content marketing

The biggest problem facing content creation today

Content is king. Long live content.

If you buy into this mantra, then you already know there is a daily scrum playing out across every conceivable media platform among content creators. They are pitted in a continuous battle for eyeballs, influencers and customers in hopes of grabbing those brass rings of conversation and conversion.

But here’s the rub: for too many content creators, creating exceptional content takes a backseat to creating an exceptional amount of content – even when we know that, in most cases, less is more. A few great posts will outshine a bunch of mediocre ones every time. But still we feel compelled to churn out thoughts and ideas because our content calendars and social strategies demand it. After all, we must feed the beast, right?

 

The biggest problem facing content creation today isn’t a lack of new content, the need for more boundary-pushing thinking, or getting content to audiences faster.

The biggest problem is the absence of good editing.

 

Without good editing you jeopardize your credibility and the brand you represent. Poorly conceived content often falls on deaf ears and a quickly fleeing audience. When that happens, the “Content is King” mantra can suddenly become “The King is Dead.”

You can avoid that outcome by embracing a few basic “truths” to ensure the content part of a content strategy works as it should.

  • Writers create better than they refine. Writers seek to articulate ideas through explanations, narratives, characters, examples and analogies – sometimes all in the same piece. Writers also can justify a dozen different ways to say the same thing. Truth be told, undisciplined writers can take a good story or message and make it confusing, exhausting and even complicated – and that’s not a strong value proposition for building an audience. But first, allow the creators create. Refinement is what follows. 
  • Writers need content editors. Content editors find the essence of the story and cut the extraneous stuff and fluff that doesn’t add value or paint a clearer picture. They uphold clarity and conciseness. Through their work they make writers better, which is why writers need to consider them as their most trusted allies. Perhaps you’ve noticed that more of your favorite or trusted sources for news are publishing content riddled with typographical errors. The rush to "break the news" has always been there. But with the steady decline of copy editors, writers and the brands they represent look sloppy in the process – and that works to erode confidence.
  • The self-sufficient writer/editor is a rare species. Writers can wear the content editing hat to a point, but eventually they become too close to the subject matter to be critical. This clouds objectivity and a willingness to be brutally honest about the content. Writers need objective content editors who embrace the red pen.
  • Self-editing is an oxymoron. The knee-jerk reaction is to get those comprehensive ideas out there in all of their informed glory – right now. In contrast, few individuals and organizations are willing to chew on those ideas, let them percolate, and hone their potential through rigorous editing. Because writers know what they intend to say, it leads to reading over how things actually appear during the self-editing process. Self-editing is no substitute for a second set of eyes.

 

Six considerations for your content creation process

As a content creator, you need a process to develop your best work. These six content creation considerations help us get better and they can do the same to improve any piece of content you create.  

  • Write. Then walk away. Get your ideas down and then walk away. Engage your mind on other work and return to it later so the ideas become fresh again. A refreshed eye will reveal what ideas are worth keeping and expanding upon, and those that just aren't clicking. If you’re working against a content calendar, don’t wait until the day of publishing to start writing. Give yourself some space to contemplate what you've developed.
  • Edit. Then edit again. Slash unnecessary descriptors. Remove extraneous metaphors. Limit your number of examples. Look at each sentence and ask – What must stay? What can go? If it’s helpful, set word count limits to help rein you in.
  • Ask for input and seek out a proofreader. These are two different exercises. With input you’re asking for a critical read about the content (content editing) from someone who is knowledgeable about your subject matter and can ask probing questions. In doing this, you’re helping the piece better resonate with your target audience. Finally, ask someone to proofread for grammar, punctuation, syntax, sentence construction, and so on. You don’t need to be an expert grammarian, you just need to have one on your team.
  • Focus on being better, not first. Looking to be the first to provide insight on a breaking news story? Good luck. There is a finite window for responsive content in relation to breaking news and a mad rush to be heard. As readers, we quickly reach a saturation point. So ask this instead: what perspectives aren’t being talking about? – and take that angle. You’re more likely to stand out in a sea of sameness that way.  
  • Not everything is meant for publication. The process of writing has a funny way of revealing interesting truths. Sometimes that truth is – this isn’t very good or I have nothing new to add to this conversation. Better to keep this work on the shelf than part of an online library that makes it difficult for your audience to find your best work. And who knows, after several good edits and a new angle at a later date, perhaps you can salvage elements of that effort.
  • Post and share with confidence. Realize nothing is perfect. There will be ideas and elements you wish you would’ve approached differently when you review your post months from now. But keep this in mind: when you’ve considered your steps to creating better content and remained true to your intent to be helpful and shed new light on a subject, allow yourself to be feel confident knowing that you’ve put forth your best thinking at the time. Your audience will benefit from that kind of effort.    

When pressed with the proposition of creating more content or creating better content, pause and take a look around at what’s being published in your field. Then decide what camp you want to be in and the type of audience you want to cultivate.

 

 

POSTING & PUBLISHING: confronting the challenges we all face

As a content creator, I am aware that I am in constant violation of many of the rules that lead to success: what to post, when to post, how often to post, the right channels to post on, visual vs. text, and if the latter, knowing how long is too long and what is too short. 

Here's a confession: I struggle with this notion of posting and publishing.

It's not just about keeping up with the frequency demand and aligning with these purported best practices, but also the content merit of any post. Do I really have something that interesting, that urgent, or that profound to share with the world? I doubt I'm alone in my uncertainty. But one thing is certain: I don't bemoan anyone who is nailing the aforementioned rules and enjoying wild success. I'm just not on that page yet, and I question when or if I will.  

I'm also confronted with this reality: as a writer and a communicator, and as a strategist with marketing sensibilities, is it blasphemous to avoid (or recommend avoiding) publishing and posting on social? Wouldn't that be socially unacceptable in any 2016 marketing strategy? And, by the way, shouldn't I do a better job of leading by example? 

Before answering those questions, consider these thoughts from an interesting interview with contemporary American writer George Saunders where he responds to a variety of societal hot-button issues, including his decision to refrain from on social media. Here's a relevant excerpt from that interview:  

"I’ve found that my first drafts are not so special. But the more I work on them, the better they get. They are more unique and defensible. So that makes me averse to jotting things down and sending them out, when I know that my only chance at any kind of depth or profundity is to linger within the story, trying to make it distinguish itself. I’ve also found that trying to be active with social media changes my moment-to-moment perceptions. Instead of feeling, “What’s the deepest version of what’s happening here?” I start to feel, “How can I use (or “claim”) this?”

"The bottom line for me is that life is short and art is long — and I don’t love the way that being engaged in social media makes me feel, or the way it seems to shape my thinking."

Let's be honest: few of us are novelists or essayists. We're often writing copy about services and business solutions, not books. Some of us wouldn't dare claim our work as an art form. The approach Saunders takes is unique to him and by no means are hard and fast rules for, let's say, the OEM supplier or the not-for-profit organization. But Saunders hits on things that resonate with me as a strategist who leverages the power of words and ideas. In particular, this: 

"The more I work on them, the better they get. They are more unique and defensible."  

Isn't this what developers of content, consultants and agencies should strive to deliver on behalf of clients? Shouldn't we be in constant pursuit of those clutter-cutting ideas, those anti-listicles that impart more than a checklist?

So back to the earlier questions:

  • Is it blasphemous to avoid publishing and posting on social? There's a place for all of us to utilize our voices for good on social. I embrace the power of compelling storytelling, so there's always opportunities to utilize these platforms we've been given. I would like to believe that when I publish and post, it's because I have something to say that might provide a different perspective or point of view. 

  • Shouldn't I do a better job of leading by example? Indeed I could, but can't guarantee I will.  

Because, like Saunders, I find that the longer I linger with the story (e.g., the client's story, my own story), the more clarity and focus I get. The stronger the word choices become. This only happens when you and I invest the time and become deeply familiar with our subject matter, seek out points and counterpoints, and stew over the myriad of ways to say it -- whatever "it" may be.

Not everything benefits from hours of wrestling with what to say. The point isn't to navel-gaze, but to take the time to hone your thinking, know your voice and be true to it.  

Audiences rarely care that we miss a regularly scheduled Tuesday post or bi-weekly update. They care when they realize they miss the meaningful content we're providing, not the date or time it arrives. By easing our self-imposed time constraints, we afford more time to focus on creating better content.  

When we choose to publish and share our thoughts, we should slow down and take inventory. In doing so, we are banking on thoughtfulness and contemplative work over immediacy, of writing and refining versus the mere act of posting and sending, of eschewing the easy post for the one that requires more of us.

The end result isn't perfection or guaranteed success via likes and shares. It is the knowledge that the contribution is purposeful and hopefully unique. The belief that it matters and we will not regret the post at some point in the future. And the hope that perhaps we've found a way to say the interesting thing, the urgent thing and, if we're fortunate, the compelling thing. 

"Likes" and "shares" are nice. They're measurable and a quick barometer of interest. But analytics cannot measure the heart.

Perhaps the more heart we put into our work, the more likely our content will resonate with others -- which may or may not translate into a metric-measuring action. The question we must ask is: can we live within that reality and outside of the vanity metrics?

If so, cut yourself some slack. Take a bit more time if necessary. Be intentional. And if you feel so bold, embrace a positive definition of what it means to be socially unacceptable with your content strategy. 

 

Links & likes: could they be ruining your reputation?

Perhaps you’ve seen the online quote attributed Abraham Lincoln – the one that goes "you can’t believe everything you read on the internet."

As absurd as this mash up is, its point is well taken and should make us consider the veracity of content marketing and thought leadership we receive. It also should make us check our own practices as we try to keep pace in a furious sprint to create new and fresh content.   

Stop and think: are you taking the advice, tips and counsel that permeates your inbox, LinkedIn or Twitter feed at face value? Are you clicking through the links – the subtle signposts of an expert at work – to see if what is being cited is accurate and reputable? Beyond intuition and personal experience, how do you decipher between what is brilliant and what is bunk? 

Recently, I took up the link-verifying approach while reading an online article regarding website development in a highly regarded publication. This bold subheading caught my attention:

"94 percent of comments in a recent study said that people mistrusted a website based on its design elements over its content."

As someone who relies heavily on design partners to frame the messaging and content I create, this seemed noteworthy – and perhaps shareworthy (a driving purpose behind content marketing pieces like this). Intuitively I know that good design plays a significant role in positioning content and shaping the user experience. But 94 percent?

Prior to sending the post to a design colleague, I felt compelled to dig deeper – and I’m glad I did.

By following a link related to the 94 percent stat, I was directed to a Forbes article published a year ago, which in turn linked to the original research study. That’s where I learned the truth about this stat and just how focused the research was:

  • The study was specific to health websites
  • It only observed 15 people
  • All participants were women
  • All participants “faced a risky health decision”
  • All participants lived in United Kingdom
  • The study was published in 2004 

Each of the six bullets challenge the credibility of the bold generalized statement I read. Then there is the rapid change in how we define the online user experience 12 since the study. Certainly the participants in this study did mistrust website design, and perhaps there are universal truths to be made about design and trustworthiness. However, this isn’t the link to use to make the case about web design, in general, in 2016.   

 

WHAT WE WRITE + SHARE MAKES AN IMPRESSION (FAVORABLE OR NOT)

Just like you, I read plenty of content and often have the impulse to react, share or shed light where I think it could be helpful to others. When we read articles in what we believe to be reputable publications, we make assumptions about accuracy and fact checking. We don’t have time to read all of the links and citations to validate the author as a trustworthy thought leader. We see the author is well published and a regular contributor, which signals some level of subject-matter expertise.

As the age of DIY and brand journalism plows forward with platforms that thrive on new, self-published content, the journalism institute Poynter has been documenting the rapid decline of editorial professionals in newsrooms over the last few years here, here and here. The point is that with significantly fewer fact-checking professionals ensuring what we read is accurate, we must become more diligent and critical readers. 

As content marketers and thought leaders, we must earn the trust of our audience so they return to us with regularity. That means we owe it to them to take the time to be thorough and accurate. That may seem counter-intuitive given the perceived simplicity and speed in which new content arrives and the recommendations on how often you should post content (advice from content marketing thought leaders, of course). Keep in mind: 

  • If it’s worth writing, then it’s worth writing well. Take your time, edit and revise.
  • If it’s worth publishing, then tell your best story. Your reputation as a thought leader requires it.

Our reputation and credibility are always on the line – whether we create the post or decide to pass along the commentary of others.

 

HELP RAISE THE BAR BY BEING AN ALLY

Mistakes will happen – even among the most reputable journalists and publications. Be helpful and alert content creators to a possible issue or correction that would improve their piece. When we nudge respectfully, authors should see that we’ve taken the time to improve rather than attack their piece.  

When I reached out to the author suggesting the article was intriguing but this data point was misleading, the author responded with gratitude and quickly changed the article. Now readers get a better story and the author has a credible piece of thought leadership where the opinion remains unaltered and misleading links no longer exist.

Does your brand need more calculated risks?

Ruts. We all get into them. The goal is to get out of them, quickly – and for a brand this can be especially challenging and often saddled with cost implications.

A common knee-jerk reaction is to do something big and drastically change things up. While this may be warranted in some cases, brand managers also need the green light from those who will foot the bill for shifts in marketing strategy. Having strong rationale in place to validate a change in approach can be the difference between an ill-advised leap and calculated risk.  

Taking a calculated risk doesn’t require relying on gut intuition. It’s about recognizing performance realities and probing the depths of creativity within the proper context. Consider the following as you push the brand envelope:

ACKNOWLEDGE THE SIGNS. Knowing when it’s time to part ways with a business as usual or we’ve always done it this way approach is critical. Few branding strategies are developed with the goal of maintaining the status quo. Examine your brand and determine if your content marketing is static. Are you sharing real insights or uninspiring information? Do events offer anything new or do they come off as old activities that have been recycled for a new calendar year? If you’re seeing diminishing returns, then it’s time to rethink your engagement strategy.  

EXPLORE YOUR BRAND CHARACTER. This doesn’t suggest you do something out of character. Every well-conceived brand should have a brand roadmap that also reveals brand characteristics.  And, much like people you’re trying to reach, you’ll recognize that brands are equally multifaceted. But chances are several facets of the brand personality have been overlooked for those that have taken priority. If your brand is in a rut, explore its character traits as they may offer ways to present the brand and its offerings in a fresh light and meaningful ways to your audience.  

KEEP IT IN CONTEXT. A calculated risk doesn’t mean ignoring strategy, data or your values. It’s also not about shock and awe. It simply means taking a different approach to reaching the same desired outcome. Keep focused on the main thing as you explore and test new ways of getting there.

GIVE IT AMPLE TIME & RESOURCES. This is true for existing strategies as well as new marketing approaches. While you may feel compelled to abandon a campaign that is lacking traction, first confirm you’ve devoted the right talent for the job, given it the proper time to work, and the opportunity to tweak or perform the necessary triage to salvage good ideas that haven’t fully come to life yet.  In a world that craves instant gratification, be patient. Your marketing budget just may thank you.

We’ve heard it before: no risk, no reward. Just make sure those risks are calculated. You’ll likely earn the opportunity to take more of them, especially when performance reaps the reward.