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What I Learned In My First Year of Content Marketing

By Annie ZelmDec 18, 2014

Content.Marketing.Lessons

Just one year ago, as I was contemplating my next career move, I never imagined I would be writing a blog post like this one—or getting paid to blog at all, for that matter. I never thought I’d be working in content marketing, mainly because I only had a vague idea of what that was and what it entailed.

In some ways, I’m amazed at how quickly the time has passed. It really does fly when you’re having fun. On the other hand, sometimes it feels like I’ve been at this much longer. I say that because I’ve had the privilege of working on so many unique projects—projects that challenged me, caused me to rethink things I thought I knew, and ultimately taught me valuable lessons.

I wish someone had told me some of these things when I first started, so I’m taking the time to share them with you, especially if you’re new to this. Content marketing is new territory for a lot of people, and it’s changing so fast that I may very well have a new list next year.

Until then, here are five things I’ve learned in my first year as a content marketer.

Write for Your Readers, Not Yourself

This is admittedly one of the hardest lessons for me, and it’s actually taken years to learn. I’m one of those people who knew I wanted to be a writer from the time I was about 8. I just always loved to write, so I poured my heart and soul into what I did because it made me happy. That’s great when you’re journaling, but when you’re writing for an audience, you need to spend more time listening than writing. Start by interviewing your readers or potential readers before you write anything.

Don’t just talk to them once and assume you’re done. Getting to know your readers should be a continual dialogue, and you should update your findings regularly. It’s the only way you’ll know what they’re looking for, what questions they have and how you can speak to them like someone who really understands them. Think about what’s going to be most useful to them. It might not always meet your definition of high-quality content. It might be a basic checklist or a how-to blog post. But if it’s something they’re looking for, it is high quality content.

People Don’t Read

This sounds terribly discouraging for anyone who makes a living as a writer, but it’s the new reality. We’re all suffering from information overload. There are 500 million Tweets sent out on average each day and hundreds of thousands of stories, blogs and ads bombarding us, as well. Here’s another reality check: eight out of 10 people will read your headline, but only two out of 10 will read the rest. Yes, it’s frustrating, but the sooner you accept it, the more you’ll be able to use it to your advantage.

People don’t always read, but they do skim. That’s why writing great headlines and using reader-friendly formatting is so important. It’s something I rarely thought about when I worked for a newspaper and it was someone else’s job to give my story a headline and make it look nice.

Now I spend a lot more time thinking about headlines, breaking things into short paragraphs with subheads and using bullet points whenever possible. I’ve learned to be more creative about the way I present information, too. I’ve discovered infographics and Slideshares tend to perform better in many cases than a lot of the blogs I spent so much time writing.

Don’t be Intimidated By Numbers

When I first started in this business, I felt like a content machine spitting out new pieces each day and then moving on to the next ones. In those first few months, I rarely took the time to look at HubSpot analytics to see what my most popular posts had been or how many people were actually downloading my eBooks compared to the number of people who considered them and then opted not to provide their information to get them.

That’s a big rookie mistake.

You may have gotten into writing to avoid numbers at all costs, but you can’t afford to ignore them if you want to be a successful content marketer. Set aside a few minutes each week, or at least once a month, to look at the following:

  • Your most popular posts and how many people viewed them
  • How many people arrived at your website through organic traffic, meaning they found it by typing something into a search engine, and whether that number has increased or decreased from the previous month. (This is a good way to gauge whether you’re writing the kind of content your target audience is actually searching for. If not, you need to make some adjustments as soon as possible.)
  • Email open rates and click-through rates, a good indicator of whether the messages you’re sending are resonating with potential customers. Average open rates vary by industry, but a good range to aim for is between 13-30 percent. A good click-through rate is generally 3-5 percent.
  • The conversion rates on your premium pieces of content, such as eBooks, guides and other offers you put behind a form. Aim for a conversion rate of at least 30 percent. If you notice this rate is too low, you’ll want to take another look at the landing page that’s hosting your premium piece and how well you’ve communicated the value of the offer.

Paying attention to how your content is performing allows you to make adjustments as you go and set goals for yourself. It’s the only way you’ll improve as a content marketer.

Don’t Underestimate the Importance of SEO

You’ve probably heard the saying that you should write for your readers first, search engines second. If you’re new to content marketing—especially if you’re coming in without a strong marketing background—you’re probably focusing a lot of your attention on writing strong content that will capture your readers’ attention. That’s important, but you also need to have a keyword strategy behind that content.

A keyword strategy isn’t finding a few “magic” words you want to rank on and then jamming them into your writing as often as possible or paying for a list of words. It starts by talking to your readers to find out what information they need most and how they’re searching for that information. From there, you should be creating a list of long-tail keywords you can naturally incorporate into your content. This is something our EVP, John McTigue, does really well. If you want a good overview of the latest in SEO and how to incorporate it into your content marketing strategy, check out his post.

You Won’t Survive Without Setting Priorities

When you’re new to content marketing, it can be overwhelming to think about all the pieces you need to create to build a robust online presence, increase your credibility and be found through search engines. It’s recommended you should be blogging as often as you want to get found, which could be once a week, twice a week or even every day. Combine that with writing emails, downloads and social media posts, and it all adds up to a ton of work.

If you try to tackle everything at once, you’ll just dilute your efforts and end up drowning in a sea of content.

Determine what’s most important to focus on first and how your content can help you achieve that goal. Is it attracting more people to your website? Getting those website visitors to subscribe to a blog or be added to a monthly email list so you can provide them more information over time? Building a strong following on social media?

Next, brainstorm all the topics you could possibly cover in the next few months and decide which ones will resonate most with your readers, based on what you know about them. Think about all the email campaigns you could possibly send and rank them in order of importance, as well.

Above all, remember that content marketing is a marathon, not a sprint.

If you try to dash to the finish line, you’ll just end up out of breath and sitting on the sidelines while your competition stays in the race.

Pace yourself. Make a rule to take yourself offline after a certain hour each evening, and turn off your smartphone, too. Enjoy your weekends and take some vacation time so you come back refreshed, with plenty of great ideas.

Don’t take yourself too seriously. At Kuno, we recently started a tradition of taking time out to have a glass of wine on Wednesday afternoons so we remember to relax in the middle of a busy week. Have fun and remember you’re doing something a lot of people have only ever dreamed about doing. You’re getting paid to be creative!

What lessons have you learned about content marketing, or what do you wish you would have known when you first started? I’d love to hear your thoughts in the comments below!

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The Author

Annie Zelm

As the content manager, Annie manages a team of brand journalists and is the driving force behind the content strategy for companies in a wide range of industries, including healthcare, technology and professional services. Relying on interviewing skills she developed in her seven years as a journalist, she uncovers insights about what motivates buyers in these industries and uses that knowledge to shape client websites and editorial calendars.
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