Content marketing isn’t the dirty word you think it is

People call me a “content marketer” often (not sure if it’s a compliment or insult), so let’s talk about how you can use the articles you write to sell the products or service you’ve got.

Too often, clients, friends, and confidants (i.e. people I talk to on Slack) tell me that they don’t have time to write articles that support their business. Then, in their next (digital) breath, they tell me how their business could be doing much better. When I mention to them that useful content could support and grow their business, and they could do a lot better if they made time for writing, they reply that they don’t have time to write. This, my friends, is known as a total logic fail.

Let’s start with what content marketing isn’t. It’s not simply blogging. Otherwise, there’d be thousands of teenagers on Tumblr who could put “content marketer” on their resume (although I’m sure some do, those pesky teens!). If you’re writing entirely for yourself, that’s a journal—there’s nothing wrong with that, but it won’t be effective for selling anything.

Content marketing is the intersection of where the writing you do serves the audience *and* you, the creator, equally.

Your audience wants value from timely, useful, and engaging information. You need your business to grow (whatever growth means to you), make money, and be continually exposed to new audiences.

With this type of writing, there’s always an intended next step. Buying something, signing up for a list, registering for a webinar, sharing something socially, ranking in a search engine for a term, etc. There’s some explicit action that happens after someone has consumed what they just read. Because they made it all the way to the end, they’re finishing reading now, and are looking for what to do next.

The reason I’m called a “content marketer” is because my weapon of choice for selling what I create is writing. I choose this weapon because it suits me the best, and aligns with what I like do and how I like to show up in the world.

As a writer, I know I can write. Whereas if I had to make cold calls or give speeches, I’d be a sweaty mess of “uh’s” and “hmm’s.” Writing has consistently and strategically grown my product business (books, courses, online events) to make up more than 50% of my income in less than three years.

So maybe you want to be a content marketer, too? Maybe it’s not such a dirty term after all. And maybe, just maybe, it’s not as much work as you think.
Here’s how you can maximize a small amount of time to use content to help both your audience and your business.

Start by always having a list of ideas for topics you want to write about. What do you add to this list? Questions your audience has asked you, related content to your most popular existing articles, using apps like BuzzSumo to analyze topics/competition, even articles you’ve read that you have a unique or opposite take on. Have ready access to this list of ideas (either in a physical notebook or a text file that you can access from your computer or phone). Add to it constantly and be on the lookout for new ideas to add to the pile while reading, watching TV, scrolling on social media, walking in the park, or even eating breakfast.

Now, look at the list and pick the first idea that stands out to you. You’re going to write a content marketing article on this idea!
Write down the following items in a spreadsheet (let’s use this article as the example):

  1. What’s your goal in writing about this idea? Ex. “I want to teach people that content marketing is easier than they think it is.”
  2. What’s the reward your audience gets for consuming an article about this topic? Ex. “They learn how to use content marketing to drive revenue and exposure in their own businesses.”
  3. What’s the main point of the story? Is there a secondary point? Ex. “PRIMARY: Content marketing is easier than most people think it is. SECONDARY: Writing consistent content takes less time than people think, too.”
  4. What makes those points valid? Is there data, a unique personal story, research that backs it up? Ex. “50%+ of my revenue is now coming from products—all because of content marketing.”
  5. What is the result a reader would see if they, too, acted on the main point you’re making? Ex. “Better/more business if they used content marketing correctly.”
  6. What are 5–10 headlines you could use for this post? Ex. “Content marketing isn’t the dirty word you think it is” “How I use content marketing to generate more than 50% of my product business revenue” “Why content marketing can work for you, in less time than you think” “If you’re too busy for content marketing, then you’re too busy to grow your business” “Get out of your own head about content marketing—it can help drive business”
  7. What’s the next action you want a reader to take after reading the post? Ex. “NEW READERS: Sign up for my mailing list. EXISTING SUBSCRIBERS: Download the XLS worksheet and actually use it.”

Guess what? In answering those simple questions, you’re now 80% (or so) of the way finished your article. No staring at a blank screen for hours or life hacks required, just asking yourself a few simple questions for each idea you’ve got. Let’s put the answers to those questions together a little better:

[A6 – Pick your best headline or A/B test the strongest ones.]
[A2 – Use the reward your audience gets to illustrate a pain point—what happens if they haven’t taken action.]
[A1 – Spell out what you are illustrating.]
[A3 – Clearly explain your point(s).]
[A4 – Back the points up with data or stories.]
[A5 – Describe what the outcome looks like if your reader acts on this.]
[A1+A2 – Reiterate your goal and why your audience cares.]
[A7 – Give a concrete next step now that they have the information. Bonus content, buying, signing up, sharing, etc.]

Without writing the article by staring at a blank screen, you’ve just written the entire outline, now all you need to do is make the sentences flow together in your own style. If you’re just starting out with writing, remember that writing is basically a muscle—it gets stronger the more you exercise it. So don’t be discouraged if things at first are slower than you expect. You’ll get faster the more consistent you are with your writing practice.

“Now Paul,” you might be thinking, “That sounds so formulaic and boring! And not at all like the creative person you are or—more importantly—that I am!” But here’s the thing. The formula may be … well … formulaic, but the key is all in how you apply it. How you take the information and make it into a flowing story for your readers. It’s like saying, “Oh, I don’t read fiction because they’re all stories of a character who starts out, goes through some things, and ends up in a different place.” The high level stuff IS formulaic—it’s what you do, what data that makes it interesting, and what makes it you.

With a bit of practice and consistency, there’s no reason you can’t spend an hour each week writing at least one of these articles. That way, you can get your words, ideas, and brand in front of your audience on a regular basis, and the more you write, the faster and easier it becomes. There’s no excuse not to carve out a bit of time each week if you have a business.

One extra thing I’ve figured out by doing this for a few years is that it’s easier to write a bunch of articles at once than it is to write just one, wait a week, then write another. Once you get into the rhythm and flow after writing one, you may be able to crank out another couple right after it. This helps you stay a few weeks ahead of your publishing schedule, which leads to less stress (also known as, “Oh shit! I have to release an article tomorrow?!”)

Staying ahead of your schedule can also help you commit to only publishing your best content. The formula above doesn’t guarantee greatness, it just helps frame content quickly. So you may find that some posts just aren’t that awesome. However, if you’re head of your publishing schedule by a few weeks, you can throw the bad ones away and keep the best for sharing.

I’ve used the above ideas to sell books, drive mailing list signups, sell courses, and keep my brand top-of-mind. It works for me because I get to share in a way I feel comfortable with: writing and teaching.

Using content to engage, teach, and inform your audience is a powerful sales tool. It helps define you as an expert as well as a helpful person, which leads to trust, which then leads to sales. All done in a non-slimy, non-sales-pitchy, really honest way. You help the most important people to your business ( your audience ), and reciprocation from them helps your business. It’s a win-win.

For those of you paying attention (which I assume is everyone who has read this far), this post was written using the formula I just outlined. I took an idea from my list of topics and went through each question, then put the answers to those questions in a order that gave me an outline. From there it took a little while longer to turn it into the article you just read.