When a business owner decides to dip a toe into the waters of marketing, the choices can seem overwhelming. Should she buy a few ads? Sponsor some events? Put out a few press releases?

Short of jumping all the way in with a full-fledged marketing plan, entrepreneurs can start with one tactic that is inexpensive and pays big dividends: content marketing in the form of bylined articles, or article marketing.

Today's media landscape is not the closed-door fortress it once was. True, traditional media relations still hinge on convincing the right reporter or editor that your story is worth telling. However, many publications and online outlets are hungry for content written by guest bloggers or authors. At a time when media are short-staffed, highly competitive, and niche-oriented, subject-matter experts have an opportunity to talk directly to readers.

When you get such an opportunity, use it to solve a customer problem, shape a market conversation, clarify a confusing issue, or introduce a new concept. Contributing content isn't about direct sales; it's about positioning yourself, your colleagues, and your business as industry thought leaders.

The benefits of getting this high-value tactic right are many. You'll gain authority in your market, you'll improve your search engine optimization (SEO), and you'll spark conversations that can generate leads.

Follow the following three steps to get started.

1. Write articles that humans would want to read

You have two elements to consider: First, you have to come up with some ideas that appeal to your target market. Second, you have to write for real readers, not search engines.

Let's start with the first issue: What can you write about? Begin with your audience in mind. The most-read articles are those that solve problems for their readers: "Five Steps for Building an At-Home Aquarium," "How to Save Money on Your Energy Bill," "Get Ready for the Next Big Threat to Data Security."

You are an expert in your industry, you know what keeps your prospects up at night, and your articles should speak to those topics.

If you're starting from scratch, brainstorm a list of possible topics, and then see whether they pass the "so what?" test. Would those topics matter in five years? Who would care about them today? Whittle down your list of potential topics by asking those questions of each one and crossing off any with unsatisfactory responses.

Chances are, though, that you're not starting from scratch. You can repurpose existing content into polished articles. Repurposing isn't about plagiarizing yourself: No one wants to read a cut-and-pasted brochure in the pages of his favorite magazine; moreover, such an approach will actually hurt your SEO efforts (and your credibility). However, you can mine what you've already written for good ideas, which can then be rewritten as fresh material.

Start by looking at what you already have:

  • Whitepapers
  • Survey results
  • Infographics
  • Presentations
  • Blog posts
  • webinar content
  • Case studies

Now that you have your ideas and some source content, it's time to write. Again, remember your audience. Your readers don't need a hard-sell; they need information. Give it to them as straightforwardly as you can, and avoid some of the most common sins of marketing writing, including these:

  • Relying on jargon
  • Flouting the rules of grammar
  • Ignoring the reader's interest
  • Burying the "so what?"
  • Taking liberties with the truth
  • Baiting search engines

Good article marketing (like good writing) starts with getting real—and telling a story that matters to the reader (the human one, not the search bot). 

2. Craft a compelling pitch and target it to the right publication

Your media targets will differ, depending on the audiences you want to reach and the story you want to tell with a particular pitch. Keep the story angle in mind, and then determine your local print, Web, and broadcast targets, as well as vertical and national publications and any other applicable outlets.

For example, if you run a Boston-based bicycle business, your audience is local cyclists or physically active residents. Your publication targets would include local blogs, Boston-based business publications, cycling magazines, and similar outlets.

Craft a pitch with a particular publication in mind. The one or two paragraph article overview you send should reflect your knowledge of the publication's audience and the interests of the editor you're contacting. Make sure your pitch is brief, illustrative of your market knowledge, relevant to the publication and its audience, and timely.

When you capture the interest of a publication or online outlet, make it easy for the editor or publisher to work with you. Be transparent and authentic. Follow the publication's writing guidelines, and meet your deadlines.

3. Distribute your published article and encourage readers to share it via social media

Congratulations! Your article has appeared in a publication that your customers, prospects, partners, and investors read. But your work isn't done yet.

The beauty of byline articles and guest blogs posts is that the output has greater reach than just the single publication in which it appears. Share the link to the article on your social media platforms: Twitter, Facebook, Google+, LinkedIn. Write about it on your company's blog and share it any e-newsletters you put out.

Whether readers see your article when it's originally published or find it via your post-publication distribution, if the content strikes a chord—and it should if you crafted it well—readers will want to share it. And then it's up to you to convert your writing success into leads.

As readers move from your article to your company's website, make sure they can find more helpful content when they get there. Offer a free download of an e-book, a newsletter subscription, or a reservation for an upcoming webinar. Cultivate your new leads, and prepare your next article pitch to keep your momentum high.

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image of Cathy Caldeira

Cathy Caldeira is a co-founder of Metis Communications, which employs a unique combination of journalism, content marketing, and public relations to help clients get in front of the right audiences at the right time. She has more than 15 years' experience positioning, launching, and supporting companies, entrepreneurs, products, and services.