Content marketing, we’re told every day in every way, can yield positive results for any business or organization…if it’s done right. But, what’s right?
This article offers 9 key, specific suggestions to improve and maintain content quality that are tailored to the needs of small to medium-sized businesses and organizations.
It’s now a cliche that the internet continues to revolutionize human communications, including the way marketers ply their craft. But, as countless writers over the centuries — from William Shakespeare to Aldous Huxley and beyond — have pointed out, whenever we find ourselves traveling through a Brave New World, our survival and our success will be dependent on not losing sight of the lessons of the past.
Aaron Agius, co-founder and Managing Director of the Sidney-based internet marketing agency Louder Online, notes some of those valuable “old world” lessons today’s online marketers can learn from studying the methods employed by old-school, print journalists.
In “9 Lessons Content Marketers Can Learn from Traditional Journalism,” Agius offers some insights into those traditional techniques and some examples of their potential to attract and win audiences online.
As part of AUMW’s ongoing effort to provide and disseminate useful, valuable information about Content Marketing, we are constantly running across articles that stimulate our thinking.
This post is inspired by an article by Aaron Agius on ContentMarketingInstitute.com: 9 Lessons Content Marketers Can Learn from Traditional Journalism.
9 Ways to Improve Your Content Writing
While Agius is addressing primarily larger organizations able to employ teams of content marketers, much of what he says is scalable to the needs of small to medium-sized businesses and organizations. Here are the highlights:
1. Create effective headlines
This tip incorporates two of Agius’s nine “lessons”: “create multipurpose headlines,” and “avoid using click-bait headlines.”
Regarding multipurpose headlines, Agius says: “Many content marketers…create headlines for SEO purposes rather than to engage with their readers, ultimately failing to inspire people to read the articles.”
On the average, five times as many people read the headline as read the body copy. When you have written your headline, you have spent eighty cents out of your dollar.
-David Ogilvy, the original “Mad Man” and founder of Ogilvy & Mather
Agius argues that, while headlines with strong SEO signals are important for online marketers, they must be incorporated into headlines that serve two essential purposes — capturing attention and conveying information.
He urges striving for headlines that create a sense of timeliness and urgency, and he offers three before-and-after examples of the type of headline he’s advocating.
- Second and Third Grade Math Fractions Lesson
- Goals for Teacher Improvement
- Negligence And Canadian Tort Law
- Introduction to Fractions Lesson Plan, Worksheet Activity, Teaching Elementary Math
- 5 Goals Teachers Should Shoot For This School Year
- Torts – Best Sources in Canadian Law by Topic
Turning to click-bait, Agius notes that Facebook recently issued a specific policy against click-bait headlines. He doesn’t say, but could, that search engines are continually downgrading the SEO value of what he calls “spammy” headlines.
But, Agius says, “Traditional journalists always have understood that while headlines need to be interesting enough to lure readers, they also need to genuinely communicate the content’s message to earn the reader’s trust.”
Content marketers, he says, should follow journalists’ lead “to create digital headlines that both capture readers’ attention and inform them of the content’s subject.”
How? He demonstrates by showing how this advice works in one of his previous before-and-after example headlines. Transforming “Goals for Teacher Improvement” into “5 Goals Teachers Should Shoot for This Year,” Agius says, “does a much better job of managing the readers’ expectation of the content.”
2. Know your audience
Agius notes that understanding one’s audience is essential to capturing them as readers (and more!), “…a reality that conventional journalists have understood for decades.” And, he adds, that need is even more crucial to content marketers, “who typically target a more niche audience.” Of course, content marketing websites and blogs haven’t missed this obvious point. There’s plenty of available advice on identifying and getting to know one’s “target audiences.”
Agius offers some useful tips on getting to know your audience:
- Pay attention to your comments section (and I’d add customer questions). Focus on what readers are telling you, and respond to them with questions that will help you understand their interests and concerns.
- Use one or more of the readily available analytics tools — like Google Analytics or the tools offered by your social media — applying them to both your current and past content offerings.
3. Verify the authenticity of what you publish
Agius says, “Journalists have long known that readers aren’t forgiving of reporters who don’t check their facts, and content marketers should strive for similar due diligence. If you aren’t 100% confident that the information you gather is accurate, dig deeper.”
And, he offers some specific verification advice, spoonsful of which can be adopted by any-sized organization:
- Review your secondary source material independently.
- Contact sources directly, whenever practical.
- Consider doing primary research on selected topics.
4. Balance current news with evergreen content
Agius says, “Traditional journalists make it a point to create timeless content…” He continues, addressing content marketers, “Covering current events in your industry is certainly important, but you’ll want to balance this with evergreen content to meet your audience’s needs.” While much of Agius’s advice here is beyond the reach of any organization without deep marketing pockets, the principle is not.
Here’s how you can put that principle to work: Whenever you’re choosing among several potential topics, or refining your approach to a topic you’ve selected, keep the principle in mind. Ask yourself, “Which of these topics will still be interesting and relevant to my audience next month, next year, etc.” Or, “How can I treat this topic in a way that will sustain its interest and value over time?”
5. Minimize distractions
Agius points out, “Newspaper formats allow traditional journalists to minimize distractions because they can present only one or two pages at a time. Content marketers, on the other hand, must contend with multiple points of entry in a single view – banner ads, related post links, calls to action, etc., that all prompt viewers to leave the page they’re reading.” Or, I’d add, simply to lose their focus and wander away from your message, figuratively or literally.
His recommended response: cautious consideration and restraint when introducing “unnecessary distractions that could steal readers’ attention…” Among these potential distractions, he includes web sign-up forms, flashy banner advertisements, email subscription boxes, multiple images, and links to internal or external content pieces.
6. Practice brutal honesty
“Reporters,” Agius notes, “take great efforts to disclose possible biases influencing their work to provide an honest depiction of the article’s context and facts. Doing so helps them to earn readers’ trust…,”
He argues that content marketers should embrace that value, which often means the willingness to avoid — or at least acknowledge — bias when discussing your own products and services, as well as those of your competitors. While doing so may be counterintuitive, an overtly biased approach will likely prove counterproductive.
7. Look for the bigger picture
Agius says, “The most effective journalists write stories that play into larger trends…while readers may find particular stories interesting, they’re generally more interested in learning about the broader implications of the articles they consume.”
Among the examples Agius offers, one draws on a published blog article. He tells us: “When Google penalized two content-publishing platforms [MyBlogGuest and PostJoint] last year, Search Engine Watch’s Jennifer Slegg wrote about how the penalties reflected Google’s clear commitment to penalizing spam content marketing strategies and issued recommendations that all publishers should follow.”
His parting shot here? “Keep in mind that, while readers may find particular stories interesting, they’re generally more interested in learning about the broader implications of the articles they consume.”
Here are a couple of more small and medium size business-friendly suggestions that draw on Agius’s theme (and neatly restore the nine promised lessons):
8. Spare the red (ink) and spoil the copy
Producing quality content is crucial to building, maintaining, and motivating your audience. While there’s no consensus on how to define “quality,” one clear characteristic is carefully edited copy. And, much as we may be tempted to short-cut, running spell-check is not editing.
9. Don’t bury your lead.
There are some basic principles here. Among them:
- Remember the five essential W’s: who, what, when, where, and why…
- Plan what goes “above the fold.”
- Learn and practice the inverted pyramid style of writing.
Coming soon: I’ll tackle each of these last two lessons, delving into them in separate articles.
Meanwhile, keep Agius’s advice in mind. While creating and publishing successful marketing content — content that separates us from the clamoring crowd — we don’t have to reinvent every wheel. There’s plenty to be learned from successful writers in other fields who’ve learned how to win and hold readers.