Content Marketing Challenges in 2015 (And a Few Solutions)

Since the term started kicking around a few years back, content marketing has grown in popularity every year. For those of us in the industry, that’s good news in the sense of ensuring our work is in demand. But with popularity comes increased competition, and doing content marketing well means facing new and increasingly sophisticated challenges from year to year.

Each year a few different sources release information on the top challenges marketing firms and businesses say they face when it comes to content marketing. A lot of what comes up in these surveys comes down to the five challenges listed below, each of which can be solved with the right approach.

Challenge: Being strategic in your content marketing.

One of the most obvious findings in the Content Marketing Institute’s surveys each year is that businesses with a strategy get more out of their content marketing than those just trying to figure it out as they go.

A strategy helps you connect the dots between the different channels and types of content you’re creating and make sure the work you put into content marketing actually pays off. Without one, you’re more likely to put a lot of effort into putting content out there that no one sees or engages with.

Solution: Stop everything else you’re doing and work on your strategy.

If you don’t have a content strategy yet, get on that right now. If you do, the beginning of the year is a good time to re-visit and evaluate it to see if you can make it better. If this isn’t something you know how to tackle on your own, hire someone who does. It’s too important to skip entirely.

So Many Things To Do ListChallenge: Scaling your content strategy to your resources.

This is arguably harder than creating the strategy. It’s often easier to think of a long list of things you should be doing than it is to actually, you know, do those things. A lot of content marketing is harder and more time consuming than people expect at first and if you overshoot, you’re more likely not to follow through on your plans or to be sloppy with them.

Solution: Build in some flexibility.

A content strategy isn’t a one and done deal. You may find you need to shift your expectations based on what your team can pull off or your budget can handle.

That’s ok. Better to slow down your content production and create the kind of stuff that will really shine than rush it and put out a lot of stuff no one will care about.

Challenge: Creating content that people care about.

I personally think this challenge and the next one are the two most difficult on the list. Everything I said in the introduction about competition is working against you here. How do you make your emails the ones that people open and your business blog the one that people click through to?

Your content doesn’t just have to be good it has to be relevant to what your audience needs and wants to know.

Solution: Talk to your audience and measure results.

You’ve got to go to the source. Talk to your customers or anyone you know that falls into the profile of what your target networkingofflinecustomers look like and find out:

  • What they’re thinking about
  • What they’re worried about
  • What questions and challenges they have
  • What other blogs and media outlets they regularly check out
  • How they find the content they consume
  • How and where they read it (Are they on their phone on the go? Sitting in their office at a desktop?)
  • What kind of topics they find the most interesting and valuable
  • Anything else you can get them to tell. The more you know the better.

For introverts like me, this part can be kind of awkward. But you know who’s probably talking to your audience every day? Sales people and customer service representatives. See if you can’t get them in on it to help you out with this step.

This gives you your start, but part two of tackling this challenge is paying attention to your analytics. What content pieces are getting read the most, shared the most, and commented on the most? Which are driving people to take further action on your site or inspiring return visits? Which are bringing new, relevant traffic to the site?

Track that information, check it regularly, and use it to refine your content strategy as you go.

Challenge: Promoting your content.

You can’t just put content out there and assume people will find it. Sometimes you’ll hear people suggest that works – “if it’s good enough, they will come!” I don’t buy it.

There’s too much stuff out there competing for their attention. You’ve got to put some effort into making sure your work gets in front of the people you want to see it and that they deem it worth their time.

Solution: Make this a crucial part of your strategy.

You’ve got to start thinking about this at the strategy stage. It takes time and it takes a plan. Identify the influencers and top blogs in your industry. Make a presence on social media (not every social media platform in existence, just the ones you know your people are at). Interact with people in your target audience and influencer list and become regular about it.

Creating the right relationships is a huge part of content promotion.

You should also consider paying for content promotion on social media channels and Google. If you’re paying for your content (and you are, even if only in time), it might be worth it to make sure your content is actually being seen. Paid promotion also usually comes with some good analytics that give you a better feel for what’s working and what people are interested in.

Challenge: Finding good people who get content marketing.

While this challenge wasn’t super high on the list, it’s one that’s growing for marketers. As content needs increase, so does the challenge of finding good people to help you meet those needs.

Solution: Talk to me!

Ok, I’m half joking. I’m a pretty great content writer, but by no means skilled at the many other things needed to be good at content marketing. That said, I do try to know as many people good at those other things as possible so I can point businesses in the right direction for what they need. And if I don’t already know someone skilled at the type of work you’re looking for, I don’t mind having an excuse to find that someone so I know them for future reference.

There are some other solutions that might come in handy for this one though:

  • Referrals and networking ­– keep up with any local marketing and content groups and don’t hesitate to ask the people you meet there for recommendations.
  • LinkedIn and Google searches – seems pretty obvious, but the people who rise to the top in searches on these networks are probably pretty good at what they do (although that means they likely don’t come cheap).
  • Invest in training for your staff – help the people you already have become more skilled at content marketing. Saves you a search and improves the employee relationship at the same time since it shows you care about investing in their career.

2015 looks likely to be a good year in the evolution of content marketing. Marketers just keep getting better at figuring out what works and exploring new creative ideas. As content marketing gets more sophisticated, you have to keep up if you want it to pay off for you. A lot of that just comes down to being thoughtful about how you approach it and putting in the work.

Unpopular Opinion: Why I Don’t Have an Email List

Why I Don't Have an Email ListIf you spend any time at all doing, researching, or thinking about content marketing you hear people talk about the importance of the list. Almost of all of the best marketing blogs sing the praises of the email list as a crucial component of building a successful business.

Copyblogger says: “Every successful online marketer we’ve talked with agrees — email readers are more responsive, they have a tighter connection with you, and they buy more stuff. ”

In an ebook thoroughly devoted to the subject, Hubspot says: “The size of your email list is a demonstration of your reach and thought leadership.”

Danny Iny from Firepole Marketing says: “Sure, Twitter, Facebook and RSS can be nice, but there’s just no comparing them to the raw power that comes with invited access to your prospect’s inbox.”

Joe Pulizzi, the very man who coined the term “content marketing” says: “There’s no Holy Grail to content marketing, but if there was one, it would be the email subscriber.”

If you google the term “the money’s in the list” you get page after page of articles from expert marketers insisting on the importance of building an email list.

As a content marketing copywriter, I know all the “rules” – the widely regarded best practices we’re all supposed to be following. Yet you’ve almost certainly noticed by now that there’s no email sign-up box in the sidebar. This is one of the golden rules of content marketing and yet I don’t personally follow it.

So….Why?

I don’t believe any of those quotes I cited up above are wrong. Those are some of the best minds in the biz and I’d be quick to share similar advice with many clients.

The reason I don’t follow this advice myself isn’t because I think it’s bad advice, it’s because it’s just not right for my business.

We’re All Different

Every business has distinct goals and priorities when it comes to content marketing. And every business must make choices when it comes time to decide where to spend time and money.

Like every other marketer and business owner in the world I have a loooooong mental list of different techniques and tactics I’d love to try for my business if only there were endless hours in each day. Like everyone else, I know I can’t accomplish them all and have to prioritize.

How I Prioritize

I’m just one person and my goals for the future of my business don’t include growing it beyond one person. That puts some serious limitations on the time I can spend on marketing, so I have to stick with the most efficient tactics for my purposes. These include (but aren’t necessarily limited to):

  • Networking. Both locally, at conferences, and online.
  • Guest posting to raise my online profile and demonstrate my abilities to a new audience.
  • Participating in social media with the goal of making new connections there.
  • Writing posts (like this one!) on my own blog to share my knowledge with readers and demonstrate my abilities to anyone who visits my site.

It’s a short list but, combined with my responsibilities to clients, it sure keeps me busy.

At the end of the day, all content marketing tactics come back around to the goal of making connections. The way you do it matters less than the results. For me, the activities I listed above work for what I want and need (and can accomplish) in my business.

The best strategy for your business will necessarily be different.

9 Expert Content Strategists on How to Be a Better Content Writer

Be a Better Content Writer

Content writers know the importance of trying to get inside readers’ heads to tap into what matters to them most, but that penchant for empathy doesn’t always extend to those other people we’re doing our writing for. We can’t read the minds of the people who are hiring us, but the simple solution to that is a willingness to ask.

With content marketing one of the fastest growing and most lucrative industries for professional writers to work in today, many of us are increasingly likely to find ourselves answering to people with the newly familiar title of “content strategist.” In the interest of tapping into what’s going on the heads of these content strategists (without trying to read minds), I’ve asked a few of them just what they value most in a content writer.

Here’s what they had to say:

9 Expert Opinions on What Makes a Great Content Writer

1) “I appreciate writers who have a clear understanding of their skills, strengths, and things they’re not as good at.

I love when writers ask smart questions upfront and ‘group’ their questions when they have to ask during the project. It’s so much easier to field than one email after another.

The most organized writers anticipate an editor or content strategist’s needs. They proactively research organic search terms, they craft concise pitches and cite expected sources, and they reach out on a regular basis (once a quarter is ideal) to see what they can help with.”

Kirsten Longnecker
Content Strategist, BancVue

2) “I most appreciate content writing that reminds me of my academic roots in creative writing and analysis. I am looking for a voice that pops off the page — an intellectual heft, an analytical rigor, and the kind of word choices that will stick with me long after I’ve left work for the day. It’s all possible in the content world, but only when writers, editors, and content developers lead the way.”

Leah Levy
Content Strategist and Copywriter, Just Start Storytelling

3) “Adaptation.  This is really broad and can apply to many different situations. Whether it’s taking feedback and adapting content accordingly, seeing a blog post fall flat and adapting the headline/tone/format the next time around, or taking something that’s complex and technical and adapting it for a more general audience — the ability to mold and shape content is absolutely necessary.

Curiosity. Ask questions! When I work with content writers who ask a lot of questions, the end product is usually a better, more performant piece of content. Writers should be asking “who is the target audience?,” “at what point in the buying cycle will someone be exposed to this piece of content?,” “how much should I assume they know about this topic?,” “how will the target audience benefit from reading this piece of content?,” “what is the intended call to action after reading this?”

Hannah Simon
Content Strategist, Fastly

4) “One quality I find indispensable in a writer is curiosity. The best writers are incurably enthusiastic and want to learn as much as possible about the subject of their writing. I’d rather read a curious neophyte writing about a technical topic than a complacent expert! Curious writers unearth interesting facts and make insightful connections. And their energy is infectious.”

Melanie Seibert
Content Strategist, Razorfish

5) “Coming from the magazine world and into content development, the most important things for me are the age-old elements. Know your audience and know the voice of the site. Certainly, great writing is great writing but if that writing fails to take into account the brand persona and audience, then you’ve just lost an opportunity to connect and convert.”

Lara Zuehlke
Account Supervisor, Pierpont Communications

6) “The quality we most appreciate in the content writers we work with is their willingness to learn. We want to develop long-term relationships with the writers who develop content for our clients which means we play a very collaborative role in creation. Being willing to learn all there is to know about the client and their business, accept feedback, and then of course apply what has been learned to future content is a huge benefit to everyone in the relationship.”

Mack Fogelson
CEO, Mack Web

7) “For me it’s a little bit of a two-pronged approach and trying to find a balance between them.

I used to value writers who excelled at audience engagement – creativity and passion and being able to really get inside the mind of the persona – even if their process was chaotic.

But as we move to a more structured approach to content, I’m really finding that I value content writers that can also organize their thoughts clearly, deliver outlines in advance of drafts, who know how to research and footnote material. It’s no longer just about engagement – the structure and process are critical as well.

Jenny Magic
Principal/VP of Content Strategy, Sitegoals

8) “When I hire writers – I do so because I want to bring their view of the world to an issue that I or my client is trying to communicate.   Alignment and agreement is important – but so is (in many cases) disagreement and (in almost all cases) a unique perspective.

So many times writers want to ‘write what they think the client wants’ instead of bringing their unique talents and point of view to the table.  Certainly there’s a place for writing in a different voice (e.g. ghost writing) and trying to match tone and perspective. But, most of the time what I appreciate and value about a content writer is that they have the ability to tell a story in a unique and differentiated way.”

Robert Rose
Chief Strategist, Content Marketing Institute

9) “Given the space I work in: the ability to clearly communicate fresh ideas.

I’m all for pretty prose, but in content marketing it’s all about educating customers; this places priority on clarity over articulacy, and demands an ability to argue unique perspectives. In other words, I mostly value a writer’s ability to think clearly and then put those thoughts to page over their ability to ‘write well.’ Perhaps they are one and the same, though. :)”

Gregory Ciotti
Content Strategist, Help Scout

Edit: Bonus Tip!

One strategist got back to me after the post went up, but I didn’t want to deprive anyone of her great advice.

“I need people who are super curious and constantly educating themselves about all the different areas of content strategy, particularly UX and metadata basics. Great writing only goes so far! :)”

Kristina Halvorson
Content Strategist, Brain Traffic

One thing that quickly becomes clear through these answers is that not every content strategist has the same priorities when it comes to finding a great content writer, which goes to show that much of being good at your work is finding the employer or client that’s a great fit for you.

There are a few key themes we see emerge though:

  • Curiosity – A good writer has got to be a great researcher and that’s a skill that usually comes from having a driving curiosity to learn new things. The best writers like that process of digging up new information on a topic and becoming a mini-expert in every little thing their readers want to know about.
  • Creativity – Good writing is not formulaic, it brings something unique to the table to help keep the reader interested. While that curiosity-driven research takes care of the background work, creativity is what makes for greater skill in the writing process itself. Choosing the best possible words, finding the right voice, bringing some humor into a piece ­– these are some of the kinds of creative skills that really set content writers apart.

So there you have it, the things content strategists care about the most when it comes to the work you do for them aren’t those nitty gritty values like meeting deadlines or crafting the right headlines (although I’m sure they’d all be quick to say those matter too). It’s more about the most basic personality traits that drove many of us to become writers in the first place: the desire to continually learn new things and stretch our creativity muscle.

15 Tips (of Various Types) From Content Marketing World’s Experts

content marketing world 2014

The weather’s nice. The food is orange. And there are the biggest names in content marketing everywhere you look (and a constantly cursing Oscar winner to boot).

Content Marketing World is an experience full of unique character and packed to the brim with information, tips, and ideas. The speakers and attendees come from all types of backgrounds and represent just about every possible job title in the content marketing industry.

That makes for some good variety in the knowledge you walk away with at the end of the week. Here are fifteen of my favorite tidbits from those full days in Cleveland.

1) Forget funnels and focus on moments of inspiration.

Does the sales funnel still accurately reflect how people buy? With the way the internet has changed how people research and shop, Andrew Davis suggests we’re looking to an outdated tool to understand buying behavior.

There’s not a simple, linear process behind making a purchasing decision anymore. What there is now is an internet full of ideas and stories. To get the attention of your potential customers and make a connection, you need to play on the level of the things they’re paying attention to online. You need to work toward creating moments of inspiration.

2) Start using Google Trends. Yesterday.

Another tip from Andrew Davis who insists that Google Trends is the most underused tool in marketing today. If you want to understand what people care about, what they’re talking about, what they’re thinking about and searching for (and of course you do if you’re in marketing), Google Trends is the tool to show you.

google trends

What people are thinking about today

3) Speaking of Google tools, you’re not doing enough with Google Analytics.

Andy Crestodina (another Google Trends fan) has figured out a lot of the best tricks for getting more out of Google Analytics. Trends are good for figuring out what people are thinking about more generally, but Analytics is where you figure out what they’re coming to your site for and what they’re doing when they get there.

If you use Google Analytics effectively, the data you glean can help with keyword research, topic development, and refining your strategy as you go.

4) Use tools, but don’t let them take the place of strategy.

Content marketing tools abound. We’ve got the aforementioned Google tools, a dizzying array of software, social So many tools! Graphic via Curatanetworks, tools for organizing your content creation process, amplifying the reach of your content, tracking performance, and so many more.

Kristina Halvorson offers the reminder that we can get carried away with our tools and tactics. Content marketing isn’t just about what we can do or think might be cool to do, it has to be strategic. Don’t let those tools distract from creating and sticking to a strategy.

5) Use personas. But remember, they’re not a creative writing project.

Personas are content marketing 101. We all know we need them, but the harder part is making sure they’re based on something real.

It might feel fun and creative to sit down and write out what you think is going on in the mind of your ideal customer, but unless you’re basing what goes into your persona on actual interviews or data, you’re writing fiction. Jenny Magic and Melissa Breker brought up the inconvenient truth that for personas to do their job and make your content marketing strategy more effective, they can’t just be a creative writing project.

say "no" for a better content strategy6) When creating a content strategy, saying “no” isn’t just ok, it’s important.

This is another gem from Kristina Halvorson (and one of the pieces of advice on this list that can easily extend to life beyond content marketing). Marketers are creative people and, as such, we tend to have more ideas than we can reasonably execute.

An important part of developing a content strategy that will be effective and sustainable is the ability to say “no.” Producing a blog post a day, a weekly video series, and an infographic all this month might sound like a great plan ­– but do you actually have the resources to execute that plan? Carefully consider what you can accomplish, so you create the most effective and efficient strategy within your means.

7) Always ask “why?”

Another Halvorson tip: think like a five year old. Every step of putting together your strategy and creating your askwhycontent, ask “why?” Why are you doing this? Why is this important?

Just keep asking until you get down to those big, hard-to-answer philosophical questions. If your content answers everything up to that point, you know you’ve dug deep into something really useful.

8) Writing is not grammar, it’s thinking.

You may have noticed a few sentences in this post that start with “and” or “but.” Well Ann Handley told me I could :) .

The grammatical rules that may have seemed like gospel when you were learning to write in school aren’t the most important part of writing well. In fact, any time they have a negative influence on the readability or personality of your content, they should be set aside.

What matters is the thought that goes into the work. Writing must be useful and meaningful and something your reader can relate to. More than any proper use of a semi-colon, that’s what makes writing good in the world of content marketing.

9) Whenever you could use some extra writing inspiration, check out style guides.

Do you ever look over the style guides produced by some of the companies putting out great content? I have to admit, I never really thought to, but Ann Handley recommends it as a way to keep your writing fresh.

A few she specifically recommends are:

If you know of any other good ones worth checking out, let me know,

influencer marketing

Find influencers with Followerwonk

10) If you don’t have one already, develop a plan to start connecting with influencers ASAP.

In his talk on influencer marketing, Lee Odden stressed how people are much more likely to trust experts than brands. This is a pretty intuitive point: how much more likely are you to make a decision based on the advice of a person you trust versus that of a brand?

That makes any expert in your industry with an engaged audience somebody you want to know. And more to the point, somebody that you want to know and trust you well enough to share your content. This isn’t easy though, you need a plan to best determine which influencers you want to connect with and how best to establish, nurture, and maintain that connection.

11) Be sure to target actual influencers, not just people that are popular.

It’s possible for someone to have a large following and obvious popularity, without being a person with influence. Odden explains the distinction: a brandividual is popular, but an influencer can create popularity.

Popularity might be measured in things like followers, but an influencer is likely to have a more engaged audience. Their followers aren’t just passive listeners, but make a point to interact and become a part of the their community. That’s how you tell the difference.

12) But don’t just target the already influential, look for people on their way up.

Every powerful influencer out there started as someone with no fans or audience. The road to cultivating influence is long and slow and most of those who reach the end get some help along the way. And they remember the help they got.

Says Odden, “Work with an influencer, they’re friends for a day. Help someone become influential and they’re a friend for life.” Keep your eyes open for the people who are on their way up and look for opportunities to connect with them as well.

13) Get ready for adaptive content.

Context plays a huge role in how and why people buy. How huge of a role? It turns out that personalized content can mean 3-10 times as many conversions.

Jenny Magic and Melissa Breker talked about the growing trend of adaptive content. You’ve already seen glimpses of this ­– things like personalized ads based on sites you’ve visited and seeing different versions of a website on different types of devices all count as adaptive content.

The technology for businesses to do even more personalization in how they deliver up content is already there; it’s just a matter of jumping in and using it. But you can’t jump in without a plan. In the mantra familiar to any and all Content Marketing World attendees: the strategy must come first.

14) Slow down and fix your shit.

Both Kristina Halvorson and Jonathon Coleman gave this line a nod. Along with #15, it’s one of those pieces of advice that’s useful in pretty much all aspects of life. Rushed work and hasty decisions rarely produce results on par with what you get out of a well thought out and carefully executed strategy. Take your time and do it right.

15) It’s all about empathy.

To produce content people want to consume, you have to understand what they like and need. We talk a lot about personas in the realm of content marketing, but we always have to remember what the real point of those personas is. They’re worthless if they don’t help us empathize with the people we’re trying to reach.

In the emphasis on getting out a large quantity of content quickly (see #14), it’s easy to lose sight of what the purpose of the content is. Catchy headlines followed by posts that repeat familiar facts might help content creators reach their quotas and satisfy the higher ups, but are you creating something that people will actually appreciate?

Always have the people on the other end of the computer screen in mind. If you’re not making an effort to empathize with their needs, it’s time to start.

Is Your Professionalism Pushing Customers Away?

At a conference a few years ago, I met a man selling a product that left me baffled. The idea behind their pitch was to make small businesses seem like they were bigger by making people harder to reach. You know those phone menus you get stuck in every time you need customer service from a big company? They sold those for small businesses.

Just to make this clear: the idea wasn’t to make call volume more manageable, it was to make it seem like the company was just so darn busy and successful that they couldn’t take your call without a system to make calls more manageable.

Now you get to be an unscientific poll of one. Raise your hand if you like those phone menus you get stuck in when you call a big company. I can make a pretty good guess at what you’re thinking (even if you didn’t actually raise your hand, cause it’s kind of a weird thing to do while you’re sitting at a computer.)

I don’t believe I know a single person who wouldn’t prefer to get an actual human being on the other end of the line.

The Dangerous Fallacy of “Professionalism”

If you think being professional means creating more distance between you and your customers, you’re stuck in a dangerous fallacy. This isn’t a fallacy that affects all business owners, but the existence of the company described above shows that it affects enough for there to be an industry around catering to them.personalisbetter

The same fallacy drives business writing that’s dry and bland. If you’re afraid that injecting personality into your writing will make it seem less professional, you’re pushing people away.

Why Personal is Always Better

Your current customers, the audience you hope will become customers, all those people you’re trying to reach – they’re all people. No matter how much brands spend in the hopes that people will feel connected to a logo, people will always have an easier time relating to other people.

Your business is made up of a number of people, all with distinct personalities. Any efforts you make to downplay that reality in order to show your business as something less personal and more generically “professional,” creates unnecessary distance between your brand and the people you want to connect with it.

Now take a look at the way you communicate with your audience. Are you doing anything to needlessly push them away? Look for opportunities to add more personality to your content and interactions. When your customers can get a peek at the humans behind the brand,