I woke up the Saturday after PCN2013 prey to a mixture of emotions, one of which I can only describe as a hubris hangover.
Did I really say all those things about content marketing? Without qualifying my opinions?
I must have come across as something of a smug bastard.
Yes, I wanted to provoke, but since my aim has always been to inspire enthusiastic practice, I wonder whether I overdid the sound bites.
After all, I have been an enthusiastic newsletter publisher and blogger for 12 years; I have downloadable ebooks and fact sheets on my website; video, audio, diagrams, poems (yes, really) you name it, I’ve had a go at it.
So, in an attempt to atone for my posturing, let me take a little of your time to share some calmer thoughts on the way to use content marketing AND traditional sales channels to make money out of copywriting.
Three tips to improve your blog
First of all, your blog. I can only see two reasons to blog. One, because you enjoy it, two because, directly or indirectly, you make money out of it. Ideally you do both.
Let’s assume your blog is part of your marketing strategy. Here are a few things I think you have to get right.
One, your voice. This can sound a bit pretentious. But you do need to develop a way of writing that personifies you and nobody else. Are you serious and academic, punky and in-yer-face, funny, quirky, off-the-wall?
All of these can work and after all, when many clients want you to be serious, authoritative and professional, your blog is one of the few places where you can kick back a little.
Two, don’t worry about offending people. I don’t mean make personal attacks or use inflammatory language.
I mean state your view boldly and don’t feel you have to be balanced. You are not the BBC! To quote Dave Trott, if you stand for nothing, nobody is against you and nobody is for you.
Three, above all, spend some time thinking of something original to say. I genuinely and honestly believe that the world doesn’t need any more blog posts about headline writing.
Unless, that is, it’s something more than a retread of 70-year-old ideas.
What was interesting to me about PCN2013 was just how powerful Graeme Archer‘s speech was. Ranty at times, definitely right-wing but also moving, self-deprecating, funny and inspiring. It was my pick of the day, and, judging from Twitter, that of many other writers too.
How to connect your blog to your sales machine
Now, what about turning your blog into a component in your sales machine? I’m guessing you’d like people to hire you on the strength of it? So here are my suggestions.
Create value in your blog by getting people to sign up to your email list to get updates when you post something new.
When you create what Sonja Jefferson calls Stock Content and I call Core Content – the really good stuff – don’t give it away, put it behind a pay wall.
Not a financial pay wall, a privacy pay wall. In other words, the deal is, if you give me your first name and email address, I will trade it for my ebook on how to write better headlines.
Now you’re doing something very old-fashioned – and profitable – which is building a mailing list.
There’s more good news too.
If you’re one of those people who feel more comfortable selling by writing than talking, that’s what your mailing list allows you to do.
You have an opted in list so the people on it have given you their permission to contact them about your services.
I’d suggest writing at least once a month. Mix it up a bit – include snippets, longer pieces and, yes, the occasional sales pitch. Because that’s the deal. You’re giving up your time and your expertise in exchange for the right to sell to them from time to time.
Be aware, though, that not everyone will see it that way.
You will get the occasional outraged-of-Wimbledon emailing you to complain about your having the temerity to suggest they might pay for any of your advice rather than getting it for nothing
Relax. These people will never be your customers and therefore you can discount their complaints – while responding politely, of course.
I often use a line uttered by Sissy Spacek as Loretta Lynn in the film The Coalminer’s Daughter. After being accused of all manner of immoral behaviour by a stranger in a grocery store, she quietly and demurely turns and says, “I’m sorry I’ve let you down”.
Your blog can also serve another useful purpose, which is as an alternative to a portfolio as a way to showcase your expertise.
Better than a portfolio
Experienced copywriters have a portfolio, and many upload all kinds of samples to their websites and just leave them there.
But why not write a series of articles explaining how to write different kinds of pieces of marketing or advertising collateral.
Then when a prospective clients asks if you could send them a sample of your brochure copywriting, you can say:
“OK, look here’s what I’d like to do. I’ve written an article (maybe you want to call it a white paper to add some gravitas, that’s up to you) giving you a ten-point checklist on the best way to go about brochure copywriting. Let me send you that and then we can have a chat about your brochure.”
I think this is a very effective method of establishing your credentials even if you don’t have any brochures in your portfolio. Why?
Well, suppose you do have a brochure and you put it on your website (or blog). The prospective client, unbeknownst to you, takes a look and…hates it.
Not your fault, not the designer’s fault.
But the brochure wasn’t aimed at the prospective client’s market and for whatever reason they take agin it. So they don’t get in touch. And worst, of all, you never get the chance to talk to them.
With an effective piece of Core Content you won’t upset anyone. The aesthetics are in the background; your expertise (and writing skills) are in the foreground.
What’s more, you come across as an expert, rather than simply as a copywriter who’s written a brochure. I think that makes you look more valuable.
Come with me, back to a world before “content marketing”
Let’s move on a little (or, more accurately, back) and consider what the world of content marketing looked like BEFORE the Internet.
Content still existed. But it went by different names.
Instead of blogs you had newsletters.
Instead of white papers you had articles.
Instead of e-books you had real books (or pamphlets or essays).
Instead of social media streams you had, well, pubs.
So why not, next time you have a really solid idea for a blog post, approach a few magazine editors and see if they’d be interested in publishing it.
Then you have the endorsement of a magazine and its editor for your opinions. Anyone can publish these days (hence my ‘democratist’ crack at PCN2013) but only a few get published in magazines (my ‘elitist’ sound bite, ditto).
It’s not as hard as you might imagine, though, to quote Dee Blick, you do have to hustle.
But it’s pretty low-level hustling and always remember, magazine editors need content. So if yours matches the needs of their readership there’s a good chance they’ll publish it.
Now you can turn the article to your advantage. Start by sending copies to your existing clients. You say that you thought they might be interested in seeing a piece you’ve had published in “Aircraft Leasing” or “Bakery International”.
Refer to it in your tweets, or Facebook or LinkedIn status updates. Let the world know you are an expert. Part of the elite group of copywriters other people want to publish.
Before you do anything, consider your return on investment
So how does content marketing fit into a more traditional sales and marketing strategy?
In terms of return on investment, I still think it’s a low-ranking activity. To be successful, in financial or reputational terms, you need to do other things first.
Here’s my hierarchy of sales and marketing activities, ranked by probable and potential ROI.
- Meeting prospective clients face-to-face.
- Speaking to those people on the phone.
- Writing to them by snail mail.
- Writing to them by email.
- Writing a book.
- Writing an article for magazine publication.
- Writing a downloadable piece of core content, accessible after handing over an email address.
- Having a website.
- Writing a freely available blog post.
- Writing a social media update.
I think you need to do at least two of the top four, of which at least one has to be from the top two.
If you’re ambitious, I’d recommend thinking seriously about one out of 5 and 6.
Do at least one 7 a year and make sure you do put a little form in the way.
Number 8 is a hygiene factor for many clients – something they expect you to have.
And if you feel like it, 9, 10 or both.
When I set out as a copywriter working for my own company, I started at the top of that list and over the years I’ve worked my way down to the bottom.
“Look” cried the little boy. “He’s not wearing any clothes!”
I want to end by drawing a distinction between content marketing, and “Content Marketing”.
The former, which has been around for a very long time, simply means giving your potential customer useful information, relating to your product or service, that encourages them to buy from you.
This is not a new idea.
It has been around for centuries. Food companies publishing recipe books, tyre companies publishing restaurant guides, banks publishing investment guides: they’ve all been done, very successfully, and profitably.
But it has always been a transaction: information for information.
“Content Marketing”, to me, feels a bit like the emperor’s new clothes.
Why do we have specialist companies popping out of the woodwork who only do Content Marketing? Why do we have people we’ve never heard of, who have never worked in commerce, trade or industry of any kind at all, advising the marketing directors of Fortune 500 and FTSE 100 companies and, for that matter, self-employed creative professionals, how to connect with their customers using Content Marketing?
So my beef isn’t with content marketing in itself, but with the insistence that you have to be doing it, that it is some sort of marketing cure-all or that it is so mysterious that you can’t use a regular copywriter for it but need a Content Marketing Specialist.
It is entirely possible to build a healthy and profitable copywriting practice, for example, without ever blogging, tweeting or publishing an infographic (diagram).
I know of at least one very successful ex-advertising copywriter who, gasp, doesn’t even have a website. Goodness only knows how he manages to scrape a living.
In the corporate sphere, where marketing managers have both an appetite for novelty and a fear of failing by missing out on a potential money-spinner, the obvious conclusion to draw is that yes, you might as well do some content marketing.
Provided you are a) linking it to all your other sales and marketing activities and b) paying decent rates to professional writers who will enhance your reputation rather than diminish it.
I can imagine very easily companies flinging themselves headlong into Content Marketing while employing lacklustre salespeople, idea-free advertising agencies and me-too R&D departments.
Fix the big stuff first, the stuff that virtually every successful company on planet Earth has used to get where it is today – sales, advertising, direct marketing, product development, customer insight, finance, operations – then go after the latest communications channels.
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Your teacher would be so proud
Commonly confused words
Home (in) (v) to gradually approach something.
Hone (v) to sharpen.
What I’m reading
The Feeling of What Happens by Antonio Damasio. When you say, “I feel happy” how do you know that you are the “I” in that sentence? What does it mean when you say you “feel” happy. And what is the difference between an emotion and the feeling of that emotion?
If you find those sorts of questions interesting I can only recommend this book. It is not an easy read. Not for any lack of stylistic elegance, even though the author is Portuguese and a neuroscientist to boot. But, rather, because it demands all your concentration to grapple with the complex blend of neurochemistry, neuroanatomy and ideas about consciousness that lies at the heart of this book.
I was interested because Damasio explores the relationship between emotions and consciousness and also the relationship between emotions and decision-making. But very quickly I became enthralled by his exploration of what it means to be awake, alert, attentive, connected, conscious…a human being.
Quote of the month
“If you don’t stand for anything, nobody’s against you and nobody’s for you.”
Dave Trott, British creative director