Using MacGuffins In Your Content Marketing

Despite what it sounds like, a MacGuffin is not a golf term. It’s a writing term used in movies, TV shows, and books.

A MacGuffin is a plot device used to motivate the protagonist to action. It’s something the protagonist pursues or protects, but there’s no real explanation of why it’s important. In fact, the object itself isn’t even important to the plot. It’s just the thing the protagonist and antagonist fight over, one of them trying to take it, the other trying to save it.

It could be a sandwich for all we care. All we know is that the good guy and bad guy are going to beat the crap out of each other trying to get it.

The MacGuffin usually follows one of two themes:

Protagonist: I have the thing.
Antagonist: I want the thing.

or

Antagonist: I’m going to steal the thing.
Protagonist: I have to save the thing.

The most common types of MacGuffins are objects or sometimes a person. Other times, they’re more abstract concepts, like love or survival. TVTropes.com has a great list of MacGuffin sub-tropes, like the Clingy MacGuffin, the Hostage MacGuffin, or the Egg MacGuffin.

The One Ring is a perfect MacGuffin

One MacGuffin to rule them all and in the darkness bind them.

Some famous MacGuffins are things like the plans for the Death Star, the Ark of the Covenant, or the One Ring. Even Private Ryan in Saving Private Ryan and the baby from Ice Age are MacGuffins. In all cases, the MacGuffin was important to the characters, but it didn’t matter as much to us. We care more about the pursuit of the thing, but not the thing itself.

Most importantly, says TV Tropes, do not confuse a MacGuffin for a plot device. The Death Star plans was not the plot of Star Wars, and the thing inside Marsellus Wallace’s briefcase was not the plot of Pulp Fiction. The plot was about people trying to get/save/deliver the plans and the what-was-undoubtedly-a-human-soul.

How Do MacGuffins Figure in to Content Marketing

In content marketing, the MacGuffin is usually the product you create or the service you offer. But you’re not going to talk about your product or service, because that’s boring.

How boring would Star Wars be if they spent several minutes on the construction timeline of the Death Star, its propulsion system and fuel consumption ratings, or the magnetic tape the plans were on? (Seriously? You have faster-than-light travel, but you store information on cassette tapes?)

That’s how people feel about your product. They don’t want to know about the materials it was made with, or the manufacturing process behind it. They want to know what your product will do for them.

Will it make them work better or faster? Can it help them make more money? Will it make them attractive to men or women? Will it prevent heart disease or male pattern baldness?

This is the old “features versus benefits” marketing discussion we’ve all heard. Don’t tell us what it does, tell us what it does for us.

In short, your product is the MacGuffin. It drives your content marketing story forward, but it’s not the thing you talk about.

What’s Your Content Marketing MacGuffin?

If you’re a marketing automation company, the MacGuffin is your software. If you’re a barbecue grill maker, it’s your grills. And if you’re a luggage company, the MacGuffin is your bags.

Which means your readers want to know more about travel. . . with your bags. They want to know about cooking outside. . . with your grill. And they want to know how they can get more leads. . . with your software. But they don’t want you to talk about your bags, grill, or software.

Just like the movies, we don’t actually care about the thing, we care about the pursuit of the thing, the relationships that form around it, and how the thing will change our lives. But the MacGuffin will always remain there as a silent part of everything you do.

The marketing automation company will write about “how white papers generate more leads” and “five best email newsletter headlines.” The assumption is the readers will track all the information on your software, but your articles shouldn’t discuss the software. It’s just implied.

Similarly, our grill manufacturer should talk about things like “gas versus charcoal grills” and “preventing grease fires,” but they should also share articles on new summer recipes and how to use a motorized rotisserie. Again, the grill is important — “I want to use the thing” — but we’re not focused on BTUs or the gauge thickness of the lid.

And the luggage company should write about vacation travel, packing tips, and the activities that necessitate carrying a suitcase. But they shouldn’t focus on the construction of the suitcase, its materials, or the manufacturing process.

In some cases, the MacGuffin is going to be a little more abstract (wealth management, plumbing), or it might be a particular person (a lawyer, a realtor, or an orthodontist). And in some cases, there’s no real MacGuffin at all. Not every movie has a MacGuffin, and not every company is going to be able to use one either.

But if you can identify yours, use it to drive your content marketing story forward, even if you never actually discuss the MacGuffin directly. It will always be there, always present. And in the end, it will become the most important thing of all.

Photo credit: Jorge Arimany (Wikimedia Commons, Creative Commons 3.0)

Do Content Marketers Need to Know Their Flesch-Kincaid Score?

Straightforward exposition entices additional positive behavior. (That’s terrible.)

Simple writing converts better. (Pretty good.)

Short words sell good. (Too much, too much! Pull back!)

Content marketers, if you want your sales copy to generate more leads, it needs to be simple. It has to be good, it has to be interesting, and most of all, it has to be simple.

I would also argue it needs to be interesting, but that’s for a different article. Plus, there’s no software that can really measure that, although Google’s Time On Site and bounce rate stats may be a step in that direction.

As Neil Patel wrote on the Content Marketing Institute,

When users don’t like your content, Google doesn’t either. It works like this. A user accesses your website and decides (in a few seconds) whether she likes it. If she doesn’t like it, she bounces. Google records this information – short visit, then departure – for future reference.

Another user does the same thing – quick visit; then bounce. Another user does the same thing. And another.

Google gets the idea. Your website isn’t satisfying users. They aren’t engaging with it.

Google decides that your website doesn’t need to be ranking as high, and you start to slip in the Search Engine Result Pages.

So if you want your content to be accessible, it needs to be easy to read. If it’s easier to read, people are more likely to stick around for more than a few seconds.

There are plenty of other factors to consider — page layout, use of sub-heads, use of white space — but the number one factor for a readable, accessible page is the simplicity of the language.

Content Marketers, Know Thy Flesch-Kincaid Score

If you want to know whether your writing is simple or not, you need to know your Flesh-Kincaid score. Specifically, your Flesch-Kincaid Grade Level Formula.

This is the score that represents the readability of a piece of text at a U.S. grade level, so it’s easier for teachers and parents to know how hard or easy something is to read. It basically matches up to the grade reading level required to understand the text. If you get a Flesch-Kincaid score of 8, your reader needs to be at an 8th grade reading level to understand it.

Hunter S. Thompson, Miami Bookfair International, 1988I checked out a few different writing samples to compare their Flesch-Kincaid Grade Levels.

Most mainstream newspapers are written at a 6th grade reading level, USA today notwithstanding. Other USA Today stories I checked ran between 10th and 13th grade, thanks to complex and long sentence structures, not overly complex words. That suggests problems with editing, not word choice. And I’ve found that most business writing clocks in at a 7th and 8th grade reading level

It’s not that our readers are stupid, or only have an 8th grade reading level, it’s that people don’t want to put a lot of mental bandwidth into deciphering more complex and convoluted articles. They don’t want to slog through a complex, jargon-filled multi-syllabic narrative. They want to read something easy.

And if your content is easy to read, they’re going to read it. If it’s not, they won’t.

How to Measure Your Flesch-Kincaid Score

There are a few ways you can measure your Flesch-Kincaid score. Microsoft Word users have that functionality built right in, so it’s easy to find. (Check the Show readability statistics box in your Spelling and Grammar preferences.)

For Apple users, use the Hemingway app, which you can use to identify not only your grade level, but the number of adverbs, uses of passive voice, and sentences that are hard to read and very hard to read (like this one). You can use the Hemingway app on their website, but I bought the $19.99 version on the Apple store. (It’s available for Windows as well.)

The problem with the Hemingway app is that they don’t give you decimalized grade levels though. If you want that extra accuracy, you can use the Readability Test Tool by WebPageFX. That’s the tool I used to get the scores above. My other complaint about the Hemingway app is that it doesn’t ignore html text; the Readability Test Tool does.

Content marketers, if you want your readers to stick around and read your work, it needs to be easy. Try to keep it at a 7th grade reading level or lower. That means concise words, succinct sentences, and compressed paragraphs. (That’s terrible.)

Sorry, I mean short words, short sentences, and short paragraphs. (Ah, much better.)

Photo credit: Wikipedia.org

Six Crisis Communication Lessons to Running Your Business During an Emergency

Ten years ago, when I was in crisis communication for the Indiana State Department of Health, part of my job was to create an emergency contingency plan if we were ever in the field without power or an Internet connection.

Our job was to communicate with the public during an emergency, and we couldn’t let little things like power outages stop us. Our plan involved battery backups, cell phones, a Verizon MiFi, car AC converters, and even hand delivering CDs of videos and releases to local newspapers and TV stations.

I was reminded of all this when I had to send my Mac to the shop to have the logic board replaced, and they said they’re keeping it for 3 – 5 days.

I’ve run my business out of a backpack for the last seven years, and this marks the first time I’ve tried to function without my handy laptop. In just a few agonizing days, I’ve been reminded of those emergency preparedness lessons, and I’ve learned some new ones as well. Here are six ways to function during an emergency or equipment loss.
My iPad and Bluetooth keyboard - a bare bones crisis communications setup

1. Make sure you already know how to use your gear.

I’m going to be working off my iPad and a Bluetooth keyboard for about five days, writing everything on Google Drive and using Google Chrome to update my client blogs. I had an old MacBook, but it bit the dust last month, which means I’m using the ultimate in dumb terminals.

Luckily I’ve used this kind of setup before, so I didn’t waste a few hours trying to figure out how to get everything to work. I fired up Google Drive, connected the keyboard, and I was off and running. But I was able to do it because I’ve already practiced this setup before.

Identify your backup gear, and try to spend a day using it. Find the holes in your knowledge and equipment, and fill them both quickly.

2. Store things in the cloud.

I have two external hard drives, but I also recently started backing up my important documents to my iCloud account, as well as Dropbox. So even if I don’t have access to everything on my hard drives, my important files are easily accessible.

Basically, I’m writing everything on Google Drive, including this article, since that’s how I share my client documents anyway. And while I normally keep my works-in-progress on my laptop, I uploaded everything to Drive before I headed to the Apple Store, just in case I got some bad news. I could also download my current articles from my iCloud and open them with Pages on my iPad.

And if my computer was completely destroyed, I can still restore everything from one of my hard drive backups.

3. Use cross-device apps and services.

I also use other cloud-based services for my business. My bookkeeping is on Freshbooks (they have an app, as well as their website), Todoist is my to-do list (which runs on all my devices, plus online), and I keep track of important information on Evernote (cross-device, cross-platform, as well as web-based). And my email portal is Gmail, which I can access from anywhere. (I could even go to the local library and answer emails if things were especially bad.)

However, the major DDOS attack last week reminded us how vulnerable we are if our access to the Internet goes down. This is why I don’t operate completely in the cloud, and still store things on my laptop. It’s why a cloud-only setup is not ideal. Even if we were cutoff from the rest of the world, anyone who still keeps documents on their laptop can still function. So don’t put all your electronic eggs in one basket. Strike a balance.

4. Keep everything powered up.

One lesson Hurricane Matthew reminded us of is to keep your devices and your batteries powered up at all times. Since my Bluetooth keyboard is cordless, that means I need to have batteries on hand. Since I’m working at home most of the time, I’m fine. But on those days that I’m working in a coffee shop, it’s smart to keep a couple batteries in my bag, just in case.

I also have to keep an eye on my iPad, which is running wifi and a Bluetooth. It slowly loses power over time, even when it’s plugged in, so I try to take a break every couple hours to let it recharge faster.

5. Use a password vault.

Security is also important, which starts with secure, hard-to-remember passwords. The problem with having everything on the cloud means trying to remember every password you ever created. Or worse, you can easily remember the one password you use on all your accounts. (Don’t do that. It’s extremely unsecure).

I use a password vault that syncs my various passwords between my laptop, tablet, phone, and the cloud. I never have to remember my passwords, I can either retrieve them from the vault by hand, or have them fill in directly. So I only remember the master password to get in, and my vault handles the rest.

This means I can even use a backup computer, and still access my various web services without using the Forgot Your Password retrieval function. I recommend a password vault like LastPass or 1Password, which both work on different devices and platforms. Even if you have a Windows laptop and an iPad, they’ll still sync up your passwords.

6. Practice, practice, practice.

When I was in crisis communication, we were always training and preparing for terrorist attacks, as well as natural public health emergencies, like avian flu. But rather than wait for years for one of those things to happen, we decided our best practice was to work on any small emergencies, like an e. Coli or salmonella outbreak.

My staff and I would put together a press release, gather the necessary information, and share it with the appropriate media outlets. We worked to get it out within an hour of our first notification, because we knew that would be our benchmark if we ever had a real emergency. While an emergency never arose, we were even prepared when we participated in full-scale exercises that involved the entire state, and would have been ready for the real thing.

Similarly, I try to spend a few hours every frew months working solely in the cloud or working on this iPad-and-keyboard setup to make sure I can make it all run efficiently when the time arises. I’ve still managed to meet all deadlines and respond to my emails, without any problems.

While this setup isn’t ideal for someone who focuses strongly on high-scale production work, and needs access to a lot of local information — photos, videos, and past work — it’s at least a great way for me to stay productive and give my clients what they need. It’s put a few of my wish-list projects on hold, but I’m still managing the important work.

By keeping backups of everything, and being very familiar with the way my backup equipment and services work, I was able to come home from the Apple store, switch everything on, and get back to work without missing a beat.

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 Passle.net 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.

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 RhymeZone.com and Thesaurus.com, 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.