Content marketing, it is more than a buzz word, it is one of the foundations of social selling and personal branding, as well as an effective company marketing tactic. If you need to win work and build a client base, then you will, at some point, start thinking of writing some articles or pieces of thought leadership. It really is an integral part of your business development arsenal. However, for many, the biggest problem you face, unless you went to journalism or writing school, is where do you start?
With that in mind and with many professionals showing an increased interest in this area, I did two things. Firstly, I wrote a simple eight step article to help you write your first article or blog. Secondly, I got together a panel of five experts to answer five questions. The five’s answers to the five questions should really help you with writing great content. So, let’s start by introducing our panel:
The panel of great content experts
Campbell Phillips (CP)
Editor & Content Producer, MYOB
Campbell is an editor and content creator who regularly publishes on a wide variety of topics from business to bushwalking.
Senior Advisor, Catalyst Solutions
Ben is a government incentives advisor, content writer, start-up mentor and tech enthusiast who is passionate about innovation and all things SMEs.
Richard Liew (RL)
Founder & Editor, NZ Entrepreneur Magazine
In 2012 Richard launched NZ Entrepreneur Magazine with the aim of inspiring, educating and informing thousands of Kiwi innovators, entrepreneurs and SME owners every month.
Amanda Gascoigne (AG)
Amanda Gascoigne Consulting
A chartered accountant, content writer, coach and mentor to small and solo accounting practices nationally and internationally. She’s passionate about fostering better client/accountant relationships and a biz/life balance for all.
Stefanie Marrone (SM)
Marketing Strategist and Founder, Stefanie Marrone Consulting/The Social Media Butterfly.
Stefanie helps business professionals and professional service companies with brand building and revenue generating strategies. Her main areas of focus include personal coaching, social media strategy and training, content marketing strategies, LinkedIn company page management and development.
Freelance Content Marketer & Copywriter
Rob brings over 20 years’ experience in marketing and communications. He has a love of the written word and uses this to create effective content that connects with the intended audience.
1) How important is the title? Any tips on how to come up with a good one?
Be short, be succinct and try to use numbers such as “10 ways to” or “5 things you need to…” I also am a big proponent of using “how” and “why” in titles to draw in people. Whatever you do – don’t get too cute or esoteric. Always think about your client and what would resonate with them.
Your title is crucial for drawing the audience’s eyes and therefore dictates whether the actual content gets read at all. It should be as concise as possible, cutting straight to the heart of the matter. ‘Clickbait’ headlines, on the other hand, can be problematic when they set expectations that the content itself doesn’t meet.
Titles are extremely important. Aside from their ability to attract relevant readers, they also set the tone for the rest of the article. A good title should capture the essence of what the article is going to tell the reader, and wherever possible, should subtly include a stroke of wit.
When it comes to articles, the biggest determinant of whether an article is read is the author. But if you’re not yet a household name, or are just building your reputation in the market, the second biggest determinant of whether or not it will be read is the title. People are bombarded with communications today like never before – ads, articles, social media. Therefore, to get them to devote their valuable attention to your article, your title has to quickly capture their interest and draw them in, or they’re gone. In this regard I recommend thinking of your title like a book cover in bookstore, a trailer for a Netflix film, the first few bars of a song, or… a headline in a newspaper. Often people invest a whole lot of time writing a great piece of content and then do themselves a disservice by not really taking the time to really hone the headline. Don’t be one of those people!
To come up with good headlines you first need to distinguish what kind of content piece you have written. If it’s a news type story (that is, you are simply reporting something that has, is or will happen) then your heading should simply be a summary of what that piece of news is, contextualised to your target readers. Be specific and try and say exactly what the story is about but be concise – if people can read the title and pretty much know exactly what that piece of news is, you’ve done a good job. For example, if you want New Zealanders to read a story then, “Kiwi smashes world land speed record in Utah, US” is likely to draw more readers than simply, “World land speed record broken.” And if you especially want people from Invercargill to know about the story then, “Invercargill man smashes world land speed record in Utah, US” will do even better. Similarly, if you wanted the motorcycle community to read the story, then your title might be “Kiwi motorcycle enthusiast smashes world land speed record in Utah, US.” Of course, the challenge is that you can start to end up with a long and unwieldy title, so finding a balance is key.
While it can be tempting to try and be vague in the hope of stirring the curiosity of as many people as possible, avoid doing this because the danger of trying to appeal to everyone, is that you end up appealing to no one.
If you are writing a thought leadership piece then I recommend asking yourself who is my target reader, and what is the key benefit or piece of information they will get or learn from reading this? Again, be specific and above all do not try and get too clever or be tempted to imply your article will answer a question that it won’t. While it may make for a grabby headline, it’s also an instant credibility killer when people start to realise your content does not match or live up to your promised article titles.
My goal when writing an article or blog is to have my information and message conveyed to as many people as possible, as writing is quite time consuming. I’m sure many other authors have the same goal, so it’s imperative to come with an eye-catching title. Think something that may spike a curiosity in your reader, even something that invokes a sense of FOMO? Maybe a pun on words?
I like short and succinct headings that grab attention and pique interest and curiosity. Questions, or something thought provoking is preferable. It is important to think about the benefits to the reader – why should they click through? With so much content available today, it is becoming harder to get people to actually read anything, so your main heading will be the decider as to whether or not someone goes on to read any further or not.
Without sounding like clickbait, following through with the question/statement in your heading it is a sure way of sparking interest in your article.
2) What is the ideal structure of a good article?
As obvious as it might sound, the best articles are the ones that are easily followed from beginning to end. The beginning of a good article will include a concise but informative explanation of the key topic at hand, the middle should be where the writer presents their main points and drives the message home, and the conclusion should be a very brief wrap up. To keep readers engaged throughout the entire piece, a well-structured article will also divide the key points into subheadings, and include attention grabbing titles that warmly introduce each new section.
I think it really depends on what type of article you are writing and who the target audience is. In essence, it needs to have a beginning, a middle and an end or recap/conclusion. When thinking of time poor readers who may be commuting or using a mobile device, the key is to keep paragraphs short and succinct.
I would suggest trying to get the main subject of the piece into the first couple of paragraphs. Think news stories where this is often done well. The article then often goes on into a lot more background detail, most of which isn’t going to be read. If a reader does get to the end of your piece, referencing key points in your conclusion helps to provide the reader with a thought-provoking takeaway.
I don’t think articles need to be long anymore to be powerful and effective, especially as many people are reading them on their mobile devices. I would recommend using short paragraphs and breaking up sections with headers – as many people skim articles.
Good article structure for thought leadership pieces is very similar to a good speech or presentation structure. That is tell people what you are going to say, say it, and then tell them what you’ve just said. In essence, introduce your topic and establish relevance with the reader – what is problem you’re talking about, why is it a problem, and what is the cost or consequences of that problem if it is not addressed? Then, say what you’ve got to say about how to solve the problem and finally, recap and summarise with the key points you want people to take away or remember from the article.
Good article structure for news stories starts with a great headline, then a strong opening sentence which gets straight to the guts of the story. Get quickly to the point of What happened, to Who, When and Where without editorialising (giving your subjective opinions). Analysis of the reasons behind the event, happening or piece should be saved for the Why part of your story, but don’t feel that you need to have an answer in every case. There is nothing wrong with simply reporting the basic facts. Eliminate any fluff, puffery or subjective language or descriptions – you shouldn’t state anything that cannot be backed up with proof. For example, don’t say “New Zealand’s leading XYZ company” unless you can point to some data that supports that it is in fact the leading company.
Not all readers learn and absorb information the same so therefore it’s important to structure an article that will appeal to and engage with readers of all learning styles.
Having a structure can also assist the writer and will ensure word limits can be adhered to without losing impact.
I like to use the four step storytelling model that a mentor of mine shared with me many years ago – why, what, how and what else.
I’m not sure there’s a perfect structure, as there are a variety of different formats. For thought leaders, the most useful format is the ‘op-ed’, which is essentially an opinion piece. This gives the flexibility of starting out with a central thesis before unpacking your reasoning for it. The op-ed style also allows room for personal anecdotes as well as more traditional references and quotes.
3) What needs to be covered in the intro paragraph? Those important first few sentences.
I think again it needs to be treated like a news story or current issue, where appropriate. If your reader doesn’t get what they need to know in the first paragraph after being enticed in by your killer headline, then they will be unlikely to read on. Ensure the crux of the matter is told up front or as early as possible in order to keep your reader engaged.
I use the intro paragraph to start engaging with the reader and to give them a compelling reason for them to keep reading.
Some of the concepts I share are contemporary and require the reader to change their mindset in order to embrace and implement, but by doing so I know they will have a better business and a better life so I need something that is going to motivate and inspire them to consider the concept.
The introduction needs to provide the reader context. Think about why they might want to read this article and what they’ll learn from it and try to highlight those concepts to help set their expectations.
Writers need to strike a very careful balance when preparing the intro paragraph. Those first few sentences need to cover the main message of the article, while intriguing or exciting the reader to read further.
The most important information goes towards the beginning of the story, less important information towards the end (so that if people don’t read the whole story they’ve still hopefully got the key info up front).
Get to the point – fast. If readers can’t figure out why they should care within the first paragraph or two, they won’t. Don’t waste their time with lots of background information. Write the alert like a news story – get to the point right away and identify the news hook ASAP. Provide practical advice and keep the background information to a minimum.
Provide your insights on the topic and what the issue at hand means for them.
4) How should you conclude your article?
Recap and summarise with the key points you want people to take away or remember from the article.
Conclusions need to remind the reader of the main points that were spoken about throughout the article. They shouldn’t have any new information in them, but should act as an opportunity to collate the points discussed throughout the article, and offer a message of encouragement or excitement to the reader – leaving them with a feeling of satisfaction.
Commonly, an article concludes with a brief summation before restating the original contention or thesis, but it doesn’t have to be this way. Sometimes a conclusion is more powerful when it’s constructed as a question to the reader, or an analogy or anecdote that sums up the idea you’re trying to get across. For example, if you’re writing on the issue of job losses, a powerful conclusion might include a pertinent statement from someone who has been made recently unemployed.
I like to wrap everything up in a way that will leave a lasting impact on the reader and/or something that will encourage and empower them to take the next step. That may be considering how they are doing business and life and/or implementing something to improve their biz/life balance.
Summarise the key points of the story and reiterate anything vitally important or noteworthy. If your reader has got this far, what would you like them to do next – read your next interesting article? Learn about something else relevant? Don’t leave them hanging, rather provide a clear call to action; a link to read more, a subscription, or invite them to make a comment.
When wrapping up a piece of thought leadership, summarize the key points from the article and leave the reader with forward thinking ideas. Always provide a call to action and links to other resources and the contact information of the authors to make it easier for follow up.
5) Any other tips to budding authors to help them create great content that really stands out?
Writing can be a chore, but it’s certainly something that becomes easier the more you practice it. My suggestion is to start simple: what point are you trying to make? Then, build your article out from a series of dot points if that’s what gets you started. And don’t forget: nobody’s perfect. The most accomplished writers need good editors to polish their work, and this also means you should spend plenty of time drafting, proofing and editing your own writing while you’re starting out.
A good writer will always leverage their networks to write exceptional content. For each topic that you write about, always consult someone with more knowledge or experience than yourself to talk through the idea. If it’s appropriate, quote them in the article. Otherwise, chatting with them and implementing their thoughts into your own narrative will add a unique level of depth to your content that others will find hard to replicate.
If you are client centric, you will always be on the right path. Always speak in the language of your clients – don’t use legalese and defined terms and address their pain points. Create and distribute content while the topic is hot – a good piece of content today is better than a fantastic piece three days from now. Make efficiency part of your content strategy.
Also, Look at what your competitors are writing about and ask yourself how you can bring a different perspective to it or make it better.
Once you have all of the information you need to write your piece, set about writing a really bad draft. It is always better to get everything down on paper initially and then go away and let it marinate. You’ll then do as many revisions as needed until you are happy with it.
The general rule of thumb is write what you know about, but just because you are knowledgeable about something it doesn’t mean you’re going to be able to write well. So, if you want to write well, start by reading! Read and study news articles, thought leadership pieces, opinions, long form stories and anything else you can get your hands on from credible news sources and publications to see how the pros do it. And then practise, practise, practise and ask for feedback – not just from friends and family (who won’t want to hurt your feelings) but from objective colleagues, customers and other writers.
My advice is to be authentic, natural and consistent. Two of my greatest pleasures are when I actually get to meet my readers in person and they tell me that they feel like they have known me for years and secondly, when I read articles that I have written years ago and see that my message and style have not changed.
And in the words of Oscar Wilde “Be yourself; Everyone else is already taken”
Pro tip: Join or start a writers’ circle. A core group of like-minded writers can develop their skills much faster by sharing their work, challenges and learnings. If you seek to become an accomplished writer in any field, be sure to buddy up to others in the same boat.
So, there you have it, some super-smart tips on how to write compelling content from those in the know. If you need further assistance and a step by step guide on how to write articles and content, then click here.