In the classic Spanish novel The Ingenious Gentleman Don Quixote of La Mancha by Miguel de Cervantes Saavedra, a nobleman becomes so enamored with stories of brave knights and ladies fair that his perception of reality becomes warped. At one point, he attacks windmills, convinced that he must bravely vanquish these “ferocious giants.”
All too often, content marketers act like Don Quixote, mistaking content volume for content quality. We churn out copious volumes of “me-too” content, and then wonder why it gets ignored by most of the people we want to influence. We assume we know what our customers’ challenges, needs and aspirations are, but we miss them by a mile. Still, we charge forward like Don Quixote, convinced of the nobility of our quest.
Are you tilting at windmills with your content?
Let’s try an exercise. Open your company’s blog in a browser tab, and those of your competitors in other tabs. Now imagine the company logos and color schemes were scrubbed from each of these web pages. Would you be able to tell them apart?
In most industries, the answer is a resounding NO!
If your company is like most B2B firms, you’re producing blog posts, newsletters and other content that looks and reads remarkably like what your competitors are publishing. But if you can’t tell your content apart from that of your competitors, then neither can your target audience. That’s a big problem!
How to differentiate your content
If you’re frustrated by the state of your content marketing efforts, it may be time for you to “tilt” your perspective so that you are able to tell a unique story – one that cuts through the clutter and that is uniquely focused on the needs of your target audience. One way to do that is to ask smarter, more creative questions:
- What assumptions are you making about your target audience that could be skewing your perceptions of their needs?
- Imagine you have no prior knowledge of your target audience. How would you accurately learn about their needs? In other words, return to a state of “beginner’s mind,” free of any preconceived notions about them and their needs.
What other perspectives should you consider?
- How can you change the conversation in a way that’s so compelling that it will command the attention of your target audience?
Most companies go very broad when defining their target audience; that usually means they have a lot of competition. Instead, think narrow: Is there a sub-niche within your main audience that you ought to learn more about and target with your content? Your goal is to become the recognized expert within that sub-niche.
- Should you create a new product category? It should give you greater visibility than introducing another “me-too product” in an existing category. Bonus: In the short term, your brand will come to be identified with this new product category, which increases your odds of success.
- Take the advice of Peter Thiel, the co-founder of PayPal: “Figure out something that nobody else is doing and look to create a monopoly in some area that’s been underdeveloped. Find a problem nobody else is solving.” That’s often where opportunity hides.
- Which issues and topics are none of your competitors covering in your market niche? What is everyone missing? What do customers and your competitors take for granted? Can you take a stand on one of these issues? Just make sure you’ve got your customers’ best interests in mind when you do so.
- What “jobs to be done” are your customers faced with? What’s inadequate about the existing solutions they’re using? Look for opportunities to educate them about a more effective alternative that will elegantly meet their needs.
Armed with the answers to these questions, you should be able to identify a compelling content tilt that you can use to deliver real value to your target audience and build productive relationships with them. Unlike Don Quixote, you will no longer be tilting at windmills. You’ll be winning the minds and hearts of real customers like never before.
One of the biggest roadblocks content marketers face is developing original, relevant and engaging content – content that people actually want to read and most importantly share with associates. Just like song writers, everyone wants their content (song) to be a hit and reach the number one spot on the charts.
According to CMI’s 2015 B2B Benchmarks, Budgets, and Trends research study, creating engaging content is the number one challenge faced by content marketers (60% of respondents). That’s followed very closely (57%) by producing content consistently. Make it good and do it often is the goal!
Cultivate’s recent Milwaukee Area Content Marketing Survey showed a similar pattern: 52% of respondents say they have trouble producing content consistently, while 45% say producing engaging content is their number two challenge.
Who would have thought!? Creating good content is hard work and most people simply don’t have time between everyday meetings and putting out fires to produce engaging content. People can only stare at a blank computer screen so long in hopes of churning out something alluring to read or view.
“Me-too” content is no longer good enough to command attention and connect with the reader. What’s needed are unique, creative approaches, delivered on a consistent, ongoing basis. Sound impossible? Here are seven brainstorming techniques designed to generate content ideas that will break through the noise and command attention:
1. Create a swipe file of remarkable article and blog post headlines
As you do your daily reading, watch out for eye-catching headlines and story concepts. Make a note of them in a paper or online file. Soon, you’ll have a list of inspiring examples that you can adapt to your needs. Another way you can do this is to visually scan a magazine rack in a bookstore. What headlines jump out at you? Make notes of them, and then brainstorm ways to adapt them to your content needs.
Read The Onion and National Enquirer for headlines, and then tone the theme back to your reality. Headlines that get readers to think “WTF??” can be very effective.
2. Challenge a key assumption in your industry or profession by asking, “What if?”
This simple question helps you to imagine different possibilities that are outside of your habitual ways of thinking and the commonly-accepted industry or professional “rules.” For example:
- “What if our audience viewed us as a trusted publisher, not as a firm that’s always trying to sell them something?”
- “What if we could predict our audience’s needs with a high degree of precision, and then deliver the information they needed, just in time?”
- “What if we could get wild monkeys to fly out of our pockets?”
Start repeating “what if” as you walk around the office and something will come to you.
3. Use the “board of directors” creativity technique
Force yourself to think about your audience’s problems or challenges from unique perspectives. One way to do this is to create an imaginary “board of directors.” These people can be anyone, living or dead, famous or obscure, real or imaginary. Your goal is to leverage their unique thinking styles to help you see things differently.
For example, how would Steve Jobs create amazing content? Richard Branson? Gandhi? Gumby? Captain Kirk? Dilbert? Martin Luther King? Imagine you’re standing in front of them; picture in rich detail the answers they would give you.
3. Do a Google search – but with a twist
As you type your query, watch the suggestions that appear. These are similar queries that other people have already made. Some will be unusual and intriguing. Use them as stepping stones to unique content ideas. By the way, this method really does work, especially after a glass or two of Cabernet.
4. What do you wish your audience knew?
Make a list of the knowledge gaps or incorrect assumptions that your audience seems to have. Remember, not all of them are rocket scientists and look to your content to help them figure things out. What’s routine to you may be amazing to them. Brainstorm ways to help them understand each of these topics correctly and completely.
5. Perform a PEST analysis on your profession or industry
PEST analysis is a valuable tool for understanding the external macro-environment in which your business operates. It can help you better understand the range of trends, influences and forces that may represent either threats or opportunities to your audience.
PEST stands for Political, Economic, Social and Technological. Brainstorm around the mega-trends that are occurring in each area. Explore each one in depth. How can you help your audience capitalize upon these trends in their early stages?
6. Use an online idea generation tool to brainstorm unique content ideas
Our brains are rich “association engines” – they love to connect ideas and concepts together. Brainstorming tools like Free the Genie leverage this capability by presenting you with random stimuli to get your creative juices flowing.
7. Attribute listing
Divide your audience’s problem or challenge into its attributes. Once you’ve done this you can think about each element separately. Think of ways to address each one in the form of content.
It’s time to get creative
If you’re committed to creating original, relevant and engaging content that your target audience finds interesting enough to spend time reading why not give one or more of these techniques a test drive? I think you’ll be pleasantly surprised by the results!
You’re going into the publishing business.
Are you struggling to get a content marketing program off the ground at your company or organization? Perhaps you need to approach it from a different perspective. Content marketing requires a much different way of thinking – you have to think like a publisher rather than a marketer.
Remember, it is your helpful, informative, and educational content that will get people to engage as well as position your company as a ”subject matter expert.” Magazines write and publish articles to attract readers – you have to do the same thing.
Let’s get inside the brain of a publisher so you can learn how to think like one.
You ARE the media – How to think like a publisher:
1. Plan and staff to create content, lots of it. Publishers take a long-term view of their publication and what their audience wants. This mindset influences how they do editorial planning, make staffing decisions, allocate funding and approach new business opportunities. They plan and staff to create content, lots of it. Walk away from the “campaign” mindset. You need to approach your content efforts from a deeper, longer-term mindset. This is a marathon, not a sprint.
2. Focus on an audience segment where you have a realistic opportunity to be the number one provider of information, knowledge, insight and education. Develop detailed personas that bring their challenges, needs and aspirations to life. Publishers understand who their readers are. They’re not trying to engage everyone. Rather, their publication is laser-focused on a very specific audience. Their mission is to be the number one “book” in a narrow niche by doing the best job of meeting the needs of its readers. That focus drives their entire business.
3. Don’t rely upon your “best guess” of what your audience’s information needs are. Talk to your salespeople and customer support folks, who have the greatest amount of contact with customers, and therefore have the best understanding of what they want to know about. In addition to this qualitative research, however, you need some data to back it up. Survey your readers. View your website analytics to determine the content they’re interacting with. When it comes to your content topics, learn what’s “hot” and what’s not.
Publishers are relentlessly focused on the information needs of their target audience. They conduct research to better understand what their readers want to read. Many of them interact with readers in person at trade shows, conferences and other industry events to get a handle on their interests. Some publishers even form editorial advisory boards, made up of readers from key companies within their industry. In a small group, these customers can be very candid about their needs and challenges and as a sounding board for discussions of future industry trends.
4. Develop a written content/editorial calendar using the research you conducted and the audience personas you developed to brainstorm content topics and formats. Publications develop their content based upon a detailed editorial calendar. This document specifies each department or section within the publication, and what its editorial content will be for each issue, week or month. This ensures that its editorial content remains focused upon the needs of its readers.
5. Map out your content production and approval processes and identify ways to simplify them. In addition, you will probably need to identify programs and activities your team needs to stop doing to accommodate the workload created by your content initiative.Publishers have a process to create content efficiently – and consistently. The process allows them to produce and distribute each issue of their publications like clockwork. The process involves writing, editing, photography, page design, printing and distribution.
Unzip your head, remove the marketing lobe and replace it with a publisher lobe.
You may want to sell more products but to do that over the long run, you’ll first need to get more people to read and engage with your content. Start thinking like a publisher and you’ll increase your odds of content marketing success!