The Role of Design in Content Marketing

content-marketing-services-santa-cruz-02Content marketing is all about communication: getting our message across to followers and customers. But how do we do that effectively? Ah, the age old question, right?

We are a visual society. I doubt that’s news to anyone. Like it or not, words mean less than images to today’s customers. Reading about this shift in societal norms makes my inner writer cringe; writing it is far worse. I worry that one day all words may disappear completely. Nevertheless, it’s the world we live in, so content marketers must adjust or become obsolete.

ID-100149Contrary to popular belief, however, people do still read. They just don’t like reading a screen full of only words. Your content is far more likely to be read and absorbed if it includes infographics, fun pictures, interesting product shots – anything that appeals to our sense of sight.

Over and over, we hear that images are essential to great content marketing. It’s true. But how do you balance the words and images to make the content you create as appealing, and therefore readable, as possible?

Infographic-Design-Elements-VectorFair warning: I am NOT a graphic designer. I have so little artistic ability I can’t even draw a blank. So if you’re looking for words of wisdom on how to create magical designs, with color balance, alignment, etc., you won’t find it here. Instead, you’ll find them in this helpful guide from Hubspot. (If you don’t already subscribe to their free blog updates, sign up today. No, I wasn’t paid to say that. I just like their stuff.)

However, as a content marketer, I have worked with designers for years, seeking the exact balance between words and pictures for everything from blog posts to emails to social media, all essential elements of successful content marketing and effective communication.

There are four basic rules about imagery I’ve learned along the way:

  1. It must be attractive.
  2. It must be useful.
  3. It must be easy to understand.
  4. It must be fun.

magnetAttractive

Catch readers’ eyes. Grab their attention. Make images memorable. And make them appealing. Nobody wants to look at ugly images. This means they need to look good, which calls for a level of professionalism, or at the very least appeal. Infographics, for example, need to be ultra-readable and logical, not a free-flowing lump of random facts. Quality matters if you want to create credibility. This applies not only to the imagery but also the copy. Boring copy = bored readers who will move on, thank you very much. Bring great copy and great design together and your customers will sing (your praises)!

Swiss Army KnifeUseful

We’re all looking for information. Your customers and followers want to learn from you. Create images and copy that tell the story and answer questions. Infographics are perfect for this, but photography and illustrations can also tell the story in a fun and informative way. Of course, we are assuming that you have done your research and already know what your customers want because you are a good marketer, right? Cater your messages to those findings.

Easy to Understand

simple-014.jpgKISS, right? (Not the rock band.) Nobody wants to struggle to understand your message. Truth is, they won’t. Once they meet resistance, they’ll quit. There are too many other distractions and options competing for their attention and too many other places to find the same information. The point of your blog or content is to not only provide useful information but also to become the new go-to source so readers will come back and share your knowledge with their friends. There are a thousand ways to communicate the same idea, but there are a million ways to communicate it poorly. Just like PowerPoint slides done right, infographics should be clean and simple, with minimal text for maximum impact. Too much text bogs down the message. Plus, people won’t read it anyway, so what’s the point?

Fun

47036176-fun-picturesLike it or not, your very serious, business-focused content is competing with the entertainment world. How many times have you been reading an article or blog post and gotten distracted by a Facebook status update or Tweet? You hop over there to catch up on the latest, make a few comments, share, retweet, post, laugh, and next thing you know it’s half an hour later and you might or might not get back to the original article today. It happens to everyone. (I checked Facebook twice while writing this paragraph.) Your content needs to be engaging and fun enough to grab your reader’s attention and keep it. Or at least make them want to come back and finish.

But what about in a B2B environment? Fun? Really? Yes! Forever we’ve been told that B2B marketing should always be serious, sober, right to the point. Nothing fancy, nothing fun. Hogwash. Good B2B marketing still appeals to people. Decisions to buy are still made by flesh-and-blood people with emotions. Sure, the dollar figures are typically higher, but the basic human emotions are still the same. Don’t believe me? Have you seen the Cisco Valentine’s Day spot? Talk about B2B marketing with a twist!

In the world of content marketing, it’s important that people like your brand voice and how you communicate with them. Visually memorable content grabs attention and keeps it. Boring content gets thrown away or ignored. Set the stage with memorable content, and as they say in the entertainment industry, keep ’em coming back for more!

What’s a Run-On Sentence?

Apparently this is a Great Mystery of Grammar, as so many people get it wrong. I had a client a while back who complained about my run-on sentences in marketing copy. I looked and looked, thinking maybe I had committed a grammatical gaffe and had actually written a run-on sentence, a pet peeve of mine. But no, time and time again the sentence structure was fine. Subject, verb, etc., all in their proper places. I didn’t know what he was talking about. Then it hit me one day. He thought the sentences were too long. Oh! That’s different.

Run On Sentence ImageSo as a public service, let me explain a run-on sentence. A run-on has absolutely nothing to do with how long it is. You can write very short run-on sentences. And you can write really long sentences — ones that take up an entire paragraph and drag on and on, seemingly forever, until you’re not even sure what they say anymore — that aren’t run-ons.

The term “run-on” sounds like it should refer to any sentence that runs on too long. I understand the confusion; it makes logical sense. But the number of words in a sentence has nothing to do with whether it’s a run-on.

The key to a run-on is that it contains incorrect punctuation and is missing a conjunction between two independent clauses.

Now, I realize I just lost some of you. Hang in there. It gets better. (Not: Hang in there, it gets better. That would be a run-on sentence.)

What the heck is an independent clause? Let me ‘splain…

An independent clause is a phrase that contains both a subject and a verb. That last sentence is an independent clause. Sentences are independent clauses.

So why aren’t they just called sentences? Why fancy things up with another term that means the very same thing? Well, while sentences are independent clauses, not all independent clauses are sentences that live by themselves. Sometimes they have roommates. For example, I can say “Tom jumped over the fence, but Mary went through the gate.” Each of the phrases before and after the “, but” is an independent clause, and the two independent clauses are joined by a comma and conjunction to form a complete sentence. (Notice I just did it again.)

If I were to write it “Tom jumped over the fence, Mary went through the gate” that would be a run-on sentence because there is no conjunction, no bridge between the independent clauses. Without the conjunction, the comma would need to change to either a period or a semicolon. This is also referred to a comma splice, an equally egregious offense to the grammar gods.

To demonstrate that run-on sentences have nothing to do with length, consider this example: “Tom jumped, Mary ran.” Now that’s a short run-on! But it fits the bill: two subjects, two verbs, no conjunction, and the wrong punctuation.

Reporters are the worst at this. Often they will write a quote from a sports star, for example, as “We played hard today, that was the key to victory.” Wrong! While I’m sure playing hard was indeed the key to victory, grammatically those are two separate things and need to either be joined by a comma and conjunction (likely not the best option, since you don’t want to add to what someone said) or separated by a period and capital letter or a semicolon instead of the comma. Joining those two independent clauses with just a comma is incorrect.

Now, if you want to see the doozy of all run-on sentences and feel better about yourself because even the best authors in the world can write them, check out the opening pages of A Tale of Two Cities, considered by many to be the longest run-on sentence in literary history. It was the best of run-on sentences, it was the worst of run-on sentences. (Cringe!) Of course, Charles Dickens got paid by the word, so maybe we’ll cut him some slack. You, however, are not.

So mind your commas and conjunctions and don’t go running off at the sentence!

Picture This…

The next time you’re on Facebook (which, if you’re anything like me, will be in the next 10 seconds, if not sooner) try posting three items that in your judgment are equally interesting.

For the first one, just write some copy like this.

For the second one, add a picture. It doesn’t even need to be related to the post, but it would help.

Finally, post a video. Preferably something funny. It doesn’t need to be long. Even a GIF will do. Just make it move.

Now sit back and see how many responses you get to each.

I’d put the video as the odds-on favorite to get the most attention: likes, shares, comments.

Why is that?

Ask yourself this: would you rather read a book or watch a movie? Would you rather sit in a classroom and listen to a professor tell you about the economy (snore!) or hop onto YouTube and watch a fun video explaining the same information in under five minutes?

Now before I start getting comments about how people should be reading more and that’s what’s wrong with society, people don’t read enough, let me tell you you’re preaching to the choir. I’m an author. I’ve written two books: one fiction, one non-fiction. I get it.

I’m also an avid reader.

But we live in an ever-increasingly visual society. This isn’t news.

However, too many content marketers and social media posters haven’t fully grasped the change and are still posting info that may be very helpful but isn’t connecting with their target audience because it’s the wrong presentation style.

So how do you reach your target, the ones who are going to buy your product, tout you to all their friends, and become your biggest brand advocates?

Grab the (Red) Bull by the Horns

There are certain companies that totally get it. Red Bull is one of them.

Check out their YouTube channel. It’s packed full of visuals. Talk about a company that knows how to use a GoPro!

Adrenaline junkies eat this stuff up!

What Red Bull understands is that the energy drink is a secondary story.

Read that again.

Yes, they are trying to sell as many cans as possible, because therein lies the profit, which is the bottom line.

But what they have done is turn event marketing and visual storytelling into their most effective sales channel by identifying their core market (15-25 year old males) and hitting them right between the eyes with adrenaline-packed sports (the X-Games were partially their idea and they were the first sponsor) that fit perfectly into their core audience’s personality.

Rope the kids in with the fun and drink sales will follow. Get the brand in front of their faces first. Everything else will happen on its own as a natural outcome.

And it’s worked like a charm. Red Bull is the market leader, with Monster nipping at its cloven-hooved heels.

Meanwhile, Back at the Ranch…

So how does this work for your company, especially since you probably don’t have a multi-million dollar content marketing budget?

You don’t have to have deep pockets to make a visual splash. Just ask anyone who has posted a smart phone video that went viral.

It wasn’t the production quality that sent its popularity soaring. It was the content.

Something about the story it told caught viewers’ attention and compelled them to share it with everyone they knew, and some they didn’t.

How do you become a better visual storyteller?

Check out NewsCred’s predictions for 5 Visual Marketing Trends That Will Dominate 2016.

Who knows? Maybe this will be your year to become the next YouTube sensation!

3 Keys to Great Video Storytelling

Think of your favorite movie. Is it a drama, comedy, action flick? Maybe a little romance thrown in for good measure?

Whatever it is, chances are it made the top of your list because of some emotional connection it made with you.

Was the story relatable to something in your own life? Do you identify with the characters? Does it remind you of something that happened to you back in high school? Perhaps a childhood memory?

Or maybe it’s just a really good story told amazingly well.

Whatever the appeal, something about it grabbed hold of you not only in the moment but for years following.

Good content marketers understand this is exactly how to appeal to their customers base. As I’ve said in a previous post, yanking the heartstrings is like pure gold to marketers, drawing customers in like a gigantic magnet.

But how do you do that?

That is the Golden Question, isn’t it?

Friskies figured it out in their Dear Kitten series. Have you seen these? They’re fantastic!

image

Why does it work?

First, it’s funny. Even non-cat people (commonly referred to by cat people as “dog people” or “the enemy”) will understand the funny.

Second, true cat people will appreciate the funny on an even deeper level, which is the point, after all. It was obviously written by a cat person. Good choice.

Dutch powerhouse airline KLM also figured out how to make that emotional connection with their passengers through a light-hearted bit of humor and the tender touch of a puppy. Who doesn’t like puppies? (Even cat people do.)

image

Besides using adorable animals in both videos, what else do these spots have in common?

  1. They focus almost entirely on customers and their wants and needs
  2. They address those desires in a touching and clever way
  3. They make the companies look less like companies and more like your best friend

Now, lest you think this only applies to the B2C marketplace, consider this award-winning spot from Cisco.

Yes, that Cisco. The tech company. Sounds dull, right? Check it out for yourself:

image

The brain child of Hollywood comic writer Tim Washer, this spot helped boost Cisco’s server business at a time when they were up against strong competition from IBM’s blade servers, and IBM was winning.

So what is the common lesson among all of these videos? It’s simple really.

The less a company focuses on themselves and the more they focus on their customers, the more attractive they become.

As you create content – whether video or written – start not in your own backyard but in your customer’s living room.

What drives them? What makes them happy? What would they like to see? What deep emotion can you tap into in an authentic way that doesn’t feel like marketing?

Then – and only then – insert your company into the equation at the most appropriate place, usually at the end, as inconspicuously as possible.

Let your customers’ needs drive the car while your company sits in the back seat and you’ll both enjoy the journey.

Why Journalists Make Lousy Content Marketers

Conventional wisdom in the content marketing world says that if you want the best writers, hire journalists.

At first glance, this makes total sense.

Journalists know how to write. They can put sentences together and incorporate facts and figures to present the content in an easily understood manner. Much the way the news is written.

In fact, that’s what journalists do best: report the news.

Which is why they make terrible content marketers.

Bear with me a second here.

See, reporting the news is not the same as telling the story of what happened.

And content marketing is all about storytelling.

While it is important that content marketing be accurate, timely, and pertinent to the audience, there’s more to it than simply relaying the facts of what you’re trying to sell.

It’s more that facts and figures.

For content marketing to be effective, it needs to tug the heartstrings. Better yet, grab them and twist them around several times. Take hold and never let go.

And that’s a skill better left to real storytellers, not journalists.

To find great content marketing writers, tap into the creative writing pool, such as local authors. Or local storytellers, such as speechmaking groups.

Hire people who can take the facts and craft a story connecting those facts to a deep emotion that will trigger a gut reaction.

Watch a documentary. A really good one. Maybe one on Netflix. While the topic you choose might be of interest to you, what will really grab your attention is how the director and writer weave the human element into the telling of the story in a way that even if you didn’t really care deeply at the start, you do when it’s over.

As you think about who you need in your content creating department, remember you’re marketing to humans, who react strongly to great stories told with genuine and deep emotion.

Don’t hire a journalist. Hire a storyteller.

Let Me Be Told a Story…

Product! Product! Product!

Sale! Sale! Sale!

Look how great we are!

That’s how a lot of companies position themselves in front of customers.

And how do customers respond?

They buy. For a while. Until some better offer comes along.

Why? Because who cares?

The only connection those customers have is the price of a product and maybe a few features and benefits. That’s it.

And it’s fleeting.

For centuries, companies have struggled with the L word: Loyalty.

How do you get customers to keep coming back? And how do you get those repeat customers to bring friends?

Let’s jump on the Star Wars bandwagon for a moment here. Yeah, I know, it’s an easy out right now, a convenient play, but bear with me a minute.

Why is Star Wars so popular?

I’m old enough that I watched the original (now called A New Hope) in the theater when it came out in 1977. Granted, I was only in second grade, but I still remember it like it was last week (which is when I took my 7-year-old son to see The Force Awakens – how cool is that?). If you’ve seen the original, you probably remember the opening scene, right after the yellow letters go scrolling off into space.

It starts with the small rebel ship dashing forward from behind you and red laser blasts coming from off screen. As the small frigate races away, it is replaced by a low rumble, followed by the nose of an Imperial Star Destroyer in pursuit coming over the top of the screen. The massive ship slowly fills the screen with its enormity until its girth extends beyond the edges, finishing with the giant blue engines.

What a way to open a movie!

But even more impressive is what comes next.

George Lucas takes us immediately from outer space into the interior of the rebel ship, where we meet two droids, R2-D2 and C-3PO, and are introduced to human characters that happen to be made of metal.

Why has Star Wars been so successful?

It’s all about the characters. We cared about Luke Skywalker, Han Solo, the droids, and everyone else. It mattered to us when Darth Vader announced he was Luke’s father (Noooo…!). We cried when Yoda died. We hated the Emperor and cheered when Darth Vader killed him. The Millennium Falcon is a hero’s ship.

Star Wars was originally all about connections – between the characters and each other and between the characters and us.

Now think about Episodes I, II, and, III (if you can bear it). Instead of stories about characters we loved that just happened to take place in outer space with special effects, the prequels were stories about special effects that happened to have some characters, but who really cared about them? (Think Jar Jar Binks – and shudder!)

What does any of this have to do with content marketing?

Moviegoers also consume other goods and services (not just popcorn), including ones you offer.

You want to connect with them the same way good movies connect with viewers.

How do you tell your brand’s story?

How do you get consumers to connect with your brand in a way that they can’t help but come back time and time again?

I had the pleasure of attending Content Marketing World the past two years. Every year, the expo wraps up with a keynote speaker. Last year it was Kevin Spacey.

Now, if you’re at all like me, you’re probably asking yourself, “What in the world would Kevin Spacey know about content marketing? He’s an actor!”

I thought that, too.

So I was thoroughly – and happily – surprised when he took 45 minutes and showed us how content marketing is really all about storytelling, communicating your brand message to customers in a way they can relate and connect.

(BTW, if you have a chance to attend CMWorld, do it! Campaign, beg, cry, wash cars, do whatever you have to do. It’s worth it!)

While I can’t recreate Spacey’s speech, here are three of his key points as derived from his long tenure as an actor and director and mostly recently as a main character and producer of the Netflix original series House of Cards.

Understanding storytelling and audience connection will help your company increase customer loyalty and turn your customers into brand advocates.

What’s Backlinking? And Why Should I Care?

Here’s a statement today’s youth will understand: SEO is the bomb!

Okay, so once again I dated myself, but you get the point.

Maybe it would be better to quote an older popular song: SEO is where it’s at! (Pardon me while my inner grammarian cringes.)

As we talked about in a post last week, SEO can make or break your site’s ranking and, therefore, your business’ success.

Good SEO = high ranking and lots of visitors

Bad SEO = a need to rethink your content strategy before you have to look for another job.

Of the many components of SEO, one of the most overlooked is backlinking.

What’s backlinking?

Quite simply, backlinking is exactly as it sounds: linking back to your site.

It can happen two ways:

  1. An internal backlink from one page on your site to another
  2. An external backlink from an outside site to your site

An example of an internal backlink might be an article on your site that contains a link to a product related to the article topic.

Let’s head outdoors to learn more.

Outdoors expert REI is a master at this sort of backlinking. (BTW, see that link in the last sentence? That’s a backlink.)

REI not only provides outstanding outdoor equipment, they also offer great advice on how to use it. In fact, it’s what they do best.

Consider this article by Julie Eiselt on caring for your carabiners.

(“What’s a carabiner?” you ask. It’s that little metal loop thing that your climbing rope runs through. REI explains it better.)

The article is all about how to inspect, clean, and store carabiners to keep them in good working order, which is pretty important since your life may depend on them as you’re hanging precariously from a cliff face.

Not only does the article backlink to product pages featuring REI’s extensive selection of carabiners (who knew there were so many options?), it also suggests additional reading on how to choose the right carabiner for the type of climbing you do.

That’s a great example of an internal backlink.

This blog post is an example of an external backlink because I refer to them here so you can click over and learn all sorts of things about carabiners and other outdoor equipment.

How does backlinking affect SEO?

Remember in the post from last week when I mentioned that Google looks for keywords? That’s not all it looks for.

Google also cares about page authority.

In other words, does the content on the page really know what it’s talking about?

One way Google determines that is by the number of external backlinks. How many people are heading from other sites to your site for information? How many outsiders consider your page an authority on a given topic?

If you are a major brand site, you’re lucky because Google considers those sites as automatic authorities on a topic.

But what if you aren’t? What if you are a small retailer that is just getting started?

The folks at NewsCred have some great ideas about that. Check out their suggestions on how to take your site from newbie to authority in a few fairly simple steps.