Everything we’ve learned about content (so far)

Creating valuable content is a fascinating challenge. Here are 25 of the biggest content lessons we’ve learned in the course of our work to date. From strategy and principles to just being plain nice, here’s how to make your content work for you.

Sonja Jefferson Sharon Tanton Valuable Content

The challenge of creating valuable content is a fascinating one. As we head off for new solo adventures in the Land of Content we’re taking some time to reflect on the journey we’ve been on together. Here are some of the biggest lessons we’ve learned about content – so far.

1. Your content matters

It really does. Content is everything you say about your business. And if you want what you say to connect with the people you want to serve then this takes thought, care, and skill. It’s never just a matter of filling in the boxes with some ‘magic’ words.

>> We’ve ranted about this in the past: ‘How Lorem Ipsum can make your website project fail.’

Death to Lorem Ipsum

2. It’s a matter of trust

The right content builds trust in your business, and businesses live and die on trust. There’s an internal trust dynamic at play here too. To be trusted you have to be trusting. For a bigger organisation, it’s about trusting your people to share their thinking: skilling them up to do that, and letting them share their ideas freely, then sending these out into the world with the company name on it, for the benefit of customers.

>> For insight into the dynamics of trust read this guest post by Charles H. Green: ‘Selling and marketing in a world with little trust‘.

3. The word ‘content’ has become ubiquitous

It’s everywhere and it’s become devalued. The line between content and spam has blurred (and at times we’ve wished we could ditch it altogether) but the right principles prevent this. And what the right content – the right words shaped for your audience – can do for you has never lost its magic.

>> How to create meaningful content in a sea of ‘meh’:

How to create valuable content

4. Principles drive the right behaviour

A focus on the customer, a belief that what’s good for them is good for the business, a desire and drive to help more than to sell, long-term benefit over short-term gain – these beliefs drive the direction, value and impact of your content. Changing the way people think and approach their content / marketing / customer communication has always been the most fulfilling and challenging part of our work.

“Behave your way into trustworthiness. Speak the truth; be dependable; walk the talk; be transparent; focus on others; care about your customers, operate in their interest, and operate in the long run. Don’t talk about all this; instead, let them talk about you.” – Charles H. Green

Valuable content manifesto

5. The most human content wins

Vulnerability expressed through honesty and humour magnifies the emotional connection you make with your content. And because most people shy away from telling true but imperfect stories, preferring the ‘safe professional’ ground, it’s easier to make an impact if you dare to share more. When we’re looking to do business we are seeking an emotional connection – hunting for signs of life.

>> Read Mark Schaefer’s fantastic new book: Marketing Rebellion – the most human business wins.

6. Slow down to speed up

Do the research and deep thinking up front first. Work out your content strategy, and get clear on what you don’t know. If you need to know more about your customers and their challenges before you can create content that will be valuable to them, make time to do that. If you need to get clearer on your own purpose and values before you can translate that into content that will build to tell your story, give that the time and space it needs. She who documents her content strategy wins!

>> Download our content strategy workbook here.

7. Great content is strategic and it’s creative

It’s as human as conversation, and it makes connections with people. The skills and mindset you bring to it really matter. Churn out robo-content and no one will bother to read it, let alone reply. Who do you really want to talk to, and what’s the conversation you’d like to have with them? That’s a good starting point.

8. Listening is a powerful act

Organisations that really connect with people put their customers at the centre of all they do. How do you do that? By talking to real customers; asking them the right questions and listening hard. The single most useful thing that you can do to inform your marketing, and indeed your whole business, is to invest in customer feedback.

>> Learn the Valuable Content listening process here: On listening: the most underrated tool in your business tool box. 

9. Know who you’re writing for

This is so important. If you try and write for everyone you’ll reach no one. Write for one person, serve many. Know that one person so well that it feels like you’re inside their head, writing just for them. This is clear positioning in action. Get super niche and the challenge of making an impact with your content falls away.

>> Read more about this: Focus, focus, focus. Content, marketing and the power of niche. 

10. Know what you’re writing about

It’s unlikely that you’re the only person doing what you’re doing. There are other accountants, architects, lawyers, designers, consultants, financial service providers in town. But you’re the only you, doing what you do, and your perspective is powerful. For anyone leading or running their own business and struggling to define what it is that makes them different, ‘perspective’ is a far easier launch pad than ‘brand’ or even ‘story’. You don’t need a brand agency to tell you what you think and what you believe. Your perspective is purely down to you, and all the experiences you have had that have brought you and your business to this point. It’s completely within your control.

>> Harness it and create content that helps you stand out from the crowd.

11. Know what you stand for

Businesses grounded in purpose create the best content. When you’re clear on why you exist – beyond profit – it’s easier and more natural to connect with others who share your beliefs. Consistently working towards a bigger mission gives you the energy to keep going.

A practical exercise that captures your purpose and wraps it up so that others can stand shoulder to shoulder with you is to write your manifesto and share it loud and proud. The best manifestos are written with customers in mind. Way more than just a promise to your customers, or a description of what you do for them, great manifestos think big. They document the change you want to bring to the world.

>> Here’s how to write your manifesto.

12. Nothing is truly new

Keeping your best stuff to yourself in case someone steals your big idea can hold you back. Someone else has probably had the same thought and is developing it too. Be the one who gets the ball rolling, starts the conversation, shares it, talks about it, digs deep into the challenges, and listens hard. Sharing your thinking puts you on the radar of potential clients and collaborators. Open conversations shape better products and services and build audiences who trust you.

Be nice. Never forget to credit those who have helped you.

“One of the best ways to be trusted is for you to be trusting. Take the first risk. Extend your hand. Give content away. Don’t lead with lawyers. Be transparent. Be willing to get a little burned. Model the behavior you’d like to see consumers demonstrate toward you.” Charles H Green

13. Strike the right tone

Help don’t sell, talk don’t yell, show don’t tell. We’ve lost count of the number of times we’ve said this, but it’s true. Strike the wrong note with your content – make it pushy, self-obsessed or shouty – and people will turn away. Helpful, clear and conversational, and they’ll listen.

14. Content is your brand in action

It’s the essence of your business shared through thousands of touchpoints across multiple platforms. A brand strategy or a tone of voice guide can sit in a drawer for months on end. It’s creating and sharing content every day that puts that thinking into action.

You can’t divorce positioning, brand and content strategy. Define what you stand for, who you serve and where you want to play first, then work out what content to create and share content to live that purpose.

15. Your content’s job is to act as a filter as well as a magnet

You don’t want to attract everyone so don’t be afraid to alienate those who aren’t your people. Understanding this is liberating. It means you can be yourself, and build your business so that you do your best and most rewarding work for people who get you.

>> Read Not more clients but the right ones

16. Great design + glorious words

The content that’s flown furthest and worked best for us is a combination of clear focus, careful research, smart thinking, creative wording and awesome design. The benefits of an investment in the design element of your content should never be underplayed.

Shout out to Lizzie Everard for the fabulous images in this blog article, and for the design thinking that helped shape our approach.

Content strategy on the map

17. Read more widely if you want to improve your writing

Don’t stick to business books and blogs, and don’t stay online. Read novels and poems, watch films and plays, listen to song lyrics and stand up comedians. Notice the way words and stories can be shaped, and have fun experimenting.

>> See How to write diamond studded metaphors that make your writing sparkle.

18. Observe and listen to uncover what connects

Content marketing is not a once and done exercise, it’s more a voyage of discovery. You have to test it. Some things will bomb and others will fly. Don’t make assumptions, see what works and do more of that. It takes time but ultimately delivers better results. Keep listening to your clients and you’ll never run out of material. Your best customer’s challenges are a constant source of great content ideas.

19. Content is about so much more than marketing (in the traditional sense)

It touches many areas of a business – brand, product, sales, marketing, customer service, strategy. And it isn’t just digital. Ideas shared in person with a group – through real-life meet-ups, face-to-face – are more popular than ever. The same valuable communication principles apply to all areas but you can’t do everything at once. One step at a time. Many small actions add up to big change.

20. We still need to bring salespeople into the picture

Valuable content isn’t just an inbound strategy – put it in the hands of your sales teams and it acts as a perfect outbound relationship builder too.

>> More on content and sales: Content marketing and the forgotten sales person. 

21. Working out how to create valuable content is a transformative exercise

It’s a brilliant challenge for any business. The process of answering the question ‘what is valuable content for our business, for our customers?’ will bring you greater clarity on your brand, deeper connection with your audience, improved collaboration across your team and a whole new level of customer focus across all that you do. This isn’t a quick fix tactic – but there are many great benefits to be had from just setting out on the path to content nirvana.

>> See: why content is the perfect catalyst for business transformation.

22. The challenge of change

Changing the way a business communicates with the outside world isn’t easy. And as with any kind of change, so much of it is about getting people to come on the journey with you. In a bigger business, you’ll need to motivate people inside the organisation to engage in the drive to share their knowledge and create valuable content for customers – and this is hard.

The approach that works best to bring an internal audience with you mirrors the valuable approach to engaging an audience. Understand your internal audience and educate and inspire them to get involved; don’t mandate. Like content marketing itself, this is a long-term, people-focused strategy that takes relentless hard work and careful relationship building.

>> See how this worked at the Met Office: Digital transformation done right: Lessons from the Met Office’s change journey.

23. Content is a tool to help leaders navigate change

Every one of our clients has been facing change in one way or another. New processes, new markets, new products, challenges around recruitment, challenges around retention, mergers, redundancies, acquisitions; businesses never stand still.

A focus on content during times of change is practical and useful. Good, open communication is a powerful way to bring people with you. The value of nurturing strong content thinking and practices inside a business shouldn’t be underestimated.

>> Read more: Change leadership lessons for marketers and businesses who want to make a lasting impact. 

24. Valuable content will take you to surprising places

Share what you think and you increase the amount of serendipity – the happy, chance, lucky, random encounters – you have as part of your life and business journeys. This might feel counter-intuitive to the ‘focus on a niche’ message – surely if you’re being super focused you should be able to predict what and where you’ll get in return? But you’ll have to trust us on this one.

If you want to up the number of interesting, life-enhancing experiences that your business creates, share your soul and your ideas with the universe.

25. Just bloody post it!

Perfectionism is a curse. If it passes the valuable checklist, then it’s good to go. Give it your best shot, then get it out and move on to the next.

Wrapping it up

There’s so much to say on this subject – we could go on and on. This could be a book in its own right (another one!) so we’ve purposely kept it to 25 points (our original aim was 20).

We’ve learned so much running Valuable Content – and we’re still learning. Sonja’s digging deep into the big company content challenge, and Sharon’s focusing on helping owners of independent businesses use content to build businesses they love. We’ll keep sharing what we learn on this blog from time to time, as well as on our own websites.

Thanks for being with us, watch this space. The Valuables will be back.

Marketing wars

Any more big content lessons you’d add to our list?

Thanks to all those whose ideas have shaped our thinking. Heartfelt shout out to: Jane Northcote, David Meerman Scott, Charles. H. Green, Andrea P. Howe and the Get Real Project, Simon Sinek, Henneke Duistermaat, Doug Kessler, Bryony Thomas, Mark Schaefer, Sonia Simone, Joe Pulizzi, Ann Handley, Chris Brogan, Bernadette Jiwa, Chris Butler and Mark O’Brien at Newfangled.

Photo credit: Sarah Hall aka @saltwaterdays

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