I began my professional career in acquisitions editorial at a small but highly regarded scholarly publishing house. Printed books--and, to a smaller extent, journals--were our bread and butter, and we were trained to think in terms of quality. Our job was to identify the very best manuscripts by the very best thinkers, put them through a rigorous review and editing process, and then design, package, print, and market them with an eye to excellence. In that context, book publishing was inherently measured and slow-moving; in ideal conditions, the typical period from acquisition to publication was just about a year. The finished product was also an end unto itself. Yes, we hoped our books would be appreciated by readers, reviewed positively, and referenced by other writers in future works. But the final transaction with each reader of each individual book occurred before customers actually consumed the work, at the point of purchase. What happened after the fact was, from a business perspective, largely beside the point.
Over the course of my time there, however, a very interesting thing happened. It began in earnest with the Kindle, which was first introduced a year into my tenure. The technology and form of the book--something that had remained virtually unchanged since the rise of the codex in the years following the birth of Christianity and Gutenberg's invention of the printing press around 1440--suddenly changed dramatically. All at once, we as publishers were forced to rethink pretty much everything. In the process, we started talking about our authors' manuscripts differently, in a way that reflected their newly unbound nature: as "content." At first, that word drove me crazy. For me, it conjured something vague, disembodied, and bland--or worse, some interchangeable substance whose only role was to fill various containers of space. Indeed, badly conceived content strategies for the web (the ones that promote quantity over quality, or worse) often reflect this wrongheaded definition.
Bear with me. I promise this isn't a rant. I'm simplifying matters, but my basic point is that a printed book or newspaper article is a piece of content (yes, I'm using that word on purpose) that knows what it is and what it needs to achieve--and the precision of its naming convention reflects that fact. Ask five people to describe a book, and you'll probably get pretty similar answers (even in the age of the e-book). "Content"? Not so much. I would argue that much of the angst within agencies around writing web copy, blog posts, and newsletters stems from the fact that many of us aren't yet sure what these content types ought to achieve, especially in the context of the modern marketing website.
Unlike traditional print writing or even marketing copy, online marketing content has a big, complex job to do. It has to catch the attention of both search engines and human readers, earn readers’ sustained interest, offer real value and, most importantly, it has to inspire some percentage of those readers to take a specific action that's intentionally built into or around the content itself. This is a lot to ask of our written words, and it takes time, forethought, and a good deal of skill to get it right. The good news is that, with a little guidance and lots of practice, most anyone can master it.
The first step is to stop thinking of your "content" in the abstract and identify exactly what it is you want it to accomplish (hint: "increase sales" is not a valid answer--be specific). Yes, it's important from an SEO perspective to regularly add fresh, indexable content to your website, but that doesn't mean just any old content will do. If you aren't thoughtful about what you write, you'll end up spinning your wheels. Think of it this way: the goal is not just to drive more traffic to your site, but to drive better-qualified traffic in the form of visitors who don't already know of your business but who are likely to be interested in what you have to offer. The substance of your newsletter, blog, and other web content is the key variable in that equation, and it's entirely under your firm's control.
Of course, for many companies, the ultimate goal of any web content strategy is to drive conversions, however they're defined. But because many conversions in a content marketing context involve visitors signing up to receive yet more of your content, quality and topical relevance are key. That fact alone should be reason enough to avoid using these areas of your website as blunt-force sales instruments. Rather than talking in myopic fashion about how great your products and services are, you should demonstrate your expertise by delivering valuable information that reflects your best thinking and deep well of professional wisdom. Some firms feel anxious about "giving away the milk for free," so to speak, and worry that by offering too many brilliant insights they'll gain loyal readers who no longer have incentive to actually pay for their services. I'm not suggesting you should divulge your most valuable trade secrets, but I do think you should approach your content strategy with a generosity of spirit that belies informational stinginess. Give your readers something of substance or don't bother--period.
Stick to What You Know
Next, play to your strengths. Let's say you work for a marketing agency serving the social media needs of small businesses. You probably have a finely honed understanding of how best to optimize small companies' social media profiles, publish appropriately and effectively across various channels, shore up engagement, and use social media to drive promotions and contests. If so, that's precisely what you should be writing about, instructively and in detail. By intentionally thinking through your firm's intellectual and business-related sweet spots, especially as they relate to your future sales and positioning goals, you'll get a much clearer picture of what you should be writing about. Doing otherwise is not only counter-productive, it's borderline dishonest, and it can result in a loss of trust on the part of your visitors.
Anticipate Your Audience
Finally, you need to consider how your intended audience thinks, what they want or need, and what they are most likely to respond to. Hopefully, you already went through the crucial process of identifying your business's web personas when you set out to build your current website. If so, you can refer back to those personas (assuming nothing has changed); if not, check out Mark O'Brien's blog post on the topic and get cracking.
For the purposes of this article, let's go back to the agency described above--you know, the one that handles social media for small businesses. Like most B2B firms, this agency's web personas can probably be boiled down to two basic types: the Researcher and the Buyer. Of course, your business is sitting on a wealth of data that can tell you in much greater detail what your web personas are like, but even these basic profiles give us a lot to think about. Roughly speaking, Researchers (many of whom, in a B2B scenario, are probably also Influencers) want to get a fine-grained picture of what your firm does, understand what sets it apart, and, most importantly, vet your claims of expertise against real evidence. They do this by combing through your website to get a sense of who the principle players are, what your portfolio looks like and, perhaps most importantly for this persona, what you have to say. The Researcher is often quite knowledgeable about your business and may even be an expert in your field; they are therefore keenly interested in determining whether your level of service and know-how matches their own firm's needs. These people--if they are qualified leads--are likely to be repeat visitors to your website's blog and newsletter pages, and their most likely form of conversion takes the form of a subscription to your newsletter or blog digest.
The Buyer, on the other hand, is by default a Decision Maker (even if she started the process as a Researcher). She has much less time to devote to a close reading of your content; if she does spend time on your blog or newsletter, it's likely to be so she can confirm your areas of expertise via a quick inventory of the topics covered therein. During her visit to your website, she may be convinced to sign up for an upcoming webinar or attend your session at a conference, but the key point of conversion for the Buyer will be the decision to reach out with a request for more information about your products and services. Straying topically from your core knowledge-base won't necessarily deter the Researcher--he might even appreciate the breadth of your content--but the Buyer's more cursory approach means there's a chance she'll come away with a slightly distorted view of your business. Not good.
Putting it All Together
So what does this mean for your content strategy? It means that each and every page--remember, each one might be a user's first and only impression--must be molded to cater to the needs and whims of both the Researcher and the Buyer. In this scenario, achieving that duality is actually pretty simple. Write thoughtful content that accurately reflects your business's core positioning and services (with a small percentage of tangential stuff to keep it interesting and show that you're aware of larger trends). Include prominent calls to action on every page, including at least one that appeals more strongly to the Researcher (Subscribe to Our Newsletter) and one that speaks most readily to the Buyer (Contact Us for More Information, Sign Up for Our Webinar). Do that, and your content strategy will begin to seem quite manageable, if not downright obvious.