This is one of the more difficult leads I have ever written.
Why? Because it sits atop a long list of writing advice, all written by me.
It feels like the first few paragraphs need to follow all the rules I lay out below, right? If I don’t, you might call me on it.
And Tip 11 says if I don’t write well at the beginning of this post, you may give up and surf elsewhere. That’s pressure.
I suppose I can only hope that this suffices. It’s the introduction to my top 20 content marketing tips. Each one is a brief lesson I’ve learned in my years as a writer, editor, instructor and marketer. I apply them for my clients, in my workshops and when I write for my business and myself.
I hope you find something helpful below, too. If you have a tip to add, leave it in the comments — I’d love to read it!
1. Stop Talking About Yourself
I often offer this advice to clients who are building a new website. They want to pack it full of content that says “We do this,” and “we do that, too.”
That content has its place, for sure. People need to know which services you offer. But just as important, if not more, is writing about your prospects’ problems. You want a prospect to come to your site, see that you understand their pain points and know how to address them.
Write from your prospect’s perspective more than from your own. You’ll come across as perceptive, helpful, and maybe even humble.
2. Be a Storyteller
Even though you’re not writing fiction, your marketing content should tell a story whenever possible. Stories have a beginning, middle and end. And during a story, some conflict or tension is resolved. Using a story structure to convey your message will keep your audience engaged throughout your piece.
3. Awareness-Stage Content Is Not About Brand Awareness
In a typical digital marketing campaign, you create content for prospects as they move through the stages of the buyer’s journey: awareness, consideration and decision.
Based on those labels, you might guess in the awareness stage, the goal is for prospects to become aware of your brand. But that’s not quite right. The real goal is for you to engage prospects who are aware that they have a problem — and then help them put a name on that problem.
For example, if your prospect is a homeowner who is hearing a funny sound in the attic, they are aware something is wrong — they’re just not sure what. Your content would help them diagnose the problem: have squirrels gotten inside, is the AC unit going bad, or is the attic haunted?
The awareness stage also may be the moment that a prospect becomes aware of your brand. But that’s an additional benefit, not the main goal.
4. Need an Idea? Go To the Big 5
Stuck for blog post ideas? Several years ago Marcus Sheridan published a list of the five best business blog topics, and they still work. They are:
- Cost and pricing
- Problems (theirs and yours)
- Comparisons and versus
- Best-of lists (best in class, best practices)
These categories work because they require you to address the key questions a potential customer has. And as Sheridan says, the key to creating good marketing content is simple: “Publish articles answering every question your customers ask — even if it makes you uncomfortable.”
For more details on the Big 5, I recommend this Sheridan blog post.
5. Write the Way You Talk
This is advice my mother gave me when I was writing term papers in high school, and it has served me well ever since.
Mom said that when you read your writing aloud, it should sound like something you would actually say. If it sounds stilted or awkward, or you can’t finish your sentences without taking a breath, go back and edit.
The only change I might make (don’t tell Mom) is to acknowledge that sometimes the goal is to write the way someone — not necessarily you — talks. If your goal is to reach investment bankers, you should write like they talk. Adjust your language a bit. But overall, this maxim still applies.
6. Find the Right Way to Find the Right Word
A thesaurus can help when you’re searching for just the right word, of course. But sometimes, relatedwords.org can be even more useful.
While a thesaurus helps you find direct synonyms to a word, Related Words uses algorithms to turn up words that are, yes, related to your word. What’s the difference? Compare the first five results for the word “shame:”
Merriam-Webster’s Thesaurus: contriteness, contrition, guilt, penitence, regret.
Related Words: embarrassment, dishonor, humiliation, disgrace, guilt.
The related words are not 1-to-1 replacements for “shame” — they inhabit the same neighborhood as “shame” instead. And those sorts of words often can bail you out of a writing jam.
7. Ask “Who?” and “Why?” Before You Start
The most important questions you should ask yourself before producing any piece of marketing content are “Who am I creating this for?” and “Why?”
The “who” is a buyer persona. You should create at least one for every campaign, defining their key characteristics, and then create content geared toward their interests and needs.
Use the stages of the buyer’s journey (awareness, consideration and decision) to answer “why?” Are you writing to help a prospect define a problem they’ve noticed, or to have them consider your solution, or to get them to decide that you deliver the solution most effectively?
Answering these questions will make your content much more strategic, driving real business results.
8. Don’t Be Afraid to Express an Opinion
Content marketing has exploded in recent years, and in many industries, there are so, so many blog posts, ebooks, podcasts or videos that just scratch the surface of a topic.
To stand out, you need to go deeper. And opinion — more specifically, well-researched opinion — is a great way to do that.
On a practical level, that means writing a “Three Ways to Solve Problem X” blog post isn’t enough. Tell your readers which way is the best way, and why you believe it. And tell them what *doesn’t* work, too. Don’t hold back. Readers will appreciate it — and they’ll come back for more.
9. Proofread Backwards
This tip could have been “proofread, multiple times.” I’m a firm believer in double- and triple-checking to avoid errors and ensure clarity.
I recommend a final read where you take a long, careful look at all the “little” things, such as spelling and punctuation. I have found that I can catch small, sneaky errors by starting at the bottom of a piece and reading backwards to the top.
When I do that, I’m looking at each word devoid of context. And my mind plays fewer tricks on me — when you read a sentence normally, your mind often fills in missing letters or words just because they usually are there. This approach helps you avoid that problem.
10. Show, Don’t Tell
You probably have heard this tip before, but I have to include it in the list because it’s such an important part of good writing. And of course, good writing is the foundation of good content marketing.
“Show, don’t tell” means that instead of writing “He was nervous,” you might write, “His left knee bounced beneath his desk and he chewed on the end of his pen as the teacher walked alongside the desks, handing out finals.”
When you show the reader, you pull them deeper into your piece and they get a deeper understanding of what you mean. And that’s the goal, right?
11. Spend a Lot of Time on Your First Paragraph
The beginning of a piece is what journalists call the lead (sometimes spelled “lede”). And they obsess over leads, for good reason: If you don’t get the audience’s attention there, they won’t go any farther.
It’s become even more important in the digital age, with new content just a click, scroll or tap away.
Good leads are original, economic and engaging — startling, funny, sad or even infuriating.
How long should you spend on your lead? N. Don Wycliff of the Chicago Tribune wrote in an edition of “Best Newspaper Writing:”
“I’ve always been a believer that if I’ve got two hours in which to do something, the best investment I can make is to spend the first hour and 45 minutes of it getting a good lead, because after that everything will come easily.”
12. Do Keyword Research. But Don’t Overdo It
Before you start writing, use a keyword tool like SEMRush, Moz or Google Trends to see how often people search for your topic online. If you find a related topic or phrase that is a little more popular, or a little less competitive, consider adjusting your plan.
Once you start writing, make sure to use the popular keyword phrases in your story and headline. But don’t stuff the keyword in every nook and cranny of the piece — your writing still should sound natural.
And balance your keyword research with common sense. If the research says your topic is not that popular online, but you’re an expert in the subject and your prospects need to know about it, write it anyway. You don’t have to create every piece of content with search-engine traffic in mind.
13. It Can Always Be Shorter
A favorite principle of composition in Strunk and White’s essential “The Elements of Style” is this three-word command: Omit needless words.
As the authors say, “Vigorous writing is concise.” You want your marketing content to be vigorous, right?
So look for every opportunity to streamline your prose. Avoid unnecessary flourishes that feel like “good writing” but add nothing to your piece. Be aware of overused phrases that can be condensed easily — instead of “owing to the fact that,” write “because,” to take an example from Strunk and White.
And review your work at least once with the goal of excising needless words. You’ll be surprised how many words you can edit out of a piece — and make it better in the process.
When I ask a client, “Which of these two audiences is this content for?” and they answer “both,” I stop them immediately.
Your marketing content always will be better if it’s created with a single audience in mind. Similarly, content designed to achieve a single goal always is better than content that tries to do several things at once.
Focusing allows you to get more specific and delve deeper into the topic — which makes your content more engaging.
It also makes it easier for users who are just skimming (and nearly everyone is skimming online) to understand the point. It helps SEO, too: Even though Google’s crawlers have become much better at decoding what a webpage is about, you can still confuse them.
Bottom line: Focusing will make your content better and more effective.
15. There Is No Such Thing as Writer’s Block
It’s easy to stare at a blank screen or sheet of paper and tell yourself you’re stuck. But you’re never really stuck. Just start writing.
Yes, it’s that easy. You’re going to edit whatever you write, so don’t pressure yourself to be perfect. Just get something — anything — down. It may take two sentences or two pages, but eventually, you’ll find what you *really* want to say. Move that part to the top of the piece and build from there. You’ll find it’s easier than you thought.
The key is writing. Staring at white space will get you nowhere.
16. It’s Not About the Clicks
Anyone can generate clicks for their website, but generating the right kind of clicks is a lot harder.
Creating content that generates a flood of organic search traffic can be a rush. So can posting a social media update that goes viral. But neither helps your business if they don’t move visitors closer to buying from you.
That’s why I recommend a strategic approach to content marketing: Know why you’re posting a piece, establish key metrics and track performance against those metrics.
The end goal doesn’t have to be sales. It can be increased site engagement, a larger email subscription list, or a set number of social media shares. Those sorts of things have value — unlike a bushel of undifferentiated clicks.
17. End With a Call to Action
When you’re creating marketing content strategically, each element is a step toward a final destination. So after a user has finished one piece, how do you get them to the next one? You need to show them the way.
That’s what a call to action does.
After a user has finished reading an awareness-stage blog post, for instance, you might want to suggest they download a related e-book you’ve created. Or sign up for your weekly newsletter. Or watch a video.
A good call to action usually is concise, confident and action-oriented — “Read this now!” generally works better than “Hey, you know, you might just like this …”
And it’s well-designed, usually a button with a color that grabs the user’s attention.
A final suggestion: make sure to track the clicks on your calls to action and how often people who click them do something valuable (buy, fill out a lead form, etc.). If a CTA isn’t working, change it up. And if one is working really well, try to duplicate that success in other places.
18. Don’t Hedge
It’s natural to be wary of being too bold or strident in your writing. While deep down you know that method X is the best way to solve problem Y, when it comes to stating it in public, you’ll feel the urge to pull back and write “Method X generally is one of the best ways to solve problem Y.”
Don’t do it. Your content should be confident and straightforward — qualifiers and weasel words will only weaken your message.
19. Make a List — and Repurpose
This is a 2-for-1 tip:
1) Take advantage of the fact that people still like lists, and
2) Don’t be afraid to repurpose your own content.
I don’t think I need to do much to explain these tips. Lists have been a staple of online content since the beginning. And repurposing your content simply means taking something you’ve already produced and presenting it in a new way, to reach a new audience. A classic example is compiling a series of related blog posts into an e-book.
As an example, here’s a look at the five most popular content marketing tips, based on how they performed when I posted them over 20 consecutive days on LinkedIn:
5. Focus (Tip 14)
4. Ask “Who?” and “Why?” Before You Start (Tip 7)
3. Awareness-Stage Content Is Not About Brand Awareness (Tip 3)
2. Need an Idea? Go To the Big 5 (Tip 4)
1. Write the Way You Talk (Tip 5)
20. Get to Work
All of the content marketing tips on this list are about doing it right. But in the end, you just have to do it.
I hope that you have picked up some actionable tips from this post. They should make you a more effective content marketer. But that only will happen if you commit to producing marketing content on a regular basis — and then follow through.
Set an achievable goal, such as one blog post a week, or two videos a month, or one whitepaper per quarter. Then hit those goals and track the results.
One of the great things about content marketing is that its effects snowball, especially if you repurpose your work (see Tip 19). A library of marketing content built over several months can be really powerful.
But you have to do the work to get there.