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Book Review: Content Rules

June 24, 2011

It’s been six weeks since I came down from my Confab cake high and I’m still trying to process all the new information–well, new for me anyway. One of my favorite talks was given by Ann Handley, chief content officer at MarketingProfs. The keynote excited me so much, I had to buy the book that the talk was promoting, Content Rules, which she co-wrote with C.C. Chapman. I was so impressed with Ann’s talk, I bought the book at the conference bookstore and asked her to sign it at the author table.

A picture of the book

I must confess I haven’t read the whole book yet. Not that it isn’t a good read. It’s just not an easy read. Not for me anyway. You see, I have one of those brains that questions everything. So I typically take a long time to read stuff, especially if it contains a lot of information relevant to my areas of interest. The better the book, the longer I take to read it.

I spent the better part of five years reading Wittgenstein’s Philosophical Investigations. I nearly destroyed my paperback copy with dog ears, underlines and notations before I was able to find a hard-back copy. During that time, I didn’t read anything else except commentaries of the book. And I read constantly, at least when I wasn’t eating, teaching, writing or sleeping. The content of that book so consumed me, I could barely think of anything else. I still consider it the greatest book on language ever written (thought certainly not the most clear).

So it’s a compliment of a book that I’m still reading it after six weeks. It means there’s enough content in the book to occupy my mind in the intervening time since Confab, and then some. Also, as an author, I don’t just read books related to Audience, Relevance and Search. I study them for conflict and convergence.

This is at best a first pass at a critique of Content Rules. It won’t be the last time I refer to it in this blog. Here I will only focus on a few of the insights that struck me as particularly relevant to our book. In brief, I love their emphasis on content marketing. But I think they don’t go far enough to use content marketing not just as a way to promote publishing efforts, but as a rich source of audience information. If you’re interested, please click to read more.

On being a publisher and content marketer

Rule number one in this books is embrace being a publisher. It seems so easy. So fundamental. But it needs to be stated, reiterated, and supported with examples. Because even within the content strategy discipline, it has not fully been embraced.

One of the keys to embracing being a publisher is that the content you create does not market itself. Publishers know this implicitly. You would never publish an online magazine and fail to promote it through search and social media. But companies effectively do this all the time when they ignore the most important part of content strategy: Every company is a publisher and publishers need to promote their content if they expect it to reach their target audiences.

Recently on the Content Strategy Google Group, several regular contributors whom I respect seemed to say that content marketing was not as integral to content strategy as other aspects. This is what I posted in response:

If you work in an organization that creates a lot of content, as I do, you know that just because it is important and interesting and well written and, etc. doesn’t mean anyone will ever consume it. My company is the largest publisher of original web content on the planet. None of this content would ever meet the eyes of our target audience if we didn’t tell the them we published it. It still probably wouldn’t be found by the people we are trying to attract, who probably don’t know we publish so much content, if we don’t effectively tell the search engines about it.

For this reason, I think content marketing is the most important aspect of content strategy. Of course, you don’t want to market crap. But if you create great content, it will not market itself. You have to promote it through social channels and especially make sure that it shows up in the search results for the queries your target audience uses to find content it is interested in. This is a key emphasis of the Ann and C.C.’s book.

On being an advocate for the user, not a salesperson

Marketing organizations are so firmly rooted in the world of advertising, they have forgotten how to write for humans. They only tell the good stories and ignore any downsides. They overstate the benefits and ignore the risks. This one-sided approach to content doesn’t work well, especially in the tech industry, where skeptical managers and executives look for proof before they buy. In an increasingly social web, this skeptical attitude is becoming ever more pervasive.

If you want content to be shared and passed around, it must be link bait–written with journalistic integrity with lots of proof points from qualified experts. Anonymous agency content that shills the product will not be effective on the social web. To quote Content Rules:

Good content doesn’t preach or hard sell. Instead, it shows how your product lives in the world. It demonstrates through case studies or client narratives how your customers use your product or service, and it explains in human terms how it ads value to their lives, eases their troubles and meets their needs. Good content is not about storytelling; it’s about telling a true story well. (p. 16)

The authors go on to elaborate on this point. But this concise statement will serve our needs here. I have been preaching the show, don’t tell, advise don’t sell line on our internal standards site for years. But the authors do what I was not able to do. In their chapter Share or Solve, Don’t Shill, they explain in human terms how taking this approach makes more effective content, thereby demonstrating value for content strategists. In short, they don’t just tell the reader, they show the reader.

On knowing what to write

My only disappointment with the book is that it does not go far enough into how to use content marketing as a source of audience information. They certainly have the right focus on the audience, however:

As with any piece of content, you’ve got a very narrow window–often less than eight seconds, according to some reports [ahem, Nielsen]–to engage someone before they click away. If the headline catches their attention, you’ve bought yourself a little more time. The only way you are going to keep your customers’ attention is if you know what they want. (p. 24)

They proceed to recommend surveys of your users, asking them what they want. I think surveys are great, but they are very limited in learning about the audience because they only poll people who found your content. Ditto using site metrics to see what is working and not working–also very valuable and an integral component in any good content strategy. Still, the data you get from your existing users does not capture the whole audience.

What you really need is audience information from people who don’t even know about your content. You want to craft content for the folks that will attract them to your site, where you can begin helping them solve their business problems. That’s the most valuable data for publishers because it helps them grow audience share and ultimately grow their businesses.

You can’t get data about the audience you are not reaching with site surveys or site stats. So how do you get this data? This is where search and social research comes into play. It starts with keyword research, which you use to do sophisticated social media listening. It takes some linguistic savvy to interpret keyword queries and social posts in a way that informs what content you should be creating. But it can be done in a way that not only tells you what to write about, but what the audience wants to do with that information.When you align your content to the topics your audience is interested in and the tasks they want to accomplish, you will achieve your business goals with your content.

When you match the top keywords for a given topic against your content audit for that topic, you will find gaps and apparent duplicates. This is the kind of intelligence you need for a reasonably complete content plan. And this is how our book complements Content Rules: It provides a method for analyzing the whole audience, not just those who happened to find your site.

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