Do you need a better content marketing plan? Wondering how to improve your content strategy?
To explore creative ways to regularly create content, I interview Melanie Deziel. Melanie is a former journalist, storytelling expert, and founder of StoryFuel, a company that helps marketers become better storytellers.
Discover different ways to create content both on and off of social media. You’ll also get tips on what type of content to create and more.
Read a summary of the interview below. To listen to the interview, scroll to the end of this article.
Getting Into Content Marketing
Melanie began her career by studying investigative reporting and arts and cultural criticism. She dreamed of being a journalist who reports hard-hitting stuff and uncovers injustice. But she quickly discovered that her two interests, arts and investigative journalism, are the first cut when downsizing in the digital age.
Melanie’s talent for deep storytelling and interviewing people led her to the role of building the brand storytelling team for Huffington Post, which became HuffPost Partner Studio. Her team created the branded content that lives on Huffington Post. This entailed ghost-writing or co-authoring blog posts with companies like Goldman Sachs for the HuffPost Business section or crafting recipes that featured brands like Betty Crocker for HuffPost Food.
Melanie left Huffington Post after a year to pursue the chance to be the first editor of brand content for the New York Times. The position was a golden opportunity to return to journalism and create native content for a highly respected publication.
It was 2014 and pioneering this new role meant creating an entirely new set of guidelines for developing native content for brands. What do you do with brands? Where do you draw the lines around branded content? What’s allowed with brand content?
To answer these questions, Melanie examined the quality, reporting, and accountability that audiences already liked and expected from the New York Times editorial content. Then she adopted these standards for this new type of storytelling. The result was a set of content products the publication could offer brands.
Within a year, Melanie had grown the brand content team from 5 people to more than 40. She then moved to Time Incorporated to grow their branded content program in the same way, but at the corporate level and across 35 different magazines in the U.S. These included big names like Time, People, Fortune, Entertainment Weekly, and more.
While managing content for a variety of publications was a significant professional leap for Melanie, she discovered that her real value and passion wasn’t necessarily in content creation. Instead, it’s in setting up an infrastructure and training teams for consistently developing brand content.
At each role at these companies, Melanie succeeded in setting up newsrooms, re-educating sales teams on how to talk about content, and establishing processes for creating high volumes of quality content.
In early 2016, Melanie decided to go out on her own, so she founded StoryFuel. She now uses speaking engagements, workshops, and consulting to help brands, marketers, and publishers set up their own content teams, generate ideas, and learn how to create content.
Why Content Still Matters
Storytelling is the way we communicate no matter what platform we’re on. Whether through a conversation in person or in an email, on another social media platform, onstage, or on a podcast, creating good content still matters. It’s only through producing content that people will understand your values, care about your origin story, or know anything about your products.
The Message Matters More Than the Medium
With Facebook actively repressing content from reaching intended audiences, many marketers and publishers are understandably questioning the value of producing content. While this might be frustrating, Melanie reminds us that Facebook isn’t the only game in town.
Not only are there other social media platforms, but there are also many ways to convey ideas about your brand and keep your name top-of-mind. We discuss several of them in this interview. Ultimately, the message matters more than the medium.
Consumers Prefer Content to Ads
On an instinctive level, people don’t particularly like ads. Ads either interrupt or interfere with the things people actually want to see or hear. Studies show that two-thirds of consumers trust brand content more than traditional advertising.
Ninety percent of people polled say that they actually prefer brands to engage them with content rather than ads.
Reaching any sort of audience with your marketing message means creating content that people truly trust and believe.
A 2017 study by Time Inc. reveals that 92% of those surveyed believe that “brands have expertise on topics and add value to content.” In other words, people believe brands are knowledgeable about certain topics and want to learn more through content, not ads.
The Four Fundamental Questions of Content Creation
There are four fundamental questions at the core of any messaging strategy: What to say? How to say it? To whom are you saying it and why?
Melanie cautions that content isn’t a silver bullet that solves all of your marketing problems. Nor is it a fit for every campaign or product. Content in any format should be a smart, strategic part of a larger marketing mix. Then, it should be combined with wise advertising spending and placements.
Content can take the form of blog posts, white papers, eBooks, videos, or just about anything else. Figure out where your audience is gathering and what kind of content formats resonate with them. Once you do, continue to produce content that highlights your products and the things you care about in a way that makes consumers care about them too.
Listen to the show to hear me describe the variety of content we produce at Social Media Examiner and how it allows us to reach a multimillion-person audience.
What: Generate Content Ideas
Coming up with content ideas and knowing what to say are the two biggest challenges people face when it comes to creating content. They’re the primary things Melanie hears when working with brands on developing a content strategy. She reveals that the process actually isn’t some big mystery or a stroke of genius that happens in the shower.
Consistently generating content ideas comes down to two basic things: focus and format.
The focus asks, “What am I talking about?” and the format is simply, “How am I bringing it to life?” Every piece of content you’ve ever consumed in your life—films, books, podcasts, or articles—has a focus. It’s about something. And it’s presented to you in some way. That’s the format.
StoryFuel has synthesized this concept into the Content Idea Matrix, a framework for finding the intersections between content focuses and content formats. Along the top of the matrix are 10 examples of focuses met with 10 examples of formats down the left of the chart. Put them together and you have 100 content ideas based on things you already know and with which you are already familiar.
Combining all of the possible intersections and structuring them in this format shows that you probably already have the ingredients to create the content ideas in your head. The beauty of the Content Idea Matrix is that it’s an organized way to approach the development process.
Listen to the show to hear how to go beyond the one focus, one format approach to content creation and explore how to tell a story about your brand through multiple combinations.
How: Explore Content Formats
You may find that you have what Melanie calls a “first content language,” a format that most naturally suits you. Lean into it, especially if you’re just getting started developing content. Develop multiple topics through this one format.
Once you feel more comfortable and confident with creating content, allow yourself to branch out and try something different. It could be a new format that you hadn’t previously considered like plotting your content on a map or using a quiz.
In my conversation with Melanie, we examine how to leverage three unique content formats mentioned in her matrix: research, opinion pieces, and history.
Leverage Original Data and Research
What data do you have as a company? What data could you send out as a survey and collect that tells a story about your brand or industry? Original research requires a bit of an investment in time and resources, but it offers endless possibilities for generating multiple types of content.
How-to articles for marketers is our main focus at Social Media Examiner. But once a year, we publish the Social Media Marketing Industry Report, an almost 50-page analysis of how marketers are using social media which features 70 charts and graphs. With this one piece of research, we generate podcast episodes, special articles with key takeaways, and much more.
Melanie suggests creating guides or eBooks, gathering lists and roundups, and curating reactions from different experts about your reports. You can discuss your findings on other people’s podcasts or spin the data into a video series with a combination of recorded and live video, webinars, or courses.
Gating the content allows your research to generate leads and emails. To give perspective on this, Social Media Examiner collects more than 200,000 emails each year from our annual report. It’s also referenced by every major publication on the planet. So not only is it the main opt-in that we use on all of our websites, it’s also a huge source of inbound traffic and SEO value.
For long-running studies like ours, you can show your observations within the context of changes and adaptations over time. Timelines are an underutilized format.