Know why so many company websites are so incredibly, absurdly, infuriatingly... dull? Why so many corporate blog posts are little more than the undistinguished opinions of an executive or three, followed with the saddest of all online responses: "0 comments"?
To find out why, just watch a few episodes of Next Food Network Star. On NFNS, one follows the contestants week after week, as one wannabe Mario Batali, then another, then another gets booted off the program. What happens at the end? The winner gets her own show, minus all the other personalities and the drama of competition, and suddenly... she's not that interesting.
Moral of the story: It's contrast that makes a good program, and contrast that will make your Web content worth reading.
Content marketing—successful content marketing—should be more than an online depository for the random thoughts of your CEO. Executive opinion writing is fine as a form of expression, but it's limited and, when unleavened by anything else, very often dull.
So: How do you avoid the deep deadly pit of uninspired corporate content? Simple. If you want people to come to your site, and stay there, your content should be as rich and varied as that of a good consumer magazine. Offer that kind of variety, and you'll really build a community.
Think in terms of different departments, or regularly recurring kinds of content, for your website. You want to offer a true variety of relevant stuff, and to provide information that is as far from a sale pitch, and as close to journalism, or in some cases, entertainment, as you can manage. Also: Consider your audience. What kinds of narratives should you offer them? Your customers or constituents have various things that bind them together. Find out about their interests.
EMS customers, let us say, care about the environment and a healthy lifestyle and adventure travel—and if the company wanted to create some content marketing, it'd do well to peruse the sorts of things published in Outside, National Geographic, or even Men's Health or Women's Health, and adapt them for its organically rough-and-tumble audience.
Of course, each organization and each website will have its own particulars, but if you've never worked at a print magazine or tried other journalistic forms, you could use some guidance.
Six Ways to Think About Website Content
Here are some structural suggestions, torn from the pages of America's favorite publications.
1. Feature stories
You will want to go long with your most important articles. They are the main attraction and they should provide maximum value to your readers. That value depends, of course, on what your readers want and need. If you're an online-marketing website, you might want to run an exclusive 2,000-word interview with Guy Kawaski on six surefire ways to Master the Art of PowerPoint. Here's why such an article would make sense:
- Kawasaki is a rock star—no, a rap star!—in this world. The name alone will be a draw.
- Exclusivity is authority. Produce stuff no one else has, and people will return again and again.
- 2,000 words is long enough to get some real in-depth knowledge in there.
- The "six surefire ways" thing promises true useful material, a key to service-journalism,
- PowerPoint is of perennial interest.
Invest the proper time and energy—and even in money, if you hire a freelancer—in your big feature stories. A well-written, well-aimed feature will get tweeted and "liked" for a very long time after its initial posting.
2. The front of the book
These are, traditionally, the short items at the beginning of the magazine. Think of The New Yorker's Talk of the Town pieces—those brief, urbane reports on what's gong down in Gotham—or Wired's short Start items, each of which highlights some new technological trend or product.
Of course, when you're online there is no "front" of the book—there is in fact, no "book"—and readers can jump from piece to piece as they choose; but, in truth, many people have a hankering or have time only for short, fun articles. Make sure you stock up on these, and mark them clearly, maybe with a snappy title, so that people know what to expect.
3. Service pieces
These are the bread-and-butter of business magazines, women's magazines, men's magazines, health magazines, personal-finance magazines, etc. Whether it's five tips for flattening your flabby abs or 20 ways to save 15 bucks while on vacation in Oahu, people go crazy for short, numbered, useful pieces that improve their lives or solve a specific issue.
Put some journalism on your website! That is, you will want to include some pieces of content that answer the traditional who, what, where, when, why of an issue. You'll want a piece that identifies where a conflict in a particular story is, and you'll interview people and present both sides of the content in an objective manner. Become a provider of true news, and you could win enormous trust from your audience.
Yes, do blog away! But it's a great idea to ensure that your opinionators somehow reflect the points of view of the biggest or most important segments (note the plural) of your audience. Find writers who represent the essential demographics, and the essential beliefs and philosophies of your customers, and let them make their cases.
Remember, if your site offers different voices that complement or contrast with each other, you'll have done something special—and possibly created a few new sub-brands for your company.
Traditionally, there's a little humor essay at the back of the magazine. Think, if you will, of those goofball pieces Esquire runs under the heading This Way Out. Humor plays extremely well online... but it is of course very hard to do. If you can find someone in your company who is naturally funny—put her to work!
A New Kind of Conversion
Once you start thinking like an editor, you'll cook up all kinds interesting experiments. Go with what works, and revise what doesn't. (We'll cover revision in another article.)
The great thing about a website is you can kill a department, and start a new one, with great ease. Don't be afraid to try and fail. Eventually, you'll give your customers content they will love. They will surely appreciate it. And before long they will become not just customers but readers. And then you can get down to business.