Explore some of our past podcasts hosted by WriterAccess founder Byron White.
Byron: Welcome back, everyone. I’m here with Jane Heaton. Jane, welcome.
Jane: Thank you very much. It’s good to talk to you.
Byron: You as well. We’ll try to cover content marketing in the next few minutes, but the book is called “Content Marketing in a Week.” Tell me about this series and your interest in that series. It sounds like a really cool footprint that somebody’s put together.
Jane: Yeah. The “In A Week” series week is part of a bigger imprint that’s called “Teach Yourself,” which is published over here by a very big publisher called Hodder. I think there’s probably somewhere between 15 and 100 titles in the “In A Week” series so far and going for quite a number of years. And every so often, every couple of years, they commission a new sort of set of books. This “Content Marketing in a Week,” I got to do, first of all, probably about toward the end of 2013 and it’s just been published this year.
Byron: Now my favorite part of the book are the actual tests that you feature in the back of each of the sections. Not only are they cleverly written, I might add, but I wanted to get your thoughts on creating those tests. Was that difficult for you? Had you ever created course-ware, if you will, before?
Jane: I have actually written, yes, of eLearning content before. What was quite interesting about these was in sense of the writing process they sort of came towards the end. And I had somewhat underestimated, I must confess, the amount of time it would take to write them and put them together. And it was sort of challenging, but quite fun as well. I had a look through some of the other in a week series to see how the other writers had done it. And so I wanted it to be a little bit light-hearted, I think, as well as, achieving its aims which sort of would be a little test at the end of the chapter to see how well people picked up the content. So it was interesting to do.
Byron: Your day series, if you will, starts on a Sunday which I also find interesting. Is that because you can celebrate on Saturday after you finish up on all seven days?
Jane: Oh, yeah, quite possibly. Again, that’s the way it is.
Byron: I see.
Jane: When I started doing it before actually looking at it in detail, I did start it on a Monday. But, yes, it is quite interesting that [0:02:41 inaudible] must be the day that we start to think about this stuff. And as you say, I’m sure maybe I’d put a bottle or two on Saturday night.
Byron: I love the beginning in Chapter One, if you will, “Adopt a Content Marketing Mindset.” That’s something that is perhaps even controversial. If you were to summarize how you would adopt a content marketing mindset, how would you describe that?
Jane: I think what was in my mind when I was writing it, I’ve spent sort of the last 30-odd years working marketing, and the whole content thing for me was an opportunity for me to bring that together with my sort of strategic focus on marketing. I think sometimes as marketers, because I’m both a writer and a marketer, we sort of are driven quite a lot to be very tactical, very implementational, very reactive in some ways. So the mindset thing for me here was all about the fact that, “Hey, take a step back a little bit and realize that, although we can start and we can read and we can think about this in seven days, making content marketing like is a marketing approach is actually a long-term thing. Therefore, we sort of have to change the way we thing about marketing at times. Or at least, be prepared to change our behavior in some way in order to make sure we are thinking of it as a long-term plan, and that we’re thinking as marketing and content in the right way.” So we’re doing the thinking, we’re very conscious about what we’re doing, and we are thinking about all the great things that we would do as marketers left to our own devices. Which is focus on the audience and the purpose, not the reason for doing things and what we’re trying to achieve rather than content context, simply churning out content and not really known where it’s going. And so that was very much in my mind when I was writing this sort of first chapter, which sets the scene for the book, really.
Byron: Many of us struggle with transforming our peers and our management team members and our C-level executives into that mindset. What advice do you think you would have for a writer, for example, that’s trying to convince their client to join the content marketing revolution and jump on the band wagon and start creating relevant, useful, valuable content that will engage and convert and retain customers—besides prayer?
Jane: I think two things really. The first is to be clear oneself and to really buy into oneself the fact that, again, as writers we don’t just write, we don’t just get started and move on and deliver what someone’s asking for if we think the questions need to be asked. I think understanding what that is and being able to put the case yourself for it. I’ve sometimes found that sometimes what’s missing is just the willingness to sort of stop and do that, and then actually your communication can be quite well received. Quite often I think the reason that people overlook things is because they don’t quite understand themselves. And so therefore, they might pressure their marketing people or writers to do things without really understanding where it’s going wrong. And I think the second thing is, if that is proving difficult and you’re coming up with quite a bit of resistance, then simply to start putting things in practice yourselves. I think that most writers are quite good at sort of asking questions and being curious about things. So asking some of those questions when you are asked to do things. Like well, getting really clear about who the audience is or why the piece is being written, what the quarter action is and what we want our audience to sort of know, understand, and feel when they’re reading our piece. And I think if we can start asking those questions of the people who are commissioning our work, then that can also start to turn things around.
Byron: What do you think the skills are that someone really needs? Particularly a writer that’s trying to transition and transform themselves and to advance their career. What skills do you think people need to develop? Because content marketing is a really complex process, if you will, and I’d like to learn from you what you think the most important skills are that someone needs to perfect to really perform well with content marketing?
Jane: Well I think as a writer, if you’re a good writer and you can write well, then that stands you in good stead in the content world where perhaps people are producing content who don’t have your writing skill sets. I think straight away you’re starting with a plus. Therein, I think it’s taking yourself sort of outside of that [0:07:49 inaudible] of like the writer’s mindset in many ways. And understanding that it’s more about good writing and it’s also about understanding and being willing to understand the business that you’re in. I think if you come from a generalistic background, then you’re probably already quite… You have those skills as I mentioned earlier, sort of questioning, getting to the [0:08:13 numb] of the matter, and being willing to ask difficult questions. Some writers who don’t come from that find that quite a difficult thing to do and it comes with practice. But generally speaking to make content marketing work, you have to be in the business world as well as the writing world, and therefore understanding the aims and the objectives of your organization, understanding the commercial realities of it. If you’re out and about talking to people within the business, because that’s where a lot of the good content marketing stories if you like, come from, from within people who are at the sharp end in dealing with customer’s sales teams, that sort of thing. You know, understanding their commercial realities so that you’re not if you like being intrusive and making it really difficult to get those stories out of them. I think from being a writer, it’s becoming a bit more quite what I would call “generalistic” in your approach. And then secondly, being really willing to get involved in the business, in the company that you’re in, and the organization, and the commercial realities of that.
Byron: Learning the wants and needs of your audience readers, you can call them, customers, prospects, that’s a very difficult task. What are your tips on getting to know the audience and what resonates well with them?
Jane: Well, if I think if we’re in a marketing department or we are doing a writer’s job and we don’t have, if you we’re not out and about in the business as I’ve just described, then it’s difficult, because you’re either guessing or you’re sort of creating content on what you would want and that’s not always what the audience wants to hear. So I would take it gradually. If you’re in an organization, or you have people around you who… or if you like dealing with customers on a day-to-day basis, first of all go and talk to them and spend time with them. If you can do that go out with them, see what they do, stand alongside them if you like, that sort of thing. Then secondly, there’s really no… there’s nothing like actually talking to some of those customers yourself. One really easy way to start if you’re in the content world is perhaps researching and interviewing customers for things like case studies. So you’re not just out there talking at random; you feel like there’s a purpose to why you’re doing it. So those sorts of techniques can use you out there gradually, but sometimes it’s quite scary to think you have to get outside of your desk and get out there and actually meet some of these people who are consuming your services or your products.
Byron: What tips might you have for developing personas, and why are they important do you think, including the exercise of developing those personas?
Jane: Well I think the exercise itself is like any exercise that you do in marketing. It’s not so much what you end up with; it’s what happens to you as you go through that process. The thinking that goes on, the discussion that goes on, which is hugely, hugely valuable. Why would we use personas? Sometimes we use things like I do client profiles and so on and so forth. It’s really I think to try and almost summarize distinct groups of people out there who are buying your products and services in a way that’s useful to you as a marketer or writer to be able to address them properly. So, it can be quite complex. And I would also say that if it’s something that you’re not used to doing or maybe you haven’t done it enough yet; and again, it’s a sort of slowly, slowly process. So for instance, if you’re in a larger organization rather than trying to do everything at once, you might almost pilot the use of personas. So you might sort of hone in on a specific group. But basically, it is quite hard to describe, I guess, in a few words, and I’m sure if anyone has looked up and done more in-depth persona exercises, it can look very complex. But basically, I would say build a short list of questions that you can ask about groups of people and include some of them in the group to get people started. But just get you thinking about things like buyer behaviors, the environment that those buyers are in. And it just starts that process so that you start to think about them in their real context of really buying from you rather than just consumers of content.
Byron: What do you think the biggest obstacle to content marketing success is?
Jane: I think just not giving it enough time. We talked about this a little bit earlier on in terms of the mindset, that it’s a long game. And I think it’s very easy to get others a bit nervous around content, because inevitably whether you’re an entrepreneur, whether you’re running a small business or a larger business, you’re probably going to have to divert some of your current resources that you’re using in marketing into using them in some different way once you start to take a content marketing approach to things. And there is, whether it’s stuff as individual or whether we’re having to, if you like, justify that to people above us, there’s pressure for that to give you a quick return in the same way that a short-term self-campaign might work. And that’s quite difficult with marketing, because it’s about building this relationship through content with your audience over time and then measuring what happened. And also in many cases, you’re trying to look at changes in behavior, which takes a bit longer. So I think it’s almost… How can I put it? Just being brave enough to sort of take a stand and see it through and realize that you’re not even going to get… Sometimes, it’s not even 12 months. It can be much longer than that before you start to get really good returns on content marketing.
Byron: I’ve referenced the New York Times “Customer and Say ‘Group Study,’” many times. I love that study. And one of the big reasons we know based on this study and many others is people share things to bring valuable and entertaining content to others. That’s like one of the larger pieces and of course to define ourselves and to grow and nurture a relationship, self-fulfillment. There’s a lot of other reasons. But I find that so interesting that we know factually that people share things because they bring value to others. Like, “Hey, you might find this useful.” Why doesn’t every piece of content that a company produce have a purpose to bring value and entreating content to others? The facts are right in front of us. The facts are right here. But what do you think that obstacle is?
Jane: I think that’s one of the biggest… Another, I think, as the biggest sort of obstacles tends to be that we’re almost trained as marketers, I guess sales people as well, to talk about ourselves, and it’s quite a hard habit to break, because it’s almost like we’ve become so used to that, we’re almost hard-wired to respond and talk about ourselves. And that’s what happens in many cases at an organization level if people try to just produce more content without really thinking about it, because we’ll just be producing more staff that talks about what they do. Sometimes that hits the mark, and sometimes it doesn’t. So I think actually what you’ve done is just hit there on something that is just very, very difficult and quite a hard habit to break if you’ve got into it. And of course, there’s lots of pressures as well because your sales guys will be wanting you to be a bit [0:16:34 selling] and talk about this is what we do. We can do this; we can do more of this. And that doesn’t always, in fact, very rarely does it chime with what you’ve been saying. And yet, I think if you look at some more of the more entrepreneurial type sort of people out there and smaller organizations who just naturally like to talk to their customers and get on with them. And I’ve had one or two very interesting engagements where my people have come to me because they tell me they don’t really understand marketing and they don’t know anything about it. You know, could I come and sort of check things out for them? And when I do, I find they’re not calling it marketing, but they are doing some really good things in terms of engaging and giving value and sharing things of value with their customers and they’re just doing it quite naturally. So I think there’s a wide spectrum there, but a lot of what you might call the traditional marketing setups and many organizations do have that real difficulty. It’s easy to talk about themselves, but it’s not so easy to turn that around.
Byron: We’ve heard a lot, read a lot, and then absorbed with storytelling being perhaps the new and next frontier or the historic frontier that has gotten us to where we are. What is your take on storytelling? Is it over played in your mind? Why does it feel so odd for us to be preaching this storytelling methodology when it comes to content marketing?
Jane: Yeah. It does sound odd, doesn’t it? Because in a way, if we believe what we read, stories, and [0:18:17 our interest in the] stories is something we’ve been telling since we could talk and when our parents would read stories to us. So it comes quite naturally to us. But again, I think in the corporate world, we perhaps shy away from that a little bit. But it does seem as though… It’s almost like, “Oh, no, here’s someone else trying to talk to us about storytelling and how to do it.” It’s almost as if, for me, as soon as you utter the word “Talk about telling stories,” you sort of lose… you’ve lost a little bit. But in essence, if we look at a lot of good communication, that is all it is. And it can be very powerful. And I think it’s blending that sense of storytelling for pure entertainment, something that you might read in a novel, or else you go to the theater, or in film with what’s happening corporately or in business. Because a good case study to me, you can write a really good case study by learning a lot from how to tell a good story. And actually you end up with a customer story, if you like, that’s much more engaging than what you might look at as traditional case studies, which have a very tired format. So it is interesting. I agree in a way that’s it slightly overused, maybe before now become a little bit jaded with it. But I think at its heart, I think keeping it very simple, some of those story telling techniques are ones that can be used very, very effectively in some of what we might call quite traditional stuff like case studies, like even in things like companies’ annual accounts where you’re telling what has happened, the key highlights of the year and that type of thing.
Byron: Do you have any secrets about literally writing, creating content and great content? Do you have a method that you use or something you could share with the writers that are tuning in and are looking for tips and advice on how to make their writing better?
Jane: Yeah. I’m still a great believer even though I’ve been writing for a long time in terms of splitting your time pretty much two-thirds into the thinking and the planning a piece of content, and the one-third writing it. So not getting started too soon. For myself, I always know when it’s time to start writing because it’s starts writing itself in my head almost. And quite often I do wake up with a piece of content starting to be written. For me, I tend to think about it, I plan it, I do write notes. Although I always tend to write on a computer digitally, I tend to plan on paper quite a lot of the time so that my ideas are not coming in in a list, which is what tends to happen if you’re typing in a document. And then just sort of play around with that, mull it over. Unless I’m under a real time pressure of a deadline. Again, it’s sort of pacing that writing process so I got time for things to go cold in-between, whether that’s the writing and the thinking of the first draft and the final writing of it. And I find that stuff happens. I don’t have to stress over it, and partly, I guess, that’s belief and experience in knowing for instance if you’re struggling with a headline for instance or an opening paragraph. The thing for me to do is just to put it to one side and just go and do something completely different. And then come back to my desk and I know that I can sit down and start. I don’t have to be thinking about it whilst I’m doing something else, whether it’s doing chores or walking or anything like that. It just comes. So, yeah, so that for me is having enough time to do all of that, letting things go cold. Of course, that’s the ideal. It’s not always possible to do that. And then writing the first draft very, very quickly. To the sort of plan really, the bullet points. Sometimes it’s just a few bullet points on a piece of paper. If it’s a longer piece, then that planning and structuring… so even though I was given them the seven-day structure for the “In A Week” book, structuring the chapters within that was something that I did and then I basically wrote to that structure. I think not that I do a lot of creative writing, but writing for business is a little bit more discipline, I think, on the structure side. So that you keep knowing what the point is that you are making with this piece, or this paragraph, or this blog post, or this chapter, I think is key, for me anyway.
Byron: And now to one of your fact check test questions. What is the hero’s journey? And the answer is: “D) The title of the next Bond film.” I was hoping that you would have insight into the title of the next Bond film. It’s probably out. But are you… Have you spent time chuckling at some of your answer and questions here? It’s just really fantastic the way you meld it all together. And is that a style you used with testing people and just being clever and, honestly, showing great writing which is really what you’ve done with this test?
Jane: Well, thanks. Yeah, I guess it is. My approach to training, whether it’s marketing or other business topics, they can be a bit dry. I mean even the people that get most excited about marketing can get a little bit dry at times. So I do like to sort of mix things up a bit and I think that’s sort of light heartedness or a bit of humor always help us learn anyway. So, yeah. So when I was doing, as I said, I had to sort of read some other examples. Not just from “In A Week” books, but from other ones and I thought the last thing I want to do is make these sort of tests being quite boring. I don’t know how many people reading the book would actually read them. They may just skip over them and get onto the next chapter. But I thought, “Well, at least if somebody does, maybe they can have a bit of a chuckle at them.” And I didn’t want to overdo it. So it’s great to have your feedback. And yeah, after I had written them, I sort of read through them and it was always that balance sometimes when you’re writing anyway. If you do try and put humor into stuff, which can be a little bit tricky, is, “Have I overdone it or not? Should I leave that in?” I don’t think I actually took anything out. I think I actually stayed with what I did the first time around. Yeah, so it was deliberate in that sense.
Byron: Good stuff. This question is tough to answer. I’m just going to read one of the audience’s. “What is the feature of well written content? A) It’s designed to make you laugh; B) It uses language a 12-year-old would understand; C) It is well-structured to make it easy to read and understand; or D) It’s very short. I would argue that all of those are really good answers.
Jane: Yes, yeah.
Byron: Great stuff in putting the book together. Really fantastic to have you with us today.
Jane: Okay. Thank you very much for inviting me.
Byron: We’ll look forward to another conversation. Will you ever write a sequel to this? You might take this to the next level and turn out an advanced course on “Content Marketing in Seven Days”?
Jane: We may indeed, yes. There is another project in the pipeline at the moment and it is certainly taking sort of the content and looking at some of it in more depth.
Byron: Well, when it’s completed and a wonderful success, come back with us. We’d be happy to promote you to our network.
Jane: I will. Thank you very much.
Byron: Enjoyed having you with us again. Thanks for checking in, Jane.
Byron: You bet.
Jane: Thank you.
Byron: You bet.