The ultimate cheat sheet for owning a content marketing strategy
There is a painful amount of terrible advice in the brave new world of content marketing (much of which has been mocked in Dan Lyon’s excellent book “Disrupted: My misadventures in the startup bubble” detailing the bizarre, christ-like reverence companies like Hubspot give the topic).
It annoys me to see entrepreneurs wasting so much of their time on strategies that only work in extremely niche cases, or methods which have zero chance of scaling into anything that will affect a company’s’ bottom line, particularly if they’re a startup with no money or money running out in the next three-six months. Most growth hacks can move the needle pretty fast, but no one wants to give those away. So here’s a cheat sheet anyone can use to find/use growth hacks literally today. Feel free to ignore my advice, of course. 😉
A. Content Marketing is probably a useless term. Unlike growth hacking, which is a largely new practice that has come about in tandem with the rise of the internet, content as a sales tool has been around decades. As such, unlike growth hacking, it is unlikely to be a silver bullet which, on it’s own saves your company (to be fair, social media won’t either, but that’s another story). Content marketing can be massively powerful, but it contains a tonne of “if’s” and “but’s.”
B. Heard the one about the company who got big solely off the back of the content? No? Me neither. Content marketing needs to work in tandem with multiple parts of your startup, including product (features), social media, email marketing, blog outreach, and PR. Now you can start to see why content is a bit of a monster, with various parts out of your direct control as so many parts involve other people.
C. Most content marketing is awful. I generally don’t agree with comedian Bill Hicks famous “If you’re in marketing, kill yourself” sketch. But if you’re adding yet more filler that has been written 100 different ways, think about what you’re spending your life doing (and more importantly, the important stuff that you could be doing while churning out boring copy no one will want to read).
D. Don’t do content marketing. If you don’t know what you should/could be writing about, and don’t want to do some research finding out, don’t do content marketing. If you hate writing, don’t do content marketing. If you’re not prepared to be vulnerable, or have a small subset of people hate/aggressively disagree with what you’re writing, don’t do content marketing. If you’re just doing it because everyone else is, don’t do content marketing. If you have no idea how you’re going to get traffic to your articles, don’t do content marketing.
E. Personality is everything. As the old saying goes, when you start a company, you are the only asset the company has. Being honest about things like the problems in your industry, your own challenges in building your company, and humour, will put you above 90% of everyone else writing in your field. My favourite example of this is the CD Baby founder. He thought the “Your CD has been despatched” email was too boring, so created this. After selling the company, he mentioned on James Altucher’s podcast that thousands of people blogged about that, and it massively got the word out.
F. Find out any shortcuts people can use in your industry. Everyone wants to save time. Spend time on obscure forums or talking to industry experts for unique content that people can utilise. Always give away more than you’re comfortable with. People will remember, and it will come back to you in various awesome ways. Goodwill is a big thing in small communities.
G. Don’t be afraid to call out or criticise your industry where you see fit. This will increase the amount of shares and clicks dramatically. Never mention specific companies or people by name, for obvious reasons. In fact, leaving them out leaves people desperate to know more.
H. Never do content you’re not comfortable with, or don’t want to do. It really shows. If you’re prefixing every single Snapchat post with “Don’t know how to use this lol but here we go anyway” either learn how to use it powerfully or don’t make content at all on that channel. It’s fine to suck at doing a new channel as long as you want to do it. You’ll get better with time, and as James Altucher says, only about one post in five needs to be good for people to remember you as a great blogger. People tend to forget the bad stuff you do if they like the good stuff. (This is achingly present in the fans of both politics and people in the entertainment industry rushing to defend them when they make “lapses of judgement”).
I. Content doesn’t have to be words, picture, or video. What about organising an event with other major influencers in your niche? People love to have their ego flattered, and they will feel like they owe you. Plus, you build a community of your ideal customers. You provide great content and value, they will be far warmer to what you’re doing. Ditto public speaking- an incredible way to get a room full of your ideal customers to listen to you.
J. Blog Posts/books can be turned into talks/videos and vice versa. Once you have themes you can talk about, you can spread that across different channels. There are different audiences on every channel, so you’ll be surprised how few people will end up seeing it twice. As an extension of this, watch most movie stars or comedians on talk shows when they’re promoting something. The same anecdotes magically seem to pop up again and again, as every audience is different.
K. Editors keep you from being an idiot. Always have someone who knows what they’re talking about/your industry look at your content before it goes out. Whether it’s spelling mistakes in copy, problems with sound quality on video, or inaccuracies in your e-book, basic mistakes are a massive credibility killer. If you’re in corporate, the general rule of thumb is at least two people need to see every tweet that goes out to stop PR disasters. They happen every single month. Software like Buffer does this well, allowing one person to upload the posts, and another to approve them to go out.
L. Read your copy out loud once you finish. This will enable you to hear if you’ve put on a “writer’s voice” that alienates the reader. If it sounds like something you wouldn’t say out loud, re-write it. (That one is from Y-Combinator founder Paul Graham).
M. The only way to get better at content marketing is to do content marketing. You can learn the basics of social media (via growth hacking) and set an intern off on scaling it pretty easily, but content marketing is a different beast. You have to write (or oversee other writers) in order to get more confident, and monitor how it works. This means getting stuck in on Google Analytics to see how your content performs every day, and tracking new traffic sources that you’ll want to pump up. This blogger tweeted and sent you a lot of traffic? go make friends with them. This Facebook group worked? earmark it for more posts, posting around the same day/time each week, with a similar title to test if that affects click throughs.
N. Read great authors and writers, not random bloggers. Take ideas from multiple sources and mix them into your industry. Want to mix in elements of Chris Rock stand up, Pitchfork music journalism, and Hemingway’s way for words? I think you’ve just created the most exciting content that’s ever existed in your industry! Great art is created when old things are mixed together in a new way.
O. When starting out, aim for excellence. You’ll need to optimise everything to get the traffic in, but at a basic level, can you honestly say what you’re writing is fantastic? Re-write it until it is. It really shows.
P. Don’t take your eye off core business activities to write content. I might get a bit of pushback for saying this, but if you’re not carrying out the critical functions of selling/raising money/building product/talking to users well enough, you probably shouldn’t be blogging. Even if people like your content, it won’t be enough. Post-2010 entrepreneurs are often criticised for not focusing on the right things. There’s some truth in it.
Q. Content marketing is 10% content, 90% distribution. Good copy with great distribution (i.e. ways of getting traffic/eyeballs to it) is much better than amazing copy with average distribution. We are all media companies now.
R. Try not to rely on any one traffic source. Going to concede this is easier said than done if one channel is providing 90% of your traffic, but unless you’re turning a huge chunk of that into email addresses, if that source dies (all sources die sooner or later) you’re suddenly left with a massive hole. So certainly make sure you’re rinsing and scaling up the channels that work, but try and experiment with newer channels too. A spread of traffic across multiple channels hits multiple different groups of people, is great for SEO, and reduces your risk.
S. More people are googling you than you think. Make them happy. Once you have a few high-quality posts up, you’ll be surprised how many people read them. This brings me on to the next point…
T. Many content marketing returns are non-quantifiable. As data-driven marketers, there’s a temptation for everything to be thrown out if it doesn’t provide returns, and this is valid, but so much can change when just one person reads something you’ve written and reaches out. Could be an invitation to speak at a conference, an investor who “gets a good feeling” having read your articles, or countless other ideas. Here’s what you can do if you can’t, for whatever reason, make content marketing work:
U. Spend just one day creating five great articles, looked over by an editor. Store these on your blog, or your company’s blog. At least there’s a baseline for potential customers/partners/employees to have enough to read on your site that isn’t corporate/sales speak.
V. The easiest path to sales is email. Get traffic to your website any way you can and get their email. the easiest “hook” to capture that is “10% off anything if you join our newsletter” if you’re Ecommerce, or some juicy piece of content for everything else, e.g. “Download the top 5 mistakes most people make in your industry, and how to fix them- enter your email to receive our E-book”. Once you have their email, you have permission to build a relationship over time.
W. If you want to launch a product, read “Product Launch Formula” by Jeff Walker. It will handhold you through the entire process, including how to write the copy. Masterful.
X. Great copy isn’t just blogging. It’s a funny picture on a loading screen that people will remember. It’s an icon of a dog next to your Twitter and Facebook icons which, if you click on it, leads to a picture of a dog, just for the fun of it. People remember these little touches.
Y. Be on as many or as few platforms as you need to be. For general blogging, you can crosspost to Medium and LinkedIn as well as on your own blog, as there are different audiences on each, and a few views/likes in the first 15 minutes can drive much more people to see it on these external platforms.
Z. Don’t listen to my advice. The best content is always the content that catches everyone by surprise. Try something no-one has tried before. Be different. As long as you have distribution to get it seen, you can stand out and get much more traffic and shares than everyone else who is copying each other.