H Is for Helpful – The Cheeky A-Z Guide for Content Marketing

Photo by Lionello DelPiccolo on Unsplash

Creating helpful content is the single best thing you can do for your marketing. 

I’ll explain why.

There are still marketers who think of marketing as advertising or a way to trick an audience into trying or buying their product.

Sometimes they’re even successful, at least in the short term.

To do marketing right, be helpful.

You should always be thinking about how you help your customer with your marketing. 

Now, I have a long-held bias here. As an editor, my job was to educate professional members with articles (and later webinars, blog posts, a website, posters, ebooks, etc.) that helped them do their jobs better.

As I used to half-joke, ain’t nobody reading this stuff for fun. 

That doesn’t mean it had to be boring (we had some great ECM haiku and limerick contests) or read like a textbook, but it did have to be helpful (and useful; I’ll use those terms interchangeably).

Here’s my weak haiku attempt for a newsletter contest:

SharePoint is really

confusing. Free? Cheap? Hardly.

Where does it fit best?

See? Not fun. 

Bias Reinforced

Photo by Jonas Jacobsson on Unsplash

I came into marketing sideways. Transitioning from magazine editor to community manager and then into an inbound marketing role. I had only a vague clue what marketing actually was (to me, it had always been PR and marketing folks pitching me ideas to talk about their company). 

So like any good should’ve-been history major, I did some research.

Is there any better feeling than having a bias reinforced with research? (Who doesn’t love confirmation bias!) When I began my content marketing journey, I read a few articles that cemented this bias to being useful/helpful. Two stand out:

  1. I can no longer remember the actual article, but I quickly discovered content marketing isn’t new. The Michelin Guide grew out of a desire by Michelin to sell more tires. John Deere continues to publish a magazine focused on farming, The Furrow, first published in 1895. Both focused on being helpful, the Guide by providing guidance to good places to eat and The Furrow by providing advice and trends in agriculture.
  2. An article by Marcus Sheridan in which he explained how he saved his pool company by answering customer questions on his blog. For you non-content marketers, he went on to found The Sales Lion and now works with IMPACT, an inbound agency. He has expanded on his ideas in an excellent book, They Ask, You Answer. Which, yes, that’s the core idea. Take it and go (though the book is well worth reading). The dude is really incredible. He’s also still blogging about pools in addition to his “other” career as content marketer extraordinaire, www.riverpoolsandspas.com

The Michelin Guide is, of course, a global signal of excellence for cooking (though maybe less successful at selling tires today). The Furrow is still providing farmers advice and carrying the John Deere brand. Marcus Sheridan was able to trace $2 million in sales to a single blog he wrote about the price of a pool. 

That’s It? Answer Questions?

Read about content and inbound marketing strategies and, nope, that’s not it. However, answering questions is the core of any content marketing initiative. 

As an editor, I emailed a yearly survey to our readers (I’d still like to know who said, “That Duhon guy is an ass”). In it, I asked what topics they were interested in as a dropdown and also in a open-ended question (what’s keeping you up at night and what are you interested in; though I can’t remember the exact questions now). 

Sometimes, the best thing in life is to not overthink. Every year, I ran 20 to 30 print and online articles lifted directly from reader answers. 

Rats, I could’ve written “Ask, Then Answer” in the 90s! Oh, well, not as catchy as Sheridan’s phrasing anyway. 

What’s Helpful?

That depends on your audience. 

As already mentioned, answering customer and potential customer questions is helpful. 

This list isn’t definitive, but here are a few general types of blogs that can be useful:

  • Tips and tricks: how to do something
  • Straight-forward advice: here’s an issue, here’s how to solve it
  • War story: a personal story of something that went really well (or really poorly)
  • Opinion: stake out a position and explain why; an emerging trend, 
  • Ask your audience: do they have tips or tricks or successes to share?
  • “What’s keeping you up at night?”: this is a column I used to run in the magazine, it’s exactly that — a point of pain that needs to be addressed
  • What’s it going to cost: yes, talk about pricing; everyone wants to know (even you when you’re looking for services, right?)

One key point here is to remember that your ideas can be delivered in multiple channels. For instance, a blog series could be turned into an ebook. The key points could be extracted to create an infographic. Short, 60-second videos focused on single points could give yet another way to reach your audience. Many people love podcasts. Don’t limit yourself to blogs. Grow some wings and have fun!

Helpful Will Always Be In Style

Trends come and go. Being helpful to your customers is an evergreen trend. 

Each of the roles I mentioned above were in the context of serving as a staff in a professional association with members who came to us looking for information they could use to do their jobs. 

So that’s what I did. By talking with them, creating an editorial council, doing the previously-mentioned reader surveys, tracking attendance for webinars I hosted, and reading Google Analytics traffic stats; I was able to piece together a fairly good idea of the topics my audience was interested in.

Because I’m lazy, I decided that it was best to give it to them. It worked. 

Readers loved the magazine (favorable impressions were in the high 80s or low 90s). 

The webinars had a 99.5% rate of “I’ll come back.” 

The online community grew to such a size that it was larger than the association’s main website. [Note: I didn’t do any of this alone.]

Being helpful works. The paragraph below is the intro to writing advice I had shared with our community expert bloggers in 2009: 

I often joked that no one read inform (or e-doc or AIIM E-DOC Magazine or, lastly, infonomics) for fun. My job as an editor has been to deliver articles for my readers that help them do their job better. We should be USEFUL to our readers; not 100% of the time, humor and flights of fancy have their time, but for the most part we should provide ideas that get readers thinking about what they’re doing in a different way or helps them address their business challenges better.

In the editing biz, this is what’s referred to as an “evergreen topic” and, in this case, it’s evergreen advice. It’s not ever going to not be good advice. Never ever. 

Google’s BERT

You can’t get away from Google when writing about content marketing. Google likes helpful content because Google wants to answer questions. 

BERT, the recent update to Google’s ever-evolving search engine, is focused on being helpful to its customers (that’d be all of us, though we’re also Google’s product as targets for Adwords and such, but I digress). 

BERT “understands” questions and can begin to look for the right answer (search result) by looking for context. Don’t worry, we’re nowhere close to SkyNet yet. Moz had a great Whiteboard Friday explaining BERT, watch it here

The SEO world is in a tizzy because you can’t optimize for BERT like you could for previous updates (for everyone not selling SEO services, I consider this a good thing).

The best SEO advice related to BERT?

You probably guessed already:

write helpful content for your audience.

The best SEO advice related to BERT? Write helpful content for your audience.

Helpful or Useful? An Aside

For the record, I usually talk about “useful” content instead of helpful. HOWEVER, for this series I had another word I wanted to use for the letter “u.” I quick dip into my handy-dandy synonym finder revealed, duh, “helpful” as a good alternative. 

Be Helpful

It’s easy to get lost in the forest of content and inbound marketing because it seems like there are millions of trees. When you make creating helpful content your starting point, the Hundred Acre Helpful Wood?, it becomes easier to decide what content to create, how to share it, campaigns and workflows to create, and the other 1,001 assorted tasks and decisions content marketers need to make. 

Go forth and be helpful. It’s good for your customers. 

Even better, it’s good for you.

Need, er, help creating helpful content? Drop me a line at duhonius@gmail.com, reply below, or give me a call (or text, text is better, what with all the phone spam) at 301-275-7496.

About the Cheeky A-Z Guide to Content Marketing.

There are groaning shelves of books and whitepapers you can read about content and inbound marketing. What’s missing from (some) of them is the stuff between the cracks. The dirty, nuts and bolts examples of things that can go wrong and the random things that can go wonderfully well. I decided to run down the alphabet a letter at a time and highlight personal lessons learned from creating content for 25 years and from applying those content creation lessons to content marketing over the past decade-ish. I hope you enjoy.

About the Author bryantduhon

Editor. Dad. Husband. Writer. Content marketer and strategist. Serial constructive procrastinator. Pizza eater. Beer drinker. Not always in that order.

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