Content is the fuel behind great marketing and a great website. How you craft your content can make the difference between a dissatisfied website visitor and a warm prospect.
Since content is so important, we sat down with SpinWeb's Content Developers, Serena Acker and Stephanie Fisher, for a discussion.
We cover tips and guidelines for structuring content, how to write with depth, how to target keywords for SEO, and more.
Steph and Serena are absolutely brilliant, so I know you will enjoy this episode.
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Michael Reynolds: Hey, everyone. Michael Reynolds here with SpinWeb. Welcome to the Digital Exec. We're glad you're here. I'm here today with Serena Acker and Stephanie Fisher. Steph, how are you today?
Stephanie Fisher: I'm doing great. How are you guys?
Michael Reynolds: Great. Serena, thanks for joining us. You doing well?
Serena Acker: Absolutely. Thanks for having me.
Michael Reynolds: My pleasure. So good to talk to you. Steph and Serena are content developers here at SpinWeb, and our topic today is specifically on content. They are both a wealth of knowledge, so it should be great. Our topic specifically is how to create compelling and effective website content. We're kind of categorizing that not just in website, but also in marketing content because marketing content is typically also on the web in the form of blog posts, articles, guides, eBooks, things like that. So we're kind of categorizing website content as all of the above. Just a little quick 5 to 10-second introduction on each of you. Serena, let's start with you. What is your background?
Serena Acker: I graduated with degrees in communications and public relations, then I worked in the print industry for about 5 years. Then, I went into project management, and freelance writing for a while. I've just learned inbound marketing in the last couple of years with SpinWeb.
Michael Reynolds: Awesome. Thank you. Steph, how about you?
Stephanie Fisher: Well, I went to Ball State, and I got a degree in English and creative writing. Then, I kind of did a little bit of everything. I worked for a software company. I worked for the university for a little while in the grants department, and I did some marketing there. I did some support of the software company and then worked for a couple of other places doing marketing, online marketing and website management kind of stuff. So I've done a little bit of everything, and then I've been with SpinWeb for 3 years doing content, account management, and a couple of other different things on the marketing side.
Michael Reynolds: Great. Thanks. Well, Steph, let's start with you. First thing I want to ask is: what do you love about writing?
Stephanie Fisher: What do I love about writing? I'm a creative person, and I really enjoy being able to just create a story. I like to research. That's one of the things that I really enjoy about writing, especially marketing kind of copy: just diving into a subject that I really don't know much about and kind of learning as much as I can about it in order to get the essence of it and tell a good story or help write some good copy for our marketing clients to help them connect with their clients and customers. I think, for me, words are just ... That's what I'm good at. I'm much better at sitting down and writing out all my thoughts than I am at really kind of saying them out loud.
Michael Reynolds: Here I am forcing you to say them out loud.
Stephanie Fisher: I know. I know.
Michael Reynolds: I appreciate that.
Stephanie Fisher: I'm out of my comfort zone, out of my comfort zone here.
Michael Reynolds: No, no. No worries. We're very casual here. Serena, let's ask you: what do you think makes ...? I know it's a very broad question, and we can certainly dig into some specifics, but you're welcome to either start with some don'ts or some mistakes, if you want, to kind of illustrate the point, or maybe some dos. But what are some things that make website content compelling? Maybe not even just the marketing side of things, but just starting with just general website copy, what do you think makes it compelling?
Serena Acker: One of the things that I like to really focus on and start with is a compelling headline or a title of the blog post. I think that really catches the reader's eye, and it's going to be more tempting for them to click in, so that's something I love to focus on. Beyond that, I really try to make it easy on the reader's eye, and so using bolds to draw the eye down. You want to use italics. You use bullet points when possible. Choosing the right words. I love how Stephanie said telling a story, so it's not just here are the words and the things that are important to us, but really making it engaging and useful for the end reader.
Michael Reynolds: Yeah. That makes a lot of sense, and I'm glad you mentioned headlines because I see kind of a spectrum of headline philosophy or strategy, I guess. I'm kind of making that up, but on one hand, you've got the really boring headlines where it's just there's no life in it. It's just kind of like blah. Here's the noun that we're going to put in the headline or some text. On the other hand, you've got the Upworthy and the Clickbait headlines, where you kind of sell your soul, and it's really contrived and convoluted. Where on the spectrum do you like to fall when writing, let's say, an article, a blog post, or content on the web?
Serena Acker: Somewhere in the middle probably. It's not black and white. I like to have a keyword in there if it needs to be in there and if it's descriptive, but I'm also not going to keyword stuff. But I also want to make it interesting and engaging. A good example, I think, is for one of our clients, I wrote a blog post about mobile food trucks that go around, and so I think the title, the working title that was given to me as the idea was, "Indianapolis Food Trucks."
I was like, "Okay. Well, I think we can do better than that." I think I ended up with something like, "Hot, Fresh, and On the Go: Indianapolis Mobile Food Trucks," or something like that, again, something a little bit more fun. Yeah, it had the main idea in the title, but something a little bit more engaging.
Michael Reynolds: You bring up a good point about keyword stuffing in search because I often see so many titles; they're obviously obsessing over search and keywords to the point where they're very robotic and difficult to read and don't really read like you would actually speak. Steph, I know you've got a lot of also some SEO background here, so what's the fine line between targeting a keyword effectively and making it sound awkward?
Stephanie Fisher: Yeah. I think I agree with Serena. You've got to find that balance between making it engaging, making it grabbing. You want to grab people's attention, but you don't want it to sound fake, so the Clickbaiting titles are just outrageous. You've got like, "Something you'll never believe is going to happen," and kind of a mystery.
Now, for our clients, that would be ridiculous to try to do, so it's that balance of this is going to be something useful. This is going to be something that you need or something that's going to help you, the quick tip or, like, eight reasons to change your ... I don't know ... lifestyle. That might be a little over the top, but yeah, I think you have to kind of balance that. You have the keyword in there just because you do need that SEO bump, but you don't want to just focus on that.
Michael Reynolds: Yeah. Yeah, that makes sense. When it comes to structuring and building a website, unfortunately, I see a lot of organizations that treat content as an afterthought, and they worry so much about the design and the structure at first, and they just kind of want to drop in the content. I want you both to kind of weigh in on this, but let's start with Serena. At what point do you feel that it's appropriate to start discussing, planning, and generating content for a new website?
Serena Acker: Early on. I love to be part of as many early-on meetings as I can just to get to know the customer and what it is that they're looking for. The better I can get to know the client, the better I can write something that's going to engage their user. I love to have the focus be on the client's customer and always keeping them in mind as I'm doing my writing, but I don't think it's ever too early to be involved in the website design process with content. It's my number-one priority obviously.
Michael Reynolds: I assume Steph agrees.
Stephanie Fisher: Totally. Yeah, you have to know ... First of all, you have to know what your business goals are going to be and what those main call-to-actions are going to be on the home page that are going to bring in those leads that you need. That's the whole point of having a website is you want people to take action, be able to find their content, and a lot of it has to do with just the structure of the content and those call-to-actions themselves.
Michael Reynolds: For whoever wants to jump in on this first, what are some mistakes you see in, let's say, marketing content specifically because that's where I see a lot more ... and mistakes might be a strong word, but at least some issues, some problems, things that end up being problematic and cause content to be less effective? Whether it's a blog post or an eBook or a download or something, what are some issues you see where you just look at that and say, "Oh, they shouldn't have done that, or they should do this better."?
Stephanie Fisher: I'll jump in. I think the main thing is when people try to sell too hard. They just try to talk all about their services, their products, buy this, do this, instead of trying to provide content that the user wants and is looking for, instead of trying to have a conversation with their customers and build up that good will. I think that's a major mistake, is just being too hard-selling.
Michael Reynolds: Mm-hmm (affirmative). That's a good one.
Serena Acker: I agree with Steph. I think my biggest pet peeve is when people just have too much text. They need to boil it down. You get to the heart of the matter. It also really annoys me when people take the same print from a print publication, the same copy, and just paste it on their website, thinking, "Oh, this is marketing words that have been used for us, so it can translate to the web," but that's really not how it works. So I warn people against using too many words; don't put 20 pages of text on your webpage. Boil it down to what's important, and don't just transfer the content from print to web because it's very different.
Michael Reynolds: Well, you also make a good point about the rules are different from print to web. In print, obviously, you can offer more text. Obviously, reading a book or a magazine article, there's a different kind of context you're in, but you're right. On the web, the attention spans are much shorter. So what are some ...? I know there's some basic rules that great writers follow in terms of how they structure content, whether it's bullet points or when to bold things or how to structure things. What are some quick takeaways that we can learn from both of you that help our audience understand how to write great web content? Are there some just basic tips that you follow? I'll throw that to you, Steph, first.
Stephanie Fisher: Okay. Sure.
Michael Reynolds: You're both so polite. You're not jumping in yet.
Stephanie Fisher: Yes, so polite. Yeah. I think, for sure, there are different schools of thought, but I think short paragraphs, for one thing, are key. I mean, I've seen some blogs that go as far as just doing one sentence, and then that's a paragraph is a sentence. They have lots of white space. So, you have to have a lot of white space, short paragraphs, lots of visual cues for the eye to quickly get down the page, like Serena was saying: bullet points, numbered lists, lots of ... I like to use different headlines, subtitle styles to kind of differentiate and break up because a lot of people just skim as they read through a blog post or a website, and so they want to just get the main points. Those are some of the big ones. Another thing I've been doing lately is linking long phrases, so instead of just one word or two words, making a really long link because then people are more likely to click on it.
Michael Reynolds: Ah, so instead of just one word, you make like half the sentence a link.
Stephanie Fisher: Like, a whole phrase, exactly.
Michael Reynolds: Okay, got it, got it. Yeah, that's a good point. Also, again, with your search background, do you do that sometimes also to create the proper anchor text for search?
Stephanie Fisher: Right, yeah. You want to get the right phrase or the right keyword in there, too, but sometimes people just will do ... They'll just do one word, and I think putting a longer phrase in there is helpful, especially for clicking, but also for the anchor text.
Michael Reynolds: Mm-hmm (affirmative). Serena, anything you would add to that?
Serena Acker: I loved what she said, obviously, about formatting and the really short sentences. I think I would add to add a visual. Yes, content is incredibly important, but I do think that there needs to be an image with a blog post. Obviously, I think there needs to be a call to action at the end, hopefully helping them to make the next step, to click on another resource within your company, and it all works together. Content is number one, and that's the most important thing, but you want to have a good design. You want to have a good font. You want to have a good image, a good call to action, and it all works together.
Michael Reynolds: Mm-hmm (affirmative). Agreed. A couple more questions here before we wrap up. Tell me a little bit about depth of content. I know we've had conversations about this, all three of us, numerous times in the past about how to write content that actually has depth. The reason I bring that up is because I just had a conversation recently with someone and kind of explained that it’s really easy to do inbound marketing badly.
It's really easy just to throw up some blog posts, scratch together some eBooks, write some really basic fluffy content, throw it on the landing page, and then you think you're doing inbound marketing, but the content's so bad and so shallow that you're really not going to get much traction. Tell me about how you approach content with depth, either one here who wants to jump in.
Stephanie Fisher: I can just jump in. With some of the longer formats that we do, like eBooks and guides, I always start with doing my own research, but then I always interview at least 2 or 3 content experts in that subject because I'm not always the content expert in the subject, so I will try to work with our clients to identify who would be a good person to interview for this. Then I put together an outline.
I work really closely with the client and with their contacts to get really deep into the material because they're going to know what their readers and their customers need to know and the information they need to know. If I just go out and try to write that on my own, just with doing a little bit of internet searching, I'm not going to get as deep into the content as those experts are going to, so I always try to make sure that I'm working with those kind of folks.
Serena Acker: I can speak to more shorter form. I think when it comes to blogs, we don't want to publish something that's usually less than 600 words. Admittedly, when I first started, that was a struggle for me to sometimes push it to that 600-word mark. But really, Michael, you've been really helpful in helping me visualize sitting down with the end user, whoever's going to be reading this blog, and to have a conversation with them and to help make it understandable for them.
If I ever get stuck at a point where I'm writing, I always ask myself the question, "Why? Well, why is that?" and to try to keep going deeper and deeper into those layers to try to get more information that's helpful for them. Sometimes, I feel like I'm overly explaining something, but we want to make it easily understandable, so that's kind of how I approach blogs.
Michael Reynolds: Yeah. Thank you, Serena. Well, let's wrap up with just one last question that I hope won't be too broad or too in depth, but really I want to kind of get your perspective, both of you, on what's the purpose behind web and/or marketing content. Is it to invite the user to take an action? Is it to inform them, to educate them, or to spark a thought process? Is it to get them to click something? Is it all of the above? What are some of the high-priority purposes behind online content that you see? We'll start with Steph.
Stephanie Fisher: Yeah. I mean, you named quite a few. Like you said, the content doesn't have to be just a single purpose. It can serve lots of different purposes. One might be just to engage your user. Especially more social-media content would be more like having that conversation. Then, your blog content and your web content, that's going to be really useful for organic search traffic, bringing in new clients.
The whole point of your website is to get new business, to be a place where people can go for information on whatever it is that ... whatever tools you have, whatever services you provide. So getting that information out to people really ... People are out there searching. They're searching for answers to their problems, so you're in a position with your business to answer those problems, and you can do that with content on the blog. That's one of the main ones.
Serena Acker: Sure. I would say that you want to become an industry expert in your topic, and so when you do that, you're going to build trust with your constituents. You're going to increase sales, because they're going to trust you and come to you for answers and then go, "Wait. What is this company about? Oh, I really trust them. They know their stuff," and so it's going to help you rank better with search and, in the end, just get more customers, like Steph said, which is kind of the whole point of having a website.
Michael Reynolds: Right on. I lied. I have one more question, and here it is. It's because we get this question, I feel like, a hundred times a week because, as many of our listeners know, we do inbound marketing services for organizations and that involves also writing content for them, which is what you two are great at.
Whether it's working with us or their agency or an outsourced writer, whoever that is, I would say 99% of the time, one of the concerns that organizations have is they say, "Well, we're experts in this particular line of business that we do. How can you possibly learn our business well enough to write for us?" The short answer is, "Well, we're good at it, and we do it, and it works, and we see the results," but that's not always as in-depth of an answer as people want, so let's start with Serena. What would you say to people who ask that question or have that concern?
Serena Acker: Try us.
Michael Reynolds: Well, besides that. Let’s think conceptually, so we're not too self-serving here.
Serena Acker: Sure.
Michael Reynolds: Let's say you're someone thinking about outsourcing writing to someone in a marketing context. How would you address that?
Serena Acker: Sure. We use a process of getting to know the client really well, and it's not like I'm just going to go out and start writing things before I even have a conversation with you. I'm going to get to know you. We're going to build buyer personas, so we know who we're even writing the content for. I'm going to target those people. I'm going to interview your sales people. I'm going to talk to your industry experts, do research on my own. It's a process, and I understand it can be hard to kind of hand over those reins of control, and I get that it would be easy to think, "You don't understand the medical field. There's no way you can write about it," but we can, competently. We do.
Michael Reynolds: Steph, anything you'd add?
Stephanie Fisher: Yeah. I would just say that that's what writers do, and you can think of it like journalism. Journalists don't always know everything about what they're writing about, but they go in, and they do all of the work and all of the research and the on-the-ground kind of work to learn as much as they can and to work with the people who do know what they're talking about. Then, the writer's ability and talent is to take that and to put it into the kind of format, especially with what we do with the marketing format; we know how that works. So we can take your content, your expertise, put it into a great format to put on the website.
Michael Reynolds: Well-said.
Stephanie Fisher: That's what we're good at.
Michael Reynolds: Thank you. Is there anything else either of you would like to add that we haven't discussed before we wrap up?
Serena Acker: I don't think so. I think we covered it all.
Stephanie Fisher: Yeah. I think we're good.
Michael Reynolds: All right. Excellent. Good to hear. Well, thank you both so much for joining us. Great discussion. I hope it offered some insight to our audience on how to write great content for web and marketing contexts and kind of behind the scenes how it works, as well. Thank you both, and thanks to everyone for joining us today.
If you're listening via podcast, thank you so much. Keep on listening. You can visit us online at SpinWeb.net. If you're watching, thank you so much, and you're welcome to subscribe by clicking below to the iTunes or the Stitcher version of the podcast if you'd like to take it with you on your smart phone. Thanks again for joining us. Have a great day, and we'll see you next time.