Writing digital content? Always focus on the road ahead.

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Writing good digital content

It’s been a few years now since I’ve found the term ‘digital marketing’ to be a little bit ridiculous. 

Organisations seem determined to split apart elements that function much more successfully together.  But whether it’s the fundamental separation between sales and marketing, differences between inbound and outbound activities, or the perpetual conflicts between stated long-term strategic objectives and real-world short-term targeted tactics, nothing ever fits into its box as neatly as those on high like to think it should.

Why was there ever a difference?

‘Digital Marketing’ is the same.  In the distant past, when having a website showed you were an early-adopting company always on the lookout for innovative approaches, ‘digital marketing’ made some kind of sense.  It was a potent new channel, full of possibilities not yet understood.  In a world of Direct Mail and newspaper adverts, digital was a new skill set pushed by a new generation of marketeers.

But that past is, well, passed – these days, ‘digital marketing’ is just marketing.  There is of course still plenty of need for big-ticket ‘traditional’ marketing, but the sheer scale and cost-efficacy of the online ecosystem means that the vast majority of interactions happen in a digital setting (in fact, even modern TV advertising now involves much of the same audience segmentation and pro-active targeting technology as online advertising).

The power of Digital Marketing

A print ad is a big deal.  Cost-wise they can be a major investment and, consequently, involve lots of time and money to get just right.  Combining arresting content with great design, proofing, double proofing and triple proofing before supplying artwork, unmovable deadlines – and, most of all, once it’s out of the door that’s it – you cross your fingers and hope it works because, if it doesn’t, there’s nothing much you can do about it!

Digital Marketing is the polar opposite.  An almost unlimited pool of potential communication channels, with a still-difficult-to-wrap-ones-head-around ability to target your audience based upon their own interests, demographics, or deepest and most-secret desires.  Long-form articles, 30 character AdWords’ titles, animations, social media content, etc. etc. etc. etc. and one more etc. for luck.

The sheer scale of what’s possible can be daunting!

Everything has a purpose

As a result of all these choices, writing content can become a nightmare.  Do you re-use as much as possible wherever possible, reducing your workload but also your success?  Do you try to create something unique for every single use-case, maximising efficacy but soon becoming overwhelmed by the undeniable absurdity of the task ahead of you?

As with all these things, the answer lies somewhere in the middle – but if you set yourself up properly, and follow a few basic rules, you’ll find yourself able to knock out targeted content that builds a message whilst delivering results.

The Foundation: Your Messaging Hierarchy

A messaging hierarchy should form the foundation of all your marketing activities.  It is, in essence, everything you want to say about a chosen topic (anything from an overall brand narrative to a new product or even an event), boiled down into its essential elements and then laid out in order. 

You start with a single sentence.  If you have to describe something with just a few words, what would they be?  What lies at the heart of the benefits your product or service has to offer your customers?  In the olden days this is what you’d yell, if you were so inclined, to get people to stop in the street. 

Now that you’ve got their attention, where do you go next?  Now you have a couple more sentences to play with – and you’d be surprised how much information you can squeeze into just a couple of sentences!

And so you go, building your narrative outwards – you can head in different directions, creating hierarchies for specific job responsibilities, use cases or verticals, or you can keep things broad.

However you go about it (facilitated workshops can be enormously productive at this point; a fresh pair of eyes can ask questions and reveal opportunities that are overlooked by those too close to the action), the end result is an at-a-glance reference doc that shows exactly what message you should be pushing at any point along the reader’s journey.  If it’s first touch, you use the basics – further along, and you have an opportunity to go into a bit more detail.

With your messaging hierarchy in hand, it’s time to turn your attention to the specific piece of content you need to write.

Question One: Who are your audience?

In a world of micro-targeting and customer profiling, it’s very possible you know exactly who you’re speaking to.  But if you’re casting a wider net, consider who might be reading what you’re writing – and who you want to be reading it.  You’re not necessarily looking to create content that’s appealing for everyone: instead, you want to create content that appeals specifically to the people most suitable for your business – sometimes, avoiding the wrong leads can be as important as attracting the right ones!

Question Two: Where in the customer journey are they?

Every word you write is crucial.  Readers are itching for a reason to give up and go onto something else.  They want information.  It’s crucial that you don’t spend precious time repeating things they already know, or losing them by assuming they know things they don’t.

Question Three: What will they be doing?

Never lose sight of what your reader will be doing when they come across your content.  Are they browsing leisurely on their phones during their downtime, or researching something specific at their desks?  Do you need to start by explaining the concepts, or can you assume a certain level of understanding based on the placement?  Always think of the copy you’re writing in the context in which it’ll be read.

Question Four: WHAT DO YOU WANT THEM TO DO NEXT?

This is everything. 

Almost without exception, marketing material is written to do a job – and one job only. 

To encourage the reader to take the next step.  That is all. 

Before you put pen to paper (which, incidentally, I strongly recommend.  You’ll find you can get your thoughts down much more freely with a pen in your hand – once you have the structure and the main points you want to make all planned out, then you can type it up and polish to your heart’s content) – before you put pen to paper, make sure you have a very clear understanding of what you’re trying to convince your reader to do.

With the above clear, you can get stuck into the copy itself.  This is where your narrative hierarchy comes into play.

As with any good narrative, digital marketing copy has a beginning, a middle, and an end. 

The Beginning: The Attention-Grabber

Before you can do anything else, you have to actually get your reader! 

Depending on the context, this can mean anything from a snappy AdWord headline to an engaging report title.  But whatever the content itself, the headline has only one goal, and only one rule:

Stop the reader, and… ALWAYS TELL THE TRUTH.

Because hooking your reader is a waste of time if you lose them halfway through the first paragraph – which you will do if you’re serving content that doesn’t match the premise made in your headline.

If you ask a question in your headline, don’t make the reader dig for the answer.  If you introduce an intriguing concept, don’t write a load of pre-amble before getting to the good stuff.  And never torture a statistic to make it say what you want it to say! 

A little bit of marketing hyperbole is fine, but you should never find yourself writing titles and headlines with the sole intention of getting clicks – the minute your reader feels as though they’re being played, you’ve lost them – and not just for now, but very possibly forever – after all, why would you be playing games if you had anything of genuine value to offer!

The End: The Call to Action

As we’ve discussed, this is the key to everything.  At every point along your customer journey, your goal is to get them speaking to you – because even the best marketing material can’t compete with a well-briefed human interaction!

Consider your Call to Action to be the final step in the journey the rest of the copy has taken your reader on.  Don’t just write what you want to write and whack a ‘Learn More’ at the end – build up to the CTA and make it the logical conclusion to everything that’s come before it.

You can direct to downloads, offer demos, book meetings…  as long as you’re moving the conversation on, guiding your reader to where you want them to be, it’ll be another step in the right direction.

The Middle: The Body Copy

This is – obviously – the large majority of the content you need to write for most pieces.  It can be anything from a tweet to a LinkedIn post to an email to a full solution guide, so you need to work out how much content you have to play with before you plan out the content itself.

It can be tempting to squeeze as much as possible into the space you have available, ticking every box you think you can get away with.  Don’t.

What are the key points you want your reader to understand?  What do they need to know to take them from the headline you’ve written (and the context in which it was read) to the Call to Action you’re aiming for?

Avoid complexity, or the assumption of too much prior knowledge, but don’t spend too much time going over old ground.  Keep points concise, and well sign-posted with the judicious use of formatting.

If it’s short-form content, work out what your one key takeaway is.  If it’s something a bit longer, such as an email, you might be able to introduce a concept, and transition to another, but don’t get carried away!

Work out the exact steps in understanding you need your reader to make, and help them take them.

If they want to find out more than you’ve told them, make sure they know where to go to find it, but don’t feel you need to cater for every single possible outcome in each piece of content you write – choose your audience, choose your CTA, and write every word with those 2 aspects in mind, and you can’t go too far wrong!

Ultimately, your ‘customer journey’ is one single narrative, from being oblivious of your existence to being a passionate evangelist – and every piece of content is a link in that chain.  Work out what link(s) you’re writing, and write yourself some copy that does the job it needs to.

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