A Great Example Of Bad Content Marketing – And How To Avoid It

A Great Example Of Bad Content Marketing – And How To Avoid It

I was apprehensive of publishing this post. It’s not considered good form to point to others’ work and say that it’s bad. But I decided to publish it for three reasons:

  • There’s already so much out there about great content marketing and far less about bad content
  • Dissecting something bad can teach us a lot. I learned a lot about filmmaking and storytelling when I watched this funny teardown of Battlefield Earth, one of the worst films ever made.
  • I’m protecting the author by not linking to the original piece and changing a few words here and there to make it difficult to google.

Towards the end, I am answering the question of what is worse: Publish late or publish poor content. Stick around (or scroll down) for that.

So let’s have some fun! And learn something.

***

It’s really easy to produce crap. I mean figuratively, and in the context of content marketing.

But what does bad content look like? What makes it bad? Often, we can’t put our finger on it. Well, not today – as it’s time to dissect in detail what makes a poorly written article, and learn from others’ mistakes so that we don’t repeat them ourselves.

So, without further ado – here is a great example of what Velocity Partners have predicted in their now famous 2013 slideshow about the upcoming deluge of Crap Content.

This example is an interview of an in-house recruiter of a large professional services firm. It is meant to give advice and teach lessons to other recruiters. It has been published a year ago by a company offering content and advisory services to HR and recruiting professionals.

 

The sleep-inducing headline:

 

“On hiring employees: Deloitte

This headline is soporific.

A good headline should tell the reader what the article will be about and create curiosity to dive in. The only slightly interesting element here is that Deloitte is mentioned: For HR people (the audience of the article), Deloitte sounds good because the company is well-known for high quality HR work. But they could have done so much more with this asset. E.g. using one of the following title formats:

  • How Deloitte turned a slow machine into an in-house recruiting rocketship
  • Deloitte’s 7 recipes for awesome in-house recruitment
  • Deloitte’s secret for in-house recruitment success

Takeaway: Learn how to write great headlines, e.g. with Jon Morrow’s Headline Hacks.

 

The crowd-dispersing starter

This is how the interview starts:

Every blog post is at a permanent risk of being abandoned, but especially so at the beginning. Readers have low commitment. This is why all writing advice will tell you – start with something interesting. Something that is most likely to hook people in and get them to continue reading.

So what does our author give us on this highly critical juncture, the place where you might lose the majority of your audience?

He gives us a fact that

  1. 99% of the target audience already know
  2. is googlable to the remaining 1% who have been living under a rock
  3. is irrelevant to the insights that will be provided

Three strikes – a real masterclass of crap content.

If anyone hasn’t left at the headline, they are gone now.

Takeaways:

  • Start the article with something interesting or provocative
  • Avoid stating the obvious. It’s a waste of space and time. The few readers who don’t know something can google it.

 

The mechanical rattling through questions

The whole interview suffers from lazy interviewer syndrome. Interviewers are lazy when they have a set of prefabricated questions that they just go through with each interviewee, without picking up on anything their counterpart says. In the below, it looks like the interviewer copied and pasted questions and replaced <company> with Deloitte.

Here, for example, would have been a great opportunity to pick up on what the interviewee said:

The interviewee mentions gamification in the context of recruiting. Well, this is something new. I haven’t heard of that yet. But instead of saying “Oh, that’s interesting. Tell me more about the gamification you experimented with”, the interviewer just goes into the next question printed on her cheat sheet.

There was a spark of something interesting, a hint of potential – and reliably, lazy interviewer syndrome squashed it.

Takeaway: Have a conversation. Even if you do a formal interview with someone, you pick up on things they say and dig into interesting bits and ask for examples.

 

Allowing the interviewee to get away with BS

This is an interview with a person in a big company. So naturally, there is a risk of corporate jargon and bullshit bingo. That’s normal, and many people in formal interview situations retreat into the safety of empty phrases. As an author of online content, it’s also tempting to write BS because of the deluding comfort it provides: Both I can pretend that I’m writing something profound and you, the reader, can pretend that you understood that profundity.

But BS makes for cynical authors and jaded readers because at a sub-conscious level, we both know that we’re playing a game and are being fake. BS chips away at the credibility of your content brand.

If BS is rearing its head in an interview scenario, a good interviewer stops the other person in their tracks and goes “wait, what do you mean by that?” or “can you give an example?”

Of course, in this case, our interviewer is just a robot asking questions and recording whatever comes out of the other person’s mouth.

If BS could run, this passage would be Usain Bolt. There is nothing to learn from here, no interesting story being told. It starts with an awfully cliched sentence and only goes downhill from there. Empty phrases that leave the reader with the feeling “I just wasted half a minute reading this drivel.”

If someone in an interview scenario tells you an empty non-story like this, you have to follow up with

  • tell me more about that turning point when things changed or
  • what specifically was special about this experience? How was it different from other jobs you started in?

Sometimes, you will not get anything interesting, even if you ask follow-up questions. You keep digging for gold and only uncover dead rock. In that case, you have to throw out that passage. You absolutely must not waste your audience’s time with non-content. The “story” above should never have seen the light of day.

Takeaway: Bullshit is a big no-no for your content brand.

  • Catch yourself if you are about to write it
  • If your interview partner engages in it, ask follow up questions and uncover the real person or story
  • If you can’t get past the BS with an interviewee, throw out that passage. Never serve BS to your audience.

 

Content that pretends to be insightful

Imagine you’re a graduate recruiter at a big company. You know your stuff. You know about assessment centers, university outreach, employer branding etc.

And then you read this:

Let me summarise what pearls of wisdom are being handed from Mount Olympus here:

  • Allow for conversations between students and staff (whatever that means)
  • Do online stuff
  • And be present on campus

This is utterly worthless. If you’re an in-house recruiter in a big company and don’t know that to communicate your values, you have to talk to people, do online stuff and recruit on campus, you’ll be fired tomorrow.

On the surface, this is masquerading like useful content – but for its intended audience, there’s absolutely no takeaway.

A smidgen of usefulness would consist in linking to examples of Deloitte’s activity: Link to their media schedules, their webinars and places where they do online chats so that the audience can go “ah, interesting, THIS is what a Deloitte recruiting webinar looks like!”. But unfortunately, this is a very lazy interviewer who can’t be bothered to provide value to his audience.

You may say: But if we want to cover employer branding, specific recruiting activities and other meaty subjects, I have to be brief if I don’t want the article to be 3,000 words long!

This is a false choice. The author of this piece has not asked herself what brings value to her audience. She started from the question “what will be convenient for me to produce?”. 

Either cover fewer subjects more in depth, or create a long blog post. (btw – there’s absolutely no problem producing 3,000 word posts. Google will love you for it) Whatever is useful to your audience. But it’s clear that this superficial skirting over complex subjects doesn’t help anyone.

Takeaway: Know your audience and tell them things they don’t know yet.

 

Irregular publishing or bad content?

Marketers are busy people, and sometimes there is not enough time to produce good quality content. At the same time, consistency in content delivery is really important. It’s like with magazines. If you’re an Economist subscriber, you expect a new edition to come out every Friday. Consistency is part of the brand promise.

So sometimes the clock is ticking and you’re facing the dilemma: Produce something so-so and publish it? Or delay delivery by a few days and use the time to create a quality piece of content?

You have to choose.

Most content marketers would say it’s worse to produce crap. Better delay things by a few days than tarnish your reputation by producing something bad.

I think it depends. Take into account that there’s different levels of crap content:

  1. Low-level crap: Content that is “meh”. Obvious insights, recycled wisdoms. This content is largely forgettable but contains a kernel of truth and is, at a basic level, interesting and useful
  2. High-octane crap: Content that is so laughably bad that you feel insulted while reading it. You actually resent the author for putting you through it.

The example we went through is definitely in the latter category.

Unless you are placing an unusually high quality bar on your content, I propose the following algorithm when weighing consistency vs quality:

Let’s say that your content calendar stipulates a new blog post every week.

  1. If the delay would be three days or less, always prioritise quality. So delay the publishing by a day or two and polish your material until it’s great.
  2. If the delay were to be four days or more, low-level crap is permissible. Skipping more than a half-week is disruptive to your audience and consistency narrowly wins.
  3. A maximum of one low-level crap piece of content in 10 high quality pieces is permissible.
  4. Never ever publish high-octane crap. This will damage your content brand far more than a delay would. Better go on content vacation and don’t publish anything for two weeks if you really don’t have time to create quality content.

Even a master of content marketing like Seth Godin sometimes has a bad day and publishes a yawner like this one. That’s probably unavoidable.

But understand that every piece of crap content slowly chips away at the credibility of your content brand, and people will notice.

Conclusion

It’s important to know what bad content looks like so you can avoid it. It’s like having a negative role model in childhood – it can help propel you to greatness if you don’t want to end up like an abusive parent or a black sheep family member.

I hope that by dissecting a truly awful specimen, we have helped you avoid producing poor content in the future.

Where are your challenges in maintaining consistently high quality in your content marketing? I’d love to hear from you. Contact us on hello@kontent360.com or say hi to us on Twitter

Good Cliché – Bad Cliché

Good Cliché – Bad Cliché

There’s the eye-roll causing turn of phrase. But then there’s the wisdom that is “true to the point of cliché”. Which one to use and which one to discard?

 

Normally, a cliché is a derogatory term. A tired, overused expression that shows lack of originality.

And it’s true that when a story’s protagonist experiences heart-stopping fear at seeing two shady characters wait outside the house for what seems to last an eternity, sending shivers down her spine, yes, then you really have a writer in front of you who is at his wits’ end and has lost the plot.

Bad clichés usually come in the guise of an idiom, or stock expression.

A bad stock image is like a bad cliche

Ah, stock images – cliches turned into pixels

 

Unfortunately, no one really knows where idioms end and clichés begin. So you’re on your own. But a good recipe against succumbing to clichés is: Catch yourself when writing something sounding like a cliché. Give yourself ten seconds and see if you can come up with a more descriptive alternative or an idiom that fits better.

If you can’t, then write it and move on. Maybe you’ll catch it when you revise.

But what about the following phrases:

  • “Money won’t make you happy”
  • “Every cloud has a silver lining”
  • “Haste makes waste”
  • “Time heals all wounds”
  • “Be authentic.”

Well, these are somehow true, aren’t they?

All these phrases point to real wisdom: There indeed is no correlation between increased wealth and happiness (beyond a certain base); doing things in a hurry will usually lead to wasted resources; in most cases, the more time elapses since a hurt we have experienced, the less pain we will feel.

I call these truthful sayings “good clichés”. They are usually boiled-down life lessons that come from a good place – humanity’s collected experience, watered down to the lowest common denominator (ouch!), and passed on through the ages (d’oh!) from generation to generation.

So they should be fair game (argh!) to be used, no?

Well, the problem with them is: They aren’t very original. Everyone knows them and rolls their eyes. The people usually uttering them in earnest have the intellectual appeal of Aunt Bertha in curlers, lecturing her corner shop audience – “that’s what I always say, me”, adding a portentous look.

Aunt Bertha in the corner shop sharing her wisdom

The clichés are flying

So what do we do with those good clichés, now that we have them?

My solution is:

I allow them to play supporting roles in my plot. Good clichés are like actors without talent. They can help, and the narrative gets strengthened by their mere physical presence and them speaking a few lines. Not too many.

But don’t rely on them as pillars of your narrative. If they try to muscle their way to more prominence, cut them down to size.

When the cliché becomes the story (or the moral of the story), that’s when a good cliché turns sour. That’s the path descending to the content scrapheap where cheap romance novels and lazy, forgettable blog posts lie.

Example:

I would argue that the use of “Authenticity matters” in my blog post on how to become friends with your audience is permissible because it is being used as a building block in a wider argument I’m making. Becoming friendly with your audience to the point where they think about you “What would X say on this topic” requires true authenticity: Only by not contorting your views and staying true to your convictions, you can build long-lasting trust with your audience.  

The cliché is not carrying much weight, but, as it is true, it helps the argument.

So, to summarise:

  • Bad clichés: Usually come in the form of stock phrases. Avoid them. You will not always manage. But try to catch yourself when an expression rolls too easily off the tongue (damn!).
  • Good clichés: Use them when you are making a wider point as a supporting cast member.

Your readers will be grateful.

What are the clichés you love to hate? Post below.

Image source: Times Series, Blogspot, Adobe Stock

How To Write A Blog Post As Great As A TED Talk

How To Write A Blog Post As Great As A TED Talk

What makes TED talks so irresistible? And what can you as a Content Marketer learn from the masters of presentations to write in a more captivating way?

TED talks suck.

Hear me out. I mean that as a compliment.

TED talks are the bane of existence for people doing presentations. Once you’re among the millions of people who have seen Ken Robinson speak about How Schools Kill Creativity or Amy Cuddy’s talk on body language, you might:

  1. Realise how bad your own presentations are in comparison
  2. Realise how many people now will expect TED level quality from you
  3. Start to despair

TED Talk

But don’t despair. Instead, see the positive side and use TED to become a better Content Marketer.

Does it sound surprising to connect TED with Content Marketing? It shouldn’t be.

Seen through a marketing lense, TED talks follow the formula: Give value to your audience through interesting (and free) content — spread the content — drive more business by selling more books, attracting more donors, or commanding higher consulting and speaking fees.

With minor conceptual modifications, this is exactly what you’re doing when you create content that your audience finds valuable.

So what can we learn from this masterclass of quality content?

 

Understand the three elements of persuasion…

2,350 years ago, Aristotle’s students were cramming for an exam and cobbled together a cheat sheet of the master’s teachings. Tucked between party invites (“Toga party at sunset. Bring tzatziki”) and love notes (“can I be the cork to your amphora? [] YES [] NO”), the cheat sheet somehow survived and became known as the Aristotelian Rhetoric.

In it, the old man identified that a speaker required a mix of three elements to be effective:

  • Ethos: How credible are you? Have you studied or worked in a particular field? What makes you a competent source of information. The same factual information holds more weight, depending on who says it.
  • Logos: How new and unique is what you’re saying? How good are your arguments? Here, your audience is judging you with their left half of their brains.
  • Pathos: Do you connect with your audience on an emotional level? Do you captivate people with an interesting story? Why should they care?

ETHOS LOGOS PATHOS

TED speakers usually hit it out of the park in all these categories. How can we get close to their level?

 

…and improve in each

Ethos

Naturally, your personal or company’s credibility can’t grow overnight. But here’s a few ideas for you to help it along:

  • Involve subject matter experts
    • Have them guest blog on your site (Do you need to pay them? Yes, if they are real heavy hitters. But you can also get experts for free if they are starting out and building their online reputation)
    • Interview them and only publish the interesting bits.
  • Publish regularly: It’s like coming on time and being prepared for a meeting. You are more credible if your audience can rely on you showing up when they expect it. (Which is why Tuesday is Kontent360’s New-Blog-Post-And-Newsletter day)
  • Showcase your value: Have case studies and customer quotes on your site that show how your work has benefited your customers.
  • Promote your work: Classic content marketing promotion that aims to grow the audience will impact your Ethos. Like it or not, but having 20k followers on Twitter gives you a different standing vs having 100.
    • At the same time, resist the temptation to buy followership. You won’t get the engagement you want from it, and it’s just fake. Fake sucks.

Logos

Logos, the intellectual element of the content, is largely about two things:

The internal coherence of an argument

If A > B and B > C, then A > C. If you commit errors of logic and write in non-sequiturs, your audience will scatter like cockroaches when the kitchen light goes on.

But also, this is where the quality of your storytelling is under scrutiny. Unnecessary sentences and  rambling asides chip away at your audience’s interest. This is where TED dazzles most. Even if sometimes the content isn’t all that spectacular, the delivery is almost always impeccable. That’s because TED won’t allow a speaker to just pick a topic and run with it. Months of preparation go into editing the text and slides, and getting the speaker to memorize the whole speech start to finish. (Tim Urban writes about the experience of memorising a 14 minute speech)

Here’s how to bulletproof your internal coherence:

  • Create a narrative skeleton of your blog post before putting meat on the bones. Consultants do this by first writing the headlines of the slides before filling them with detailed, supporting content. This is called horizontal logic. Here’s a good summary of it.
  • Spend at least as much time editing your text as it took you to write the first draft. In his seminal book On Writing Well, William Zinsser writes that “rewriting is the essence of writing well—where the game is won or lost”. Weigh every word and sentence, and strive to becoming a better writer by reading classics like On Writing Well and the Elements of Style.
  • I find it useful to do read-throughs with different hats on. I do one grammar and spelling read-through, one for flow – and one for substance where I catch gaps in my logic. I always adopt a new reader’s mindset.
  • Have someone else proofread. Pick the smartest person you know and encourage them to not spare your feelings.

The novelty and uniqueness of your thoughts

In a TED talk, the speaker usually talks about something really impressive they have written, done, or experienced.

But even if you haven’t cleared landmines or held our breath for 17 minutes, you can be unique, as well:

  • What is something that only you / your company can tell? For example, there surely are stories of challenges you or your customers have faced. Share them with your audience so that they can benefit from the lessons learned.
    • Make sure you capture institutional knowledge. What people in different functions know needs to find its way into your marketing content. For more on this, read our free Content Marketing Strategy eBook, chapter The Company
    • Also, be mindful that specificity is a big plus. Resist the temptation to provide mere abstract lessons learned. Tell your audience the details of the hard knocks that taught you – with blood, sweat and tears splattered across the lens.
  • Have an opinion on contested topics in your domain. Opinions are interesting, when they are well founded (Ethos – your reputation – comes back into view here). For example:

Challenge yourself to be interesting through the boring dinner test:

Imagine your audience persona as a real person and tell them over dinner what you plan to write. If they are genuinely interested in what you’re saying, you win. If their attention drifts, scrap it and pick another topic. Every day I see at least one blog post which would not have passed the boring dinner test.

(PS. Read the Customer Section in our Content Marketing Strategy eBook on how to build your audience persona)

Sure, How-To posts and Top Ten lists are a content marketer’s meat & potatoes. Nothing wrong with them. But to be truly memorable, you need more: Tell stories only you can tell and take a stand.

 

Pathos

Pathos is all about building an emotional connection with your audience.

Now when you hear that, it evokes the image of someone sharing how they were bullied as a child and therefore started an anti-bullying charity. And you think: How on earth will I do that in my marketing content? I only have so many heartfelt stories to share!

Think more broadly. Pathos is everything that evokes an emotion in your audience. And emotions range from joy to sadness, from surprise to disgust. A few selected TED moments of good Pathos:

  • Bill Gates, after speaking for about 7 minutes about the fight against malaria, introduces his second point: “What makes a great teacher?”. This leaves the audience confused. Wait – how does that fit into the topic of fighting diseases? Emotion: Confusion, Surprise.
  • Tim Urban essentially delivers a 14 minute standup comedy session on his struggle with procrastination: Emotion: Laughter, Pity
  • Peter van Uhm starts the talk by praising the audience for making the world a better place through the practice of their profession. And by then saying “you have chosen a pen or a microscope. I have chosen a gun”, he introduces the idea of weapons and armies making the world a safer place. He then brings a real machine gun on stage, making the audience queasy. Emotion: Relatedness, Empathy, Fear, Unease.

 

You need emotion to help achieve three goals:

People need to know why they should care

If your main tool is the written word, you need to make sure that your headline, introduction and first part of the body text draw people in. And if you can do that on an emotional, and not an intellectual level, they are more likely to stay on. Emotion is a key ingredient that had 200,000 people read my blog post on my first startup’s failure. Evoking how bad it felt to be sitting in a cold warehouse, waiting for orders to come in, had a lot to do with people reading through a 5,000 word article.

Emotions will help your audience understand your point on a different level

It’s the old cliche of a picture is worth a thousand words. The horrifying image of the running girl covered in napalm is a far more powerful piece of information about the Vietnam War than statistics would tell.

Emotions will help the audience remember.

As Maya Angelou said: people will forget what you said, people will forget what you did, but people will never forget how you made them feel. Connecting an idea to an emotion is key to making it stick with your audience. I will always remember my first WaitButWhy post (in case you couldn’t tell, I’m a huge fan), 7 ways to be insufferable on Facebook. Again, the reason was purely emotional: First, it’s hilarious and I still laugh out loud when I re-read it. But it was also the feeling of “this guy totally gets me and we think alike”. It’s been four years since that article came out and I can still quote passages from it.

 

So wherever you can, try to evoke feelings in your audience:

  • An interesting analogy for a complex topic, a cartoon that brings an abstract point into sharper relief, an image or GIF (The satisfying feeling of having understood something complicated)
  • Jokes will provide comic relief
  • An unexpected turn in your narrative will surprise your audience
  • An outrageous claim will shock, offend, and make people curious to hear more
  • Story bookends, frequently used by the Economist where the article starts with an idea that is then revisited towards the end, provide a sense of storytelling closure.

However, adding emotion is hardly news and most people do it already. You will need to stand out in this context, too – by evoking common emotions more powerfully or by going for rarer emotions that your audience is not used to experiencing in the context of online content.

You’re on your own here. But it will come to you with experience. The more you read and write yourself, the more discerning you will be and will learn to dismiss cheap emotions like Robert Parker scoffs at mass-produced wine.

 

Pathos kicks ass

What Aristotle didn’t anticipate is that in 2017, Pathos, the emotional connection, reigns supreme. In his book Talk like TED, Carmine Gallo analysed 500 TED talks, and came to this conclusion:

The perfect talk consists of 10% Ethos, 25% Logos and 65% Pathos.

Pathos is two and a half times more important than Logos. Savour that.

Ethos Logos Pathos 2

To get used to this idea, try this: You spend a certain amount of time thinking about your new topic, researching, and crafting your argument. That’s Logos. Try to spend at least the same amount of time thinking about how you will connect with your audience. If you do that, you’ll be at 1x, not the 2.5x that Carmine Gallo is asking from you. But it’s a start.

Of course, this number isn’t gospel. It also applies to TED talks, and I haven’t yet seen someone do this for blog posts. But I bet that this number isn’t too far off the mark for blog posts either.

One thing is clear to me – any piece of content I remember (film, podcast, book, theater play, blog post) I remember because it struck a chord with me emotionally.

 

Content Beachheads

When the Allied Forces landed in Normandy in June 1944, they first established so-called beachheads, fists on the table that served as a starting point for the long journey to Berlin.

beachheads

The Normandy Beachheads

Most companies blog posts are like shooting arrows at a fortress. That’s because a beachhead, or any other breach of the enemy’s defenses takes more time and work.

A TED Talk-like blog post is your Content Beachhead. You create something remarkable that gets people talking for years.

My own Content Beachhead was my 2014 blog post about the reasons for my startup’s failure. Besides the high readership, it gave me a bump of over 1,000 Twitter followers, was quoted in various tech articles, got me speaking engagements, as well as a Harvard Business School case study.

Velocity Partners, a London Content Marketing agency, created a Content Beachhead in 2013 with their much-quoted presentation “Crap – The Biggest Threat to Content Marketing”.

What will be your Content Beachhead?

Follow the rules above and you have a great shot at creating one.

 

Further reading:

http://fortune.com/2014/02/25/why-ted-talks-are-better-than-the-last-speech-you-sat-through/

https://velocitypartners.com/blog/content-marketers-can-learn-from-ted-talks/

Talk like TED by Carmine Gallo

Five Reasons Why Long-Form Content Kicks Shorty’s Butt

Five Reasons Why Long-Form Content Kicks Shorty’s Butt

Despite shrivelling attention spans, long-form content is a great way to build relationships with your audience.

If you write in a web-friendly way and prioritise quality, you will get rewarded with SEO mojo and authority in the minds of your customers.

In the beginning, there was the exploding Chicken Kiev.

My lack of familiarity with this butter-bloated, crumb-covered Russian ball of fowl made me confuse it with a standard dumpling. Vigorously, I dug into my avian orb as if nothing but fluffy uniformity awaited at its core.

The result was a violently bespattered tablecloth to my left, the buttery droplets radiating like a Wifi symbol, greasy witnesses to the powers populating my planet of poultry. They missed my neighbour’s nicely ironed chinos by the width of a feather.

</chicken puns>

Chicken Supernova

Chicken Supernova

So my neighbour (a fine chap I just met), the lady to his left (who I knew a bit) and I had a good laugh and tacitly decided that, after surviving this trauma together, our relationship had instantly graduated to a level where British politeness shares a seat with a healthy helping of candour.

Because when we moved on to discussing our jobs and the topic came to my work in Content Marketing, they showed how sceptical they were about the value of long-form content. You know, blog posts of 1,500 words and more, white papers and eBooks.

“I start reading and when I see that it goes on and on, I don’t continue”, our female companion said.

This statement reminds me of people who are surprised at Google’s business model: “Really? Those little text ads make all the money? I NEVER click on those!” Well, I also barely click on ads. But in 2016, people somewhere in the world clicked around 50 billion times on them humble snippets.

Similarly, there must be SOME people in the world who read all this slew of long blog posts and white papers that companies are churning out. Would they be doing it otherwise?

In fact, there’s several good reasons why long-form content is great, and every company doing Content Marketing should consider having it in their arsenal.

1. Google LOVES long form content

Google’s algorithms are a mystery, but among SEO experts there is practical unanimity that, things being equal, long form content kicks its short siblings’ butt all over the place.

The average article length on organic search result in the #1 slot is 1,890 words.

Recently, I did my own little study for a client. As they are in the HR space, I googled four reasonably broad HR topics to see how long the #1 organic search results would be.

Besides the evidence, it also makes sense conceptually. In the last few years, Google has become better at recognising quality. Annoying gimmicks like keyword stuffing have lost their impact as the benevolent Eye of Google is able to find the best content, even if it’s hiding under piles of keyword-optimised, but poor and unoriginal rubble.

Just imagine primary colours around the eye.

Does this mean that Google equates long content with quality? Of course not! But Google’s predilection for the long form is a clear sign that other things being equal, a long article will give you more value than a short one, especially if it is well written – which brings us to the next point.

2. People read differently on the Web – length doesn’t hurt

People read at an average speed of 200 words per minute. So an article of 2,000 words will take 10 minutes to read, right?

Wrong.

People read differently on the web than they read a book. They skim and skip and jump and scroll and saunter from paragraph to paragraph, they start with the conclusion, and end with the introduction.

But they also read deeply if the quality is good.

For example, one of my clients has recently asked me to speak to some of his customers, so I decided to brush up on my interviewing skills. I googled “how to interview like a journalist” and found this 3,700 word monster.

Of course I didn’t spend 18.5 minutes reading the damn thing. Instead, I skimmed the headings and focused on the 7-8 items that caught my attention. I don’t think I ever reached the end of the article.

When people argue against long-form content, they say that users don’t finish reading long articles.

I say this doesn’t matter.

The way sites like Medium measure the “read ratio” as a proxy of people finishing an article, is

I did an experiment once where I published a post on Medium, immediately looked it up in another browser (= I was the first reader) and race-scrolled to the bottom of it. Medium counted me as a reader and my article’s read ratio was 100%. This makes no sense. But it’s easy to measure.

What matters much more is if the reader got value out of a blog post. And for that, they don’t have to finish reading.

The flipside for writers is: You can lose your audience any second. So learn to write in a way that keeps them engaged. Prioritise quality, include summaries, images, sub-headings, bullet points, smooth transitions between sections, and so on. It’s a skill that can be learned like any other. Online content is a new genre and there’s good and bad craftsmen and artists in it.

When the form is poor, the substance will get lost. So learn to master the medium and length won’t be an issue.

3. Some topics simply require long form

Seriously, what kind of actionable, helpful advice will you be able to give if you cover a question like “How to grow your Twitter follower base” in 400-500 words? You’ll get a few commonplace wisdoms, empty word shells like “engage in a conversation” and examples of Twitter superstars. It’ll be just an illusion of having taught something.

Returning to my example on learning journalist interviewing skills and the 3,700 word article: I found this bit very insightful:

I often struggle with this question of whether to force a narrative on a story or just let it develop. The section above drove the point home to me: If you need to knock out something quickly, have a plan. If you can go in depth and are willing to gamble a bit, let go of preconceptions.

This message would be difficult to convey in all its nuance in less than the 202 words used above, especially if you want to insert expert quotes like the author does. Sure, you could just use the italicised sentence above. But as with any brief advice, there’s a much bigger risk of it going in in one ear and out the other. Elaborating, examples and quotes fill an abstract rule with life and make it more memorable.

“Perfection is achieved not when there is nothing more to add, but when there is nothing left to take away.”
(Saint-Exupéry)

By all means, trim the fat and drop the baggage. But don’t lose your substance because you think you need to cater to everyone with ADD.

4. Long-form content builds relationships

The goal of Content Marketing is to build a relationship with the prospective or existing customer. If you are extremely terse and to the point every time you publish something, you might miss out on forming a genuine connection with your reader.

For example, in this article, I could have plunged straight into my argument. Instead, I gave you the Chicken Kiev story. I think it is entertaining (at least I had fun writing it), and it helps you, the reader, get to know me a little bit and get a feel for my sense of humour. When it comes to building relationships, this is valuable – to open up a bit, to tell a story.

Storytelling time in the land of badly drawn bulbous creatures

Also, long-form content allows you to showcase your expertise in complex topics, which is another way of relationship building.

Yes, I am fully conscious that by telling a a story or going deep into a topic, I might lose some of my potential readers (“Give me facts & information immediately or I’m out”). But then, I don’t want everyone anyway. I want people who enjoy a good (I hope…) read. They will become my customers.

I’d rather have my content polarise and qualify my audience than please everyone.

It’s simple – part of your Content Marketing Strategy is to get to know your audience and find out what kind of content they will enjoy. If they are open to the long form and you are good at writing it – there’s your answer.

Just don’t say that long-form content per se doesn’t work.

(on the topic of Strategy – I wrote a 33-page (i.e. long-form) eBook on the topic of Content Marketing Strategy where I cover customer content research, check it out)

5. Despite all the gadgets and the ADD – people do read

You’d expect that in an era where technology has turned us into Pavlov’s dogs, books, the epitome of long-form-content, would be a folly of forest-dwelling hippies.

Quality time in the family

Well, 2016 was the year with the highest level of book sales ever in the UK. Add on top of this blog readership, then total hours spent reading have skyrocketed.

Sure, some US statistics suggest that people read fewer books than their forebears did 40 years ago. But this doesn’t seem to translate to the UK – readership figures suggest that all is well in that regard. And that is remarkable: In the age of constant attention-fracking technology, people still read books – what a resilient medium it is!

And what’s more, the largest segment of consumers and workers, Millennials, are out-reading older generations across most genres, only bested by the 65+ group in the area of fiction.

Sure, the vast majority of people hunched over their phones on your morning commute are on their socials or watching youtube or fighting with their spouse over Whatsapp.

But many of them are reading on their kindle app or skim through blog posts in their browser.

All that said…

Long-form content is not a goal in itself.

You don’t set out thinking to yourself “Ah what a fine day it is today! I shall knock out a 1,500 word blog post. Hmmm, what will I write about?”

No, you think “Today, I shall write about how to cook exploding food, let’s see where it takes me”.

SEO and content marketing guru Rand Fishkin rightly points out that great content ≠ long-form content and offers various examples of successful short form content.

But that does not contradict my point in this article: The goal is to inform readers as well as possible about a topic they are interested in. Length is not the objective. Value is. Great value can be delivered in 112 words.

My whole point is: In a world where ink and paper are not an issue, we can give each topic the space it deserves without having to artificially constrain ourselves to a predetermined length.

Bad writers deem this a free pass at writing rambling, unedited, stream-of-consciousness-style content. But I’m confident that Google will punish the wafflers in the end and that amazing, massive, high quality articles like these will prevail.

Unlike my sceptical dinner companions and victims to my chicken supernova, I am convinced that long-form content is as dead as books are – not at all.

But does it sell?

Oh, well that is an entirely different question and one that we will explore in a later blog post. Of course it does sell, but don’t take our word for it.

Sign up for our newsletter to receive the blog post as soon as it’s out.

By the way, this post is 2,019 words long. 🙂

 

Image credits: Adobe Stock, Giphy, Peacock PanachePinterest

Despite shrivelling attention spans, long-form content is a great way to build relationships with your audience.

If you write in a web-friendly way and prioritise quality, you will get rewarded with SEO mojo and authority in the minds of your customers.

In the beginning, there was the exploding Chicken Kiev.

My lack of familiarity with this butter-bloated, crumb-covered Russian ball of fowl made me confuse it with a standard dumpling. Vigorously, I dug into my avian orb as if nothing but fluffy uniformity awaited at its core.

The result was a violently bespattered tablecloth to my left, the buttery droplets radiating like a Wifi symbol, greasy witnesses to the powers populating my planet of poultry. They missed my neighbour’s nicely ironed chinos by the width of a feather. </chicken puns>

Chicken Supernova

Chicken Supernova

So my neighbour (a fine chap I just met), the lady to his left (who I knew a bit) and I had a good laugh and tacitly decided that, after surviving this trauma together, our relationship had instantly graduated to a level where British politeness shares a seat with a healthy helping of candour.

Because when we moved on to discussing our jobs and the topic came to my work in Content Marketing, they showed how sceptical they were about the value of long-form content. You know, blog posts of 1,500 words and more, white papers and eBooks.

“I start reading and when I see that it goes on and on, I don’t continue”, our female companion said.

This statement reminds me of people who are surprised at Google’s business model: “Really? Those little text ads make all the money? I NEVER click on those!” Well, I also barely click on ads. But in 2016, people somewhere in the world clicked around 50 billion times on them humble snippets.

Similarly, there must be SOME people in the world who read all this slew of long blog posts and white papers that companies are churning out. Would they be doing it otherwise?

In fact, there’s several good reasons why long-form content is great, and every company doing Content Marketing should consider having it in their arsenal.

1. Google LOVES long form content

Google’s algorithms are a mystery, but among SEO experts there is practical unanimity that, things being equal, long form content kicks its short siblings’ butt all over the place.

The average article length on organic search result in the #1 slot is 1,890 words.

Recently, I did my own little study for a client. As they are in the HR space, I googled four reasonably broad HR topics to see how long the #1 organic search results would be.

“Take Employee pulse” → #1 result 2,722 words

“How to deal with Millennials” –> #1 result 1070 words

“How to motivate top performers” –> #1 result 1,590 words

“Improve my presentations skills” –> #1 result, 1,950 words

Besides the evidence, it also makes sense conceptually. In the last few years, Google has become better at recognising quality. Annoying gimmicks like keyword stuffing have lost their impact as the benevolent Eye of Google is able to find the best content, even if it’s hiding under piles of keyword-optimised, but poor and unoriginal rubble.

Just imagine primary colours around the eye.

Does this mean that Google equates long content with quality? Of course not! But Google’s predilection for the long form is a clear sign that other things being equal, a long article will give you more value than a short one, especially if it is well written – which brings us to the next point.

2. People read differently on the Web – length doesn’t hurt

People read at an average speed of 200 words per minute. So an article of 2,000 words will take 10 minutes to read, right?

Wrong.

People read differently on the web than they’d read a book. They skim and skip and jump and scroll and saunter from paragraph to paragraph, they start with the conclusion, and end with the introduction.

But they also read deeply if the quality is good.

For example, one of my clients has recently asked me to speak to some of his customers, so I decided to brush up on my interviewing skills. I googled “how to interview like a journalist” and found this 3,700 word monster. Of course I didn’t spend 18.5 minutes reading the damn thing. Instead, I skimmed the headings and focused on the 7-8 items that caught my attention. I don’t think I ever reached the end of the article. When people argue against long-form content, they say that users don’t finish reading long articles. I say this doesn’t matter. The way sites like Medium measure the “read ratio” as a proxy of people finishing an article, is

I did an experiment once where I published a post on Medium, immediately looked it up in another browser (= I was the first reader) and race-scrolled to the bottom of it. Medium counted me as a reader and my article’s read ratio was 100%. This makes no sense. But it’s easy to measure.

What matters much more is if the reader got value out of a blog post. And for that, they don’t have to finish reading.

The flipside for writers is: You can lose your audience any second. So learn to write in a way that keeps them engaged. Prioritise quality, include summaries, images, sub-headings, bullet points, smooth transitions between sections, and so on. It’s a skill that can be learned like any other. Online content is a new genre and there’s good and bad craftsmen and artists in it.

When the form is poor, the substance will get lost. So learn to master the medium and length won’t be an issue.

3. Some topics simply require long form

Seriously, what kind of actionable, helpful advice will you be able to give if you cover a question like “How to grow your Twitter follower base” in 400-500 words? You’ll get a few commonplace wisdoms, empty word shells like “engage in a conversation” and examples of Twitter superstars. It’ll be just an illusion of having taught something.

Returning to my example on learning journalist interviewing skills and the 3,700 word article: I found this bit very insightful:

I often struggle with this question of whether to force a narrative on a story or just let it develop. The section above drove the point home to me: If you need to knock out something quickly, have a plan. If you can go in depth and are willing to gamble a bit, let go of preconceptions.

This message would be difficult to convey in all its nuance in less than the 202 words used above, especially if you want to insert expert quotes like the author does. Sure, you could just use the italicised sentence above. But as with any brief advice, there’s a much bigger risk of it going in in one ear and out the other. Elaborating, examples and quotes fill an abstract rule with life and make it more memorable.

“Perfection is achieved not when there is nothing more to add, but when there is nothing left to take away.”
(Saint-Exupéry)

By all means, trim the fat and drop the baggage. But don’t lose your substance because you think you need to cater to everyone with ADD.

4. Long-form content is great for building relationships

The goal of Content Marketing is to build a relationship with the prospective or existing customer. If you are extremely terse and to the point every time you publish something, you might miss out on forming a genuine connection with your reader. For example, in this article, I could have plunged straight into my argument. Instead, I gave you the Chicken Kiev story. I think it is entertaining (at least I had fun writing it), and it helps you, the reader, get to know me a little bit and get a feel for my sense of humour. When it comes to building relationships, this is valuable – to open up a bit, to tell a story.

Storytelling time in the land of badly drawn bulbous creatures

Also, long-form content allows you to showcase your expertise in complex topics, which is another way of relationship building.

Yes, I am fully conscious that by telling a a story or going deep into a topic, I might lose some of my potential readers (“Give me facts & information immediately or I’m out”). But then, I don’t want everyone anyway. I want people who enjoy a good (I hope…) read. They will become my customers.

I’d rather have my content polarise and qualify my audience than please everyone.

It’s simple – part of your Content Marketing Strategy is to get to know your audience and find out what kind of content they will enjoy. If they are open to the long form and you are good at writing it – there’s your answer.

Just don’t say that long-form content per se doesn’t work.

(on the topic of Strategy – I wrote a 33-page (i.e. long-form) eBook on the topic of Content Marketing Strategy where I cover customer content research, check it out)

5. Despite all the gadgets and the ADD – people do read

You’d expect that in an era where technology has turned us into Pavlov’s dogs, books, the epitome of long-form-content, would be a folly of forest-dwelling hippies.

Quality time in the family

Well, 2016 was the year with the highest level of book sales ever in the UK. Add on top of this blog readership, then total hours spent reading have skyrocketed.

Sure, some US statistics suggest that people read fewer books than their forebears did 40 years ago. But this doesn’t seem to translate to the UK – readership figures suggest that all is well in that regard. And that is remarkable: In the age of constant attention-fracking technology, people still read books – what a resilient medium it is!

And what’s more, the largest segment of consumers and workers, Millennials, are out-reading older generations across most genres, only bested by the 65+ group in the area of fiction.

Sure, the vast majority of people hunched over their phones on your morning commute are on their socials or watching youtube or fighting with their spouse over Whatsapp.

But many of them are reading on their kindle app or skim through blog posts in their browser.

All that said…

Long-form content is not a goal in itself.

You don’t set out thinking to yourself “Ah what a fine day it is today! I shall knock out a 1,500 word blog post. Hmmm, what will I write about?”

No, you think “Today, I shall write about how to cook exploding food, let’s see where it takes me”.

SEO and content marketing guru Rand Fishkin rightly points out that great content ≠ long-form content and offers various examples of successful short form content.

But that does not contradict my point in this article: The goal is to inform readers as well as possible about a topic they are interested in. Length is not the objective. Value is. Great value can be delivered in 112 words.

My whole point is: In a world where ink and paper are not an issue, we can give each topic the space it deserves without having to artificially constrain ourselves to a predetermined length.

Bad writers deem this a free pass at writing rambling, unedited, stream-of-consciousness-style content. But I’m confident that Google will punish the wafflers in the end and that amazing, massive, high quality articles like these will prevail.

Unlike my sceptical dinner companions and victims to my chicken supernova, I am convinced that long-form content is as dead as books are – not at all.

But does it sell?

Oh, well that is an entirely different question and one that we will explore in a later blog post. Of course it does sell, but don’t take our word for it.

Sign up for our newsletter to receive the blog post as soon as it’s out.

By the way, this post is 2,022 words long. 🙂

 

Image credits: Adobe Stock, Giphy, Peacock PanachePinterest

How a swimming pool installation company in rural Virginia saved their business with content marketing

How a swimming pool installation company in rural Virginia saved their business with content marketing

A spectacular turnaround story, River Pools and Spas (RPS) in Warsaw, VA (USA) is a thing of legends in the Content Marketing community, not least because of how unlikely it sounds: A company digging holes and installing swimming pools as the shining example of writing blog posts and e-books, written about in the New York Times and profiled in books about content marketing? Go on – tell me more.

In 2009, during the Great Recession, swimming pools were one of the first things that affluent American homeowners cut back on.

But not only was demand for new pools tanking, customers even wanted their deposits returned – i.e. business that the company had thought to be “in the bag” suddenly vanished retroactively! This suffocated the company of cash.

At $4 million annual revenue, River Pools and Spas were spending $250k per year on outbound marketing. Out of four competitors in the region, they were the smallest.

The only way to stay afloat in a shrinking market is to steal market share. But how to do that with a dwindling cash balance? CEO Marcus Sheridan discovered content marketing (he prefers the term “inbound marketing” – I’m discussing here why I prefer “content”). He read the success stories (unsuspecting that one day he would become one of the most famous ones) and decided he would give it a try. He started a blog on the company website which previously had served merely as a virtual shop front.

Marcus Sheridan, then CEO of River Pools and Spas

Just don’t take the laptop into the pool. (Source: NY Times)

Blogging, Sheridan thought, would kill not two but three birds with one stone:

    1) It’s free, and if it worked he would be able cut back on his marketing spend
    2) It would differentiate him from his competitors
    3) It would make use of his spare time given flagging demand

But what to write about?
It soon became clear that the best topic to cover would be all the questions people had about swimming pools. And there were many. A swimming pool is a huge expenditure and buyers have a lot of questions before committing: What are the pros and cons of fiberglass pools? What is the installation process? How do fiberglass pools stack up against concrete pools? What is the yearly maintenance cost of a swimming pool?

Sheridan simply started writing answers to the most frequent questions that customers asked him on a regular basis. He thought: “If they ask me in person, they’ll also be googling it.” And at the time, there was no other company that publicly answered customers’ questions on these topics. Either they didn’t think it was important enough or they considered this information to be too valuable to simply give away.

Only Marcus Sheridan wasn’t simply “giving” his information “away”.
He collected readers’ email addresses, observed which of his emails his subscribers were reading, optimised email subject lines to grow email open rates, alternated content emails with salesy ones … and started counting as the dollar bills were piling up. By 2011, two years after his decision to go all out on content marketing, River Pool and Spas was selling more fiberglass pools than any other company in North America. And yes, you read that right.

These days, the company continues doing well and has a readership of 200,000 monthly visits during the summer months – truly extraordinary for what used to be a mere shopfront of a high-end product company.

What lessons can we learn from this story?

1. Evergreen content wins
Questions around swimming pools don’t change much over the years. Barring some high-tech breakthroughs that make pools magically install and fill themselves, people will still be asking about pros and cons, cost, duration etc. Answer their questions and you’re half-way there. Evergreen content is also one of the secrets behind Tim Ferriss’ huge success as a blogger and even more so as a podcaster.

2. Giving is receiving
Sheridan made great use of one of the cornerstones of persuasion: Reciprocity. Robert Cialdini describes in his seminal book Influence how Hare Krishna followers soliciting donations in an airport dramatically improved their results by giving strangers a flower first. Even if it was unsolicited, value had been transferred, people’s urge to reciprocate kicked in and off they went and handed over a few dollars (in this case, surely not without a dash of resentment).

In his e-book, Sheridan recounts a story of a customer who had been reading his blog and, while in his office, said that she would now check out competitors’ offers. Ever the sales shark, Sheridan told her that she could of course do that. But given that he had been giving her (as she herself said) trustworthy information on the topic of pool installation, would she be able to trust his competitors as much as him? The customer turned on a dime and signed on the dotted line. Sometimes reciprocity needs a little nudge.

When people receive value from you, they remember. Like with the friend on Facebook who regularly posts interesting observations or links to thoughtful articles, we accumulate molecules of gratitude which end up amounting to an overall positive feeling about that person. In contrast, all the image-building, humblebragging, selfie-posting bores slowly develop into full-blown morons in our mind’s eye.

In business, it works the same way. If you are genuinely helpful, and what you write is well thought through, people will remember and recommend you, even if they aren’t customers themselves. And if, one day, they do become interested in buying your product… guess which provider they will see in a more favourable light? The company whose ads clutter their Facebook feed and keep them from watching YouTube clips? Or the company that generously gave them free advice in their area of expertise?

3. Talk about competitors and products you don’t offer
Sheridan advocates reviewing one’s competitors which is something that most other companies would balk at and would consider crazy: Why draw attention to competitors?
Well, it’s an easy decision if your mindset is to give customers what they want. And customers want to see comparisons between companies. Do you really think that customers buying a swimming pool would not look at alternative offers? Customers are well informed. And you show that you have their best interest in mind by giving them what they want. Because they will remember they got this information from you.

This doesn’t mean that you shouldn’t try to convert readers into customers. Go ahead, show them all the email harvesting pop-overs you want and send them finely targeted conversion emails. But banking on customers’ ignorance about your competitors is not a viable long-term strategy.

This philosophy is also why Amazon shows links to competitors’ sites at the end of their product listings:
amazon-image
Why would they do this? Well, if you arrive at the end of the page and indicate that you didn’t find what you were looking for – how likely are you going to convert with Amazon? Most likely you are on your way out. So Amazon collects a little token from another seller for passing you on to them.

“Well, at least they make money from passing the buyer on!” you may say. This is true. Marcus Sheridan could as well plant some affiliate links in his competitors’ reviews. But this is not how the swimming pool industry works, so in the meantime he’s not making any currency off his competitor reviews other than readers’ goodwill. And that’s worth money in the long run.

The Upshot and the Inspiration

Marcus Sheridan’s story was one of my earliest inspirations to get into Content Marketing. His radical approach to honesty towards customers and long-term thinking are at the core of the Kontent360 business philosophy.

mncfoaalu5o-david-lezcano

Further sources:
Joe Pulizzi: Epic Content Marketing

Check out a 4 minute video to learn more about the turnaround story of the company

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