When the late, great Sean Connery said “Don’t bring a knife to a gunfight”, or words to that effect, in The Untouchables more than 30 years ago, he had far more pressing matters on his mind than marketing. Or how to write like a journalist.
But from a content marketing perspective, this idiom has become more prescient every year.
The explosion in content production outpaced consumer demand a long, long time ago. In 2014, global marketing pundit Mark Schaefer coined the term “content shock” for what he said was a simple supply-and-demand issue.
As he put it: “This upward trend of content consumption is not sustainable because every human has a physiological, inviolable limit to the amount of content they can consume. I believe, as marketers, we have been lulled into a false sense of security thinking that this consumption trend will continue to rise without end. That is simply not possible.”
We’ve hit a perfect storm, whereby the ability for all and sundry to publish has been democratised, advertising across ever-increasing channels has grown exponentially, and brands have clamoured to jump on the content marketing bandwagon.
This has led to a deluge of (often awful) content flying at us from every angle; and for brands, it’s never been tougher to cut through – let alone win the hearts and minds of customers.
And yet high-quality content alone isn’t enough these days – sophisticated distribution across paid, owned and earned channels is equally important as the content you produce. But we digress.
So, if only the best rises to the top, how do you create content that not only cuts through but also marries the needs of your intended audience with the brand objectives?
Arm yourself with a killer strategy and quality producers
Brands that ‘win’ at content marketing typically do so for three reasons from a production perspective.
Firstly, they work with professional content producers: journalists, subeditors, photographers, videographers.
Secondly, brands aren’t beholden to a daily deadline, which enables them to improve the newsroom production process.
And finally, their data experts and journalists collaborate to ‘consumerise’ keyword insights – ensuring content is underpinned by SEO, as well as mapped to customer intent and the next step the brand ideally we wants to drive.
This journalistic rigour is – or should be – table stakes for any organisation that’s investing heavily in content. And if you work with an agency that doesn’t tick all of these boxes, chances are they – and, by extension, you – are only adding to the content-shock problem.
Find a gun journo who’s crossed to the dark side
When you’re deep in the content-shock trenches, your best weapon is a gun journo who has cut their teeth in mainstream media, then crossed to the dark side to think like a marketer.
Journalism is a craft, and a bloody hard one to master. It’s a sink-or-swim industry in which those who make the cut have a knack for ideating and writing compelling, consumerised and optimised content that provides genuine value to the audience.
They also need to be trained in the ‘dark art’ of SEO optimisation, and be skilled at writing and finessing quotes, and subtly weaving in corporate messages without compromising readability.
If you’re not working with an experienced journo who ticks all of those boxes, chances are you’re wasting your time and money.
While good content typically won’t be as effective without sophisticated distribution, poor-quality content is just that – irrespective of whether or not you have the world’s most effective paid, owned and earned apparatus behind it.
Write like a journo to hit your target
Tracy McBeth, one of ULab’s best hired guns, spent more than 10 years working as a television and print journalist in major metropolitan newsrooms before finding her niche as a corporate storyteller six years ago.
And when it comes to telling a compelling story that both resonates for the consumer and marries corporate objectives, Tracy is one of the best in the business.
She spills the secrets to spinning a great yarn, and transforming vanilla into killer content.
1. Break the rules
Great writing is like wine – it’s subjective. While there are plenty of tips, tricks and guidelines you can take or leave, the most important rule is to break the rules if there’s a better way of telling the story.
There’s no magic formula or template to follow; it’s really a gut feel as to how to make the story as meaningful as possible to the audience.
When we’re faced with content shock and the attention economy, we need to push the boundaries to find new and innovative ways to create content.
2. Do the thinking up-front
Most journos have a clear structure in their head before they sit at the computer. That’s not to say it’s an instantaneous process – it’s about taking the time to think through how the story will take shape.
You need to pinpoint the most powerful way to start a story and plot out a loose structure. That means being clear on your angle, ensuring you’ve gathered the most relevant information and research, and having a defined takeaway message or call to action.
3. Find a killer hook
This is the point of difference and needs to be tailored to your audience.
Your angle should reflect one of the essential values of newsworthiness: timeliness, proximity, prominence, conflict, human interest and relevance.
It might be a fresh take on a topical issue, a compelling personal story or groundbreaking research.
4. Write a cracking headline
Writing a headline is, for many, the hardest part of the story. That’s one of the reasons it’s often written last.
A good headline grabs attention while encapsulating the essence of the article. Importantly, it makes a promise to the reader that the article must then deliver. No one likes clickbait.
5. Make every word count
Attention is one of the scarcest commodities there is, and when it comes to content, every word counts.
In newspaper terms, the opening paragraph should not only capture the audience’s attention, it should tell the reader everything they need to know in 25 words or less. In television, you have mere seconds.
Don’t assume the reader will finish the article or even read past the first paragraph. You need to include all key information – the who, what, when, where, why and how – right up-front.
Forget the flowery language and keep it short and succinct. Carefully review your work to eliminate any unnecessary words to maximise impact.
6. Keep it simple
There aren’t many parallels between writing and rocket science, but this old adage rings true.
American aeronautical and systems engineer Kelly Johnson is believed to have coined the phrase ‘Keep it simple, stupid’ (KISS).
There’s a time and a place to have readers reaching for their thesaurus, but journalism is about delivering clear, engaging and accurate communication.
If you think you know a topic, try explaining it to a child or someone who has no background information, and the knowledge gaps will be glaringly obvious.
Your audience shouldn’t have to read between the lines, decode the information or go somewhere else to gain more of an understanding.
7. Interview great talent
A good journalist must become an instant expert on any given topic, or at least give the impression they are. It’s not only about doing the research, it’s also about talking to people who are in the know.
An interview with an expert or a case study adds another voice while also enhancing the writer’s knowledge on a topic, making it easier to tell the story simply.
Not all articles require an interview, but including experts can build credibility and demonstrate diversity of thought.
Explore the talent within your organisation and interview them to build up their profile and your brand reputation.
If there’s no-one within your organisation with the expertise you require, look externally to credible, evidence-based groups.
Do your homework before the interview, prepare a list of questions and record the interview (most smartphones have a voice memo app) to ensure you can capture all the information you need.
8. Nail the tone of voice
Tone of voice isn’t just about the words used, it’s the way we speak about an issue or to the audience. It’s an ability to show personality, compassion, respect, humour, credibility, authority and much more.
The tone will be different when writing a thought-leadership piece, a business-to-business article or a consumer-facing piece of content.
While it needs to be consistent from a corporate perspective, it must honour the audience by ensuring they’re never patronised or talked down to.
9. Simplify your structure
There’s nothing more off-putting than a big block of text staring you in the face.
Embrace space in your work by keeping sentences and paragraphs short. Use headings to break up paragraphs and allow the reader to clearly navigate through the article or skip to the most relevant information.
Can you replace a block of text with a list with dot points? Headings and bullet points not only make it easier for the reader to navigate, they also stand out to search engines. Win/win.
10. Optimise for search (SEO)
If you’ve done your intent research at the beginning, you’ll know how to ensure the content aligns with what the audience wants at each stage of the user journey.
It’s important to ensure your SEO keywords are in the title and fit naturally into the body of the article.
But it’s important to stress the writing must come first. Don’t stuff the article with keywords as it will ruin its readability, which should always be your priority.
Wherever possible you should link to other internal articles or resources. It’s also advisable to link to credible external publications, too – not to boost SEO but to show the reader and search engines that you’re focused on the audience’s needs.
11. Bring the story to life
A picture tells a thousand words, and in 2021, we’re all about saving time.
Visuals (photos, infographics, videos) are thought to increase the desire to read content by up to 80%.
So, think outside the box to find a way to bring your story to life through these mediums. Take the time to choose a great image, turn strong statistics into social tiles and use video to take an emotional story to the next level.
Often there are quick wins and an opportunity to take a second bite of the cherry, for example using the key points of an article to create a video for social. Not only does it save time given you’re atomising existing content rather than creating it from scratch, it also gives readers a teaser on social and then draws them in to read the full article.
How to grab (and keep) their attention
It’s not a simple case of build it and they will come, or write it and they will read. In the face of the attention economy and content shock, writing a good story isn’t good enough.
People don’t want content stuffed down their throat – they want education, inspiration, and community that marries up to their intent at discrete stages of the customer journey.
Putting together a half-baked blog or using content charlatans to deliver cheap copy won’t help you become your customers’ source of truth.
You need a data-led strategy, a reader-first approach, and a publishing process that’s like a newsroom on steroids.
So, forget the figurative knife. Instead, take on content shock with a gun journo, highly targeted content, and a killer strategy to deliver serious long-term results.