“Write what you know.”
It’s an old adage you’ve probably heard before. And many bloggers and content writers have taken it very much to heart — myself included — and interpreted that advice to mean, “Write how-to posts.”
I like to share what I know; I like to help people (and I like to be seen as the expert). So it’s no surprise that I’ve written a lot of how-to posts.
But relying on what I’m comfortable writing doesn’t always take the intended audience into account. And keeping the audience in mind for your content is vital, because getting it wrong can mean wasting a lot of time and attracting a lot of the wrong people.
The problem with how-to content
For a while, the prevailing wisdom in blogging-land seemed to center on being the expert; be useful and people will want to come to your site and read your content. And the best way to be useful? Write how-to posts.
In addition, a lot of hype in the last few years centered around creating “content upgrades”: mini lead magnets created for a specific piece of content that would drive email opt-ins. Naturally, this strategy lent itself to creating worksheets and guides — and those are easiest to produce with how-to content.
There was also a certain amount of advice that posts that answer specific questions (like “how to hang a picture frame”) would do well with search engines as long-tail SEO became more popular to target.
All of this is still true — to some extent.
But the audience for how-to posts is inherently different from the audience attracted to other kinds of posts. And they may or may not be the kind of people you want to attract.
How-to content attracts a very specific subset of any given audience: those who want to know how to do something. (Duh.)
Often these people are independent, born DIYers, who like to figure things out on their own.
And that’s awesome — if your ideal customer includes those people, and you have something to sell them.
The problem happens when we have a mismatch between the content type, the audience it attracts, and the ideal customer for the business.
Several years ago, when I decided to make the shift from focusing on selling products to selling services, I polled my audience to find out what percentage of the people on my email list were interested in products versus services.
The vast majority of my subscribers liked the many (MANY) do-it-yourself templates, worksheets, etc. I had been providing along with my how-to content. They said they wanted similar types of products. Only one percent of the respondents said they wanted strategy or writing services from us.
But the majority of what I wanted to sell — what I’ve always sold — is a service.
So how did I manage to attract an audience and email list, the majority of whom were not interested in what I was selling?
Pure talent, my friend. Pure. Talent.
Actually, it happened because I had focused solely on the metric of growing my email leads — and the how-to posts with content upgrades did that admirably. But I hadn’t considered what kind of audience I was attracting with that sort of content.
Were they interested in content marketing strategy? YES! Were they interested in hiring me to do it for them? NO.
And I’m not alone in this problem. As I’ve worked with lots of small businesses over the years on their content, I’ve realized this is a super common mistake.
We’ve seen the advice to write what we know, answer specific questions, etc., and so we do what comes naturally: we produce a lot of how-to content with free worksheets and downloads that are useful to drive traffic and email sign-ups.
Part of the reason? How-to content comes easily for many of us. It’s a lot easier to sit down and write out step-by-step instructions on how to do a task than to craft a thoughtful essay that challenges some deeply held assumption or belief in our industry.
Should you write how-to posts?
The question then becomes: Who should write how-to posts — and who shouldn’t?
It all comes back to finding the right match between what you want and what your ideal customer wants.
How-to content absolutely has a place in the content world.
I recently needed to hang two large picture frames in my house, and I didn’t know how to do it without having them rip huge holes in the drywall.
So I searched for advice, and found a video — made by Lowes — about these cool devices called monkey hooks that were perfect for my needs.
Armed with my new knowledge, can you guess what I did? I drove to Lowes and bought some monkey hooks.
This kind of how-to content can work very well, but it mostly works for very large brands with the resources to dominate a space, or for brands in a very niche market. It’s also predicated on the idea that your customer wants to know how to do something — and that you base your sale on that knowledge. Like a home improvement store.
But what if your customer doesn’t want to know how to do something?
Let’s say you’re a high-end virtual assistant selling your services. And you start writing blog posts about how to do all the things you do to demonstrate your expertise: how to schedule social media posts, how to automate a calendar, how to manage email marketing software …
But here’s the thing: By definition, the people who want to hire an assistant to do their social media, handle their calendar, set up their email blasts, etc. don’t want to know how to do those things. They’re not going to be searching for content on how to do those things — and they’re certainly not going to hang around and download a free worksheet about how to do it.
They want to know why — why they should outsource those tasks to an assistant, why they should trust a particular assistant, why she’s the expert, and why now is the time to make their lives easier.
Note: An argument could be made that one might reach potential customers at an earlier stage of awareness — for example, reaching solopreneurs frustrated with setting up their business emails — and convert them to customers. But most of the how-to content I see out there simply isn’t that savvy.
The case for why
This isn’t to say you’re never going to write another how-to article, because that’s just not true.
Rather, I want to encourage you to more carefully consider how the type of content you choose to create will help you reach your goals.
Service professionals who sell very high ticket items are likely to have more luck with “why” posts instead of “how” posts.
A why post provides new insight. It encourages and inspires. It paints of picture of the possible and generates desire for that new future. It also helps position the author (or brand) as an expert, with important knowledge and opinions to share.
And yeah, it’s a lot harder to produce.
But that may be the point.
How-to content has been so overdone by now that you can Google how to do just about anything — from how to boil water to how to do brain surgery — and find a bevy of qualified sources. Standing out amidst all that has become harder and harder, especially for smaller brands.
But there’s no way anyone can compete with your opinion, your “why” — it is your own, and it is unique.
Sure, people might agree or disagree, but you’re the only one who can write about your opinion, your process, your philosophy, and the reasons why you are the best at what you do. And that type of content will entice the right kind of leads to your business.
Finding the right type of content to meet your goals is just as important as deciding what topics to write about. It’s all part of the content ecosystem that will help you create the right content, at the right time, for the right reader to help lead them to a sale.
Rather than just following a trend or writing what comes most easily (and I’ve totally been guilty of that), you must start with your goals to create a content marketing strategy that actually works, and match the type of content with the audience you want to attract.
Do you write how-to content for your business? Has it attracted the right or wrong kind of audience for you? I’d love to hear some more examples of both cases in the comments below.