The Forgotten Truth about Content Marketing
January 30, 2018 |
I have a pet peeve about content. It starts when I hear all sorts of tips, tricks, and techniques. It seems that everyone and their grandmothers know what it takes to be the next big thing in content marketing. You know what I'm talking about. It's the typical advice on what content tools you need or what social media strategy will crown you king (or queen) of the content marketing mountain, etc., etc., etc. Yet, somehow, between an endless (and dare I say brainless) barrage of blogs, videos, and infographics, we all (hyperbole, not all... obviously) seem to forget the most basic fact of what content marketing means. It means to teach. If your content doesn't teach
anyone anything, it's worthless. So how do you go about effectively educating?
Laying out the Content Marketing Problem
Yes, as a former teacher I do know that I'm biased, but that doesn't preclude me from being right either. So let's set this up a bit so that we can get into how to execute properly.
It's simple really. Your content is meant to convey information useful to your readers. For this to happen, your readers need to understand what you're saying and trying to get at. This is THE
most fundamental aspect of content marketing. If your content presents no new information to a reader, it has no purpose. If your content is not structured in a pedagogically sound way, then it's inaccessible and is equally worthless (or to be less extreme, "ineffective").
It should be clear then that producing content that incorporates those elements of what "good teaching" is, forms the very foundation of content marketing... plain and
simple. More pointedly, what does your social media strategy have to do with this? Nothing. What does finding the best tool to automate the content process have to do with this, the foundation of content marketing? Nothing. So why is it that (seemingly) every piece of advice about executing an effective content marketing strategy relates to these sort of items? .... I don't know!
What I do know is what makes a piece of content educationally sound, and that is...
Content Marketing Method Tip #1
As a good teacher (well, at least I hope I'm a good teacher), I'm going to break down some of the educational methods I use here in this article along the way. The goal is to provide you with some concrete examples of the methods I try to employ. (Of course, I need to say, that every critique I mention in this post, I also fall prey to. Thus, every piece of advice or technique applies to myself as well, especially since I'm my strongest critic.)
With that, I want to point out what I did in the section above. I can hear our SEO manager screaming in his head as he reads this to just get to the point of the article, which is how to produce educationally sound content (he's actually a super nice guy and would never yell at anyone). But just jumping into the thick of the tips and tricks would be a contradiction in this case. One of the biggest shortcomings I notice about the content I read is that there is no setup. The reader is expected to get their fill of advice without the problem that such wisdom solves ever being presented and certainly not appreciated.
One of the things they tell new teachers is to create a sense of urgency in the classroom, make the students feel that there are questions that have to be answered, topics to be learned, etc. The only way to do this is to set up the problem of whatever it is you're trying to tackle. Which is why I laid out the problem and did not just dive into the main takeaways, tips, and whatnot. Sure, maybe it's not the best for my SEO from a technical perspective, but I can live with that because it's essential for my content.
The sidebar is over, let's get back to the main flow here.
Building the Content Castle - How to Effectively Build Content Knowledge
Content, like an actual castle, is built one brick at a time, and piling too many bricks at once will cause the whole structure to tumble. At the same time, and unlike our case of the castle, not every content "brick" is equal. Unlike actual bricks, which are generally the same size and color, each brick we use to build a piece of content is different, and as such how we "order" these bricks, how
we get from point A to point B, is unbelievably important.
Scaffolding Your Content
There's a term in the education world called "scaffolding" and without getting into the pedagogical theory behind it, "scaffolding" is important for content creators to understand, because it's essentially how
you move a reader from ignorance to enlightenment.
Let me first explain why it's called scaffolding (so that you can get a bit of a grasp of the concept). Imagine you have a tall building that you want to get to the top of. Now, just for argument's sake, there is no way to reach the top other than by scaling the walls of the building (no stairs, no elevator, etc.). To reach the top of this building, one must, much like construction workers around the world do each day, build a scaffold piece by piece, and climb it in order to get to the top of the building. In order to reach the top, you have to move piece by piece, slowly building more scaffolding on top of what you already constructed.
The point you're trying to drive home in your content is the top of the building, and the scaffold that is built piece by piece is how you get your readers to that new understanding you're aiming for. Simply, scaffolding is the methodical process of building understanding one small step at a time. Much like you wouldn't, or should I say couldn't erect a scaffold tall enough to the reach the top without carefully putting every piece in place so that you don't fall during the process, you can't build understanding without carefully laying out and explaining the points needed to build true comprehension. If one piece of your "scaffolding," i.e. knowledge progression is shaky, the entire thing may fall altogether. For example, if I don't effectively develop what scaffolding means in this context, my next point will fall on its face and be... pointless (haha).
Content Marketing Tip #2
Scaffolding is not merely developing a methodical sequence of knowledge so that a reader can build understanding. I mean it is that, but proper execution is not as linear. There's a lot that goes into it other than breaking the content down properly so that the "jumps" are not too large for a reader to overcome. In truth, a lot of what scaffolding is and focuses on is the best way to make such jumps so that you successfully build comprehension.
In the above two paragraphs I "lessened" these jumps by building on what you already knew, i.e., what a scaffold is and how one must necessarily construct one. In plain terms, I built off (at I least I attempted to) what you already knew about an actual scaffold and compared it to what you may not have known (scaffolding as a pedagogical concept).
I also want to point out that I could have just told you what scaffolding means without making any sort of comparison. 99% of the content you read will do just that, simply tell you what "X" is. (I know "we" don't scaffold our content enough because I don't scaffold as much as I should, and I am one the biggest proponents of the concept that you'll find out there.) However, if I just told you what scaffolding was, would know it as "vividly" as you do now with the comparison? Probably not, and this is what I mean by building knowledge. Building knowledge is not just about getting a reader to know "X," it's getting them to know "X" well, intimately, so that there's a deeper sort of comprehension that takes place. Why do I care about that? Because if your content doesn't foster a deeper, less surface like, comprehension, your readers won't internalize it, therefore won't appreciate it, and therefore won't remember it, or the author who wrote it.
Scaffolding Your Content Continued...
We now resume your regularly scheduled programming.
Too often, content creators skip this comprehension development process. That is, I frequently find that content in today's content marketing world dives right into the thick of things, makes a quick few points, and moves on. Now there are legitimate concerns that may drive this, such as not wanting your content to be too long. However, most of the time you can bet this occurs due to a lack of educational sensitivity (that's right, more important than knowing how to "scaffold" is a sensitivity to when it's needed). Making a quick point that helps you sound like an authority or helps build your status as an influencer is enticing, but it doesn't actually help your readers.
To effectively and methodically build comprehension you need to:
1) Be sensitive to the prior knowledge, sub-topics, and steps needed to understand the point your content is trying to make.
2) Be sensitive to the knowledge your readers may or may not already have.
Simply, what information does my content intrinsically include, and is therefore built upon, and how much of that information might my readers not know (and would need me to help build for them). I want to point out that the latter point is sometimes considered, while the former is not. We might consider who the audience is, are they experts, novices, etc. We simply just don't consider what gaps each audience may then have (and yes, even an expert has a knowledge gap that needs to be filled, otherwise why would they try to learn something new from your content?).
So when it comes to "scaffolding your content" you really want to break down a topic into its smaller components in a methodical and sequential manner so that your readers can actually get where you want to take them. This, by the way, does not mean creating more headers and sub-headers. I'm not talking about providing more content, I'm talking about drilling down whatever content you already have so to speak and breaking it down into smaller parts so that a reader can use these smaller "conceptual pieces" as steps towards getting what you are aiming to achieve.
Content Marketing Method Tip #3
Notice, in the above paragraph I decided to include a caution towards making an error in what I'm trying to present. I saw an opening where a person may take what I'm saying in the wrong way, most likely due to my inadequacy to properly explain my point. Every writer, teacher, and communicator has these inadequacies, it's merely a matter of compensating for them, which I tried to do here by flushing out my true intentions. This is another example of scaffolding, of building comprehension. In this case, I built (or at least tried to build) comprehension by telling you what I'm not saying, which as funny as it sounds, helps you understand what I am indeed saying.
Proper Pacing - A Key to Creating Successful Content
In a way, pacing is part of scaffolding, and in a way it's not. Obviously, if you move too quickly through an idea or a topic, you cannot effectively build comprehension in a methodically layered manner, meaning you can't scaffold your content. Thus, the two concepts go hand in hand, sort of the flip side of each other in a way. In either case, proper pacing is paramount.
A piece of content's "pace" is far more dynamic than you might think. Of course, pacing does indeed refer to how quickly (or diligently) you work an idea through. You don't have to be Einstein to know that if you spend a line or two on a complex idea and then follow that up with another complex idea presented in yet another one and done sentence, you will lose your readers. (Though, I might say you do need to be Einstein, because this does happen quite often.)
Let's then discuss other, less obvious, aspects of pacing.
One of the more common accommodations teachers, English teachers especially, offer their special needs students is content chunking. For example, instead of reading such a student two paragraphs and asking a question, we would read
and then ask a question. It's an amazing tool that should be used in the world of education more often than it is (this as a former teacher and as a father of a "special needs" child).
Just as the practice of "content chunking" should be more common in the classroom, it should be more prevalent in our content as well (at least based upon what I see going on out there in the content marketing world). Breaking up content is more often discussed in the context of keeping your audience interest up. However, it is also a major part of building comprehension. If the idea is complex, break it up into smaller parts so as to be able to foster proper content focus and to avoid overwhelming your readers.
This builds off the previous point. The reality is, people need a brain break and "chunking" your content appropriately is just one way to do that. We usually associate a "brain break" with taking a quick intermission from whatever it is we're doing. You know, perhaps getting out of your chair and getting a totally unnecessary 6th cup of coffee (if the previous five didn't work, why would the 6th?). Offering readers content variety is a necessary part of allowing them to learn. Educating someone is not only the process of transmitting information. In fact, according to some schools of thought, teaching is more about creating the conditions for learning to take place than it is about actual content delivery.
To such an extent, anything from headers to images
a powerful purpose in that they help you properly pace your content. If you view these elements outside of their organizational or demonstrative purposes and utilize them to create a proper content tempo, you have a higher chance of being able to educate your audience.
Think about yourself for a second. Doesn't a well-placed image help refresh your concentration? Doesn't a heading at times help alleviate that feeling of resistance? That feeling of resistance that comes from having to trudge through something that's either a bit long or that can't be assimilated without a bit of effort. Content elements like these help create the proper pace needed to accrue knowledge.
Content Marketing Tip #4
The last paragraph, from a pure "knowledge" perspective, was totally unnecessary. If asked, you could have relayed over what I was saying without it. So then why add it? Because there is no better educator than experience. No, that last paragraph didn't tell you anything new. No, what it did was way more important, it connected you to the concept. That last paragraph offered you, my reader, a way to truly connect with what I was saying beyond simple intellectual cognition. This is an invaluable tool when your reader is entirely unfamiliar with the concepts you're discussing. If you could find a way to relate the underpinnings of your content to an experience your readers have probably had, then you're 90% there. Connecting to personal experience is probably the most powerful way to scaffold your content.
Differentiation - Giving Your Content a Chance to Succeed
We'd like to believe that we can determine who our audience is, write to that audience, and not make a big deal out of this. We'll often categorize our audience by age, gender, level of expertise, etc. So let's say you're right, demographic "X" is your audience. Is demographic "X" a uniform and monotone group lacking any diversity? No. So then why do we tend to treat them as such?
Within any demographic, there are both a variety of content as well as learning preferences, which means you need to differentiate your content.
"Differentiating your instruction" is one of the most overused education buzzwords out there (at least back when I was teaching). However, there is a real purpose to catering to different readers, with their different preferences and needs (i.e. differentiating your content).
There are a lot of ways to differentiate your content, but let's look at just a few possibilities.
Charts, Diagrams, and Images:
OK, so you've narrowed down your readers as being experts in the field who happen to be 18 - 34. Kudos. Let me ask you, how many of those readers are what we call "visual learners?" What's that I hear? Crickets? How does one make that determination? You don't. You assume that a chunk of your readers are more successful at assimilating information when said information is accented with visuals. For the record, more recent research says we all make use of different learning modules (i.e., seeing, hearing, etc.).
Incorporate visuals when possible. Obviously different types of content lend itself to certain visuals more than other content varieties. Whatever the case may be, help your readers learn by not being stingy with the visuals.
Employ Varied Explanations:
No one likes to repeat themselves, but when it comes to your content, you should. Introductory phrases and words are your best friends in this case. Meaning, you can use introductory words, like the one at the beginning of this sentence to offer another way of explaining the concept in the preceding sentence... like I'm doing right now... I've seen it a hundred times in the classroom, the second you explain something in a different way, light bulbs go off. You might not think there's much of a difference between how you originally presented the idea and your second crack at it, but some of your readers will.
Make Use of Diverse Formatting:
How you organize and format your content can actually be a way to meet the diverse needs of your diverse readers. Certain readers most definitely benefit from what I'll call style and format enhancements such as:
- Bulleted lists
- Bold or italics
- Text boxes
- Varied text color
It's a pretty straightforward point: Different people prefer their information to be organized in different ways. Don't simply offer a whole lot of text in paragraph form that contains no
formatting. In fact, when trying to explain an idea from another angle (as I mentioned above), you might try another way of actually formatting the content (when it makes sense to of course).
You're a Teacher, Accept It, Your Content Depends on It
Believe me, the fact that being a teacher is not glamorous is not lost on me for a second. Sure, being an influencer in the industry or content guru is something to aim for from a professional point of view. None of that however changes the reality that if you write content, you are a teacher, an educator. Your job is to educate your readers on whatever topic you're writing about. If your entire writing identity becomes about showcasing your "chops'," your know-how, you stand a good chance to lose your readers and fail in your ultimate mission, the spreading of your knowledge. So embrace your inner-teacher and capitalize on that identity because as odd as it sounds, being a good teacher starts with viewing yourself as one.