A senior brand marketer, sorting through all the content she’s downloaded this week…

WINTER OF OUR DISSED CONTENT

Nobody needs that next piece of content you’re about to produce.

No-one’s waiting desperately for it.

There’s a Content Mountain. As marketers, we constantly overproduce. And when there’s a surplus of something it drops in value. 

A corporate communications specialist at one of the world’s top five banks was bemoaning “the state of our content marketing”.

“We make way too much content,” the bank comms executive says.

“The more content we produce, the more I fear it gets ignored. We’re measured on how much content we produce rather than how well it’s received or what it achieves for us. Trust me, when you’ve seen any single one of our social media quote cards, you’ve pretty much seen them all. Our whole content process, from the calendar to the execution, is a mess.”

Content calendars can be useful but they can also be the reason so many marketing teams run into trouble. Once a content calendar has been created and signed off, it can often become a brainless ‘de facto’ boss to the content marketing team; robotically demanding specific content formats on specific days. I’ve seen marketers opt out of any cognitive judgement or decision-making in terms of story, message or even quality, once they have a time-sensitive tick box in the form of a content calendar.

Here are four tips to consider when looking to create smarter, better content

Don’t settle for the obvious take

On the first day of my postgraduate diploma in print journalism, I heard something I’ve held onto throughout my career as a journalist and creator of marketing content. It’s something so incredibly simple but few of us B2B marketers act upon it.

“How to write a good opinion piece,” I was told, “is to take something absolutely everyone universally agrees with, and find a smart way to disagree with it.”

We provide massive value to our readers by ensuring originality; coming up with an angle nobody else has as well as controversy; being someone with an opposite view to everyone else.

This doesn’t mean you should pretend to be someone you’re not or fake a controversial point of view you don’t believe in, just for the sake of being different.

What I do mean is that when something newsworthy happens in your industry or sector that you think requires you to write a blog for LinkedIn or Medium, stop for a moment before you write anything and take time to sit and think. American journalist and literary critic Burton Rascoe said: “A writer is working when he’s staring out the window.”

Imagine the 30 or 40 blogs about the same news event, that you’re likely to see published and distributed across your social media timelines in the next few hours. 

Most of them are going to say pretty much the same things.

How can you make yours refreshingly different and memorable?

If you’re going to log the same analysis and conclusions as every other ‘thought leader’ out there, is it really worth you taking the time? Is anybody going to read or share it?

Maybe, maybe not. What they absolutely will share is the one blogpost or article about the news event that featured a different angle or offered an alternative perspective.

That stands a greater chance of being the piece of content your community shares with the recommendation: “if you only read one piece about the XXX today, make it this one!”

But how do you write that blogpost, the one everybody shares? 

Become a journalist

Here’s how I would have thought about writing the blog during my journalism years.

  1. What will everyone else say about this…and therefore what else can I say that’s fresh?
  2. Do I know anything about this event that nobody else knows? Is it possible I can add context, background information or a parallel story? Can I move the current story forward?
  3. Do I know anyone involved or related to the event that I could call quickly and get some expert or even insider perspective, on or off the record? 
  4. Can I paint or frame this news event in a different light? Can it be explained by a seemingly unrelated wider trend?
  5. Do I have to write this today? Is there value in letting everyone else crowd the field for the next 24 hours or even the next week, and waiting for the story to play out further? 

Slow down; craft takes time

I used to have an incredible boss. There was so much to admire about him. However, one of the difficult jobs I often had while working for him was to slow him down. 

As well as being a brilliant CMO, he was an elite athlete. This meant his body and his mind worked much faster than most people. He could never stop wanting another challenge or problem to solve. As a result, he’d often have maybe four or five ‘big ideas’ a month for new campaigns he’d want out in the market. 

This wasn’t practical, useful or even enjoyable for his colleagues who felt they had a choice of either ignoring many of his requests or swirling around in his constant chaos and maelstrom of ‘disposable’ campaigns.

When I first joined the team, he sometimes gathered people for a ‘blogging session’. The aim was to build up a pipeline of content for the coming few weeks. A session would typically last about an hour. Every person attending was on the hook for producing a blog. Hardly any of them were specialist writers. They were loyal and dedicated though, so they produced blogs. And these blogs would be put into the content calendar.

I’m a writer. If I’m going to produce a blog it’s going to take me a lot more than an hour just to check out enough news, amble around the internet and read around a specific subject, to figure out what my topic is going to be and exactly what I want to say.

The likelihood of anything I produce from a standing start in the space of an hour being good enough to publish in the name of your brand is miniscule.

We need to stop thinking about content in units of ‘deliverables’ and start seeing content in terms of its quality and potential for bringing your community together behind a powerful idea.

“Everything is designed. Few things are designed well.”

Brian Reed, front-end developer and musician.

Everybody is creative. Strangely though, some people like to pretend – even boast – than they’re not. I once knew a chief operating officer that would make and present decks with the most hideous slides I’ve ever seen.

There would be floating pieces of bad clip art, random illuminous-coloured shapes and arrows, diagrams with no grounding or border. Nothing would be lined up on each slide so it was hard to make sense of where your eye was supposed to start or finish. 

When I watched him present at meetings he’d often open with the line: “I make no apology for the state of my slides, I have the creative and design sense of a gnat…”

He would smile when he delivered the line and people in the room would laugh. 

But what he was actually saying was that he couldn’t be arsed to put any effort into making his awful slides legible or in any way pleasant to look at. So they weren’t just awful, they were also useless. 

People who proudly (why?) see themselves as uncreative will often tell you at the beginning of a project – a presentation deck or a piece of marketing collateral perhaps – that they don’t care about design. 

It’s happened to me several times in my career. Maybe it’s happened to you. Someone will approach you and ask for your help to create something with a stupidly short lead time. 

You set out a plan around their needs and naturally that plan, however rushed, will include building in design time. 

They tell you imperiously that they “don’t care how pretty it looks, as long as the words are right”. 

And your heart sinks. Because it’s a lie. 

Everyone cares about design. The problem is that some people think they don’t until you near the project deadline with your ‘best but wrong’ guess at how they want it to look, at which point the whole conversation becomes about design. 

For colleagues – or just about anybody – who, for whatever reason doesn’t think they care about design, turn it into a financial decision for them, because they’ll care about that

Quote Trello creator and web programmer Joel Spolsky to them. Spolsky said: “Design adds value faster than it adds costs.” And then beg them to engage a designer and issue some sort of design brief.