What a Beef Stroganoff Recipe Teaches About Bad Blogger Outreach

One of the problems with having a blog about content marketing is that people want to constantly post guest articles on my website. And just like the spam connections I get on LinkedIn, these all follow a certain formula.

Dear NAME,

I enjoyed reading your blog post at URL, and thought you might be interested in an article about TOPIC.

We just wrote an article about SIMILAR TOPIC and thought you might want to post it on your blog.

And don’t forget to include the backlink that will boost our skeezy client’s Google search ranking and possibly help affiliate sales. [I’m paraphrasing that last part a bit. — Erik]

And no, I’m not exaggerating. I get two or three of these messages per month. They all follow the same formula, they all want to publish something that is sort of tangentially related to what I write about (content marketing and writing), and they all praise an article they never actually read.

But I got an email last week that may qualify as Worst Email Ever. I could tell that not only was the entire process automated, the author hadn’t actually read any of the information he purports to have read. This is what I got.

Dear Editor, [My name is literally all over my website. —Erik]

My name is [J—] and I’m the Editor at [Unnamed Website]. I was doing research on beef stroganoff recipes and just finished reading your wonderful blog post: https://problogservice.com/tag/content-marketing/

In that article, I noticed that you cited a solid post that I’ve read in the past: http://beefandboards.com/

We just published a delicious beef stroganoff recipe complete with step-by-step pictures and detailed instructions. You can find it here:  [URL that I will not dignify with a backlink]

If you like the recipe we’d be humbled if you cited us in your article. Of course, we will also share your article with our 50k newsletter subscribers and followers across our social platforms.

A plate of beef stroganoff. I looked and looked at it, but it teaches me nothing about blogger outreach.

Besides, my mom made the best beef stroganoff!

Four issues told me that J— hadn’t read anything.

  1. The “article” he supposedly read is a Tags link on my blog. You can click a tag on any blog and read all the articles that have been tagged with that keyword. So it’s not an article, it’s a whole list of articles. He would know that if he had even briefly skimmed that page.
  2. The “solid post” he’s read in the past? It’s a URL for Beef & Boards Dinner Theater. Beef & Boards used to be a national chain of dinner theaters that closed down. The only one left is in Indianapolis, Indiana. The URL is to an entire website, not a single blog post.
  3. The article he wanted me to link to was about how to make beef stroganoff. And why? Because I wrote an article about a place called Beef & Boards. Again, if he had read my blog, he would see there are no recipes; if he had read the actual article I wrote, he would have seen there’s no mention of food.
  4. This was the first and only article I ever wrote on this blog where I mentioned Beef & Boards, and it was based on an interview I did with an actor in a show at that theater. I was a travel writer for several years, and I wrote about Beef & Boards shows on other blogs, but I never did a theater review on my work blog. J— would have known that if he had read other articles; he clearly didn’t.

So I wrote back to J— and said that while I was not interested in publishing a beef stroganoff recipe on a blog about writing and content marketing, I would make sure his request appeared on my blog rather soon.

And now it has.

A Plea to All PR Flacks and Content Marketers

To those of you doing blogger outreach, please please PLEASE write individual letters to your contacts, not form email.

Don’t find a way to automate this so you can do more faster. This is not something where you want to pump out hundreds and thousands of emails every week. If you’re only going to get a 1% success rate, the trick is not to send out more spam, it’s to give your efforts a more personalized touch. Reduce the number of people you contact, and don’t waste the energy and effort on contacting people who aren’t a good fit for what you do.

Look, you already have a job where you sit down all day and the only things you move are your fingers. Don’t find a way to be more lazy about it.

Instead, just try these simple steps:

  • If you say you read an article, make sure you actually read it. Quote something from it. And not just the opening sentence. Talk about why that article is important to you.
  • If you’re going to send any links, copy and paste them into your browser and then test them. Make sure you grabbed the right link, and that it actually works.
  • Tell the other person why you think your article would make a good fit on their blog. It shows that you read more than one, which means you’re actually interested in them. They’re more likely to accept your request that way.

Blogger outreach is tough because you’re writing to people who aren’t likely to write you back. But that doesn’t mean you should take shortcuts or automate the process to make it easier. I’d be willing to wager that you’d get a better response if you wrote 10 individual emails per day than sent out 100 automated messages.

Photo credit: JeffreyW (Flickr, Creative Commons 2.0)

Encourage Your Employees to Become Rock Stars

Over the last 20 years, I have worked for (and known people who worked for) bosses who did not want their employees to become prominent names in their industry. Whether they felt threatened, thought it distracted them from their “real” work, or thought it was a waste of time and resources, these managers didn’t like employees who had name recognition

Lindsay Manfredi plays bass. She's one of the true rock stars in music AND personal branding.

Lindsay Manfredi. My good friend and bassist for the band Cold. She really IS a rock star, both in music and personal branding.

One friend — let’s call him Burt O’Higgins — went to work for a software company after spending years developing his own personal brand, becoming one of his industry’s top thought leaders. The company considered it a real coup to get my friend to work there. “But,” they said, “you can’t speak at any more conference events as yourself. You can’t be “Burt O’Higgins from Big Software,” you have to be “I’m from Big Software, my name is Burt.”

They couldn’t give any logical reason why they didn’t like it, but the message was clear: you’re more popular than us and we don’t like it.

So Burt left, started his own company, and worked for Big Software as a freelance contractor, charging more than his old salary and working fewer hours. And he got to speak at as many conferences as he wanted, which boosted his own popularity and increased his client base.

Big Software might have benefited more if they had just let Burt be Burt, do his thing under his own name, and still attract plenty of attention for his employer.

There’s nothing wrong with letting your employees be industry rock stars, becoming one of the popular thought leaders that others look to for new ways of thinking. In fact, there are a few benefits your company will see by helping your employees become those leaders.

1) It makes them effective communicators

Every job description I see requires “effective oral and written communication skills.” Speaking at 4 – 6 conferences a year is going to build up effective oral communication skills. Writing articles for trade journals and blogs is going to develop effective written communication skills.

And if your people don’t have those skills, send them to Toastmasters. Pay for books and training courses. Send them on seminars where they can hone those skills. Pay for memberships in professional associations. And give them an outlet to express all this newfound knowledge.

Then unleash them on industry and allied conferences. Encourage them to write articles for trade journals or the company blog. Ask them to speak at conferences. Make sure people see your rock stars at different industry happenings, so they know your company is serious about thought leadership in that field.

But best of all, think about how much better your rock stars will be at communicating fpr your company as well. Not only will they be better at communicating internally, but they’ll be doing some great marketing and brand awareness building for your company too.

2) Your company looks like a great company for hiring them

One thing GE was known for during the Jack Welch years was for turning out great CEOs for other corporations. Partly because Jack wasn’t going to leave short of a military coup, but also because when GE executives reached the VP level, they were so good at their jobs that other corporations wanted them to run their own companies.

The same thing happened to the Oakland A’s in the early 2000s. (Read Moneyball by Michael Lewis. It’s not just a baseball book, it’s a primer on unorthodox-but-effective corporate management.) The A’s scooped up baseball players who didn’t fit the traditional baseball mode, helped them develop their best skills, and turned them into the kinds of ballplayers that other teams wanted badly. And the Oakland A’s became a stellar baseball team to boot, because they built the team around their players’ strengths.

So how cool will your company look when you start churning out superstar after superstar? How many CMOs can you create? Or HR directors? Or CFOs? Or national sales managers? Your company can be seen as an incubator for some of your industry’s leading talent if you just help them develop.

3) It’s free marketing

My friend Burt would go to 6 –10 conferences every year and share his knowledge. He used his clients as case studies, but he never made sales pitches. Instead, he just shared stories and ideas with a rapt audience for an hour — an audience filled with people who hired experts like him.

Now, imagine your sales and marketing people speaking at conferences, demonstrating their knowledge and skills about the problems your company solves. Imagine a water filter company educating coffee shop managers and brewers about pure water at a national coffee or craft brewery conference. You can educate people about the importance of pure water without ever talking about your product, but when people read the name in the bio, they can put two and two together.

When I speak at conferences, I talk about how to improve your writing, or the future of content marketing, or how to use novel writing techniques in business writing. I never do a sales pitch, but my expertise clearly speaks for itself. And I’ve gotten clients just by speaking at industry conferences.

So what happens if your marketing director speaks at an industry conference, or your HR director, or your operations manager, or even your CEO? You can have a big influence on hundreds of people without once mentioning your product or company just by sharing your knowledge. Now, what if you could unleash 10 rock stars on the different conferences of the industries you serve.

4) You’re creating rock stars for your company

“But people will improve their skills and they’ll want to leave our company,” is a common refrain among managers.

Seriously? You don’t want people to improve their skills? You’d be happy that average people with average skills are staying at your company for ten or fifteen years? That’s the most depressing thing I’ve ever heard.

Let’s face two facts. First, people are going to leave your company. No one stays at a company very long anymore. That’s how employment works these days. So train them, help them develop, and wish them well when they leave, knowing you taught them enough that someone else wants them. And you’ll get their best work out of them while they’re there.

Second, the people who leave will become decision makers and influencers in other companies. What if your marketing manager leaves to become a VP of Marketing at one of your clients? What do you think she’ll tell her new colleagues if she leaves with bad feelings? Conversely, what will she tell her new colleagues if she leaves with your full support and gratitude?

(This is also why it’s not a bad idea to hire people in their 50s and 60s. Rather than turning them down because “they’re only going to be here for a few years,” recognize that no one says in their same position for 30 years anymore. Hire older workers and get some of the very best, most experienced people you’ll ever find. But that’s for another article.)

Developing rock stars for your company has many upsides and very few downsides. You’ll create top talent for your company, which means they’ll do their best work for you. They’ll be out promoting themselves (and thus, your company) with their speaking and writing. And they’ll moving up to positions of influence and decision making, which means you’ll have allies in other companies.

The only downside is that you may have people who are more well-known than you. But you can turn that around and become known as the company (or manager) who produces rock star after rock star. So start writing and speaking about how to create rock stars within your company, and guess what you can become. . .

Do You Even Need a Style Guide? Not Necessarily

What’s the proper way to make an apple pie? Are they shredded, diced, or sliced apples? Do you make your own crust or buy pre-made crusts? Do you have a fancy lattice top or the Dutch apple crumble top?

And whose recipe do you follow? Is it the first one you Googled, or is it Memaw’s secret family recipe handed down from generation to generation?

Ask this question on Facebook, and you’ll have plenty of strong opinions from plenty of people, and about 12 back-and-forth arguments before someone is calling someone else a Nazi.

Style Guides Are Like Apple Pies

This is how people, especially writers, feel about their style guides.

Different style guide examples. It's hard to choose the right one.To them, their style guide is the One True Guide, their Bible about how issues and misunderstandings about language, punctuation, and even grammar are to be handled.

There are a few dozen style guides, including ones from the Associated Press, Chicago Manual of Style, American Psychological Association, Modern Language Association, Turabian, Council of Science Editors, and even The Elements of Style.

And you’ll find outspoken proponents of every one of them.

Each person will insist that their style guide is the right one and will argue with those heathens who don’t agree to worship The One True Guide.

Except there’s no One True Guide.

No one is able to lay claim that their guide is the definitive way to punctuate sentences, abbreviate states, or denote time (a.m./p.m. versus AM/PM).

(But you can have my Oxford comma when you pry it from my cold, stiff, and dead fingers, Associated Press!)

Each guide is assembled by learned editors who have heated discussions about each new entry and change in their guide.

They’ve discussed and debated new issues as they come up, they look at how language is being used and written in society, and they update the guides to reflect those changes when necessary.

In May 2012, the Associated Press said they would no longer object to using the word ‘hopefully’ at the beginning of a sentence, rather than making people say ‘I am hopeful’ or ‘It is hoped that.’

People went nuts. They howled in protest, they screamed and tore their garments, and the Internet burned for three days. People said they were going to die on this hill and they weren’t going to let any stupid Associated Press tell them how to use English when Mrs. Kugelschreiber had drummed this rule into them so many years ago. They were going to stick with the “right” way to do it, despite what these so-called experts said.

Ahh, innocent times.

Of course, the angry mob missed two important points:

  1. It was a made-up rule to begin, having been created in the 1960s. Before then, it was acceptable to start sentences with “hopefully.” Besides, there’s no rule about starting sentences with other floating sentence adverbs like “sadly,” “unfortunately,” and “surprisingly,” so this one was just something people latched onto without understanding why.
  2. The rule only applied to writers and editors who worked for the Associated Press. It had nothing to do with general language usage. People were free to start or not start sentences with “hopefully” to their heart’s content.

This is the important thing to remember about style guides: While these are prescriptive guides, they are by no means the official rules for The Way English Is Done. These guides are only for a particular job, field, or organization.

The Associated Press Stylebook tells writers about the rules they must follow when writing for the Associated Press, although many non-AP journalists use it. The New York Times Manual of Style and Usage is only meant for writers and editors at the New York Times. The APA Publication Manual from the American Psychological Association is written for academics in social sciences, like psychology, speech communication, linguistics, and sociology.

And if you’re not part of those organizations, you are not bound by those rules.

Which Style Guide Should I Use?

Bloggers and content marketers can argue about which style guide is the best, but there’s no right answer. I always recommend bloggers use the AP Stylebook, because it’s small, inexpensive, and addresses 95% of our issues.

I also like the AP Stylebook because many bloggers act as citizen journalists, which means we should follow the guide that most other journalists use.

However, there’s no real guide for bloggers to use. We’re free to pick and choose, but we do so voluntarily, not because there’s an official Way English Is Done.

Bottom line: As long as you spell words right and put them in the right order, the rest is up to you. The benefit of a style guide is that it helps you be consistent throughout your writing. It means you always know where to put punctuation, whether you’re going to follow the postal abbreviations for U.S. states, and how to capitalize headlines.

And whether you should use the Oxford Comma or if you’re a filthy, godless monster.

This means you can pick one you like the best and are most familiar with, or you can even create your own style guide. Just make sure you follow it consistently and apply it to all of your business writing — blog articles, web copy, brochures, emails, letters, and even internal communications.

Photo credit: FixedAndFrailing (Flickr, Creative Commons 2.0)

A Simple Content Strategy for People Who Hate Content Strategy

There’s a great scene in John Cusack’s Better Off Dead where he gets skiing advice from Curtis Armstrong: “Go that way really fast. If something gets in your way, turn.”

I can think of no better advice to give someone who wants to do content marketing, but hates content strategy: “Create content for your customers. If something unexpected comes up, deal with it.”

For one thing, too many people put a lot of stock into developing complex content strategy. They draw up battle plans and strategies that would make military planners weep with envy. They overanalyze, overplan, and create year-long calendars of what they want to say on a particular day at a particular hour when Venus is in Gemini.

It’s quite a sight to see a spreadsheet with 500 or more tweets scheduled over a 12 month period.

It’s heartbreaking to see someone’s look of emotional devastation when the entire calendar has to be deleted because of a fairly minor change to the business, their industry, or industry regulations.

(You could hear the screams two counties over.)

A content strategy shouldn't look like a military strategyOver at Contently.com, Joe Lauzakas wrote about the importance of content strategy in Ask a Content Strategist: My Boss Wants Me to Write Blog Posts Without a Strategy. What Do I Do?

He cites all kinds of important statistics like, “According to a 2017 Contently survey, 98 percent of marketers believe that “having and following a content marketing strategy is important for content marketing success.” and “Per CMI’s 2018 B2B Content Marketing Trends survey, 62 percent of content marketers who rated themselves as very successful or extremely successful have a documented content strategy.

And he’s not wrong. But those strategies don’t need battlefield maps and years-long spreadsheets. You should be able to articulate your strategy in less than 30 seconds or on a single piece of paper.

Here’s a quick and dirty content strategy that should see you through an entire year, never need revising, and cover nearly every contingency.

1. Pick 2–3 main benefits of your product.

Or 2–3 services you provide, or 2–3 verticals you serve. These are the three things you’re going to write about the most. In fiction writing terms, this is your A story, B story, and C story. That is, you’re going to write about your main point (A story) the most, second main point (B story) second most, and so on.

Think of a sitcom: the A story takes around 13 – 14 minutes of a 22-minute episode, the B story is going to get 4 – 6 minutes, and the C story is going to get the remainder.

Your content should get this same kind of attention. The thing you’re known for the most should get two-thirds of your attention, and so on.

And if you focus on the services or verticals, you should still write about the 2 – 3 main benefits you offer each service/vertical. For example, if your main clients are lawyers, mystery shoppers, and dachshund wranglers (a dachshund literally just walked by as I wrote this), then you need to talk about the 2 – 3 benefits that lawyers, mystery shoppers, and dachshund wranglers will get from your products. Now you’ve got anywhere from 6 – 9 running topics for blog articles.

Nearly everything you write about should stick to one of these three benefits. You can occasionally deviate from it, writing about company history, special awards, or notable events. But otherwise, everything needs to focus on your 2 – 3 regular topics.

2. Pick 3 or 4 THEMES for your content strategy.

These are the kinds of articles you’re going to write; they’re going to fit into one of these themes, but still focus on one of the categories mentioned above.

Let’s say you own an IT consulting firm, providing computer networking and troubleshooting to small businesses. You could pick a theme-based calendar as follows:

  • Week 1: Write a how-to article.
  • Week 2: Write a client case study.
  • Week 3: Write about computer security.
  • Week 4: Write about IT industry news.
  • Or if you’re a dachshund wrangler, your content calendar would look like this:

    • Week 1: Write a training article.
    • Week 2: Write a story about your own experiences and adventures (a personal case study).
    • Week 3: Write about dachshund health and diet.
    • Week 4: Write about the dachshund wrangling industry.

    Next, come up with a Twitter schedule to tweet about these four themes on a rotating basis. Or you’re going to skip the case studies, and tweet curated articles about topics 1, 3, and 4 once per day (Don’t forget to tweet and post updates about your own blogs too.)

    Just keep it loose and flexible. If you have some breaking industry news that has to publish in week 2, swap it out with the case study that month. And if you ever have a major emergency or important announcement (like a product launch), that supersedes everything. You don’t have to make up the missed days, just pick it up the next time it comes around.

    Or publish two articles that week. There are no rules to this!

    Don’t forget to connect to people who have IT or dachshund wrangling questions (item #4). Communicate with them like real people, and answer their questions. Don’t pepper them with an all-news format. That’s boring and people hate it.

    3. Commit to using all content

    Lauzakas’ article also said, “According to SiriusDecisions, 65 percent of all content that brands produce goes unused. There are a few big reasons for why: content is hard to find, unknown to users, irrelevant, and low quality.”

    First, I’m not going to say “produce high quality content” because that’s stupid advice. I shouldn’t have to tell you that. It’s like telling you to “drive safely” because I think you’re going to go careening all over the road. (You’re not, so the advice is pointless. You’re not going to intentionally produce shitty content, so telling you to write good stuff is pointless.)

    But I will say that it’s absolutely necessary that you commit to using any piece of content you produce. If you write an article, publish it. If you write a tweet, post it. If you produce a video, put it on YouTube. And then promote it.

    If you don’t use it because it wasn’t good enough, then that’s on you. That’s not a lack of a strategy, that’s because you’re not willing or able to, well, produce high-quality content.

    4. Create a basic human-centered social media promotion strategy

    This isn’t that hard either. As Jason Falls is fond of saying, “Share good shit.”

    These days, social media seems to be more about blasting out one-way marketing messages that don’t engage anyone. But you need to rethink that, since it’s clearly not working.

    Think about your TV viewing habits. Do you fast forward through all TV commercials? Of course! We all do! We hate ads. And that’s how people feel about your marketing blasts.

    Stop treating Twitter and other social channels like an advertising medium. Stop posting “hey, read this!” messages over and over. There are Twitter bots that do nothing but post article after article after article, sending over three dozen tweets in a single day that aren’t engaging or interesting. (And if it’s real people doing this, they should be ashamed of themselves.)

    Instead, communicate with people. Talk with them. Have conversations. Ask and answer questions. Share their posts. Treat people like people, not like advertising viewers. Then, when you do occasionally have something of your own to promote, they’re more likely to read it and share it themselves.

    Guidelines, Not Strategies

    To be honest, this is the kind of content marketing strategy I use for all my clients. We focus on a few recurring topics and themes, we use all blog posts that we write, and we promote everything. We even have a basic calendar that says “we’ll write X number of articles about this topic, and Y number about that topic.”

    Other than that, there’s no need to create a complex content strategy. Remember, if you can’t articulate your strategy in less than 30 seconds, or on a single page, it’s too complicated.

    Photo credit: Ipankonin (Wikimedia Commons, GNU Free Documentation License)

    Don’t Ignore Written Content Marketing for the Sake of Video

    Marketers everywhere have begun singing the praises of video so loudly, they sound like Oprah at Christmas.

    “You need a video! And you need a video! Everyone needs a video!”

    Sure, it’s the new and exciting way to share information. Everyone who’s got a mobile phone has the means for creating, distributing, and watching of all sorts of video content. I watch Netflix while I eat breakfast. My kids watch comedy videos throughout the day. And we’ve all used YouTube as a search engine to solve a problem — I changed out my air conditioning filter a few weeks ago, thanks to a South Korean video.

    Except video is not, and should not, be the final word when it comes to content marketing.

    The written word should still get most of our attention as content marketers. If you’re going to add video to your marketing efforts, then you need to increase your overall content marketing creation. Don’t replace written content with video content and hope for the same engagement rates.

    For one thing, gathering information by video is time consuming. If people want to do a lot of research about a major purchase, videos will help, but your customers still want written specs, performance details, and product information. And they want to be able to look details up quickly, rather than watch 87 minutes of video to find one specific detail again.

    (Think of it this way: if you want to know the horsepower of your car, are you going to Google it or watch a 10-minute product video and hope you catch it?)

    For another, video viewing is not going to replace reading. We’re not going to stop reading books in favor of watching someone read them to us on video. If that were the case, the audiobook revolution would have been massive, and brought about a faster end to bookstores.

    We’re also not going to stop reading news articles online in favor of videos of those same articles being read to us. And before you say “but TV news!” keep in mind that most individual news stories only get 20 – 30 seconds of airtime. And that there’s also a more thoroughly written version of each story on a news channel’s website.

    In other words. . .

    Video Will Never Replace the Written Word

    A shoulder-mounted RCA VHS video camera. Not suitable for video content marketing, no matter what happens!

    I used one of these in high school. We thought we were hot stuff then!

    So before you outfit your entire company with GoPros and YouTube accounts and flood the world with your video masterpieces, consider these four problems with video.

    1) Most of us do not do well speaking off the cuff in front of an audience. We stammer, stutter, and lose our train of thought when we’re having a normal conversation, let alone if we’re in front of an audience and are not 100 percent prepared. And there are a lot of videos where people just hit record and started talking.

    Don’t believe me? Pick a topic — how the original Star Wars trilogy is an allegory for today’s American political system — and record yourself talking about it for five solid minutes.

    “But that’s not how I’d do it!” you protest. “I’d prepare and practice and make sure I got everything down just right.”

    I know you will. Which means it will take 4 – 6 hours to produce a five-minute video. Now squeeze that time into your normal workday of meetings, writing TPS reports, and doing your actual work.

    Meanwhile, I wrote this blog post, including edits, in about 90 minutes. I could write four blog posts in 6 hours.

    2) A visual element is not always helpful. A lot of video content is just talking head videos of someone straight staring at their camera, usually on their laptop, and talking to us for three to five to ten minutes at a time.

    Why the hell are we watching this? What are you actually doing that’s so interesting that I need to stop everything I’m doing and stare at my phone to watch your mouth move?

    Are there graphics? No. Special effects? No. Is their kid going to run in and do something awesome? No. It’s just that person’s head, talking, for several minutes without doing anything else.

    This is an inefficient use of your viewers’ time. Your video can easily be replaced with an MP3 and nothing will change. There’s no actual visual value that requires the amount of focus we usually put into video viewing. This information could be shared in a podcast or a blog article instead, rather than us taking the time to watch you talk.

    I started listening to the audio tracks of TED talks for this very reason. When I realized the talks are usually nothing more than someone standing on a stage with a few slides, I found I could listen to them in the car during my commute. Nothing changed, the information wasn’t any different, and my life wasn’t better or worse for having done it.

    Here’s a good rule of thumb: if we can listen to your video without missing anything important, you didn’t need to make it a video. Consider making a podcast instead.

    Photo of F. W. Murnau, noted German film director.

    Photo of F. W. Murnau, noted German film director.

    3) A lot of videos have poor production values. Most mediocre video content is usually shot on a mobile phone, and it shows. The lighting is poor, or the lens is dirty, or the person forgets and holds the camera vertically, so we all have to turn our heads 90 degrees just to see what’s going on.

    And the sound is all tinny, like the speaker is in a giant coffee can, or sitting in the bathroom 20 feet from the microphone.

    If you want to make good — and I mean good videos, not just “barely acceptable” ones — you need to invest in a good DSLR camera, a decent lavaliere/lapel microphone, and a tripod. And you need to get very good at using them. That means hours of practice, learning how to use the equipment properly.

    Sure, you can make an okay cell phone video, but if that’s your company’s video marketing strategy, just shut the business down now and send everyone home. Otherwise, you need to hire a dedicated staffer whose sole job is to make videos, or you need to outsource your video production work to professional video marketers who know how to do this kind of thing quickly and efficiently. (For one thing, they can produce your 5-minute video in an hour or two.)

    4) Short videos are inefficient. This is the biggie: The average person speaks at 100 – 150 words per minute, but the average adult reading speed is 300 wpm. (It’s also 450 wpm for the average college student, and 575 for high level executives).

    That means a 300 word video will take 2 – 3 minutes to watch, but your average customer can read that same 300 word article in 30 – 60 seconds. Meanwhile, your college student will read it in 45 seconds, and your executive will read it in nearly 30.

    This article clocks in at roughly 1600 words, which should take approximately 5 – 6 minutes for the average person to read (3+ minutes for our average college student, slightly less than 3 for our executive). But if I read it to you in a video, you’ll have to watch it for 10 – 16 minutes.

    Now, imagine reading 12 1000-word articles in your favorite business magazine versus watching 12 videos of the same word count. That’s 24 – 48 minutes of reading versus 120 minutes of viewing.

    Videos are great if you can add strong visual elements to them, like Moz’s Whiteboard Friday videos. There, Moz president Rand Fishkin lays out the latest research and developments in search engine optimization, using a whiteboard to illustrate his point.

    But without the whiteboard, he’s just another Wil-Wheaton-with-a-handlebar-mustache lookalike talking to a video camera, and the information is much less enjoyable to watch or easy to absorb.

    Bottom line: I don’t want to watch someone talk to me for 5 minutes when I can read that same block of text in less than 2 minutes. Combine that with bad production values, poor sound, and lots of hemming and hawing, and you can understand why “Just flip on your phone’s camera and start talking” is bad advice.

    By all means, use video in your content marketing. It’s important, it’s helpful, and it’s the wave of the future. But just for God’s sake, do it right! Get proper equipment, learn how to use it, and write scripts of your talk beforehand. Practice and prepare. And if you need to, join a Toastmaster’s club and improve your public speaking.

    Just don’t half-ass your video content because someone told you it was as easy as putting your phone in selfie mode and talking into it.

    When it’s done properly, video content is a beautiful sight to behold: explainer videos, demonstration videos like Will It Blend, or even entertainment videos, like JW Marriott’s amazing “The Two Bellmen” series. Even videos of you giving a talk at a conference are great uses of video.

    But don’t expect video content marketing to replace written content marketing anytime soon. Don’t fire your copywriters and replace them with GoPros and Quentin Tarantino wannabes.

    Video will expand over the coming years, and we’ll be able to make it look better more easily and for less money, but don’t stop focusing on improving your writing skills or your written content.

    Photo credit: Darian Hildebrand (Wikimedia Commons, Creative Commons 3.0)
    Photo #2 credit: Subject: Friedrich William Murnau (Photographer unknown. This photograph is in the public domain in the United States and Russia.)

    Understanding Freytag’s Pyramid for Content Marketing

    Fiction writers and playwrights use storytelling structures to build their story arcs. As someone who has feet planted in both the fiction writing world and the content marketing world, I try to bring these two worlds together. So for the next few months, I’m going to examine the different storytelling structures and determine how they can be used in a content marketing setting.

    Among storytelling structures, Freytag’s Pyramid is one of the most common and easiest to understand. If you took any literature classes in school, you may have even heard of this one.

    Based on the work of German playwright Gustav Freytag, Freytag’s Pyramid is applied to a typical 5-act play. (Sort of the Romans’ “new and improved” followup to Aristotle’s original 3-act story.)
    Freytag's Pyramid
    The idea, said Gustav, is the traditional 5-act structure can be broken down like this:

    • Exposition: Important background information is laid out: characters, setting, previous events. It can be conveyed through dialogue, flashbacks, and narrative exposition. In Macbeth, the titular protagonist and his friends are visited by the Three Witches, who prophesy that Macbeth shall be king, and Banquo shall father a line of kings.
    • Rising action: A series of events that build to the climax. This is where the instigating event happens, which drives the protagonist to pursue his or her course of action. Macbeth and Lady Macbeth kill the king, frame the servants, murder the guards, and drive off King Duncan’s sons, Malcolm and Donalbain, all in their mad pursuit of power.
    • Climax: Not necessarily the final battle, but this is the point on which the play/story pivots. This is the turning point that changes the protagonist’s fate. If the play is a comedy, things were going badly for the protagonist, but now they turn around. If it’s a tragedy, then it’s the reverse. In Macbeth — a tragedy if there ever was one — things were going swimmingly for Macbeth: he and his wife were killing people willy-nilly, becoming the King and Queen of Scotland until, in Act III, Macbeth had Banquo murdered, and Banquo’s ghost showed up and went all Tell-Tale Heart on Macbeth. (You can see a great animated video of The Tell-Tale Heart here.)
    • Falling action: In a tragedy, the conflict between the protagonist and antagonist increases and this becomes the focus of the play. In a comedy, the protagonist wins, in a tragedy, they lose. In Macbeth, things start going downhill for our king. He feels uneasy and starts to think maybe he shouldn’t have been such a murdering bastard after all. But, in for a penny, in for a pound; after Macduff flees, Macbeth orders his castle seized and his household murdered, including Mrs. Macduff and Macduff Junior.
    • Dénouement: Pronounced DAY-noo-mohn (from the French dénouer, or “to untie”), this is the resolution of the story. Conflicts are resolved, there’s a release of tension, and everything goes back to normal/a new normal is established. In a comedy, the plan comes together, the hero gets the girl/guy, and everyone is happy. In the tragedy, the protagonist often dies, and everyone says “Whew! I’m glad that’s over!” But, there’s always some glimpse of the new order or a new hope. For Macbeth, things went increasingly poorly for him. His wife yelled at the dog (“Out, out, damn Spot!”) and committed suicide, and Macbeth was beheaded by Macduff. Malcolm, son of King Duncan, is crowned king, and he promises to be less killy than the last guy.
      1. See how it all fits together? Nearly all of Shakespeare’s plays fit within this structure, although it’s important to note that stories will fit into more than one storytelling structure. There’s no right or wrong one.

        For example, The Hobbit is often considered a Hero’s Journey story, it can also be mapped out in a five act structure:

        1. Bilbo meets Gandalf and the dwarves.
        2. They have adventures on the way to the Lonely Mountain.
        3. They fight Smaug; Smaug dies. But this is not the end of the story!
        4. The Battle of the Five Armies, and the eagles save the day again.
        5. Relationships are mended, Thorin is buried, Bilbo returns home.

        (And if you start hollering about spoilers, the book is 80 years old. You should have read it by now.)

        It’s important to note that Freytag’s Pyamid is not ideally suited for modern stories, which can have 8 acts or even just a strung-together series of scenes. Can you imagine how terrible Avengers 2 would be if the Avengers defeated Ultron at the 1-hour mark? Then we’ve got 1:22 of the Avengers rebuilding stuff and talking about their feelings and shit. Plus, most modern stories have a few climactic scenes, like any Marvel movie. (That structure is called The Fichtean Curve, and I’ll cover it in a week or so.)

        However, Herr Freytag’s construct is a little more forgiving in a content marketing setting, because it doesn’t always have to focus on two characters, like the Hero’s Journey. There, you’re either the Hero or the Mentor.

        Freytag’s Pyramid still follows the exploits of a protagonist and an antagonist, but there are a couple of important differences. First of all, victory is not always guaranteed. Second, we can learn from these failures and use them as a cautionary tale. Third, we can learn about any follow-up and fallout from the climactic pivot point.

        In my next post, I’ll discuss how you can actually use Freytag’s Pyramid for content marketing.

        Photo credit: BrokenSegue (Wikimedia Commons, Public Domain)

    How to Use the Hero’s Journey in Content Marketing

    Fiction writers and playwrights use storytelling structures to build their story arcs. As someone who has feet planted in both the fiction writing world and the content marketing world, I try to bring these two worlds together. So for the next few months, I’m going to examine the different storytelling structures and determine how they can be used in a content marketing setting.

    Years ago, one of my first clients was a small mystery shopping agency. There were only four people on staff (one was part-time), and they had roughly $750,000 in sales per year. They’d been around for a few years, but it was a hand-to-mouth existence, and they were an average size company for their industry.

    They needed help with blogging and social media, so we set to work. Their top goal was to rank high on Google for a few key industry search terms.

    We started blogging on a half-time basis, publishing four articles per month and hitting those keywords hard. Within six months, they were generating enough leads that they tripled their sales (and grew appropriately), so we began publishing eight posts per month.

    We taught the president how to do social media, helped her become a thought leader in her industry, and she was even asked to join the board of directors of her national trade association. She was sought out because of her expertise, and she was landing large clients. While we may have helped her generate the leads, she was traveling around the country, landing large corporate clients.

    We increased their search rank even further, generated more leads, and they tripled in sales again. Then they landed a 7-figure contract with a national brand. And then tripled their sales one more time, growing to a staff of 27 people, all in a matter of three years.

    That story? That’s a basic, pared down example of the Hero’s Journey, a storytelling structure used primarily in novels and movies.

    In the Hero’s Journey, a young person is plucked out of their ordinary existence, challenged by an evil force, is mentored by a wise figure, and learns to triumph over their foe. (That’s simplifying it a lot. If you want to learn more, read last week’s article on the subject.)

    In this story, my client is the Hero, we are the wise mentor, and we helped her get the skills needed to overcome her foe, Stagnation.

    Can the Hero’s Journey Work in Content Marketing?

    The Hero's Journey, adapted from Michael Brizeli's Monomyth mobile application.

    The Hero’s Journey, adapted from Michael Brizeli’s Monomyth mobile application.

    You’ve heard over and over that content marketing is just storytelling. The Hero’s Journey is just that: a storytelling structure. And while there are many ways to use the Hero’s Journey in novel writing and movie making, there are only a limited number of ways to tell this particular story, and they all usually involve the business leader, or sometimes the mentor.

    Luke is plucked off the moisture farm on Tatooine and defeats the Empire. Harry is plucked from under the stairs and defeats Voldemort. Diana is plucked from beautiful, sunny Themyscira, defeats Ares, and can never return home.

    A company owner turns her small company of 3.5 people to 27 people. A cubicle jockey goes on a personal fitness quest with a trainer, loses 100 pounds in a year, and runs a marathon. A young woman moves away from home to go to college, learns new skills, finds inner strength, and graduates at the top of her class.

    Of course, as popular as the Hero’s Journey is, there are only a couple ways we can use it in a business setting, and most of them involve the case study.

    Think about your basic case study:

    Company A had a problem. They were losing money because of [outdated processes/lack of innovation/low morale/pirates]. So Consultant X helped Company A identify their problem through [interviews/research/data analysis/necromancy]. She identified three problem areas, and recommended that Company A take action. Within the first 12 months, they [revamped their processes/held team building retreats/restructured the organization/killed the evil wizard], and their profitability increased by 60 percent.

    Even in a business setting, it still fits the Hero’s Journey:

    1. Call to Adventure:: The business recognizes the problem and takes steps to fix it.
    2. Meeting the Mentor: The consultant arrives and identifies the problem.
    3. The Ordeal: The business uses what the mentor has taught, and fights for its life. The company faces its enemies: stagnation, low morale, stiff competition, and so on.
    4. Resurrection: Victory! Although it’s a short time in a case study, this can take months and years. But it means the company has repaired itself and is on its way to recovery and getting back to normal.

    But using the Hero’s Journey in this way means you can only have two viewpoints, the Hero’s or the Mentor’s. The business executive’s or the consultant’s.

    Part of the reason is because everyone is the hero of their own story. Imagine your life as a movie: is it about you or a complete stranger? Are you the protagonist, trying to do good in the world? Or are you the wise mentor, providing wisdom to others so they can do good in the world?

    Even stories about inventions are often Hero’s Journey stories.

    The Hero’s Journey Doesn’t Always Work in Content Marketing

    As you probably figured out, the Hero’s Journey is actually not a great story structure for content marketing, because it’s limited in its viewpoints — the Hero or the Mentor. Think of how boring a story would be if it were told from the POV of the plucky young sidekick. And how boring would a case study be if it were told from the POV of, say, their accountant.

    “For months, I wasn’t very busy. Then some guy came to the office, talked to them for a while, and my days got busier. The end.”

    However, when you’re writing these case studies, using the Hero’s Journey framework can make your story exciting, interesting, and will keep people reading all the way to the end.

    Photo credit: Michael Brizeli (Wikimedia Commons, Public Domain)