2. They skim your opening paragraph and/or table of contents and/or section titles.
  3. If they're intrigued, they may begin skimming the post and reading others.
  4. If the posts resonate and you pitched your product effectively, they may choose to learn more about you by clicking to your product pages.
  5. They skim your product pages.
  6. If they're intrigued, they may engage by providing an email—or buying.
  7. If they're not intrigued, they'll bounce.

This is one of many paths a reader can take through your content. To continually usher readers forward, focus on four goals:

  • Prevent readers from bouncing
  • Encourage further reading
  • Don't turn readers off with your pitch
  • Make part of your content exclusive to those who provide their email address

1. Prevent readers from bouncing

To prevent people from bouncing, make reading frictionless:

  • Hook them immediately — Read about hooks in my Writing Well handbook.
  • Don't tax them — Popups, ads, and long, rambling paragraphs introduce friction. Remove them.
  • Concisely say novel things — Remove all fluff.
  • Break it up — Include relevant, non-generic diagrams and imagery. Imagery breaks up text to give readers' eyes a break.
  • Avoid external links — Don't send readers away from your site.

2. Encourage further reading

To build affinity with readers so they convince themselves to buy your product, expose them to as much great content as you can.

For instance, the blog post a visitor lands on from a Google search may be most related to their search query, but it might not be the best post for converting readers into customers. Therefore, every blog post should cross-link to your best-converting posts.

And don't bury these links at the bottom of the page where no one reads them. Inject them naturally into the content.

Your goal is to continually feed readers quality until they encounter a post that finally strikes the chord needed to get them to convert.

3. Don't turn readers off with your pitch

Next, introduce your pitch without turning them off. When pitching, consider three principles:

  • Pitch in the back half Pitch yourself in the back half of the post: (1) pitching at the start taints the authenticity of the subsequent content and (2) the further a reader gets into a quality post, the more familiarity and trust they'll have accrued for you. This means they'll be less likely to ignore your pitch once they get to it.
  • Be contextually appropriate — Mention your product only when relevant. If you lack good segues, rewrite your post to make room for them.
  • Embedded visuals — Introduce product mentions in the form of modest, organically styled text. Don't insert giant, neon call-out sections. Readers reflexively ignore visuals that stand out from the text.

Pitching newsletters

When pitching a newsletter subscription in particular, overcome people's concerns of inbox spam by visualizing its value and putting readers in control:

  • Visualize value — Preview an issue of your newsletter by embedding a screenshot of it. This proves they won't be sent garbage.
  • Put them in control — Let readers choose whether they'll be emailed weekly or monthly, and which topics they'll hear about.

4. Capture their email

Consider making some of your content only accessible to readers who enter their email. Getting an email is how you convert an anonymous visitor into a newsletter subscriber. Now you have an ongoing dialogue.

There are a two strong ways to "email gate:"

  • Gate the back half of the post.
  • Gate half of your posts.

Give readers enough non-gated material to first see how great your content is.

Content distribution

If you blog and no one reads it, you didn't blog. You wrote in your diary.

Content marketing = content creation + distribution.

Content distribution happens via internal and external channels.

Internal channels

Internal channels are the channels you own:

  • On-site mentions — Link to your best posts from your homepage and your site-wide navigation bar.
  • In-product mentions — If your post helps users get value out of your product, consider linking it within the appropriate section of your product.
  • Newsletter — Email your existing subscribers with links to new posts.
  • Email drip sequence — After someone signs up, welcome them with an email sequence that explains your product and links to your best content.

Try all of them.

External channels

These are the distribution channels you don't own:

  • SEO — Follow the advice on this page to maximize Google traffic.
  • Industry newsletters — Ask the curators of your industry's top newsletters to link to your content in their issues. Consider paying them if necessary.
  • Sister company newsletters — If you're friendly with non-competitive companies with overlapping audiences, run a cross-promotion: mention one of their posts in your newsletter, and vice versa.
  • Link aggregators — Post your content to your industry's aggregators, such as reddit, Hacker News, Sidebar, Designer News, and ProductHunt. (To learn how to launch your startup on Product Hunt, see here.)
  • Social media — Post to your Twitter and LinkedIn accounts (see here for a guide). Content that gets engagement is typically novel and useful.
  • Social media influencers — Incentivize people with high-engagement audiences to distribute your content. You can pay them, run co-promotions with them, or bring them into your community to build a relationship.
  • Guest blogging — I talk about this below.

Try all of these channels.

The audience funnel

Not all content channels are equally good at acquiring users. Only some are optimized for attracting new eyeballs. Namely Twitter, YouTube, and SEO.

Other channels are better optimized for keeping those eyeballs engaged—until they eventually purchase. Podcasts and Newsletters are biased toward this.

This bifurcation exists because some channels do a great job automatically distributing content for you (Twitter, YouTube, SEO) while others have weak discovery mechanisms (Podcasts and Newsletters).

As a result, there's a proven funnel for building an audience through content:

Twitter/LinkedIn/YouTube/SEO → Newsletter, which pushes content → Site

Let's break that down:

  • Discovery — People will often first learn about you via Twitter, LinkedIn (guide), YouTube, and website SEO. Your high quality content on these channels compels visitors to sign up for your newsletter.
  • Engagement — Your newsletter becomes your owned retention mechanism: you stay in touch with folks by pushing high quality content that builds trust. The content you push can be from any channel. (YouTube is good for affinity.)
  • Pitching Now that you've earned their loyalty, begin pitching your products. Link to your landing pages, which help close the sale.

User-generated content

Sometimes users generate share-worthy content for you. If they do, that's vastly preferable to creating content on your own—because now you have a scalable and viral content engine.

User-generated content (UGC) can be a silver bullet that catapults a startup, but unfortunately it's not realistic for most businesses. Here's the litmus test: If your product's core purpose is to help people create and distribute content—if that's why users are signing up—then UGC is viable.

For example:

  • Twitter — Sharing short-form messages.
  • Medium — Sharing blog posts.
  • Vimeo — Sharing videos.
  • Zazzle — Sharing apparel designs.
  • Kickstarter — Sharing crowdfunding projects.

You use those products for the purpose of creating or sharing content. Therefore, they have UGC potential.

Leveraging UGC

As with every growth asset, UGC exists within a funnel. Optimize every step of it:

  • CTR/Search optimization — How can you automatically optimize the titles of your UGC to increase clickthrough rates?
  • Facilitate sharing — Provide an easy way for users to invite their friends to see their great content.
  • Signup conversion — Insert signup CTAs alongside UGC to compel referred visitors with your product's value propositions.
  • Empower users — Create tutorials to make your users better at producing content that goes viral.
  • Fast browsing — Make it easy for the public to browse your UGC so that they can get addicted to the content flow.
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