I won’t lie: content marketing is hard. But most of us make it harder than it needs to be. We pour energy and resources into minute gains, instead of focusing our attention on the simple changes that make a huge difference.
Today, I’d like to talk about 7 content marketing tips that will get you so much more with so much less. It’s about working smarter, not harder.
Let’s get going.
#1. Start with the headline
Most content marketers and bloggers start with a post idea, write it up, and then try to come up with a viral headline that will blow people away. This is all backward.
Think about it:
- People don’t read blog posts because they know the blog post is going to be good. They read blog posts because the title catches their attention.
- Blog posts don’t go viral, headlines do. It’s the headline that people share on Facebook. It’s the headline that people talk about at the water cooler. Complex ideas do not go viral. Viral ideas are simple, yet impactful.
- Headlines set the expectation for the rest of the article. If you put the blog post first, only to realize that the idea can’t be summed up into a viral headline, you either settle for a crummy headline, or you write up a misleading one.
The secret to writing headlines
What’s the secret to writing headlines that people just can’t ignore? Well, there are two ways to approach this:
- Copy headline structures that work
- Use the basic principles of viral attention
I would advise doing both.
That first one can mess people up, so let me explain. How many times have you seen a title that went something like: “[X] Things Your [Trusted Person] Will Never Tell You” or “[X] [Subject] Mistakes You Never Realized You Were Making?”
Those look familiar, don’t they?
Well, pick up a copy of Jon Morrow’s Headline Hacks (it’s free) and prepare to be amazed. Pretty much every viral headline you’ve seen has been in circulation for at least half a century, with a little bit of updated language and a healthy dose of mad libs to keep things current.
I strongly advise you to take a look at the most viral headlines on the web. Just copy the headline, and swap out a few words to make it relevant to your industry. If there is only one thing you do to improve your headlines, (not to mention your entire content marketing strategy) do this.
Trust me, those very headlines have been written thousands of times before. Nobody is going to care.
6 principles of content that goes viral
Now that we’ve got that out of the way, I’d like to address a few basic principles of viral attention that are going to keep coming up throughout this post. First, Dr. Jonah Berger’s 6 principles of viral sharing:
- Social Currency – People only share things because it helps them improve or maintain their social standing. It doesn’t matter how much we love a piece of content. We won’t share it if doing so doesn’t help our relationships or help us define who we are to other people.
- Triggers – Context and associations shape how likely we are to share something. Votes held in churches are more likely to be for conservative politicians. Think of peanut butter and you’ll probably think of jelly. Play French music in a grocery store and people will be more likely to buy French wine.
- Emotions – Intense emotions like fear, anger, humor, and awe beg to be shared. Disaffecting emotions, like sadness, do not. Of all emotions, awe is the most powerful. When we learn something new, or learn to see it in a different way, we are compelled to share the experience more than anything else. Humor takes the silver medal, which is of course closely related to surprise, which is closely related to awe.
- Public – This is about our inherent trust in the wisdom of the crowd. If others have taken an action, we are more likely to follow them, especially if it seems to be a crowd of like-minded people. In other words, it takes a seed of sharing activity for something to go viral.
- Practical – Content marketers already know this one. Actionable content begs to be shared.
- Stories – Humans are hard-wired to listen to and tell stories. Stories are about facing struggles and solving problems. They are purposeful, not merely descriptive. There is a reason why most people will say “what was the point?” to a Cohen brothers’ film. When we listen to stories, we expect people to struggle with problems and either succeed or fail tragically. We don’t expect a series of purposeless events.
What research tells us which headlines get clicks
- Put a number in the headline – If you do one thing (besides copy headline structures, as mentioned before) do this. When testing five different variations on headlines, numbers outperformed everything else.
- Address the reader – Headlines that addressed the reader didn’t do as well as numbered headlines, but they outperformed “normal” headlines.
- How to – Again, we see that it’s actionable content FTW. These also outperformed “normal” headlines.
- Don’t ask a question – Titles phrased as questions performed worse than “normal” headlines
- Avoid superlatives or go crazy with them – Headlines with 1 or 0 superlatives (like “best”) outperform headlines with 2 or 3 of them. Interestingly, going with 4 superlatives was actually better than going with none. “The 27 Best and Smartest Ways Ever to Train a Perfect Dog” did quite well. Presumably, that many superlatives is just daring the reader to prove you wrong to the point that they have to click through.
- Use traditional headline capitalization – Headlines with the first letter of each word capitalized did better than normal prose or all caps. A full 64 percent preferred them. Surprisingly, all caps did better than lowercase, (21 percent versus 7 percent) despite the APPEARANCE OF YELLING AT THE READER.
- Leave no ambiguity – Putting all of the data together, Conductor also realized that the most successful headlines left no ambiguity about what the reader should expect. This is why question headlines did worst of all: they left readers wondering if the post would even answer the question. It’s also, clearly, why numbered headlines did so incredibly well, creating the appearance of a quantitative measure of how much the reader could expect from the article.
So, once you’ve got the perfect headline, what do you do with it?
#2. Tell stories
Why were we able to get The Ultimate Guide To Startup Pre-Launch Marketing In 5 Simple Steps published in VentureBeat? We didn’t have insider data. We weren’t saying anything that hadn’t been said before.
So what did we do that set ourselves apart from 99 percent of the people who submit guest post ideas?
We added stories
While I’d like to think our writing personality and style plays a big part, I’m sure this is the one thing that made the biggest difference. For every step, we pointed to specific examples and stories of companies or personal brands that had done what we recommended, and how it worked for them.
As humans, we like to tie ideas to real stories. Which, as we’ve already mentioned, are much more likely to go viral than mere information.
If you change only one thing about the content itself, this should be it. Toss a few stories and examples into your blog posts to justify what you are saying. People will instantly take you more seriously.
Don’t believe us? Here’s what Vitaliy Gnezdilov left in the comment section of that blog post we just mentioned:
“Great post! And fantastic examples. Every other post online about startup marketing is too generic and obvious. This post actually feels like it has value. Nice write up Manish. Going to share this with my team.”
We could have written the same blog post without the creal stories and case studies, but it probably wouldn’t have been published on VentureBeat, it probably wouldn’t have been shared hundreds of times, and people probably wouldn’t have found it very valuable.
#3. Quote an expert
If you take a look at most of our posts, you’ll notice that they have more than a few outbound links, not necessarily to our own content, and there’s a reason for that. While some in the SEO and content marketing industries feel like they’re just sending away search engine value and traffic, the reality is that people take you seriously when they know your information comes from somewhere.
And that starts to matter even more when that source of information just happens to be an expert.
This could be as easy as going to BrainyQuote and tossing a few well-placed excerpts into your posts. That’s not my strategy, since I prefer a bit more relevance, but I can already guarantee that people will find your posts more valuable if you do only that. Heck, I haven’t kept track of how many times I’ve mentioned Peter Drucker’s famous “What gets measured, gets managed,” but I’m sure it’s a lot, and nobody’s ever complained.
Argue from authority
“Argument from authority” may be a logical fallacy, but people love it anyway.
You can compile blog posts together on subjects you know absolutely nothing about. As long as you know how to quote and cite the right people, you will be taken seriously.
Some people take the whole “thought leader” thing a bit too literally. If it’s just you standing from your pulpit, unless you have a very commanding personality, most people are just going to say “who the heck is this guy?” When you quote experts, it breaks things up. It makes it look like you are part of a conversation and a community, not a loner grasping at straws.
Compile expert knowledge. It’s what journalists get paid to do.
Why not you?
#4. Mix and match subject matter
Remember earlier when we mentioned that awe is the most powerful emotion for enticing viral activity? It might seem like it should be hard to inspire something like awe, and there’s some truth to that, but it’s not quite as difficult to get just a bit of awe as you might think.
The real goal here is to give readers something to think about that couldn’t have come from inside their own mind. Just take a look at pretty much any article on Buzzfeed.
They add variety and mix and match their headlines and content.
What’s the appropriate response to titles like:
- 16 Reasons Pittsburgh Is The Greatest City On The Planet
- 14 Cats Who Are Thoroughly Confused As To What A Catwalk Is
- The Box Office Gross Of Every Woody Allen Movie Adjusted For Inflation
Do something a bit crazy
That’s right. It’s “Who on Earth comes up with this stuff?” Not necessarily because it’s Earth shattering, but because there’s very little chance you would have come up with it on your own. As one BuzzFeed developer said:
“Accordingly, just imagine the reaction of sending a photo of a Zombie to a friend and saying ‘You’ve got to check this out, crazy OMG — It’s dead, BUT ALIVE!’. However, after viewing a post on Peanut Zombies, I’m struck that I could never have imagined something so pleasurably creative in so many ways. Proof I’m not dreaming, consciousness expanded, will never look at peanuts the same again.”
The images in the aforementioned link do not depict scenes that we never would have thought of. But they are depicted using food, and that makes them entirely unique, to the point that they’ve probably never been done before, and at the very least it’s something I never would have thought of on my own.
Don’t be afraid of randomness
This is one of the reasons why randomness reigns supreme on the internet.
And that’s about all it takes to achieve just a little bit of awe: a willingness to embrace the random, to mix and match ideas until something profound, or at least amusing, results. It’s as simple as mixing just one idea with just one other. That can be as easy as pairing your main subject matter with the result from a random word generator until something just sticks, if that’s what it takes.
If you do nothing else, just be willing to read a little outside of your own niche, and look for a way to tie it back together. You’ll be amazed with the insights that come pouring out of that exercise.
#5. Pretend you’re writing an email to a friend
The most common novice writing mistake is to overwrite, the literary equivalent of overacting.
There are a few ways this can manifest itself:
- You might try to write the way you were taught in school: stiff; formal; thesis, body, then summary.
- You might try to stuff flowery, extravagant, beautiful language and complex metaphors into your writing.
- You might try to impress people with jargon, technical writing, and otherwise academic writing
There are very few niches where this pays off. Pick up most best-selling novels, or take a look at most top industry blogs, and you’re not going to find any of this stuff.
Make it conversational
Other than the need to inform, your writing style serves only one purpose: to make the reader feel an emotion. And most of you already have some experience making people feel emotions: through the dark art of everyday conversation.
Nothing makes a reader feel more engaged than when they feel like you are talking directly to them. Don’t listen to idiots who say not to use the word “you” in your content. These people have no idea what they are talking about. Readers love being addressed directly.
Rather than writing for some generic “audience,” you should write like you’re talking to just one person, the one person who will feel like you are reaching out and speaking to them, and only them. Seth Godin’s with us on this one:
“The best approach is to not try to write things that will go viral.
No, the best approach is to write for just one person. Make an impact on just one person. Even better, make it so they can’t sleep that night unless they choose to make a difference for just one other person by sharing your message with them.
The rest will take care of itself.”
But don’t forget proper writing
Now, when I say write like you’re writing an email, I want to be clear. Don’t write it like an everyday email with “LOL”s and smiley faces. Write it like the most helpful email you’ve ever sent to anybody, the email that is literally going to change the way this person sees this subject matter, because you have helped them more than anybody else ever has within this particular realm of life.
I’m not saying you’re actually going to achieve that. I’m just saying that this should be your goal.
The point is, if you write it like it were an email to a friend, you’re going to build a connection, you’re going to have fun with it, and you’re going to come across like an actual person.
#6. Make your audience look good
Remember Jonah Berger’s concept of “social currency?” That’s what I’m getting at here.
Your goal is not just to reach out and help one person, but to convince that one person to share the content successfully with at least one other person. And to convince them to do that, you need to understand and remember that they will only share something if they feel like it’s going to make them look better or help them define who they are to other people.
If you create intense emotional experiences for your reader: fear, anger, and more importantly, humor and awe, they will feel compelled to share that emotion because it helps them connect with other people.
If you give your reader practical advice that solves a nagging problem, they will feel compelled to share it with other people because it makes them feel helpful and smart.
Before you publish anything, ask yourself how this piece of content is going to make people look if they share it with other people. If it doesn’t make them look good, it’s usually either missing something, or the core concept is flawed.
(Then again, sometimes content is meant for your audience, and only your audience, to keep them involved and interested, to keep them, and there’s absolutely nothing wrong with that either, just so we’re clear.)
#7. Pay a winner to do it for you
I believe this is something even the best of the best bloggers should do sometimes.
If you want links, if you want social activity, if you want “attention“, and if you want an audience, one of the easiest ways to make that happen is to pay somebody who already has all of that.
Just look at the way Forbes scoops up high profile bloggers left and right, how some of the most popular blog posts on top sites are written by celebrities, or how LinkedIn has exponentially grown its time on site by creating the “Influencers” project.
Whether it’s paying a well-known blogger to write a guest post, hiring a video blogger off YouTube, working with a web comic artist, or hiring a distinguished graphic designer, you can grab attention, social activity, and links simply by working with somebody who already has an audience.
This is one of the easiest and most overlooked things a content marketer or blogger can do to establish themselves.
You probably think this is outside your budget. I’m going to tell you right now that it probably isn’t. For example, in the world of black hat, random outreach suggests that most people expect you to pay them almost $300 for a link. You can get so much more than that for the same price if you just dumped that money on an influencer.
Here’s the dirty little secret about online influencers: most of them don’t get paid very well. I mean, YouTube stars make roughly $0.75 per thousand views, and your average blogger isn’t doing too much better than that. Sure, the ones with a lot a volume can pay themselves handsomely, but odds are good you can pay them better for the same amount of work. Top YouTube stars are making about $100,000 a year. That amounts to less than $300 a day.
That about wraps this up, but I’ve got one more tip for you to take away from this: only publish great stuff. And by that, I mean it pretty much doesn’t matter how often you publish. While it’s good advice to write, work on content, or develop relationships every single day, your actual publishing frequency has very little to do with how much success you can expect. Take as long as you need to publish groundbreaking content.
So that’s it. I hope you learned something. If you liked what we had to say, I’d love it if you passed this along, and if you have something to add or ask, hit us up in the comment section. Thanks for reading through this.
Guest author: Pratik Dholakiya is the Founder of The 20 Media, a content marketing agency specializing in content & data-driven SEO and PRmention, a digital PR agency. He regularly speaks at various conferences about SEO, Content Marketing, Entrepreneurship, and Digital PR. Pratik has spoken at 80th Annual Conference of Florida Public Relations Association, Accounting & Finance Show, Singapore, NextBigWhat’s UnPluggd, IIT-Bombay, SMX Israel, SEMrush Meetup, MICA, IIT-Roorkee and other major events. As a passionate SEO & content marketer, he shares his thoughts and knowledge in publications like Search Engine Land, Search Engine Journal, Entrepreneur Magazine, Fast Company, The Next Web, YourStory and Inc42 to name a few.
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