Try this the next time you have a few minutes: Drop in on the websites of peer companies in your industry. Look at the content. What do you see?
You’re likely to notice that their content looks like your content. A lot like your content. Similar topics, layout, tone and vocabulary. In fact, if you were to put a competitor’s logo on one of your articles, could your colleagues spot the forgery?
Is this a problem? I’d say yes.
Content should engage your readers, provide useful information and build a memorable connection to your brand. That last part is difficult if no one can tell your content apart from that of your peers.
It’s easy to look at the sea of sameness and declare that we’re drowning in optimization. We writers and content creators might shake an angry fist at search engine optimization (SEO) and its forced commoditization of language. But could it also be true that we’ve gotten a little lazy?
Creating content these days is a two-step challenge: You have to write something worth reading, and you also have to help your audience find what you write. My keywords to include for this article on content marketing were “original content,” “finding your voice” and “branded content.” There, did that. I may not have made the article any better, but I’ve made it easier for the audience to find. Now I need to make it interesting. Toward that end, here are a few practices I’ve learned from the writers I work with.
You hear a lot of talk about voice in content marketing. Don’t paddle too hard on that one. Often when people raise the issue of voice, they’re referring to writing style quirks like “We don’t use the serial comma!” And “All headlines must start with verbs.” And “Never start a sentence with the word and.”
To some, voice is defined as a certain attitude that the brand has. Again, be careful. It might be better to build a general sense of your brand’s overall personality. Micromanaging voice for any kind of absolute consistency can make you sound like a one-note character.
Audiences are made of humans. Humans relate to humans. Humans are not one note. Humans have a full range of emotions and a colorful array of tones, pitches and mannerisms. Brands can, too.
Worry less about “voice” and more about who you’re talking to. Who you’re talking to should be followed closely by what you’re talking to them about and why they should listen.
When creating content, be a student of the relationship your brand has with your audience, particularly its role in their lives. Watch out for ego inflation here.
We’re generally talking about a small role, but it’s still a role. And once you understand that role you can look for ways to be more of it.
Be very clear when answering these questions:
What does our audience want from us? (How to? Facts? Entertainment? Ideas? Encouragement? Empathy?)
What areas do they lean on us most?
Your content performance data can help you understand what your audience is responding to.
What do our highest-performing articles tell me about what audiences come to us for?
What about our worst performers?
How does our content differ from category norms?
Look for areas where your audience is giving you energy back, and seek to build on that.
To stand out, try looking inward. As a writer, embrace what makes you unique: your quirks, your superpowers and your flaws—the bits that don’t fit. These are what shape you and give you a different perspective. Sharing that perspective is what rescues your audience from the sameness they see every day.
Spend some time thinking about your lens on the world:
What do I see that no one else sees?
What do I believe our audience needs, really?
How can I give it to them in a way that rewards them for their time?
Resist the human urge to chase spectacle or catch up to a trend. What insight can you bring to your category’s everydayness? To borrow from philosopher Arthur Schopenhauer, “The task is not so much to see what no one yet has seen, but to think what nobody yet has thought about that which everybody sees.”
Data can point you toward which topics to cover, but it can’t teach you how to tell a compelling story. That requires the lens of you. So by all means, learn what you can from SEO, and then bring yourself to the story.
Your passions. Your understanding. The experience that connects you to your audience. The conflict you share. That’s what will make your writing unique and your labor worthwhile. Without it, you’re just more words floating on a vast and endless sea.