On-Boarding for Content Marketers
How to get the marketing intelligence you need to produce compelling content in a hurry.
Have you ever been tasked with producing content for a product you knew little about? It is the rare marketer who hasn’t. For freelance content marketers, it’s practically our job description.
How can a content creator go from zero knowledge about a product to creating content that not only attracts potential customers but persuades them to buy? Where do insightful ideas come from, when you can’t see the landscape?
They don’t – which is why there is so much lightweight content out there that misses the mark, providing no benefit to the client or their customers.
Until you understand the customer, the product and the competition, you’ll be hard-pressed to find an angle or “big idea” that will occupy a position in the customer’s mind that compels them to action. Perspective only emerges once you have assimilated a critical mass of information about your subject.
The problem is, accumulating that background knowledge is a herculean task when you don’t know what you don’t know – a problem that is compounded when the client doesn’t have a well-conceived market position.
I’m going to share with you an accelerated on-boarding methodology that I pieced together while creating content for over a hundred clients. Within days, you’ll gather the essential intelligence for creating quality content that satisfies the customer’s information needs and effectively positions your client’s product or service in the customer’s mind.
Know Your Buyer
Successful positioning happens when you understand your customer, product and competition, or as I like to call it: Know Your Buyer.
For some, the term “buyer” seems cold-hearted: it dehumanizes the customer and reduces him to a Pavlovian dog to be tested and optimized for. This is exactly right. After all, as Ries and Trout pointed out, what else is advertising but psychology in practice?
On the other hand, the buyer is more than just a customer: it’s a concept that encompasses the customer, the product, and the reasons why this type of customer buys the product. The buyer is an archetype, representing a subset of customers who buy a product for all the same reasons, who prize the same benefits and are persuaded by the same sales pitch.
Fiction writers often find their voice by writing to one specific person, and so it is with non-fiction. Writing to impress the CEO, the marketing manager, the shareholders, distributors and all prospects is a recipe for creating content too bland for anyone to consume. The more precisely you can differentiate the buyer you are writing to from the rest, the more you’ll be able to emphasize those subjects that matter to him.
Below you’ll find a set of questions that will help you profile your buyer. Once you’ve got the answers, the rest is as simple as painting by numbers.
Where do the answers come from? For me, first stop is the client’s website and the websites of any competitors who have equal or greater market share, to see what position they are trying to carve out for themselves, and what benefits are they touting. Chances are, your client won’t be the overall market leader, but the whole point of positioning is to stake out some territory where your client is number one. A textbook example is Hertz vs Avis. Avis acknowledged and embraced being number two: because of it, they “tried harder”. Isn’t that the same thing as saying “we are number one in customer service?” The message resonated with customers.
After online research, the next stop is an interview with your client’s marketing manager. If they have it all figured out, then this may be your final destination. In my experience, more often than not, they are trying to figure it out just like you, and may welcome a fresh set of eyes on the problem. In this case, the marketing manager becomes the gatekeeper to the salespeople, who often have a more nuanced understanding of why customers buy their product over competing products. I try to interview at least one salesperson to get the lay of the land at the frontlines.
If you’re in a situation where there are no experienced marketing or salespeople to tap, ie. a start-up, you’ll need to do buyer research by interviewing some customers who have recently purchased the product. You can sometimes get even better intelligence from prospects who evaluated the client’s product but bought a competing product.
Without further ado…
12 Questions to Answer Before Creating Compelling Content
1) What are the buyer’s problems, and 2) how does this product solve them? Answering these two questions are fundamental to understanding a product and the people who buy it. The product will often solve multiple problems for a buyer, and the more problems you can identify, the better. But the product will often solve an overarching problem that may not be obvious. Identifying this sublime utility is often the key to unlocking that “big idea” that copywriters strive for.
3) What benefits matter most to the buyer, and 4) what features of your product provide those benefits? This is an elusive one – the product team should be able to identify dozens of presumably valuable features, but the challenge is to identify the critical benefits – those must-haves that the buyer demands to justify the purchase. Marketing teams don’t always talk to their customers, but it’s imperative to do so when determining what benefits they prize the most. Anything else is just guesswork.
Once you’ve identified the critical benefits, work backwards to map out which of your product features supply those benefits, then write a statement that encapsulates both. An example:
The Banana Peeler saves you time (benefit) by automatically cutting out those mushy brown spots (feature).
Attention spans being limited, I focus on crafting the three most compelling feature/benefit statements. If there are four equally-compelling and distinct contenders, fine. If you can identify a dozen but are unsure which will resonate most with the buyer, you can employ strategic marketing optimization to let customers identify the critical feature/benefits. But to expedite matters, follow your feelings, Luke, and choose three.
5) What new opportunities are created by using the product? It’s well and good to solve problems, but you’ll make a stronger sales argument if you can demonstrate how adopting the product creates new opportunities or revenue streams for the customer. Then, take it a step further and extrapolate what competitive advantage is conferred to users of the product. This question is often irrelevant where consumer goods are concerned – buying a case of beer provides scant opportunity to the consumer (or does it?) – but when marketing a B2B product, connecting the dots between adopting the product and how it enables the purchaser to get a leg up on the competition can go a long way.
6) What are the drawbacks to using the product, and 7) how can you counter those objections? Unless your product is dangerous, drawbacks (or weaknesses) are usually defined in relation to competing products. Price is almost always a drawback, unless you are the low-cost competitor in the marketplace. Perhaps the product is less powerful than the competitors. Maybe it’s difficult to maintain or repair. Do an honest inventory of the main objections, and develop counter-arguments that neutralize those objections. Does the product have a high sticker price? Then prove how it saves money over the long term.
8) What is this product’s value proposition to the buyer? In other words, why should the buyer choose this product over a competing product? By now, you’ve answered this question in several ways. The task is to boil it down to a clear and succinct expression of the idea, formulated in a single sentence.
If you’ve answered the preceding questions, you should have a functional understanding of your buyer. Next, let’s turn to some questions that sharpen your focus on the content you’ll be producing.
9) What is the purpose of this content? In other words, what do you want the buyer to do after consuming this content? Definitively, you want the buyer to buy, but how? Do you want him to buy it online? Do you want him to submit his contact information so a salesperson can reach out? It pays to spend some time thinking about this, because the obvious choice may not be the best approach. A client of mine was using a form to generate leads for salespeople, who would then pass those leads to a distributor in the customers’ locale. By diving into the sales process, I learned that customers practically never bought this long-consideration product without test-driving it first at the distributor’s shop. I recommended that they change the call-to-action for the page to be “Arrange for a Free Demo”, thereby removing two stages of the funnel where a customer could drop out – and conversions improved.
10) What specific action you want the buyer to take on the page, and how will you phrase the call-to-action? I find it beneficial to decide this prior to creating the content, while you are thinking strategically with a fresh mind. Content creation is a marathon: you don’t want to stumble across the finish line only to discover you have a hundred meter sprint ahead of you. Other than the headline, the call-to-action consists of the most valuable words in the whole piece, so it deserves some forethought.
11) What can you offer the buyer to persuade them to perform your call-to-action? If you don’t offer the prospect something of value, you won’t get a lot of takers. If your goal is generate a lead by collecting his contact details, the standard approach is to offer more detailed information about your product (i.e. a brochure) beyond the gate. This is a valid strategy, because only a serious, qualified customer will be willing to trade his email address for it. Offer a free trip to the Bahamas and you’ll get a lot of garbage leads.
12) What questions are buyers searching for online that you can answer? This question is a real mind-bender, because it’s not easy to answer. It’s important to consider, because it makes you think about how customers will find your content. Some readers may find your content by browsing. In other words, they find it because it’s featured or linked to on a site they regularly read. Other people will find your page through searching, and if you want to get discovered by them, you have to show up for the terms they are searching for.
The kind of searches that will lead to your product are typically problem-solving searches: the prospect has a problem or need and is searching for a solution. This question looks similar to questions 1 and 2, except from the buyer’s point of view, which makes it entirely different. Many prospects won’t know they have the problem that your product solves; they may be searching for symptoms. The point of the exercise is to try to anticipate what terms (questions) they are searching for, and try to provide the answers in your content, which will earn you hits for long-tail keyword searches. If you plan on doing pay-per-click advertising, anticipating your prospect’s search terms is a good way to start your keyword research.
Bringing It All Together
If you’ve worked the methodology this far, then you should have all the background information necessary to produce compelling content. However, this is no guarantee that inspiration will strike. If you still lack the perspective to see that big idea, try this exercise to sharpen your focus: write a Google ad.
Like a screenwriter who hammers his concept into a one-sentence logline, the Google ad is the ultimate sales expression for the online marketer. You have three short lines – ninety-five characters in total – to convince your audience to give you a chance.
There are many ways to write an effective ad. Here’s a good starting point:
Headline (25 characters)
Value Proposition (35 characters)
Promise (35 characters)
The headline needs to get the prospect’s attention. An effective way to do this is to try to include the term your prospects are searching for. Not only does this make intuitive sense, but Google displays direct hits in bold, which attracts the viewer’s eye to the ad. Your answers to Question 12 should provides some good candidates for the headline.
In Question 8, I recommended boiling the value proposition down to one sentence. Now, aren’t you glad you did?
Whereas the value proposition is logical, the promise is an emotional appeal that reflects the buyer’s aspirations, goals and purposes. Write your own by completing the this sentence: “Buy this product and you’ll be able to…”
As an example, here’s a Google ad I wrote for Skype:
Best Video Chat for Mac
Free Long Distance Calls and Video
Stay in Touch with Family & Friends
Writing a Google ad that works is like constructing a lightsaber – it is the true test of a Jedi, demonstrating your mastery over the subject matter. Even better, it provides an objective proof as to whether you’ve successfully positioned the product in a way that resonates with the target buyer – simply run the ad and see if it performs.
Of course, you’ll need to build a landing page first – a topic for another article – but by answering the 12 questions above, you’ve done the heavy lifting.