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Seven tips for creating compelling content
By Christopher W. Cook
Writing for an insurance publication that’s been around for over 140 years can have its challenges, especially for someone who has never worked in the insurance business. This is where I try to put my B.F.A. in Creative Writing to use, to differentiate my byline from the number of Rough Notes writers who came before me.
When a reader spots a silly article title (as seen above) or catches a reference from an adult animated sitcom or film from the 80s, they might think, “Yep, Chris wrote this.” And that’s who I am; it’s all about making yourself stand out. But what if you’re new to the industry and are struggling to stand out? What if you want to share content with your customers, whether it be via blog, podcast, or social media post, but don’t know where to start?
At the 2021 virtual Applied Net conference, Jen Carsen, content team manager at Applied Systems, led a session titled, “7 Secrets to Creating Compelling Content.” For anyone feeling overwhelmed about creating content for your personal brand, let’s dive into the information shared in the session.
According to Carsen, the first thing you need to remember is to relax. “Content has become such a loaded word; there are content creators and content specialists and content analysts,” she said. “The bottom line is that the entire concept of creating content can be very scary for people who don’t think of themselves as professional writers or content creators. But … you know more than you think you do, both about your specific business and about creating content that people are going to want to read and share with others.”
Let’s jump into the seven secrets for creating compelling content:
- Choose your medium. From blogs to podcasts and newsletters, there are numerous options for sharing content, and it can be overwhelming. Where do you start?
“You should share your ideas in the ways that appeal to you the most,” Carsen said. “For some people, like me, that’s writing. But for many others, it’s videos or podcasts or interpretive dance or anything else you can think of.”
Carsen compared the scenario of choices to exercising. While your neighbor is thrilled about doing hot yoga and is consistently persuading you to join in for a good sweat, you might prefer a walk in the woods or playing with your kids at the park. When choosing a medium, the best one for you will be one that you enjoy.
“If you don’t like the idea of sitting down and writing something, if that just terrifies you or sounds awful, don’t do it,” Carsen said. “Maybe you’d like to do a video series or a podcast or even some-thing artistic and creative like a comic strip. Get creative and think outside the box and figure out what sounds fun to you.”
She also advises to avoid doing too much from the get-go. “I recommend … one or two types of content at most to start with,” Carsen said. “Start with a few blog posts or with a few videos. Don’t try to launch through the blog and a series of print brochures and everything all at once; you’re going to get overwhelmed and likely discouraged. Start slow and ramp up if and when you feel comfortable.”
The same goes for social media. Focus on one platform (e.g., Facebook, Twitter, LinkedIn) and build a follow-ing before attempting to build a presence on multiple sites.
- Think before you write. This isn’t necessarily for “writing” only, but for any type of content creation. “Don’t just jump in willy-nilly and start recording stuff and writing stuff. Really take some time first to sit down, think about it and plan,” Carsen said. “That planning phase is going to be where you spend the bulk of your time.
“Starting slow and deliberately upfront is going to save you many hours later on. Block off your calendar and spend some time brainstorming, and you can do this either alone or with members of your team.”
A good place to start is with the questions that you hear customers asking all the time.
“You’re probably totally sick of answering them, but they’re clearly worth talking about,” Carsen said. “As a bonus, once you create your piece of content that answers one or more of those frequently asked questions … you can start referring those customers to that piece of content.
“Another good starting point is common misconceptions,” she continued. “It’s content that people obviously need to have because they’re confused, and it will be very interesting and valuable to them.
“Another one I personally like is to think about what makes you angry. Talk about it … and explain why you feel so passionately that X is the right way and Z is the wrong way. Those topics are valuable.”
The bottom line, before you start creating, spend some time thinking about topics and create a list.
“You don’t need to be an award-winning storyteller to tell a really good, interesting, engaging story.
The best stories are simple, relatable and real, and they illustrate important topics.”
Content Team Manager
- Don’t be an ostrich. While ostriches burying their heads in the sand to avoid predators is a myth, the image of one doing so does provide a good comparison to people avoiding something. To not “be an ostrich,” you need to “stay informed and engaged, and get out there in the world … specifically in the lives of your prospects and customers,” Carsen said. “What are they worrying about? What really keeps them up at night? What huge problems are they having in their personal or professional lives that you can maybe help them solve? The very best, most effective content weaves into the conversations that are already happening inside people’s heads.
“There’s an old marketing expression that goes, ‘To sell John Brown what John Brown buys, you have to see things through John Brown’s eyes.’ Even if you’re not actively selling something, it’s a good thing to remember for your content creation. You want to put yourself in other people’s shoes, always. Make what’s important to them important to you.”
- Know your value. “There’s a tendency that I think we all have when you’re really good at something … where we tend to … assume everybody knows that or everybody can do that, and that’s just not true,” Carsen said. “Falling victim to that trap is a real content killer. You could wind up dismissing some of your very best content as ‘common knowledge,’ but it’s anything but that.”
Carsen shared samples from Applied Marketing Automation’s “What Is” series, which discusses various types of insurance coverages. “For insurance professionals, this is their daily bread and butter, but for their customers and prospects, this is all brand-new information,” she said. “They don’t know what these things are necessarily, and a clear, plain-English explanation is hugely valuable.
“If you’re ever not sure if something is boring or ‘common knowledge,’ talk to people you’re close to who aren’t in your industry. You could be surprised at how much of your everyday common knowledge is anything but and how valuable it is to the people you’re trying to reach.”
- Tell a story. “You don’t need to be an award-winning storyteller to tell a really good, interesting, engaging story,” Carsen said. “The best stories are simple, relatable and real, and they illustrate important topics.”
Some tips for spicing up your stories include:
- Build suspense when it’s appropriate
- Share real stories involving real people (but protect privacy if needed)
- Get personal without sharing too much
- Use humor appropriately
- Make yourself a goof
“Be very careful to avoid anything that could potentially come across as offensive or mean spirited or insensitive,” Carsen said. “The only person in your content that you should ever be making fun of is you, and again only in a kind of gentle, silly way that you are comfortable with.”
- Find your voice. It’s important to stay true to oneself. Carsen described a dining experience she had at a restaurant with her parents. The establishment’s fancy menus had the prices written out in words and its wait staff spoke with fake European-sounding accents. The restaurant wasn’t in business very long.
“It was so clear from the moment you walked in the door that it was trying to be something it wasn’t,” Carsen said. “Don’t make that mistake with your content; have an authentic body of knowledge and authentic way of communicating. While you can always learn more and extend your body of knowledge, the core of who we are doesn’t tend to change very much, for better or worse.
“Just be you. It’s hard, and some-what exhausting, to try to maintain a pretense that doesn’t fit who you are. It’s also counterproductive. You’re trying to reach the customers and prospects who want to do business with who you really are, so let that person shine through in your content.”
- Study effective content. “You need to get good at knowing what makes content compelling,” Carsen said. “Now, it doesn’t necessarily mean you need to start attending classes and getting a lot of marketing books; you can certainly do that. But just pay attention to the content that you are consuming.”
Forbes reported in 2020 that global online content consumption doubled that year to nearly seven hours per day, which includes digital media, television and phone.
“Start to notice what makes [content] appealing to you; what are the headlines you click on?” Carsen said. “You know what makes a book special to you, whether it’s for pleasure or for information. As you get better … start using those tactics in your own content and repeat as needed.
“With just a little time and attention, you can really figure out what grabs you, and then in turn you can use those lessons to make your content equally compelling,” she concluded.