What I learned getting people to read what I wrote

Content marketers may speak smugly of their ‘viral’ content, ‘scalable’ strategies, or ‘growth hacks’, but at our core, we are the corporate equivalent of people handing out free samples at supermarkets.

Only less popular. People generally prefer eating cookies to reading articles.

As a marketing strategy, content marketing seeks first to educate or entertain rather than evangelise, in the hopes of building trust and brand recognition among customers. With millennials wary of aggressive advertising, the best way to gain their attention is to provide genuinely useful and engaging content. The actual advertising is implied; well-researched, insightful articles reflect positively on their writers and the products they are selling.

I have spent the past 3 months as a content marketing intern, and I hope to share what I’ve observed in this article. I won’t teach you how to create the next viral marketing strategy – there are tons of people more qualified than me to talk about that – but as a newcomer to this world, I’ll try to provide a perspective not often talked about.

Overview:

  • It always looks easy
  • Go big, unless you’re going small
  • Good is not good enough

 

It always looks easy

As consumers of media, we tend to only see posts that are engaging enough to escape the gravity of indifference. The countless posts that languish with single-digit shares and likes are quickly swept away in our newsfeeds. It is the posts that are shared frenetically by our friends that we remember, that set our expectations for the explosive, viral power of social networks.

However, the reality as a creator of content can be vastly different. I first realised this when I tried using Reddit to promote a free market analysis tool my team had created. Billed as the ‘front page of the Internet’, Reddit appeared to be a platform where the sheer number of users meant even the most inane jokes could get hundreds if not thousands of upvotes. If a one-liner could get thousands of upvotes, then I had high hopes for the market analysis tool my team and I had spent weeks working on. The end result? My post scored 2 points.

Because of our perspective as consumers of popular content, our anecdotal understanding of how easy it is to get likes and shares is biased.

It is always easier to evoke an emotional response when your topic is weight loss, celebrities, popular culture, etc. Your audience shrinks when you’re writing about say data science, or ecommerce trends. There’s no getting around that if your company specialises in niche, business-facing topics, but what I think we can learn, though, is that relevance is more important than the quality of your content.

Writing relevant content means finding out what people are talking about, what big publications are posting, and tuning your content towards that. No one is really interested in how much you know; they are interested in how your knowledge addresses their concerns. We are often advised to write about what we know, but this runs the danger of being cocooned in our own self-congratulatory shells.

 

Go big, unless you’re going small

Content that grabs people’s attention must be special in some way, and I’ve realised there are two opposite ways of achieving this.

In terms of quantity: One of the most popular article formats is the list. The ‘skyscraper’ method to creating viral content involves finding the best list in your subject area (‘best’ meaning most comprehensive) and improving on it by making it even longer and more detailed. You’ll end up with articles like ‘+300 Awesome Free Things for Entrepreneurs and Startups’ or ‘An Epic List of 100 Growth Hacks for Startups’. Alternatively, you can provide a more focused list of the ‘top 5 ways to…’, promising not sheer content but a higher degree of curation that helps readers hone in on what’s most important.

In terms of quality: When it comes to building a connection with your readers, it is important to update your blog regularly. The idea of ‘scalable’ content is to create an article series you can grow with minimum marginal effort. As an example of scalable content, my team and I built a web scrapper to automatically gather data from a large number of ecommerce sites; the web scraper can be run periodically to update our data points and generate new infographics for each time period. Another school of thought is to prioritise quality of content over mere quantity. This involves investing eye-watering amounts of time and professional insight into writing a single article, deliberately making the entire process un-scalable. Inefficient? Probably, but it’s precisely because it’s inefficient that no one else is doing it, ensuring that you’ll stand out. This strategy is advocated by Moz, who terms it ‘10x content’.

In terms of impact: What kind of reaction do you want to elicit in your audience? You can either give them exactly the information they need and let them carry on with the rest of their day, or inspire them to shelve their plans and spend the rest of their day working on what you’ve introduced to them.

My point in drawing these dichotomies is not to advocate one over the other, but to argue that to take the middle road is to regret the two roads not taken. More philosophically, coming from a position of weakness can sometimes be a strength if we embrace it rather than posturing of greatness.

 

Good is not good enough

It’s not uncommon to find thoroughly insightful posts stashed away in some corner of the internet while glib and cliche posts receive an unwarranted amount of attention. Creating good content alone is not enough. There is an entire world of relationship building and web optimisation that content marketers have to be fluent with.

One of my main motivations to work as a content marketing intern was to learn, then write about the areas my company specialises in – AI, data science, machine learning. While I certainly did that, I’ve realised that writing in a professional context is different from writing as an academic challenge. Out with the Byzantine sentence structures, in with the short, declarative paragraphs. It took a while to get used to what felt like a formulaic, stifling way of expressing ideas, but I eventually grew to appreciate the inner rhythm of this writing style whose ideas you could absorb almost as fast as you could scroll down the page.

In that vein, here’s my biggest takeaway from my past 3 months as a content marketer: people read what’s been written for them, and it’s more important to make the reader feel smart than to appear clever yourself.

After all, they’re the ones smart enough to take advantage of your free samples.


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