I recently got an email forwarded to me originally from one of our Research Partners. In it, there was a question:
Could you give me a little primer on what you consider best practices in writing promotional, informative and entertaining content that captivates readers?
What follows is Part I of my answer to that question …
Let’s Rephrase the Question
When my mother-in-law (read: least likely person to read this post) Googles something, it’s always painful for me to watch. She’s one of the more intelligent people I know, but she doesn’t really have a clue how Google works.
Usually, when she searches, she goes either too specific or too broad.
She’ll search “psychology books,” when what she really wants are books about the plasticity of the brain and how to change thought patterns.
Or she’ll search “turquoise curtains” when what she really wants is to look at a large variety of blue curtains in a range of blues.
Of course, it’s not just my mother-in-law. We’re all guilty of this in one way or another.
“There are no stupid questions” has become so embedded in the American consciousness that most don’t think to question it.
While I agree with the spirit of the phrase, the truth is, some questions are better than others. Some questions get us the answers we want, and some don’t.
In this case, I’m going to assume that what you really want is to be a better content developer, advance your career and, in so doing, become a happier person.
If that is the case, the question you really should be asking is this:
What is the best, repeatable method for writing effective content in a business context?
I have two broad reasons for this rephrasing:
1. The term “best practices” is loaded. First, best practices tend to be too universal. When you try to apply best practices to a specific situation, things get muddy and usually they are unhelpful. Second, best practices in marketing are typically just pooled ignorance. Even if you could apply them in a specific context, there is no guarantee they will actually work. What you really need is not a set of best practices, but rather a repeatable method you can apply in any situation and arrive at the best piece of content for that given situation.
2. In the business world, it is never enough to write promotional, informative or entertaining content. It’s not even enough to captivate readers. The objective of all marketing (including content marketing) is to influence a decision. That decision should be carefully placed in the context of a comprehensive business strategy or it will inevitably underperform. Strategy is better than skill. Clearly getting the decision you’re wanting to influence will help you more than any general advice I can give you on writing content.
Okay. My reasons are out of the way. Let’s get to the business of answering our new question.
A Repeatable Method for Writing Effective Content in a Business Context
Step 1: Determine what you’re selling
The first step is essentially determining what your objective is. When I say “what you’re selling,” I don’t mean ideas. I don’t mean the next step in a process. I mean, ultimately, what are you going to give them in exchange for money? If you have multiple products, pick one. If you have a series of purchases before customers buy what you really want them to buy, use the one you really want them to buy. Whatever the best case scenario is for a customer purchase, write it down before you write any content. Have it in front of you for all the other steps.
Action Step: Write down what you want your ultimate sale to be.
Step 2: Determine your ideal customer
The second step is to be clear about who you really want to read your content. Assuming you’ve been honest and clear in Step 1, this should be easy. It’s the person who is most likely to complete that ultimate purchase. Hold that person in your mind as you write your content. You will be writing to them, and only them. No one else, under any circumstances. I’ve found it particularly helpful to write a few paragraphs on who you think the person is, what they like, what they don’t like, where their pain is, etc.
Action Step: Write down who you think your ideal customer is. Write a few paragraphs describing them.
Step 3: Determine the next decision your ideal customer needs to make
The first two steps are looking at your customer in a more universal setting. Now you’re going to want to start narrowing things down for your specific context. Every customer has a series of decisions that they make toward buying your ultimate product. Maybe the first decision is to like your Facebook page. Maybe it’s to click on a search result for your page. The last decision is always to buy whatever we stated in Step 1. For this step, you need to determine where along that continuum of decisions you are targeting with your content.
Be open to the next decision being “to read another blog post,” but also be open to the next decision being “to give my information in a lead form.” Both have their places in the continuum.
Action Step: Write down what decision you are attempting to influence in the continuum of customer decisions
Step 4: Determine the best competitive positioning for your content
At this point, you’ve got the main part of your content strategy down. But to really up the ante with your strategy, you need to see how your piece of content fits in with your competitive landscape. There are hundreds of tools you can use to help you do this, from incredibly expensive to completely free. I personally use two free tools:
Generally, I go through these sub-steps for most pieces of content I produce:
- Find the most popular keywords in my topic with Keyword Planner
- Examine all the content on the first page for those keywords
- Do mini SWOT analyses on each of those pieces of content (no more than two minutes per piece generally)
- Plug those keywords into Buzzsumo and examine all the articles that show up in the free results
- Do mini SWOT analyses on each of those pieces of content
Action Step: Answer the question, “If I am the ideal customer (interested in this topic and getting ready to make the decision specified in Step 3), why should I read your content rather than these other pieces of content?” (How to answer that question)
Now you’re ready to write your content.
I’ll cover that piece in Part II of this post.
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