What to Do When Your Company Blog Isn’t Getting Results
How six editors make their business blogs work
Nearly every restaurant in the world has the same number of Michelin stars as Jamie Oliver’s restaurants. And yet Oliver’s success, even compared to other celebrity chefs, is largely due to the fact that his show made people feel like anyone could do what he did. When people do try to cook, they look for recipes and cookware, and naturally, they consider buying from him. He promoted himself by sharing his best ideas and most popular (or secretive) recipes on TV or in beautifully designed cookbooks. An academic might call this the “Matthew Effect,” and a business reader might call it thought leadership (I choked back my vomit as I typed that).
Promoting your business through content marketing* is a craft like any other, including cooking; there’s no magic to it — it’s just good, hard work. It’s why Patagucci still prints catalogs, and even publishes their own books; or perhaps a shinier example, why Stripe publishes Increment magazine (also available in print), as well as its book publishing venture, Stripe Press.
At the end of the day, the value of quality is not just for the sake of craftsmanship, but to connect with people on a deeper level. This coveted level of attention can’t be bought; it needs to be earned.
And no, despite any protests, it’s probably not because you’re not promoting it enough. Your blog isn’t getting results because your articles aren’t resonating with your readers…yet.
(*Note: These two words, content marketing, are the bane of my existence. Some of the best companies doing content marketing do not consider what they do content, (exhibits 1 and 2, out of many). Few that actually excel at content marketing proudly call what they do content. Brand publishing and trade journals are terms that try to hold a higher standard of quality. I call my business an editorial studio. It’s confusing, and “not meeting the market where it is,” but it’s a start.)
It’s a frustrating challenge. That’s where the role of editors comes in, and why companies are hiring so many of them. Here is how six editors who have worked inside businesses make sure their teams and companies focus on quality and ensuring their work resonates.
1. “Wow, Nobody Else Would Do This.”
In a conversation with my colleague at Wonder Shuttle, former WeTransfer VP of Content Rob Alderson talked about a film they made with Björk: “… if you do great stuff and you’re a brand, users don’t care anymore. If you make really good stuff, they’re not going to go, ‘Well, I quite like that Björk film, but it was done by a file transfer service. I wish it was The Guardian.’”
Whether you’re at the New York Times, BuzzFeed, or a blog powered by your company, people read your work to feel something. It might be curiosity, empowerment, or awe. Autodesk’s Global Head of Branded Content Kylee Swenson Gordon, says, “I know it’s not something you’re going to accomplish every time, but every once in a while I’ll get a story with a lead that is like, oh, that’s amazing. You feel something, and I think emotion is just so important in storytelling.”
Alderson looked for voids in order to produce content he and his readers haven’t seen before. “I always liked a certain sense of, ‘Wow, nobody else would do this,’ either because it was a bit left-field or it was very expensive. Our Eritrean music piece was an expensive piece to commission. We had to write it on the ground in Eritrea for 30 days, all told,” he says. “We were trying to do things that other people just aren’t able to do in the modern world of journalism. I think we never lost sight of how lucky we were and the scope of the opportunity we had.”
This might also mean expanding or deepening the scope of the actual work. “What really sets the Frame.io Insider apart from the thousand other filmmaking blogs out there is the depth in which we go into our topics. Our blog posts average around 2,500 words, and it’s not uncommon for us to have a post that gets into the 3,000- to 5,000-word range,” says Ron Dawson, former senior content marketing manager at Frame.io. “The more technical our articles are, the better they perform. We have a very technical audience who likes to get into the nitty-gritty, and our blog gives them that meat, so to speak.”
2. Aim to Out-Teach Everyone Else
Crossbeam’s director of content, Sean Blanda, who has also led editorial for Invision and Ramit Sethi’s Growth Lab, says, “The real measure we want is people…actually becoming fans for life and becoming advocates. That’s your superpower as an editor.” Connecting with this audience leads to a defensible marketing asset that can make your marketing dollars turn from expenses into investments.
“If I have an email list that just slowly grows 2% every month, I’m going to outlast the people that are just spiking over Facebook, or video, or whatever the hot thing is,” says Blanda. “From a business perspective, I think that’s a safer bet. However, you’ll grow slower, and sometimes it’s about balancing growing the audience quickly using the popularity of these platforms, versus capturing them and keeping them on something like your email newsletter list, or coming to your events in person.” (If you’re interested in a data-driven example of this, check out Tomasz Tunguz’s post.)
In the meantime, Blanda keeps his eye on leading indicators. If a reader tells Blanda that they’ve learned a lot about partnership management from Crossbeam’s blog, he’ll make sure to make that visible to the team. “That is the mission of the company, to help those people. And one extension of the mission is content. It’s not the only one, it might not even be the most important one, but it’s one of them,” he says. “The more you can kind of relay that and communicate that internally, I think that is one of the ways you can help reinforce quality.”
Building fans for the company’s mission doesn’t just mean doing it with the people who might buy your stuff; it could mean digging deep into your company’s values and heritage and expressing those elements through content.
Intercom’s Director of Content John Collins says, “We also like to make sure there’s a little bit of a spark to what we do. We still do an awful lot of content about product and design, and we don’t sell to product managers or designers, but that’s our heritage. We are product-first, or traditionally have been product-first, and so it just feels on-brand. That’s something the elaborate KPIs or metrics will not tell you to do.”
3. Talk to Your Readers to Understand What They Want
Thoughtbot’s Digital Marketing Manager Tori Shaffrey, who edits their resource center and newsletter Purpose-Built, talks about how 10% of their newsletter list responded to a survey. They sent it out six months after launch, and respondents voted on potential topics, shared their favorite ways to digest content, and even commented on the design of the newsletter.
“The Purpose-Built team prioritizes topics the audience has asked for, what our potential subscribers are searching for, and what outstanding questions are out in the world for product teams,” Shaffrey says. “Then together we develop honest, kick-ass, actionable content.”
It doesn’t necessarily have to be a distinct, separate, effort; rather, it could be part of your ongoing dialogue with your readers. For example, Framer.io’s email newsletter used to be a standard newsletter summary of blog posts. Dawson changed it to be a text-based newsletter from him personally, without images, “so it feels like you’re actually getting an email from me.”
He says, “I get about a half-dozen replies a week from people either praising me, praising the blog, saying, ‘I love your blog, I love the work you do,’ or asking about certain things about the article, and so adding this personal touch… I think it creates a feeling of that personable feeling with our readers because they feel like they’re getting something from the editor, rather than just this corporate entity that’s sending out an auto-email, and I make a point to reply to all those that come in.”
Whether you do it with your own early audience like Purpose-Built’s survey, Framer.io’s text-based newsletter, or figure out topics through more qualitative methods (i.e., Quora, AlsoAsked, surveying prospects on LinkedIn, etc.), sourcing ideas from your audience is a common sense, useful technique. It’s worth the time.
If You’re Not Focused on Quality, Don’t Bother…
Not every business is well-positioned to do content marketing. Some are too small and don’t have the financial resources to commit yet. Others are too big and need to go through layers of approvals. The businesses that win with it have bought into investing in it, and doing whatever it takes to make sure the quality is there. So if you’re not going to do it well, the internet’s already messy enough; don’t make more garbage, just put the money back into ads and keep it moving. And if you think it’s important but don’t know how to get started, start by:
- Doing what nobody else is doing (which requires figuring out what everybody else is doing — valuable research to make your job more secure).
- Educating people that your company serves, so that they become your fans and advocates.
- Talk to some of your readers to learn what problems they’re dealing with, what they want to learn about, and how to best communicate with them.
“Quality is the best business plan,” Pixar’s John Lasseter says to Fast Company. Similarly, economist Tyler Cowen says, “The returns to quality are higher than you think, and they are rising rapidly.” Every day, we all have a chance to make someone’s life better through the internet. It just happens the companies that do exactly that will be the ones that get results from content marketing.