2 or 3 things journalism taught me about content marketing

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When I landed my first job at a national magazine, I was nothing more than an aspiring journalist with a ton of luck, zero experience and a number of serious misconceptions about what journalists actually do. Reality hit me pretty hard, pretty soon; it didn’t take me long to figure out that not every journalist gets to travel the world for free and that journalists wearing fedora hats and typing away frantically while filling the editorial room with smoke only belong in the American films of the 50s.

Ten years down the line, I find myself working in content marketing. And although not one single word of what I write goes on to a printed page, I still find myself applying the lessons I learnt during my journalistic service on a daily basis.

Bend it like Kafka

“As Gregor Samsa awoke one morning from uneasy dreams he found himself transformed in his bed into a monstrous vermin.”

Let’s assume for a moment you haven’t read the book this opening line is taken from. Let’s also assume you came across this on your Facebook feed one evening, while generously wasting some time browsing for updates from your friends and publishers. Would you click through to read more? I would.

Kafka’s opening line from metamorphosis encompasses all those elements that your introductions should have in order to capture your audience’s attention. It’s concise, it has a clear message and it’s got a massive hook.

According to Hubspot, you have fewer than 15 seconds to engage your readers. A few years ago, Nielsen supported that you have less than a minute. Different studies suggest different times. However, they all agree on one thing: when it comes to enticing your readers to bear with you, you don’t have much time.

Which can only mean one thing to begin with – setting off on the right foot is essential. Your introductions should give your readers a clear idea of what the page is about and lure them in.

Write like you mean it

Remember the times when the best performing pages on the web read something like this? “Find cheap flights to Barcelona here because we offer the best deals on cheap flights to Barcelona. They’re really cheap. Barcelona. Cheap flights. Best deals.”

Well, thankfully, times have changed and anyone looking to invest their marketing budget or efforts in content like this had better reconsider; at best you’d be wasting your time, at worst you’ll end up going directly into Google’s black book.

What’s required though is something substantially better than simply settling for not littering the world with bad quality or spammy content. Instead, your content needs to add value to your audience. This can mean a lot of things, from providing them with useful information on a product range to making the time they spend reading your copy worthwhile by presenting them with an engaging or newsworthy piece.

As a journalist, I always stuck to the following rule: If I was bored at any point while writing an article, I had to delete all that part, go back and start again. Look at it this way: if your ‘baby’ bores you to death, imagine what it does to the stranger next to you on the plane.

Don’t treat your audience like they’re dumb and dumber (but don’t treat them like Einstein either)

How do you address your audience? Do you talk to them like you do to your two-year-old – establishing a ‘This. Is. A. car.’ type of conversation – or do you take their understanding of relativity theory as a given? Unless you run an educational site for toddlers or for an Astrophysics society then you probably need to reassess your tone of voice and what you actually share with your audience.

It all starts with knowing who makes up your audience: anything, from demographics to what they like reading, needs to feed into what you write about and how you write it. Publishers invest a chunk of their budget to audience research, and there’s good reason for that: they need to have a solid understanding of perceptions, attributes and trends in order to adjust and target their content efficiently at all times. If you haven’t already done so before moving on to creating content, then invest some time and budget in creating audience personas.

Keyword, intent and social media analyses also need to inform your choices, as they can reveal what your audiences are talking about at different stages of their journey. Aligning your content with these findings will allow you to cater for their needs.

Talking down to your readers will inevitably drive them away, as will assuming too much knowledge on their part. So before you take their knowledge on how mortgages work for granted, for example, have a look into how many of them are searching for “what is a mortgage”.

Make an exit

Okay, that’s four things. But outros are really important too. In the online world they’ve become even more important than in print, as they determine what your reader’s next step should be.

When your audience is flicking through the pages of your magazine, next steps are somewhat predictable – they are either going to turn the page or abandon the magazine on the coffee table. When your readership is online, you have a wider variety of options available and more efficient ways of dictating their next steps.

It’s not just about what your last line is. It’s also about the journeys you map out on the page. Do you propose relevant articles after they’ve reached the bottom of the page or do you use appropriate calls to action to entice them to take the next step? If not, you may be guilty of leaving your audience hanging and missing out on some great opportunities to increase engagement or conversion metrics on your site.

Brands are required to act like publishers in order to dominate the online landscape. Part of their success lies in applying some of the well-established tactics of traditional publishers and translating them into online terms. If you’re a content marketer start with these principles and you’ll be able to lay the foundations of an efficient content marketing strategy.

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