Want to Create Compelling Content? Then Ask the Right Starting Question

"UH Cheerleaders Cheering" by D Services

“UH Cheerleaders Cheering” by D Services

I hate the phrase “compelling content.”

I know that content marketers love it; they use it as shorthand for “hire me because I know how to turn your written junk into SEO gold!” But frankly, the phrase doesn’t say much. It just states the obvious: Write stuff that people want to read.

Oh great, thanks. It’s kind of like saying “if you want to be rich then make a lot of money.”

Such helpful advice.

The real problem isn’t that people don’t want to write compelling content, nor that they don’t know what compelling is, they do. It’s that their perspective keeps them from creating something that others want to read.

In short I believe there are three core perspectives to this:

  • Marketers: Most inbound marketing sites are run by marketers. Marketers, by training, have things they want to tell you, actions they want you to take and goals you can help them meet. Their opening question: “What do I need to tell my audience.”  During a presentation at PRNews Digital PR conference, Amy Africa provided some insight into how humans naturally utilize base reactions in ways that almost always supersede our conscious minds. Marketers live and die on these things. But it also means that for them, “compelling” means “elicits an action.” 
  • Journalists: This dying breed understands the concept of “compelling content” like no other, not because they tell better stories, but because they start with the question “what does my audience want to know?” It seems so basic, and it is, but while marketers are thinking “what do I want to tell you,” journalists ask themselves the opposite. They often run into problems when asked to serve a different master and convey a concept or idea that may need to be forced upon their audience. They take their credibility seriously, and they should. So while it makes them great content creators, it can make them lousy marketers. 
  • Public Relations Writers: Of course I’m biased on this since we produce a lot of content for our clients, and I like to believe it can be pretty compelling. Our goal is to straddle the roles of journalist and marketer. We balance the questions “what does our audience want to know” with “what does our client need to say?” It’s not easy, sometimes we can lean too far one way or another, but it’s what makes good PR people worth the time and investment. 

I can’t say that all of journalism truly understands the impact of “compelling content.” According to the Pew Research “The State of the News Media 2013” report, 40 percent of local TV news is now devoted to weather, sports and traffic. That’s what local TV news believes its audience wants and as a former TV newscast producer I can tell you, this is nothing new. Traditionally ratings always rose with the storm warnings.

But viewership has dropped, especially by those under 30, and while 2012 showed inflated ad numbers thanks to election-year spending, most ad spending is down by more than a third. Worse, the report points out, weather, traffic and sports are easily replaced by other sources. Show of hands, how many of you get your weather on your iPhone? Yeah, thought so.

So you can expect many more TV journalists to find themselves without jobs over the next few years. They’ll join the thousands already laid off, cuts that Pew Research notes has created a death-spiral of sorts for traditional media. Researchers found that most people stop reading a news outlet not because they suddenly found their iPhone, but because the publication no longer gives them the information they expected.

Nearly one-third—31%—of people say they have deserted a particular news outlet because it no longer provides the news and information they had grown accustomed to, according to the survey of more than 2,000 U.S. adults in early 2013. And those most likely to have walked away are better educated, wealthier and older than those who did not—in other words, they are people who tend to be most prone to consume and pay for news.

So where do all these unemployed journalists go? PR of course!

In a piece on PandoDaily, Marco Greenberg pointed out how many journalists jump to the PR world but then flame out when asked to promote something that may not be up to snuff. Their critical nature makes the unsuited for the “rah-rah” culture of the PR firm. In writing about Dan Lyons, who recently jumped from the ashes of Newsweek to the reborn ReadWrite, only to jump again to HubSpot, Greenberg asked “What happens the first time Dan Lyons has to bite his tongue when a client wants him to promote a genuinely silly idea?”

Frankly, I often fall victim to the same problem, looking for holes in stories that clients tell so that we can find and fix them before others do.

This is a Liger, a lion and tiger. A hybrid that’s not a Toyota, but sponsored by them. Fun Fact: the Newton high school aged robotics team is the Ligerbots, for the Lions of Newton South and Tigers of Newton North.

This is also why PR plays such an important role in this world of owned, earned and paid media. Companies like BuzzFeed create branded content that blends “advertising” and “advertorial” with “sharable” content. Its paid media is meant to be shared just as its independent content is meant to be shared. At Social Media Weekend, Jonathan Perelman, editor at Buzzfeed, showed a great example of this with an article called “20 Coolest Hybrid Animals” sponsored by Toyota. It’s content Buzzfeed probably could have written regardless, but Toyota paid and got branding for its hybrid vehicles.

It’s high-level stuff, not the kind of action-oriented and lead-generation concepts that marketers often crave, but it works.

It’s just a matter of coming at the problem with the right perspective.


About Mower Boston

Boston's Mower office is a full-service technology marketing, PR and branding agency. Our B2B stories illustrate projects and campaigns in a variety of markets and media that range from local impact in Boston and New England to global proportions.

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