Content marketer and strategist Sarah Mitchell on the skills you need to succeed in content marketing, the one question businesses should ask before they create any content, and why podcasting is the next big thing.
I first came across Sarah Mitchell at Content Marketing Sydney, where she delivered a workshop session with James Lush on how to tell business stories. It left an impression for two reasons.
One, the content was practical – no wishy-washy fluffy marketing guff. Just useful information presented matter-of-factly and supported with real examples.
And two, it was obvious from the get-go she knew her stuff. Sarah is one of the heroes of Australian content marketing and a well-respected voice and thinker on all things content and marketing related. When you read the responses below, you’ll know why – they’re chock-a-block with constructive advice and insight.
What’s interesting is that, like many of us in the content marketing arena, she didn’t set out to become a ‘content marketer’. Spurred by a love of writing, Sarah left a career of more than 20 years in IT software development, design and sales to build Global Copywriting. More recently, she joined the team at Lush Digital Media in Perth as head of content strategy.
In Sarah’s words:
“I knew from my own experience content marketing without a strategy never amounted to much, so I was thrilled to have the opportunity to focus only on strategy.”
In this Q&A, I wanted to get Sarah’s thoughts on content marketing: where it’s heading, the challenges businesses face and the skills you need to get ahead. Enjoy.
Q&A with Sarah Mitchell.
What do you think are the biggest challenges content marketers face?
1) Content marketing is hard. The real challenge is getting all the pieces working together to create the perfect storm needed to build your audience. You need a strategy. You need good writing and editing skills. You have to be able to tell a story. You need to understand distribution and amplification, which translates into social media, email and search engine optimisation.
2) You have to keep abreast of the rapid changes in technology. That’s so you can be sure your content is hitting the high notes for whatever algorithm you’re chasing – Google, Facebook, LinkedIn, etc. You need a management team that understands the whole thing takes time.
There are no quick wins in content marketing.
3) One of the biggest challenges for content marketers is perseverance. If you don’t have a media mindset, or haven’t ever worked in a field such as software or engineering where projects can take years, the lack of short-term or even medium-term results can be debilitating.
When we started the Brand Newsroom podcast, the first weeks and months were almost depressing. We might get 19 plays in a week. When we started to hit 100 plays we were ecstatic. We’re at more than 40 episodes now and we’re getting upwards of 2000 plays a week. By many standards, this is still a modest audience but it’s thrilling for my co-hosts Nic Hayes, James Lush and me.
Joe Pulizzi, the founder of the Content Marketing Institute, says the biggest reason content marketers fail is because they just give up. I totally agree.
From your experience, what’s the biggest challenge businesses face when creating content?
Most businesses don’t understand it’s a slow-burn method of marketing. They’re used to spending money on advertising and it’s worked pretty well for them in the past so they want the same, short-term results. The campaign mentality doesn’t work with content marketing.
Instead of saying, ‘We provide the best aged care in Australia,’ flip it to, ‘you receive the best aged care in Australia’.
On a related note, brands spend too much time in broadcast mode. It’s a common feature of advertising. They create content about their products and services. They don’t get the consumer doesn’t want to hear that.
Content marketing only works when you flip the perspective and make your audience the centre of every piece. It’s often a subtle change but it’s so important.
I use this example all the time. Instead of saying, “We provide the best aged care service in Australia,” flip it to, “You receive the best aged care service in Australia”. You’re saying the same thing but one is about you and the other is about your audience.
If there’s one content marketing experience you wish you’d created what is it and why?
It’s a hard question but the one I really wanted to do was Jay Baer’s Youtility. I had started to develop the idea of asset-based marketing on my blog – content so useful it becomes a long-term asset to your company.
I saw Jay speak at Content Marketing World 2013 and was in awe of how he interpreted that same idea. The book is a gorgeous piece of content but the way he supported it is fantastic, too – website, public speaking, slide decks, infographics, video. He just never quits.
What’s the one question you think businesses should be asking before they embark on the content creation process?
What does my customer want to hear? It goes back to my earlier point that content marketing needs to be about the audience and not about your company. Too often content marketers focus on what they want to say. You need to draw people in, not push them away with a hard marketing message.
People don’t care about businesses; they care about how that business can improve their life.
Content marketing seems very much a hybrid role. Everyone from SEO specialists, journalists, copywriters and traditional marketers are calling themselves ‘content marketers’. What set of skills should brands be looking for?
You’re so right and it drives me nuts. Content marketing is a broad discipline and it takes a lot of different skills. It has three distinct components:
- Original content.
- Social media and email (for distribution).
- SEO (so your content gets found).
I don’t mind if people move from a traditional occupation into content marketing. But you can’t rebadge one set of skills without acquiring significant new skills. Content marketing is two parts – creating content and marketing that content.
You can’t rebadge one set of skills without acquiring significant new skills.
Too often people work in one or the other and content marketers should be able to demonstrate both. It’s unlikely a brand is going to find one person with all the necessary skills. Great content marketing requires a team of skilled people. Luckily, a lot of these roles are suited to freelance work so it’s often not necessary to hire an entire brand newsroom team. Brands need to do their research on service providers.
At Content Marketing Sydney, Robert Rose said: “Content marketers are the change agents of the future.” Do you agree?
I absolutely agree. The whole idea of providing something of value that’s not directly related to your business is a huge shift in thinking. We haven’t progressed that far from the barrow boys of the 19th century in how we hawk our wares.
Content marketers are asking businesses to take a leap of faith. Investing in high-quality, original content that doesn’t ‘sell’ is mostly a new idea. There are plenty of examples of companies producing great, customer-focused content over the past 100 years but they’re not the norm.
Marketing is changing, and the way we do things now may be outdated tomorrow. What are your hit predictions?
The one prediction I can make with certainty is change is going to be a constant companion for content marketers. Those of us publishing on a digital platform – and that’s most of us – are at the mercy of technology. It’s second nature to me because of my software background, but people coming into content marketing from a writing, editing or publishing background have to adapt to constantly learning new things or relearning what they already know.
In two to three years, every company and small business will have at least one podcast.
I predict podcasting is going to be the new blogging. In two or three years, every company and small business will have at least one podcast. I love the medium because it’s the only content you can consume when driving.
Lastly, I hope we get to the place where we’re not all chasing algorithms all the time and can focus on creating great content.
Find out more…
Sarah blogs at Lush Digital Media and Global Copywriting. You can also hear her on the Brand Newsroom, a weekly podcast for anyone who has a say in how companies are communicating. She tweets at @globalcopywrite.
Sarah is the first in what we hope will become a regular series on the influencers, quiet achievers and interesting folk you should check out in the digital space.
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