Most of the exceptional and remarkable content pieces throughout the history of content marketing seem to have a few things in common: they are the result of mastery, collaboration, strong ideas, and are data-informed – plus they are always created with the purpose of educating and inspiring.
Content and its needy fellow, marketing, have taken center stage in the digital space for the past decade, but they have often ended up being the by-product of a love-hate relationship between their consumers and creators respectively.
The actual term content marketing has become the internet villain for good reason. There's simply so much content out there that it gets easy to be distracted by clickbait articles and boring ol' best practices.
Look, we live in a world where everyone wants to have an opinion about something (and share it), but with the volume of dubious content increasing, readers want to know that what they’re reading online is authentic and brings value.
So here it goes. If we want to stand out, then this will be the decade where we need to shift our attention towards simplicity, quality, and purpose to create more meaningful content and relationships.
Mastering the art of content that attracts organic readers is not a quick route to success.
This level of expertise and command can take decades to achieve and that's perfectly fine – but there are a few elements that can be the guiding light for creators and brands alike.
Let's dig in.
All Hail, Purpose
When Medium’s founder, Ev Williams, laid off one-third of his staff in 2017, he was first driven by the decision to move away from an ad-supported business model, because “people who write and share ideas should be rewarded on their ability to enlighten and inform, not simply their ability to attract a few seconds of attention.”
The decision may have seemed radical but it was driven by the quest to find a deep sense of purpose for the publishing platform, something that resonates with their core mission: to focus on the content, not the advertising.
Upon further reflection, it’s clear that the broken system is ad-driven media on the internet. It simply doesn’t serve people. In fact, it’s not designed to. The vast majority of articles, videos, and other “content” we all consume on a daily basis is paid for — directly or indirectly — by corporations who are funding it in order to advance their goals.
And it is measured, amplified, and rewarded based on its ability to do that. Period. As a result, we get…well, what we get. And it’s getting worse. – Ev Williams
Ask any successful leader whether their organization values purpose, and we'll get a resounding yes.
Without a deep sense of purpose, a mission, clear goal, and strategies, we don't know how to tell people where to go or what to do.
In the HBR article Your Content Marketing Strategy Doesn’t Have to Be Complicated, the writer suggests to use Kipling’s “serving men” to kickstart a content strategy.
"While all of the five Ws (and one H) merit attention, focusing on why, who, and what is a solid foundation. It also helps us ensure that our content is both business-centric and customer-aware."
When we write stories, we need to develop a clear sense of who we are and how we create value through a comprehensive, communicated, and contextualized framework that empowers readers to connect with us.
Without a clear sense of purpose, it’s impossible to write stories that change hearts and minds.
The opportunity we have is to shift the stance that producing more content is better. More isn’t always better, nor is it effective. We need to revise our principles of content creation to create real connections.
We would start with these principles:
Writing to Inspire
The word inspire comes from the Latin word that means to inflame or to blow into. When you inspire something, it is as if you are blowing air over a low flame to make it grow.
Think about how leaders inspire change or how people getting together ignite movements.
A powerful example is Greta Thunberg, a Swedish teenager who made headlines by starting a solo climate protest by striking from school. The young activist has been joined by thousands of school and university students around the world in climate strikes that have become regular events.
The biggest event up to date gathered more than 4 million people. Her sense of purpose and dedication inspired millions around the world to do the same.
Companies also have the power to inspire. Basecamp is one example that has been constantly influencing people to stick to simplicity and quality for decades.
And it's not only their software that inspires but also the way they are channelling their knowledge, ideas, and experiences to help others succeed. We personally think Rework should be a compulsory read for anyone who works in the tech space.
When our content inspires, we are creating it with the sole intention to motivate readers to be and do better than they were before reading it.
To inspire, we always fall back on the power of storytelling, personal experiences, knowledge, and the ability to curate stories that build a wholesome, shared narrative.
Writing to Educate
To educate others in an area that is relevant to the product or service we're trying to sell or promote, we need to do so in a way that it adds value to their lives in the form of knowledge.
But first, we need to think like learners ourselves and put our skin in the game.
We can do so by learning better and gaining clarity to share our thoughts and ideas with our peers.
Are you running a company? Do you have subject matter experience in a certain field? Sharing experiences and documenting your failures and successes as well as giving people the tour behind-the-scenes of how things are done are the starting points to shape up our content.
When content educates, we are teaching people something they did not know.
Speak Data to Me
It's all about data and how we use it to discover what people are looking for. Data in content marketing can be used in two ways:
• As facts and statistics curated to make references in the writing process
• To analyse what works and what doesn't after having published a piece
We use data to create a deeper understanding of what value readers get from our articles. But there's a sweet spot for doing this. When we're too data-driven, we risk creating something dry and formulaic. When we're too opinionated, we start ignoring valuable cues that could help us improve our content.
Our ideas and opinions might be part of the big picture but content that’s rooted in research, data, facts—not just our own opinions—becomes more credible.
Companies that are successful with content execute consistently, but they also use the gathered data to identify what works and what doesn't and then use the information to go back and reiterate.
For example, take Airtable, which tracks the performance of each article to find the sweet spot for making their blog more helpful. The data they gain is super valuable because it helps the team create future stories by analysing metrics and feedback from readers.
Airtable also has a great way of segregating their content marketing pipeline into three stages such as: preparation, production, and publication.
While the first two stages are helpful for content managers to brainstorm and keep track of what’s in the works, the last stage informs all strategic improvements. This creates a loop in which every new article is another piece of data on what works and what doesn’t.
Without data, it can get difficult to figure out if a problem is real or not. Many times, the decision simply ends up not being solved when things cannot be properly measured.
First principles thinking is the best way to rethink the fundamental blocks of a problem to decide what’s the best way forward.
The Devil in the Details
How we write is continuously evolving to reflect shifts in needs, sensibilities, and technologies, so it’s important to write in such a way that reflects the people we write for.
Mailchimp is one example that has clear guidelines for writing about people with compassion.
Whether you’re writing for an internal or external audience, it's important to write for and about other people in a way that’s compassionate, inclusive, and respectful. – Mailchimp Content Style Guide
Sprout also emphasizes the need to be careful about the bias that can show up in the smallest word choices. The company takes extra care to be conscious of the impact their language has to make people feel seen, valued, respected and welcome.
We need to promote critical thinking about language and ways we can use conscious words, portrayals, framing, and representation to empower instead of limit.
Involve people from different communities throughout the writing process. Ask readers. Not only will readers show us what they need, but they will help us look beyond our own abilities and biases when creating a new piece.
By involving stakeholders and peers, we are able to identify and test assumptions and biases. Without involving peers, our stories would likely reflect our own abilities and assumptions about practices and ideas that we think should be the norm.
Go Cross-Functional or Go Home
It’s a common myth that collaboration is difficult across teams. But as teams become more homogenous, tools, frameworks, and mental models open up doors for new ways of thinking, working and collaborating.
In the case of content, it's imperative to focus on tools that augment collaboration and help us reach new parts of the organisations we work in.
Our most foundational level of collaboration is access to knowledge.
For instance, at GrowthTalk, we create editorial cohesion by working with applications, such as Notion for organizing ideas and setting up our editorial calendar. And because we work remotely, we are considerate of the asynchronous aspect of our collaborative efforts so we use Slack to share ideas and give updates without caring so much if our schedules overlap (we all need longer periods of time to work deeply, without being interrupted).
Ensuring we are all comfortable with these tools and way of working means we can easily share knowledge, without working in the same office.
Likewise, while we all have individual approaches to writing, having a shared system — a style guideline and common values —offers cross-team understanding that informs all the other layers of the editorial collaboration.
Content creation requires trial and error, and tools that accommodate this flexible process are essential to foster creativity.
Build Empathy at Scale
Empathy comes from the Greek word pathos, which means feeling. There's an old saying that goes "walk a mile in someone's shoes" which describes the process of first understanding someone else's experiences before judging them.
Before we do anything, we need to learn how to show empathy, letting people see that other perspectives are as valuable as theirs.
Showing empathy makes others more likely to ask us for our perspective and so, collaboration occurs.
But there can be no empathy without vulnerability.
Being receptive to the views of someone we disagree with is not easy, but when we approach the situation with a genuine wish to understand our differences, we always get a better outcome.
In successful collaborations, each person assumes that everyone involved, regardless of background, has something important to voice out. That mindset makes participants want to understand why others have differing views, which allows them to build constructive conversations.
In writing, empathy is equally important. Great writing is like a great conversation. There’s give and take. There's showing empathy. There's understanding who you write for.
It's all an exchange, a flow of ideas.
Remarkable content prompts people to share their thoughts, comments, and feedback. It’s an exchange. Writers share. Readers share. And pretty soon, we feel that we have a connection.
When we show empathy, people tend to relate and connect to us more. This unleashes a cascade effect of true connections, candor, and collaboration.
"If we reject vulnerability, we kill curiosity hence we cannot reflect and pivot to a better solution."
The ability to tell stories that inform, persuade, and inspire is at the heart of every aspect of the content strategy.
Storytelling doesn't mean you have to fluff up content.
Storytelling plays an important role in this marketing ploy because, essentially, humans have been telling stories for millennia — so for evolutionary reasons, storytelling has remained ingrained in our DNA.
Our brains are wired to look for stories, which is why content remains the best medium to connect with people.
According to First Round Review, building a compelling narrative is needed when founders pitch for the next big startup idea or when sales reps create scripts that win customers, or recruiters tailor company pitches to attract top talent.
When writers craft a story, we should be honest with the reader, back up our facts, and deliver on promises to build long-term value and trust.
Show readers “what could be” as opposed to “what is” currently. Take Nancy Duarte’s example of writing powerful stories using the same techniques as great storytellers.
The power of a story relies on how much the storyteller exemplifies the message, and how we carry it through actions beyond the content itself.
Stories also nurture the importance of listening to readers and incorporating their views into your writing. Storytelling is the key to keeping readers engaged and excited about what we have to say.
In the end, what makes good stories lies in the creative quality that makes humans, well, human.
Quality Trumps Quantity
Too much of what we consume these days is the mental equivalent of junk food. Quality matters more than quantity. – Farnam Street
Success is often built on the habit of saying “yes” to anything that comes our way.
We’re eager for any chance to prove ourselves, and when we’re presented with one, we quickly take it. This is also the case when we accept to write content that ends up being a number in a monthly quota.
When it comes to writing, we should start from the premise that writing is a slow process. So saying no is crucial if we want to focus on quality.
Just like top chefs spend hours perfecting a recipe, so do writers spend hours constructing and deconstructing ideas, researching, creating a narrative, illustrating problems and solutions, rewriting, and then rewriting some more.
Being a better writer means you always have to write. It's the compounding effect that makes anyone just a bit better than they were a day before. Reading a lot matters. Learning from experts helps. Studying how writers are mastering their craft is crucial. Taking a step back and learning how to be a better learner is also key.
But what makes a quality article? We create something qualitative when we lay the right foundations (knowledge and experience) and stick to our principles.
It’s important to set concrete guidelines and principles for what quality content is. Clear guidelines help us set expectations for those who are creating content and also help readers be on the same page with us.
Creating guidelines and principles help us build consistency and this is the key to simplifying what we need to do.
Connecting the Dots
To round this up, we're just going to leave you with a quote from Basecamp's Jason Fried:
If you have something to say, say it. If you have something to share, share it. Don’t invent things to say or to share just such that you can package up that pink slime as a golden nugget of truth to trade for someone’s contact information.
Find your own voice. Master your craft. Keep learning and unlearning, and think twice before hitting publish.