Actionable Content Marketing Tips

This is a TLDR of Content Marketing Tips from Experts at First Round Capital and A16Z (found via HN). The original podcast meanders a lot, which makes it hard to extract actionable tidbits from it. Some pieces of this TLDR are direct quotes. Others are paraphrased. I have made no effort to indicate which is which.

First, how do you measure the effectiveness of your content?

This is not a solved problem. But, there are some obvious measures you can look for, like page views and time on site. However, you really need to look for a metric that ties it to goals. Ask yourself what are we trying to measure and why? How does it fit our strategy and our goal? Stronger measures than page views are time on site, engagement and uptake.

And so, to make that more specific, what is a good (metric)?

What is the amount of length that you actually need to convey the point? It’s more about information density to me, like how many insights are you conveying? Are you really packing it in, or are you just meandering for no reason? One of the tools I use is Chartbeat.

Site design should focus on readability, especially for long pieces. Subheaders, pull quotes, lists and bullet points (with or without numbering) can really help make the piece more scannable, digestible and accessible. Keep paragraphs short. It is fine if they are even just two sentences at times.

I am a big believer in the use of the nut graph and a journalistic approach. (In journalism, the headline should tell the main point of the story and the first paragraph should sum it up. You should be able to stop at any point in reading a news piece and have gotten the most important part. Each additional paragraph should flesh it out more, but you follow an order of importance and lead with the most salient details.)

However, other formats, like nonlinear narratives are an option depending upon what you are trying to convey. If you are familiar with a wide variety of writing formats, they are additional tools for communication that can be pulled out as needed, based on judgment.

You can try to track what works, but you need a lot of data to draw any firm conclusions with any degree of statistical confidence. Do not be too quick to infer that because X worked this one time that this generalizes. There are many variables determining success of a piece. Don't hang too much on a single metric when trying to understand it. It takes a lot of experience to develop good judgment in this regard.

We track social sharing. It is very important to our content marketing strategy. We have dug down into this and have a nuanced understanding of who the real influencers are. It isn't as simple as highest follower count. Some people with relatively low follower counts are actually heavy hitters in that regard.

We get a Slack alert if anyone over 10,000 followers tweets about our work. This helps us follow cascades of retweets and get an idea where it all started. It isn't just people with over 100,000 followers who matter.

If I looked through all the questions people sent in, more often than not they seem to be from early stage founders, right? They’re looking for basically the effective dose. If I’m going to find an influencer, how many do I need, who should I go for? What do you guys recommend when you’re just getting started?

Reach out to people who have expressed any kind of interest in your product, such as by tweeting about it. Don't let that opportunity pass you by. Especially if they are outside your normal circles and thus represent a potential new market or place to make new contacts.

If you can identify people who are "true fans" -- who are really enthusiastic about what you are doing -- write for them. Customize what you are doing in a way that makes them happy. Think of what will appeal to them. If you can identify one iconic fan, make them the default profile for your audience and write with them in mind.

Decide how you are going to use each social platform. You can't do everything. Time limits don't allow it. It's fine to use Twitter primarily as a broadcast medium and not be too chit-chatty. It can be a channel to simply make announcements.

Before you pick a medium for your message, you need to be clear about what you are trying to do. You need a nutshell concept that can guide all decisions. It needs to be shorter than an elevator speech. It can be as short as a two word phrase or a single concept-dense sentence, like our goal of being "The New Yorker meets the Harvard Business Review."

Really, good content is mostly about what you choose to leave out. This is not obvious, but you need to be really focused and you really need to edit out irrelevant stuff. Stick to your message. Be ruthless about removing anything that doesn't serve your message.

Different mediums have different strengths and weaknesses. Audio pieces allow for more nuance and complicated discussions that can't happen in a text format, but it is less shareable than text. Text is basic. Do not underestimate the value of just putting out information in text form.

It’s really the quality of the content, are you saying things that are new knowledge that are really inspiring of new conversations? That’s all it is, is it good content? Period. And you have to have a very high bar for that.

If a start-up approaches one of you guys, and they haven’t figured out what they’re going for, what are you advising them on the medium? Are you asking them, “What are your customers looking for?” What do you say?

It starts with how they can produce things that their audience is going to gravitate to, it usually starts with, “What do those audience members want to accomplish in their own lives?” And that may or may not be related to what the product or the company actually does, but if they can somehow provide content that helps people get to that end-goal for themselves, then they’re going to reap the halo effect of being able to be that helpful. Producing high utility stuff is sort of my go-to recommendation.

There’s a match between what the audience wants and how they want to get it. Ask “What are the top three things that your audience reads?” Then that kind of serves as a model. (If) They’re developers, they read GitHub, more than they read anything else.

Where do they live online? Are they on Twitter all day scrolling through moments? Or they don’t ever use Twitter, and they only write on paper. We’ve had start-ups that have customers, especially in government, where they’re conveying information only on paper, in folders that are being passed around department to department. And then you have to actually think about that’s your audience.

How do you find that out? So say you have some ideas but how do you actually figure out what your customers, your clients, where are they hanging out, what are they reading?

You really need to learn to listen to your customers and observe them. You have two ears and one mouth. Use them in that proportion. Go to various networking events and channels, but listen more than you self promote.

What is that joke that people say, “Always be selling”? Like in the content world I think it’s really “Always be listening.”

You don't need to be a social butterfly to do this well. Creating good content is not that different from writing code. Most of it happens at a computer, typing and editing. We hate meetings as much as programmers do. Meetings are a productivity killer.

We want to be starting the conversation, and if we’re not starting the conversation, then we want to be the one adding a lot of really good value to the conversation.

We pay a lot of attention on the technical side like tracking in-bound stuff. We log search queries on our blog, so we know what people are looking for and you can do stuff that way. You can see what pages people are coming in from, and then you just have to hang-out there, you just have to be part of the community.

But be careful to filter that information through the lens of your agenda. There is a danger that you will find yourself creating what other people want in a way that loses sight of your goals and your message.

Don't be afraid to break the rules if you have a good reason. Don't just break rules for the sake of looking daring. But, if you have reasons for taking an unconventional approach, have the courage to try it, even though everyone will tell you not to. That is the story behind a lot of innovative, award winning stuff.

Good content takes a lot of time to produce. This is another non obvious thing. It can take months to create a particular piece.

With that in mind, you should have content at various stages of development at all times. Don't wait until this piece is done to start coming up with new ideas and doing the initial legwork on it.

Define any confusing terminology upfront. It is both a good way to start educating your audience and a means to ensure clear communication.

Avoid canned content. If you are just repeating the same thing everyone else is saying, you will bore your audience. They won't bother to stay. It isn't adding anything new to their lives.

Realize that once it gets published, you will get a spectrum of reactions, many of them will not be fun for you. Don't take it personally.

One good metric for success: Is it evergreen? Does it have staying power?

Don't put out content just because you are excited or it is the hot new topic. It needs to serve your message or branding position and it needs to add value. Otherwise, it's just fluff. Remember: you never get a second chance to make a first impression. You can always come back to this topic at a later date when you do have something to really add.

In order for it to really resonate, it needs to be either really useful, or really emotional. It is generally easier to make it useful, so most content marketing should err on the side of useful.

A picture is worth a thousand words. Good visuals can be great content.

Writer-topic fit is a big deal. You can end up spending a lot of time finding the right writer to give content an authentic voice.

Content marketing needs to not be too blatantly an attempt to sell the product. Everyone already knows you want to sell your product. Your content must have value in its own right.

A lot of ideas end up on the cutting room floor. You have to be prepared to drop bad ideas that just aren't working. Don't feel obligated to publish something bad just because you put a lot of work into it.

You are competing with all of the storytelling that’s going on out there, so tell some interesting stories.

Distribution is like over 50% of the game now.

There may be more to extract, but I am hitting burn out on trying to do so. The above interpretations are filtered through my own firsthand experience as a content producer. So, if some of the interpretation looks really loose, well, that's why.

I will note that I agree that measuring effectiveness of content is not a solved problem. So, if you are looking for a startup idea, this is an area you could consider.