25 Lessons from 25 Months of Content Marketing

At Help Scout, we take content and customer success through education very seriously. Twenty-five months in, here are some of the odd lessons I’ve picked up along the way.

I hope they’re useful for you:

1.) Marketing is enthusiasm transferred to the customer. Expecting customers to get excited about your product without your help is expecting too much.

2.) Content is customer success. While effective teaching requires more than mere education (motivation, modelling, entertainment, etc.), the bottom line is that content succeeds when it helps customers succeed.

3.) Writing often gets in the way of teaching. David Ogilvy once said that “The temptation to entertain instead of selling is contagious.” Content marketers often let flowery writing get in the way of their actual jobs. Hemingway should be your hero, not Faulkner – clarity reigns sovereign in the world of content. Make sure your education relates to the product. Reducing the number of “I didn’t know your software could do that” comments is the content team’s responsibility, too.

4.) You either have a content culture, or you don’t. Either the whole team rides the content train or you never leave the station. This doesn’t require everyone to write, but it does require interest and collaboration. I know I can ask Justin, Becca, or anyone else on my team for research on a post. I know I can schedule an impromptu call with leadership to discuss content. And I know that it’s my responsibility to inform the rest of the team what the heck we’ve been up to lately (read more on our Bulletin Board System).

All of this is because content isn’t just marketing, it’s culture. Great content can even attract great hires:

When it’s done right, digital content can have the same transformative impact on HR as it does on marketing. It’s simple: Great content attracts great people, and it encourages the people who are creating it to stick around.

5.) You don’t have a tactics problem, you have a content problem. My inbox is full of marketers and founders looking for an answer to “Why isn’t this working?” Candor is rare, and nobody wants to say that what they are putting out is sub-par, so the lens is diverted to tactics – the successful people must know something we don’t.

The disappointing truth, however, is usually that what they are creating simply isn’t good enough. The immediate solution is to use inversion thinking: What sucks about your industry’s content right now? Don’t do that. The long-term solution is better input: more reading, cultivating connections, and having a content role model, so you can see what sort of quality is truly possible. “Great content” is now a trope, but it’s also still the biggest hurdle.

6.) Work on your weaknesses, but compete with your strengths. In many ways, the word “frenzy” is quite applicable to many online marketing departments.

Options galore turn many campaigns into a blur of quick decisions. Diving into this, that, and the other feels like the right thing to do, but the reality is that few companies can even do a single channel well, let alone all of them at once. Stick to your guns, but have the honesty to assess where you are weak.

7.) Most company blogs desperately need cohesion. If “spray and pray” describes your blogging process, you should read this essay. Creating a Table of Contents for your blog helps create a road-map that directly outlines how you plan to get customers from A → B.

8.) Don’t forget about “solved” problems. One “problem” with creativity is that you can start to answer questions that nobody is asking. Don’t forget the perpetual problems; issues that have been around in an industry since time immemorial are always up for grabs, as long as you can solve them in a new/better way. Exaggerating the point in order to make it, Men’s Health has given up on writing headlines, since they know that the market for fitness information is much greater than the actual information available.

9.) Nobody wants to follow a story without a narrative. 37 Signals has some of the most brilliant marketing around, and much of it is founded on a single principle: have a compelling narrative. They became the flagship company for bootstrapping, remote work, and a healthy work-life balance; all of which work incredibly well with their primary product, product management software. Becoming a team that people love following helped them grow a business that people love supporting.

10.) Design is deeply embedded into the experience. How will you distribute content on your site? How will you design for conversion and the reader experience? How will you keep your best work alive long after it’s been published? A cohesive content strategy takes more than great writing, design is directly tied to reader enjoyment.

11.) Email is the golden god. Just like Dennis Reynolds from It’s Always Sunny in Philadelphia, email remains the golden god. It’s the channel of choice for marketers who want to make sales, not #hashtags. Do you really want to compete with BBQ + bikini photos and abysmal click-through rates when you can just grow an email list? It’s the professional social network that everyone already uses. This doesn’t make social any less important in spaces like retail and B2C, my point is email should be apart of every online marketing strategy.

12.) Hate SEO? “One page, one term.” Simply taking the time to pick a solid keyword for every marketing page on your site (blog posts included) can go a long way in giving these pages shelf life. The first example below is a post without a target keyword, the second is one with a keyword that was later able to rank as the #1 result.

Ignore SEO at your peril.

13.) You should “coin” your best ideas. There’s a reason we refer to it as the Pomodoro Technique and not the original “timeboxing” – one was memorable, one wasn’t. Teaching concepts is difficult, giving them names (“The ____ Strategy”) makes them easy to remember. Often, you can own an existing phrase by giving it the treatment it deserves (ie, The Frugal Wow).

14.) “Big content” is still worth the effort. Whether it be interactive, animated, beautifully designed, etc. etc., going big generally pays off if you take the launch seriously. It took a while for some of our resources, like The Art of Customer Loyalty, to finally get the attention they deserved, but it was worth the wait.

15.) A visual asset is worth 1000 words. I think just about everyone has had that moment of confusion when reading a textbook, only to have it alleviated by “See Fig. A.” Visual assets, just like personal photographs, can speak a thousand words, and are an integral part of educating customers.

16.) Put the spotlight on customers. “Modelling,” the use of role models to nudge behavior, is absurdly persuasive. Let customers do your selling for you by inviting them to provide quotes or even write for you. These articles will generally not be popular, but they will be convincing to prospects who are on the fence, and who need just the slightest push by seeing how your product specifically helped someone just like them.

17.) Don’t forget your wheat bread. Amidst a web that is obsessed with churning out “53 Self Promoters Experts Talk About Something,” wheat bread content, or education that solves a tough, boring problem for customers, is often the content that converts best.

18.) Organize or die. Specifically for writers: if you don’t set up a system to organize all of that potential inspiration, your writing will suffer and you’ll end up driving yourself insane. Organizing your sources thus becomes a task that should be treated seriously.

19.) Distribution often resembles the way comedians tell jokes. Does the world expect comedians to deliver an entirely unique performance at every show? If a comedian tells an amazing joke during one show, should he/she never use it again? When you land a winner, think about how it can live again: remix and republish. I randomly re-published one of our articles on LinkedIn that ended up reaching an additional 240,000 eyeballs.

20.) There really is “management” for a content marketing manager. Some responsibilities I’ve noticed even with only a single person under my wing:

  • You have to get them up to date, quickly. I’ve had two years to figure out what “content” means for Help Scout, but I needed our first hire to know the fundamentals in two weeks.
  • You have to help them find their ‘canvas’; what sort of style really suits them? Do they often hit the sweet spot at a certain length?
  • You have to pace them. Ogilvy would personally write advertisements even as his company grew, just to show the troops that his hand hadn’t lost its cunning.

21.) Networking is something everybody overlooks. Getting syndicated, getting featured on big sites, being able to reach out to other people who already have audiences – all things accomplished with networking. The cabin dwelling novelist is not the person you want for your first content hire.

22.) Great content people have an odd mix of traits. To have domain expertise, writing ability, and decent networking skills is rare, hence the Content Marketing Trifecta, experienced when making our first content hire:

You also have to struggle with availability–the best people may have a big enough platform to stay independent–and recognize how much of an importance domain expertise will play. The startup selling mathematical programming software is going to be limited in who they can hire (hat tip to Emma Siemasko).

23.) A demand for multimedia will start a creative migration. Writers won’t soon relinquish their power to move mountains (and millions). Well-written prose will always be the bread and butter of the web, and words will always matter. But the way we’re heading, I’m convinced that a demand for multimedia education will be the catalyst for a great creative migration. I’m specifically referring to folks like talented comics, who could be making money hand over fist by creating shareable content for a company that values creativity (email me *wink*).

24.) The best guest post is a happy customer. When Joost de Valk and the Yoast team wrote their Help Scout review after switching to our service months before, it outclassed many of our guest posts. Guest blogging is certainly still useful, but the content team needs to remember that the candid thoughts of a happy customer often travel much farther than their own efforts. There are worse ways to spend your time than in the support queue putting those writing talents to work winning over customers and prospects.

25.) Inspiration should come from everywhere. You’ll often find that it’s best to ignore what other content marketers are doing, and instead look for inspiration in tangentially related places. Journalists at the NYTimes might inspire you to improve your writing; that animated channel on YouTube may inspire you to play around with visuals.

That’s my story and I’m sticking to it.

For any Help Scout blog readers going through this, it’s been a pleasure to write for you these last two years!

About the author: Gregory Ciotti is a marketer and (embarrassingly infrequent) writer. Previously, he led content marketing on Shopify’s growth team and was executive editor on the communications team.