My great-grandfather worked for an Upstate New York newspaper for 65 years. That’s not a misprint. E. Thayles Emmons, better known as E.T., was a marvel. He was still driving his ancient Ford to the office each day when he passed away at age 89.
From an early age, my goal was to follow in his giant footsteps and roam newsrooms until they carted me away. At six newspapers, my press pass allowed me to interview amazing people, travel to exciting places, and witness unforgettable events.
But the world changed, and newspapers didn’t change fast enough.
By 2015, I still loved my job and colleagues at the San Jose Mercury News. But I had grown weary of the vulture hedge fund that had systematically dismantled the Merc and her sister newspapers around the country. So, I followed a long line of gifted journalists and made the leap into Silicon Valley’s technology world as a corporate storyteller.
Over the past seven years, I’ve learned two things:
- My journalism skills transferred to this world.
- I liked it.
At its best, content marketing is very much like journalism. Not the same, yet surprisingly similar. You’re writing pieces that (hopefully) hold people’s interest while exploring topics that teach readers something valuable. The bonus is when folks are interested enough to learn about your company’s products and services.
I don’t presume to tell anyone else how to write. But here are some of the things I keep in mind when hunched over the keyboard as a content marketer. They’re essentially the same principles I applied as a reporter.
Tell a Story. We all want to read something that transports us somewhere, opens our minds to new possibilities, and maybe makes us reconsider what we thought we knew. That means show (don’t tell) examples of people doing cool things, solving problems, and having quantifiable success. The best part is telling stories of “regular” folks who presumably are just like your readers. Being relatable is the currency of content marketing. Write about people accomplishing goals their peers can appreciate and envision themselves doing.
Focus on the Hero. Spoiler alert: It’s not you. Getting the attention of people involves talking less about your business and more about the people who use your company’s products. Yes, I’m sure your business is beyond awesome. But people want to know what you can do for them. Making stars of your customers is the best way to do that. Let them tell your story for you by sharing examples of their success. Yes, this is Hero’s Journey 101. But I like how Matthew Luhn, a former Pixar animator turned corporate storytelling consultant, describes it. “When people hear a story about a customer being impacted because of your product, it can change the way they think.”
Be Curious. Not to go all Ted Lasso here, but everybody has a story. As a reporter, I loved writing about people who rarely, if ever, saw their names in the newspaper. Their journeys often drew the most reader reaction because they were — here’s that word again — relatable. Readers could see shadows of themselves. It’s no different in business. Developers, product managers, and everybody else have something worthwhile to share with their peers. Curiosity brings those stories to life.
Write Human. “Honey, we could optimize our bank account by leveraging a more cost-effective shopping experience, thus enabling us to maximize our resources significantly for more mission-critical objectives this quarter.” You wouldn’t talk to your significant other that way over the kitchen table. Why write like it? Spewing business-speak makes you sound like countless other companies. Lose the jargon. Limit the acronyms, too. Explain what your product does in simple terms. Don’t write, “You’ll derive organization value and productivity gains by reducing project timelines.” Say, “You’ll slash development time from months and weeks to days and sometimes even hours.”
Brevity Matters. One word is better than two. In today’s world of constant distractions, it’s hard to get people to read an entire tweet. Getting to the point is more important than ever. Write short, sweet, and don’t bury the lede. Grab the reader with your best material right at the start. But it’s not just writing concisely, which brings me to . . .
Package Your Stories. I’ve come to appreciate the power of lists (“10 Reasons Why . . .”), Q&As, and information boxes. Segments like these provide organization for the reader and allow them to identify what interests them most. Readers want to learn something, not be impressed by your narrative structure and clever phrase-turning. Adding video, graphic elements, and eye-catching design also increases the odds of attracting readers.
Know Your Audience. As an ink-stained newspaper wretch, I wrote for a mass audience. Chances were, people would at least glance at my stories if they were above the fold on the front page or at the top of the website homepage. But these days, I accept that most people won’t be interested in my work because it’s too niche. That said, the people I am writing for really care about the topics. Before tapping out one word, consider what interests your target audience. Don’t risk boring them because they won’t come back.
And with that, I wonder if another title for this piece could be: “Seven Things I Think About as a Content Marketer.”
Maybe I should A-B test it.