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Over the course of my career, I’ve had the opportunity to work on both sides of the publishing fence: One that is built on traditional models and editorial independence, and the other that is enterprise-led and promotional in nature.

Seeing both sides—and all the grey areas in between—has led to a distinct perspective on what it takes to create successful, engaging marketing and sales content.

And there is one essential rule that many overlook: It’s not about you.

With all due respect, it’s about your audience and their unique challenges and opportunities.

Shifting the spotlight

As marketers, we tirelessly promote our own products and services. We flaunt our latest features, our newest promotions, our most recent wins, and our upcoming events. We align ourselves with emerging trends and distance ourselves from fading ones. And we focus heavily on our competition, doing whatever we can to highlight differentiation and drive preference.

We do these things because it’s our job. But the approach often leaves the audience out of the picture. It’s all “us” (the company) and “them” (the competition) and not enough “you” (the reader).

In a world of self-indulgent hype and marketing, standing above the crowd requires strategic nuance, helpful insight, and flawless execution. It is driven by thought leadership and storytelling, emphasizing insight and guidance over promotional messages and brand trumpeting. It not only demonstrates a clear understanding of the audience’s challenges and opportunities but also reveals ways to address them.

In doing so, it disarms, engages, and compels the reader.

What it takes

So what does it take to develop this type of content, and how can it lead to measurable results? In my experience, there are five key ingredients:

1. A clear understanding of the audience

Again, it’s not about your company or your products and services. It’s about how those things can help solve a problem or facilitate a positive outcome for a customer. Conveying the message requires a deep understanding of the reader and an ability to align with their priorities, challenges, and opportunities.

2. A commitment to educating the reader

In an age of advertising and marketing overkill, humans have developed sophisticated filters for tuning out promotional messages. If we feel we are being “sold to,” we often disengage before the message has been fully delivered. That’s why it’s important to start with insight-driven education and storytelling—for which we have much softer filters—and include promotional messages in subtle, more nuanced ways.

 3. Finding the right subject matter experts (SMEs)

To deliver this education, you need compelling perspectives and expertise. Statistics and research are helpful educational tools, but the real value comes from those who are in the trenches doing the work and from those who are in the executive suite envisioning and building the future.

 4. A successful interview

Finding the right SME isn’t enough, however. You need experienced and strategically-minded storytellers who can extract the pearls of wisdom from the SME’s head and string those pearls together to form a clear and compelling narrative—one that provides unique insights, educational value, subtle promotional messaging, and…

5. A sticky call to action (CTA)

While educational content, thought leadership, and storytelling help hook a reader, you still need to reel them in. A strong CTA is very important because it allows the reader to express their interest in learning more and engaging further. And it gives you the opportunity to measure the success of the content and nurture the relationship until the reader is ready to make a purchase.

All of this starts with an unwavering focus on the audience.

Too many brands want to be the hero and play the role of protagonist. But they are much more effective when they play the role of mentor, helping the real hero—your customer or prospect—make the right decisions.