A thousand guides out there will tell you if you want to increase your organic traffic in the SERPs you just have to produce epic, original, share-worthy content. Just…
This guide will cover exactly how to do that by sharing the principles of writing and persuasion and how they apply to content marketing to help you think and work like a writer. These principles are the same in every style of writing whether B2B, B2C, writing a letter to your homeowners’ association to get out of that fine for forgetting to weed your front lawn, or even writing an online guide on producing quality marketing content.
The information contained in this guide comes from the combined experience of marketing experts, university composition instructors, published authors, and studies of rhetoric.
Chapter 1: The Art of Persuasion
Chapter 2: The Methods of Persuasion
Chapter 3: Where to Research
Chapter 4: Before You Write
Chapter 5: How to Draft Quickly
Chapter 6: Polishing and Publishing
Whether trying to convince you to buy something or that the dashing hero in a story is in real peril, a writer is always trying to make you think differently than you did before. This attempt to convince you of something is called rhetoric, and or in other words - the art of persuasion. In content marketing we use rhetoric to attempt to drive traffic to a site. Or better yet - to drive the right sort of traffic to a site. This doesn’t necessarily mean only people who are wanting to buy what you’re selling, but they should have some interest in it, otherwise you haven’t persuaded them - you’ve tricked them and that’s a recipe for disaster.
So the first thing you want to consider when it comes to persuasion is who you’re trying to persuade. Who’s your audience? Do Not Generalize Here. The more specific you can be the easier your writing will be. For instance if you were writing a guide on content marketing you might think - “my audience is anyone running a website.” But this doesn’t give you much useful actionable information.
Let’s take it further: My primary audience is ecommerce store owners who are making between 0 and $5,000 a month on their store. They have a fair knowledge of SEO marketing strategies including on-site optimization, link building, and a functional understanding of the Google algorithms.
First of all, how do I decide this? Well, if someone is going to take the time to read a full article on content marketing they have stakes in their content marketing doing well - which means either an owner or a content marketing specialist. The reason I’m not focusing on content marketers is two-fold. They have less at stake than a business owner, and they’re more likely to already know how to write professionally.
As for the money side of things anyone making more than $5,000 a month from an ecommerce store is doing well enough with their tactics that they likely aren’t going to be out looking for guides on how to do what they’re already doing. This doesn’t mean there aren’t going to be outliers, but I am confident that 75% of the people who read this entire guide will fit within who I’ve laid out as my primary audience. That other 25% of people will certainly gain plenty of useful information, it is just that the style of writing and examples I’m using are made to be most useful to the 75%.
Now, what does this tell me? I know store owners are invested in their sites more than someone writing a blog. I know that they want ideas they can act on instead of just theories. Based on the relative success of their store I know they are likely still working a full time job, and so their free time, to read a guide for instance, is limited. Therefore I know I need this guide to be easy to read in sections, hence the simple and clear table of contents. I also need to include actionable strategies which you will see throughout the guide but are also listed in bullet points at the end of each chapter to make it even easier to find them. Additionally since I already know that they’re familiar with SEO I know that I don’t need to cover it in this guide. I don’t want to bore anyone with information that they already have.
Knowing your audience means knowing their needs. The way great authors produce great writing is by filling a need. Before you ever start writing you should know everything you can about your audience. You can go even farther than I did above - figure out target ages, political leanings, religious affiliation, relationship status, general income, hobbies, etc. Anything you can figure out about your audience is one more way to understand and fulfill their needs. In chapter 3 you can read about where to go to research your audience. Because I know this industry and my audience I know that they want advice on writing quality content, hence you’re here.
Most people think the purpose of writing marketing content is to drive traffic. This is understandable but it’s mixing up two distinctly different acts - the writing and the content marketing. While the purpose of content marketing is to drive traffic, the purpose of writing that content is to fill a need for your reader.
The outcome of producing quality content that fills a need can be increased traffic (if you present it effectively to your audience) but if you mix up this distinction when you set out to write you will not be producing the best quality content and thus limit your traffic benefit as well. Build the best content you can to serve your audience not to serve your traffic score and you’ll find it’s a lot easier to do both.
Who you write as is just as important as who you write to. It’s important for your writing to be authentic, and for you to be authentic as well. Just know that there are many versions of you. Make sure you pick the right “you” for the job at hand. If you’re a conservative and your audience will be primarily liberal for a piece of content find the ground that you agree on and write from there.
Our prejudices and biases are frequently are worst enemies when writing. But if you have taken the time to learn who your audience is and why they think the way they do you should be more than equipped to write on topics where the both of you have common ground.
This isn’t to say you shouldn’t ever write something controversial; sometimes that’s the exact need you’re trying to fill. But you should be in control of your writing so as to not bring up a controversy you didn’t intend as this can quickly kill your desired purpose.
- Write down as much about your potential audience as you possibly can - their likes and dislikes, their demographic information.
- This list will allow you to find a need to fill and target your message to appeal to your audience.
- Don’t forget that your purpose in writing is to fill a need for your audience - not to drive traffic to your site. If traffic is your primary purpose your content will be weaker and ultimately not result in the traffic it could have.
- Know where you and your audience differ in thinking, avoid presenting biases and prejudices that your audience will disagree with unless your intention is to provoke controversy (which can be a useful tactic when done correctly).
You may have heard of these methods in a high school or college English class. They’re usually given Latin names to make them sound more impressive than they really all, but we’re going to skip all that and go straight to the meat of things. What we’re covering in this section is the different way humans process information and are influenced by others. This is divided up into three major areas: emotion, authority, and logic.
Different people respond to different appeals at different times in different ways. Which explains why there are so many different writing styles. When it comes to writing, though, understanding what these appeals are gives you more control in how you present your message and helps your audience see that you are in fact filling a need for them.
By far the strongest factor in persuasion is emotion. Brain scans have shown that the logic center of the brain can shut down in response to strong emotional stimulation. If you’ve ever wondered why that person you’re disagreeing with can’t understand the proof you’re showing them - the reason might be that they literally can’t understand it because their ability to reason has shorted out based on their emotional response.
Some of the most shared content on social media tends to be the sort that appeals to emotion. Emotion is an immediate response and that part of the brain is impulse driven so when it’s triggered we want to act immediately as well - which usually means sharing or liking something online. Content that exclusively targets an audience’s emotions rarely produces many links, but blended with other appeals can produce a greater whole.
This comes down to whether or not we believe the person who is telling us something. In some ways it’s simple - don’t have a bunch of typos, present your credential, show that you’re getting your information from valid sources - but in action your authority is influenced by countless factors.
One of the best ways to build authority quickly is to write in the way that your audience is accustomed to and provide support that they agree with. If you write something your audience already believes they’re going to be more likely to trust you. Of course - you can’t write only what they already believe or they’ll have no reason to read your work, so give them a new take on something they already buy into or just make their case for them so that they can use you as evidence to show to others.
You can build authority both within a specific piece and as an author as a whole. The more your audience sees you and your writing as an authority on a given subject the more likely they are to share or link to your content (depending on the style and the other appeals you use). This is particularly important to pair with appeals to logic.
This is the last appeal here for a reason. While most of us like to think that we’re creatures of logic, it actually has the least impact on our thoughts and actions of the three appeals. (In fact, studies have shown the more educated a person is the more susceptible they are to false logic) So, unlike appealing to an audience’s emotion, logic can rarely stand on its own and instead needs to be supported with other appeals. This doesn’t mean logic isn’t hugely important though.
Appeals to logic, backed up with solid authority and/or emotion, tend to produce more inbound links than content without any significant data or reasoned information. You’ll notice throughout this guide it relies primarily on logic and authority - though there is also some appeals to emotion peppered in as well. Rather than simply producing something to be quickly scanned and shared, the intent with this document is to present a well reasoned informative piece to a specific audience which should highlight the importance of using appeals to logic in your writing.
- Content that evokes strong emotion from your audience (positive or negative) is more likely to be shared socially.
- Writing in a similar style to your audience’s expectations may increase their trust of you.
- Using information or sources they already believe gives you more authority in their eyes.
- The more trust your audience has you in the more likely they are to link or share your content.
- Content rich in well reasoned information or with data/statistics that prove your point and fulfil an ongoing need for your audience is more likely to produce backlinks.
When you hear someone talk about research in content marketing generally the focus isn’t academic research but it does bear some similarity to what we do. There are two types of research for the content marketer.
By now you should understand how crucial it is to know your audience, and now we’re going to look at how to do that. You should have a broad idea of who your audience is at the outset but we need to get that dialed down by finding more specific information about them online.
Forums in your industry are usually the first place to visit. If your site is providing something that doesn’t support a community on its own go a step or two higher. If your site sells the finest quality baseball bats, you may or may not find a forum dedicated specifically to baseball bats, but you will certainly be able to find a subtopic on a quality forum that focuses on baseball equipment.
Once you’ve found a forum where people are talking about the product your site offers simply take the time to read through some of the most recent posts. If there are links to other topics check those out too. Start jotting down some notes as you get a sense of what they like and don’t like. What other sites they visit. What they view as credible. And most important - what questions are being asked the most often.
Questions are direct indications of needs. Don’t worry if someone has already answered the question on the forum - the fact that it was asked at all is what’s important. Think of it this way - if you managed a small forum and people kept asking the same question every month how would you feel if you saw a great page long answer that covers all the different facets of the question somewhere online? I bet you’d consider putting up a link to that page. You can also skim through blog comments, social media posts, and Quora questions to see if there are other questions coming up frequently.
After you’ve read through some of the most recent posts on a forum or two you should find several blogs that are seen as authorities in the area you’re targeting. To know how people view it, just check their social media. If they’re posting regularly and people are engaging with them - not just sharing, but commenting as well - you can count that as an authority. What you’re looking for here is how people in this area talk and write as well as making a list of people you can potentially use to support your content.
You can jump start building your own authority by using these sites - whether you quote them, cite something from their site, or for the best payoff reach out to them for a brief blurb you can include in your work, any reference to a source your audience already trusts make you more trustworthy in turn. If you want to try that last option be polite, direct, and brief.
You need to be an authority on the subject you’re producing content for. This means research. Your audience research should lend something to the writing side of research, but this time you’re focused on gathering info about the topic rather than the people.
This process starts before you begin writing and continues up till you publish. Spending the time to know and appreciate the topic you want to write about before you begin writing will save you time in the long run - since you won’t have to go back and fix things, or worse - try to mend fences with your audience after putting up something that led them astray.
Read blogs and industry new, watch how-to’s and unboxing videos, check out reviews. You want a wide range of views and opinions about your subject. The more you can draw on the better a resource you can provide your audience.
- Use forums, blog comments, and social media to get to know and engage with your target audience.
- Review high authority blogs in your target area to get to know what kind of content your audience appreciates and how they like it delivered (in terms of style and substance).
- Make sure you understand the ins and outs of the topic you're producing content for.
- The more knowledgeable you are about the topic you’re addressing the easier it will be to build authority, which is much more difficult than losing authority by showing yourself as an outsider.
Okay - yes everything above has also taken place before writing, but what I want to address here is how to set yourself up to make the actual writing process as smooth and quick as possible. This guide has been focusing on audience almost exclusively to this point, but let’s switch gears to the purpose of your writing.
In your writing you need to have one clear purpose and stick to it. That purpose has to answer the question of “why.” Why are you producing this content? So - let’s look at me. Why am I writing this guide? To help you produce quality marketing content. This purpose might lead to benefits on my side as well, but my single goal in the writing I’m doing is to help you write better content. Period. Every single word in this guide serves that goal, even the occasion aside serves this purpose by making my writing more interesting or making me more trustworthy (authority) or relatable (emotion), that is - if I’ve done my job right.
That one very specific purpose means you can stay focused in your writing. It’s also a promise to your audience that they’re not going to get halfway through your guide to writing great content and then have you switch over to talk to your dog for the rest of the guide. The simpler your purpose is the easier a time you’ll have to stay focused on it. If you’re answering the question “Why do I always hit a fastball straight up into the air?” then what you need to do is lay out all the different reasons that could cause someone to hit a fastball straight into the air and list solutions for each. Easy. Also - I don’t know anything about baseball and I’m not sure why you’re hitting fastballs straight into the air - sorry about that.
If you’ve got your purpose figured out you’re ready to write. Make sure you’re comfortable and distraction free. Be prepared to take regular breaks for every hour or so of writing.
- Make sure you have one clear purpose before you start writing.
- That purpose should be the entire focus when you’re writing.
- Make certain you’re comfortable and able to take regular breaks when you’re writing.
If you’re an experienced writer and this messes with your process you should get over it and outline anyway. If you’re an inexperienced writer you should always start with an outline. Some people argue this limits their creativity or they say that they just can’t write with an outline. Do it anyway.
A piece of writing produced with an outline takes half the time to write and edit, and it will have better focus than anything you try to freewrite.
For an outline start by listing your purpose at the top then write out each topic that you think you’ll need to achieve that purpose. Now under each topic write out your subtopics - every step or aspect of that topic. Next write down the 2-5 most important points under each subtopic. Then under those points write out a detailed description of each. If you’ve followed these steps you’ve now finished writing your draft. Congratulations.
It really is that easy if you’ve put in the research time. The next chapter will cover how to make things pretty and sound nice, but the writing itself is simply a matter of getting all of the information down you need to serve your purpose.
- Always write with an outline.
- Start with your main topics.
- Write detailed subtopics.
- Write 2-5 key points for each subtopic.
- Then write descriptions for each of your key points
A lot of people think editing and proofreading are the same thing. But since I started my last sentence with “a lot of people think” you already know that those people are wrong. Editing is when authors craft and shape their work. Leave proofreading till you’ve read through your work a couple times.
When it comes to editing nothing works better or sounds worse than reading your work aloud. When you read silently your eyes skip words and you fill in the gaps with what you think should be there, but when you read out loud you hear every cliche, every odd pause or broken thought. Hearing your words amplifies every mistake (not simply in the sense of typos or misspellings) and gives you the chance to smooth them out.
Listen for jumps to topics that aren’t related. Looks for sentences that don’t lend any information to you as the author or to your purpose. If you get to the end of your piece and your last sentence is “Share this if you liked it” you likely were writing with more than one purpose in mind. On the other hand you can end with an offer to share as long as it serves you main purpose - helping the most people with their need.
I hope this guide helps you to continue developing as a writer and producing high quality content. Feel free to share it with anyone you think might benefit from it as well.
Once you've read through it out loud and made any major corrections it's time to proofread. If you can have someone else do this that's your best option. It's much easier to miss our own mistakes since we know what is supposed to be there. If that's not an option read it out loud again but backwards - sentence by sentence. This'll trick your brain into thinking it's something new and will allow you to catch those last mistakes you might have otherwise missed.
- “The first draft of anything is shit” -Ernest Hemingway
- Read your work out loud before you publish it online.
- Listen for odd pauses.
- If you’re stumbling over reading something out loud you may need to rewrite it.
- Pay special attention to topic jumps that don’t have a connection.
- Your call to action should serve your writing purpose.
- Let someone else proofread your work or read it backwards to make sure you catch the majority of your mistakes.