The 3 essential aspects of content, and how to get them right
It’s worth going back to basics to make sure you content has a strong foundation. Here Molly Raycraft outlines what it takes to get audience, structure and tone right
There’s a lot more to content than just writing. You’ve got to think about the audience, structure, tone, what your boss actually wants from you, what the aim of this piece is, what the point is, how you’re going to make it SEO friendly, what you’re going to say, how you’re going to say it in a creative genius way… and the list goes on. The point is, writing content is hard. The big list of requirements can add overwhelming confusion, and the end result is writers block (it happens to the best of us) which means you’ll end up blindly aiming for a sub-standard piece of content.
However, with some pre-writing preparation it doesn’t have to be like that. Take off the blindfold, put down your pen, and take it back to basics. Here are the three essential aspects of content writing you need to focus on to make your sub-standard copy, superb-standard.
1. Identifying your audience
Ask authors of generic copy who the target audience is and they’ll most likely say ‘our customers’. Your customers will be a fairly diverse bunch of people, with different challenges, different priorities and maybe even belonging to different sectors. It’s impossible to create an impactful piece of content for all these people. Instead narrow it down to smaller groups and write to those people.
“Find a strand of your customers who are all facing the same problem,” suggests Joel Harrison, editor-in-chief of B2B Marketing. “This immediately gives you a strong angle to work with and will mean you’ll be able to write in a way that’s very specific and impactful to these customers. If you don’t do this, you’ll end up writing a bland generic piece of content that isn’t 100% relevant to anyone.”
Most publication houses, copywriting agencies and creative agencies will have audience personas to help them segment their customers into a target audience (we do!). These personas will be characters that represent a certain proportion of your customer base. They may be in a particular job level and role, in a certain sector, or going through specific challenges. For example, you may choose to target senior marketers at client-side companies who are in the beginning stages of their role.
Before you start planning your article, it’s good to use these guides to visualise the person you’re trying to reach and what they want to know, because your article needs to give them the answer to their problem as well as encourage them to take action with your company.
However, remember these are just guides and there’s nothing better than actually talking to the people you’re writing for. “We talk to our target audience,” says Doug Kessler, creative director and co-founder of marketing agency Velocity. “We want them to describe their world, their challenges and the language they use. If you’re talking to someone in IT and they say ‘spinning up a server’, you’ll find out they use the term ‘spinning’ instead of ‘deploying’. All of a sudden you feel like you’re in their world. Direct and frequent contact is one of the huge ways to do this.”
- Write for niche groups within your customer base, not everyone on Earth.
- Create personas that will guide you in segmenting your audience and visualise the human you’re writing for.
- Talk to your audience!
Creating the right content structure
An extremely common copywriting challenge is structuring, and that’s completely normal. It’s unlikely you’ll know what a specific structure of a press release, blog or longer form content should be if you haven’t trained as a professional writer, because it doesn’t just come up at school.
On the contrary, what we learned from school is how to structure an essay, by using PETER (Point, Explain, Technique, Example, Return to point) and long exhausting words. Now, in an academic setting this would be great. But in a B2B content marketing strategy it’s a bit much.
Although structure can slightly differ depending on format (something David McGuire, creative director at Radix Communications runs through on his copywriting course), there’s some rules you can apply for any format. One of the first rules you ever learn at Journalism school is one of these.
It’s another acronym: WWWWH (What, When, Where, Who, How). This is what you need to put in your first paragraph in order to really pack a punch. Essentially it should pack up the angle of your story into a nutshell. If this is engaging, people are a lot more likely to read on.
You’ll also need to make sure your content is presented in a way that’s ‘scannable’. Particularly if you’re targeting professionals, it’s unlikely they’re going to dedicate time to read a full body of text unless they see immediate value.
David – who says readers will look at content for no more than five seconds before deciding whether to continue – says using subheads can help increase the scannability of a piece of content. “Look for subheadings that describe the content they introduce – and explain, summarise or interpret that content. So instead of saying ‘features’, briefly tell your reader what those features mean for them.
“Suddenly, the subheads tell your story – and you’ve turned each bit of content into supporting evidence for your case,” he says in one of his most recent B2B Marketing blogs.
In some cases you’ll find that it’s not even the structure that’s at the heart of the issue. It’s that the writer doesn’t actually know what they’re trying to say, and what they want their content to achieve. “I find a lot of writing doesn’t really know where it wants to take me. Structure is a symptom of that,” says Doug.
He suggests planning out what you want to say in order for your content to deliver what you want. This doesn’t need to be a complicated affair. It could be as simple as writing a few bullet points in order to keep your structure on the path to being impactful.
- Make sure you have a nutshell paragraph which outlines the what, when, where, who, how.
- Create scanable content by breaking large chunks of copy up with interesting subheads.
- Do a bullet point plan before you start writing.
Nailing a consistent tone and style
First things first: tone and style are two different things. Tone is something you change to meet the audience you’re talking to. Style is your brand house style – so for example it’s part of B2B Marketing’s house style not to capitalise job titles. This rule stays the same no matter who we’re talking to.
“Having a house style guide allows your tone to vary depending on your audience, while keeping that consistency that every brand wants to have. It means you can be relevant and on brand,” explains Joel.
The question is how do you get the tone right in the first place? The answer is another acronym we learn at Journalism school: KISS (Keep It Short and Simple).
In the last section about structure, I outlined how we’d all been tuned into writing in an academic style that just doesn’t work in marketing. This is something that is carried over into tone and style. At school, we all used the longest and most extravagant word in preference to a basic one – all in an aim to impress and sound clever. Take ‘utilise’ over ‘use’ as a prime example.
If you use long words in your marketing copy, your reader won’t even bother to continue reading it. They don’t want to have to make an effort to understand, it should be face value. In fact, a study done in 2012 (credit to David for drawing it to my attention) discovered the more educated a person is, the less likely they are to be impressed by long-winded language.
The trouble is content marketers don’t want to use simple language in fear they’ll come across as patronising or that they don’t know enough about what they’re selling. But this is unlikely to happen, the reality is you’ll get your message across and won’t waste your customer’s time with a long wordy sentence that could have been written in a line.
“If it’s formal language, make the words and sentences shorter and simpler,” confirms David. “If it’s technical jargon, make sure you and the reader both understand it. If it’s corporate bullshit, kill it with fire.”
- Create a house style guide your brand can adhere to.
- Keep words short and simple.
- Read David’s blogs for more helpful tips.