Most writers working in the digital marketing realm probably know the basic idea behind the inbound methodology. People are out there searching the internet for information about the products or services you or your client offers, so you write blog posts and other types of content about those same products or services. Those people doing the searches see links to what you’ve written on search results pages, in an email, or on social media. They click on your link, and voila—they’re on your site, reading your content.
But this is the point where far too many content writers veer off into the weeds. Which brings us to the trait that separates these writers' crappy content from solid inbound marketing: the crappy stuff is blatantly trying to sell you something.
The trouble comes from thinking that anyone who visits your site is automatically a captive audience. In reality, there’s still plenty that can go wrong after a prospect has started reading. Even if readers don’t immediately bounce, you may still be sending them away with a negative impression of your site and, by extension, your client’s business. And you don’t get metrics on the number of visitors who leave your site never to return after a bad experience.
What’s the single biggest mistake that posers make but well-educated inbound marketers know to avoid? It’s believing that readers can’t tell what your intentions are when they’re reading your content. And the corollary to this mistaken belief is thinking that readers will engage with whatever you’ve written, regardless of what your intentions were in writing it.
The truth is that people don’t have time to read your crappy sales pitch. People aren’t going to waste their time reading a commercial when they can get more straightforward, more credible information elsewhere. And there’s plenty of information elsewhere.
The best description I’ve heard of the dynamic between content marketers and prospects as it plays out today was at INBOUND 2015, a conference hosted by HubSpot last September in Boston. On the final day of sessions, Daniel Pink, the psychologist and bestselling author of To Sell Is Human, talked about the relationship between sellers and buyers.
Pink’s basic thesis was that search engines give people access to so much information about products and providers that the old days of customers relying on sellers to tell them about these things are over. It used to be that if you were shopping for something, your only source of information was the person selling it. But these days a sales rep is the last person you’d go to—with marketers coming in a close second to last.
Customers only ever went to salespeople in the first place because they had no other source of information. Unfortunately, generations of pushy sellers poisoned the well by exploiting the hell out of this asymmetry.
Think of the last time you bought a car. By the time you got to the lot, you’d probably already done hours of online research. And you weren’t alone. If the car dealership was smart, and if the salesperson was any good, they would have long since adjusted their tactics to this new reality.
How exactly? Well, for one they would know they’d better be careful not to say anything dishonest, since you can readily check facts with the device in your pocket.
In general, though, the key adjustment is to switch from a mindset of trying to sell you a car, the way they would have fifteen years ago, to a mindset where they’re leveling with you about the costs and benefits of purchasing any given vehicle. In other words, the salespeople should be genuinely trying to help you find the car that’s best for you.
Now, I’ve personally only bought one car in the past few years (love my Mazda 3), so I have no idea what percentage of car salesmen have switched to this mindset. But I know firsthand that far too many marketers still have yet to make the adjustment—and that includes quite a few who claim to be inbound specialists.
We’ve all seen those trifold brochures filled with so-called “information” about a product. Well, that’s exactly the kind of content you don’t want to write for your blog (or really anywhere). Think of how you “read” brochures yourself. Do you patiently take in every word the marketer has written and think to yourself, “Whoa! What a great company with great products!” Or do you immediately flip to the pictures and peruse the product descriptions before looking for store hours and location?
Why doesn’t anyone actually read brochures? Because they’re filled with the silly copywriting equivalent of sleazy sales tactics. Brochures are just businesses bragging about how they’re “your trusted providers” who “every day strive for excellence in customer service” and “offer the best value” on whatever they’re selling—“And more!” but only “for a limited time!”
You have to wonder if even the people writing this garbage truly believe it’ll ever convince anyone. But they must, because you can find content like this all over the place. Most weeks, I’m tasked with editing two or three pieces of content provided by freelancers who write this way. The disparaging term inbound marketers use for content loaded with these kinds of ham-fisted attempts at manipulation is “salesy,” as in, “This is way too salesy—explain to the writer how inbound works.”
If you’re hunching down in your chair right now, thinking, "Oh crap, what this dude is describing sounds a lot like the content I write," don’t despair. You’ve got some work to do if you want to break your salesy habits, but the basic principle underlying the inbound approach to content writing is simplicity itself. (Of course, writing content is only one part of the inbound process, but one thing at a time.)
The first step is to get over yourself—or to help your clients get over themselves. Today’s marketing content shouldn’t be about the company; it should be about the customer. In other words, it’s not about telling prospects how great you are; it’s about helping prospects do whatever it is they’re trying to do. It’s about providing something of value to your readers.
Search engines like Google are specifically designed to help users find the information they’re looking for while avoiding sites that are of no use to them. That’s what search rankings are all about. People come to Google or Bing with a question, and the rankings reflect which sites or pages the algorithm determines are most likely to provide the best answers.
So the second step to writing good content is to figure out what questions your prospects are asking, or what questions they would be interested in seeing answers to, or even what problems they may be searching for solutions to. (If you’re just learning inbound, you really have to hear the story of Marcus Sheridan’s blog post, “How Much Does a Fiberglass Pool Cost?”) The third step is to answer one of those questions. It’s pretty simple, right? But keep in mind that your answer will be competing with countless other answers to the same question on the search results pages.
How do you win this battle of the answers? You win it by writing your answers as simply, clearly, and as straightforwardly as possible. You win it by not sprinkling sleazy sales tactics throughout your content. People are too smart for that. It’s probably better to approach content production with the mindset of a journalist than it is with that of marketer. You’re writing an informative article—not a commercial. Give prospects the information they’re looking for. Once you’ve done that, it’s okay to offer them still more information. Just don’t try to manipulate them.
Think about it—what would you do if you typed a question into Google, clicked on a link, and then found yourself reading brochure copy? I’m guessing you’d stay long enough to scan through the page, but then you’re out of there. Because you know this content doesn’t exist to help you; it’s only there to help the company hosting it. You’re not going to get the information you need, and any information you do get won’t be credible. Once you’ve discerned from all those “trusted advisor” terms and phrases that the intention is to sell you, not to level with you, not to help you, you stop trusting anything you’re reading.
The objection you may have at this point is that giving people straightforward information about your own or your client’s products may be better for keeping readers’ attention and earning their trust—but how do you encourage them to actually buy something? That’s the purpose of marketing after all, isn’t it?
The first answer is that once you’ve earned your prospects’ trust you’ve already gone a long way toward putting your client’s company ahead of its competitors. If the products or services you’re marketing involve long-term commitments, are difficult to understand, or involve an intense decision-making process to choose among, you gain a major advantage merely by being a reliable source of information. Think of it this way: you’re not just telling prospects you’re a trusted advisor—you’re showing them you are.
The second answer is that you shouldn’t be thinking of how you can encourage people to buy from your clients. Remember, readers can pretty easily tell what your intentions are. Your blog, your posts on social media, your website—all of it should be focused on contributing to the education of consumers, or it should be contributing something valuable to the online conversation taking place among industry experts.
The product or services your client provides can’t be all things to all people. So you’re first task is to target the kinds of people for whom your offerings are going to have the most value (your buyer personas). Then you want to educate those people in a way that helps them make an informed decision whether or not to buy your products, and whether or not to buy them from you. Yes, you read that right. You should help the people who won’t benefit as much from your offerings make some other choice. Because if you’re selling a bunch of people stuff they don’t need, don’t want, or can’t use, the negative press will eventually catch up with you.
People talk about your client’s business on Twitter, Facebook, Blogger, WordPress, and on and on. This is the flipside of the new information symmetry. And there’s no getting around it—we’re all much more influenced by recommendations from people in our own social networks than we are by any kind of marketing content.
So reach out to the people your offerings are truly designed to benefit or please, earn their trust, and then help them decide which specific product or service to purchase. Then you’ll be able to link to or retweet their positive reviews. (If your offerings don’t really benefit anyone, or if your competitors really have better prices or better service, well, you should probably start by trying to fix those issues.)
A lot of beginning inbound marketers think they’re being clever when they write multiple versions of a blog post whose title is some variation on “10 Reasons You Should Buy the Product We’re Selling—and Buy It from US.” The fact is, you’ll get much more traffic, and probably get quite a few more conversions, from something more like “6 Reasons You May Not Want to Buy Our Product.”
But if you’re concerned about a particular phrase or sentence, I recommend performing this test: Read it out loud and listen to see if it sounds like a commercial you might hear on the radio. Or does it sound like something a host on an infomercial would say? If either is the case, you’ve got some rewriting to do.
So what should it sound like when you read your content aloud? It shouldn’t sound like a newscaster either—though that’s still better than an infomercial. Instead, it should sound like something written by the type of person your buyer persona finds credible and takes seriously. It should sound like one human being conversing with another human being, leveling with and attempting to inform that human being. It should sound like someone whose true intention is to help.
But if that’s not enough—wait, there’s more!
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