Tuesday, February 18, 2014

Your face, at rest

Recently the College Humor video "Resting Bitch Face" made the rounds on Facebook, which reminded me of something I've fought with all my life: people think I'm angry, but that's just my resting face.

It usually happens when I'm thinking Deep Thoughts. My wind will be wandering, when someone I know happens upon me and asks: "What's wrong?" I always answer that nothing's wrong, that just what my face looks like when it's in a neutral state. Sometimes they believe me, but not always.

That's just my cross to bear: I have an angry resting face. There's no anger behind the face, but unless I make a conscious effort to smile, I come across as angry and hostile.

This morning I was talking with my wife about how different local companies approach content marketing. The challenge with content marketing is you need to try to give something of value away for free, even though every mercantile bone in your body is screaming: "Don't do it!" You need to offer your readers (or video viewers) something that has intrinsic value, and you need to consciously not market to them in the process, because your aim is a long-term relationship and your potential customers need to trust that you won't ping them with constant marketing for them to opt into the relationship.

It's a hard task. Many companies fail at it. They set down the content marketing path, but with every piece of content there's a catch: fill in this form; give us your email address; fill out this survey; tweet this sentence. Every time a company tries to monetize its relationship with you, you're reminded that you don't actually have a relationship with them. Relationships are mutual and long-term, and these attempts to show short-term ROI sabotage both of those elements.

I was talking about this with my wife when it hit me: companies have resting faces, too. Companies like Moz and HubSpot present a stream of content with no catch; their resting face is a friendly smile that says, "Come sit over here; we have something you might like." Companies like SimplyMeasured, meanwhile, have a resting face that looks like a gleam in their eye; it says, "I have something I want to sell you."

(Not to pick on SimplyMeasured; they're just the first example that came to mind of a content marketer who repeatedly requires me to "sign up" for everything they have to offer.)

Whether you like it or not, your resting face has a huge effect on how others perceive you: whether they expect that you'll be likable, interesting, approachable, and trustworthy. What does your business' resting face look like?

Monday, February 10, 2014

Things I Learned from Dan Brown

The next time you’re in a coffee shop, look around at the people who are staring earnestly at their laptop screens, pecking away at the keys in a desultory, dispirited fashion.

There’s a good chance that those people are working on their novel.

There’s an excellent chance that they really hate Dan Brown.

Now, I don’t mean to imply that their hatred is exclusive to Dan Brown. Rather it’s Brown and authors like him - the ones who seem to effortlessly ascend the best-seller charts, pumping out one international hit after another - that draw their ire. Partly it’s just jealousy, but mostly it’s resentment. They resent that Dan Brown can be so richly rewarded when he’s such a terrible writer.

It’s true; Dan Brown’s characters are paper-thin, his dialogue is bombastic, his historical and scientific research is spotty at best, and his intricate, conspiracy-driven plots only occasionally hold water. (He also has an irritating tendency to create new words all his own - “symbologist,” anyone? - and then pretend that everyone in the world knows that word and uses it in casual conversation.)

And yet readers love him. This is the sort of thing that drives would-be writers crazy, but the reason is actually quite simple: Dan Brown is good at the things that matter to sales.

His chapters are extremely short. They present a single piece of information - the crumb that leads you one step deeper into the forest - and then they end, abruptly, when you’re right on the point of learning something important to the story. He teases you constantly to just read the next chapter … and then the one after that, and the one after that.

His plots invariably promise to teach you something about religion, history, and science, but Brown doesn’t confuse instruction with entertainment. He gives you enough to feel like you’re a little smarter once you’re done, but he doesn’t bury you under detail.

If you’ve read one of Brown’s novels, you know exactly what to expect in the next one. You’ll get some of the same characters, you’ll get another vast conspiracy, and you’ll be taken through one or two exotic settings. Brown is the McDonald’s of popular fiction, which is to say he’s predictable enough to be comfortable. Readers like it when they’re comfortable.

These principles - plus a heaping load of good fortune - have made Dan Brown a millionaire. They can improve your content, too.

Dan Brown teases his readers with carefully-crafted chapter endings. You should think about how you can develop content that teases the reader (or the viewer) to go a little bit further, a little bit deeper, rather than abandoning your content halfway through.

Dan Brown talks about religion, history, and science - but not too much. You should focus on giving your audience something of value, but be careful not to overwhelm them. Provide links to those who want to delve deeper into a topic, but your readers’ first view of a topic should be a quick, engaging overview.

Dan Brown creates comfort via familiarity. Give some thought to how predictable your content is. Are your articles written with a common voice and presented with a standard look and feel? Does a certain personality infuse everything that you publish? These are the elements that can make your content more predictable, familiar, and comfortable.

Even now I can’t recommend that you read Dan Brown’s work, but we can all learn something from the method he brings to that work. If there’s one thing the author of “The Da Vinci Code” understands, it’s how to satisfy an audience and keep them coming back for more.

Wednesday, February 5, 2014

A is for "audience"

It's a standard writer's trick: when you first set out to fill a blank page with words, begin by imagining who you're writing for. Is it your mother? Your best friend? The professor in that one class you took? It doesn't matter nearly so much who that person in your head is, than it is that you don't make the fatal mistake of writing for yourself. Writing for yourself causes you to make selfish choices. You don't explain your terms. You don't take the time to consider where you might be misunderstood. You don't make any effort to be interesting, and as a result—not in every case, but most often—you will come across as a long-winded, self-indulgent, self-obsessed bore.

I keep coming back to this when I think about content marketing. We all know bad marketing: it's like the salesman in a shop who comes over with a smirk on his face, eager to sell you something and not particularly interested in what you want. Bad marketing articulates the company's position and expects you to care. Bad marketing and bad writing have a lot in common.

Marketing needs to think more about audience, and this has never been more true than today. Everyone's talking about content marketing, and I can promise with 100% confidence that you can't create good content without a clear and constant focus on your audience: what they want, what they need but maybe don't want yet. What are their questions? What do they worry about? Who are they, and what do they aspire to be?

These are audience questions, and answering them involves a choice: we will focus on him, but not her. We will delight her, but not really bother with those guys over there—at least not this year. We will do everything in our power to make this specific sort of person's nostrils flare with enthusiasm the first time he sees our blog or finds us on Twitter or clicks over to our Facebook page, because this is who we have in our head when we think about the people who (eventually) will be equally delighted with our product.

Bad marketing might make a sale if it's delivered in the right place at the right time, but it won't reliably build a relationship. Good content marketing is all about that relationship. In effect, it says: "Don't worry about our product. That's not the point right now. For now, let's just talk." If you can say that with your content marketing—and really mean it—then you can build a relationship, and the sale will come from a foundation of trust.

Every day I see fresh articles on how to form your content marketing strategy, but it's pretty simple, really, and it boils down to a two-step process:

  1. Envision your audience.
  2. Publish content that answers their questions or solves problems in their lives.