Since the dawn of time, humans have been creating content to motivate people to do things. It’s possible Neanderthals were improvising tall tales about saber-toothed tigers to soothe rambunctious toddlers into falling asleep.
In the thousands of years since, it’s only the medium that’s changed. From oral tradition, to written word, to what we’re seeing now with the saturation of online media, content has remained an ever-present necessity.
Creating content is critical to digital marketing efforts. Compared with traditional marketing, content marketing generates 3x the leads—with a higher ROI. It also drives traffic. And when coupled with a robust content strategy, that general traffic turns into qualified traffic (i.e., the kind you write home about).
Digital content effectively serves as breadcrumbs for search engine bots and online humans. They can follow your trail to get what they need. (Hint: for both bots and humans, it’s relevance they’re after.)
But what group should you focus on? The impending robot overlords or the humans?
Feed the Bots. Write for humans.
In eras past, businesses would muddy the digital waters by stuffing keywords on web pages to points of no return. Content often looked like this:
Image via Neil Patel
We get it. You’re a big fan of custom cigar humidors.
But while stuffed content tricked nascent search engine algorithms into thinking keyword frequency equated to user relevance, users mostly weren’t fooled. A good guideline: don’t write like a soulless robot and expect to convince educated buyers to pull the trigger on decisions.
Search engine behemoths have continued to make this clear, iterating on their own complex algorithms to reward content creation aimed at “users, not just algorithms.” Quite a bit of noise has been cleaned up because of it.
A content creation plan must keep your audience in mind. Spur them into thinking. Leave them with questions. Make them want to keep reading what you’re producing—not just by signing up for a newsletter, but also by clicking through to more and more of your live content.
Sustaining that level of effort is hard. Bruce Springsteen once credited his “sustaining an audience” to “consistency of thought, of purpose, and of action over a long period of time.” This applies to digital content creation, too. Your content and the cadence should let human beings know you’re in the thick of things with them. Meeting them at every stage of their journey and at every question that makes them rack their brains.
The reward is clear: treating your users like humans (instead of bots) is a win.
When planning your content marketing ideas, feed your audience what they want to consume:
- Think mobile-first: 69% of buyers prefer looking at reviews on their mobile devices versus talking to somebody in a store.
- Create more video: Cisco expects over 80% of all web traffic will be video by 2021; meanwhile, 87% of consumers feel like brands should be making more video content.
- Give them value: Motivate your buyers by consistently over-delivering on what your content promises.
That last bit is the hardest thing to do. In fact, 58% of marketers today find that creating engaging content is the single toughest thing on their plates.
Sometimes, data makes that job a little easier.
Put in the (right) work.
Building a content creation plan should feel a lot like planning your wardrobe before you walk out the door in the morning. Checking the weather—both quantitatively (i.e., by looking at the forecast) and empirically (i.e., by actually looking outside)—informs how to dress appropriately.
For content creation, it’s also a blend of quantitative and empirical.
There are several ways to leverage data and insights to inform your own content creation plan. Keyword research is a great starting point. It gives marketers a look through the looking glass into the kinds of queries users are trying to find answers to.
SEO research can tell you more than just how often terms are searched. Depending on the tool, marketers can explore crucial information, including a keyword’s cost per click and difficulty. The former hints at how valuable other marketers consider a term (if they’re willing to pay money for it, it is likely driving results), and the latter paints a broad-strokes picture of how hard it would be to outdo the content that’s already ranking on page 1 of search engine results.
Use the data to your advantage and turn these queries into your content themes. Are there commonalities in the keywords around a topic? Is there a broader question worth answering?
For brands trying to gain footing in a competitive space, zeroing in on long-tail keywords is one way to capture traffic—they’re inherently easier to rank for. Especially when these longer phrases are questions your personas may be asking online, creating content around these themes provides your target users with the information they’re trying to learn.
Planning out content creation doesn’t end at keyword research. And luckily, there are content creation tools to help marketers along the way:
- Keyword research. SEMrush and Ahrefs are juggernaut tools that allow marketers to optimize for organic and paid search.
- Content ideation. BuzzSumo allows marketers to explore what content themes are trending or popular.
- Social listening. Sprout Social is a platform for social media management, but it includes a social listening feature that allows marketers to explore topics that are trending in real time or are inspiring targeted users.
- Persona building. HubSpot’s “Make My Persona” tool allows marketers to creatively build out entire buyer personas, setting a foundation for strategic content marketing and messaging.
- Graphics. Tools like Canva and Adobe Creative Cloud allow marketers to whip up visuals that supplement content or stand alone as shareable assets for social media.
All this works for quantitatively churning out good content. But what will set your content apart is...
Have boots on the ground (or nearby).
You can either make up your mind on the weather by looking at the weather app on your phone or by opening up the door and taking a whiff of the maxed-out humidity and steamy, stagnant 100-degree air.
There’s something about that empirical knowledge—experience and expertise—that makes an opinion shine. To cut through the noise online, brands must make a concerted effort to share their expertise on topics.
Internally, find those subject matter experts (SMEs) who can speak passionately about specific topics your personas would be interested in. Have them make sense of all the SEO research and soulless data.
Remember: passion is contagious. When your audience recognizes your content is cutting through to a layer other brands can’t really reach, that matters. It stands out.
For example, if you’re an online broker trying to promote some unique tools that would be useful to online investors, you could write yet another boring piece on diversification or you could write an article about “stock market crash indicators” and how to buy crash protection when they light up.
This kind of content works. Among decision makers, 58% say they buy from a brand because of unique thought leadership. Speaking from experience builds trust in ways more generic content can’t.
And if you don’t have internal SMEs, don’t be afraid to reach outside your brand. Find knowledgeable communicators who are already active in digital spaces as “influencers” and be creative with how you position them as a resource. Tap into their expertise for a roundup, an episode of a podcast, or a Q&A. Give them the motivation and tools to partner with you.
Don’t stop there. Turn the SME nuggets into shareable, bite-size assets—social media content creation on steroids. Publishing that blog post, podcast episode, or webinar? Whip up some Instagram-worthy quote cards, short video teasers, and punchy stat-laden graphics. This extends the life and reach of your content.
Most importantly, don’t just reach your audience at a surface level. Leverage SMEs to remind your audience that your brand has boots on the ground. You can dig as deep as your audience needs you to.
Find the heartbeats. Tell their stories.
Doing content marketing well has less to do with making search engine bots happy and more to do with making human beings want to click, scroll, read, and share.
Start by framing your efforts like any good storyteller: your audience is the hero, and your brand is their guide. Your content should keep motivating the hero forward along their quest.
All the other stuff is important, sure. Like planning—from keyword themes, to content calendar, to delivery channels—around a content creation strategy. Like leveraging tools you need to get out in front of opportunities to resonate with your target personas.
Just go one step further with your content. Push where other brands stop; tap into subject matter experts who can breathe life into your keyword research and find pathways into your audience’s minds.
Always remember the hero. The hero’s human. Your content is for them.