“Show, don’t tell” is one of the most repeated adages writers hear.
The phrase is a reminder that it’s far more powerful to paint a picture for readers than to tell them what to think, how to feel, or what to do. Show them enough, and readers will arrive at their own conclusions or explore to learn more.
Content marketing writers sometimes forget this lesson – defaulting to telling the audience things. I’m sure you know how this happens. Marketing or sales departments want to let the audience know about a new product, a new promotion, a new executive, or some other new development, and they filter that messaging to the content team. Busy content creators get to the task of creating content to support that messaging.
But if the writers forget a crucial step, the content may miss the mark with the audience – even when it fits the marketing brief. That step was drilled into me by a great editor who asked me this question for every story: “Why should our audience care about this?”
Content marketers should answer that question before creating anything to make sure they understand why the audience (and not just the boss or the PR team) should care about a particular piece of content.
I’ve come up with an acronym you can use to shape your teams’ approach to content before they write or record a single word: TRUTH. Adopt this easy-to-remember (and aspirational) word as a team slogan to keep these concepts front of mind.
Content that helps the audience learn how to do or deepen their understanding of something they’re interested in is undeniably appealing.
The Purdue Online Writing Center (OWL) is a great example. The public site offers a wealth of free resources for improving writing, creating citations, avoiding plagiarism, and more. The content is targeted to educators and students within and outside of Purdue. It demonstrates the expertise of the staff and the quality of a Purdue education without saying so. And it’s not a static content experience; when the pandemic shifted audience needs, the OWL added a section of educational resources for remote teaching.
And there’s a side benefit to content that teaches: Instructional content tends to have a longer life, holding its value for months or more – unlike news-related content, which might not be relevant days after it’s released.
When looking for ideas for content that teaches, consider these categories:Processes: Look for opportunities to show your audience better processes for doing something. Or take them behind the scenes of a process to show how and why it works. Details: Think about creating a guide to a subject your audience cares about – go deep on the details so readers have everything they need in one place. People: Introduce your audience members to people they can relate to, whose stories show them something compelling. Resist the temptation to focus only on people within your company – include customers, clients, vendors, partners, community figures, industry experts, and more.
Audiences tend to be skeptical of marketing. A powerful way to ease that skepticism is to create content with experts who know the topic best.
Mailchimp took this approach with its podcast Call Paul. Instead of choosing a Mailchimp employee, the company tapped Paul Jarvis, a small-business entrepreneur for more than 20 years, to host the show. That decision paid off. Paul’s small-business experience lets him do double duty as a conversation leader and a reputable source during his conversations with podcast guests about (as he puts it) business as “most unusual” in 2020.
Ease audience skepticism by creating content with experts who know the topic best, says @mdeziel. Mailchimp took this approach for its Call Paul podcast, hosted by small-business entrepreneur Paul Jarvis. Click To Tweet
When you encourage your team to seek reputable sources, remember to consider:Academics: Professors and researchers tend to be passionate about what they do and often welcome the opportunity to teach people what they know. Influencers in your market: Your audience already knows, likes, and trusts the influencers in your segment. (Keep in mind, influencers are the most likely to ask for payment in exchange for working with you.) Internal experts: Talk with your engineers, designers, and leaders as a starting point. Whenever possible, corroborate what they say with outside sources or data.
Friendly reminder: Diversify your sources. It’s easy to call on the same people who always answer your calls or emails. But you’ll wind up with sources who don’t reflect the range of customer experiences. Look for source diversity in terms of job title, gender identity, race, age, physical abilities, background, geographic location, and more.
Too often, marketing, product, or sales teams ask for content that audiences wouldn’t consider compelling or useful. Encourage your team to find a unique perspective or storytelling approach that will make audiences care about the story as much as you do.
Marvel Entertainment demonstrated this perfectly when encouraging sign-ups for their Marvel Insider program. Rather than describe the program benefits, they created a quiz in the form of a thread of Twitter polls, testing superfans’ knowledge of Marvel characters. Not only is this format engaging, it also makes the call to action more compelling. By the time quiz takers arrived at the answer key and were invited to join the rewards program, they already proved – to themselves and others – that they were superfans.
Time for a history lesson! Can you guess when these characters made their first appearances? pic.twitter.com/qNUhV3FxV6
— Marvel Entertainment (@Marvel) December 12, 2020
Encourage your team to ask:What is different or surprising about the story, experience, or product? How can we tell the story in a surprising or unusual way?
Tension makes stories interesting. That’s why people love suspenseful movies, thought-provoking debates, and even watercooler discussions.
You can create tension by evaluating different sides of a debate or a product (Which coffee maker is right for you?). The goal isn’t to draw a line in the sand. It’s to tap into the topic’s passion or the pros and cons of the options.
HubSpot uses tension subtly with the article The ‘Ethics’ You Didn’t Know Existed in Design. The headline creates a bit of tension to entice the audience to close their knowledge gap so they can prevent a problem or appear informed.
To make sure the stakes are clear, address the audience in the headline or title of the content. Don’t exaggerate or make false promises, though. Overdramatic headlines like “This One Sink Installation Mistake Could POISON YOUR FAMILY” create disgust and disbelief rather than tension.
Consider, too, the inherent tension in questions. When someone asks a question, they want an answer – and the waiting is the hardest part. Look at what queries are driving your search traffic or talk to your sales team to identify common objections or misunderstandings prospects have. (Marcus Sheridan’s “They Ask, You Answer” approach provides a fantastic system for identifying and addressing your audience’s questions in a way that helps you build authority.)
Journalists know the value of putting people at the heart of a story: the heroes, the victims, the witnesses, and the authorities. People’s perspectives help the audience connect. The more faces and voices you include in your stories, the more opportunities you give your audience to see someone like them – or someone they know – in your content.
Netflix knows good storytelling. It should come as no surprise that the company capitalized on the power of human connections to create a year-end wrap-up of 2020 shows.
Instead of simply creating a reference of shows released or a ranking by streaming data, Netflix compiled recommendations made by the stars of popular shows, complete with comically edited cameos of those actors and actresses appearing in their recommended shows. That made the list of recommendations more human, and in doing so, more engaging.
How to use TRUTH
Not every piece of content your team creates is likely to check all five TRUTH boxes. But these five practices serve as a handy checklist to review when you assign and evaluate content.
They’re also an easy-to-remember set of standards to encourage your content creators to follow to make their work more credible and compelling.
Ask creators to consider these TRUTH questions:Have I taken advantage of opportunities to Teach my audience? What Reputable sources can I include for credibility in this piece? Have I found a Unique angle for the story or the presentation of the story? Does the piece use Tension to make my audience care or engage? Can I bring more Human faces or voices into the content?
Melanie Deziel served as a keynote speaker at Content Marketing World 2020. Join us at Content Marketing World in late September to learn even more about how to lead your content marketing programs. Register now for the lowest rates!
Cover image by Joseph Kalinowski/Content Marketing Institute