It’s entirely understandable that companies and content marketers alike can find themselves in a creative rut. You have a content and editorial calendar, a steady content strategy and you’re developing x blogs per month supplemented by social content, along with a lead magnet content offer every quarter or every other month. Month in, month out. Quarter in, quarter out. Lather, rinse, repeat.
The last thing content marketing should be is routine, even banal. It’s so easy to check the boxes and make sure quotas are filled, all the while your company’s story gets lost in the noise of production and busyness.
With the end of the year approaching, it’s the right time to take a step back and see if your content strategy exists for you, or you exist for your content strategy. Does your marketing tell a story your audience and curious onlookers alike want to hear?
Jonathan Kranz, a veteran copywriter, marketing strategist and lecturer, led an intensive workshop during Content Marketing World in September outlining the importance of effective storytelling. Sitting in on the afternoon workshop, I listened to Kranz as he talked through the value of telling your story in reverse to unearth the most compelling stories possible. Workshop attendees broke into teams, going through prepared exercises within this reverse storytelling format, and all the while, the thought grew in my mind: if this is effective for singular pieces of content, should it not also be effective when approaching content strategy?
After all, if a piece of marketing content is a self-contained story, the overarching body of content should demonstrate a broader narrative reflected in every individual story. If you’re feeling the chafe of content routine or the monotony of mundane marketing, go back to the drawing board and see if your story is one you’d want to hear.
At its most basic, your product or service is the “magic sword”: the weapon the hero uses to slay dragons, free the people and live happily ever after. More simply put, it is the thing you do that overcomes challenges (danger) and achieves the buyer’s goals (desire).
Too often, though, content isn’t developed to work a reader toward the magic sword. It’s not uncommon to see a blog post on a particular topic with a closing paragraph tacked onto the end of the copy that clearly has little to do with the subject matter itself. There’s no story or compelling reason for the reader to keep reading or not feel like they were hooked with a bait-and-switch.
99 times out of 100, as an inbound marketing devotee, I’d rather that really, really good content that doesn’t naturally lend itself to demand generation not have a CTA at all. If there isn’t an opportunity to tell the full story, leave the audience reasons to come back to the storyteller.
And that’s where we need to put the strategy back in content marketing strategy: Not every piece will lead to your magic sword. And that’s OK! That’s why we develop content clusters, pillar pages, diversify content avenues and occasionally reach with a less product- or solution-driven approach. The idea behind good inbound content marketing is not to sell yourself with every deliverable, but to give readers, listeners or viewers reasons to keep coming back, so that you are trusted when the time comes for a contact to become a lead and a lead to become a sales opportunity.
The hard truth is that sometimes you’ll have readers who don’t yet need – or recognize their need for – a sword. If they can’t benefit from your services right now, at least provide content that benefits them without trying to force the issue and alienate them in the process. A thoughtful, confident content marketing approach will consider every point of the buyer’s journey, including points where a buyer may not yet be on one.
A true hero doesn’t brandish a magic sword for no real reason. In the same way, that hero needs to know exactly what their magic sword is.
In the same thought, we can be so locked in and focused on the magic sword that we lose sense of what they actually are. This is where marketers and organizational stakeholders need to take a step back and think through exactly what it is they offer.
Every organization should periodically conduct this exercise: Strip away all the filler and bring it back to one point: What is it that we actually sell? In Kranz’ workshop, there were those – professional marketers and content developers, mind you – who genuinely wrestled with this practice. Don’t get discouraged if it’s not as easy as it seems, because it often isn’t!
Once that question is answered – not dismissed or brushed off, but genuinely asked, considered and resolved – we can move backward and into how the magic sword transforms the story.
There is an understandable temptation to combine what something is with what something does. While one informs the other, they are separate entities, especially when it comes to crafting content strategy.
TL; DR: When you have a firm grasp of what your magic sword does, you’re in a better position to show how that weapon works when placed in the hands of your clients or customers.
So, how does your magic sword work? In the hands of your audience, what can it do? How is your sword better than others? Think of this in terms of a SWOT analysis, focusing specifically – but not exclusively! – on S and O. When you have a strong ideal customer profile and/or well-developed brand personas going along with a clear sense of what you offer the public, it’s easy to show how your service can be a difference maker for prospective clients, which makes for great individual pieces of content that attract eyes and move people to click and convert.
Beyond hypotheticals and personas, though, if you don’t have some already, this is where you want to have brand evangelists: Clients who have wielded the magic sword and are seeing the difference in their operations and sales success. Digital marketing case studies and success stories are your real-life fairy tales, stories you want to tell again and again so that others can put themselves in your ‘once upon a time.’
In addition to evangelists, we want (in Kranz’ terms) Bulgarians: you want to demonstrate both how and, more to the point, how effective: your reason someone should believe that what your product or service has already done for others is similarly effective for your audience. It’s not enough that your magic sword won the day for somebody’s kingdom – if it defeated three dragons and staved off a rival kingdom’s invasion in 40% less time than previous swords, all the better!
It may seem counterintuitive to think of the pain points, objections or obstacles last when crafting a content strategy, particularly with an inbound marketing mindset that seeks to place the audience at the center of the messaging.
Without really knowing what you offer your customers, and the difference it can make for people who give you money, you invite unforced errors into your marketing efforts. Messaging can end up misaligned. You run the risk of making the buying process needlessly complicated to the point of being counterproductive. You might even be heard as saying something entirely different than what you intended!
For the same reason you want brand evangelists, robust customer profiles and brand personas and Bulgarians, you should keep tabs on the pain points, obstacles and even objections you’ve encountered from prospects and leads in the past. There’s also the need to keep tabs on what your competitors are doing and how they’re innovating. At its most obvious, cataloging these helps inform your product development, sales and marketing strategies and lifecycles. But they also can help to frame and reframe the stories told through your content.
Traditional folk tales tend to develop, shift and change as they are told and retold. If the stories around your magic sword are the same today as they were five years ago, it’s time to revisit those stories! You wouldn’t let your products go unimproved for five years; why should your marketing languish?
It’s crucial to note that while reverse storytelling is an intentional process that isolates each component of your story, none of these exist in a vacuum. Content that focuses strictly on your product may be great for a billboard or retargeting ad, but it doesn’t address the how or why elements needed for effective inbound content marketing.
Similarly, content that lingers on features and functionality may make for a good CTV ad or conventional TV spot, but the tendency here is to cast too wide a net: this is what our thing does, while never making a genuine connection to the people who may truly benefit from your product or service. (Certain makers of mobile phones immediately come to mind.) Meanwhile, content that zeroes in exclusively on the audience’s pain points run the risk of salting the wound, or reminding people of their plight. It can run the gamut from being trivializing to patronizing.
But when you take the three and intentionally establish what it is, what it does and how it solves real struggles real people face, you have so much more than a single story. Instead, you have the makings of a universe at your disposal, a three-dimensional content strategy people will want to explore.
And when you have the makings of a universe, you know exactly where your magic sword belongs in it, and where you want those starting out on their own epic story.
We're ready to bring your magic sword to life. Let's get started with a content strategy consultation to see how we can help craft your story.Written with gratitude for Jonathan Kranz, who granted permission to adapt his material for this post.