Here's a basic truth of content marketing: Your work must be in publishable condition before you hit the "post" button. "Publishable condition" means your podcasts should be as professional as your favorite radio shows, your videos as polished and entertaining as the shows you watch on TV, your articles as well written as the magazines you read. Well, your stuff should at least aspire to reach that level of professional excellence.
"Are you kidding?" you say. "I can't compete with all that professional content!"
Sorry, but you have no choice: The Content Wars are on. "The one who has the most engaging content wins, because frequent and regular contact builds a relationship" and so offers lots of opportunities for conversion, says Joe Pulizzi, the unofficial godfather of content marketing (as quoted in Content Rules: How to Create Killer Blogs, Podcasts, Videos, Ebooks, Webinars (and More) That Engage Customers and Ignite Your Business (Wiley 2011), co-authored by Ann Handley and C.C. Chapman).
Like it or not, your content battles, every moment, to break through the daily avalanche of contemporary media and claw its way to its intended audience. To succeed, it must be as strong as you can make it.
The most direct way to create first-class content is to hire a professional writer or videographer. But if your company can't afford to do so, don't worry. There's another, more cost-efficient path: The Five Commandments of Editorial Excellence.
1. Be patient
People—marketers included—generally hate to write. When forced to put pen to paper or fingers to keyboard, most of us race through the task... and in our haste we don't necessarily do our best work. If you've ever been in a college composition class, you know what I'm talking about: One very fast draft, maybe a quick proofread, and then, boom, "Here's my paper, professor!" So much rushed writing is, to borrow from Shakespeare's Richard the Third, "Deform'd, unfinish'd, sent before [its] time / Into this breathing world scarce half made up."
Marketers write quickly for a specific reason: They have an enormous amount to accomplish. They are burdened with so many tasks—regular tweeting and blogging responsibilities, making sense of analytics reports, crunching numbers to prove ROI to Sales, writing copy for a new print ad, and making sure the printers get the right colors on that cursed brochure—that they can certainly be forgiven if they don't devote hours to their prose. Right?
Take. Your. Time. Too often, we launch content into cyberspace before it's ready for the journey. In this superb video monologue, Ira Glass talks about This American Life's extremely long gestation process: "Often, the amount of time finding the decent story is more than the amount of time it takes to produce the story."
Don't just blog about your company's latest hire or newest promotion. Take the time to find interesting and relevant stories. Every company has something unique to offer. Put some effort into figuring out what makes your firm special.
2. Be a reviser
First-draft excellence is what we call, in the writing business, an accident. As novelist William Styron once wrote, "I get a fine warm feeling when I'm doing pretty well, but that pleasure is pretty much negated by getting started each day. Let's face it, writing is hell."
In the real world, one must write and revise, write again and revise again, to produce anything of quality. Note: This process applies to everyone who aspires to excellence. Even Robert Pinsky, former Poet Laureate of the United States, depends on it. Watch as he types, erases, and retypes a poem about jazz great Charlie Parker.
You must always ask yourself, "Is my content as good as it can be?" As Dr. Seuss once told his biographer, "Whenever things go a bit sour in a job I'm doing, I always tell myself, 'You can do better than this.'"
3. Be purposeful
Look carefully at your content. If, on honest reflection, it doesn't serve your audience's needs, rework it. If after rewriting your article (or redoing your podcast or video) it still doesn't provide true value, into the trash it goes.
Mastering your content also means understanding your constituents. You might think, for example, they want just a laugh, but in fact they may be seeking something deeper. "Viral videos aren't just about being funny," the CEO of College Humor recently told New York magazine. "They're about identity creation. You send the video to your friends to say something about yourself. You're saying, 'I get this. Do you get it?'"
Learn to identify the value your content should provide (a software company might want to give readers a sense of online security, whereas a solar-energy provider might want to help readers live "greener" lives), then ensure that your content truly achieves its goal. If it's hard for you to keep this tenet in mind while creating content, write it out. Before you begin your blog post, identify not just the topic you're working on but precisely how this piece will help your readers. Then, compose your piece and reread the thing—paragraph by paragraph and sentence by sentence—to see whether you've truly achieved your goal.
It's more work, but it will pay off if your goal in content marketing is an authentic relationship with an audience. But if you simply want to produce five blog posts per week, regardless of how many comments or tweets or "likes" you get, just keep grinding it out.
4. Be clear
Let's not talk about the ugly, jargon-strewn landscape of business writing: You know all about that. Instead, strive to make everything you write crystal clear.
One of the greatest how-to articles ever written is "Politics and the English Language," by George Orwell, and it's also the best guide to writing clear prose. If you want to write well, read it and adhere to Orwell's instructions. Here are Orwell's points amplified and put into context for content marketers...
- Clichés. When you talk, for instance, about letting the cat out of the bag, one sees neither the sack nor the frightened pet fleeing for her life. Stamp out your clichés as though they were cockroaches.
- Passive construction. Your writing should feature strong active verbs and subjects. Passive verbs weaken your points, your prose, and your Web presence. Instead of writing "The lousy Web copy was written by the dude with the fauxhawk," try this: "The dude with that moronic fauxhawk wrote the lousy Web copy."
- Wordiness. Orwell said it best: "If it is possible to cut a word, always cut it out." Look at the copy on your website and identify every word you can cut. You may be surprised at how many wasted words we employ.
5. Be yourself
In the Content Wars, authenticity always wins. People love to talk about the importance of differentiating one's product in the traditional marketplace—it's no different in the content marketplace.
If your website sounds like every other robotic piece of Web copy and cliché-encrusted press release, few will listen. But if you learn to write the way you speak to your living, breathing customers, you have a chance of creating great content.
Look at Gary Vaynerchuk. Listen to that guy talk! He may shout a little much, but the man is smart, passionate, original, and people dig him. He's got the right idea: He's selling his services as a wine expert in his own voice.
Does your company have its own voice?
It sure does. Your business speaks to customers in its own way. A successful company acts as a professional problem-solver—some take the tone of doctors, others that of plumbers, shrinks, or IT geeks—and their communications should have a similar tone. Look to your salespeople or customer-service reps, and notice what it sounds like when they successfully engage customers. (It might be worth your while to eavesdrop on a sales or customer-service call.) Isolate that particular tone and import it in your content. Do your customers appreciate your sense of humor? Bring some laughs into your content. Do they feel comforted that you're as solemn as an undertaker? Then wipe off every trace of smile in your stuff.
Cultivate your authentic business voice, and import it into your content. Very important point: Avoid mimicry or gimmickry. As English Department favorite Ralph Waldo Emerson said, "Imitation is suicide." Whatever you do, be yourself.