Updated: Jan 16
The problem I have with most online publishing today can be distilled down to one simple word: “content.”
When I hear that word, it doesn’t spark visions of creativity, impeccable storytelling, or grand ideas. No, for me “content” elicits the image of a busy newsfeed with hundreds of people and organizations publishing mediocre articles, grasping desperately in the dark for attention. The phrase implies a lack of quality: lazy writing, made-up stories, and ideas that are so obvious they probably weren’t worth posting.
But this article isn’t about finding a new term to replace “content.” My aim is to help you imagine a world in which readers hesitate to lump your articles under that category because the substance of what you produce is just too damn good.
Let’s talk about how to be an online publishing outlier.
The most common content marketing strategies
The world of content marketing is flooded. Standing out requires doing more than simply writing something that’s slightly better than the next person or company. It requires thinking long term. That means setting direction, finding a strategy.
How do you begin to think about strategy in the online publishing arena?
As a freelance writer, I’ve been on the inside of many content marketing strategies. I’ve seen how real estate companies, software startups, consultants, and managed services and security companies draft their publishing calendars.
The most common approach, especially in SEO, is to follow the lead of a successful competitor. SEMrush and Ahrefs make this easy: simply plug a competitor’s URL into the tool and—huzzah!—you can see where your competitor generates the lionshare of their search traffic. Then, all you have to do is create competing articles to fight for the top spot in SERPs.
Another common approach is to choose a member of the leadership team (usually the founder) and plan a series of social posts, guest posts, or blogs based on their ideas and personal stories. Usually a ghostwriter like me will be assigned to interview the founder or watch their keynotes to translate their ideas into articles.
I’ve seen both of these strategies work. These are common strategies because, when executed well, they produce results.
But I’m convinced there may be a better way.
Play to win
What would happen if more companies tried taking giant swings with their content marketing strategy?
Giant swings, in my opinion, don’t begin by looking at the competition or even by looking inward at your leadership team. They begin with the question: What could we create that would Wow our customers?
I’m talking about building a content marketing strategy based on one big idea.
The obvious pushback here is that big ideas are difficult to come up with and often expensive to pull off. They carry the risk that your bold, difficult, and expensive idea won’t deliver what you hope. It’s a bet, after all. And sometimes even a good bet fails.
The good news is, a little patience, research, and creativity go a long way in writing. Often the best ideas begin with a simple question. If I were advising your firm about how to find a big idea to set as your publishing North Star, I might suggest asking yourself these two questions:
1. What stories can we tell that are larger than ourselves?
Any marketer will tell you that stories are an effective marketing device. The problem is, most stories told by companies are not entertaining. Readers are not hooked by yarns that begin with, “I was on stage talking about the future of IoT…”
Self-indulgent stories are common because they’re the easiest to write. We have to look no further than our own experience. But the best stories—the ones we remember and share with friends—have high stakes. They tap into our deepest emotions. They show us examples of exceptional greatness and evil. The best stories border on the impossible, they’re stranger than fiction.
To find these stories, companies need to think far beyond their organization. Think like a journalist, pulling from hard-to-find sources and forgotten history to tell extraordinary tales. Where are the incredible stories that aren’t being told?
My favorite example of this is Morgan Housel at Collaborative Fund.
Collaborative Fund is an investment firm. But their “content” doesn’t look anything like other companies in high finance.
Instead of writing standard how-to articles about managing money, their main writer, Morgan Housel, tells adventurous stories from history. His articles regularly go viral, in part because he’s a good writer, but also in part because he’s doing something that most other financial institutions won’t: telling well-crafted, highly-researched stories.
2. How do we become the #1 source of industry data or news?
This strategy seems most advantageous for B2B organizations. Another way to phrase this question is: What is the industry data that every CEO in our industry wants but can’t access—and how do we get ahold of that data and publish it for them?
As a freelancer, I’m reminded of Upwork, the gig economy platform. Every year, Upwork publishes the latest results of a freelancer survey. Based on the findings, their team produces a massive, highly-readable mega-article to showcase how the industry has changed year over year.
The results are enough to make any marketer jealous. Every year, their report receives publicity and backlinks from the largest media companies in the world, all referencing the latest stats from this niche side of the economy.
Yes, running a massive annual survey and translating it into a beautiful report can be expensive. But it is also a singular big idea that can inspire many articles and (likely) the attention of customers and industry journalists. Best of all, it’s difficult for competitors to replicate.
Now that I mention it, that’s the best thing about building a content marketing strategy based on a big idea. When you execute well on that idea, you put a measurable distance between your work and everything else in your LinkedIn or Twitter feeds. Your work stands out.
And isn’t that why you’re publishing in the first place?
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