I just Googled “content marketing,” and I got more than 77 million returns. That’s a heck of a lot of content about content — enough to make a lot of “it’s just me” businesses decide to put it off until next year…or maybe never.
It’s no wonder that a lot of solopreneurs think that they have to choose between doing nothing and embarking on a full content strategy (complete with an editorial calendar customized for each channel and audience, of course) founded on data-driven ideation and keyword research and backed by granular, detailed analytics.
Even guru Neil Patel’s guide for content marketing beginners with budgets of $0 talks about using Ahrefs for keyword research. But I’d be willing to bet that most solopreneurs — whether a dentist, a housepainter, or someone selling personalized baby bibs on Etsy — would have to do research just to find out what that means. That’s because most of the content about content marketing is aimed at enterprise-level organizations, because they have the greatest ability to pay for all of those add-on services.
But take it from a fellow solopreneur: It’s better to do some aspects of content marketing extremely well than to do nothing. After reading (and sometimes writing about) the latest and greatest content marketing best practices, then running them through my solopreneur filter, I’m more convinced than ever that content marketing is as important — and achievable — for solopreneurs as it is for the big guys.
So let’s take a look at some tips for content marketing designed specifically for solopreneurs.
Reassess who you are and what you do
Doublecheck your value proposition
When I first started writing, all I wanted to do was churn out a few paid blog posts (of the content mill variety) while the kids were napping or in school. The rest of my time was spent wiping noses or bottoms and supervising homework, and I really had no aspirations other than that.
Over the years, though, I started noticing that a lot of my content was doomed to fail because the client either hadn’t bothered or didn’t know how to link the requested content to the clients’ business objectives. As a result, my business evolved into what could more accurately be described as content strategy, advising and guiding businesses on how to make sure that their web content and blog posts actually work to achieve their business goals.
I still write the content, but I also have a hand in helping clients determine what that content should be and what it should accomplish. But it took a while for me to get around to updating my online profiles and bios. So, if you’ve been rolling along for a while and are now at the point where you’re starting to thinking about growing your business through content, take a minute to make sure that what you’re doing is the same as what you *think* you’re doing. You might find that you and your business have evolved more than you realize. In that case, you need to either go back to your roots or embrace what you’ve become. Either way, your content needs to match who you are and what you’re doing now, not what you thought when you started.
Doublecheck your audience
This step addresses a couple of common missteps. First, if your offering has changed, your audience has probably changed, too (or it should have, at least). My target is no longer businesses that want a well-written, mistake-free blog post delivered by the deadline. There are plenty of content writers who can do that for a lot less than I charge. Today, my audience is businesses who need help developing their content strategy rather than businesses who want a “Here, go write this” writer.
The second mistake I see solopreneurs and startups make is writing for people who do what they do rather than people who buy what they do. Your days may be consumed with the challenges of getting a new small business off the ground, but the people who would be interested in those challenges are more likely to be your competitors than your customers. Unless you’re placing in-home caregivers, your customers probably won’t be too interested in your hiring process. Nor are they likely to be interested in the challenges associated with securing funding. Those are your interests; chances are slim that they’re your customers’ interests, too.
Connect your offering with your customers’ pain-points
This is the question that leads you to your content topics. What problems does your product or service solve for your customers? Where are they in the sales funnel?
- Are they aware of their need? If so, do they know there’s a solution? This question is more important than it may seem at a glance. For example, every time I use Apple Pay, I think about how much I wish it had existed when I had three toddlers. How nice would it have been to not have to dig around in my purse when I had three little people tugging on my legs and arms? Back then, though, it never occurred to me that I needed that kind solution. Going shopping with three toddlers was just my lot in life at that point. If I had had the brain cells left to wish for the ability to pay with something I already held in my hand (which, at the time, would probably have been a pacifier), it would never have occurred to me that it might actually exist.That’s what I call “Oh, wow!” content…the kind of content that makes the lightbulb switch on over the readers’ heads. (In some circumstances, such as realizing they’re not compliant with regulatory requirements, “Oh, sh*t!” content might be a more accurate description.) If this is your audience, your goal is to show them how you can make their lives easier.
- Are they aware that they have a need and that solutions exist and are simply trying to choose the right provider? If you’re one of several providers of your particular offering, your content needs to focus on what makes you different. Just remember to write about those differences in terms of what they mean to your customers. “Our competitors all use ingredient X while we use ingredient Y” isn’t going to produce anything more than yawns unless you explain why the choice of ingredient matters (to your customers, not to you).
Come up with a list of topics
Save keyword research until you have more experience
This is a point where I break with a lot of the content marketing experts. Keyword research can be a game-changer, but save it for later. When you’re a beginner, keyword research can throw you off because, just because a lot of people search for a particular keyword, there’s no guarantee that those people are potential customers. People can conduct a particular search for all kinds of reasons, and not all of them have something to do with making a purchase.
Another way keyword research can throw beginning content marketers off is by misleading them into focusing on terms that only experts would know. If your business proposition is offering PCI services to small online merchants, focusing on PCI as a keyword probably won’t do much good, because the customers you’re targeting have probably never even heard that term. You’d be better off focusing on something like “safe online payments,” no matter what keyword research says.
Be careful with headline analyzers
There are any number of free headline analyzers that can help you choose a headline that will (supposedly) resonate with your audience and get them to click on or share your content. But just because a particular type of headline is popular among the general internet audience, that doesn’t mean it will be equally popular among your target customers. If you’re targeting corporate attorneys, for example, “5 Mind-Blowing Tips that Will Leave Your Opponents Reeling,” may not be the best approach, no matter what the headline analyzers say.
Focus on your customers
Before you start, write “I will not talk about myself” 500 times.
Finished? Good; let’s keep going.
That doesn’t mean that you can’t mention yourself or your business; it just means that you should do so only in the context of meeting your customers’ needs: answers, entertainment, guidance, advice, etc. People aren’t going to read content that’s the online version of “Grandma’s Brag Book” full of baby photos. Serving your own needs by serving your audience’s needs may take longer, but in the long run you’ll do far better by not talking about yourself.
Sometimes, all it takes is a subtle shift in perspective and wording. Let’s say you own a liquor store and, every summer, you lose a lot of money to damaged returns caused by people leaving their wine in hot cars. A self-serving blog topic could be, “Please help us lower returns by not leaving wine in your car.” Change it to, “5 ways to protect your wine from summer heat,” and you’ve suddenly got an article that delivers value rather than a scolding.
A few best practices that are worth your time, even if it’s just little ol’ you
Not all “best practices” are just for enterprise-level organizations. There are a few things that are both easy and essential — capable of boosting your success, no matter how big or small your business may be.
Things like spelling and grammatical errors matter. Think about it: If you’re sloppy with your writing, why should customers expect you to be any less sloppy with your product or service? You don’t have to be a professional writer, but, at the very least, have somebody else read it and/or use tools like Grammarly or Hemingway.
Do your basic SEO
SEO tactics that anybody can use include things like including your keyword(s) in your title, URL, subheads, metadata, etc.
This is a tough one for me, because I’m in the .000000001% of the population that doesn’t process images more quickly than words. That’s just not how my brain works. But the facts are indisputable: images get more views, likes, shares, etc. Keep your priorities limited to these two: Use high-quality images, and make sure you abide by any licensing restrictions.
Publish and promote your content
In a perfect world, your perfect customers would just stumble over your content and kickoff a magical, profitable, long-lasting relationship. In reality, with 1,400 blog posts being published every minute, you’re going to have to give them a little help. It’s beyond the scope of this blog post to do justice to content promotion, but here’s the short version:
- Share the link to Twitter
- Post on LinkedIn and Facebook
- Look for opportunities to syndicate
Make your blog easy to find
Once upon a time, I wrote for a large, well-known fashion retailer, whose only link to their blog was hidden in the footer. Not surprisingly, the blog didn’t get much traffic. People aren’t going to play hide-and-seek with your blog unless they know it’s there, and they’re not going to know it’s there if you hide it. So please put the link to your blog in your main navigation menu.
Monitor your analytics (within reason)
When you first start publishing content, you need to know whether you’re getting traffic. The line representing traffic should steadily climb, although it will grow slowly at first. Other first-step metrics to monitor include:
- New visitors vs. return visitors
Most business models want repeat visitors. They’re either showing increased interest (moving further down the funnel ) or have already engaged the business and are coming back for more. However, if you’re new to the digital world, a high percentage of new visitors at least means that you’re being found in a vast sea of content. (Obviously, you can dig a lot deeper into these numbers, but that’s for a later post.)
- Bounce rate
The bounce rate refers to how long somebody stays on your site before clicking away to watch funny kitten videos. That gives you a couple of things to think about. Sure, they could have found your content to be so relevant that they saved it to read carefully later. I actually do that a lot. Unfortunately, the more likely scenario is that you promised something in your headline that you didn’t deliver soon enough. Or, your content could be lacking in meat, full of trite language that says a lot but means nothing, and grammatical errors that detract from credibility and frustrate your readers, etc.
Later on, there are plenty of higher-level metrics you can worry about. In the long run, for example, you have to move beyond overall traffic and start thinking about traffic that converts. But these are the metrics to start with.
I don’t care if somebody insists your page holds the secret to life, I’m not picking my way through a page of jumbled fonts, texts, colors, and gifs of pooping pigs to get there. The secret to being professional is looking professional. Just like my mama always said, “If you have tell people you’re a lady, you’re not.” Your site should speak for itself, in one glance.
Talk about who you are more than what you do
And don’t be too cutesy about it
If it’s just you, and you don’t have a lot of reviews or happy customers to verify that you’re not a scammer, you have to give people a way to feel comfortable getting in touch with you. Give them an easy way (preferably on your web site) to answer questions like these:
- Who are you, what did you do before, and how did it lead it to this new venture?
Keep in mind that the best answers focus on customers. An answer like, “Dude, the crappy coffee maker in our office was out for a week. And I’m just sick of being forced to write boring stuff for my company’s clients that I won’t ever in a million years care about.” (I actually saw somebody do that last week — not the coffee part, but the part about being “forced” to write content they don’t care about for clients they don’t care about.) While that answer may attract a certain type of customer, they’re not likely to be in a position to hire you. Instead, take on a business owner mindset. It’s OK to say you wanted to work from home. But when it’s time to do business, customers want to know that you’ll take their business needs as seriously as they do.
- How can they get in touch with you? In today’s tech-driven world, people expect answers instantaneously and grow suspicious if there’s no way to contact you other than a form on your site. And that’s especially true if they can’t associate that contact info with a real person’s name. Give them as many means to contact you as you’re willing to hand over: email, phone, text, Twitter, LinkedIn, etc. Besides — being active on social media reassures prospective customers that you’re real.
- When prospective clients do get in touch with you, respond — and not with a canned answer. I get canned Twitter DMs all the time from people trying to sell me my own services, and it’s creepy and insulting. If you do use automated responses, use that space to tell who you are and what you do — something that could apply to anyone who connects with you: a former colleague, someone who does what you do and is trying to piggyback off of your learnings, somebody who sells what you do and is looking for collaboration, etc. Assuming that everyone who gets in touch with you is potential sale is a big turnoff. Don’t do it.
- Talk about who your perfect client is — and isn’t. The world is not your customer (unless you’re Amazon). As a solopreneur or a new startup, you probably have at least a fuzzy idea (it will clarify over time) of your ideal customer. But you also probably know who your ideal customer isn’t, and it’s just as important to talk to them. Prospective customers have no more time to waste than you do, so give them the information they need to decide whether to stay in or cut themselves loose early in the process. I frequently say that agencies/brands who know exactly what they want in a piece of content and just need somebody to make it happen (the “Here, go write this” model) would hate me. I ask questions — questions that make you and your content better. But if that would drive you crazy, you really, really, don’t want to hire me. I think it’s better for everybody if prospective clients find that out early in the process.
And through it all, find the balance between being professional and being real.
Don’t be scared off by the high-powered content marketing tactics enterprise-level organizations are using. Their customers aren’t your customers. One of the advantages of being a solopreneur is that you don’t have to automate (or even delegate, for that matter) your content marketing. You are your business. You don’t have to sit through meetings about brand identity or participate in lengthy discussions about why one blog post performed better than another. You have the opportunity to learn content marketing by engaging customers and prospective customers on a one-to-one basis. Huge organizations strive to create content that makes readers think, “This was written just for me!” You get that naturally. As far as scalability…we’ll worry about that when you get there. The point is that you’re unlikely to get there using best practices designed for companies 10 times your size.
The best practices you need to worry about in this stage of your growth are the ones described right here in this post. And if I can help guide you through them or answer any other questions, please let me know.