How to Use a Fiction Throughline in Your Content Marketing

In novel writing, there are certain elements or themes that run through the book like a thread. You can find this thread in movies as well. They’re common themes like “Debbie is afraid of commitment,” “William wants Scotland to be free,” or “Captain America hates bullies.”

This is the throughline.

It’s the running theme, a character’s reason for being, a plot or sub-plot, or even the language that’s used in the story.

Every few scenes, we’re reminded of the throughline once again, though only a touch, as the author or screenwriter tugs on it once in a while to remind us it’s there.

When scrawny Steve Rogers stands up to the bully. When he dives on a hand grenade during basic training to save his squadron. When he ignores Colonel Tommy Lee Jones and rescues his best friend, Bucky.

As Chuck Wendig of Terrible Minds says:

The throughline is an invisible thread that binds your story together. It comprises those elements that are critical to the very heart of your tale — these elements needn’t be the same for every story you tell but should remain the same throughout a given story.

Basically, Chuck says, it’s “the rope that the audience will use to pull itself through the story.”

Find Your Throughlines

What is the thing your company wants to be known for?

Not your mission statement. Nobody talks like that. Besides, most mission statements suck. Hard.

We will operationalize bleeding-edge strategies in order to maximize our core competencies to that we may holistically leverage best-of-breed solutions.

That’s not a throughline. That’s complete crap. (I sure hope that’s not someone’s actual mission statement. I made it up, and I had to shower afterward.)

Every kind of content marketing should use a throughline. Even solar panel manufacturers.

Instead, what do your salespeople and marketing staff brag about? What excites you about what your work? Why does your company do what it does?

That’s your throughline. If you’re a pharmaceutical company, your throughline is saving lives. (Or helping old men get erections. I’m not judging.) If you make solar panels, your throughline is saving the earth and reducing our dependence on coal. If you’re a business improvement consultant, like my friend Robby, your throughline is helping others be more efficient.

Once you know your throughlines, you’re ready to weave them into your story.

What Do Throughlines Have to Do With Content Marketing?

In content marketing, your throughline runs through your company’s overall story.

Your story is made up of chapters — blog articles, white papers, videos, podcasts — and your throughline should pull potential customers through on their buyer’s journey.

Your company’s throughline are those things you stand for and can truly deliver. If you know your company’s USP, a unique selling proposition, that’s your throughline. It’s the top benefit you offer your customers.

For Chick-fil-A, their throughline is chicken-not-beef. Their advertising is all about the cows telling us to eat more chicken. For Apple computers, it’s thinking different(ly). Their computer ads are about doing great things with the right side of your brain. For Pro Blog Service, it’s about providing high-level professional writing. So I write articles about advanced writing skills.

Not everything Chick-fil-A does is about their cows. Not everything Apple promotes is about being a creative professional. And at Pro Blog Service, we write about things other than writing.

But every so often, you’ll find that theme, that element, that throughline to pull you through their stories, on to the next chapter.

For our solar panel manufacturer, they can spend most of their time talking about the quality of their panels, their low cost, available financing, ease of use, money saved, and benefits over wind power.

But every so often, they need to tug on their throughline to remind us it’s there: “if we can use more solar power, we use less coal to create electricity. And less coal means a cleaner tomorrow.”

Content marketers like to call themselves storytellers, so here’s a real story element they can use. Novelists and screenwriters use them all the time, and so can you.

If you can weave your throughline into your content marketing, it will tell you what comes next, and it will move your customer down the right path. You can more easily plan your content schedule if you can follow the golden thread that’s waiting for you to wrap a story around it.

Photo credit: Gray Watson (Wikimedia Commons, Creative Commons 3.0)

Content Marketing: Winning Google Searches for Lawyers

A lawyer friend told me once, “No one likes lawyers until they need one.”

It was a good reminder about the function lawyers play in today’s society, solving problems, or preventing them. And that people don’t want to think about them, until their problem becomes all-consuming, and they can’t think about anything else.

I saw an interesting article recently on content marketing for lawyers that reminded me of my friend’s statement. I especially was struck by the headline, “People Search for Lawyers, Not Law Firms.” It reminded me that people look for lawyers the same way they look for any other service provider: they want a solution to a problem.

If you have a leaky faucet, you call a plumber. If your car isn’t working, you call a mechanic. Maybe you worked with one in the past, maybe you have a friend who recommends one. But chances are, unless that mechanic or plumber put a lot of money into marketing, you’re basing your decision on a relationship you/a friend have with a particular plumber or mechanic.

Barring that, you’re basing it on a Google search.

Chris Grant wrote on about how lawyers can ensure they’re more easily found online, by using LinkedIn, blogging, videos, and Twitter to promote their personal brand.

. . .[P]eople are interested in people, and [this] hammers home the importance for lawyers (and other professionals) of having a really good online presence! Your potential clients are out there, searching for an individual that can help with the problem they have

Did you catch that last bit? Your potential clients are searching for those who can help with the problem they have.

When You Don’t Have Large Advertising Budgets

Of course, there are some law firms you’ve heard of. The giant ones in your city or state that spend a bunch of money on TV advertising, and coughed up several thousand bucks just to be on the back cover of the phone book. We’ve all heard of those firms.

But what if you don’t have back-of-the-phone-book money? Don’t worry about it. Instead, ask yourself:

  1. When is the last time you reached for the phone book? And if you did, did you look at the back cover? And did you look at the back cover at the exact moment you needed a lawyer?
  2. When’s the last time you watched TV commercials? When’s the last time you did it without fast forwarding or running off to the kitchen? And when is the last time you watched a TV commercial at the exact moment you needed a lawyer?

That’s not to say advertising is ineffective. It creates awareness. People will remember who you are when they do need you. But I’ll bet that many people who used the phone book and watched the commercials didn’t remember the name or phone number right off the bat.

I’m more willing to bet they Googled it until they found the right name.

Content Marketing: Providing Solutions to Problems

Search engine friendly content factory notebook and Macbook

Write down your blog post ideas whenever you think of them, and write them later.

I’ve done content marketing for three different law firms, in three different cities and states, and covered three different practice areas.

One was for a general small-town attorney, who wanted people to find his firm when they were in trouble. We wrote blog posts about “what to do after you have an accident” and “should I represent myself in court?”

Another was for an employment law attorney. He wanted people to find his firm when they had been wrongfully terminated. So we wrote articles about “how to tell if I was wrongfully terminated” and “my supervisor is sexually harassing me.”

The third was for a major medical malpractice and personal injury attorney. He wanted to be found if someone had been seriously injured during a medical procedure or major accident. We wrote about what to do after a surgical procedure went wrong, or if an insurance company wanted to give a small settlement.

For all three clients, we had three goals in mind:

  1. To win local Google searches. Google looks at where a particular search is taking place, and then shows the results closest to the searcher. Try this as an experiment: pull out your phone and do a search for a plumber. I’ll bet the plumbers that come up are all in your city. Google provides those kinds of local search results, but only the best optimized websites — and those with a Google Business listing — will show up first on those local results.
  2. To demonstrate their expertise in their field. Once people find you, they need to know you know your stuff. It’s already assumed you do, since you graduated from law school. But what if you work in a highly specialized field? Or a very competitive field?
  3. To solve people’s problems People don’t just go searching for attorneys willy-nilly. It’s not like their three favorite online time wasters is Facebook, Candy Crush, and searching for law firms. No, people only search for lawyers when they need a lawyer. If you go back and look at the attorney examples I used above, you’ll see these are all questions or issues people have at a particular moment. And they’re searching for the answers online, not the phone book, not late-night TV commercials. So if you can demonstrate that you know the answer, at the time people need the answer, you’re the one they’re going to call.

I knew an attorney who specialized in intellectual property, and he often wrote about IP issues, partly to educate the inventors he wanted to appeal to, but also to show them that he knew more than the other IP attorneys they might be checking out.

Another attorney specialized in large-scale alternative energy issues. She was sought after by investors and utility companies for her expertise in that field. And she was able to demonstrate that by writing repeatedly about different local and national alternative energy issues that were happening around the country.

Attorneys who don’t have a lot of money to spend on advertising can reap great benefits from content marketing. You can boost your search performance and personal branding if you can write one or two blog posts per week. It gives you some great exposure and gets your ideas out there for your potential clients to see.

Unleash Your Content Marketing With New Avenues

Blogs and Twitter are no longer interesting enough as content marketing tools to stand out anymore. They’re just the necessities of doing business.

It’s like saying, “Our business uses computers!” or expecting job seekers to know how to use a word processor. Blogging and Twitter are a part of business now, and you stand out in their absence.

If you want to do serious content marketing, yes, you absolutely have to have a blog and Twitter. A company without it has to work a lot harder at SEO and online marketing just to keep up. But that’s no longer enough. If you want to rise above the crush of average, me-too content, you need to do new stuff that no one else is doing.

The Future of Content Marketing

One of the things I always mention in my Future of Content Marketing talks is that you need to go where your competition isn’t.

A few years ago, that meant starting a blog. But now that most companies — at least the more successful ones — have one, that’s just the price of admission. You aren’t unique or outstanding.

The Owned Media Doctrine cover, a book about enterprise content marketing

Taulbee Jackson wanted to show his clients that he knew a lot about enterprise content marketing, so we literally wrote the book on it.

You can create more better content, but even that will only get you so far. You’ll still get buried by the avalanche of mediocre content. So you need to try using different channels, formats, and publications.

This is what I usually say in my talks.

If they have a website, start a blog.
If they have a blog, start a podcast.
If they have a podcast, do a video podcast.
If they have a video podcast, write a book. Or host a monthly webinar. Or go on a speaking tour.

The point is, you need to do something else that other people in your industry are not doing. You need to be where the competition isn’t.

Just Be Audacious!

Starbucks has recently jumped into the content marketing game, creating a media arm of the already-giant coffee empire. It’s something to read while you’re sitting in your local Starbucks, drinking your half-caf soy chai latte. And it’s a bold choice for a coffee shop, but it ties into their philosophy of being “the third place.”

Once you log into the wifi, their login portal takes you to their coffee blog that shows you how to pour the perfect cold brew, or features a short article about their new coffee brand, 1912 Pike.

Or, best of all, to see their new original series, Upstanders, their “original collection of short stories, films, and podcasts sharing the experiences of Upstanders – ordinary people doing extraordinary things to create positive change in their communities.

While some people will pooh-pooh the idea of a food brand trying to break into the media market, don’t forget that Red Bull has gone from being an energy drink company to a media and extreme sports company that sells energy drinks.

But more importantly, if Starbucks can launch a small video and podcast series as a way to showcase outstanding people in their communities — seriously, watch The Kids Who Killed an Incinerator — then why can’t you start your own unusual content marketing?

“Make Good Art”

Neil Gaiman told the University of the Arts in 2012 to “make good art.” But that doesn’t just have to be advice for artists, or for middle managers who harbor secret novel-writing dreams. Companies can make great art that still works for them, but without staining it with overt marketing messages.

For example, a publisher could publish a flash fiction or short story series. Or serialize a novel, the way The Strand Magazine serialized the original Sherlock Holmes stories The publisher’s authors could even write short stories related to their books as a way to introduce people to their work. But don’t just publish them in an anthology that will only sell 2,000 copies. Publish them on your blog, push them out on Facebook, and turn them into an audiobook podcast. Get people interested in the stories and introduce them to other authors whose works you publish. Think of it as “if you liked this writer, you’ll love that writer” marketing.

Create a comic book. Back in the 40s, 50s, and 60s, General Electric produced a series of science-based comic books that were distributed to grade school kids up through the 80s. (I remember reading them when I was a boy.) And they recently hired new writers and artists to update their content with all new comic books. What’s stopping your company from creating comic books to help customers understand how your products work, or how to solve problems with the things you sell? There are plenty of small, independent writers and artists who would create some of the best comic art you’ve ever seen. (And given the fickle nature of the comic book industry, there are even several big-name veterans who are looking for work.)

They don’t even have to be superhero stories, but they can be illustrated explanations and conversations between two characters. Check out Gavin Aung Than’s Zen Pencils. Gavin takes great speeches and short essays by notable artists and thinkers, and turns them into long single comics, which are both moving and interesting. I’ve shared a few of these with my youngest daughter who desperately wants to be an artist. (His Jack Kirby comic/poster still makes me misty.) Think of these as comic infographics.

Start a small magazine about your industry. What if you could outperform the trade association journals in your industry? Better yet, what if there isn’t a trade association journal for your industry? Think about how much credibility you and your company would have if you became the voice of your industry. Imagine sharing the journal of your industry with your potential customers. Talk about a credibility boost. While everyone else is rocking a once a week blog, you’ve got an entire magazine devoted to solving your customers’ problems. This is going to make you be seen as one of the leading experts in your entire industry. Joe Pulizzi has done this with the Content Marketing Institute, publishing Chief Content Officer magazine every month, and is now regarded as the guy for everything related to content marketing.

Start a podcast. More than 57 million people in the U.S. (or 21% of the population) listen to podcasts at least once a month. That’s the same number of people who use Spotify; 13% use Twitter. What if you could only get .01% of that audience? That’s 5,700 people. That’s quite a sizable audience, especially if you’re in a niche B2B audience. Even 1,000 people would be outstanding, because that’s 1,000 people who are listening to your radio-show-that’s-secretly-a-commercial week after week.

And, a podcast is an ideal selling tool. You can invite potential customers to be interviewed on your podcast, which will intrigue them more about your company. They may not be interested in talking to your salespeople, but they’re more than happy to take a call from you about being on a podcast. Who knows how the relationship can develop from there? Even if they don’t take those sales calls, you can bet they’ll pay attention to your company even more after you interview them. (And if they become regular listeners, then they’ll be listening to your radio-show-that’s-secretly-a-commercial week after week.

Decoder Ring Theatre cast

Cast of Decoder Ring Theatre, an audio theatre company in Toronto.

Better yet, can you sponsor a radio theatre podcast? Decoder Ring Theatre in Toronto has produced some of the best radio drama in the vein of old-time radio heroes and detectives, and they reach several thousand people. (Disclosure: They also produced five of my radio theatre scripts a few years ago.) Other podcasts, like Canadaland, Grammar Girl, and Marketing Over Coffee, reach tens of thousands of people, and they’re sponsored by different consumer brands, like Casper Mattress, Audible Books, and MarketingProfs.

But what if you were to sponsor a podcast in the same way soap companies sponsored radio dramas in the 1930s and 40s, which later became our modern soap operas. Imagine having a bi-weekly or even monthly radio drama that drew in thousands of listeners just because they wanted the story? The audiobook industry is already a billion dollar industry, and I believe the audio theater industry could be a big part of that. There are already a number of popular audio drama podcasts. And while they may not be wildly popular, they still reach a devoted audience every week or month.

Content marketing needs to travel beyond just blogs and white papers. It needs to be more than the same old, same old that every other B2B content creator is trotting out to its customers. If you want to truly stand out, try something that’s so unusual, it will stand out just by virtue of being one of the first companies to do it.

How to Learn and Understand Anything

Jon Barney is an up-and-coming writer in the Orlando, Florida area (originally from Lafayette, LA, and has a lot of big ideas about a lot of things. Jon says he has an amazing wife and two kids, and he “loves the hotel restaurant industry and corny jokes,” which makes him a man after my own heart. Jon has an interesting process about he does a deep dive into any idea, process, or event that interests him.

We live in the information age. You can access the entire world from anywhere. Add in 24-hour news feeds, posts, tweets, snapchats, marketing and you are flooded with information.

The problem we face is overload. There is no way possible to download all the information thrown at us. Our brains are like sponges, absorbing information, but it reaches a saturation point. How much water can a full sponge soak up? None. Our brains operate in the same way — if we can’t fit new information into our brains, it gets swept away, and we move on to the next piece. Or we stop taking information in altogether.

Want to learn how an internal combustion engine works? Break down the process and redefine complex terms.

Want to learn how an internal combustion engine works? Break down the process and redefine complex terms.

To understand anything, turn on your childlike curiosity. When I was a kid, I was super annoying (some would say I still am) because I always asked “Why?” Every answer I received led to more and more questions.

After my mom said “Because I said so, that’s why” a thousand times, I realized my parents didn’t have the patience or knowledge to satisfy my curiosity. Instead, they sent me to school to let someone else deal with me for a while. I kept going off on tangents because the “broad overview” we were getting wasn’t enough. I wanted to dive into each subject, but knowing everything about American history doesn’t help you pass math. To satisfy my curiosity and keep my grades up, I had to learn to understand ideas at lightning speed.

I learned from that experience how important questions are. You have to ask the right questions to find the right answers. We all know that, but do we actually do it?

Think about these two questions “What is the meaning of life?” and “What is the meaning of my life?” Which one is easier to answer? The right question leads you to the key concept in the shortest amount of words. To find the right question start with the 5 basic ones: who, what, where, when and why. Answering those will help you create a more specific question and help you find your meaning.

Break Things Down to Their Smallest Digestible Parts

Let’s say I want to know how an engine works. I go through the 5 basic questions to form the right question. Who designs engines? What is an engine? Where do they make them? When was the first engine built? Why did someone invent the engine? The answers are difficult to understand because they are written by engineers for engineers.

I take all the research I’m doing and find any words or processes I don’t know and redefine them. (Good thing I have that Google Dictionary in my pocket.) Next, I remove technical jargon and insider slang from anything I’m reading and replace them with synonyms I already know. Using words you already know frees up your brainpower to search for meaning in the idea instead of being a dictionary.

You have all of this easy to understand information but not enough memory hold every detail in. Use the KISS formula — no, not painting your face — Keep It Simple Stupid.

How do you do that? Think of a deck of cards as your information, and break it down into groups. You know there are 52 cards, 26 of each color, 13 of each suit and 4 of each value. You have to do the same thing with information and go for the lowest common denominator.

It’s actually a complex process to understand and find meaning in things. You draw on all your life’s experiences, memories, emotions, opinions, life situations, and influences just to come up with something you can understand. That’s a lot of mental computing just to see if the story about increasing oil prices will affect you.

Making It Simple Makes It Stick

I mentioned breaking everything down in common language terms earlier for a reason: There is no point in having all the knowledge in the world if you can’t share it.

I had a sales job for a while, but not very long because I was terrible at it. I couldn’t sell water in the desert. One day my sales manager explained why I wasn’t selling anything.

“Jon, no one understands what the hell you are talking about. If you can’t explain it to a 5th grader don’t say it to your prospects!”

I quit eventually because I was tired of not eating, but I also learned two important lessons. Test your pitch on someone first. And big, fancy words are nice for term papers or to impress your snobby friends at the coffee shop, but they don’t help people understand complex ideas. Teaching someone else locks the information in your brain by building mental short cuts.

Understanding anything is simple if you can remember: to be annoying, ask smart questions, play cards and that no one cares if you know what sesquipedalian means.

Photo credit: Mj-bird (Wikimedia Commons, Creative Commons 3.0)

Skip the Fancy Apps: You Don’t Need Special Tools to be a Writer

I love to hassle my artist friends about the cost of producing their art versus mine:

“Do you ever think about how you need a $1000 camera to make your art, but I can do mine with a pencil stub and back of an envelope.”

And then I get escorted from their exhibition, and they don’t speak to me for months.

I’ve had several discussions with photographer friends — all professionals who make their living behind the lens — about whether they could produce high quality work with a cheap point-and-shoot camera or needed expensive equipment. They all agreed, good equipment made life easier, but their (breathtaking) skills let them overcome the shortcomings of the cheap equipment.

And so it goes with painters, sculptors, potters, jewelers, and furniture makers. Professionals can do a lot with cheap tools, but they really shine with high-quality tools and equipment. (Conversely, an amateur armed with the best tools doesn’t have the skill to match the professional using poor tools.)

Writers Don’t Need Special Equipment

Erik Deckers' Smith-Corona TypewriterThat’s the great thing about writing. Our work doesn’t improve with our tools. We don’t need hand-crafted pencils made from reclaimed barn beams and carbon fiber bicycle wrecks. Or pens with comfort grips and high-tech synthetic ink. Or frictionless paper that glides under our hands. (Although this Ogami stone paper is unbelievably smooth!)

A writer really can get by with a golf pencil and the back of an envelope. A writer writes; everything they do happens in their brain, and gets translated onto paper.

It’s the same on the digital front. There are no special apps that make us better writers. No apps that make our words shine or turn them into magical ideas.

Sure, there are plenty of tools that claim to be writers’ apps. Tools that shut off Facebook and tools that hide your entire laptop screen. But what can they do that a simple “I’m not going to use Facebook for the next two hours” self-promise cannot?

(Said the guy who checked Twitter three times in the last hour.)

There are minimalist writing apps that strip out all the bells and whistles of Apple Pages or Word. But you can also get TextWrangler for Mac or Microsoft Works for free, or just plain old Google Docs.

There’s even Scrivener, but that’s more of a workflow/information management tool. It’s great for large bodies of work, like a master’s thesis, novel, or screenplay, but for anything less than 1,000 words, it’s like taking a moving van on a quick run to the grocery store.

There are other tools, like and, but they’re not writer-specific. And don’t get me started about Evernote. I love Evernote, and have the pro version, but you can’t swing a dead cat/mouser/tomcat/grimalkin without hitting an article that lists Evernote as a “must-have writing app.”

What CAN Writers Use?

Don’t get me wrong. These are all fine apps, and I use several of them. But these aren’t must-haves like a photographer and his camera, or a painter and her brushes.

If you want special writing tools, get a basic notebook and a decent pen, and just start writing. Or pick the word processor and laptop you’re most comfortable with. Whether you handwrite everything, or you have a 21″ HD computer monitor and bluetooth keyboard, you’re going to get your best work done with the tools you feel comfortable with.

I’ve written in small grid-lined Moleskine notebooks with a Pilot G-2 gel pen for 12 years. I’ve pounded on a 60 year old Smith-Corona Silent Super typewriter, and an 80 year old L.C. Smith & Corona Silent. I’ve used Apple’s word processor (AppleWorks, ClarisWorks, and now Pages) since I was 20. I’ve played with different writing apps, including Facebook blockers, minimalist writers, and even Scrivener.

But none of these made me a better writer. None of these improved my writing or my efforts. Sure, some of them were more efficient, but you measure good writing in results, not efforts. No one cares about the process, just the finished product.

In the end, no tool will make you a better writer. Apps can improve the process, but they don’t improve your skills. While we can argue that better tools make better paintings/photographs/sculptures/tables, a better word processor doesn’t make a better story. Focus less on the tools you use, and more on your process, and everything will fall into place.

The Seven Mudas (Wastes) of Content Marketing

Lean Manufacturing, which spawned America’s Agile business movement, is based on a Japanese management philosophy. It was further developed by Taiichi Ohno as part of the Toyota Production System. Ohno identified seven different areas of waste, and said that if companies could solve these problems, they could improve profits and productivity.

One of the tenets of the Lean Philosophy is to avoid mudas, or wastes. In manufacturing terms, these are the different pinch points that have an impact on the manufacturing process. For example, Inventory means you’ve tied up a lot of capital in having extra raw materials or finished products on hand, which crunches your cash flow. Over-processing means you’re putting more time and energy into each unit than you will see in profits.

While the Seven Mudas are applied primarily to manufacturing, they can be equally applied to content marketing. They are Transportation, Inventory, Motion, Waiting, Over-Processing, Over-Production, and Defects; they spell TIMWOOD.


Transportation is one of the Seven Wastes of Content Marketing as well as Manufacturing.

This is an example of the Transportation muda. Products can get damaged during transportation, which wastes time and money.

What it means: Every time you move raw materials or a finished product, it can be damaged or lost. You also have to pay for each time you move it with labor and equipment costs, but those don’t add to the value of the product.

How it applies to content marketing: If you edit your content by committee, if you have layers upon layers of approvals, if you have a system that does not trust two grown adults to write and edit a piece of content, you’re wasting everyone’s time and energy. The Transportation muda is the time and resources wasted by passing a piece of content between three or more people who need to approve before it can be published.

How to solve it: Set up a system where one person writes, one person edits, and then it gets published. If you require a third person’s approval, these are symptoms of a bigger inefficiency. You presumably hired intelligent, responsible adults, and if you can’t trust them to make intelligent, responsible decisions, that’s a management problem, not an employee problem. Before you ever start a content management program, create an understanding of what you can and cannot discuss on your blog or social networks.


What it means: Storing up raw materials or completed products. They don’t make you any money, and won’t until you sell it, which is wasted capital and labor. This is the problem that just-in-time inventory systems usually fix.

How it applies to content marketing: Storing up a lot of articles in advance can cause publishing problems because you either have to pay your writers up front (tying up capital), or you could lose the content because other issues and industry changes arise. You’ve paid for all of this great content, only to bump it further down the publishing queue until it’s out of date or completely forgotten.

How to solve it: Don’t store more than one month’s content in your inventory, because you never know when your editorial calendar is going to change. Instead, revisit your editorial calendar once a month, and make sure you’re still on track.


What it means: Similar to Transportation, Motion is about the movement of workers and machines. Too much motion makes people prone to injury, and machines are prone to damage from wear-and-tear through continual motion.

How it applies to content marketing: I’m going to reverse this one. The problem with a lot of content is over-automation. It’s a lack of motion. People look for the shortcuts and easy way out. But you’re sitting on a comfy chair, typing on a computer, and the only thing that actually moves are your fingers and wrists. What kind of shortcuts in life do you actually need for this job?

How to solve it: If you want good content, it’s going to take some effort on your part. You’re going to have to read, research, edit, and practice. You’re going to have to be creative, and come up with new ideas. You can’t automate this, and you can’t take shortcuts. Don’t copy-and-paste tweets into Facebook status updates. Write something different for each channel, and take advantage of its uniqueness.


What it means: The opposite of Motion is Waiting. If products are not being transported or made, it causes delays in the line. Delays mean employees are Waiting, which means you’re paying for non-performing labor.

How it applies to content marketing: Waiting is often caused by a bottleneck in your creation process. Either your writer is too slow, or your editor is taking too long. Maybe they have too many projects, or they don’t have enough work. Or you have way too many meetings. (Or you completely ignored me on the Transportation thing, and your compliance department is taking their own sweet time.)

How to solve it: Look at your content staff’s typical productivity, and see what they can normally handle on a good day. If they have less work than that, you need more clients/projects. If they have more work, you need to more people. But don’t create busy work just so they have something to do. Focus on high quality first.


What it means: Doing more work than is actually needed. This not only has the problem of extra Motion, but it also adds additional labor costs.

How it applies to content marketing: Any. Committee. Ever. Do not assign content creation to a committee. The fewer people involved, the better.

How to solve it: Content creation should be between the writer and the editor. (Of course, dont’ forget the client, if you have one.)


What it means: Sometimes called the worst muda, because it creates so many other problems. If you work ahead, you have a problem of Inventory. You have to move the product to its Waiting place, which means more Transportation. More production means more Motion. Plus, you run the risk of creating more Defects.

How it applies to content marketing: Don’t confuse this one with Inventory, although they’re two sides of the same coin. Inventory has its own problems, but Over-production is the process of getting to that point. Are you adding bells and whistles to every piece of content? Are you repurposing old content to the point that you’re just copying-and-pasting, and slapping a different title on it? I see this when a marketer turns a blog post into a podcast into a movie into an infographic into an ebook into a one-woman show at their local fringe theatre festival. It’s tiresome and more than a little lazy.

How to solve it: Figure out what your readers want, and give it to them. Focus on creating original ideas, backed by original research, and make everything the best it can be. Rather than recycling and repurposing that content into 17 different forms, pick one or two and stick with it. Repurposing only contributes to the content shock.


What it means: In manufacturing terms, Defects are broken products that result from bad materials, poor employees, and even problems of Transportation and Motion. Remember, it’s not just poorly-made products; it’s also a unit you stuck a forklift through during Transportation.

How it applies to content marketing: These are your typos, your grammatical errors, misused punctuation, and so on. While a misplaced apostrophe won’t waste a blog post, it can affect your credibility. I’ve seen articles on websites that claim to have strict editorial controls, and they demand excellence from their writers. And yet, I’ve seen misspelled and missing words in their work. So much for “excellence.” These are also articles with bad information, poor research, poor logical arguments, etc. And don’t even get me started on just plain old terrible writing.

How to solve it: Work with professionals. Hire professional writers and editors. Don’t just pass it off to the younger staff because it’s “that new-fangled online stuff.” Pass it off to them because they love to write. Pay for training for your staff, give them opportunities to develop further, and help them get better at their jobs. Or, just outsource the work to the pros.

Did I miss anything? Any descriptions you would agree or disagree with? Any interesting stories you’d like to share? Leave them in the comments below, and let me know how you would describe your own Mudas of Content Marketing.

Photo credit: Astrid Groeneveld (Wikimedia Commons, Creative Commons 3.0)

Eight Simple Rules for Using Apostrophes

I hold two punctuation marks near and dear to my heart. So dear that I want to get a tattoo of them (if my wife would ever let me get one).

They’re the comma (specifically, the Oxford comma) and the apostrophe.

I want to get a big comma on my right shoulder. Then, when I stand up, it will be an apostrophe.

Apostrophes. Well, ONE apostrophe.

See, it could be a comma OR an apostrophe. Now that’s a double duty tattoo!

I want this for two reasons: 1) I believe in the spirit and intent of the Oxford comma, although I recognize that some people believe the Oxford comma is optional and unnecessary. These people are dangerous and you should avoid making eye contact with them.

2) On the other hand, the apostrophe has specific rules and usages which have been carved into stone and were brought down with Moses during a second, less well-known, trip up Mount Sinai.

My friend, Casey Valiant of Signarama Evansville, challenged me to write this blog post (three years after he challenged me to write a post, “Five Things Miley Cyrus’ Tongue Can Teach Us About Business“), so I came up with my eight simple rules for using apostrophes.

(With apologies to Bruce Cameron.)

1. Apostrophes are never, EVER used to pluralize a word.

It’s not DVD’s, CD’s, laptop’s. If you ever want to put an apostrophe before an S to show that you mean more than one, please wrestle yourself to the ground until the urge passes.

2. There is only ONE exception to rule #1.

And that’s to pluralize single letters. The Oakland A’s, the Model T’s.

But you don’t use it pluralize decades, like 70s and 80s.

However, some editors want you to use it before the decade, to show the “19” is missing: I grew up in the ’70s and ’80s.

Finally, don’t use it for combinations of letters and numbers, like “iPhone 5Cs.”

3. Apostrophes are used to show contractions.

“It is” becomes “it’s.” “I am” becomes “I’m.” And even “I would have” becomes “I’d’ve,” and looks goofy.

Also, remember, “would have” becomes “would’ve,” not “would of.”

4. Apostrophes are also used to show possessive.

The man’s shirt was on fire.
The woman’s skirt was caught in the front door

And you put apostrophe-S on the end of plural words that don’t end in S.

The children’s recess was interrupted by the meteor storm.
The gentlemen’s picnic was interrupted by the geese’s mating rituals.

5. Its/it’s is a right bastard.

This the one possessive that violates rule #4. Its (without the apostrophe) is possessive, even though every other possessive word in the known universe has an apostrophe.

It’s is a contraction, and not the possessive version of “it.”

It’s weird, I know. No one said the English language made sense; it’s an ever-changing tapestry of illogic and uncertainty.

6. You MAY or MAY NOT use ‘s on words that end in S. It depends.

Depending on whether you’re American or British, there are rules about which one you follow:

American: I love Dr. Seuss’ books.

British: I love Dr. Seuss’s books.

This is true for plural-and-possessive names too.

American: The Bensons’ peanut-and-olive sandwiches are the best I’ve ever had.

British: Eww, what is wrong with you?!

Some Americans prefer the ‘s on words ending in S, but they’ve been known to consort with people who dislike the Oxford comma. They are morally suspect as well.

This is one area where you can choose your preference. It’s just important that you pick one style and stick with it. Be consistent.

But if you chose s’s, I wish you luck in the future. This is your life now.

7. Apostrophes are used to show glottal stops.

Say “button” without the “tt” sound. Sounds like “Buh-Un,” right? That’s a glottal stop; you’re stopping the air flow in your glottis or vocal tract.

You typically don’t see this used in regular words, but you would see it used in proper names.

For example, the “Shi’Ar” alien race from the X-Men comics, uses the apostrophe to make the glottal stop sound. “She. Arr.” You also see apostrophes-as-glottal-stops in the written Klingon language.

Well, you might, Poindexter. I’m sticking with my comic books.

8. There are stupid exceptions that make me want to set my hair on fire.

One thing that always frustrated me when I was writing Branding Yourself was my editor’s insane insistence that we had to write do’s and don’ts, and put the apostrophe in do’s for “consistency’s sake. It looks balanced.”

“Consistency can go have sex with itself,” I suggested, but was overruled.

These days, I still leave the apostrophe out of “do’s,” but now it looks like “dos and don’ts,” which is Spanish for “two and don’ts.” So, thanks for that.

My point is, there are occasional exceptions which are used either as institutional style, but if you follow them, you’d better make sure you can make a case for violating the other 7 rules.

“Because we said so,” is not a good case. Although it was pretty persuasive at the time.


Those are my 8 rules for apostrophe use. Where do you stand on this somewhat-misused and misunderstood punctuation mark? Did I miss any? Or did I get one of these rules wrong? Let me hear from you in the comments below.

Photo credit: Andreas06 (Wikimedia Commons, Public Domain)

LinkedIn Etiquette: No, I Don’t Want What You’re Selling

As I connect with marketers on LinkedIn, I’m reminded about what Gary Vaynerchuk once said about high school kids and relationships.

They’re always trying to close on the first date.

I’ve lost count of the number of people on LinkedIn who wanted to connect with me, only to turn around and immediately email me with whatever they’re selling.

It’s happened to me for nine years, and I can tell you exactly how many people I’ve responded to with any interest: zero.

I see most people who sell to me on LinkedIn as snake oil salesmen (and women)While I’m not an avid LinkedIn user, I do check it a few times a week, respond to non-sales messages, and will even reach out to a few people for connections.

But I hate it when people I’ve never met try to sell to me on something I never said I needed.

I mean, maybe if I expressed some interest in a particular service, or I publicly lamented about a problem I was having, then I might be interested in what these marketers and salespeople have to say. If I say I hate WordPress because it’s so hard to figure out, or if I gripe that managing my accounts takes too long, then I would expect to hear from WordPress designers or accountants.

(By the way, I’m good on WordPress and accounting. No problems there.)

But when they contact me about their web design, mobile app design, or SEO services, it’s clear they never even read my website, let alone my profile.

When they DM me on Twitter — “Hi, , thanks for connecting! Here’s a free ebook I wrote, which has nothing to do with anything you do for your job!” — I write a similarly-worded message, and invite them to visit my own humor website. I even told a few I would be willing to listen to their sales pitch if they did it. I rarely get a response, which makes me wonder if they read their DMs.

While some people over-connect on LinkedIn, trying to amass as many connections as they can, I take a more reserved approach. I’ll reach out to people I’ve met before, and connect with them. However, I’m less reserved when it comes to accepting connections, because I don’t know if any of them are readers or have bought one of my books. Rather than appear rude, I’ve accepted the connections, only to get a sales message less than 12 hours later.

The Facebook Problem

The problem is easy to identify on Facebook. I think we’ve all gotten these messages. Depending on your gender, a young woman or young man with only two photos on their profile will send a friend request. They’re not in your friend network, except for maybe one mutual friend. Their profile only has one or two photos, slightly sexy, but not overly provocative. And you have no idea how you would know this person.

You only have to accept a couple of these to realize this is some form of spam. The account either changes to porn, or you’re bombarded with private message communication requests. After a couple of these, you learn to ignore friend requests from anyone who does not know several of your friends of both genders.

(Helpful hint: Guys, it’s a telltale sign — and also a little creepy — when a 20-something woman’s only friends are men in their 40s and older.)

We have the same kind of problem on LinkedIn. So many people fail to change their “I’d like to add you to my professional network on LinkedIn” message that most people just accept it. I used to be more picky, and would only accept people who had updated their message. But I decided I was fighting a losing battle, and gave that up.

As a result, I fall prey to every salesperson who’s using LinkedIn to scope out their next cold call. Rather than trying to build a relationship or gauge my interest, they’re immediately pestering me for phone meetings and conference calls.

An accepted connection on LinkedIn does not mean I want to be sold to, especially when that’s the first communication I get from you. Not even a “hi, thanks for connecting.” Just a “Hi, we provide the identical service hundreds of other people have contacted you about.”

If you truly want to become a potential partner or vendor, take the time to gauge my interest and my needs. Provide me with useful information that will help me do my own job better and make my life easier. Share information, provide valuable content, and prove yourself to be someone who’s smart, knowledgeable, and capable of doing what you claim.

Don’t try to sell me in your very first communication. That’s a guaranteed “No.”

Photo credit: Carol Highsmith (Wikimedia Commons, Library of Congress, Public Domain)

Should You Publish on LinkedIn, Medium, and Other Publishing Sites?

Marketers seem to suffer from the Shiny Object syndrome more than most. They’re distracted by the newest, shiniest toy dangled in front of them. Seriously, my dog gets less distracted when I jangle my keys.

Content marketers are just as bad. I’ve seen people jump on Medium, LinkedIn, Ello, This, Inc, Forbes, Entrepreneur, and the Huffington Post, only to jump back off weeks later.

They’re all looking for that elusive publisher, that one tool, that will solve all of their marketing and publishing problems.

If I publish on LinkedIn, people will read my stuff.

If I publish on Ello, people will buy from me.

If I publish on Medium, I’ll be a star.

Take the Fair Face of Woman, and Gently Suspending, With Butterflies, Flowers, and Jewels Attending, Thus Your Fairy is Made of Most Beautiful ThingsHere’s the secret none of those publishers will share: they’re not doing anything special.

They don’t do anything more than any other publisher is doing.

Oh sure, Medium created an app for people who like to think deep thoughts over soy lattes, while LinkedIn is reaching a huge business audience because Richard Branson and Gary Vaynerchuk publish there. But Medium is not the message.

These are still just publishers. They don’t have Magical Publishing Fairy Dust that makes people read your work. You do.

Don’t Build on Rented Land

For years, I’ve said you need your own place to be the central hub of your social media and personal branding. You need some place to send people, some place that is yours and yours alone. Some place that you control, aren’t at anyone’s mercy, and aren’t subjected to the fickle winds of the market.

That’s your blog.

That’s not a spot on Blogger or (I had a client blog get shut down years ago without warning, because Blogger didn’t like our outbound links. Two years’ of content, gone in an instant.)

That’s not your Facebook business page. (Facebook pleaded with everyone to launch a business page, only to shut down their reach unless you pay up.)

That’s not (They shut completely down on July 31.)

That’s not LinkedIn, Medium, or Ello. (Read the previous three paragraphs.)

It’s your blog on your server with your version of WordPress. (Or, God help you, Joomla or Drupal.)

You have no control of your content when it’s on someone else’s site. You can’t stop them from deleting your content, limiting its reach, or shutting down completely.

But if it’s on your blog, you’re in control. It’s your site, it’s your content, and you get to say what you want.

If you still want to use those other sites, go ahead. Just post to your blog first, wait a day or two, and then post to those other sites.

That’s because you want your content to get all the Google juice. If it’s published first, Google will see it as the canonical material. If it’s not first, Google won’t even notice it.

It’ll be like me at my high school dances all over again.

(Secondary publishing: the high school band nerd of content marketing.)

But, even that won’t sprinkle the Magical Publishing Fairy Dust on it.


Social media is the thing that separates average writers with huge networks from great writers with small networks.

If you don’t push your content on social media, people won’t see it. If you don’t promote your work, no one will read it. If you don’t tell people, they won’t care!

Regardless of where you publish, you need to tell as many people you can about your work. They don’t care where you’re published, they just want to see it.

Social media, not some hyped-up blogging software, is your Magical Publishing Fairy Dust.

Do you want to be widely read on LinkedIn? Share your LinkedIn posts on Twitter and Facebook a few times a day. People aren’t always on Twitter or Facebook when you post your messages the first time.

Want your Medium post to reach a larger audience of like-minded readers? Follow your favorite authors, leave smart, personalized comments, and share their work. They’ll check you out, and if they like what you’ve done, they’ll share your work in return.

We’ve been saying this since 2007, when we first started telling people how to reach a wider audience. And it hasn’t changed. The tools may have changed, but the techniques have not. People will read your stuff if you a) have something worth reading, and b) tell them about it.

Bottom line: I’m not saying don’t publish on LinkedIn, Medium, or other places. Publish there second, publish on your blog first. Don’t give up final control of your work to someone else’s so-called magic.

Photo credit: Sophie Anderson, Take the Fair Face of Woman (Wikimedia Commons, painting, public domain)

How Long Should You Spend Writing a Blog Post?

When I worked for the Indiana State Department of Health, I could write a press release in 30 minutes. A colleague who used to work in newspapers could do it in 20. Meanwhile, another colleague, with an English degree, took three hours.

My pocket watch - It should take 1 hour of writing per 300 words of a blog post.The secret was to know the formula, and to know your source material. Boilerplate language was also a huge time saver and space waster. For the most part, the releases were news-y, generic, and unremarkable, but they got the job done. It didn’t matter how long it took, as long as they read like a proper newspaper article.

Writing is as individual an activity as cooking or walking. We all do it at different speeds, and with different levels of efficiency and skill.

Ann Handley, Chief Content Officer at MarketingProfs, said on “The Business of Story” podcast, she spends up to eight hours on a single post. I spend three to four hours on a post here or for one of my own newspaper columns (which are republished on my humor blog). And I’ll spend one to two hours on a client blog post. (Of course, I cheat a bit: I interview the client, and type like mad to get it all down.)

Just Give Us The Secret Formula!

One of the secrets about blog writing is that you don’t do this all at once. Ann will spread her 8 hour blog post over two or three days. My four hour newspaper columns will take all day. And my client blog posts even cover an entire day.

There’s no magic number for how long it takes to write a blog post, but you should plan on one hour per 300 words.

That’s assuming you follow a good writing and editing process. For example, my typical process is:

  1. This is the Hemingway App score for this blog post.

    This is the Hemingway App score for this blog post.

    Write a (shitty) first draft. Anne Lamott gave us permission to write a shitty first draft, so take this time to just vomit everything onto the page. This should take 30 minutes per 300 words, assuming you can type at least 50 words per minute. You should have also previously put some thought into the structure of the article, before you even sat down to write. Then, set it aside for at least 4 – 6 hours; 24 hours is even better. This time away from the work lets you see it with new and fresh eyes, so you can more easily spot problems.

  2. Heavily revise the previous draft. Fix major flaws, remove unwanted sentences, and move paragraphs around. This should take another 20 minutes per 300 words. Then, set it aside for another 4 – 6 hours. Again, more time away from the piece is better.
  3. If you’re a beginning or intermediate writer, repeat Step #2. That includes the 4 – 6 hour waiting period.
  4. Polish it for punctuation and spelling errors. For your last 10 minutes, read the piece through a couple of times, but focus more on fixing errors than rewriting. Read it backward, word by word, to spot spelling errors, missing or extra words, and so on. You may even want to run it through a separate spell checker or the Hemingway App for a final polish.

How Long Should It NOT Take?

A good blog post should not take less than 30 minutes to write. Unless you’re working on a 100-word piece, or a haiku, you should not finish a single blog post in 30 minutes.

That’s because you’re not a good first draft writer. How do I know? Because no one is a good first draft writer. I’ve been writing for 29 years, and I’m still not a good first draft writer.

I know plenty of daily bloggers who say they create their entire week’s worth of blog posts in a couple hours on a Sunday afternoon. I don’t know if they’re bragging, or warning us.

First, not only is that time you should be spending with your family, this means you’re only spending 24 minutes on a single post. (120 minutes ÷ 5 posts = 24 minutes per post.)

Second, I’ve read those blog posts, and I’ll tell you a little secret:

It shows.

We can tell you only wrote that blog post in 24 minutes, and gave it a cursory editing pass before you published it the next morning. Words are misspelled, punctuation is missing, and you forgot the ending to

(See what I did there?)

I’m fast, but I’m not 24-minutes-while-the-game-is-on fast.

But, if you’re able to write your posts that fast, please make sure you edit your draft before you publish. That includes major rewrites and polishing. Publish it later in the afternoon, after you’ve gone through it in the morning.

Writing is a basic skill we all learned in school, but it’s not like riding a bike. We definitely need some practice and time to be able to do it well. But your goal should not be to see how fast you can do it. The Internet is full of content that people tried to do quickly. It’s that stuff no one likes to read.

If you want to write high quality content, take as much time as you need to do the best possible job on it. That’s the only way your work is going to shine through the muck.

Photo credit: Erik Deckers