Monthly Archives: November 2015

Can content marketing be artful?

“A writer is someone for whom writing is more difficult than it is for other people.” – Thomas Mann


I was a writer before I was a content marketer, and I’ll continue to be writing long after I’m done doing content marketing. This might be naive of me, but I’d like to believe that it’s possible for all writing– including content marketing– to be artfully, tastefully done. I think Moz does a great job of this, as does Helpscout.

So why isn’t this the case more often? Is my own content artful? If I’m honest with myself, I think the answer is “Not Yet”. I think my team has come pretty close on multiple occasions, but we’ve also missed the mark a lot of times.

What’s the difference? Let’s run through a list of possible variables.

A: The fundamental elegance and purposefulness of the writing.

It takes substantial practice for a writer to develop a sense of rhythm. [1] A good writer loves words, and uses them better than others. For some killer examples, check out Robert Pirosh’s I like words, Richard Provost’s This sentence has five words and Francine Prose’s Reading Like A Writer.  [2]

B: Editorial judgement.

Beautiful writing is good to have, but it is by itself insufficient. Think of good writing as tactical excellence: having great soldiers who can fight well. You still need to direct them around. That’s strategic excellence. You can’t just know how to write, you need to know what to write.

If you’re good at this, you can get away with compromising a little on writing quality. So… what should you write? You should write things that solve problems for your readers, which brings us to…

C: Sensitivity to the context of the reader.

Getting better at this improves both A and B. Any good writer or editor, when tasked with creating content, will ask you who it’s for.  There’s a great quote by Peter Drucker: “The aim of marketing is to know and understand the customer so well the product or service fits him and sells itself.”

This is a never-ending project. The subtle distinction between C and B is– even after you know your customer well, you still have to execute on saying the right things, and B is all about the execution part. There’s things like “How to manage writers” that you have to worry about.

In the real world, some compromise is inevitable.

In the process of building out our content marketing machine, I think we’ve had to make the decision to compromise on all 3 fronts. That’s just a function of starting out with limited resources. We’ve had to teach ourselves to become better writers, better editors, and to become more sensitive to the context of our readers. So I’m not ashamed of that. [3]

But so the question I need to answer next is, what now? I have more resources, more know-how, better writing skills, better editorial ability and a better understanding of my reader’s context than ever before. If I was starting over NOW, what would I do?

That’s something I’ll have to think about privately and demonstrate through action.


[1] Oftentimes she has to go through a frustrating process of  unlearn what she was taught in school.

[2] I’m not really a fan of White & Strunk’s Elements of Style. Too prescriptive.

[3] The only way to get all 3 right from the beginning is to start with a lot of talent and a huge mandate. That’s kinda costly and expensive, and probably still suboptimal. It makes more sense to refine along the way. Again, see Content should be modular. Also read about the ugly Apple I.

Consider the Reader

“#2: You gotta keep in mind what’s interesting to you as an audience, not what’s fun to do as a writer. They can be v. different.” – Emma Coats’ 22 Rules Of Storytelling

One of the biggest challenges of being a writer or creator of any kind is to have to be concerned about the reader.

Actually, all communication is startlingly complex when you really think about it. Here’s just one of many images that attempt to represent it:


To get your message across, you first have to know what your message is. You have to figure out how to express it precisely, and then you have to communicate it to your audience.

This requires more than just understanding your idea well– it also requires understanding your reader’s context well.

There’s no point if you have perfectly encoded your message (according to you) if your reader simply can’t decode it. That would be a failure to communicate:

“I know you think you understand what you thought I said, but I’m not sure you realize that what you heard is not what I meant.” – Alan Greenspan

It follows, then, that one of the best ways to improve your content marketing is to develop a more nuanced understanding of your reader’s context. You need to learn their language, not just your own.

“If you’re trying to persuade people to do something, or buy something, it seems to me you should use their language, the language they use every day, the language in which they think. We try to write in the vernacular.” – David Ogilvy


Emma Coats’ 22 Rules Of Storytelling

Emma Coats is a storyteller who used to work at Pixar. In 2012, she wrote a series of tweets with the hashtag #storybasics. I refer to them from time to time. Here they are:

#1: You admire a character for trying more than for their successes.

#2: You gotta keep in mind what’s interesting to you as an audience, not what’s fun to do as a writer. They can be v. different.

#3: Trying for theme is important, but you won’t see what the story is actually about til you’re at the end of it. Now rewrite.

#4: Once upon a time there was ___. Every day, ___. One day ___. Because of that, ___. Because of that, ___. Until finally ___.

#5: Simplify. Focus. Combine characters. Hop over detours. You’ll feel like you’re losing valuable stuff but it sets you free.

#6: What is your character good at, comfortable with? Throw the polar opposite at them. Challenge them. How do they deal?

#7: Come up with your ending before you figure out your middle. Seriously. Endings are hard, get yours working up front.

#8: Finish your story, let go even if it’s not perfect. In an ideal world you have both, but move on. Do better next time.

#9: When you’re stuck, make a list of what WOULDN’T happen next. Lots of times the material to get you unstuck will show up.

#10: Pull apart the stories you like. What you like in them is a part of you; you’ve got to recognize it before you can use it.

#11: Putting it on paper lets you start fixing it. If it stays in your head, a perfect idea, you’ll never share it with anyone.

#12: Discount the 1st thing that comes to mind. And the 2nd, 3rd, 4th, 5th – get the obvious out of the way. Surprise yourself.

#13: Give your characters opinions. Passive/malleable might seem likable to you as you write, but it’s poison to the audience.

#14: Why must you tell THIS story? What’s the belief burning within you that your story feeds off of? That’s the heart of it.

#15: If you were your character, in this situation, how would you feel? Honesty lends credibility to unbelievable situations.

#16: What are the stakes? Give us reason to root for the character. What happens if they don’t succeed? Stack the odds against.

#17: No work is ever wasted. If it’s not working, let go and move on – it’ll come back around to be useful later.

#18: You have to know yourself: the difference between doing your best & fussing. Story is testing, not refining.

#19: Coincidences to get characters into trouble are great; coincidences to get them out of it are cheating.

#20: Exercise: take the building blocks of a movie you dislike. How d’you rearrange them into what you DO like?

#21: You gotta identify with your situation/characters, can’t just write ‘cool’. What would make YOU act that way?

#22: What’s the essence of your story? Most economical telling of it? If you know that, you can build out from there.

Content should be modular

One of my most painful experiences as a content marketer was trying to write a really, really comprehensive piece about how to get word-of-mouth. I agonized over it for months, writing and rewriting and rewriting. I was trying to make sure that it was the most comprehensive article about word-of-mouth ever written.

The problem was that it required many different moving parts to come together all at once, and every single time I was saying something, I wanted to say 3 other things as well.

I was unhappy and dissatisfied when I finally published it, but I eventually realized that I would never be happy and satisfied with it.

Paul Valéry once said, “In the eyes of those lovers of perfection, a work is never finished—a word that for them has no sense—but abandoned; and this abandonment, whether to the flames or to the public (and which is the result of weariness or an obligation to deliver) is a kind of an accident to them, like the breaking off of a reflection, which fatigue, irritation, or something similar has made worthless.”

I relate to that deeply. I never finished the work I set out to do with the word-of-mouth post, I merely had to abandon it.

But I realize now that there’s another way. And that’s the model of Constant Beta. Rather than feel overwhelmed and frustrated by the fact that your work will never be done, embrace it. Ship lots of standalone pieces of work that are designed to work together. The great thing about the Internet is that people can open many tabs and read many things all at once. In this age, content should be more like Wikipedia than Encyclopedia Britannica. People should be able to jump to whatever interests them.

I’ve since changed my approach towards answering the question of “how to get word-of-mouth”.  Instead of trying to do a single mega-post that encapsulates everything, I’ve been exploring many different cases separately. I then combined many of the learnings from those different cases into a larger infographic, and this did so well that it got us over 880+ upvotes on /r/entrepreneur. I think this is a superior way of doing things, and I think the responses prove it.

There are a lot of parallels between this approach to content and the “Release Early, Release Often” approach to software development. I’m not a software developer, but I think the fundamental idea is the same. You’ll learn things from releasing little modules that you wouldn’t from working on something massive. I particularly like Venkatesh Rao’s essay “Running Code and Perpetual Beta” and Boz’s essay “The Path Matters“, in which he says “if we had tried to jump straight to the end state, we would have never gotten it right.”

Wish I learned that earlier.

You don’t have to be everything to everyone

If you’re just starting out as a content marketer, or as a writer, it’s easy to feel like you have to do everything all at once. There’s an endless amount of information that needs to be conveyed, from an infinite set of perspectives and angles, and they’re somehow all valid or important.

It’s absolutely crucial that you find a way to work despite this. You’ll have to leave stuff out.

Science writer Carl Zimmer had some great things to say about this.

“When I was starting out, I’d try to convey everything I knew about a subject in a story, and I ended up spending days or weeks in painful contortions. There isn’t enough room in an article to present a full story. Even a book is not space enough. It’s like trying to build a ship in a bottle. You end up spending all your time squeezing down all the things you’ve learned into miniaturized story bits. And the result will be unreadable.”

Well, that sucks. So what do you do then?

“It took me a long time to learn that all that research is indeed necessary, but only to enable you to figure out the story you want to tell. That story will be a shadow of reality—a low-dimensional representation of it. But it will make sense in the format of a story. It’s hard to take this step, largely because you look at the heap of information you’ve gathered and absorbed, and you can’t bear to abandon any of it. But that’s not being a good writer. That’s being selfish. I wish someone had told me to just let go.”

This is also consistent with the storytelling advice that Emma Coats (a former Pixar screenwriter) gives:

#3: Trying for theme is important, but you won’t see what the story is actually about til you’re at the end of it. Now rewrite.

#5: Simplify. Focus. Combine characters. Hop over detours. You’ll feel like you’re losing valuable stuff but it sets you free.

#7: Come up with your ending before you figure out your middle. Seriously. Endings are hard, get yours working up front.

#22: What’s the essence of your story? Most economical telling of it? If you know that, you can build out from there.

Don’t try to do everything all at once. It’s not possible. Instead, try to get one small thing done really well. And then do another. And then do another. Content should be modular, and it should work together as part of a broader whole.

What it’s actually like to do content marketing

  1. First of all, you have limited resources. Let’s not sugarcoat that, because the more starkly you face this truth, the better. If you or your team run out of resources before you achieve your goal, it’s game over. You lose your shot. Let’s just keep that in mind.
  2. If you want to achieve your goal, you have to make stuff that people want. Otherwise your content, however clever or magnificent you deem it, is going to go untouched. (Meanwhile, the clock is ticking.)
  3. You don’t have the resources to help everyone, so you need to prioritize. You start by helping one person.
  4. You can’t help that person solve ALL her problems, so you have to focus on helping her solve one specific problem. (And solve it satisfactorily, otherwise you just wasted both your time and her’s.)
  5. To help her change one specific thing, you have to develop a deep understanding of why she is in her current state. (Developing this understanding is an iterative process. You can’t just do a bunch of reading and figure it all out overnight.)
  6. Are you still there? Once you understand the problem, you’ll have tofigure out the steps that she needs to take to get to the next, better state. (The challenge is to pick things that are simple-enough-to-do, rather than perfect-but-unlikely.)
  7. Once you’ve written something that made this one person’s life marginally better,you earn her trust. (Hooray! This actually feels really good, and will motivate you to keep going.)
  8. Do this repeatedly over and over again, and it compounds as you build relationships. These relationships become an ‘unfair advantage’ that you can leverage to achieve cool things.


This was the introduction to a longer blogpost I wrote on the ReferralCandy Blog: Minimum Viable Content: Real Talk About Content Marketing (And The 4 Mistakes You’ll Make)