Why It’s Time to Re-Consider How You Think About Competition

Austin is a city full of freelancers in general, and freelance copywriters in particular. In this town, meeting other people who do what I do is common. From a competitive perspective, that makes it sound like a terrible place to be a freelance copywriter. In my experience, the exact opposite is true.

Instead of viewing each other as the enemy, we help each other out. I’m part of a freelance referral network that has brought me thousands of dollars in business, much of it sent directly my way by other local freelance copywriters – my so-called “competition.” And I know some of them have profited from jobs I’ve passed on because I was too busy or they weren’t a good fit.

Befriending my competition may just be the best thing I’ve ever done for my business.

How Do You View Your Competitors?

Whenever I encounter clients who insist that nothing they publish can include links or references to their content marketing competitioncompetitors, I usually shrug and oblige, but I always think what a missed opportunity. These are the businesses that share your target audience, and that are probably producing content that would be of great use to them. Is trying to pretend they don’t exist actually going to bring you more business?

If you view your competitors as a threat to the degree that you worry any mention of them could hurt your company, take a minute to analyze why. Is this really a strategic decision, or one borne of fear?

Why Content Marketing Doesn’t Have Room for “Competitors”

The big goal is to provide value to your audience, right? Content marketing is a long-term strategy designed in large part to gain customer trust. You know what makes me really trust a company, if they’re not afraid to admit a direct competitor has done something good.

Whether that’s an impressive piece of content they’re willing to share, or acknowledging that a feature in the competitor’s product makes them the better choice for some customers. Man, I hear that and think: this company is confident in their product and positioning.

Still Skeptical?

All my arguing for this so far has been based on my personal opinions and anecdotes, so I could see someone being unconvinced. But I’m not alone in this thinking. KISSmetrics, one of the top blogs out there in the marketing space, gives tips for growing your social media following that include following your competitors, commenting on their posts, offering to guest post on their websites, and promoting their stuff. But that’s just social media; I argue that there could be a clear value to publishing content that directly mentions your competitors or links to them.

Imagine for a minute that you’re the first person anyone looking for products or services in your industry comes to when they have a question about what to buy. How different would your business be?

Marcus Sheridan pretty much pulled that off with his pool business by publishing content about his competitors – not negative content, just informational stuff. He paid attention to the kind of questions his clients had and he answered them honestly on his website, even when it meant saying something positive about one of his competitors.

If you’re interested in using content marketing to become a thought leader, or even just a trusted brand, then the fear of mentioning your competition has got to go. You don’t have to go out of your way to promote and interact with them (obviously), just be willing to do so when it fits in naturally with your overall strategy. If the product or services you offer are really and truly great, then what do you have to fear?

What Popular Podcasts Can Teach Us About Content Marketing

A little over a year ago when I purchased Carbonite, a program that creates an automatic, online backup of your computer, I made sure to use the Nerdist promo code. Not only did it earn me some kind of discount (I don’t remember the particulars), but I knew it was a way for a free podcast I like to get a little extra monetary support.

People appreciate free content. That’s not exactly a controversial statement. In fact, many have determined that members of my generation, and especially those a few years younger than me, don’t appreciate the value of content and just won’t pay for it. Period.

I don’t think that’s true. I know I’m not the only who’s made a point of thinking of a piece of free content I like when making an associated purchase. Popular podcasts like the Nerdist, WTF with Marc Maron, and Doug Loves Movies all thrive in part due to sponsors, and their listeners’ willingness to support those sponsors – with a nod to the podcast’s help in sending them there.

Notably, the comedians at the center of each of the podcasts mentioned have also seen their careers blow up due to the popularity of their free podcasts.

What still sounds counter-intuitive to some now feels like old news to many: providing something people value for free can be a good way to make money.

That’s pretty much the definition of content marketing, and there are a number of wildly popular podcasts out there that do a good job of demonstrating just how well content marketing can work.

I wrote this post not as a way to encourage businesses to make podcasts as a form of content marketing, although that may be a good move for your business, but rather to point out these two notable lessons that businesses can learn from popular podcasts:

1) People appreciate free content and, by extension, the businesses and brands that help make it free.

If you’re in the camp that thinks young people won’t pay for content they like – just look at the Veronica Mars kickstarter campaign. I’m betting the popular show about high schoolers didn’t raise all that dough exclusively from people in their 30’s and up. I don’t think people have lost their understanding that it takes money to produce the content they like. I think instead, they’ve become pickier about what content they feel is worth paying for and have different ideas of what paying for content looks like.

Many people, myself amongst them, have “cut the cord” when it comes to cable, and trust the internet to bring us all the tv that we think is worth our time. Most cord cutters are tolerant, perhaps more so than our cable-subscribing brethren, of the commercials that play during shows made available online. We recognize that this is the cost of free content – a few minutes of ads per episode. On the other hand, the cost of a monthly cable subscription, which would buy us more shows and channels than we care to watch, seems wasteful.

What does this have to do with your business and content marketing?

It speaks to the psychology behind how people view the things they liked. Not too many people will go out of their way to buy something just because they see it in association with content they find valuable — but if it’s something they already need (or might need sometime down the line), that product gains a serious edge against competitors. By associating your business with a brand they already like, or becoming that brand via quality content that you develop, you become the Carbonite that someone is happy to choose because it not only gains them a good product, but helps fuel the content they value.

2) Good, free content is a powerful tool to build up your reputation.

As previously mentioned, most of the comics behind popular podcasts have credited the podcast with career resurgences – from more people at their live shows to tv hosting gigs to sitcom and movie offers – much of which likely would have never happened without investing time in offering something entertaining for free. The podcasts made them more recognizable and built up a fan base that has ensured them revenue from a number of other means, besides the podcast sponsorships themselves.

By the same token, Copyblogger‘s extremely successful business model was to become the leading authority on creating valuable content…as a way to sell software.  The connection between point A and point B isn’t a simple, direct line, and building a reputation like the one they have takes a lot of time and a large investment in good writers. Nonetheless, they’ve built a fabulously successful business off a foundation of content that people love.

The moral of these various stories is: don’t be stingy! It can be hard to wrap your head around profiting off of giving something valuable away for free, but there are plenty of models out there that show, if done well, it works.

How to Make Your Procrastination Productive

Productive procrastination might sound like an oxymoron, but with the right approach you can make those unfocused hours work for you.

We all have off days. There are times when our minds are intent on focusing on just about anything that’s not the main item on our to do list. If you’re stuck in one of those periods where your brain just will not listen to reason and face the task you need to tackle, think strategically about how you can still get something accomplished during your distracted state.

1. Switch to one of the lower energy items on your to do list.

It’s rare that everything you need to get done requires the same amount of mental energy. Maybe you have some accounting you’ve been neglecting, or a spreadsheet of contacts you’ve been working on filling in. If there’s something you can work on that requires less active thought than the main work you have to do that day, focus on it first. Once you’ve actually gotten something else done, you might find that your mind is more prepared for the larger tasks you weren’t previously up for.

2. Spend that time on research and social networking.

You can always be learning more, regardless of what kind of work you do. If you spend a little time on your favorite business blogs, or interacting with professional contacts on your social networks, you can do something useful that actually feels a little like procrastination. Just don’t let yourself get stuck on Twitter or Facebook focusing on things that don’t relate to your work. Set a timer to let you know when it’s time to switch back over to other forms of work.

3. Find a way to get started on that intimidating, looming task without diving right in.

Maybe you’re trying to write an article and instead are stuck staring at a blank page. Stop unsuccessfully trying to get that intro paragraph down and focus instead on working up an outline, or just writing down some sloppy, brainstormed ideas to get the juices flowing. Often the biggest barrier to getting started is the sense of just how much you have to do. If you can find a way to ease into starting, you can overcome the main psychological barrier keeping that page blank.

4. Plan your days to get the most out of your active hours.

Sometimes we have off days, but most people also have certain times in each day that they’re less mentally alert. For me, it’s usually the hour or so after I eat lunch. Maybe for you, it’s the beginning of the day when you’re still waking up, or late afternoon when you’re just itching to be done. Pay attention to your work habits and, once you’ve identified your weak period, leave some of those lower-energy work items to focus on at that time.

5. Take a break to let yourself think.

If I’m overwhelmed by a project, facing it directly doesn’t necessarily work. To think more clearly about it and how to best approach it, I need to walk away for a little while. Whether that’s a literal walk, a long bath, or spending a little time cooking or cleaning, I’ll often find that by spending my time doing something that leaves room to think, I’ll come back to work with a better plan for accomplishing what I need to.

How to be a lifelong student – and profit from it

I loved being a student. During the years that my primary job was to study and learn new things, I thrived. While a life in academia may have suited me just fine, the debt I finished off my undergrad with, and the level of competition for academic jobs, steered me towards a search for other professional options.

It took me a little while, but I finally landed on a way to translate the experience of being a student into a profitable career outside of academia. Much of being a good student boils down to the responsibility to learn, and to successfully communicate what you’ve learned to others. Working as a freelance writer drops that same experience into a new context.

It turns out, there are varied opportunities where by researching and effectively communicating knowledge to a wide audience online (and occasionally in print) is of value. I graduated amidst a slew of articles about the end of journalism and a growing skepticism at the possibility of making a career as a writer. While many magazines and newspapers have managed to stay around in spite of the apocalyptic predictions, they’re just a tiny portion of the work opportunities available to writers.

Businesses have always needed content, but it’s becoming a more important line item in their budgets than ever. With the dominance that search engines – or really just the one, Google –  practice over how people consume and make decisions, businesses must do what it takes to curry favor with the mysterious Google gods (e.g. the increasingly complicated algorithm that determines rankings). Google favors websites with quality content, and writers gain a more crucial position in the success of businesses.

While freelance writing differs from academic pursuits in that I can’t pick something specific I’m passionate about to focus my learning efforts on, it nudges me out of my comfort zone and requires that I delve into new subjects. Every new project or client comes with new knowledge. As a professional student of such a wide variety of subjects, my understanding of the world gets broader all the time.

Want to be a Better Writer and Thinker? Learn Another Language

Learning another language is hard. For native English speakers living in a world full of people making an effort to learn English, it can seem like a waste of effort. Counterintuitively, the comfortable position of speaking the world’s dominant language puts English speakers at a disadvantage too few realize. Because we don’t bother trying to learn new languages, we lose the fringe benefits that come with the process.

A recent post on the Radiolab blog takes a look at just what some of those fringe benefits are.

Dr. Ellen Bialystock studies the cognitive effects of learning a second language, specifically during childhood. Her findings:

 Look, I will never say that bilingual kids are smarter…What we can say is that some of the cognitive processes that are part of intelligence are more developed in bilinguals.

On the neurological side of things, there’s actual, literal growth in the part of the brain devoted to vocabulary.

In practical, applicable terms:

  • Learning new, different ways to say things opens up the mind to different ways of thinking. It might not change what thoughts you’re able to have (as was formerly thought), but it does give you different ways of approaching and expressing those thoughts. For those in the business of communicating effectively, it lets you practice and play with methods of wording and structure you may not have considered before.
  • A friend of mine who was raised bilingual once told me she argued with an elementary school teacher who insisted there was one right answer to a question: in her world, every question had at least two viable, correct answers. Bilingualism makes it possible to better process ideas that don’t fit easily together, a valuable thinking tool in a complicated world.
  • Bialystock’s studies show the bilingual are better at tuning out distractions, an increasingly handy skill in the internet age.
  • Her research also suggests bilingualism could help with memory in old age — diminishing the effects of Alzheimer’s and dementia.
  • Most people who have studied a second language at the most basic level are quick to comment that it forces you to learn the grammar of your own language better. In order to learn different tenses and parts of speech, you must gain a refresher in how to talk about grammar, something many of us have forgotten by adulthood, if we ever learned it well at all.

Bialystock’s research mostly focuses on bilingual children, and most of us missed the boat on learning another language as a child, when it’s much easier to gain fluency. Many of the neurological benefits do require fluency to begin taking effect, a state that’s extremely challenging to get to as an adult.

While only so many adults are capable and willing to take on the challenge of linguistic immersion often required to gain fluency, there’s still plenty to be gained by learning what you can. Learning another language tends to go along with learning about another culture as well. Even without reaching fluency, you’ll gain new words, new ideas about grammar, and a greater understanding of the ways other people think and live. It’s hard not to see how that will make you both a stronger writer, and a better thinker.