I was prompted to write this because of something I learned from digital product guru Jeff Walker. He said that 90% of people in any market are beginners. When you’ve worked in an area for a long time, as we have, it’s easy to get caught up in ‘the next big thing’ and to forget that for most people, it’s those first crucial, early steps that are the hardest to take and most important to get right.
So, this blog pulls together what we’ve learned from doing and teaching content marketing over the past 15 + years. It’s a ‘things I wish I’d known when I was starting out’ piece.
So If you’re just setting out, these tips will get you off on the right foot, and help you avoid some of the key pitfalls that can scupper your success. If you’ve been on the journey for a while we hope it’s a good reminder of the principles underlying the approach. We’d love to know which of these steps have been the most important for you, and if you’ve got any more advice to share with beginners on the content marketing journey.
What is content marketing and why invest your energy in it?
Content marketing is a very human way to do business. In essence, it’s about sharing your story online, sharing what you know and giving value to your audience.
“Content marketing is really just about people using empathy to help other people and that in turn delivers better business results.”
Michael Brenner, CEO, Marketing Insights
It works for business because the content gets found by people who are looking for the knowledge you have and the help you provide. Get content marketing right, and selling becomes a lot easier. You’ll find the right clients coming to you, already feeling that they trust you, and wanting to work with you.
Pushy sales techniques just don’t work well these days – we switch off when it feels like someone is selling us something we don’t want. Content marketing is a way that fits the way we like to buy.
So how do you do it? Here are our top tips if you’re just starting out on the content marketing journey.
Six early steps for valuable content marketing success
- Do the thinking first. Content marketing is not a case of writing a few blogs and waiting for buyers to ring you up. Understand why you’re doing it, and what you want to change in your business and your life. Know exactly who you want to help – go beyond standard personas and listen to your customers. Know who you are as a business. Getting clear on your own purpose and values, will help you tell a better story, and attract the kind of customers that believe what you believe. They’re the best kind!
- Put your customer at the heart of everything. Their questions = your content. Keep a real person in mind with every piece of content you create.
- Help, don’t sell. Develop an attitude of generosity, It can feel hard at first to give away so much of what you know, for free, but it works. It’s the most straightforward, human and accessible way to demonstrate your expertise, strengthen your reputation, and build the relationships your business needs to thrive. We like people who help us.
- Get the proposition clear. Have a compelling and easy-to-buy offer at the heart of all this generously given valuable content. Make it clear how people can take the first step to become a customer.
- Get the website platform right. Content marketing won’t work without a website, It doesn’t have to be super slick, simple is good. Design it with your ideal customer and her challenges in mind.
- Start building your list. Content is a brilliant conversation starter, and you want yours to kick off useful conversations for you and your business. Your newsletter is the place where you can talk one-to-one with the people in your community, delivering value to them consistently. Not everyone on your list will become a customer, but if what you deliver is useful enough, they’ll become your champions – willingly sharing your content and helping more potential buyers find their way into your world. Make email sign up irresistible on your website.
Six content marketing pitfalls to avoid
Don’t do this
- Don’t forget that it’s all about people and relationships. It’s about you and your customer. It’s easy to get overwhelmed. You might hear that content marketing is a matter of finding the right keywords and exploiting SEO search power or producing tons and tons of content every month, or that it has to be video or else. Those aren’t helpful places to start and that can lead you off track. Successful content marketers share the same mindset, not the same tactics. Create every piece of content with one person in mind. It’s never ‘we need some content for x, y, z’, it’s ‘our customer needs help with x,y, z.’ Make helping your people the focus of your content marketing activity and you’ll stay on track.2. Don’t try and outsource it all from the start. Writing blogs and guides, or creating videos or podcasts IS hard work, and it can be tempting to think ‘I’ll just get someone else to do it for me.’ If it’s your business, you need to do the thinking and listening work upfront. You’ll gain so much crucial insight from the process in terms of what your ideal clients want, and the challenges that you can help with, that you really want to throw yourself into it wholeheartedly. As you get further down the line, and your content strategy is clear it’s possible to get others to write/create your content for you, but you need to understand the process inside out before you can commission others to help.
- Don’t let being a perfectionist hold you back. For example, don’t put off working on your website because you want it to be the best ever. You can start marketing your business without a website – blogging on Medium for example, or LinkedIn, but to make a real success of it you need your own website, where people can buy from you. Website projects are notoriously tricky, but it’s worth making your site as clear, accessible and people-friendly as you possibly can. But don’t wait until it’s absolutely perfect (because it never will be). Get the best site you can up as quickly as possible, and iterate as you go.
- Don’t worry about imposter syndrome. Fear that you don’t know enough, or that you’re not expert enough, or that you’re not interesting enough can stop you from writing. If you make ‘helping’ your main goal it takes the pressure off. There may well be other people who are more expert than you, but they don’t have your unique perspective, your experiences or your desire to use what you know to help your ideal clients.
- Don’t make it all about you. Nothing kills content marketing flatter than self-orientation.
- Don’t give up when you’re not an overnight sensation. Content marketing is a marathon, not a sprint. Your credibility and reach will develop over time, as you share more valuable content, and develop more relationships. If your blog post helps somebody or generates a useful conversation (even one Twitter exchange) then it’s a success. Measure connections with people, not social media ‘likes.’
Creating and sharing valuable content drives business success. The decision to focus on sharing helpful, inspiring content over other ways of marketing your business is the start of a journey that can transform your business and your life. Getting the foundations right makes all the difference.
If you are just starting out, there’s lots more free content on all the topics we’ve touched on in this blog and in our regular emails too (you can sign up here for the latest updates).
Anything we’ve missed? What do you wish you’d known when you were starting out? What bit of advice would you give to a beginner content marketer?
Comments on this post from our LinkedIn community
Simon Swan, digital transformation lead at the Met Office says:
“Lovely blog Sharon Tanton and Sonja Jefferson 😀 really like point 3 – pair sharing is always a good approach I’ve found where individuals can play to their strengths by identifying your staff with expert knowledge and you can contribute on the digital marketing side by providing the keyword research, optimise the content and identify potential partnerships. I’d also throw In the need for resilience eg a content approach takes time and organisations need to be aware of the wider benefits a content approach has to building a brand.” – Simon Swan
Margaret Magnarelli, VP of marketing at Monster.com says:
“Sonja Jefferson *love* the art on this, and Sharon Tanton great points in here–especially the imposter syndrome and the not giving up right away.
My advice: Always be ready to pivot. When you’re first starting out, or even when you’re in deep, you have to try to look at your work objectively to determine whether or not it’s working. This can be hard because hopefully, you love what you’ve created, but it’s where data comes in handy to separate you from your emotions. Obviously, you need to give something a long enough runway to accumulate the potential for results—which is why I like the “don’t give up right away” idea. Also, the ability to pivot and be flexible is further necessitated by the fact that the algorithms and human behaviors that power our success are constantly changing.” – Margaret Magnarelli
Paul Hajek, MD of Clutton Cox says:
“Great advice for both newbies and more experienced content creators alike. There is more science and reasoning to content creation now than there was when I started blogging in 2008 and a vast array of information to help get started. Some basics still apply; planning is paramount and a content reservoir before you publish will help you overcome inevitable dips in content creation.
My firm’s mantra via Marcus Sheridan is “clients ask we answer” mixed with some Doug Kessler advice to be as generous as you can with what you share. It’ll make you happy.
Cutting through social media noise is definitely a modern content problem. Getting through to your ideal client or prospect is far harder. Hubspot created the term inbound marketing have the viewpoint that you should look to build “a topic cluster content program to enable a deeper coverage across a range of core topic areas, while creating an efficient information architecture in the process” This is ideal but if you feel you must write about something that you think your prospects would be interested in – just go ahead and do it. It helps to go off-piste every now and then and despite what you might be told you won’t really know what content will hit the target until you try.” – Paul Hajek
John Espirian, relentlessly helpful technical copywriter says:
“Nice work, Sharon. The advice is spot on helping beats selling, and you have to prepare for the long-term rather than assuming that a few blog posts will help you smash it overnight. I also agree about not outsourcing in the early stages (leave that for when your processes are all bedded in and you’re ready to scale).
Snakes and ladders note: that drop from 21 to 3 has gotta hurt.” – John Espirian
Mark Masters, Founder of the ID Group and You Are The Media
“When we start out on our journeys we tend to look at the ‘finished articles’ ie. the people who have achieved success in their marketplace, those who have found a clear voice, or those who have built an audience.
Wherever we start it is always from zero (writing, audio, video) and we have to be ok with being rubbish. For instance, when I started writing (in 2012), it was just generic articles that were the same as every other ‘what is a brand’ type piece. When I started podcasting (in 2015), I was a mess of ‘ummms’ and ‘errrs’ (Ian Rhodes can vouch for that).
It is only by sticking with a medium, that we can become comfortable with a medium.
The longer you stick at something (as John says), the easier it becomes to pivot (as Margaret says), which comes from resilience (as Simon says….I said Simon says).” – Mark Masters
Brian Inkster, Founder of Inksters says:
“I tend to write about things that interest me as and when they arise rather than having a plan as such. I think this makes the content very genuine and topical and hopefully, it will be appreciated as such.
I would highlight the importance of social media in spreading your content. I may not have seen Sharon’s blog post on this topic had it not been for your LinkedIn post. Twitter used to be very important for sharing content but I think LinkedIn is taking over in importance especially in the more detailed comments/debate you get as can be seen from the responses you have already had and will no doubt still get on here.
It was at one time the case that, with good content on a blog, comments would appear on the comments section of the post itself. This has changed and now more comments will be generated about a blog post on LinkedIn. I copy these into my blog posts to keep them there for posterity and easy reference linked to the original content itself. It is easy for this to be lost within a few days on social media as something else takes it place*. By reproducing it on the original content you are immediately adding and enhancing that content making it even more likely the content will be found in the future through search.” – Brian Inkster
* Thanks for the idea Brian – have now done just that! ~ Sonja