Archive for February, 2011

What Satan Taught Me About Content Marketing

Remember that English teacher who taught you to write five-paragraph essays? The pattern was simple: introduction, three supporting paragraphs, and a conclusion.

Tell them what you’re going to tell, tell them, and tell them again.

From this basic structure, the writing assignments evolved. They moved from exposition to more complex arguments, pages instead of paragraphs, primary and secondary research, visual rhetoric, a companion video or slide deck.

For me, it all came together in a paper on John Milton’s epic poem Paradise Lost, arguing for an interpretation of Satan as epic hero that differed from popular criticism. My desk was littered with the flotsam and jetsam of my efforts—the primary text (PL); a position to take; a list of key points, supporting data, and examples from the text; a somewhat annotated bibliography of my research sources; what might pass for a flowchart that laid out the argument and possible objections; and a rough outline of the paper.

That desk doesn’t look much different today.

Gustave Doré, Depiction of Satan, of John Milton’s Paradise Lost

Those same writing and research processes from academia are useful tools for any kind of business writing, but especially for creating collateral such as white papers or case studies, or posts aligned with defined blogging strategy, or the email messages used in a lead nurturing campaign.

As content marketers, our most fundamental goal is to persuade an audience and motivate them to take action. We take a position—our unique selling proposition —and we develop, support, and defend it.

Sure, it feels good to say our main goal is to inform, educate, and nurture our audience, but a business needs to keep the lights on.

Each message in the customer lifecycle, from marketing to sales and services, is another piece of evidence in support of that position. Its effectiveness in getting, closing, and retaining customers is more measurable now than ever.

The ROI of our efforts is splashed in bright colors across the pie charts and graphs of our CRM dashboards.

While the simple five-paragraph structure is hardly feasible (or desirable) in our marketing communications, the exercise is. The creative process of writing that paper for English class can be adapted to help content marketers develop a messaging framework, and then use it to produce content that’s consistent and value-based, across marketing channels.

From 5 Paragraphs, 5 Concepts for Content

Whether writing a post on the company blog, a case study, or a status update, marketers can deliver an effective and consistent message by keeping in mind five basic concepts:

  • Audience
  • Argument
  • Appeals
  • Evidence
  • Opposition

Audience. The art of persuasion is equal parts writer and reader. Good content is adapted for a target audience, never one size fits all.  Not only do we need to create content for a specific buyer persona, but we also need to set expectations for that audience, and deliver a content experience that meets those expectations.

In B2B marketing, there are often multiple people involved in the decision-making process, each for different reasons. Segment that house list for targeted communications. Offer content relevant for the end user (how a specific functionality saves time), and something for the business decision maker (how the complete package saves money).

Argument. Again, the Unique Selling Proposition. Who should buy your product and why? How will they benefit? Do existing customers feel good about their purchase decision, and will they stick around? A product or service can’t be the best at everything for everyone, so this core concept should focus on what differentiates that product or service from others in the marketplace.

Appeals. To persuade and motivate that target audience, look to the Aristotelian rhetorical appeals ethos, pathos, and logos.

  • Ethos refers to the appeal of the speaker’s character or authority. It’s how we position the “About” page and our online company profiles, what we put in our bios. A good example of ethos in advertising is celebrity endorsements.
  • Pathos appeals to the audience’s emotions. It can be used to convey feelings of confidence and integrity in a brand and trigger the desired response.
  • Logos is logical appeal. This persuasive strategy is usually marked by facts, figures, and data.

The most effective content combines all three appeals.

Evidence. This one is closely tied to logical appeal but worth calling out on its own. General statements only bring an audience so far. Providing credible evidence to support a claim shows the buyer how other people just like them have realized tangible benefits from a product or service. And it doesn’t need to be boring. The statistics part may be a bit dry, but things like video testimonials, case studies, and online communities can turn this evidence into a more interactive experience for the audience.

Opposition. What are the opposing viewpoints in your marketplace? The reasons for not buying your product or service? If the price point high, for example, then provide some quantifiable ROI data from current customers. Opposition to a change in process or technology? Reinforce the benefits of making the change with evidence, and remember that change brings about feeling of both excitement and fear. Build on the former while addressing the latter with a solid nurturing program.

Putting these concepts together in an internal corporate essay, so to speak, with an introduction, supporting ideas, and conclusion helps clarify positioning, communicate value, and motivate the audience to the next step in the sales cycle. Those ideas make up the parts of the whole, the overarching narrative told through our website, blog posts, social media efforts, sales collateral, and customer service.

It’s worth noting that the essay outline mentioned earlier wasn’t so much an outline as a collection of sticky notes and pizza napkins that could be rearranged while the argument in my paper developed based on new research and perspectives.

The corporate narrative should be organized this way, too—it’s a fluid process as we learn more about our audience and how they interact with our communications, or introduce new products and functionality.

A messaging framework based on audience, argument, appeals, evidence, and opposition helps content marketers tell a consistent and compelling story. It may not be the same as writing about Satan, sex, and the phenomenology of sin in Paradise Lost, but the same concepts of argumentation that we learned in English class can inspire a content strategy that adds color to the marketing dashboard.

This blog post originally appeared on B2Bbloggers.

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On Craft, Career, and Cabernet

Driving downtown to meet some writer friends, I roll down the windows, hoping the breeze will carry away the acronyms of my day (ROI, KPI, CPM, CPA, FFS), sprinkle in a few verbs, and drop them into a marketing plan.

I pull around to the back of the building, find a spot in the bank parking lot. My ride these days is a minivan, and it doesn’t fit in the compact parking spaces along Broadway like the little black car of my graduate student days.

It’s been five years since then, my last writing workshop around that blessed, beat-up and beloved table in Weld Hall library.

This whole writing thing—the impulse to create, revise, destroy, and begin again—is something that stays with us long after the MFA program, no matter the shape of our postgraduate careers. The craft and its dialogue are our pomegranate seeds, and those of us who ate at that old table would never really leave.

Tonight I crave the company of this community, the way it keeps the spirit of writing pure and its language real.

We’ve followed the trail of pomegranate seeds across the river and to another table. This one is dimly lit, filled with MFA alumni rather than students, drinking Cabernet instead of the viscous vending machine coffee on campus, gathered again to discuss current writing projects, curse creative hurdles, and pray for manuscripts submitted.

“It depends on how we define ‘professional,’” one of us would say, “and of what we’ve become the master.”

We’re discussing whether a creative writing degree has any value in today’s workplace for those not interested in teaching, and if so, how those skills might transfer. Participating in that conversation are a software developer (genre: screenplays), a local magazine editor (genre: poetry), a PhD student/professor (genre: fiction), and a marketing director (genre: fiction), all of us MFA program graduates. An interesting mix of viewpoints, to say the least.

Ours is just one of many conversations contemplating the merit of creative writing programs and the MFA degree. Popular arguments against it include the perceived homogenization of writing or the studies heralding a poor academic job market. Most certainly, the fact that academic jobs advertised in the English discipline have declined by 39.8% from 2008 to 2010*  is cause for concern.

But the graduate writing experience amounts to more than “sedentary toil/And…the imitation of great masters,”* sealed with an advanced degree that may or may not lead to a professorship.

In fact, the degree is but a byproduct of an MFA program for the majority of those who attend them, writers driven instead by the craft itself, its exploration and promise of perfection. In an article contemplating what brings people to the table some 70-odd years after the first MFA program (Iowa Writer’s Workshop) was founded, poet/attorney Seth Abramson cites a recent survey finding that “fewer than 20% of MFA applicants consider the credential itself to be their top reason for pursuing a graduate creative writing degree.”*

Given that an advanced degree is typically required for teaching college-level courses, this sentiment signals a new generation of writers with designs on a nonacademic career, seeking the MFA experience in order to further develop the creativity, critical thinking, and communication skills that are very much in demand in today’s job market.

Daniel Pink argues in his book A Whole New Mind that “the MFA is the new MBA.”  His logic makes sense: the routine entry-level tasks that help an MBA break into the job market are being outsourced overseas, and there’s an increasing demand for the kinds of people who can provide the “high-concept” thinking and strategy behind these inputs.  Pink writes*:

…that something first must be imagined or invented. And these creations must  then be explained and tailored to customers and entered into the swirl of commerce, all of which require aptitudes that can’t be reduced to a set of rules on a spec sheet—ingenuity, personal rapport, and gut instinct.

Though industry job openings might not explicitly state “MFA degree required,” the skills learned in graduate creative writing programs are transferable and quite employable.

Is there a large percentage of MFA degree-holders seeking academic jobs? Of course. But, unscientifically speaking, there are just as many who have no desire to teach. The program is driven as much by the trifecta of technique, art, and talent than by any professional goal, academic or otherwise.

Some of us simply focus on our writing. Others go on to become software developers, magazine editors, PhD candidates, or marketers.

Only the writer can determine how best to transfer her craft from workshop into the workplace. Like anything else, it is what you make of it.

The results of a postgraduate survey* from the creative writing program at MSUM , home of that beat-up table in Weld Hall, provides some interesting insight into the professionalization of the MFA degree, even if it’s just a microcosm. Here are some highlights:

  • An equal number of respondents have attained postgraduate employment in a professional/technical writing capacity (44%) as those who hold teaching positions (44%).
  • Of those teaching, 38% have attained the rank of Associate Professor or higher, including one Dean.
  • 48% of the industry-employed MFAers are at or above the mid-management level in their careers.
  • Common job titles include marketing, communications, public relations, and technical writing. The most interesting is perhaps “Teacher, Mortician.”
  • Not reflecting freelance writing, 8% of respondents work full-time in publishing, either as editor, journalist, or publisher.
  • Everyone has published something.
  • 34% of those surveyed did not respond. We like to think it was because they were too busy writing.

Eat Here and Stay Forever

It’s late in the evening. The wine is gone, the crème brulee and coffee on the table, and we realize none of us have actually graduated the MFA program together. We were, in fact, barely classmates.

But we share the same experience of sitting around that table, where together we got to taste the seeds binding our community to its particular craft, to travel that underworld where ideas are translated into art and process is revered over end product.

Exploring the craft of writing before that forbidden lawn  of unbridled creativity becomes unfamiliar or impractical is an experience that we’ll draw from inevitably in our careers, whether in teaching, corporate storytelling, or mortuary science.

The MFA graduate develops a mindset that allows for creative, critical, and analytical thinking–a stage on which to practice freedom in our art, engage in healthy debate and discussion, and advance our writing abilities both technically and creatively, all while participating in good conversation and community.

Sources:

* Modern Language Association. (September 2010). “Report on the MLA Job Information List, 2009-2010.” MLA Office of Research. Web. November 29, 2010. p 1.
*Yeats, William Butler. “Ego Dominus Tuus.” Yeats’s Poetry, Drama, and Prose. Ed. J. Pethica. New York: W.W. Norton & Company, 2000. Print. p. 66-68.
*Abramson, S. (2010). “The New Face of the Creative Writing Master of Fine Arts.” The Huffington Post. Web. Posted: October 28, 2010; Accessed 12/1/2010. Survey conducted by The Suburban Ecstasies.
*Pink, Daniel. A Whole New Mind: Why Right-Brainers Will Rule the Future. New York: Riverhead Trade, 2006. Print.
* Minnesota State University Moorhead (December 2010). Master of Fine Arts in Creative Writing Program Postgraduate Survey. Conducted online, November 1 – November 25, 2010.
*Tsetsi, Kristen. (2010) “Owning is a sloppy second to knowing.” this i believe. Web. Published March 17, 2010. Accessed March 18, 2010.  Fellow MSUM MFA graduate Kristen Tsetsi writes, “I no longer know the grass of forbidden lawns, because I drive past it.”

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