3 Questions Content Producers Must Answer

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Have you ever read a non-fiction book that was so poorly structured that you couldn’t finish it, because you were constantly confused about what you were supposed to be learning?

I know I have. And I know that my not being able to finish it or not learning whatever I was supposed to wasn’t my fault — it was the fault of the author and their editors.

Learning is a journey. Effective teachers help students navigate that journey smoothly. The major difference between learning on your own and learning from a teacher is the fact that the teacher knows where you need to go and how to help you get there.

Content marketing is a form of teaching (among other things), so what’s true of teachers is true of content producers.

Teaching via content marketing requires you (the content producer) to know where your readers are, and to have a plan that will help them get there. If you do it well, your readers learn what you’ve promised and are better off.

If you do it poorly, they’ll end frustrated and dissatisfied with you, for the same reason we’re dissatisfied with those murky authors.

I’ve come up with three simple questions to help make sure your readers are never disappointed in you, and don’t lose track of what you’re trying to impart …

Effective teaching requires planning

Good teachers can show up and wing it; great teachers plan their students’ journey and stay on track.

Why are the latter better? Because they make the content they share subservient to their students’ needs, rather than making their students’ needs a secondary, almost accidental, consideration.

Yet many, many content marketers show up and wing it every day. Their blog posts are persistently the thoughts du jour. Their newsletters are whatever random information they can send out on schedule. Their social media streams are a constant reaction to what’s going on today.

And their audiences are understandably confused or disengaged. If they hang around, it’s because there are occasional glimmers of brilliance amidst the cacophony.

Developing a content plan helps increase the frequency of those glimmers of brilliance. And those glimmers of brilliance are what will get shared, liked, commented on, and purchased.

Developing a content plan also helps avoid the dreaded “but what do I say?” problem that so many creatives end up grappling with from time to time. It’ll be clear what you need to say, because you can follow your own script.

1. Where are you taking your students?

Here’s a paradox that goes back to Socrates: If you don’t know what you don’t know, how do you figure out how to learn what you don’t know?

A good teacher avoids this problem altogether … assuming the teacher knows where they’re taking you.

Answering that deceptively simple question drives your content plan. Remember, simple isn’t easy: to nail that question down, you have to decide who you’ll be talking to.

2. What’s the first thing they need to learn?

Are your students beginners or experts? Do they keep up with trends or live under rocks? What do they already know?

By picking what the first thing your students need to learn is, you’ve necessarily picked a niche. For instance, many of the teachers reading this post are likely thinking “Duh!” because they already know what I’m saying, whereas content marketers who haven’t considered themselves teachers are (hopefully) having lightbulbs go off.

Experienced teachers: knowing ≠ doing; Do the work!

Developing the rest of the content plan is straightforward: keep asking what the next thing is that they need to learn to get them where they are wanting to go.

Note: if you want to be creative, do so in the content and (perhaps) the delivery method, not in the journey itself.

3. When are you going to create the content?

I’ve seen brilliant content plans and many of them have had an obvious flaw: they don’t consider the amount of time it’s going to take to create them.

Effective teaching content doesn’t create itself.

After you develop your draft content plan, you have to assess it in light of the other activities you have planned during that time period.

A content plan that you mean to execute has to be incorporated into your operational plan. Otherwise, that content plan just ends up becoming another thing you “should” do that you’re not going to have time for.

Most of the time, syncing your content plan with your operational plan means that at least one of the two will have to change. If your content plan is the priority, some other things will have to shift.

If it’s not, either trim your content plan — teachers always stuff more into the plan than actually needs to be there — or stretch out the timeline so you can get the necessities in there.

It’s for this reason that I added a monthly planner to our premium blog post planners; too many people weren’t incorporating their content plans within the context of their total business activities.

A content plan that would require 20 hours of content creation a month simply won’t work if you only have 10 available hours to do the creation that month. (Note that this isn’t just a problem with content plans; many plans fail to address the reality of how long the plan will take to execute.)

In summary …

To be an effective content marketer, you have to develop an effective, executable content plan. When you think like a teacher, the three questions that you’ll have to come to grips with are:

  1. Where am I taking my students?
  2. What’s the first thing they need to learn? (Followed by a rinse and repeat of “what do they need to learn next?”)
  3. When, specifically, am I going to create that content?

Answer those questions clearly, execute the plan, and watch as you create satisfied customers.

About the Author: Charlie Gilkey helps people and organizations focus on what matters and then execute on it. His company, Productive Flourishing, just released new versions of their popular planners for creatives, changemakers, and proactive leaders. He can also be found on Twitter at @CharlieGilkey.

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  1. “Are your students beginners or experts? Do they keep up with trends or live under rocks? What do they already know?”
    It’s all about knowing your audience, which in theory is marketing 101. Who are they? What they want to learn? What do they already know? If you jump too far too fast you’ll lose your readers.

  2. What if you’ve been doing it for awhile? Are you always then shifting your target audience as you progress through your “curriculum?” What if you want to cycle back to the beginning? Then you lose everyone who’s been following you for awhile?

    • Powerfully true and just what I needed to improve the focus of my message of retirement longevity, achievement and satisfaction!

    • That’s where something like a good email autoresponder can help you — you can add more advanced material as time goes on.

      I think most content marketers underestimate how much beginner material to create, though. Most of the time, your audience still needs the “newbie” material long after you’re sort of tired of writing it. :)

    • I agree with Sonia – we over-estimate the beginner level stuff we should continually write. And you can write to multiple audiences at once. Take a look at a series a did a few years ago called How to Blog like Shakespeare: http://www.copyblogger.com/blog-like-shakespeare/ .

      Of course, you can also point people back to content you’ve already written if it addresses the topic in question. Not that I just did that or anything. :p

  3. This is a great post for folks like myself. It is often difficult to find “experts” in my industry willing to get down to the nitty gritty of content that matters. Often it is disguised behind their motivations for money rather than creating a strong following. I am just getting started, to me it just makes sense to educate people to gain their loyalty. Thanks for the advice!

    • In Teaching Sells, we teach our students to start with the “benefits of knowledge” — what the prospective customer stands to gain from doing business with you. And we go back to that again and again and again. If you can keep it front and center, everything else tends to work a lot better.

    • Here’s the odd thing: the business with the smartest customers win because those customers get the best results and are more likely to share the source of their results with a broader audience. So, keep educating! :)

  4. As a content producer and freelance writer myself, I take pride in making education part of the what I offer to my clients. Taking the time to teach clients what you are going to do and why will give them a great base to work on when helping them with their content projects.

  5. digging the new homepage design copyblogger!

  6. I love the Teacher perspective – should remind us also of the need for integrity in what we produce.

  7. I used to be a substitute teacher and went to college to be an English teacher. I’ve often said that the work I do as a content marketer is very similar to what I did as an educator (mostly to folks who think I’ve completely changed careers.) As I see it, I mostly have not as there are all sorts of crossovers between teaching and making good content. You did an excellent job of voicing them!! :D

    • I see you, MaLinda. At one point in my business career, I used to say that I used to be a teacher. Now I just say that I’m teaching in a new industry because it’s far more accurate. Thanks for commenting and teaching.

  8. Hey Charlie, great post.

    I would ask one further question which, I believe, will help the content producer have a deeper understanding of what the students first step is.

    That question is:
    **Where is my student, currently, in their pain/desire cycle?

    I believe we all go through this cycle of pain/desire which governs our solution-seeking mechanism.
    The content producer knowing these cycles allows them to layout the readers journey in a way that starts right where the student is – and, right where they are, is the point of least resistance.

    So here’s what my content producer questions would look like:

    1. Where is my student in their pain cycle?
    2. Where am I taking my students?
    3. What’s the first thing they need to learn? (Followed by a rinse and repeat of “what do they need to learn next?”)
    4. When, specifically, am I going to create that content?

    The gap between #1 and #2 represents “The Journey” that your student will be on with you.
    Thank you for your great insight and I’ll be running my content through these filters from this point forward.

    • Great insights here, Donovan. I’m not sure if you’ve read Resonate by Nancy Duarte yet, but she also has a great discussion of the story arc in communications that complements what you’ve said here.

  9. As an extension to #1, I like to ask at the start of all my info products what my customers want to achieve, where they want to go, what “success” would mean to them. If you ask your customers that, and they comply and figure out specifically what they want, many more of them will achieve those goals after using your products.

    • Precisely. When I’m working with people on offer development, we talk a lot about what I call the future positive state – it is “the” reason people buy and everything else flows from there. As teachers, we too often focus on the content and not the goal itself. I could’ve done better with that myself in this very post!

  10. This post is exactly what I needed. Not that I didn’t know it, but it still somehow managed to shift my paradigm…. Thank you for that.

  11. Thanks for a great post Charlie!

    Your post puts into perspective that one should be clear about their aims and objectives before starting with a content marketing campaign, especially about understanding your audience, which is critical! You’ve put into light a lot of simple things which are easy to miss in the whole grand scheme of things, but are critical in the whole know-how of the process!

    Cheers,
    Anindita

  12. I can relate to this post for many reasons: 1) I write content; 2) I’m teaching a high school Junior Achievement class called Be Entrepreneurial. It’s my first time teaching the class and the first day was a bumpy start, but I finally found my groove. I wish the sessions were longer; the classes are structured for 7 or 12 sessions. Sometimes, your students need more time to digest the content you’re teaching, and you may need more time to prepare.

    • Wow, that sounds like an amazing class! I often find that my best teaching comes when I don’t have as much time as I’d like because it makes me focus on getting the kernel of the idea out as well as thinking about how I’m going to give exercises for people to apply on their own. There’s a fine line between not having the minimal time needed and having a sufficient amount of time, but I’m sure you’ll be able to deliver an awesome journey to your kids.

  13. I would add a fourth point…

    4. How is my content going to benefit my brand or service, in other words, do I have a sheepish soft call to action that is mildy persuasive and will allow me to promote my product or service over time?

    • Interesting point, Griffin. I’d say that delivering rock-solid material that actually uplevels your students in itself benefits your brand AND you’re absolutely right that it’s also good to make people aware of how they can get more from you. AIDA and all that.

  14. As a project manager, I tend to take the time I *think* it will take, and multiply this by 150%. Even then, things can surprise you. I think your third point is the most important – as time is as critical as the direction in which you are moving.

  15. This is a very important lesson for most people with a website. Quality content helps, but also unique to that specific business. I’d say focus on original content or images that you own. Make it original ony to you or your business.

    • Hmm. In my experience, content producers tend to stress originality too much, to the point that they won’t teach the basics or have to do so with such strained novelty that it gets in the way. If originality serves the student, it’s all good; otherwise, it’s more about the creative’s ego than anything else.

  16. One of the best posts I’ve seen on the topic of content creation. How many company blogs only contain the “content” asked for by the web developer when the website is set up? Content creation (and curation) is now a key business skill. Business is moving from advertiser to publisher and the smart organisations are working hard to learn the skills of content creation and distribution.

  17. Thanks for the solid tips.