Content Marketing

The Stephen King and Joseph Sugarman School of Content Marketing

The Stephen King and Joseph Sugarman School of Content Marketing

badge-guest-post-FLATTERAs someone who makes part of his living from helping online brands create great content, it pains me to say this:

The best way to create awesome content marketing pieces is not to outsource their creation.

It’s to learn how to create them yourself.

Sure, you can hire a writer like myself to help you find and tap into your unique brand voice, but the companies that are masters of content marketing have realized that nobody else in the world:

  • Knows their customers better than them
  • Understands their vision for their business better than them
  • Can find and tap into their own unique voice better than them

What I can do, however, is show you the steps you and/or your staff can take to learn how to create great, authentic content that not only reflects your brand, but adds to it.

With a little help from two writers who helped form my foundational knowledge on creating great content, here are four steps you can take to immediately begin writing (or improving upon) your own content.

1. Admit That You and Your Current Staff Can Pull This Off

The truth is that the folks who are actually part of your company, understand the culture, and communicate with customers on a daily basis are the ideal people to create content for your content marketing efforts.

Like Jay says, we’re moving toward an era “where the company, its employees, and its customers work together to create Cooperative Content.”

But before we get there, we’re first going to have to trust that the average employee is capable of creating good content.

Enter Stephen King, via this excerpt from his classic, perfectly non-scary book (except for the part where he talks about getting hit by a car), On Writing:

“While it is impossible to make a competent writer out of a bad writer, and while it is equally impossible to make a great writer out of a good one, it is possible, with lots of hard work, dedication, and timely help, to make a good writer out of a merely competent one.”

In King’s world you’re either born great like Shakespeare, born good with no hope of ever being great, born competent with the capacity to become good, or born bad with no hope of being competent.

The good news for you and me is that you don’t have to be born great like Shakespeare to create great content marketing pieces. Actually, it’s probably better that you’re not Shakespeare.

Why? Because content marketing isn’t always about being the most creative, the most eloquent, or the most likely to inspire tears streaming down your readers’ cheeks. It’s mainly about knowing when to shut up and not reinvent the wheel.

Content marketing, copywriting, and social media are not fields for pseudo-philosophic mustache waxers, pipes stuffed with fine tobacco. You don’t need to own many leather-bound books. Your apartment doesn’t have to smell of rich mahogany.

Content marketing talent is not some gift bestowed by God upon a select few golden children. It’s combining proven principles and psychology with a curious mind that’s not afraid of a little creativity.

People today are motivated by most of the same things that have motivated us since the beginning of time. Your job is to arrange words on a page that will tap into those motivations and connect them to the product or service you know can help them. And it doesn’t take a sonnet to accomplish that.

Invest in your current resources and talent pool. Push them to become more. The results may surprise you.

2. Learn to Connect the Dots

Creating good content, of course, takes more than mistake-free, mechanically sound writing.

It takes what legendary copywriter Joseph Sugarman calls “the ability to relate totally divergent concepts to create a new concept.”

Simply put, to understand content marketing, you have to understand how to connect the dots—to realize that the story a customer just told you about her business during a routine customer service phone call reveals a killer lesson that applies to a large number of your customers.

Some will say this ability to create divergent concepts is innate, that it can’t be learned.

I disagree. Almost everyone has at least somewhat of a curious mind. And, just like you can turn a competent writer into a good writer, you can turn someone who is mildly curious into someone who is greatly curious.

How? Let’s take a look at Sugarman’s thoughts on the qualities that make a great copywriter (which all apply to content marketers):

“The best copywriters in the world are those who are curious about life, read a great deal, have many hobbies, like to travel, have a variety of skills, get bored and then look for other skills to master. They hunger for experience and knowledge and find other people interesting. They are very good listeners.”

Again, these are the qualities that the best writers possess. So even if you work on improving at just two or three of them, you can still end up miles from where you began.

In fact, if you did nothing but focus on reading more and becoming a better listener, your ability to relate divergent concepts would improve by leaps and bounds.

The more you see, the more you experience, the more you feel, the better you’re going to be at empathizing with your audience and actually communicating a way to solve their problems.

3. Apply the Seinfeld Method to Your First Draft

Okay, okay, so technically Seinfeld wasn’t even around yet when Joseph Sugarman first published his classic book on direct sales copywriting, Advertising Secrets of the Written Word.

But that doesn’t mean I can’t retroactively attach a clever name to one of his techniques.

What is this thing I call the Seinfeld Method? As Sugarman says:

“Once you’ve done [your first draft], do something that may seem strange to you at first. Stop. That’s right, stop. Go on and do something else. Forget about the project. Do something pleasurable—a stroll in the park, a walk down the street or lunch with a good friend. Whatever you do, let it be a total diversion from what you are currently working on, and please don’t even think of the copy project.”

Let me explain the first draft, Sugarman style. The first draft is a brain dump. It can be disorderly. You can slap grammar right in its smug face. Twice. That’s right, double slap that SOB.

All you have to do in the first draft is get every idea, every potential headline, every concept, every angle down on paper. (And by paper I mean screen cause, c’mon, who writes on paper, right?)

You’ve probably heard this before, because it’s fairly common advice for all kinds of writing. But the important part is what he describes as the next step in the excerpt you just read. Sugarman’s advice is basically to do nothing right after you’ve just gotten going!

That’s why I refer to it as the Seinfeld Method. What was Seinfeld’s concept? It was a show about nothing. Pretty much 90% of the episodes were just Jerry, George, Elaine, and Kramer hanging out in Jerry’s apartment, eating lunch at the coffee shop, going to the movies, or waiting for a table at a Chinese restaurant.

Those are the exact types of things you should go do after your first draft. Anything to take your mind off the copy.


4. Avoid the Root of Most Bad Writing

What is the root of most bad writing, you ask? 

“I’m convinced that fear is at the root of most bad writing. If one is writing for one’s own pleasure, that fear may be mild—timidity is the word I’ve used here. If, however, one is working under deadline—a school paper, a newspaper article, the SAT writing sample—that fear may be intense.”

Whenever you create new content, odds are that you’re working under a deadline. You’re definitely working under the pressure to deliver something—clicks, conversions, cash.

Don’t feed that stuff.

Don’t ask yourself the wrong questions that feed into that fear like, Will this headline get me more clicks? Any questions that enter your mind should be about the customer and the customer only.

When fear starts creeping in—and it will—remind yourself why you’re writing in the first place. You do it because you believe in the product or service you’re writing about. You do it to make customers’ lives less painful. And you do it because damn good content delivers damn good results.

Writing from a place of fear is stupid. Here’s the worst that can happen if your content is bad—you find out one more way not to market something to a particular audience.

You become smarter.

Look, you can’t control how the audience reacts. All you can do is put the content out there and hope it works. If it doesn’t, you learn something. If it does, you learn something AND you start getting paid more.

So smile. Forget the fear.

If you’re smart enough to be a Convince & Convert reader, you have the capacity to create awesome content that will help people and, in turn, your business.

It’s not easy, but if you’re willing to work at it and follow proven advice like the four tips I just listed from Stephen King and Joseph Sugarman, you’ll make the journey to having awesome content a lot less difficult.

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  1. says

    “The best way to create awesome content marketing pieces is not to outsource their creation.” Unsubstantiated by the stats, and almost certainly belies common sense.

    Anyone can make art, anyone can sing, anyone can dance and play sports, and anyone can write a blog post with the best intentions of being useful to readers. But most people simply cannot do these things consistently at a level where people would be willing to regularly pay attention to consume that content. While it is true that most outsourced efforts ALSO fail, but it doesn’t mean that internal efforts are a better approach.

    If you are serious about creating content that will really succeed, start with a real professional with a reputation and pay them well.

    • says

      Great thoughts, Aboer. Thanks for sharing!

      You’re right, that claim is not backed up by statistics. But I think statistics get a little hazy any time the discussion is about subjective qualities such as what is “the best.”

      What I mean is that a lot of great content being produced today tends to come from people who have internal team members dedicating to creating it. A lot of times this means they have made people who are already proven content professionals part of their team. Take Wistia’s Learning Center, for example:

      This is a prime example of what I’m talking about. A company that uses their own employees to produce outstanding content that really captures the feel and personality of their company.

      Does this mean all outsourced content marketing efforts produce crappy results? Absolutely not. You can get great results. To me, however, the best often come from within.

      • says

        Appreciate your response.
        I actually thought your quote from Stephen King nailed it. You can’t turn a good writer into a great one…and in the attention economy, we simply don’t have time for just good content. It has to be great.
        Yes, because of the Internet there are huge sample sizes now for everything, and you get the law of big numbers … you will have more outliers. So there will be handful of internally based content creators who are successful at building an audience.
        But the existence of a Justin Bieber doesn’t mean that everyone can be a rock star if they start posting YouTube videos.

        The actual statistics are here on this site: only 6% of B2B marketers believe their own internal content marketing efforts are very successful.

        When you look at the few companies like Hubspot who have really developed thought leadership in content marketing, they didn’t do it internally by trying to retrain their own marketing staff — they did it by hiring external people like Dan Lyons who were already successful content creators, and brought them into the culture. I think that is probably the best way to grow an internal team.

        • says

          Good point, and HubSpot is definitely an example of excellent content. I don’t think a day goes by that I don’t hear mention of one of their ebooks. :-)

          That being said, for individuals / very small businesses that are just starting out and don’t have the resources HubSpot has, sometimes your only option is to turn to the folks next to you in the trenches and find a way to make something great. That’s who I was speaking to with this post.

          Again, really appreciate the thoughts and discussion!

  2. says

    Hey Will,

    Awesome post combining ideas of two of my favorite writers! I’ve never thought about it before, but it’s interesting how Sugarman and King’s ideas line up on so many different aspects. King’s idea about “writing with the door closed” (i.e., writing for yourself) in your rough draft sounds kind of like the brain dump. King also suggests putting your work in the drawer for a while before going back to it with a more objective eye.

    I’ve found that it’s all about getting a first draft out as much as possible. It saves me a lot of time agonizing about each line, and it keeps me from psyching myself out of taking action. Then I can go back, revise, and polish!


    • says

      Thanks, Corey! Yeah, it really is funny how writers from completely different disciplines end up sharing a lot of similar tips.

      Actually, one of my biggest weaknesses is the brain dump. I’m NOTORIOUS in my own mind for constantly self-editing as I write. I’m getting better at not doing it, but it’s still a struggle.

    • says

      Thanks, Corey! Yeah, it really is funny how writers from completely different disciplines end up sharing a lot of similar tips.

      Actually, one of my biggest weaknesses is the brain dump. I’m NOTORIOUS in my own mind for constantly self-editing as I write. I’m getting better at not
      doing it, but it’s still a struggle.

  3. says

    Tomorrow I have the pleasure of reporting a huge jump in traffic and leads for a client who decided to outsource their content program to my firm.

    We work closely with clients to create content – insource vs outsource is a false dichotomy.

    • says

      Point well taken, Hashim. There are definitely professionals like you out there who take the time to work closely and get to know their clients’ brand/voice. That definitely blurs the line between insourcing and outsourcing, and perhaps I should have done a better job making that clear in the article.

      Since you’re in the business, however, I’m sure you know there are plenty of content creation farms out there creating content that is just plain bad. This post was meant to show smaller businesses who might not have the budget for working with great content creators the steps they can begin taking to better their own content marketing efforts.

      Thanks for your thoughts!

      • says

        Love this article Will, and I totally hear Hashim too :) My experience (and suggestion) is often for companies / entrepreneurs etc to learn how to do this themselves for a number of reasons. However, there will always be a time and place for quality content creators who can get results (like Hashim) working for committed clients. The problem is there are some pretty mediocre so-called content creators out there, and as a Direct Response guy, I’m always looking at the call to action on the back of the conent plus the marketing funnel that follows too :)

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