Creating a content marketing plan — without any content

When somebody talks about “content marketing,” they’re really talking about “content engineering” — scientifically optimizing documents such as blogs, case studies and white papers to create search engine results and sales leads.

This can be an extremely complicated, time-consuming and expensive proposition! So I started thinking about this in the context of my friends and small business customers who simply can’t afford that kind of effort.  It led to this idea:  micro-content, or marketing content when you don’t have time to produce content!

Let’s examine ideas about micro-content that even a time-starved business owner should be able to master in 15 minutes a day …

Preparation

Like any marketing initiative, you must have a firm idea of your strategy, selling points and target audience.  Spend time thinking through a set of keywords that represent your business and your customer needs. You’ll need to weave these keywords into your micro-content.

LinkedIn forums

If you’re like most people, you have a profile on LinkedIn and haven’t done much with it. This platform is a goldmine of opportunity to create micro-content!

There are about 600,000 groups on LinkedIn covering every imaginable business interest. You’re sure to find one with like-minded people who might be interested in you.   If you are in a very specialized field, consider starting your own special interest group.  Make sure you use relevant keywords in the title of the group so people can find you.

Look for some Q&A sessions within relevant groups and get involved. Simply answering questions is providing meaningful content that can attract attention to you and your website.  I’ve personally made some fantastic connections and acquired my two most profitable customers just by answering questions in LinkedIn Group Forums.

Make sure your LinkedIn profile is complete and helpful so people can learn about you.  In the “specialties” section of your profile, list your keywords!

Twitter

This is the ultimate site for making connections through micro-content. In this separate post, I’ve provided some helpful ideas on building a targeted audience through Twitter. It makes no sense to work on micro-content on Twitter if you have nobody listening!  Here is a suggested micro-content regimen if you’re just starting to tweet.

1) Create a habit of sharing — When you read something that interests you, share it on Twitter. It takes but a moment.

2) Leverage your network — If you’ve surrounded yourself with interesting people, they’re providing great content. When you find something great, re-tweet it! You don;t have to generate everything yourself.

3) Try following the “3 x 3 x 3 rule” — If you’re new and trying to figure what to do, tweet three times a day, at three different times of the day, on three different subjects:  a) interesting non-work-related information you saw, heard or read; b) news related to your business, market or industry (use keywords), and c) your opinion on an item in the news or something funny. Pass on links and snip your URL’s!

Remember that micro-content is still supposed to do the job of big content — drive people to action on your website. Of course you need to include your website in your profile and use your keywords in your bio.

Comments

Commenting on relevant blog posts, videos, and Facebook pages is a quick and easy way to deliver micro-content that links to your website.  Here are some examples:

  • A small business owner I know commented on a magazine’s Facebook site and was invited to send her product to the editor for coverage.
  • Adding your comment to relevant YouTube viral videos can create impressions with thousands of people who are interested in a related topic.
  • My comment on a popular blog post contained a link to my website which is still receiving hits nine months after I posted the comment. That’s not unusual since posts on popular topics can have a long “shelf life.”
  • Comments on my blog have resulted in new business partnerships, guest blogs, and freelance assignments for my readers.

I find that comments can carry even more impact when they’re “micro.”  People will read a few sentences, but probably scan a few paragraphs.

Re-purposing micro-content

There are so many great benefits to blogging but this is usually the place time-starved marketers stumble. Think about re-purposing your micro-content on your website as a blog, even if it only happens once a month:

  • Cut and paste answers you’ve already provided on LinkedIn and blog comments as new, unique posts.
  • Start a blog post with, “I found this interesting article on Twitter …” and share the great content on one of your tweets.
  • Share a relevant article, video or blog post from a trade publication and simply write a few sentences commenting on it.

In summary …

These are just a few of the ways you can effectively network on the social web with a “sprinkle” of content instead of a flood.  Obviously there are hundred of other ideas I’m sure you can share with the community but this is at least a start that a small business owner can work on 15 minutes a day.

Can the social web play a role in customer retention?

The recession has culled the weak from the pack but it’s likely that your competition is still fierce.  Is there a way to attract and retain B2B customers without lowering your price? And is there a way to leverage the social web to keep your customers … even in the extreme case of a commodity market?

Holding onto customers in a buyer’s market is one of the most extraordinary challenges in business, especially if you’re selling a commodity (Commodity = purchasers view suppliers as identical on all factors but price, i.e. common coal, steel, or chemicals).

There is usually only one winner in a commodity market — the lowest cost supplier — except in periods of high demand when supply falls short.  But there are ways to lock-in customers even in ugly downturns.  One strategy I used throughout my career was to create a systematic plan to raise switching costs. By this I mean create obstacles — through valuable benefits — to prevent a customer from leaving you for the competition.

A process to retain customers

This process starts with getting out to your most valued customers and listening. And I mean REALLY listening. We would sometimes have half-day sessions to explore un-met and under-served customer needs that would …

  • Improve their competitive position
  • Enhance profitability or productivity
  • Eliminate waste
  • Lower risk
  • Increase speed to market

One strategy that uncovered potential points of differentiation was to ask customers what they hated about their job. This always seemed to get people to open up about an idea we could implement to make their life easier!   Some other potential approaches to this challenge:

  • Solve a customer problem (reporting, data-gathering, analysis/testing) that might add slightly to your cost, but establishes enough value to create a hurdle to switching
  • Create a specialized service that would be difficult for competitors to match (we did a specialized truck-return recycling program, for example)
  • Work actively with customers to influence specifications and terms that could advantage my company or disadvantage a competitor
  • Focus retention efforts on most profitable customer locations
  • Look at eCommerce integration options to enhance retention

Notice that all of these ideas go beyond the basics of price, quality and service. Those aren’t strategic initiatives. Those are competitive tablestakes these days.

When customers don’t play nice

This process of listening, reacting and renewal must be continual and integrated through an effective CRM system. But it doesn’t always work.

In the middle of all this great creative marketing work I just suggested is another dynamic. Purchasing may not want you to implement your ideas – even if there is an advantage – because it reduces their flexibility with suppliers.  They may even force you to hand over your innovations to competitors. I witnessed this in the automotive market in the 1990s.  This ended up hurting customers because when there is no reward for innovation, innovation ends.

Now what about the social web?

Is it possible to develop some distinct value through social media that could create a switching cost? My answer – probably not. The social web might be a tool to listen and tune-in to possible innovations and market needs but I don’t see how social networks can create sustainable switching costs in this part of the sales cycle. It’s free to everyone and easily duplicated by competitors.

However, I do think you can create PRIVATE information networks and communities that create distinct value. For example, one idea that worked really well was a private, unique market information hub for customers who remained in our top tier in revenue.

What are you doing to hold onto your best customers in tough economic conditions?  Can you think of any way to leverage the social web for DISTINCT value in a commodity market?

Why it’s ridiculous to argue about ghost blogging

It seems like “ghost blogging” — the practice of penning posts for others —  is always under attack.

Jon Buscall wrote a fine piece about it recently as did Mitch Joel.

Philosophically I agree with them.  In a pure and perfect world executives should write their own copy.

But practically speaking I don’t agree.

Here’s why.

  • It’s not a pure and perfect world. Ghost writing is going to happen and it always has.  Wishing and pontificating will not make it different.  So why not at least do it well?
  • Most executives don’t have the time or ability to blog consistently and effectively. So if they don’t get help, it just won’t happen. Isn’t it a good idea to help bring their ideas to life?
  • Personal connection and “community” is probably less important to somebody at the “rockstar” level of chairman.  I know this will get hollers from the crowd that community is “everybody’s business” — and to some extent that is true, but again, I’m being practical. Most CEO’s are not being compensated to build community through a blog.
  • The chairman does not pen his own speech, yet nobody questions that they own it. They don’t write the shareholder’s letter in the annual report, yet this is deemed as authentic. Do you think Former GE Chairman Jack Welch sat there and pecked out his own book? And yet it is seen as his.

So why do so many people seem to want to put blogs in a different class of writing?  In the world of corporate communications it could be argued that blogs are even less important and critical than a major speech or a document being submitted to the SEC.   Why are people on a quixotic mission to fight against reality?

Here’s a better solution. Establish guidelines to have an effective ghost blog in an effective and ethical way.  A few months ago there was a debate on this topic on {grow} that resulted in some guidelines for ghost blogging:

  • The host executive should provide general ideas for a ghosted blog post and a few bullet points expressing key thoughts for the writer to work from. Obviously the writer needs to spend as much time as possible with the host to get a feel for their language and opinions.
  • The executive should approve every blog post before publishing under their name.
  • Content aimed at a personalized connection – such as responses in a blog comment section – ideally should be authored by the executive, not the ghost writer.
  • Be sure there is an approval process in place that can handle the need for flexibility, responsiveness and the opportunistic tendencies of the social web.
  • Guidelines of the corporate blog process and a list of blog contributors could be contained in an “about” section.

Do these make sense?