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I’ve been asked to give a brief lesson on how to write content for the web.

While it’s writing we’re going to cover, to apply the lesson I want you to think of yourself as an artist. You’re going to paint a picture—illustrate a point (or several).

So you’ll start with a sketch. The blank canvas before you needs some simple black strokes to begin with. After we’ve got a good strong framework, we’ll apply all kinds of color.

Are you with me? Get your pencils out. Here we go.

The black and white of writing content.

Great writing is very much about preparation. Great content marketing is very much about planning. So we’ll begin with some fundamentals— black and white guidelines to outline the work that needs to be done before you start writing.

Zero in on your goal. The discipline of writing content may resemble journalism more so than advertising, but you need to remind yourself what you’re doing is marketing. You want the reader to respond.

The response can take a variety of forms. I don’t know precisely which is the optimum response you’re aiming for, but you need to. Examine what your broad objective, or objectives, are in your content marketing strategy then zero in on the specific goal of the piece you plan to write.

Uncover the pain. Definitions of “content marketing” vary, but the word “value” is a common thread. I like to simplify content marketing in three words: proactively answering questions.

Think of yourself as a friend to the reader. What do your friends do? They help you. And the most helpful ones are good listeners. They get you. They have a handle on your problems. They know what causes you pain and what gives you pleasure.

You need to identify a friend out there in your audience and understand them. “Content” is kind of cold word for what you’re going to provide. Advice is a much warmer way to think of it.

Know the turf. Where will your reader encounter your content? This can be tricky because the answer may not be singular. You may have to live with a dose of mystery, however you’ll be a far more valuable resource if you’re able to map your content to a media-driven strategy.

Consider how the media serves the reader. Do your best to identify a realistic time and place where the interaction will occur. Is it a one or two-way street? Will the experience be surface-level or deep? Is it a first time greeting, a regular meeting or a follow-up? To the degree you can, you should focus on where, when and why factors to increase the relevance of your content. 

Have a meaningful message. The content you’re about to write is based on an idea, but it can’t be arbitrary. However basic this may sound, you won’t have to search long to find content creators winging it. Doing so is dangerously unproductive.

Each chunk of content you create should be an ingredient in a big picture recipe. In other words, your micro message must map to your company’s macro message. You have one of those, right?

It’s vital to have a brand story. And it’s vital each chapter you write supports it.

Look into it. Go do some digital digging. Get a good sense for who’s doing what in the space. Find out where to the action is. Learn what’s old and what’s new. Identify your market’s most influential individuals, publishers, companies and organizations.

Thoroughly research your competition. Familiarize yourself with their tactics and tone. The idea is to identify how you’re going to tell a unique story.

The colorful part of writing content.

You’ve done the sketch. It’s time to break open a box of colored pencils and fill in the gaps with the shades and hues that make your content come alive. It’s time to write.

Hit your headline hard. Imagine you’re throwing a party. Not only do you want to have a great big turn out, you want to pack the place with a like-minded crowd. Your headline is the invitation. Rock it. Make it clear this one can’t be missed. Make a promise. Tantalize. Tease. Touch a nerve. And know this one-liner is likely to be the one and only line that gets served via search and shared. Make it a showstopper and party starter.

Get over yourself. Marketing 101: the sure way to lose your reader is to fixate on the wrong subject: your company. You won’t turn on a single sole talking about your brand or product. No matter what story you’re going to tell, the main character is the reader. Make “you” your most used word. Your reader’s favorite subject is him or herself. That’s just the way it is.

Get the nod. Your headline worked. You have a reader whom your message is focused on. But you can still lose ‘em if you fail to connect. So pose a question or make a statement that induces a “yes, that’s me” nod. Let your reader know you’re going on a journey together.

Elicit feelings. Your reader processes information through emotion first and reasoning second. So great writing should stimulate the limbic system, the subcortex section of the brain, the center of desire and motivation. String your words together in an effort to elicit feelings.

Write to a friend. Can’t get going? Words aren’t flowing? All your stuff’s sounding stuffy? Each of these problems trace to overthinking the work. Go after your content fearlessly, with flare, and without formality by addressing one person. Make it a friend or someone you find it easy speaking to and start typing the way you’d talk.

Activate with verbs. Be economical with your adjectives and use verbs vigorously. Check out every teaser line I’ve used here to kickoff each point… Hit… Get… Aim. Punch the engagement ticket with action words.

Express yourself. The only writer you’ll ever remember is the one whose voice is as unique as his or her fingerprint. There’s one Shakespeare. One Twain. One you. Find your voice and pour it into your prose.

Speak human being. Techno-babble is a major buzz kill. No matter how much you love your industry’s jargon, put a lid on the lingo and can the cliché. Don’t do the dumb-down thing so often recommended. Just be natural. Little words. Big ideas.

Have fun. Rarely, do I find content writers making jokes, being cheeky, using rhetorical questions, and lightening up. And I rarely remember a content writer. No coincidence here. If you have a sense of humor, use it. 

Take a stance. What’s the point of content with no point of view? Ladies and gents, boys and girls, anatomical impossibilities being what they may, please, grow a pair. Put your opinion in play or be an insipid bore.

Break it up. Readers will hunt for content in full speed skim mode, but get your hooks in them and they’ll slow down and take it all in. Accommodate the flying eyeballs by breaking up your pieces with short passages, lists, images, captions, and callouts.  And inject subheads to chapterize the story and captivate the reader.

Tell stories. You’ll likely want to please the masses with how-to pieces, lists, predictions, and other such staples. But challenge yourself to be a storyteller too. Use the usual elements of storytelling—time, place, characters, conflict, resolution and epilogue—to take readers on a journey.

Arouse. If that sounds kind of sexy, it’s because I want it to. Great writing will feature cliffhangers. Build curiosity. Foreshadow. Surprise. Hit the breaks. Derail the route with a radical twist. Do whatever you can to make eyes dilate and hearts pound. 

Teach. Just as advertising is preaching, content marketing is teaching. Your mission is to educate, and entertain. I’m not saying you’ll never talk about your brand, but I am saying you’ll never build an audience if it’s all you talk about. Share your knowledge generously and deliver value.

Converse. It’ll serve your content writing well to write conversationally. Ask your readers to ask questions, add comments and join the new media interaction party.

Call for action. You can wrap up your piece with a zesty zinger, but there’s no “the end.” Remember, you’re a marketer. It’s motion you’ll measure. So don’t tell your reader goodbye. Tell them what to do next. Sign up. Share. Download. Learn. Register. Try. Buy.

You wrote content the right way. Your reader should respond.

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“Strike a Chord: Lessons for Making Your Web Content Resonate”