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How to Find the Path to Useful Content That Works

Authors: Susan Ganeshan Susan Ganeshan
Posted Under: Content Marketing
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badge-guest-post-FLATTER 600,000 emails sent to 50,000 names and a trend has emerged.

Your company is probably not unlike ours: You are trying to sell products and services to your target customers. Your solution is unique but there are many others out there with close enough replicas and their marketing can, and probably does, sound exactly the same as yours. There are many moving parts to your demand generation efforts: gathering names, building content, distributing content through as many channels as possible and using analytics to see what works.

A Story of Youtility in Action

My company, newBrandAnalytics, sells social media analytics software to restaurants, hotels, retailers, and any business with four walls and a customer experience. Given this large potential audience and the newness of what we do, we knew we had to approach marketing with a strong content marketing strategy. This mission is what drove me to the Social Media Marketing Summit in San Diego last year where I saw Jay Baer speak.

While sitting in his session, before he had even finished his Q&A, I’d ordered Youtility and taken the first steps in our useful content marketing journey.

When I got back to the office we started planning. We purchased an email marketing tool, Marketo, and redesigned our blog. Then came the hard part – what would we say?

With Jay’s “useful content” mantra in mind, we started to think about how to replace selling with helping. What was it that our customers and prospects wanted? What knowledge could we share to start gaining their trust?

Striking the Right Balance

We used a best practice called 4-1-1, which means delivering four pieces of educational content, one soft sell, and one hard sell. (Others go for the 80/20 rule, where 80 percent of the content they produce is educational and 20 percent is sales push.)

In twelve months, with a small team of 3 writers, each with another “day job”, we produced more than 125 pieces of educational content including eBooks, videos, blog posts, and email-based letters. In all of them, we set out be helpful to our customers and prospects.

Note: There are many freelance content marketing machines out there like and, so if you have no team, you can still create good content. Other approaches include asking your customers to write for you.)

Since our business is based on social media data and social business intelligence, we knew our message needed to be all about social. We researched and wrote about how to claim your business on social media sites including Yelp, TripAdvisor, and Foursquare. We talked about how to establish a good following, how to react to customers who talked about you online, and how to use your own intelligence to improve your business. We thought about not just what would compel someone to buy our software, but what someone responsible for their company’s social media really needed to know about how to be successful in a noisy, competitive marketplace.

The Proof is in the Clicks

Now, twelve months in, we’ve sent more than 600,000 emails. Our open rates ranged between 19.5 and 44 percent and our click-through rates ranged anywhere from 5 to 20 percent.

Not surprisingly, there were huge differences in how much readers were engaging with our content. We wanted to know where our prospects found the most value, and why – so we dug into the analytics and learned that our most widely read content shared three common traits:

1. It Positioned An Imminent Threat

We told our audience that they were missing out on a major trend or opportunity, and we shined a small light on what would happen if they didn’t act. Subject lines like “Five Pitfalls of Not Listening” (36% open rate), “A Cautionary Tale” (28% open rate), and “Don’t Be That Guy” (27% open rate) proved to be great motivators for people who want to make sure they’re not missing the boat when it comes to social media.

Key Takeaway: Ask your customers questions like, “What do you fear?” or “What do you wish you knew more about?” Figure out how to advise them in these areas and let them know you can help.

2. It Talked About Popular Social Vendors

Any email that mentioned one of the social vendors our customers may struggle with drove great readership. Mentioning Twitter, Facebook, Yelp, and TripAdvisor in any context seemed to make the reader take notice. We titled emails like “How to Tweet Your Sorry” (44% open rate) and “How to Apologize on TripAdvisor” (38% open rate). We also produced a series of cheat sheets for how to get your marketing team started on Facebook, Twitter, TripAdvisor, and Foursquare.

Key Takeaway: Use brand names of products your customers want to know more about. If you sell TVs, do they want to know more about LED vs. plasma? Talk about what Samsung and Panasonic are offering. If you offer high-end cars, they may want to know about the long-term value to mileage ratios; talk about how Porsche compares to BMW. You can easily use other companies’ market awareness to your own advantage.

3. It Name-Dropped

Because we sell to hotels, restaurants, and retailers, we used our real customers’ names (and those we wish were our customers!) to help people replicate others’ success. We pushed out emails like, “Emulate Chipotle’s Success” (33.6% open rate), which talked about how Chipotle uses social media to influence loyalty. We also published links to case studies for P.F. Chang’s and several other high profile brands, which generated several hundred views.

Key Takeaway: All businesses have someone they want to emulate. Find the brand that is the envy of your target vertical, and put a spotlight on what it does and how it does it – whether or not it’s already a customer.

Like any good experiment, we had a couple of outliers. Most of the topics that interested people outside of the above groups were very personal in nature; perhaps they even intrigued the reader a little. Titles like, “Meet Me At The Bar,” and, “They Know Thy Name,” had super open rates as well, at 27% and 22% respectively.

Audience Segmentation is Important, Too

Our first approach focused on building industry-specific content, so we wrote about hotel services for hotels, food for restaurants, and marketing and merchandising for retail. We noticed that the more industry-specific the topic, the better the open rates.

We’re still painting the right path for our prospects and customers. So next, we plan to focus on both industry and title, which will give marketers practical advice on social sites and C-level execs advice on using the customer experience data strategically. With title-specific targeting we believe we’ll increase open rates and readership dramatically.

In addition to Jay’s principles on “Youtility,” another piece of wisdom has helped guide us on our path to useful content. Many years ago a mentor told me, “The answer to your questions is not in these four walls.” In other words, seek knowledge outside of yourself. Go outside and talk to others to find the right path.

We found our path to content that works through three key activities:

  1. Listen to leaders in the industry who have schooled themselves on delivering the type of content you want to deliver.
  2. Talk to customers to learn about their world and their challenges.
  3. Research the answers through any means possible and be a knowledge resource.

How do you find and create content that works? Leave a comment here and let’s continue the dialogue.

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