Let’s start with the basics. Why is content important? For marketers, the well-deserved popularity of content marketing can be boiled down to one simple fact: Your audience doesn’t want trust you if you sell too hard. In fact, people aren’t interested in being sold to at all anymore – being sold to and being spammed to are basically interchangeable.
But people ARE interested in being educated, and they ARE interested in being and entertained. You can’t do those either of those things without content. That’s why, at this stage in the game, we all know that content marketing is important.
So we know that we need content to educate and entertain. But what IS content? What qualifies as content?
An ebook is the most basic type of content, which you’re probably familiar with (especially if you’re in the B2B world). But your company’s blog is also content. A whitepaper or a report or a cheat sheet – all content. There’s also visual content, which many B2B companies are still dipping their toes in, but is really powerful and engaging – infographics, comics, activity books, photos, video…
But don’t panic: you don’t need to make ALL of these kinds of content at once. Good content is anything that shares your company’s voice – your thoughts, your perspective, your knowledge, your ideas, your leadership – with your audience. Experimenting with the FORM of your content is great, but the most important thing is that you have something to say.
Which brings me to the first step of content creation: figuring out what you have to say. In other words, brainstorming.
It’s easy to get stuck if you’re just thinking about the content you NEED. For example, you want to send out an email with a free download, but you don’t have anything for people to download. Or you want to improve your page ranking for a term, but you know better than to keyword stuff. Or your sales team needs something to show prospects, or your competitor just made an amazing YouTube video that went viral. But what do you KNOW? Even better, what does your audience want to know that YOU know?
Here’s a hint: What your audience DOESN’T need to know, or at least not with your content marketing, is how your products work and how great your company is.
Instead, think of yourself as a teacher. What can you teach your audience? At Marketo, we know about marketing, and our customers are marketers – so naturally, we have a fair amount of knowledge that’s valuable to our audience. In all of our content, we share information about being a better marketer. What does YOUR organization know about?
You also want to think about buying stages. At Marketo, we divide our assets into Early, Mid, and Late stage content. Early stage content is for prospects who aren’t ready to buy our product – they might not even know what our product is. At that stage, we focus on educational material that focuses on our core competency (marketing) but doesn’t explicitly plug our product. Mid stage content is meant for prospects who have shown some interest, and late stage content is very product-centric, designed for prospects who may be seriously researching our services. All of these kinds of content are extremely important, but early stage content is a good place to start, because it builds trust and establishes your reputation within your industry.
You might also want to think about arcs and themes, based on product releases, new services, upcoming events, or trends. Company-wide buy-in is crucial at this moment – whether there are five or fifty people on your marketing team. Meet with everyone who might use your content, and figure out some common themes or touchpoints.
Put your heads together: Set up a short, informal meeting with the “idea makers” on your team.Keep it positive. As you bounce ideas off of each other, take a cue from improvisational actors – rather than shooting ideas down, encourage your teammates to keep elaborating and revising.Check out the competition:Inspiration can come from anywhere – even the competition. Keep tabs on your competitor’s content, and think of it as a challenge – can you make something even better?Write it down. There’s nothing worse than a great idea nobody can remember the next day! In the heat of a great brainstorm, make sure someone is taking notes.
Once you know WHAT you want to share with your audience, and which buying stage you want to appeal to, you need an outline of your content piece. Whether you’re writing a blog post, an ebook, an infographic, or a video, you need to hammer out an outline before you start. Write it down. There’s nothing worse than a great idea nobody can remember the next day! In the heat of a great brainstorm, make sure someone is taking notes.
There are two people who need to be present for the creation of your outline: the person who is going to write, draw, or direct the piece of content, and the person who has the most knowledge about the subject matter. Be as detailed as you can with your outline, but break it up into bullet points so that you’re sure to hit all of your points without confusing your audience. As you map out the online, think about the message you’re trying to get across, the information you’re trying to share, and the audience you want to share it with. Here’s a sample outline of an ebook we recently wrote at Marketo – note that we mapped out the concept, sections, and bullet points before we got started.
Now let’s say that you decided to create an infographic, but you don’t have an in-house designer. Or let’s say you want to create an ebook, but you don’t have time to actually write one, or writing isn’t your thing. That shouldn’t be the end of your content creation – why not outsource? At Marketo, we only have 2 people on our content team, so we outsource parts of our content creation pretty frequently, and we’ve developed relationships with designers and writers who we trust to do high quality work. If you need to use an outside company, they should collaborate with you (either in person, or on the phone) to create the outline of your piece.
Identify your “thesis statement.” What point will you illustrate with your content piece? This should only be 1-3 sentences long. Identify your theme. This might be your central metaphor/analogy, or simple the direction you’re envisioning for the art. Use H1s, H2s, and bullet points. The more detailed you are in your outline’s structure, the more organized your finished piece will be. Get a second opinion. Present your outline (a PowerPoint works nicely) to a few members of your team before you move forward.
Once you have a first draft, based on your outline, the editing can begin.
In the first stage of editing (and this applies to any asset, absolutely regardless of the medium) you need to start with larger, conceptual concerns. Focus on the big picture – have you stuck to your outline? Is your message coming across? Is the piece written in a voice that speaks for your company? Is the content truly valuable?
In later edits, you can get more granular, and really look at the piece under a microscope. Are your adhering to your internal style guides? If you use a long em-dash in one sentence, are you consistent throughout? Is everyone’s name spelled correctly? Expect to do several rounds of edits at the very least. The more eyes you can get on your asset, the better. Different people will notice different problems, and catch different mistakes.
Pro tip: If you’re the original writer of the piece, you’ll only hurt yourself (and the piece!) by getting too attached to your original drafts. The better you are at responding to feedback without taking it personally, the better your content will eventually be.
Create an in-house style guide. Does your company write “ebook” or “eBook”? Will punctuation go inside or outside of quotation marks? How will you handle titles? When it comes to grey (or “gray”) areas in spelling and punctuation, the most important thing is to be consistent. Be constructive. If you want something changed while you’re editing, try your best to come up with an alternative suggestion. This will help you illustrate what you’re looking for, even if the writer doesn’t follow your exact suggestion. Agree on a document format and editing tool. We use word documents and make sure that “Track Changes” is selected whenever we edit. Track Changes records the time and author of every revision, for maximum visibility.
Once you feel good about the content, and you’ve had a chance to edit the piece a few times, it’s time to add visual appeal.
Some kinds of content, like infographics, will need a LOT of design, so if you don’t have a design team, and you’re not an artist yourself, you may have to outsource this part. If you do choose to outsource, the designer should be able to provide you with several concepts, and you should have the opportunity to pick your favorite. If you don’t like any of the options, you should feel free to request alternative ideas. Remember, the more specific you can be about what you want, the better.
Once your designer (or you!) has some of the images and text arranged, it’s time for more editing! We like to use PDFs at this stage, because you can highlight text and add comments. Whoever is editing at this stage should be as specific and thorough as possible, because from this point forward, changing things up will only become more of a hassle. For the same reason, you want as many people to give their input at this stage as possible, so that nothing gets missed. But even though this is a collaboration, it’s crucial that one person “owns” the project. That person should review everyone’s comments and edits, to avoid redundant or inconsistent comments. This is a page from an draft of the same ebook I showed the outline for, with comments.
And here’s that same page, after about three rounds of revisions. So whether you’re working with an in-house designer or an agency, think of the early drafts as a starting off point. That said, the fewer revisions it takes before you’re happy with the design, the better. Like every part of content creation, this should be a collaborative effort – you need to be as articulate as possible about what you want, and the designer needs to responsive as possible.
It might seem silly to devote a whole step to the final proof…
But the final proof is your last chance to catch any tiny errors before your content goes live. I’ve talked a lot about how important it is to collaborate on your content pieces, but keep in mind that every time you edit, you create an opportunity to introduce new errors. In the final proof, try to look at your content as if you were seeing it for the very first time. You’d be amazed by what we catch at the last moment!
Whether you’ve put together a digital or a physical piece of content, the moment your piece goes live is a big deal. And in a way, it’s just the beginning.
Webinars, on your website, with emails, on social – get as much out of your content piece as you can.
Now that we’ve covered the step-by-step, let’s talk about a few other basics.
Here’s an example of how we repurposed one of our “big rock” content pieces. But even something fairly short can be repurposed. An infographic or an ebook can becomes slide decks that you post to SlideShare, a blog post can become an ebook. You can also redesign a dated, but still relevant piece to quickly create fresh content.
So what did we learn?
Write what you know. Find the cross-section between your knowledge and your audience’s knowledge gaps. Map to buying stages. As you create your content, have your ideal reader’s buying stage firmly in mind. Collaborate. Every piece of content creation can be improved by collaborative – from ideation to the final proof. Broaden your bandwidth. Don’t be afraid to outsource any aspect of your content creation – but make sure you have ownership and final say. Edit, edit, edit. Expect to revise multiple drafts of every piece you create – nobody gets it perfectly on the first shot. Make the most of it. Repurpose your content. Make your time and energy worth the investment.