Content Creator’s Toolbox

Note: In my presentation at WordCamp Hamilton I talked about the process of creating content. I want to iterate on that a bit for WordCamp Toronto. Looking for the tools? Jump straight to the list!

Let’s stop putting content on a pedestal.

I’m not saying that content isn’t important. It is. It’s why I work on a content marketing team, it’s why I love WordPress, and it’s why I’m doing this session.

But thinking that everything you produce is going to be a big hit? That’s a mistake. Obsessing over every little detail? That’ll slow you down. Worried that it won’t be good enough? That’ll stop you entirely.

I know the feeling, though. It’s probably the number one reason I don’t write more on my blog. I worry that it won’t be good enough. I worry that others will judge me poorly for what I create.

Seth Godin calls it the fear of shipping. But, the thing is, we can’t stop ourselves from shipping, from creating content. It needs to be done.

Let’s focus on the process instead.

Lately I’ve been thinking of content as a manufactured product. Raw material goes in: ideas, topics, research, experiences, images, other media like video or audio. Then the polished content comes out, ready to be shared with the world.

Focusing on the process from raw material to finished product helps us overcome the fear of shipping. Why? Because the “shipping” part — the hard part — becomes just one piece of a bigger whole.

Here’s the gist of it:

  1. PREPARE your goals.
  2. PLAN your topics.
  3. PRODUCE your content.
  4. RE-PURPOSE your content for different channels.
  5. PROMOTE your content.
  6. PARTICIPATE in communities.
  7. PROVE that your goals are being met.

Let’s elaborate on each of those.

1. Prepare your goals.

Content Toolbox - Prepare Your Goals

I like to think of it in three different groups that correspond to the marketing funnel: Reach & Discover, Teach & Learn, Sell & Decide.

Beyond that we have Support & Use, Recognize & Celebrate. I’ll touch on those points in another post. 🙂

Top: Reach & Discover

At the top we’re grabbing attention and pulling people in with shared content. Maybe you’re riding a trend or breaking some news. Doesn’t matter. Our goal here is to make people aware of our existence.

On the audience’s side, our content is fulfilling their need of discovery, of finding something new or interesting or useful. Content aligned to this goal is usually found through social media.

The metrics:

  • Off-site engagement (retweets, likes, pins)
  • Referred traffic (through other sites)
  • Direct traffic (assuming copied/pasted URLs or word-of-mouth)

Middle: Teach & Learn

At this level our content provides solutions to problems. We’re starting to tighten the focus now, moving in on topics that’re more relevant to what we’re selling or promoting.

Our goal is to demonstrate expertise and establish legitimacy by providing useful or educational resources. On the audience’s side, they’re looking for answers to problems. Content aligned to this goal is usually found through search engines.

The metrics:

  • Organic search traffic
  • Time on page
  • On-site engagement (e.g. shares, downloads)

Bottom: Sell & Decide

At this level we’re trying to convert visitors by answering questions that a potential customer might have before they make a commitment. From the visitor’s perspective, we’re helping them make an educated decision.

If we’re selling products, this turns them into customers. If we’re selling a service, this turns them into qualified leads. If we’re blogging, this turns them into subscribers.

The content at this level includes information about what we’re offering. Details about the product or service, the purchase process, what happens after the purchase, where to go for support, and so on.

This type of content is often spread throughout a website on various pages. That’s fine for a large business or organization, but for a small operation, a single FAQs page can suffice. It centralizes everything, making it easier for potential customers to find answers.

How does that all piece together?

Let’s tilt this funnel and look at it like a target.

Content Toolbox - Goal Targeting

We grab attention by spreading wide, being present in different places on the web, touching on topics that are one or two degrees away — but still related — to our product or service. The goal is to build awareness and bring people in with relevant, shareable content.

Next we have content that talks about solving problems. We’re tightening the focus here. Our goal is to get people thinking about us alongside these topics.

When I think “social media”, for example, I think of Buffer. When I think of content marketing, I think of Copyblogger. When I think of startups, I think of Product Hunt. (You get the idea.)

Then, at the  bottom of our funnel, in the dead center of our target: converting visitors. We do that by creating content that sets expectations about what they’ll receive for converting, i.e. the product, the service, or the subscription.

So that’s the flow, stepping through three types of content. Now how do we get there? What tools do we use? Let’s start from the inside and work our way out.

Create an editorial calendar.

Content Toolbox - Editorial Calendar

In a spreadsheet — Google Sheets or Excel Online are both free and work just fine — we’re going to have seven columns:

  1. Topic
  2. Title
  3. Share
  4. Inform
  5. Convert
  6. Notes
  7. URL

The Topic and Title columns specify the broad subject we’re covering and the specific title of the content. We’ll fill this in on the next step.

For the Share, Inform, and Convert columns, we can mark an X for topics that fit those goals.

In the Notes column, we’ll include a brief description about the post.

The URL column will be filled with the published post URLs.

2. Plan your topics.

So we have our goals laid out in a spreadsheet with Topics and Posts ready to be filled in. How do we figure out those topics and posts?

Start from the bottom.

I’m starting here because it’s often the easiest thing to figure out. We know what our products are, what our services are. We know what we do and how we do it. It’s low hanging fruit.

Set clear expectations. What do prospective customers or clients want to know about what you sell? What you do? Who you are? If you’re a blogger and you want to build a subscriber list, what will they get in return for subscribing?

The first content you create will answer those questions. Write about what you know. Write about what your products do. Too many content marketers miss this opportunity.

Drop these topics in your content spreadsheet and tick off the “Convert” column.

Next, think like a teacher.

Content Toolbox - Thinking Like a Teacher

Whether you’re selling home decor or website development services or writing about French bulldogs, there’s one consistency: showing that you know what you’re talking about.

And how do we do that? By answering questions. By helping people solve problems. By sharing our knowledge. By teaching.

Think back to how we learned in school. Lessons and lectures were focused on a topic. That’s where we start: topics. Not keywords. Topics.

Brainstorm. Think about the topics related to the space that you’re in. How would you introduce an absolute beginner to the subject? What fundamentals would they need to know?

Use AdWords’ Keyword Planner for broad topic categories. I know there’s a lot of doubt around the accuracy of this tool, but we’re not concerned with exact numbers at this point. We’re just concerned with finding topics to write about. Use your brainstormed topics as the starting point. Export the results as a CSV and add them to your spreadsheet.

Prioritize and validate those topics. In the sheets you imported we’re going to sort the topics by search volume and competition. Our interests here is to identify relevant content themes that people are actually looking for.

It’s the goldilocks method. There are very competitive, very broad terms that aren’t a good place to start (or very relevant, because of the mixed intent behind searches including those terms). The low competition, low traffic terms don’t have enough interest to justify early investment.

Support those topics with more content ideas. Use Ubersuggest, KeywordTool.io, or Answer The Public for specific topic ideas. If you’re writing about products, try faqfox to see what questions folks are asking about them. Export their suggestions as CSV.

Add a new sheet to your workbook and copy the suggestions over. Review them. Eliminate the obviously irrelevant ones. Highlight the good ones.

Lastly, copy those good post subjects into the original sheet, your list of topics and goals they correlate to.

Content Toolbox - Validate Ideas

What about the shareable content?

That’ll come in time. You gotta build your store first before you start inviting people over. Don’t worry — we’ll come back to promoting and grabbing attention in a bit.

3. Produce the content.

Now we have a rough outline of what content needs to be created. What format should it be in? Well, in my humble opinion, everything should start with writing. Whether it’s a video or an infographic or something else entirely, a written post should accompany it.

Why should you start with a written post?

Firstly, it’s good for SEO. Google has gotten better at indexing other types of content, sure, but good ol’ text is still the easiest to process and match queries against.

Google can index most types of pages and files […] In general, however, search engines are text based. This means that in order to be crawled and indexed, your content needs to be in text format.

Second, written content is parseable by assistive technology. A screenreader is going to have trouble processing text in an image, but it won’t have trouble reading your written post.

Third, if you’re going to create a video, a written post gives you a starting point for a script (and scripts are a good thing for producing videos).

And that leads me to the fourth point. A written post is easier to repurpose. Points made in the post can be summarized in a presentation. Visuals from the presentation can be pulled out as standalone image assets. The entire presentation can be recorded as a video.

You get the idea.

So, back on track…

Research before you write.

See what’s already out there. Remember those topics we looked at earlier? Type them into Google and see what comes up. Who’s ranking? What are they writing about?

Whatever you produce will need to be better than that.

Content Toolbox - Research on Google

Similarly, BuzzSumo will list the most-shared content for a particular topic for a given time period. It’s another way to evaluate existing content that you’ll need to out-perform.

Content Toolbox - Research on BuzzSumo

Don’t forget to check statistics and other academic sources as needed: Google Scholar, Statista, Zanran, UNdata, Census.gov (US), Data.gov (US), Statcan (Canada), These may come in use later on when you need to cite sources.

Make note of what works and what doesn’t. Keep a running list (again, spreadsheets are your friend!) of the posts you find useful, or data you’d like to cite.

Outline your draft.

Google Docs or Word Online. Both are free and include helpful tools for formatting and tracking revisions. Writing in these apps also gives you flexibility should you, say, want to turn a long piece of content into a downloadable PDF.

I use bullet point paragraphs when I draft, as if I’m note taking, because it helps curb my temptation to edit while I write. And that’s a really big problem for a lot of people. We take forever to get our ideas written down because we get distracted by the editing.

If you’re including data from other credible sources, don’t forget to make note of the citations.

If you know that you’d like to add a visual in a place, don’t worry about grabbing images just yet. Instead, include a reminder inline. E.g. I like to use { curly braces } to denote content that needs to be embedded later, like images, videos, forms, or other media.

Edit your writing.

Use the Hemingway app. Seriously. It’s super helpful.

Content Toolbox - Hemingway Editor

Creating a Featured Image with text.

Google Slides is my favourite for this though PowerPoint Online works too. (Note: PPT Online doesn’t have the same level of image editing options, e.g. you can’t change opacity or colour settings.)

  1. Create a new presentation. Set the dimensions to 1024×768.
  2. Set a background colour.
  3. Search for an image (creative commons, yo). Insert it. Make it the full size of the slide. Change it to black and white then reduce the opacity.
  4. Add a text layer over top.
  5. Export the slide as a PNG.

Boom!

Need more images?

Content Toolbox - Unsplash

In addition to the Google Slides method, use Compfight to find decent images from Flickr, I like Unsplash for interesting landscape images, and Stocksy for alternative, non-lame stock photos.

You can also use search.creativecommons.org to find creative commons licensed images.

Optimize your images for speeeed.

Use CompressJPEG or CompressPNG (depending on the image format). This’ll reduce the image size. The WP Smush plugin for WordPress reduces the size of your image uploads even further. (Edit: EWWW Image Optimizer was also recommended during my WordCamp Toronto session.)

Save the compressed images with a filename that suits the post topic. Then, when you add images to your post, add alt text that also describes the image and, if possible, relates back to the post topic.

Add a call to action.

All content needs a primary call to action, something that pushes people to do something.

Maybe it’s subscribing to your newsletter, taking a survey, registering for a webinar, downloading a coupon, sending you an email, or leaving a comment.

What it is depends on your priorities. Just get into a habit of thinking about what a reader should be doing after they finish reading your post, then place that call to action at the end of it.

Track your published content.

After you publish your post, head back to your spreadsheet and drop in the URL in the appropriate row.

4. Repurpose your content.

Written posts can be turned into many different things. Here’s what I recommend as a flow.

Suggestion: Create a presentation.

Content Toolbox - Presentation

It’s what I’ve done with this post. I get my thoughts out through writing, then the most important headings, points, or takeaways become standalone slides.

Those slides can be exported as standalone images. Embed those images in the written post and make them easy to share.

The full presentation can be uploaded to SlideShare. Link the SlideShare back to the full post.

If you export all of the slides, you can stack them vertically to become a simple infographic. Upload that sucker to Pinterest and Facebook.

Do a video recording of the presentation, either as a voice over or by combining the slides with an audio track. Upload it to YouTube.

Add bonus content exclusive to your website, and upload that video to Wistia, then embed the video on your site.

The standalone audio track can become a podcast that you host through Podbean.

Don’t forget about email newsletters.

To get started, sign up for an email marketing service (obviously I’m biased towards GoDaddy Email Marketing, aka GEM, because I work at GoDaddy).

For your newsletter, include summaries of your recently published content alongside curated content from other sources that’s relevant to your audience.

Based on the size and activity of your list, you can identify highly engaged subscribers — folks who you could reach out to for other things, like advocacy, loyalty programs, feedback, or just building a closer relationship.

5. Promote your content.

This is the top-of-the-funnel stuff. It’s what gets you discovered. It’s activity that takes place off your website, but leads people back to the website.

Self Promotion

Start by promoting it yourself. Jetpack’s Publicize automates that. It’ll push your content out to your social networks. Revive Old Posts does the same with previously-published content. CoSchedule lets you wrangle it all. Then go back over your published content and share takeaways with Buffer.

Content Toolbox - Share your own content with Buffer

You’ll want to make it easy for visitors and readers to promote your content. Jetpack includes modules for sharing and liking posts, making it easy for visitors to promote your content. You can also use plugins like AddThis or SumoMe.

Outreach

Find bloggers, influencers, existing sites that are writing about your topic. The more prominent the target, the more impressive your content needs to be.

You’ll need a unique angle. Maybe your content is extremely detailed? Maybe you’re doing a survey and want their input?

How can you find these people? First are the directories. Tools like Hey Press, Help A Reporter Out, and Submit.co assist in connecting you with media. If you’re looking for influencers, BuzzSumo comes in handy again.

Don’t forget to check your competitors. Go back a few steps to “produce content”. Remember how I said that, while you’re doing research, you should keep track of posts that are useful? You’ll want to find out who’s linking to them.

While most of the tools I recommend are free, if you have a bit of money to spend, I recommend grabbing a tool like SEMRush so you can run a backlink analysis on competitor content.

Advertising

Content is a long-term play. If you want to accelerate the exposure of your content, turn to the almighty dollar.

Running a targeted campaign through Google, Facebook, Twitter, niche ad networks like The Deck or Carbon, direct purchase from sites on BuySellAds, or sponsored content/influencer marketing (paying folks with an established, relevant audience to share your stuff) can give you a short-term boost.

6. Participate in communities.

Be present in forum discussions, blog comments, and social media conversations. Participating in these areas gives you visibility. Just having your name show up in multiple places helps establish some familiarity with people you’ve never met.

Community, like content, is a long-term investment. But it pays dividends in making new connections, identifying new topics to write about, or linking to your own content when it’s relevant (and not spammy!) to do so.

My rule of thumb for communities? ABH. Always Be Helpful. Answer questions. Offer constructive feedback. Join conversations.

7. Prove that everything is working.

Google Analytics is the elephant in the room. Monster Insights is a WordPress plugin for getting it up and running on your site. Teacup Analytics is another service that ties into Google Analytics, making the data easier to understand, and offering recommendations for improvements.

Jetpack has WordPress.com stats, which I think is a good fit for smaller sites and bloggers. I also like Hotjar for its qualitative (rather than quantitative) data.

For shared content: Look at engagement. Are people replying to your posts? Are they liking/favouriting them? Are people sharing your content? Are people clicking through and actually reading what you produce? (Tip: Check both native analytics, like Twitter Analytics, and Google Analytics for social traffic reports.)

For informational content: Pageviews and unique visitors are okay metrics to start with. But you’ll also need to look at activity and goals. Are they clicking through to other pages? Are they sharing the content? Are they signing up for email subscriptions?

For conversion content: Are people actually converting? Are they making a purchase? Requesting a quote? Where are they dropping off? (Tip: Set up goal funnels in Google Analytics and Hotjar.)

Understand your audience.

In addition to gauging content performance, you should also understand who your visitors are.

Google Analytics can provide some insights here. What platforms are they using? Where are they coming from, geographically? What are their demographics? (Quantcast Measure is helpful for this as well.)

But you can also go deeper. Hotjar is one of my favourite alternative analytics solutions because it records visitor activity and lets you poll visitors. It’s a great way to gather additional insights.

Lastly, don’t be afraid to ask questions. Running surveys or emailing your newsletter subscribers 1:1 is a great way of gathering insights about what people want, which you can feed back into your content planning.

Recap: This whole thing is a repeating process.

Seven steps in the cycle:

  1. PREPARE your goals.
  2. PLAN your topics.
  3. PRODUCE your content.
  4. RE-PURPOSE your content for different channels.
  5. PROMOTE your content.
  6. PARTICIPATE in communities.
  7. PROVE that your goals are being met.

You’ll go through it again and again. How often is up to you, but once per month or per quarter is a good starting point.

Content Toolbox - The repeating cycle.

Prepare your goals. Remember the funnel: Share & Discover, Teach & Learn, Sell & Decide. One journey. Two sides. All content maps against this funnel.

Shared content rides trends and interests. Informational resources align with your expertise. Content that converts sets expectations about what you’re offering and leads people to take an action.

Plan your topics in a spreadsheet. This is your editorial calendar. It outlines the things you’ll write about, and what goals they support. Over time it also serves as an index of all the content you’ve published.

Start at the bottom. Write about what you know. Your product, your service, your expertise. Then think like a teacher. Brainstorm topics, use the Keyword Planner tool to see what people are searching for. Iterate on that, branch out into specific post ideas, using tools like Ubersuggest to help you.

Produce your content. Do your research first. See what others are writing about, then write something better.

Find quality sources of data to cite throughout your post. Make sure it’s optimized with Yoast SEO. Then repurpose your written post into different formats: Presentations, videos, infographics, podcasts.

Useful tools for research:

Useful tools for editing:

And for finding images:

Optimize your images before you upload them:

Add a call to action:

Promote your work. Use Jetpack’s Publicize or Revive Old Post to automate it. Use Buffer to curate your own content. Schedule everything with CoSchedule. Create a newsletter and include your content alongside related, curated links from around the web.

Reach out to specific people – folks you mentioned in your post, reporters that might be interested in what you’ve created. Just remember, the more high-profile they are, the more compelling your content needs to be.

Content is a long-term play. If you want to have a short-term boost, through some money at it. Pay for advertising.

Participate in communities. ABH. Always Be Helping. Offer your opinion and your expertise in places where it matters. Even if you’re not getting traffic back to your site, you’re building familiarity around your name.

Prove that it’s working. Use analytics for the quantitative data: traffic trends, goals being met, time spent on page. Use heatmaps, polls, and surveys to get qualitative data: what people are looking at, their opinions, their feedback. Use insights from that data to iterate and improve on what you’re doing.

That’s it!

There are many, many ways to approach content marketing. The above is a process I’ve been noodling on this year. What do you think? How do you approach your own content creation efforts? What tools do you use?

Leave your thoughts in the comments below. 🙂

Further reading:

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