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The 5 Essential Steps to Effective Content Marketing

It’s probably not possible to teach you everything you need to know about content marketing in a single post, but our goal is to get as close as possible without boring you to tears. Content marketing is the strategy for stomping your competition online this year, and we’re going to do everything we can to arm you to the teeth with the skills to make it work.

There is no room for holding back if you want to win, so join us and let’s do this.

1. It All Starts With a Question

This part is so basic it can be easy to forget. Most of us learned in grade school to start any paper by asking who, what, when, where, why, and how, and most of us have also filed that crucial knowledge away, burying it somewhere in the depths of our minds.

No matter how boring your niche is, it becomes interesting when you ask the write questions. We wrote a detailed guide on the subject for CopyBlogger, and we highly suggest reading it to get a firm grasp on how to make this work.

For the quick and dirty on this:

  • Ask the six basic questions mentioned above
  • Mix and match your subject with other subjects you find interesting
  • If you find yourself getting tunnel vision on your topic, use a random word generator to see if you can find novel connections and analogies between subjects
  • You aren’t brainstorming questions correctly unless some of your ideas are absurd (and keep in mind that absurdity can be good for viral content anyway)
  • Find the questions your audience is asking by checking out Quora, Yahoo! Answers, and perhaps AskReddit (fewer topics but more viral).

2. Research Your Topic, Your Audience, and Your Network

These are activities you should be doing all the time, on some level, but this is probably where they should be emphasized the most. The most intense research comes in between your question and your content production. And it involves not just your topic, but your audience and your network of influence, in order to get it right.

Researching Your Audience

After digging through Q&A sites, forums, and social networks, you should already have a good understanding of what your audience cares about and what they’re likely to be interested in. But it can be helpful to take things a step further by:

–        Checking the AdWords keyword tool – This will let you know about how often a keyword is searched for, which will give you some idea of the level of interest in that subject. Use this as a relative tool, rather than trying to estimate the absolute number of visitors you can expect. We would also urge against using this tool as a source of ideas. It’s better as a way of narrowing down your existing ideas.

–        Check social networks for interest – Try searching Twitter, Facebook, Google+, Reddit, and similar sites for groups about your subject and pay attention to what seems to grab the most interest. Ask yourself if your question is the kind of thing that would be interesting to these communities. This is a bit of a “soft” research tool, but in some ways it can be more effective than keyword tools.

–        “Test ask” your questions – Use Quora, Yahoo Answers, forums, and Ask Reddit to ask your questions, and find out which questions seem to attract the most attention. This is very powerful, because it helps you research your topic as well as decide which questions are most promising. Pay more attention to the number of people who want an answer to the question than the number of people who provide an answer. Also, if the answers you get are links to comprehensive answers that already exist, your content idea is probably too redundant.

–        Test through advertisements – This isn’t free, but it can be a good way to gauge interest in questions. Try posing your questions in the form of an advertisement, and find out which question gets the highest click through rate. The biggest issue here would be figuring out where to point the advertisement, and how to avoid making a negative impression on these visitors.

–        Test through surveys – Use sites like SurveyMonkey or Amazon’s Mechanical Turk to survey people and find out which questions they’re most interested in. The biggest problem with this method is that what people say and what they actually do aren’t always the same, one reason why it may be better to “test ask” or test through advertisements.

Researching Your Network of Influence

As part of your content marketing strategy, you should be reaching out to online influencers on a regular basis. Email bloggers, tweet and retweet prominent personalities, and get in touch through Facebook, Google+, LinkedIn, and other networks that are relevant to your niche.

When you reach out to influencers, it should typically be with an opportunity for them. Your communications should generally be fairly casual, and it can be helpful to go to real world events to meet up with bloggers and other online influencers in order to build these relationships.

We won’t go into detail on this, because it deserves a guide of its own. Instead, we’ll go down the list of ways you can take advantage of your existing network to make the most of your content:

–        Find out what the influencers think of the idea: if it’s the kind of question they would want to know the answer to.

–        See if you can get them involved in the project in one way or another. Whether it’s with a quick quote or an all out collaboration, if they are willing to help with the project they will also be more likely to promote it later on down the road, especially if you mention them in the content. Their contributions will also give your post an air of authority, and you will also benefit from the perspectives of others.

–        Try to get your influencers to take a look at your work after it’s finished, or during the drafting stage, to see if they have any recommendations for you.

–        Find out if any of the influencers would be interested in posting content like this on their site, since this is a great way to gain exposure.

Remember: relationships are give and take. You will almost certainly need to offer value to them of equal value in order for them to feel like it makes sense to help with this.

Research Your Topic

There’s a good chance you’ll have done some light research on the subject even before you started brainstorming questions, and this is generally a good idea. But this is the stage where you separate yourself from the pack by finding information that’s not easily accessible. For example:

  • Google Scholar
  • Libraries and books
  • Original sources, as opposed to the content based on them
  • Raw data (government spreadsheets, etc.)
  • Your client’s proprietary data
  • Surveys
  • Original research
  • Interviews with experts
  • Topics outside your niche (good for analogies and insight)

The goal of all this should be to get your hands on information that’s hard to find. Approach this part of the process like a journalist. The first person to say something in an accessible way is typically the one that attracts the most links.

3. Answer Your Question With Lists, Guides, and Stories

These are the three kinds of content that succeed more often than any other.

–        Lists – A list is appealing because you know it’s easy to skim through. You know it’s comprehensive. You know it’s going to be easier to remember. And there’s just something psychologically satisfying about ticking ideas off of a list.

–        Guides – Guides are appealing because they’re actionable. A reader can take the information from a guide and put it into action in their own life. You can make a direct impact on your visitor’s life with a guide. That makes your content memorable and more engaging.

–        Stories – Humans are hard wired for storytelling. We love stories because they depict people facing obstacles, struggling with them, and overcoming them (or failing). Stories teach us lessons in ways that other formats can’t, because we are drawn toward them.

The Ideal List:

  • Covers its subject comprehensively
  • Is organized logically
  • Cites its sources if the list elements are facts
  • Presents list elements that are roughly the same length
  • Has a brief intro and conclusion
  • Is entertaining
  • Does not resemble previous lists on the subject

The Ideal Guide:

  • Addresses the reader as “you.”
  • Walks the reader through from beginning to end (if it is a step by step process).
  • Is organized with subheadings and, sometimes, bulleted lists or numbered steps
  • Uses examples or stories when emphasis is necessary (particularly for guides where some persuasion is also involved)
  • Is entertaining
  • Does not resemble previous guides on the subject

The Ideal Story:

Follows this basic 7-point structure:

  1. A person
  2. In a place
  3. Has a problem
  4. They try to solve the problem intelligently
  5. And fail
  6. They try to solve the problem again
  7. And succeed (or fail tragically)

Sometimes real-world stories don’t quite fit into this structure, but the point is to emphasize the problems that your characters (whether they’re a person, an organization, or even a thing) face, how they struggle with them, and how and why they succeed or fail.

It takes some experience and tinkering to decide whether your question is best answered with a list, a guide, or a story, and often the best content will use some combination of all three.

4. Copy-Editing Tricks

There’s no real order to the editing process. The main idea is to give your content some space for a day or so, come back to it, and pump it up to create a more engaging experience. Use tricks like these:

  • Make sure the first sentence captures the reader’s attention
  • Use the active voice. This means your sentence starts with the noun that’s responsible for the verb. “The cat jumped over the moon,” is more engaging than “The moon was jumped over by the cat.” Avoid using “is,” “was,” and “are” too often.
  • When you speak directly to the reader, start with the verb right away most of the time. For example, in a guide: “Pick up your tools,” sounds better than “You will next pick up your tools.”
  • Read your sentences out loud and fix them if they sound awkward.
  • Change sentences that use uncommon words, run for too long, or sound too formal (depending on your niche).
  • Break apart large paragraphs.
  • Delete sentences that don’t add value.
  • Read the whole thing once from beginning to end without focusing on grammar or phrasing. Focus on flow, tone, atmosphere, and how things fit together instead.
  • Clarify complicated subjects that could be confusing to your target audience.
  • On a related note, you should also make the post easier to read by including some images (with credit to the artist).

5. Promote Your Content

Virality and promotion is another subject that deserves a guide of its own, and it’s closely related to the relationship building process, but these tricks can help you reach a wide audience:

  • Write a title posing an intriguing question that users have to fight to ignore, or a statement that’s so surprising readers just have to read it to learn more.
  • Post your content, or a link to your content, on a hub where your target audience hangs out. It could be an internet forum, a popular site that accepts guest posts, or a social networking group (preferably all three). Get your content visible in as many high profile places as possible.
  • Contact your network of influencers and let them know about the content. Ask what they think and, if they like it, could they pass it along?
  • As we’ve mentioned previously, involve as many influencers in the content production process as possible, and they’re more likely to pass it along. Mention influencers in the content, even if they weren’t directly involved, and they will also be more likely to share it.
  • Consider posting a link in Reddit, but only if you use it frequently to post material other than your own, and only if it would be relevant to a popular subreddit.
  • Use StumbleUpon Paid Discovery to drive traffic. The engagement level is lower than other channels, but at $50 for 1,000 visits, no other platform sends more visits at a lower price. If enough people thumb up your post, StumbleUpon’s algorithm will take over and send organic visits. Be sure to target the right topics.
  • Buy Facebook ads and promoted tweets. This allows you to buy traffic from the sources that are most likely to share your material. Remember, the goal here should always be to grab shared traffic on top of the paid traffic. If you aren’t seeing social sharing activity, something is wrong.

In Review

To recap:

  1. Ask interesting questions
  2. Research your topic, your audience, and your network of influence
  3. Answer your questions with interesting lists, guides, and stories
  4. Edit your content to make it pop
  5. Promote your content on your industry’s most popular platforms and through your network of influencers

Use these five elements to dominate your competitors with content marketing: the leanest way to win the web.

Have anything to add? Let’s keep this discussion going in the comments, and pass this along if you appreciate the advice. Thanks for reading!

Category Content SEO
Pratik Dholakiya Founder at Growfusely

Pratik is the Founder of Growfusely, a content marketing agency specializing in content & data-driven SEO. Pratik has been featured ...

The 5 Essential Steps to Effective Content Marketing

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