Score your ideas to boost your content marketing

Right now I have at least 40 blog post ideas sitting in my queue. The potential topics include:

  • Is LinkedIn’s premium for-pay service worth the money?
  • How to market a blog post
  • How to make your public relations and marketing efforts useful
  • Better email subject lines
  • Basic online tasks all marketers and PR professionals should be able to do
  • And many more.

Given my non-blogging commitments and my focus on generating unique, high quality content, rather than just cranking out copy, there is no way I’m going to get all 40 written anytime soon. One of my biggest challenges is deciding which one to tackle next.

If you’ve ever finished up a brainstorming session with a whiteboard covered with ideas, you’ve probably faced this problem, too. Since coming up with ideas is pretty easy, this can be a huge obstacle to actually executing an effective content marketing campaign.

Photo of a whiteboard

Via lukethelibrarian on Flickr.

So what do you do?

Which ideas do you choose to execute on and which do you discard?

Are there some you should do sooner because they have higher value?

How do you resolve conflicts between internal decision makers about what content to focus on first?

Given the time and budget constraints we all face, answering these questions quickly and effectively is critical.

Fortunately, there’s a solution. Content marketers, bloggers and writers can take a tactic from sales professionals and “score” their ideas to figure out which ones are most valuable and worth focusing on. By scoring, I mean using a system to rate and quantify the value of these ideas, and then using the resulting score to prioritize your efforts.

Here’s how it works.

1. Establish a small number of key criteria that you can rate numerically from 1-5.

Your criteria could include things like:

  • Would your target audience find this useful?
  • Would your target audience email this to someone or share it on a social site?
  • Do you have the expertise (or can you get it) to create this content? If not, can you obtain that expertise in a reasonable time frame (research) or can someone else write this?
  • How unique is this topic? Is there a lot of similar competing content online, or can you offer something that helps you stand out?

Your criteria may be different. Depending on your marketing strategy, things like “likelihood to lead to conversion” and other factors may be important. If you’re not sure what your criteria should be, look at your marketing metrics or web analytics to figure it out. (Jay Baer has a great guide to content marketing analytics here, by the way.)

Note that if you are working for a large company or doing this for a client, it’s important to get buy-in on these criteria up front.

For me, spreading ideas and gaining audience are critical, so my criteria reflect that.

2. For each idea, rate these criteria on a 1-5 scale, from least likely to most likely.

  1.     Probably not
  2.     Possible, but not likely
  3.     Maybe
  4.     Probably so
  5.     Yes — absolutely.

If you find this rating process difficult because you’re having trouble getting inside the heads of your target audience, than you may need to do some work on brand personas.

3. Enter all this into a spreadsheet.

Put the ideas and scoring for each metric in columns — the idea, a rating for each of these metrics (or alternative metrics if something different works better for you).

Then add an additional column to take the median of these numbers (you can use the average or sum or something else if you like; you just need a way to translate this into a single number). This number is your score for that particular idea.

An example of a content-scoring spreadsheet
4. Once you’ve got the median, you can sort your spreadsheet from highest to lowest by that score.

(Not sure how to do that? Here’s instructions on how to sort in Excel.)

That sorted spreadsheet tells you which content is potentially the most valuable for you, and you can make decisions about how to allocate your time and resources based on that. Now you’ve taken a bunch of ideas and turned them into an action plan.

5. Bonus step once you’ve implemented this method.

Let’s say you’ve been using content scoring for a while to guide your efforts. Do you know how realistic your criteria were? For instance, if “shareability” was a criteria you ranked, did those pieces of content that you thought were going to have high shareability actually get shared a lot?

This is a great way to go back and check your own assumptions and methods. You may find that, in fact, despite brand personas and other insights, you still have some work to do to get your estimates to match up with your audience’s behavior.

Need help executing against a content plan? I provide freelance writing, public relations, social media and content marketing consulting services. Please contact me if you think I might be able to help.

Social media productivity: Have an impact online, while still having a life offline

Friday I presented at ConvergeSouth 2012 in Greensboro. I gave a talk about how to use social media productively, by which I mean getting results without having to spend 18 hours a day online. Below are my slides.

If you’re interested in having me speak to your group or conference on this topic or any of the other subjects I write about here, please get in touch.

Nine tips for better interviews

With the rise of content marketing, communications professionals will increasingly need to create original content. That can include written Q&As, podcasts, videos and more. And the key to getting interesting, compelling content out of those is being able to ask great questions during interviews with subject matter experts.

Photo of OJ Mayo being interviewed.

OJ Mayo being interviewed. Photo via the Memphis CVB

I spent more than 10 years as a professional journalist. During that time, I interviewed thousands of people for all sorts of stories on all sorts of topics. Here are nine tips guaranteed to help you get more out of your interviews.

1. Prepare questions ahead of time, keeping in mind what’s most important to your audience. Does your audience want step-by-step how-to information? Do they want easy-to-digest tips? Or maybe they’re interested in your interview subject’s perspective on a particular issue.

2. Do as much background research as you can. Read up on the person and subject you’re covering and don’t waste precious interview time getting basic, factual information that’s easily available from other sources. The best answers to interview questions are those that provide new insights, information and perspective that isn’t already widely available.

3. Provide questions to the interviewee ahead of time, or plan for follow-up. You want quality information, not mindless responses that are the result of your interview subject not having enough time to think about them. For most marketing and public relations projects, it’s also a matter of politeness and professionalism.

4. Be polite, professional and friendly. You almost never need a confrontational interview. This is not the time to pretend you’re a 60 Minutes reporter. The subject should come away feeling the conversation was enjoyable and interesting.

5. Double-check key facts: spellings of names, titles, numbers, dates and so forth. Email is a great for this after an interview, because you get it in writing, where it’s often clearer.

6. Take notes with pen and paper, or via keyboard, even if you’re recording the interview. Transcribing an interview is time-consuming; notes taken as you talk to someone force you to focus on the most important pieces of information. Notes are also a good back-up for failure-prone recording equipment. Even if you do want to transcribe parts of what you’ve recorded, notes will help you pinpoint the most important parts of the interview. If you’re recording because you’re going to use actual audio or video in your content, notes will still be helpful in highlighting places where you may want to make edits.

7. Only put into quotes what the person actually said, not what you think he or she meant to say. In some marketing and PR functions, it might be acceptable to draft a better quote after the fact; but even then, the person being quoted should agree to “own” the remark. If your subject says something in a way that doesn’t make sense or isn’t clear, you can also simply repeat your question in a slightly different way and get a new answer.

8. Make your last question “Is there anything else I should have asked you but didn’t?” This gives your interview subject a chance to tell you things that you hadn’t thought of asking about. It often yields good insights.

9. Don’t be afraid of deviating from your planned questions. During an interview you will often learn things you didn’t know and weren’t expecting, which may push the conversation in a different direction. Don’t be afraid to follow that direction; it will often yield better content.

Have other interviewing tips? Please leave them in the comments below.

Six surefire ways to zero in on your customers’ pains

Want to move someone to action? Identify one of their “pain points” and tell them how you’ll solve it.

Let’s take a literal example: back pain.

Get back pain? Does it interfere with the way you enjoy life? Chances are pretty good this ad would motivate you to go to grab some Aleve from the medicine cabinet or, if you’re out, go buy some. The commercial brings to life the physical, social and emotional discomfort that pain brings.

You can do the same thing with whatever you’re selling.

But to do it persuasively, you’ve got to know what words, feelings, ideas and images people associate with the pain your product or service relieves.

You need to learn your prospects’ “language of pain.”

If you have the pain in question yourself because you’re part of the prospective customer group, than you may start out with some insight on this. Many of us would be able to sympathize with old Saint Nick in the Aleve ad.

But if you’re a marketing manager trying to sell corporate financial management software to chief financial officers, you probably don’t have an intuitive, first-hand grasp of how CFOs talk, feel and think about the pain points around accounting software. After all, you’re a marketer, not a finance pro.

So how do you learn the language of pain for CFOs, or anyone else? Here are six ways to zero in on this vocabulary of discomfort.

  1. Mine keyword data. Using tools such as Google’s free keyword tool, you can see what terms people are using when searching for solutions or answers to particular problems. This will give you a sense for the words people actually use. (Google has tutorials on how to use this tool.)
  2. Monitor social media. By finding communities of your target customer group and listening to what they say and how they say it, you can often discover how your prospects talk about and feel about the pain in question. LinkedIn groups are a good place to start for B2B marketers, as are any specialized social media sites in your industry. There are lots of tools you can use to search broadly; one good free one is Social Mention. You should also read industry blogs (and their comments) for insights.
  3. Interviews and focus groups. In-depth conversations with even a small number of people can provide you access to the language they use and feelings they have about the problem you’re offering a solution for.
  4. Trade shows. Interviews and focus groups are formal ways to tap into the language of pain, but attending trade shows and conferences and simply striking up conversations with your target audience can lead to insights, too. Listen carefully, especially to what people say when they’ve had a few drinks and have loosened up a bit – they may get less polite, but more honest. Honesty is what you need.
  5. Your sales and customer service staff. The sales and customer service teams usually have a lot of direct contact with your target audience (if they don’t, you have another problem). Talk to them to understand how your prospects think, feel and talk about their problems. You can also go along on sales meetings and listen to customer service calls.
  6. Media coverage. If the problem you’re solving has been covered in the media the language used by reporters in stories, quotes in those stories and words used in editorials and op-ed pieces can offer important clues. Trade publications are a great place to look for B2B products and services. In addition to the publications you already have in your office, you might want to cast your net wider. Yahoo has a directory. But don’t stop with one source. There are thousands of trade publications out there.

Obviously, as you go through the research process you should, at a minimum, take a lot of notes. If you compile a large amount of raw text – interview transcripts and social media conversation, for example, you could also dump it into a tool such as Wordle, which produces “word clouds” that show you graphically which words are used more often.

What tips do you have for understanding how customers think, feel and talk? Please share in the comments below.

How a little string can improve your blogging

Ever find yourself struggling with what you should write about next, or needing more details, anecdotes or statistics to illustrate a blog post, white paper or media pitch? Me too. Fortunately, I have a solution.

When I was a reporter, I gathered a lot of string. This does not mean that my desk was cluttered with balls of twine or little pieces of thread. It means I consistently collected interesting facts, anecdotes, statistics, studies, articles and other information. I could later pull from that store of ‘string’ for new story ideas or to add rich detail to existing projects. (There’s a pretty good definition of ‘gathering string’ at Netlingo.)

Ball of red string

Photo via {a href="http://www.sxc.hu/photo/747814"}nicootje{/a}.

In fact, this is such a common term and common practice that my editors and I would regularly have conversations about how I was “gathering string” for a big story or upcoming feature.

If you’re responsible for generating a regular stream of content for a blog, newsletter, media pitches or the like, then you should start gathering string, too. Done consistently, it will give you more content ideas, more links and more research ready to go when you sit down to write.

So how do you do gather string? Make these three easy steps a habit:

1. Expose yourself to a steady stream of relevant content from other sources. For me, this means I’m constantly scanning RSS feeds and email newsletters related to topics I’m interested in – writing, public relations, social media, content marketing and the like.

2. Store the information you find interesting for future reference. I use Evernote, a free application available for virtually every modern computer, smart phone and tablet; my notes are synced and always available no matter what device I’m using. I can organize material into folders and use tags to categorize it.

3. Periodically review the string you’ve gathered and figure out how to use it. Some of it, inevitably, you won’t use. Some of it will support a line here or there in something you write, or provide supporting statistics or anecdotes. And some of it may serve as inspiration for entire content pieces.

If you want a way to generate more ideas and give your writing more depth and richness, you should try gathering some string.

Why you should attend ConvergeSouth

Blogs and social media are great, but you can often learn more, meet more people and have a richer experience attending conferences, seminars and other events in person. There’s a big difference between skimming a blog post in your RSS reader and the immersive, interactive experience of a conference.

That’s why, if you’re interested in social media, search engine optimization (SEO) and doing business online, you should attend ConvergeSouth 2010. (Disclaimer: I am one of the volunteers helping to put the conference together. I’m involved because I’ve attended several past ConvergeSouth conferences and I think it’s a great conference.)

So far, this year’s line-up of speakers includes:

[Read more...]

Four things readers want

News conference

Publishing news about your niche or topic area is one sure-fire way to attract and retain an audience. (Photo: http://www.sxc.hu/photo/106233)

What do readers want? And not just readers, but viewers, listeners – audiences for all media. If creating content is part of your marketing strategy then you’ve got to figure out what content your audience wants. What kind of blog posts, ebooks, podcasts or videos will attract the most people, get shared most often and keep your brand uppermost in people’s minds?

What they want is likely to boil down to four kinds of content.

How To

How to be wealthier, how to be sexier, how to be slimmer. How to do something — create a great Facebook fan page, sell more life insurance or bake the perfect cake.

Bookstores and libraries are full of how-to books. Magazine covers are scribbled over with how-to headlines – “How to get your guy to ____” screams Cosmo. And the Internet has become a treasure house of how-to content of every type.

[Read more...]

30 content ideas for an email newsletter

One day your boss comes into your office and announces that he wants to publish an email newsletter about your department, company or organization. And then he gives you the job of actually producing it. He gives you a deadline and says “I look forward to seeing a draft of the first edition next week.” What do you do?

I’ve created and managed a few email newsletters over the years. Just as with a blog, an email newsletter is built around content. Here are 30 content ideas for your email newsletter.

1. Links to and excerpts from your recent blog posts.

2. Links to and excerpts from other web sites or blogs that your readers might find useful or interesting.

3. A short essay or letter that’s not published anywhere else.

4. An exclusive tip of the week/month.

5. Links to your company’s social media accounts (Twitter, Facebook fan pages, etc.).

6. News and announcements about what’s going on in your business or organization.

7. Special offers, discounts and coupons.

[Read more...]

Five mistakes newbie bloggers make

Road closed sign

Some blogging mistakes can block your path. (Photo source: http://www.sxc.hu/photo/589399)

I’ve been blogging for about 10 years now. Along the way I’ve learned a lot. I’ve also made a lot of mistakes. A lot.

So, if you’re new to blogging and determined to be successful at it, here are five mistakes to avoid.

Mistake #1: Not sticking with it.

Some bloggers see a lot of success relatively quickly, but there is no such thing as an overnight success. Even those bloggers who brag about how they took a new blog from zero to 10,000 subscribers in three months, or whatever, didn’t really go from zero to hero overnight. Chances are they put in years of work before they ever launched that “overnight success” blog, developing skills and acquiring tools to make a big splash quickly.

Whatever your goals are as a blogger, you’ve got to stick with it to see success. A good rule of thumb would be six  months of steady blogging before you begin to see significant traffic, readership or (if it’s a goal) revenue.

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How to use personas in blogging

Mannequins

Putting a face on your readers with personas can improve your blog and content marketing efforts. (Source: http://www.sxc.hu/photo/499007)

Many marketers use personas to help them better understand their customers and design products and marketing campaigns that will be attractive to those customers. You can use them to improve your blog or other content marketing efforts — podcasts, videos, white papers and so forth.

What is a persona?

A persona is a fictional character used to better understand the desires, goals and motivations of some set of potential customers.

If you’re running a blog about weight loss, you might use personas to understand the differences between a 19-year-old woman and a 47-year-old man when it comes to losing weight. Chances are they have different motivations, different values and different circumstances in their day-to-day lives. Rather than treating those two sets of customers the same, personas allow you to clearly fix in your mind how each group is distinctive and will likely seek different information as they explore weight loss solutions.

Properly constructed personas are built off extensive research, which could include interviews, spending time with people in their day-to-day lives and collecting statistics about a target group of customers. If you have the resources for that sort of research, then you have a huge advantage compared to your competitors. But even if you don’t, you can still use personas to rough out some basic ideas about different audiences.

You can still consider all the people you know in real life who are representative of potential readers. That can help you define personas based on interactions and communication you’ve had with real people.

Also note that you can have multiple personas for a single brand, product or service. Different groups of people may purchase the same product for different reasons. Effective marketing communications will still take into account the needs, aspirations and values of these different personas in creating an overall marketing plan.

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