Why Content Writing Requires Empathy

What are the most important skills a content writer needs? Some of the obvious answers that may first come to mind are:

content writing requires empathy

Image via recitethis.com

  • Knack for language
  • Ability to research
  • Understanding of how to format content for the web
  • Ability to write easy-to-read content
  • Ability to create a content calendar and stick with deadlines

The two answers that came up the most often when I asked content strategists what skills the best content writers possessed were creativity and curiosity.

All of that matters. Good content writing requires a pretty significant skillset. But nothing on that list would be enough to create compelling content that people want to read without the skill that’s arguably most important of all: empathy. You probably won’t see it show up on a resume or the list of qualifications in a job ad, but without empathy, nothing a content writer produces will resonate with the target audience.

The Case for Empathy in Content Marketing

Marketers talk a lot about how important empathy is, but often in other terms. How many times have you heard your marketing colleagues use the phrase “know your audience.” It’s an easy thing to say, but empathy can actually be really challenging. It’s not something that’s taught in school. Most businesses don’t exactly cover it in their training. Trying to truly understand what someone else is thinking and feeling is difficult.

Our default mode is to view our own perception of the world as the most obvious, natural way to see things. It’s just how we’re wired. Getting outside of our own heads in order to figure out the differences in how others see things takes effort and practice.

No one’s arguing against empathy in marketing, but not many organizations are putting it front and center. Probably in large part because it is so much harder than it looks. It’s easy enough to think you know your audience, but much harder to actually go the extra mile to really understand them.

How Can Someone Get Better At Empathy?

Image via Natalie CollinsThat poses the question: what can we actually do about it? First and foremost, read.

If there’s one main way to flex our brain’s empathy muscle, it’s to get inside the heads of other people through books, short stories, and articles. Fiction and non-fiction are both good for this. Through reading, you can take a ride through the mindset and perceptions of the writer or character and learn about the experiences of others.

Devoting more time to reading is great advice for anyone who cares about becoming empathetic (or becoming a better writer in any format). But there’s a whole set of other steps you can take to become more empathetic to your particular audience.

Find them online. Then just hang out and listen.

Look for forums, social media groups, and blog comment sections where your audience hangs out. There are so many spaces online today where people share their thoughts and feelings, if you can figure out where those spaces are for your audience then you’ll have an easy glimpse into the kinds of questions and concerns they have.

Talk to your salespeople and customer service reps.

There are people within your company working directly with your customers and prospects every day. Your salespeople and customer service representatives hear first hand what your target audience is thinking about, the issues they’re facing, the questions they commonly have and the kinds of problems they regularly deal with. All of that information can help you understand your audience better and craft your content calendar based on the topics they actually care about.

Look to your data.

Marketers have more data today than they ever have in the history of the profession. You likely already have at your fingertips loads of information on what your prospects are searching for, the terms they use, and the types of content they’re most commonly seeking out. Data can seem dry and impersonal, but with the proper analysis, it can provide content writers with important insights into the minds of your prospects.

Revisit and refine your personas semi-regularly.

Personas shouldn’t be a project you tackle once and then leave alone. You’re constantly learning more about your audience – what issues they care about, what types of content they respond to, what topics they’re discussing online – your new insights should make their way into the personas you have. Commit to revisiting your personas at least once or twice a year to improve upon them based on new information.

 

Empathy is a crucial skill to have as a content writer, but more importantly, it helps people to become better human beings. When you make an effort to understand what other people go through and how they feel, becoming better at communicating and treating people with greater compassion are natural side effects. The same skill that will make your content more relatable and successful will pay off in your life far beyond the effects it has on your work.

Content Marketing in 2016: 5 Trends to Keep On Your Radar

content-marketing-trends-2016At this point it’s old news to say that content marketing just keeps growing in influence. But it’s true this year, just like it was last year and the year before that. While a year or two ago, some businesses were still holding out, most have realized by now that content is an important part of any marketing plan. In fact, according to the Content Marketing Institute:

  • 88% of B2B organizations use content marketing
  • 76% plan to produce more in 2016
  • Content marketing gets an average of 28% of the marketing budget
  • And 51% say they expect that amount to increase in the coming year

While most businesses have started to at least dabble in creating content to drive new leads and sales, many are still struggling to figure out what that investment should look like. If you’re trying to figure out where best to spend your content marketing budget in 2016, here are some of the main trends shaping the content marketing industry this year.

1. Long-Form Content

It seems distant now, but there was a point in time when marketers were singing the praises of short content. People were convinced that busy people simply would not take the time to read anything long. The popularity of social media seemed ample evidence of the preference for keeping things short and fast.

Perhaps because people do get their fix for short content on social media, plenty of evidence in the past few years has shown that when it comes to written content, people will take the time to read long form. In fact, it typically performs better on many websites than shorter pieces.

And then, there’s Google. The deciding factor for many content marketers is how their content will influence their website’s SEO. Studies by SEO professionals have shown that long form tends to rule in the search engines for a large number of competitive keywords. So think about lengthening your blog posts (think more like 1,500-2,500 words rather than 500), and setting aside budgeting for other valuable long-form types of content like whitepapers, guides, and ebooks.

Always keep in mind that length isn’t necessarily an arbiter of quality. If you choose to make the investment in long form, make sure you deliver both.

2. Content Personalization

Content personalization has been on the scene for a while, particularly in its most common form – including a recipient’s name in the emails you send. As content management technology gets more and more sophisticated, marketers are able to take their personalization much further.

Technology can track user behavior on your website and tie individual actions back to subscribers and customers when relevant. When you have that much information on individual customers, you can deliver up content that’s specific to their user persona and their point in the buyer’s journey.

That’s powerful. Marketers who use content marketing technology that allows them to align the content they provide with specific personas typically see a 60% increase in how effective their content is at meeting their goals. Content personalization works, which means many businesses will either continue to refine their personalization efforts in 2016, or start to dip their toes in and try it for the first time this year.

3. Data, Data, Data

Effective content marketing relies on good data. You can’t know how well your content is working if you don’t track its success as you go. Like most industries, marketing has therefore seen an uptick in how much decision-making relies on collecting and analyzing all available data.

Businesses that effectively practice data-driven content marketing see big results – nearly five times as much revenue from their marketing efforts, according to one study.

Data-driven marketing can play out in a number of ways. Content personalization relies completely on data. By collecting data on how visitors and customers interact with your website and content, you gain a picture of which of your personas they match, what types of content they respond best to, and can provide them with the right content accordingly.

Data should also shape your larger marketing efforts. Even if you don’t have the technology to provide sophisticated content personalization, you do have access to Google Analytics and other tools to help you measure how well your larger audience responds to your content. You should always be analyzing what’s working and tweaking your content plan based on what types of content and subjects perform best with your audience.

4. Interactive Content

Engagement is one of those words marketers throw around with great regularity. It’s a term that manages to be vague, while also serving as a holy grail of sorts in the world of content marketing. We don’t want people passively hearing about our brand. That may have seemed like enough in the era of outbound, but now we want them to actively interact with us, show us there’s a real connection there.

So much of how we gauge and measure our marketing efforts is based on trying to demonstrate this idea of engagement. That’s why interactive content has become an especially attractive form of content to consider. It requires prospects to perform a more active form of engaging during the process of consuming it than other forms of content.

And it works. 93% of marketers have said they consider interactive content to be more effective at educating consumers than passive content.

From quizzes to games to interactive white papers, interactive content can take on many forms. Many of the content forms your team creates now could probably be tweaked to become interactive with a little creativity and the right technology.

A side benefit of interactive content is that it can often help with #3 – how your audience interacts with your content can provide valuable data on who they are, what they’re interested in, and how they think. You can use that when you’re refining your personas or determining what content to create in months to come.

5. Content Shock

In 2014, Mark Schaefer identified a problem that many content marketers were grappling with. Even those of us who fervently believe in how effective content marketing can be and are quick to proselytize to businesses that haven’t yet taken the plunge were starting to see that the recommendation should come with a caveat. For business getting into the game late, making a splash with content marketing gets harder and harder every day as markets grow more competitive and businesses (especially small and medium sized ones) have to do more and more to get anything from the content they produce.

Schaefer termed this idea content shock and it inspired a flurry of think pieces, rebuttals, and social media conversations in the marketing world. Content marketing does work, but it’s hard and requires playing the long game – and the more competitive it becomes, the less you can skimp.

 

Many of the trends we’ve covered so far in this piece are developing in response to content shock and demonstrate how important it is to make a significant investment in content marketing for it to pay off.

  • Long-form content takes longer to write and costs more if you’re hiring a freelance content writer to help.
  • Interactive content will usually require the work of several members of your team with different skills and the cost of the technology required to make your content interactive.
  • Data and content personalization both require the right technology to pull off, technology that can seem prohibitively expensive to smaller businesses.

 

No one likes to hear that doing content marketing well will mean spending more, but it wouldn’t be honest for professionals in the industry to suggest otherwise at this point. That can sound dispiriting, but it’s a business truth that’s long been true for most things a business bothers to invest in. Doing something well will always pay off more than trying to skimp.

It’s important to note that the takeaway from Schaefer’s argument isn’t that content shock means content marketing isn’t worth trying. If you want your business to be relevant and visible online, it’s pretty much a requirement at this point. Instead, it means businesses have to be careful to be strategic. Make content promotion a significant part of your marketing plan. Pay attention to how your content is performing so you can optimize your content strategy as you go. Use personas to make sure the content you create is targeted to the people you most want to reach.

In short, commit. Give your content marketing efforts the time, energy, and budget they require. That was important in 2015 and it’s even more important in 2016 as ever more businesses enter the content marketing landscape to vie for the attention of your audience. You can still reach the right people; you just can’t expect it to be easy.

Unpopular Opinion: Stop Calling Blogs Social Media

blogs aren't social mediaLanguage can be so complicated, can’t it? Especially when you’re dealing with words that are new and still evolving. The word “blog” only just came onto the scene in 1997. The first use of “social media” may have beat it by a few years, but the evidence of its earliest use is unclear. These are words that apply to technology that keeps evolving. And even as the technology itself evolves at a rapid pace, the way we use it changes even faster.

For a long time, blogging has been lumped in under the larger category of social media. I think it’s time for us to acknowledge that it no longer belongs there.

3 Reasons That Blogging Is No Longer Social Media

  • Blogs increasingly resemble media properties more than they do the content on social networking websites.

Brands have spent years trying to throw everything at the wall to see what sticks when it comes to blogging. Recently, we’ve started to gain a clearer idea of just what does work and, in most cases, it’s well researched, meaty, long-form blog posts that more closely resemble the articles common to media properties than the short and pithy posts of social media.

The difference between this type of blog post and a tweet is comparable to the difference between a magazine article and a slogan – they’re completely different types of writing, with different goals, and vastly different work processes involved. The way we talk about them should reflect that.

  • The most social thing about blogs – the comments – are only a prominent feature on a small portion of blogs.

If there’s one component of blogging you could use to really make a case for their being social media, it’s the comments. But how many blogs do you visit that don’t seem to have any comments at all, much less significant social interaction in the comments? Many prominent blogs have even done away with comments altogether, due to the increasing workload of sifting through comment spam. Copyblogger, a big proponent of calling blogs social media back in 2009, famously disabled the comments on their blog in 2014. They felt confident people would move the social component of interacting with their blog to social platforms like Twitter and Facebook.

So if the blog is for putting quality, article-like content out there and social networking platforms are for talking about them (and anything else you want to discuss), perhaps it’s time to acknowledge they’re serving different purposes.

  • The goals of a blog are different than those of a social media presence (although they’re related).

Social media is all about interaction, awareness and promotion. Blogging is about education, thought leadership, and traffic. The specific goals and KPIs for the two mediums should differ.

Social media’s a great tool for promoting your blog posts and ideally developing the community that will visit your blog, and blogging can be an opportunity to gain the trust of readers and turn them into social media followers – and both should be helping you work toward the larger goal of building trust and gaining customers. But they each have a distinct role to play within the larger strategy of content marketing.

 

When you hear the term “social media,” what do you picture? For the vast majority of us, the interfaces of Facebook or Twitter will be the main images that come to mind. I’d be genuinely surprised if you told me that the image of your favorite blog popped into your head. Blogs are a type of media, and they’re often social. But they don’t fit with how most us now use and understand the term “social media.” It’s time to acknowledge that, as important as the relationship between the two mediums is, they’re not the same thing.

5 Questions to Guide Your Blog Strategy

If your business has a blog, but doesn’t have a blog strategy yet, I just decided what the next two things on your to do list should be:

1. Finish this post. 2. Create a blog strategy.

You can’t just blog blindly. Whether you’re taking the time to write content yourself or hiring a freelance blogger, blogging has a cost. No good businessperson wants to incur that cost without taking the proper steps to get something back from it. When it comes to business blogging; that means creating a blog strategy.

The Difference a Blog Strategy Makes

Based on a 2013 study, only 20% of businesses had blogs, and over a third of those never got updated. You know how that happens, right?

Someone says, “we need a blog!”

Someone else says “Ok.”

Then no one creates a blog strategy or puts in the work to keep it updated.

An abandoned blog will do nothing for you. A blog that you’re investing time and money into that’s not getting read or driving conversions won’t do much more for you than an abandoned blog will (although you’ll be spending a lot more on it).

Creating a blog strategy can help you avoid those fates.

Here’s what you need to consider to put a good one together.

1)   What are my blogging goals?

A blog can bring in new leads and customers, but that’s not going to happen right away and it’s not always easy to determine which leads first found you through the blog. So while that can be your overall goal, when it comes to creating your blog strategy and tracking your progress, it helps to have some lower-level goals that can help contribute to that, like:

Think about why you want a blog and what you want it to accomplish for you. Your blog strategy should be based around those goals.

2)   Who am I writing for?

Hint: it’s not you. You can absolutely create a blog that’s all about the things you’re most interested in – but it shouldn’t be on your business website. Your business blog has to be about what your audience cares about.

You have to think about their problems, their questions, the types of things they normally like to read and do online and in the world at large. What you blog about and how you write needs to all come back to them.

3)   What does my audience care about?

You really want to get inside their heads here (as much as you can without being creepy, anyway). If you’re a local business in a city full of people with local pride, that should come through in your business blog. If your audience is moms who care about the environment and worry about the ecological effects of every product they buy, your blog should share that concern (and provide information that helps them make informed choices).

Do some research:

  • Pull up websites you know your customers like and look at what posts and articles are the most popular.
  • Read the comments that people in your audience write on those sites.
  • Spend time in forums.
  • Have conversations with your customers and prospects directly.

Keep a running list going where you collect all the ideas you learn so you can make sure you’re blogging about the things they care about.

4)  What’s my (realistic) blogging schedule?

If you read somewhere that you have to publish a new blog post every single day, forget it. While it’s often true that regularly posting fresh content adds up to better blogging results, that’s only true if the content is good and you keep up with it. A lot of businesses don’t have the bandwidth for daily blogging.

My one-woman business publishes once a month because I know that’s the most I can expect from myself while also getting all my client work done. The ideal isn’t to produce as much content as you possibly can, it’s to produce as much good, worthwhile content as you reasonably can. Setting your sights too high in terms of quantity will mean an abandoned blog or junk content no one wants read.

Carefully consider how much time you really have, how much time your employees really have, and how much you can afford to spend on a good freelance blogger. Then create a blog strategy and editorial schedule that’s doable.

5)  How am I going to promote my blog posts?

Don’t overlook this step. It’s one of the big things that sets successful blogs apart from those that fail. People have a lot of content to choose from out there. How are they going to find yours if you don’t create a plan to get it in front of them?

Content promotion can be part of a long-term social media and influencer strategy, it can incorporate paid media to get results faster, or it can be some combination of the two. Just make sure your blog strategy includes room for promotion (both in terms of time and budget).

 

Starting a blog is easy enough, but doing blogging that’s worth it and yields results for your business is hard. Anyone who says otherwise is misleading you. If you’re going to invest in a blog, be willing to invest enough to make it worth it. My free report on building a better blog is a good place to start in visualizing your larger blog strategy. If you could use some help with the content writing, side of things, I’m happy to help.

On Content Marketing Semantics: Can’t We Just Get Along?

Over a year ago, I started a discussion in a LinkedIn copywriters group* asking members what they saw as the

content marketing vs inbound fight

Hopefully no one gets this mad.
Image via Tambako the Jaguar on flickr.com

difference between the terms copywriting and content marketing. I was surprised to learn from the comments on the post that:

a) Many of the people in the group had an opposite idea of the difference in meaning for the two terms than I did. The idea that content marketing was a subset of the larger term “copywriting” was popular – although I (and presumably, most content marketers) would see copywriting, or even content writing, as one part of the larger content marketing whole.

b) People were very opinionated on the subject.

I guess that latter point shouldn’t have surprised me, but the level of defensiveness of the term people were most used to and dismissiveness of something different was significant.

Every so often, a discussion with a similar tone (very much including the aforementioned defensiveness and dismissiveness) comes up around the terms content marketing and inbound marketing. Sometimes terms like online marketing and permission marketing get thrown into the mix just to make the whole thing a bit messier.

The result inevitably includes a lot of passionate comments, strong opinions, and lengthy explanations on why varying opinions are more correct than others.

These discussions have been happening with these particular terms for at least five years (exhibit A, from 2010, but for more examples of the tone described, see exhibit B, from 2011). As far as I can tell, everyone I’ve encountered who practices content marketing also considers themselves to be practicing inbound marketing, which makes the passion and disagreement on display in these discussions more than a little confusing.

Here’s my take: I don’t have any interest in defining the differences in the terms, because for all my intents and purposes, they point toward the same sort of work and goals. Some people think term A includes term B, but is broader. Other people argue the same, but with the equation flipped. I think it doesn’t matter much either way.

As a content writer, I relate a bit more to the term content marketing(it’s also the term I came across first, which probably makes a difference), but I immediately related to the ideology behind inbound marketing once I found my way to it. We’re all just trying to create content good enough, people would pay for it (as Jay Baer so memorably put it) on the path getting more customers and establishing better relationships with them.

While it’s valuable to argue semantics up to the point that you confirm you and your audience are on the same page, beyond that it can get more destructive than useful. Both terms were made up within the past few years and both will evolve to mean something different in the years to come. In the meantime, let’s just focus on doing quality work that helps clients and customers alike.

 

*The link to that discussion is here, but I don’t think you’ll be able to access it unless signed into LinkedIn and a member of the group.