Breaking through with meaningful content marketing in the age of storytelling

A conversation on the state of story-driven content with analyst and author Brian Solis.

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Today, it seems that everyone is a storyteller — some 550,000 marketers list storytelling in their profile on LinkedIn. But connecting with people through the power of the story requires a lot more than changing your title.

The challenge is shifting from content marketing to true storytelling: understanding an audience, inspiring them, compelling them and igniting their imagination.

“As marketers, we’ve bought into the aspiration and the ideal of storytelling-based marketing without going through the exercise of what it actually takes to become a storyteller,” says Brian Solis, a marketing expert and principal analyst at Altimeter Group. When Solis wrote “X: The Experience When Business Meets Design,” he immersed himself in the art and science of storytelling, working closely with Pixar artist and storyboarding expert Nick Sung.

Brian Solis, analyst and author of “X: The Experience When Business Meets Design”

I spoke with Brian about the gap between content marketing and storytelling, and what marketers need to know today.

Q. How should businesses by thinking about storytelling?

Brian Solis: There are some common pillars of quality storytelling — and it all starts with knowing your audience, what they love/don’t love, what they value, etc.

Aside from the seven common plots of story, there are pillars that resonate with certain audiences, depending on their goals and yours. These include inspiration, usefulness, importance and inclusivity, just to name a few — and these apply to content marketing, too.

Q. How can marketers apply this framework to their campaigns?

The arc of a marketing campaign is usually the opposite of a traditional story arc. The climax, which is typically the product launch day in business, is followed by the supporting action and road to wider adoption — until the budget runs out or the campaign is over.

Stories are continuous. Opportunities for engagement are always on. Customers do not go on/off based on your campaign or content calendar.

For marketers, the hero in the Hero’s Journey is your customer. Think about how they traverse their world every day and what information they need to succeed and be the “hero” in their story, then use that to inspire your stories.

Q. What mistakes do you see marketers making when applying storytelling to their content efforts?

Too many marketers have no clear idea who they’re trying to reach, what’s important to them and why. Sixty percent of marketers still don’t have a documented content strategy, my research has found, even though nearly three in four marketers plan to spend more on content in the coming year.

It’s difficult for any brand to stand out right now, and content is more often designed to be “viral” rather than engaging, useful or empathetic. That’s a big reason why a significant amount of content fails.

Q. Is the shortening attention span of mobile users making it more difficult for content marketing to resonate?

Mobile devices are like digital appendages. Consumers are busy living their “best” lives while being inundated with information on mobile.

People don’t want marketing and brand-approved messages. They want personalization, usefulness and value. They’re willing to pay attention to — and share — content that speaks to them, helps them, or boosts them within their community.

That means thoughtful and relevant stories that they can consume based on their state of mind or intent and their preferences and expectations…at the right time, in the right context in the right format.

Q. How can marketers best measure their success?

The underlying problem is that many marketers have lost sight of who they’re really creating content for. Instead of investing in engaging with their audiences of human beings who have intent, goals, aspirations, passions, needs, they’re prioritizing quantity and developing campaigns for the people who are approving their work.

Too often, I see marketers measure success with vanity metrics such as likes, traffic, views and followers. These numbers actually take them further from the people who matter — those who need their experience and advice.

Instead, I’d suggest that marketers focus on growth. Use AI and machine learning to predict intent. Translate those insights into content that matters to customers. Then, consider designing for the A.R.T. of engagement (actions, reactions and transactions).

Track the impact you’re making on the people and the businesses you’re trying to reach. That means knowing what moves the needle with them by considering the meaning, utility and value that your marketing content provides.

Read more about storytelling
Making emotional connections in a digital era
Data-driven storytelling: the intersection of numbers and narrative
The science of storytelling
Storytelling for action: Why brands need to tell a complete story

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How to turn negative online reviews into marketing wins

It’s tempting to fall into a funk when your business receives a negative review. Here’s how to turn things around and benefit from critical customer feedback.

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Reading a negative review about your company can feel like a punch to the gut. But once you get over the initial impact, there are lessons to be learned and a silver lining or two. Let’s look at all the ways you can turn a negative review into a positive thing for your business.

First, let’s look at why bad ratings and reviews aren’t as problematic as you may think. A 2017 study of more than 1.3 million local reviews by RevenueJump found that the number of reviews influences business performance on Google local search results, with the highest-ranked listings boasting an average of 38 reviews and the lowest-ranked listings having an average of only 14.3 reviews. So, negative reviews are good things to have in that they add to the total quantity, and having more reviews is correlated with higher rankings.

Additionally, negative reviews offer you the opportunity to respond to the reviewer’s concerns and turn around their impression of your business (which will hopefully be followed by a revision of the review). Even if you can’t change their minds, 77 percent of consumers discount reviews that are more than three months old, whether they are positive or negative, a 2017 study by BrightLocal found.

The same study indicates that negative reviews aren’t the turnoff you might think they would be. Just 40 percent of respondents said they’d stay away from a business after reading negative reviews, down from 68 percent in 2016. Having the full range of reviewers’ sentiments about a business, from the good to the bad, helps customers make more informed decisions.

Negative reviews can:

  • Alert you to problems you weren’t aware of, so you can fix them.
  • Give you an opportunity to improve brand sentiment by how you respond.
  • Provide a search engine optimization (SEO) bump, since they add legitimacy to your business.

Next time you get a negative review, use these tactics to transform it into a marketing win.

Show customers you care

Customer service is everything to consumers today. NewVoiceMedia’s 2018 “Serial Switchers” report found poor customer service costs businesses more than $75 billion a year, which is an increase of $13 billion since 2016. When a customer complains about your business in an online review, you can choose to ignore them or you can use your response to provide amazing customer service. Customers who have their issue solved in their first interaction with a  business are twice as likely to purchase from that business again, BrightLocal reports.

Acknowledge and show gratitude for every review you get. Reviewers are helping your SEO, and they’re providing powerful feedback that you didn’t have to spend money on a survey to gather. Courteously tell the reviewer you have investigated the problem and explain the steps you’re taking to correct it. You may want to offer an invitation for a free service to make up for the mistake or provide a coupon for the reviewer’s next purchase.

A humble and contrite response to an angry reviewer may be enough to make them change or update their review, or at least give your business another chance.

Use complaints for content marketing

Stuck trying to think up new content ideas? Look at customer complaints. The things your customers are talking negatively about in reviews can inspire new content.

Let’s say your company runs a freelancer marketplace. Companies post their freelance design jobs on your site and designers apply to win the work. In the last three months, you’ve received a few negative reviews from freelancers saying they apply for jobs but never win them. They call your site a waste of time.

Upon investigation, you learn that the freelancers who are complaining haven’t optimized their profiles with you. They’re likely not winning the work because they aren’t showcasing themselves in the best light.

The fix: create content that shows users how to optimize their profiles. Provide step-by-step instructions and screen shots that demonstrate how they can best position themselves to get awarded assignments.

Offer help

Similarly to using negative reviews for content ideas, mine reviews for ways to amplify the level of customer service you provide. Use customer complaints to create a frequently asked questions section on your website, eliminating the confusion your negative reviewers have been experiencing.

You can also use negative reviews in staff training. Alert your team to the reasons people express discontent about your business, and train your employees so that they go above and beyond in those areas.

Use review feedback for social media content and digital customer service, too. Share content that can help mitigate bad reviews, whether it’s offering a helpful tip or sharing a web page that includes all the details of a product or service.

Run paid ads for a specific product or service

If a specific product or service you offer has been particularly hit hard in reviews, use online advertising to expose more people to it, but wow them with the service they receive so that more positive reviews come through for it. As more people try the product or service you’ve promoted, you can get newer, more positive reviews that outshine any negative ones.

You can use Facebook Ads or Google Ads to direct leads to a landing page offering a coupon for the service. Or, if you’re in the B2C space, try a deals site like Groupon. With any campaign you run, make sure your staff is prepared to offer exceptional service.

Welcome all types of reviews — even negative ones

Reviews are essential tools businesses can use to improve their products and services. Get more customer reviews by including links to review sites your business is listed on, like Yelp and Google My Business, throughout your website and social media presences. If you’re using email marketing for new customers, include a call to action to leave a review (be careful on Yelp, though — it’s a violation of their terms of service to request a review). When a customer leaves a review, you can build a positive relationship, even if the initial review is negative.

You can also get more positive reviews by featuring the ones you have in marketing materials like social media pages or email campaigns. Customers who are featured feel special, and your new customers might make their reviews more positive, too, in hopes that they will be featured.

Next time you do get a negative review, take a deep breath and relax. It’s simply a chance for your business to get a new marketing win.

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How to find good writers and other content marketing struggles

You get what you pay for when it comes to copywriters says contributor Jessica Fowler. Here’s a look at how to hire good copywriters to help drive traffic and sales to your site.

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While the “content is king” mantra sits firm 0n its throne, it leaves one burning question: “How do I find writers fit for such royalty?”

From low-cost content factories to high-ticket copywriters you feel you can’t afford, you may find yourself wondering if there’s a middle road.

How do you know which solution is best for you?  Some say the best solution is to build an in-house team of writers, but this isn’t always the most affordable (or practical) option.

For those that need to outsource content writing, finding the right fit can be a bit of a whirlwind and confusing.

Today’s column will help answer all those questions, and more!  I’m going to share ideas that will help you find, qualify and hire quality search engine optimization (SEO)-savvy content writers you can depend on.

Struggle #1: What qualifies as a “good” SEO content writer?

Qualifying a good writer can feel a lot like qualifying a new love interest. They look good on paper and make a good first impression, but how do you really know they are the one?

The hard truth is that, just like with a love interest, you’ll have to spend time getting to know your writer before you really get an answer in full. But that doesn’t mean you have to go in blind. Here are some non-negotiables that will increase your odds of finding a good fit without wasting time:

  1. It should be clear to you from the start that your writer understands the basics: grammar, spelling, and structure. You can learn this through conversation. Converse with your writer by texting and/or email to get a feel for their grasp of the written word.
  2. A good SEO content writer also understands that a search engine wants you to write for the audience, not the algorithm. Ask for samples to assess this and watch out for keyword heavy posts that have poor flow and readability. Read their work and ask yourself, “If I am my target audience, do I find this information valuable and consumable?” If you don’t, usually the algorithm won’t either.
  3. Run the samples you receive through a readability scoring app like Sometimes an article will look great on the surface, but you’ll find that it carries a low readability score. This means the way its written lacks clarity and is difficult to consume.
  4. If you want to doubly ensure that you’re going to get a great return on your investment, look for content writers that do SEO copywriting — not just practice SEO. Why? People that only specialize in SEO might be able to bring you traffic, but will they know how to influence that traffic? Not necessarily. Copywriters understand the psychology of why your audience will purchase, join your list, or take any action you want them to take on your website. This is where the real magic happens, so look out for these copywriting unicorns.
  5. Lastly, copywriter or not – your writer should understand your audience’s relationship with your niche. If you want to sell diet pills to middle age women who want to lose weight, your writer shouldn’t just understand the audience or only understand the diet pills. They should understand where the two collide. What are your audience’s pain points, limiting beliefs, and buying triggers around your product or service? Usually, this is the biggest mistake when hiring, but the answer is simple: require relevant samples when vetting your wordsmith and see what they know.

Struggle #2: Where can I find good SEO writers?

Speaking objectively, you can find good writers anywhere. But there’s definitely a difference between shopping around on Fiverr versus other higher quality avenues that offer you better screening opportunities.

One of the best ways to vet an SEO content writer is to find them on social media where they post long-form content. This way you can see for yourself how they write, how they work, and how they interact with their clients and prospects.

Join SEO and copywriting groups on platforms like Facebook and LinkedIn and just hang out for a bit. You’ll notice writers posting in quality groups to attract leads. Instead of just seeing samples that can be tweaked, you’ll get to see how they write and interact with leads and clients on a day to day basis.

This level of consistency and insight into a writer’s personality, ethics, and values will help you feel more comfortable and less blind going into a working agreement together.

You can also post in these groups asking for recommendations. You’ll find community members are happy to showcase the writers who’ve brought them the most value.

Struggle #4: Do I need an “SOP” for my writers?

A million times yes!

You are probably going to pick an experienced writer who is also catering to multiple clients at the same time he/she works with you. Each client they work with has different primary preferences and concerns, from the style of writing, how the work should be submitted, and so on.  Standard operating procedures (SOPs) help minimize the guesswork for your writer and potential headaches for you.

The truth is most business owners aren’t struggling to find quality writers, they’re struggling to keep them! Without clear direction, writers have to guess how you want things done and that generally causes confusion and room for error.  With more direction and outlines like an SOP, everyone stays happy.

Writing SOPs may seem like a time-intensive step, but the good news is, once it’s done it saves you hundreds of hours on the backend. And if you want to take it off your plate, consult an operations specialist who can help with this. It’ll increase your return on investment (ROI), help eliminates stress and keeps good writers happy and in your employ.

Struggle #5: How much should I pay for copywriting?

A wise human somewhere once said — you get what you pay for.  If your audience is based in the US, will a non-English speaking content writer fully understand not only the language but the culture of your audience?  Probably not.  Do you have editors available to help or are you setting yourself up to spend just as much time editing a piece as you would have spent writing it yourself? The allure of inexpensive writers is high but unless you have the time and patience to train them it’s probably not a smart investment.

Even a native speaking writer charging minimum wage is probably inexperienced and may not have access to research resources. At the end of the day ,you’re paying for a result. How much is it worth to you to make sure you are getting the best content in a reasonable amount of time?

Ultimately, the best copywriter understands your audience’s language and culture, is skilled in SEO and conversion rate optimization, is resourceful and capable. You have other things to worry about, and having a writer that can produce high-quality content is key not just for successful writing, but successful business operations and scaling.

Struggle #6: Is “SEO content” worth the investment?

Search-engine-optimized content is like anything else — you get out of it what you put into it. If you hire top quality writers, you’re going to get top quality content which in turn will help drive traffic and better rankings for your site.

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Attention + intensity: Tips for navigating the new age of media strategy

Contributor Mark Williams says marketers must evolve the metrics they monitor to keep up with the changing media-consumption environment.

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As marketers and brands have seen, the prevalence of digital video has transformed how consumers access media and content.

Essentially, video is not the future, it’s the “now”.

According to Cisco, global IP video traffic will represent 82 percent of all consumer internet traffic by 2021, up from 73 percent in 2016. Consumers no longer want to read about a brand  — they want to visualize it.

In 2018 and beyond, we’ll see a big shift from before, when advertisers were looking to buy reach and frequency with traditional media, to now, where advertisers will want to capitalize on intensity through the maximum amount of reach and frequency. In a post-pivot-to-video world, it’s time to change your video and media strategy, especially how you measure it.

To tackle all of the changes and innovations in media and digital marketing within the past few years, and especially to gear you up for the further integration of video, here are three tips for navigating the new age of media strategy.

1. Measure your audience with intensity

Rethink your approach to measurement. It’s not just about clicks and views. Viewability and reach are no longer the main indicators of success because they don’t measure how an audience is connecting with the content.

Instead, track deeper actions. Update your key performance indicators (KPIs) with different engagement metrics, such as watch time, engagements, earned metrics and follower acquisition, to track whether or not your intended audience actually viewed your message and reacted to it.

Watch time is one of the most valuable metrics to track in order to gauge whether or not audiences are actually watching your content. It’s also the most important factor for platform algorithms. If you track minutes watched, retention rate and the average percentage of those who watched through, you’ll have a better idea of how you are captivating the audience’s attention, and at what level of intensity.

Tracking engagements (e.g., likes, shares and comments) is also a key indicator of your strategy’s performance. Engagements and engagement rates indicate that fans are making a decision beyond simply watching your content. If they’re sharing, starting up a conversation, or compelled by a call to action from the content, you can measure the intensity with which your audience is consuming the material.

Also, be sure to watch your follower/subscriber acquisition. Growing a fan base is essential to the marketing efforts of advertisers, and it is important to identify what content brings in new followers so that you can focus your content strategy to consider these insights.

2. Rethink content strategy: Transform ads + make content relevant

Given the prevalence of ad blockers, it’s clear that interruptive advertising doesn’t work anymore. Instead, we’re seeing high performance through integrated brand messages. To do this, make your content relevant to your consumer.

Embed your campaign initiatives into publisher sites through partnerships to make for a smoother and natural integration of your advertising.

Consider integrating with influencers. Research conducted by Fullscreen (my employer) and MediaScience found that the percentage of viewers who would recommend a brand after watching a branded video from an influencer was 13 percent higher than the percentage for a TV ad.

Test different content strategies to see what resonates best with your audience, and for a more specific segmented analysis, A/B test different interest sets and demographics to inform your marketing plan.

3. Tailor by platform

To keep your marketing strategy specific and efficient, optimize content and advertising to reflect the platform. Utilize metadata by making campaigns that align with proper titling and tagging across all of your platforms. Keep your branding design consistent to ensure that your content is distinguishable. Ensure that your creative is designed for the specific tech specs of the platform where it will live.

Gone are the days of the one-size-fits-all approach. Facebook creative must be treated differently from Snapchat and so on. Perhaps most importantly, the creative must feel endemic to the platform — which explains why repurposed television commercials have some of the lowest engagement metrics.

Identify and maintain a consistent publishing schedule that is tailored to times when platforms reach the highest number of eyes, not only to maximize viewership and engagement but also to help consumers know when to expect your content.

Further, aim to promote circular traffic: Utilize the platforms through their available interactive elements so that you can cross-promote across all channels.

When tailoring your content for specific platforms, you also want to pay attention to how the platform is accessed.

Take a look at the platform functions, according to recent data from each platform and Statista, YouTube is accessed 50 percent of the time on mobile, whereas Facebook is at 95.1 percent and Instagram is at 100 percent.

This means that when creating content for YouTube, you should pay equal attention to mobile and desktop access, whereas Facebook and Instagram should lean more heavily toward mobile usage.

In closing

You’ll want to keep these three tips at the forefront of your digital marketing and content strategy so that you quickly adapt your brand to the changing video and media environments of today.

Remember, the overarching difference in paid media targeting online versus traditional targeting is the more refined, specific targeting of individuals, which ultimately leads to higher attention and intensity, as well as greater returns.

With all of these advancements, online media has many new metrics which you absolutely must utilize to expand your reach and retention far beyond that of traditional paid media.

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