Chercher l’utile: une mission de la stratégie de contenu

Hier soir, j’étais à une conférence de Geoffrey Dorne organisée par UX Romandie et intitulée “A la poursuite de l’utile”. Geoffrey Dorne s’y interrogeait sur l’utilité dans notre travail de designer

Il trouvait dommage qu’on aie tendance à faire du design pour les designers. Il nous a notamment enjoint à nous mettre au service de personnes qui en ont vraiment besoin en nous mettant dans le contexte de défis globaux que nous devons collectivement relever comme les conséquences du changement climatique, le développement et les droits humains.

En chemin, il arrivait à une conclusion très belle: nous trouvons notre utilité lorsque nous nous mettons au service du métier de l’autre.

Chercher l’utile dans le contenu

Cela m’a fait réfléchir à mon propre parcours et mes propres ambitions. Quand il a demandé qui était designer, je n’ai pas levé la main. J’aurais peut-être dû. Ne pas lever la main dans cette assemblée me permet de me démarquer (et de me faire remarquer) cependant. Une personne qui utilise les outils de la stratégie de contenu est aussi un designer puisque nous allions outils, méthode et empathie pour arriver à un résultat meilleur que la situation de départ. Les outils de la stratégie de contenu sont là pour s’assurer que les contenus répondent aux besoins des utilisateurs et, dans le même temps, aux objectifs d’affaire de nos propres clients. Une introduction à la stratégie de contenu plus détaillée composée par Kristina Halvorson dans “A List Apart” est disponible en français.

Sans le formuler ainsi, la présentation “A la poursuite de l’utile” appelait une certaine mise de côté de l’ego. En rappelant qu’il fallait se mettre au service du métier du client, cela appelle à mettre de côté son propre ego. C’est peut-être aussi la voie à suivre pour se prémunir de l’ego du client. dans le service à la clientèle, et le design en fait partie, il est primordial d’éviter les batailles d’ego avec le client puisqu’il finit, en général, par l’emporter et notre relation de confiance avec lui en pâti. Que cela soit au niveau personnel, inter-personnel ou organisationnel, l’ego semble être un frein à l’utile. L’ego des organisations est un frein à la création et au maintien de contenus utiles. Dans son billet, Gerry McGovern précise également que l’ego organisationnel ruine la confiance des gens dans les institutions. La lettre du CEO qu’il faut mettre en page d’accueil, les grandes photographies de cadres souriants et signant des documents, les buzzwords vides de signification pour les prospects et les clients… tout cela relève de l’ego de l’organisation, consomme des ressources qui pourraient être utilisées à des fins bien plus utiles.

Les limites de nos méthodologies

La production de contenu est un domaine de nos projets de design web et de communication qui manque souvent cruellement de méthode et d’organisation. Pourtant, comme Geoffrey Dorne nous l’a rappelé dans sa présentation, on risque de tomber dans le fétichisme méthodologique ou de se retrouver un peu paralysé par l’immense choix d’outils qui s’offre à nous. Quelques tableaux RACI, jeux de triage de carte, séance de collage de post-it, et quelques flowcharts peuvent souvent nous aider à organiser la création et le maintien des contenus. Cela devient un problème lorsque le résultat de ce travail se retrouve dans des rapports et des listes de recommandations. Beaucoup de praticiens le reconnaissent, les rapports sont rangés dans des tiroirs et ne contribuent que très peu à faire changer les choses.

Cette prise de conscience est une évolution bienvenue que j’ai commencé à remarquer à Confab Europe 2014. Là-bas, les discussions méthodologiques sont passées de l’effort solitaire d’analyse à des formes plus collectives d’implication des clients au travers d’ateliers. C’était flagrant dans la présentation de Sara Wachter-Boettcher et dans celle donnée par Ida Aalen et Audun Rundberg. En plus de donner une marche à suivre, on accompagne les humains qui composent les organisations pour lesquels nous travaillons afin qu’ils participent à trouver les solutions qu’ils devront appliquer.

Se mettre au service du métier des autres

Les designers de contenus travaillent pour les utilisateurs et pour l’organisation mais aussi pour les humains qui composent ces organisations. La plupart des personnes chargées de créer des contenus ne se sentent pas accompagnées. Elles se voient ainsi confiées de nouvelles responsabilités qui s’ajoutent à leur charge de travail existante sans forcément recevoir les outils nécessaires. L’écriture semble aller de soi à ceux qui distribuent le travail et cela ajoute souvent du stress inutile.

Et quand on se sent frustré de ne pas pouvoir apporter de clarifications et de changements au niveau stratégique, ou qu’on se sente frustré par l’ego organisationnel, le souci d’aider les autres à faire leur métier et créer des contenus utiles est quelque chose auquel on peut se raccrocher. C’est utile. Et c’est un premier pas dans la bonne direction.

The headache of staff profile pages

Team member profiles or biographies can be found on many organisation’s sites. For most of them, employees are the best resource and, also, the best ambassadors. A college, for example, must have visible teaching staff members to attract students and funders as well.

Worth it?

There are, obviously, exceptions. A few companies like Brain Traffic or Mule Design (who instead put forth their writing) have dispensed with this section of their site entirely. Maybe their communications strategy focuses on their methods and brand rather than on the specific people working there. Maybe they realise what a mess biographies can become. Maybe both. It always pays to ask if a section of your website is worth having and maintaining.

Let’s say you decide it is worth the investment. Keep in mind that all content is political. Any discussions about content can surface power struggles in the organisation. Managing biographies even more so because the self-representation needs of the employees will clash with the organisation’s agenda.

Lots of organisations just give up on having difficult conversations and they’ll leave the content up to the person being profiled.

The mess

If employees end up being responsible for their own profile pages, messes can be very costly. Quite often, in huge organisations encouraging collaboration and transdisciplinarity, people will have many profiles across different departments and teams.

Every change has to be made multiple times — most probably through people who have direct access to the CMS. Often, they’re different people in each department. This operation therefore has to be repeated multiple times. That is a horrible waste of everyone’s time and focus. It creates a lot of frustration too. People put it off for as long as possible and, in the meantime, profiles get out-of-date and out of sync with their other ones.

Sorting it

The whole organisation can benefit from having standards around voice and tone, length and even which topics are discussed and which aren’t in these biographical sections. For example, few people always insist on giving the number of their children on their profiles.

Can employees represent themselves with complete freedom on their employers’ website? Do employees get to decide which photo they want on their profiles without any guidelines?

It pays to have these conversations and put standards in place especially if the employees are represented as ambassadors for the business and their presence has to serve clear business goals. Having clarity and consistency in the biographical section of the website projects a coherent image of the team. It is achievable if you define a clear purpose for this section as well as communicate this purpose clearly to team members.

 

One-person web teams are cheap not inexpensive

Single-person web teams might seem like a great bargain but they’re not. They tend to become stuck in a content uploader role which is bad both from an HR and day-to-day business perspective.

When discussions and collaboration happen in another realm, the one-person web team only gets e-mails with attachments or content copy-pasted for immediate release. No wonder that all the person can do is make the markup remotely OK and hit “Publish”. Ron Bronson captured the challenges of being a one-person web team very well in his recent slide deck.

As a content uploader, the only way you have of gaining respect and trust seems to react ever faster and put things up as soon as they land in the inbox. It becomes the new rule of the game. You may protest that with more forethought and planning, you’d be able to edit it and content would have more impact. By putting up the content just-in-time, you allow everyone to save face. By doing so, you also remove their incentive to listen when you propose to focus on better processes. All you get is shrugs and excuses.

Having the web team stuck in this reactive mode is bad for business because the website usually ends up sucking. Always being on alert with an e-mail client open; ready to drop what you’re doing to copy-paste stuff into the CMS eats into energy, time and attention. It prevents one-person web teams from growing and learning new skills that the organisation will ultimately need.

It is much better to allow enough time and resources for the web team to work with subject matter experts, pair write and/or edit the content. It takes a little more money and effort but, in the end, the website can only be better for it.

Event promoting tweets require forethought, time and a well staffed team

Many event organisers want high-level promotion to raise attendance. They often turn to social media to promote. The tweet below is densely packed with information about “Content Marketing World 2016”. It is designed to entice the @CMIContent account’s followers to register for the conference but also to encourage the featured speaker to promote their talk.

I see conferences use similar communication tactics but seldom as expertly or efficiently as Content Marketing World. This tweet is best-of-class and emulating it is out-of-reach for many conferences. Even though it is an image and a well-written tweet, getting all the information packed in that tweet that much in advance of the event is a real challenge.

Let’s list all the elements we see in the graphic top to bottom and left to right:

  • Conference’s name: Content Marketing World 2016
  • Subtitle used across several social media posts (here, to link them to a successful movie franchise).
  • “I’m speaking!” which denotes excitement at the idea and makes the image especially suited to be shared by speakers themselves.
  • Speaker photo: standardised and square for use on the website and in all other communication.
  • Short version of the speaker bio (which complements the long version that’s on the website).
  • Conference’s logo
  • Conference’s date
  • City in which the conference will take place
  • URL of their website
  • Conference’s hashtag

And in the tweet itself…

  • The speaker’s Twitter handle
  • The hashtag
  • A promotional code (again this entices the speaker to share the post)
  • A short link to the conference website.

Once you have all those elements, it’s rather simple to produce the images either manually in a graphics program or programmatically (if there are many many speakers). Even tweets can be generated programmatically and uploaded into a scheduling tool such as Hootsuite.

The challenge is in assembling all these elements well in advance. It takes forethought, time and a well staffed team. A venue must be secured. Speakers have to be selected and confirmed. Editors have to work with speakers to hone their long biographies, craft the two line biographies, obtain the right picture and the relevant social media handles. You can’t deploy those smart marketing tactics until you have good content to support them.

How to Inventory Your Content Warehouse

Remember when I said to treat your content like a product? Now is the time to take practical steps. Your website is like a warehouse: full of treasures. To bring those treasures into your shop window, you need to know what you have and where it’s stored.You have created lots of content as advised in this introduction to content marketing. Now, your site is bursting, with all the subjects you’ve been covering. If that hasn’t already happened, it will. Faster than you might think.

You should, therefore, take a content inventory. The good news is, you can stay at your desk. To inventory a real warehouse, you’d have to climb up and down ladders, lift boxes full of expensive things, and count. Content inventories are fun (in comparison, anyway). Believe me, I’ve done both. Many times.

The Benefits of Content Inventories

The pay-off is always huge. As Kristina Halvorson says, content inventories change lives. Once you have completed it…

  • you’ll see what content exists, how accurate it is, and how to make everything better
  • you’ll identify core messages and topics and see what content is lacking
  • you’ll find all the redundant, outdated or trivial content that you can merge or delete
  • you’ll have a place to check if content on a particular topic exists: you can see what can be re-used and stop creating duplicates
  • you’ll see clearly how to organize your existing content better to make sure people find it easily
  • you’ll be able promote your content on social channels such as Twitter and Facebook more effectively

…and you’ll find answers to specific questions about your content and your business that nobody could help you with before. All of that with an inventory!

VLUU L310W L313 M310W / Samsung L310W L313 M310W

Convinced? So, close the door to your office. Sit down. Promise yourself a reward. Here we go with a journey around your warehouse!

How to Get Started

You are going to create a spreadsheet listing all your site content. Instead of paraphrasing, I will refer you to Jeffrey Veen’s how-to about content inventories. Go read it, I’ll wait.

Done? OK. Doing it completely by hand: copying and pasting is, as Veen says, mind-numbing. However, as it forces you to look at every single page, it makes you thorough and will produce better insights.

But if you feel an irrepressible need to cheat, you can use PageTrawler. It’s in beta and will exchange an inventory of your first 50 pages for your e-mail address. It outputs CSV files (comma separated values) that you can then open with every major spreadsheet editor. I can’t wait to see it become a full product!

Easy tools such as PageTrawler will multiply soon. For the moment, though, we’re stuck with link checkers and sitemap generators which are difficult to bend to our purposes and don’t supply all the information we need.

Sitemap generators like Xenu Link Sleuth and others can follow links on your website and list the address of every page. But unless you know how to convert XML into CSV files and manipulate them, using these tools might prove more pain than they are worth. Settle for the repetitive task. Most of the time, you’ll be better off.

Remember that the more thoroughly you read and report all of your content in your inventory, the more you’ll be aware of inconsistencies in categorizing, tagging, naming conventions, tone and so forth. You will also find more opportunities for content re-use.

If you have a little energy left, you can also add a column or two about audience responses: report the number of retweets, comments and visitors each article gathered during a period of reference.

Once all pages are listed with all the basic information, treat yourself to that reward. You deserve it.

Analyse and Brainstorm

At this point, you’re either exhausted or boiling with great ideas for improvements. Probably both. Hence, it is a bad time to make hasty and inconsiderate decisions. Write down your great ideas and save them for later. We’re going to take a few more hours for analysis. Involve as many people as you can who have an influence on your content, brainstorm with them and create a document describing

  1. your objectives
  2. how the content is supposed to help you achieve them
  3. who should read/watch your content
  4. what these people need from content
  5. a description of your content (topics, form, length, tone)
  6. and how you’re creating content at the moment.

I would also suggest that you take a look at other publications serving the same audience and see how they are doing. Take copious notes. With all this information in hand, you can now see…

  • what themes would differentiate you from your competition most effectively
  • what topics to publish about next
  • which words to use to name things consistently across your site (for clarity and search engine optimization)
  • which changes to make to your workflow to achieve better results.

No Shortcuts, Just a Few Quick Wins

You’re probably thinking: “I don’t want to do all this”. You should do as much as you can, really. If you insist on instant actions, there are a few simple steps you can take to make your content better right now.

You can put the content that is beyond repair offline. The definition of “beyond repair” is up to you. Look at topics, accuracy, form, length, tone, voice and consistency. It is very hard to assess the quality of your own writing. When in doubt, request confirmation from a friend or a professional.

You can make the categories or tags better. Take a tour of other publications covering the same topics and record their categories. Note their strengths and weaknesses. Make a list of categories or tags you plan on creating for your publication. Now, test it on the inventory before making changes to your website.

Create a new column in your inventory for “new categories” or “new tags” and, for each piece of content, list the categories or tags it would belong to. Doing this on a portion of your content will make the potential problems with your new scheme apparent. Rinse and repeat until satisfied. Then, make your changes.

Once you have cashed in your quick wins, go back and complete the analysis phase described above. It will be invaluable when you start to create content again, I promise.

In the meantime,  tell us the pains and benefits your inventory has caused you in the comments. I would love to hear.

Photo credits: Old Wool Warehouse by Tim Green; stock clerk by Alfred T. Palmer for The Office of War Information. Library of Congress, Prints and Photographs Division.

I wrote “How to Inventory Your Content Warehouse” on Paper.li’s blog, it was originally published on May 23, 2012. Reproduced here with permission.

Churning Content Without a Plan is Gambling

Recently, I have been writing about content consumption a lot. A comment by Therese Torris drew my attention to the causes of the avalanche of content we are struggling to live with. It might appear as though our content environment rewards the churning of low-cost branded content. She calls this “Content Inflation”. However, we can point out an alternative route. Organizations who produce a high volume of low-cost content haven’t had the chance of seeing the benefits of carefully planned and executed publishing.

When you work in digital media, you face a constant temptation to scorn strategy and ride the wave of chance instead. First of all, the Internet is always hungry, and any time spent planning is time you could have spent posting. — Project Argo’s “Wrap-up: Strategy and planning”  (via Contents Magazine).

“Riding the wave of chance” is a lot like gambling with your company’s money. If you post a mass of content, some of it is bound to be relevant. When the costs and the risk of downside seem low, gambling seems acceptable. Unfortunately, the costs and risks of this gamble are higher than you imagine.

Costs of Content

You can’t apply industrial-age economics to content production. Content doesn’t get cheaper as the volume goes up. Unlike Ford’s automobiles, the cost of quality content goes up with the volume because content production involves skilled labour and very few economies of scale. Plenty of organisations try to work around this hard fact using various forms of automation. Content farmers such as Demand Media come to mind first. But there are others such as Best Spinner.

While automated tools can be useful, letting general trending topics or ill-chosen metrics replace a strong editorial strategy will drive the relevance of your content down. Licensed or crowd-sourced content will rarely be tailored for your audience’s needs, the tone of voice they are most accustomed to, etc. Every mismatch drives relevance down and reduces your chances of the gamble ever paying off.

Even if achieving “critical mass” lures people onto your site, the irrelevant content will make them flee. You can not externalize the cost of an editor to your audience. They won’t do the hard work of sifting through masses of content to get what they want. The time and attention of your audience are scarce. We are bombarded with content and our patience is lower than ever. Our earlier discussions here made that fact clear. If they can’t find what they are looking for, you’ll miss a sale, or get a support e-mail or a phone call to deal with.

Once an automobile is shipped, the cost of ownership is transferred to the new owner. Content, however, remains your responsibility beyond publication. On the one hand, to store, archive and back up content still has a cost — even though it is decreasing. On the other, keeping an inventory of your content and re-evaluating it regularly is resource intensive. Taking good care of your content is necessary, though, because old content can expose you to legal threats and give you a bad name easily. When it doesn’t convey the right message with the right tone anymore or becomes outdated, someone has to fix it. When it no longer complies with company or state regulations, someone has to fix it. Or take it off your website.

Maximize Benefits, Minimize Costs

Content isn’t promotional material. Think about it this way: when you choose software, does the breadth and quality of the documentation matter? Why would it be different for your own business? Content is more than bait to amass Google juice and stay “top-of-mind”. These are but small benefits which arise naturally when you publish. Aim higher!

When content is part of your product line, your audience’s confidence and loyalty get bigger. The shift is subtle but it will have a major impact. To treat content as a product means that:

  • it has a serious cost and should get a proper budget
  • it has a life-cycle which goes beyond publication
  • it has to be promoted and monitored to see whether or not it answers the needs of the “market”.

By treating your content as a product, you can use the tools business people know and love to reduce costs and risks while making the benefits higher. Publishing will no longer be a wasteful gamble but a part of your business which allows the other parts to shine brighter.

Content and link farmers won’t change. We’ll just have to give up on them. At their scale, their businesses work well-enough still. Legit brands, small businesses and freelancers shouldn’t follow their lead, however. Not because we drown in content, but because it isn’t the smartest and most effective way to attract attention to our businesses or passions. It is in our interest to get serious about content.

Image credit: Roulette Wheel by dahlstroms. Creative Commons Attribution.

I wrote “Churning Content Without a Plan is Gambling” on Paper.li’s blog, it was originally published on February 17, 2012. Reproduced here with permission.

Tactics for Content Re-Use

You might have realised how resource intensive content creation is. There is no hope for economies of scale, unfortunately. However, there are a few things you can do to reduce the costs of content. First, you can use your attention and research time to create more content. Second, you can make your content live longer. Third, you can plan on reusing content in various places.

Get More Out of Your Research

You can get more content for the same amount of research. For example, when composing a document, there are always notes and links that don’t find their place or get edited out. Maybe you could use them as a tweet or a blog post. Even research that does get used for one piece can be used in others. With a publication calendar and a solid multi-channel content strategy, you can find ways to reuse research and, often, also content up to five different ways, according to Ardath Albee. She gives the example of a white paper which might help you create blog posts, slide decks and a webinar. Of course, what you create should depend on a strong strategic foundation defined by your goals and your means.

Be Aware of the Cycles and Use Them to Your Advantage

You can also, when appropriate, re-use content that has been published long ago. If you were to compare this spring’s advice about weight-loss and exercise with last spring’s, you wouldn’t notice such a big difference. Just like magazines, you can use tactics to promote, or even re-edit and re-publish old content.

When you can’t re-use content like this, having a list of content triggers and corresponding templates can save you time and worries. When quarterly results hit or new product lines are announced, lots of content is published on multiple channels. The content is often similar. Write a template (a recipe) which will guide the writing and use it every time.

Modules and Meta-Data

Unfortunately, we often let our content management systems decide how granular our content can be. Out of the box, we often get text-areas for a title, an excerpt, the body of your post, categories and tags. Whatever you publish, you can benefit from getting more granularity — especially in the giant blob that is called “body”. Breaking down content in smaller chunks opens the gate to content re-use across different contexts and different channels.

Product descriptions and biographies of staff, for example, need only be written once and — ideally — stored in only one place. Tweets linking to the same article, even if you publish them numerous times can all have the same text. Pamela Kostur explains How to Rewrite Content for Reuse in a two-part series. Every step you take towards content re-use can have tremendous benefits.

With a little more in-depth work, you can prepare your content to last longer and be reusable on various channels most effectively by summoning technical expertise. To attain this degree might take a lot of work and you might need the assistance of a content strategist to help you decide on the purpose of your content by giving it SMART goals, break it into appropriate modules, mark it up well, and add copious amounts of accurate meta-data. Sara Wachter-Boettcher details how to do just that in Future-Ready Content. If you work on a big enough project with many stakeholders, the benefits will make the whole endeavor worth it. Promise.

Which Content On Which Channel

Preparing content for re-use isn’t a license to send all your content on all your channels, however. “Create Once, Publish Everywhere” is a catchy phrase for content strategists. Yet if you and other people in your organisation take it literally, you might get into trouble. Clinton Forry explains that it is best to “publish selectively”. It all comes back to your strong strategic foundation and your goals. Each channel and platform should have their own set of guidelines because every one of them has their own constraints. Keep that in mind.

Content re-use is a hot topic right now and there certainly is more to learn. If this quick survey sparks ideas around content creation and distribution work flows, I would love to hear about them in the comments.

I wrote “Tactics for Content Re-Use” on the Paper.li blog, it was originally published on April 4, 2012. Reproduced here with permission.

Let Readers Discover Your Publication’s Personality

At first, I used Paper.li simply as an aggregator of links from all the people I followed. Of course, to an outsider, the group of people I follow looks random. No wonder I am the only regular reader of my first paper. To experiment further, I made another paper about content strategy. I thought that it would be neat and orderly at last. However, the people in the list are… well, people. So of course, they share things that aren’t related to their work. At first, this bothered me and I tried to edit things out manually but I soon gave up and then came to like it. Disorder and variety are a great vehicle of personality.

Sharpness in publications is overrated

Recently, Seth Godin threw out one of his short brain poking posts. He compared the merits of sharp and well-rounded individuals. As my brain still tries to reconcile its liberal arts education with all the unsolicited advice about sharpness floating around, it got me thinking.

I have a lot of varied interests, this is also why my first paper doesn’t make much sense to anyone but me. When people tell me to be focused, sharp or pointy, I like to remind myself: “I am no sword. I am no laser. I am a man“. Personal branding experts and their followers stay “on message”. Repeat their “value proposition” incessantly until they become so dull and uninteresting, they have to stage conflicts where none exists, churn out top sevens on their blogs, etc. Many publications I used to adore began resorting to these techniques. They publish things like “Kurt Vonnegut’s ten best tips on writing” and “What five things Hunter S. Thompson can teach you about writing”.

These blogs seem to publish for search engines and forget they address people. They cover keyword after keyword to lure us onto the business sites. This strategy is short-sighted because it doesn’t show their personalities and the full breadth of their expertise.

As Mandy Brown explained in her essay in Contents magazine, editing and publishing is about people and communities. You can’t be too sharp with people, they’re made out of flesh. Publications and editing need to take this into account.

Diversity is necessary

Editing any publication requires more than focus and sharpness. We need context and diversity. In content creation as in curation, coming to the subject matter from a variety of angles will provide both.

On the one hand, it will prevent readers from getting bored by creating rhythm. As Stephanie Booth explains in “Variety is the spice of life”:

By publishing only one type of “top post”, one turns it into the “average post”. Add a sprinkle of intermittent reward to the mix, and you’ll probably positively influence the way readers perceive your content.

Gradual discovery is a delight

On the other, gradual discovery and engagement works wonders to encourage readers to come again. Providing information little by little rewards subscribers and followers. It creates familiarity over time. In turn, familiarity provides the necessary context for you to go farther into details like in a good television series when you discover the characters little by little.

BoingBoing, Kottke and Brain Pickings, for instance, are the ultimate examples.  They are difficult to grasp at first. Even after many visits, it might still be difficult to reduce their editorial line to one sentence or even a paragraph. Does that prevent people from getting it right away? Sure. Yet, after stumbling upon interesting articles of theirs over and over, curiosity is tickled. Readers start trusting them to come up with rich and fulfilling content. A relationship develops, in short. Each author has their own numerous areas of expertise and interests. Through their long history, they develop themes that subscribers can pick up on and follow.

The point is not to forget about planning all together. To convey the breadth and depth of your or your organisation’s personality requires a strategy. We made progress in our methodologies but relationships with humans can’t be mechanized. We shouldn’t forget Tara Hunt’s advice to embrace the chaos. In all forms of publishing, you are always dealing with humans. You don’t get to choose if things are messy, they will always be. You can only choose how much of a mess you want and if the mess is rich in meaning or not.

Image credit: “Spinning Blade” by Patrick Fitzgerald, Creative Commons Attribution 2.0

I wrote “Let Readers Discover Your Publication’s Personality” on the Paper.li blog, it was originally published on January 9, 2012. Reproduced here with permission.

Content Marketing for Small Businesses

Content marketing is the buzzword of the week. Yet, it has always existed: under different names, spread by different means. When a farmer talks with his customers about the compared merits of different crops on the market floor, it is content marketing already. He helps his customers make better sense of the world in a language they can understand and builds goodwill in the process.Somewhere along the way, companies lost this human connection as evidenced by the fourteenth thesis of the Cluetrain Manifesto by Levine, Locke, Searls and Weinberger:

Corporations do not speak in the same voice as these new networked conversations. To their intended online audiences, companies sound hollow, flat, literally inhuman.

But now, they’re beginning to get better at communicating in a human voice again and respond to their customers’ true concerns in conversations. There is talk of content strategy, content marketing, etc. in lots of exciting places.

Small businesses relied on these conversations and the spreading of good content for a while now. John Jantsch, in his 2006 book Duct Tape Marketing, exposes a holistic approach to marketing which is all about reaching out to the right prospects with compelling content.

The major point is this: Content Marketing is the creation and distribution of content to build trust in your relationship with your prospects. They want reliable information about their situation and how different options compare. Give them that and soon, prospects will turn to leads and leads will transform into customers.

In most content marketing efforts, there are three goals you have to work towards.

  1. Help people live happy stories by sharing relevant information.
  2. Show them how you can intervene in their stories with your products.
  3. Discover your specific way of caring in the process.

How To Join The Conversation

John Jantsch advocates reusable and modular content. So you can mix and match according to your audience and chosen means of distribution. The different pieces of content he would suggest are:

  • A statement of why they should hire you
  • A summary of how you’re different from the competition
  • A description of your ideal customer and why you appeal to them
  • Your marketing story
  • Your offerings, of course.
  • Compelling case studies and testimonial proof
  • And the list goes on…

The content types detailed above are all sound, but remember you don’t have to feel overwhelmed or constrained by the list. Don’t rush it. Some organizations can churn out content and hope for the better. You can’t gamble like this, you have a business to run. Create as much value as you can. Stay confident that each piece of content you create answers your audiences’ needs and supports as many of your business objectives as possible. Focus on the three pillars, take your time to plan your content as you would a new line of products.

Small Steps Add Up

This being said, don’t let such warnings block you. Content publishing is like any new business you dive into, you will make mistakes at first and it’s OK. Writing and publishing are processes of constant discovery. The feedback you will receive will help you get better. Start writing right now, publish when a piece is ready. Take it step by step, one piece at a time.

Most advisers, just like John Jantsch, would want you to start at the center with core messages. Enough with this obsession, I say! Start at the periphery and move towards the center later. In their time, themes and patterns will emerge and point towards core messages and values. If you can’t figure them out, don’t be discouraged. Keep writing and publishing content nonetheless. Core messages and differentiation from the competition will come as you discover subtleties in your way of caring for customers. You can’t just declare them, they have to mature and arise. If you pay attention to your education efforts, your caring and your story, you can be confident that good things will happen.

What’s Practical

Marcus Sheridan taught himself how to use the web to promote his fiberglass pools business. The content he has created became a major factor in River Pools and Spas growth. His first move when he started out was to collect questions he was being asked, answer them in writing, often breaking industry taboos like pricing in the process. His efforts were so successful that he became a content marketing consultant known as The Sales Lion. If you are just starting out or if questions don’t roll in the door fast enough, you can use Q&A sites such as Quora or Stack Exchange to gather more. Write answers in the best manner possible using your own personal voice and post them on the web. If you don’t already have one, a blog is a great format for such efforts because it is modular and flexible.

By helping people make sense of the world around them, you will gain their trust and their business. Saddleback Leather, a small business selling durable leather bags, teaches how leather work is done, on the one hand, and shows their specific way of caring in a story on the other. You also have a great story to tell — I am sure. Invest a little bit of time to write it down because it will bring context and help with connections. Follow the steps I showed to craft the Editor’s Note of your Paper.li with a broader focus and get your story heard.

Of course, curation with Paper.li is also a way of providing content to help your customers make sense of the world. Many small business owners share their experiences on this blog like Nichelle Stephens, cupcake queen, or Brendon Held, kitesurfing expert. There are countless others such as Brian from the Edison Pen company — specializing in custom pens. They edit a delightful Paper.li about writing tools entitled Writing Instruments Daily. Follow their lead: I wish you nice chats!

Image Credit: Table centerpiece representing Turkish merchants in conversation photographed at Berlin’s Museum of Decorative Arts by FA2010

I wrote “Content Marketing for Small Businesses” on the Paper.li blog, it was originally published on Mars 16, 2012. Reproduced here with permission.