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Content Marketing: Resolve to “Just Do It” In 2017

If you’re the type to make New Year’s Resolutions, here’s one that, as a marketer, you’d do well to put at the top of your list: Create and share content. Because in my opinion, content marketing is the most tool available to marketers for generating quality leads in a cost-effective way.

As I discussed in my last blog, content marketing really took off a few years ago when Google’s Panda search filter update forced marketers to earn high SEO rankings by publishing quality, user-focused content. Since then, the demand among marketers for high-quality content has gone through the roof.

Still Sitting on the Sidelines?

But some companies are still sitting on the content marketing sidelines. This is understandable because creating quality content on a consistent basis takes a lot of time, money or both. Consider blogging, for example.

The frequency at which you should blog depends on your industry (I wrote in detail about this here) but let’s just say you decide to blog once a week, which is pretty typical. That’s 52 original pieces of quality content you’ll need to come up with in a year.

For starters, what are you going to blog about? You’ll need to come up with an editorial calendar so you’re not staring at a blank computer screen every Monday morning thinking, “What on earth am I going to write about this week???”

Next, who’s going to write these blogs? You could divvy up writing responsibilities among managers and department heads, but the task will inevitably fall to the bottom of their priority list and they’ll be late submitting blogs, if they submit them at all. And since department managers aren’t trained writers, the quality of the blogs might not be very high.

Ideally, you (as the marketer) or your staff will write the blogs. In this case, you’ll need to create a blog-writing schedule and assign specific writing responsibilities and deadlines to staffers or yourself. Don’t forget to include time in the schedule for routing, review and editing of each week’s blog.

Hiring a Professional Writer

If your marketing department isn’t staffed to handle weekly blog writing or you don’t have time to do it yourself, you can hire a professional writer to do it for you. Personally speaking, blog writing has become one of my main focuses, accounting for at least half of my current workload. I write weekly, biweekly and monthly blogs for clients on a wide range of financial and business topics.

Your first step, of course, is to find the right writer. There are LOTS of freelance writers today who do blog writing, but you should try to find a writer who specializes in your niche industry. This will significantly reduce the learning curve required for the writer to get up to speed while increasing the chance that you receive the high-quality, industry-focused content you need.

For example, I have written about the business and financial industries for my entire 31-year career, so all the writing I do is focused in these areas. If someone were to ask me to blog for them about travel or food or home repairs, I’d suggest they look for a writer who specializes in these niches. But if they need a business or financial writer, then I’m probably their guy.

Once you’ve found your writer, you’ll need to go through the same exercises noted above: creating an editorial calendar and blog-writing schedule and working out your internal routing, review and editing process. Your writer may be able to help you with the editorial calendar, especially if he or she has the kind of industry expertise you need.

Of course, there’s a cost involved in hiring a professional writer. Fees charged by blog writers will depend on such factors as their level of experience in your industry and the frequency and length of your blogs.

Warning: This is not an area where you want to pinch pennies. Your blog writer will become an extension of your marketing team. Therefore, you should hire a true professional with extensive industry experience and a demonstrated ability to meet deadlines. Require candidates to provide you with samples of relevant industry content so you can gauge their knowledge and writing abilities yourself, and also get a couple of references you can ask about their ability to meet deadlines.

A Comprehensive Content Marketing Program

Blogs are just one component of content marketing. Whitepapers, e-books, newsletters, case studies, info-graphics and social media posts are other types of content assets that comprise a comprehensive content marketing program.

If you’re just getting started with content marketing, don’t let all of this overwhelm you. Start off slowly, focusing on one or two of these types of content first in order to get the ball rolling. For example, you might start with a twice-a-month blog, and then use your first six blogs to create a whitepaper or e-book.

The most important thing is to be consistent with your content marketing initiative. A lack of consistency is the dagger that kills many content marketing programs before they can start to produce real results in terms of generating quality leads and driving new business.

How SEO and Content Marketing Go Hand in Hand

I remember when the Internet first started to become mainstream in the late 1990s or so. I had recently started working as a writer/editor for a custom publishing company in Atlanta and was using the Internet more and more for the kind of research I used to have to do at a library.

As a fairly new Internet user, I was learning how to find the information I needed online using a tool called a “search engine.” A number of different search engines were battling with each other to become the go-to resource for the growing number of people who were using the Internet, but the main ones were Excite, Yahoo! and Google.

My Intro to SEO

A year or so after I started working for the publishing company, I attended a seminar session about something called “search engine optimization,” or SEO for short. Here, I learned that marketers were using techniques to ensure that their companies’ websites appeared high on Internet users’ search engine results pages.

Thus was my initial introduction to SEO nearly 20 years ago. Over the past two decades, SEO has become one of if not the most important disciplines in marketing. And the pace at which SEO has changed and evolved since these early days is astounding when you consider the relatively short history of this marketing discipline.

For example, during the primitive days of SEO, online marketers were able to use black-hat SEO tactics like keyword stuffing, excessive tagging and link schemes to achieve high rankings. Over time, these techniques have been rendered ineffective (and even counter-productive) as the major search engines (primarily Google) adjusted and tweaked their algorithms to penalize websites for these practices.

Content is King!

The real tipping point marking the end of these primitive SEO practices was the release of Google’s Panda search filter update in 2011. Panda forced marketers to earn their high SEO rankings by publishing quality, user-focused content instead of relying on gimmicky tricks like they did before.

After Panda, most Internet marketers (or at least the ones who kept their jobs) realized that the days of keyword stuffing and link scheming were over. This gave rise to another new marketing discipline that has become just as important as SEO: content marketing.

In fact, SEO and content marketing go hand-in-hand. The best way today to achieve high SEO rankings is to consistently publish high-quality, user-focused and shareable content on your website. This content usually takes the form of articles, blogs, whitepapers, e-books and other materials that offer value-added, useful information to website visitors. When shared throughout the Internet and on social media, such content creates natural backlinks that build user engagement and thus help boost SEO results.

The Content Challenge

Of course, knowing they need valuable online content and generating this content are two different things for marketers. Most marketing departments aren’t set up or staffed to produce the kind of consistent, high-quality content that’s required for a serious content marketing campaign.

There’s no way I could have known it at the time, but when I decided to become a full-time freelance writer in early 2009, the whole content marketing thing was just about to kick into overdrive. In fact, this article I found tracing the evolution of SEO over the past 25 years marks 2010 as the beginning of “The Enlightenment Period” of SEO — when marketers were forced to “earn rankings through quality, user-focused content or face penalties in search,” as the article puts it.

As marketers search for solutions to keeping their content pipeline full and their content marketing engines humming, many are turning to freelancer writers to produce their online content for them. This makes sense for a lot of different reasons, the main one being that outsourcing content creation doesn’t commit a company to the high overhead required to hire a staff of content writers full-time.

Hiring freelance writers also gives companies more flexibility to hire writers during peak content cycles when they need them — and not have staff sitting around bored with nothing to do during non-peak content creation times.

Finding Good Freelance Writers

So how do you go about finding the right freelance writers for your content marketing needs? Well, I recommend starting with (surprise!) an Internet search. But be specific with the search terms you use because you’ll be better served if you look for a writer who specializes in your company’s particular industry niche.

For example, if you just search “freelance writer,” you’ll currently get 11.3 million results — running the gamut from freelance writing job sites to general interest freelancers. But if you’re looking for a freelance writer who specializes in the financial services industry like I do, enter “freelance financial writer” instead. This will narrow your results considerably and help you zero in on a writer who specializes in this niche.

And what about those freelancer job sites? I urge you to use caution here. On many of them, writers will bid for your content writing projects. You can usually find low-cost writers this way, but you will probably get what you pay for.

Also ask other marketers for recommendations of high-quality freelance writers they’ve worked with — especially other marketers in your industry or niche. Good freelance writers work hard to build solid relationships with their clients in order to ensure ongoing streams of content creation work and generate positive word-of-mouth referrals.

Use Psychology to Write Better Marketing Emails

The last few months I’ve been talking about ways to improve email marketing results. I believe that great marketing emails start with great writing — which I guess is what you’d expect me to say, since I’m a writer. However, I realize there’s a lot more that goes into a successful marketing email campaign than just having well-written content.

This is why an article and infographic I recently came across grabbed my attention. Titled “How Psychology Can Make Your Emails More Appealing,” the article published by Salesforce Marketing Cloud makes the point that if your marketing email isn’t eliciting the response you desire, it isn’t successful — period.

Winning NFL Games — and Email Campaigns

Yesterday, my beloved Miami Dolphins lost again and are off to an 0-2 start for like the fifth year in a row or something depressing like this. As I went through my Monday-morning-after-Sunday-football routine of reading online articles about the weekend’s NFL games, I came across something really interesting about the Fins’ start.

The Dolphins have a new, young and energetic coach, Adam Gase, who finally gives fans some reason for optimism (despite the 0-2 start). The article I read pointed out that, despite the two season-opening losses to very good teams on the road, Coach Gase has done a very good job with play-calling and other nuances of NFL head coaching.

However, most fans aren’t going to give him much, if any, credit for this. Why? Because all that matters in the NFL is the bottom-line result: Did you win or did you lose the game? “Welcome to NFL head coaching, Adam Gase,” the article said. “It’s the most bottom-line driven job in America.”

The same thing is true when it comes to your marketing emails. Did they elicit the responses you wanted … or not? If not, then they failed — no matter how well-written, creative or “award-winning” your emails are.

What’s Your Open Rate?

Getting recipients to respond to your emails starts with getting them to open your emails. I guess that’s kind of obvious, but it’s worth pointing out before we go any further.

The Salesforce Marketing Cloud article put it this way: “You could send the most beautifully composed email, with all the right words, colors, and images, but it won’t do you one bit of good if your recipients leave the email unopened, delete it, or, worst of all, unsubscribe from your list. If your audience isn’t opening your emails, you’re losing money.”

One of the best ways to improve your open rate, according to this article, is to use principles of psychology when designing your email marketing campaigns. It suggests several specific strategies for doing so:

1. Personalize your emails with laser targeting. Of course, this strategy isn’t unique to email marketing. Market segmentation — or targeting distinct customer segments and markets with personalized messaging — is done in all kinds of marketing. But companies often fail too use these same principles with their email campaigns.

Doing so takes advantage of the psychology of the first impression. The more targeted your message is to recipients, the more likely they are to form a positive first impression of the message itself — and hence, of your company. This strategy probably isn’t practical if you have a relatively small distribution list. However, as your list grows and becomes more diverse, you should look for ways to segment recipients and send them content that’s targeted specifically to them and their needs.

2. Choose the right email distribution frequency. This is one of the most common questions I get from clients: “How often should we send out our marketing emails?” There’s no one-size-fits-all answer — it depends on many different factors that vary from company to company. (For more on this, read this article I wrote on blog and email frequency last year.)

What’s important is that you determine the right frequency for you, create a distribution schedule based on this frequency, and then stick to it. Psychologically, your recipients will grow accustomed to seeing your emails arrive on a regular basis — and maybe even come to expect them.

I receive two terrific e-newsletters from colleagues I respect: One comes bi-weekly and one comes monthly, like clockwork. I actually look forward to receiving them and have noticed on the rare occasions when they didn’t arrive according to the usual schedule.

3. Write practical, problem-solving subject lines. We’re all suffering from in-box overload, which has made us very selective about what we open and what we don’t. And the first thing that usually registers in our brain during that split second of “should I open it or shouldn’t I” is the subject line.

According to the Salesforce Marketing Cloud article, emails with subject lines written for utility, rather than creativity, are more likely to be opened by busy recipients. This makes sense when you think about. If you’re really busy, which email are you most likely to open: One with a cutesy, creative subject line that you have to think about for a few seconds to figure out what it’s about? Or one that clearly identifies a problem you regularly encounter and promises a quick-read solution?

As for constructing these problem-solving subject lines, the article recommends that you keep them short (between 41 and 50 characters), specific and focused on the recipients, not on your company. In other words, use words like “you” and “your” instead of “us” and “we.”

How to Write Great Marketing Emails

In last month’s article, I shared a few tips for writing better emails and got some nice responses with more tips and also some a few email pet peeves. For example, one reader said she hates it when people don’t change the subject line in old email chains to reflect a new topic of discussion. Gotta admit, I’m guilty of that one sometimes myself!

Writing that article got me to thinking about how we all use email nowadays. Of course, email is a primary communication vehicle in both personal and business settings, although it’s slowly being replaced in the personal realm with texting and social media.

But email remains vital for business communication. In fact, I have clients I rarely speak to in person or on the phone — almost all of our communication takes place via email.

Email as a Marketing Tool

In addition to day-to-day communication, email is also widely used as a marketing tool. There are many different kinds of email marketing, but most of it takes the form of e-newsletters or so-called “e-blasts” that can take on many different forms themselves — ranging from coupons from local merchants to various other kinds of electronic promotions.

One of the biggest benefits of using email as a marketing tool is that it’s relatively cheap. Unlike a direct mail campaign or print newsletter, there’s no paper and ink and no postage. The only real cost is your creative.

This benefit, however, also leads to the biggest drawback of email marketing: We’re all suffering from email overload. And I’m not just talking about spam.

Because sending out email marketing messages is so cheap and easy, everybody does it. As a result, all of our inboxes are jammed full not only of useless spam, but also legitimate marketing emails we often just don’t have time to read and respond to — even if we want to.

Some Tips From a Pro

The challenge for any company using email marketing is to break through the logjam of email overload and get recipients to recognize, open and eventually respond to their email marketing messages. To get a few pointers on crafting effective marketing emails, I talked to my friend Greg Venezia, a veteran marketer who has created and overseen dozens of successful email marketing campaigns.

Greg says the first key in writing a great marketing email is writing a great subject line. “You need an engaging subject line to get your email opened,” he says. “For direct sales, I’ve always had the most success when the subject line illustrates a client benefit directly.”

Moving to the body of your email, this should consist of a brief message that supports your sales and brand objectives. The key here, says Greg, is to keep your message simple. “Brevity is always best. Don’t try to do too much with a single email. The biggest mistake I see is marketers trying to cram their emails with all kinds of information that their customers just can’t digest.”

Most importantly, your marketing email must offer some kind of value to your readers. Greg says this can be in the form of a special price or deal (primarily in B2C marketing) or a free value-added giveaway like an E-book or whitepaper (primarily in B2B marketing).

“If your marketing email is a thinly disguised hard sales message, not only will readers not open it, but they will probably form a negative impression of your company and your brand in their minds,” says Greg. And this can be hard to erase once it has taken root.

Think Like Your Customer

Greg recommends that you “think like your customer” when writing marketing emails. One way to do this is to imagine that you’re about to receive the marketing email you’re writing. Then ask a few questions:

• Does the subject line give you a reason to open and read the email? Or is it vague or, even worse, self-promotional?

• Is the body of the email message brief and does it get to the point quickly? Or does it drone on and on, leaving readers wondering what it is that you’re trying to tell them?

• Is there a clear customer value proposition somewhere in the marketing email? Can readers easily answer the WIIFM question: What’s In It For Me?

It should go without saying that marketing emails also must be well-written and not contain any grammatical, punctuation or other errors. But I see enough poorly written marketing emails that I feel I need to say it anyway. If you’re not confident in your or your staff’s writing abilities, hire a professional to help you.

Don’t Forget the CTA

Finally, don’t forget to include some kind of call to action (or CTA as we in the industry call it) in your marketing email.

This is one of the biggest benefits of using email as a marketing tool: You can include links in the email that readers can click on taking them directly to pages where they can respond to your offer. This makes it easy to track the activity generated by the email and measure the effectiveness of your email marketing messages.

Writing Great Emails: Top 10 Tips

Do you remember when email first hit the scene? My first exposure to email was around 1988 when the publishing company I was working for installed internal email on our IBM 286 PCs. (Google this old PC and look at the pictures for a real stroll down memory lane!)

I remember wasting lots of time using this amazing new communication tool to chat with coworkers about anything and everything, most of it having little if anything to do with our jobs. And this was just internal email within the company — sending emails outside the company was still a year or so away.

Bedrock Communication Tool

Fast forward nearly 30 years and email is now an integral part of practical everyone’s life. Sure, we have text, instant messaging and countless social media platforms we can use for electronic communication. But good old-fashioned email is still the bedrock tool used by most people for communicating electronically, both in the workplace and in our personal lives.

Given this, I often wonder: Why are most of the emails I receive so bad? I mean, we’ve got nearly three decades of experience using email. Most of us have used it practically our whole lives to communicate with friends, relatives, co-workers, clients, etc.

But I still see the same crappy emails all the time that violate the basic rules for email writing and email etiquette. This is true with both personal and business emails, by the way. So I thought I’d recap some of the most common violations of email writing and etiquette that I consistently see, including a few of my biggest email pet peeves.

Top 10 Email Tips

There’s probably nothing here you haven’t read somewhere else or don’t instinctively know. But based on my observations, there’s a big difference between knowing something and doing it. So here are my Top 10 tips for writing great emails — and not ticking off your email recipients:

1. Use the proper style, tone and level of professionalism for the type of communication. If it’s a work- or business-related email, use a professional style and tone. Write as grammatically correct as possible (within reason — I know everybody’s not a grammar geek like me) and don’t misspell any words. If it’s a personal email, you can be more casual and informal, but I still recommend keeping it pretty clean from a grammatical and spelling standpoint.

2. Respect your recipients’ time and attention span. This means writing a useful subject line that tells recipients what the email is about and keeping the content as brief and concise as possible. Follow the journalism inverted pyramid style of writing in which the most important information is in your lead paragraph and the rest of the email includes supporting and less-vital details of diminishing importance.

3. Use “reply to all” selectively and judiciously. OK, this is my first big email pet peeve: People hitting “reply to all” when it isn’t necessary. Before using reply to all, think about whether or not every recipient really needs to see your reply. If not, just hit “reply.”

4. Use “BCC” when sending an email to a large group of people. This will protect the privacy of everyone who is being emailed by concealing their names and email addresses. Otherwise, everyone who receives the message can see the name and address of everybody else who receives it.

5. Always follow the “overnight” rule when writing and sending an emotional or angry email. Raise your hand if you’ve ever sent an email while you were emotional or angry — and then immediately wished you hadn’t. I learned this lesson the hard way a long time ago and try to never forget it: Always sit on these emails overnight and read them fresh again in the morning. You’ll probably rewrite it, or just delete it.

6. Clean up long email strings before forwarding them. Emails that get forwarded or replied to all multiple times end up with long strings of signatures, disclaimers and other junk. It’s a courtesy to delete all of this before forwarding it on again yourself.

7. Don’t overdo it with your email signature. This is another one of my pet peeves. Logos and other graphics that are included with signatures often come through to recipients as attachments. Then you have to wade through all these useless attachments to find the real attachment you actually need.

I believe that simpler is better with an email sig: Include your vital contact info and a link to your website and maybe a social media page or two. You can bold or colorize type if you want something to stand out, but skip the fancy graphics and formatting.

8. Don’t send very large attachments. Super big attachments — larger than 5 MBs or 10 MBs at the most — can clog up or even jam your recipient’s inbox. I spent almost an hour once getting my email unjammed because of some super-sized video attachments somebody tried to send me. Use Dropbox to share attachments that are any bigger than this.

9. Use “high priority” sparingly. If you flag too many emails as “high priority,” people will start to ignore it. As for “low priority,” well, I’m not sure why you’d ever use this. It’s hard enough to ensure your email gets prompt attention without telling recipients it’s not really that important!

10. Know when to pick up the phone. Have you ever had email conversations that just go on and on without answering the question or resolving the problem? When you feel this is happening, stop emailing and call the other person or go track him or her down to talk face to face. I’ve wasted so much time before on these frustrating back-and-forths that could have been halted with a simple five-minute (or less) phone call.