3 easy steps to great content marketing


I learned the hard way years ago that writing succinctly is hard work – and worth all the effort. Thanks to a stringent marketing professor who insisted all case write-ups be submitted on a single sheet of paper, I developed a genuine appreciation for good, clean writing and a similar affinity for someone who can speak that way as well.

Ann Handley, MarketingProfs

One such person is the marketing thought leader Ann Handley, Chief Content Strategist for MarketingProfs. Ann has written and spoken much about many aspects of marketing, and has a particularly well-honed expertise in content marketing. I am very pleased to share some of her pearls of wisdom on content marketing from a recent conference session.

For content marketing, Ann believes that quality and quantity are not mutually exclusive, and great content can scale if you get the basics right with these 3 easy steps:

  1. Bigger stories,
  2. Braver marketing, and
  3. Bolder writing.

Recent research by MarketingProfs and Content Marketing Institute shows that 30% of B2B organizations know that their content is effective, and that creating engaging content continues to be the top challenge that marketers face. The most acute challenge is creating content for new platforms and media that don’t feel like advertising and are actually the kinds of content our customers want.

My view is that marketers are particularly challenged to decrease the quantity of content, while raising the quality of what they’re doing less of – and it’s primarily because quality is so subjective. So how do you know? Well, the customer gets to decide the quality in very simple terms – good content works and bad content doesn’t. Ann herself says that good content is more about hearts and brains and less about budget, so quality seems to be the bigger challenge.

So back to those 3 easy steps to great content marketing, here are some tips from Ann on each of them.

Bigger stories
Bigger stories are ones that put your business in the context of what people care about. So find out what their passions or their pain points are and then understand at what point you touch their lives. And to really get the bigger story, focus on how you can make those people feel like they are part of something bigger.

For any business, you don’t get much bigger than your corporate mission. If your content can get your customer to understand and buy into how they connect to your corporate mission, that’s what you’re after. Think about your favorite ubiquitous coffee house chain. Is it really just about the coffee? Probably not. Or is each cup about a lifestyle that includes environmental awareness and other values and qualities not apparent without explanation? In that case, you have some storytelling to do so your customers can relate, and then willingly pay the premium you charge for all the extras that come with that beverage.

For Ann, it goes beyond a good story. It’s also about creating deep value content so you can educate your customers. And the questions you can ask yourself to get at the bigger story include: How do you lead? How do you make your customers deeply smarter? How do you make the world a better place?

Braver marketing
Ann believes you should bust up the established fairy tales of your market. Why? Because the biggest missed opportunities are usually from playing it too safe. So what does “playing it safe” look like? Most marketing follows this predictable recipe:

  • Here is the problem.
  • Here is how we overcame it.
  • Everything is awesome.

And the main issue with that approach is that it doesn’t fit reality – the messy path that often happens. And there’s something appealing about the organization that shows it like it is and in ways that appeal to a tightly defined audience.

An example she cites is Greatist.com, a media-centered fitness lifestyle community entering a decidedly already-crowded space. But it works because it’s centered on authentic stories that resonate because they address specific challenges their audience is facing, and in ways that haven't been told at the level of depth they desire. It works because there’s content integrity, and they’ve narrowed their audience based on reliable personas.

Ann cautions us to think of personas as proxies for actual people. Personas are also like hypotheses that need to have their assumptions periodically challenged, and develop them from more than one source. A good multi-source approach might include surveys, customer conversations and data from marketing automation/CRM systems.

And sometimes being brave means facing your competitors head-on. Toyota has done just that in support of their 2016 hydrogen-cell car in face of criticism from Elon Musk, the auto entrepreneur/billionaire that happens to be a major competitor.

Bolder writing
Of these 3 keys to greater content marketing, this is your gutsiest, most valuable asset. Bolder writing is not about grammar, but tone of voice. It’s about conveying three things confidently:

  1. Who you are.
  2. Why you are in the business you are in.
  3. What are you like to deal with and how are you signaling that.

Bolder writing in the right tone of voice reflects your culture. It also amplifies your story and conveys something of significance to the audience. In fact, Ann believes it’s best exemplified by the following equation where the multiplication signs are deliberate to show each element as equivalent:

Culture x story x empathy = tone of voice

She also underscores the critical importance of your organization’s website because the narrative on it is not just copywriting – it’s a reflection of who you are. And when it’s done well, your audience still knows it’s you “when the label falls off,” or even if they see it without your logo.

Ann suggests you start by defining who you are by completing statements with blanks (as if a “mad lib”). And for best results, try to do it without using these words: friendly, reliable, honest, cutting-edge, revolutionary or proactive.

The idea with bolder writing is to attract like-minded and repel the timid because it’s painful when there is a mismatch. It’s also bad business to foster mismatches because those are often the customers that end up costing you more to service them than you might make with your normal prices or fees.

Taking these 3 steps to great content marketing will position you to do something effective and truly remarkable - to create marketing that doesn’t really feel like marketing.

Ann Handley spoke at the Content Marketing World conference in Cleveland, Ohio.


About Author

John Balla

Principal Marketing Strategist

Hi, I'm John Balla - a Digital Marketing Principal here at SAS focused on Content Strategy. I co-founded the SAS Customer Intelligence blog and served as Editor for five years. I like to find and share content and experiences that open doors, answer questions and maybe even challenge assumptions so better questions can be asked. Outside of work I stay busy with my wife and I keeping up with my 2 awesome college-age kids, volunteering for the Boy Scouts, keeping my garden green, striving for green living, expressing myself with puns, and making my own café con leche every morning. I’ve lived and worked on 3 contents and can communicate fluently in Spanish, Portuguese, Hungarian and passable English. Prior to SAS, my experience in marketing ranges from Fortune 100 companies to co-founding two start ups. I studied economics at the University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign and got an MBA from Georgetown. Follow me on Twitter. Connect with me on LinkedIn.


    • John Balla

      Hi Amara,
      Thanks for your kind words! I enjoyed that article you suggested on how to begin in company social media marketing.

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