All self-deprecation aside, while I can certainly get mentally locked in to the task after a bit of effort, at times this off-hours initiative starts to feel a lot like what I’m trying to avoid: Yes, sadly this project of mine sometimes seems like work. But is that really such a sin? After all, we spend approximately 35–40 hours a week doing our jobs, and it subsequently becomes hard to turn our brains off from that mindset. It’s only natural to think about your industry of choice on evenings and weekends; in fact, sometimes insight into your vocational life pops up almost unannounced as you go about your favorite hobbies and activities.
As an editor in the content marketing realm, I feel that type of pull between my work life and my personal life all the time. No, this isn’t a question of work-life balance. Think of it this way: if you work to foster quality, original content, then you’re drawing on numerous areas, and if you’re a bookish English major, then storytelling methodology falls right into the same wheelhouse as content marketing strategy. We’re often prone to discussing media types, publishing cadence, and SEO optimization at work, but we can also benefit from the same brain activity that Joyce, Stephen King, Thomas Pynchon, and J.K. Rowling employ in their vocation: How do we reach—and engage—the prospective reader, the audience?
No right-minded marketer would seek inspiration from Joyce, but I would argue that the mechanics behind the intent is similar. A man as committed to his work as Joyce was certainly not dreaming of dollar signs, but he surely thought of his writing in terms of the effect on the audience, going so far as to say he had “put in so many enigmas and puzzles that it will keep the professors busy for centuries arguing over what I meant.” In the marketing space—content marketing or otherwise—professionals would give several arms and legs to have their output stay in their audiences’ minds for a year, let alone centuries.
As content marketers, we aren’t wrapped up in the traditional point A to point B process of getting a product or service from store shelf to the consumer but are instead focused on engaging an audience of those would-be consumers in a meaningful way. This thinking isn’t all that different from writing a work that people might want to read. What content marketing strategy, or strategies, are we using to pique the interest of a prospective group of consumers? You don’t have to stick to industry literature to find the insight needed to create meaningful, original content, and if a work as vast and dense as Ulysses can prove this point, I’m willing to bet that the rest of the literary universe can, too (OK, maybe not Finnegans Wake).
Let’s dive into some of the specific lessons that I’ve gleaned from Joyce that relate both to storytelling in general and—believe it or not—the content marketing industry.
Embrace the Mundane
What makes Ulysses stand out from so many other works is its devotion to the finest details of one single, unremarkable day. Whether it’s bathroom breaks, meals, daydreams, or purchasing a bar of soap, the events of June 16, 1904, aren’t terribly important, but what Joyce achieves through the frame of the everyday goes beyond that: The work is a classic example of being more than the sum of its parts. The main characters may not travel far within the city limits of Dublin, but the mental miles logged (both by the characters and by the reader) add up to so much more.
It isn’t a stretch to link this thinking to content marketing strategy; In fact, if content isn’t reflecting the everyday, small victories and struggles we go through, it won’t reach anybody. Consumers are engaged when they identify with a problem or a solution. While the storytelling technique of Ulysses is almost purposefully complex and confusing, the conflicts that the story’s protagonist, Leopold Bloom, faces are easily relatable: marital problems, struggles at work, small purchasing decisions. Content creators should take the same approach. If you’re talking about something dense or technical, always tie it back to a universal point—an answer people are searching for or a problem they’re looking to solve.
Health Matters, Dignity Health’s blog (a Skyword client), takes this thinking to heart by tying what would otherwise be dense, medically-focused content to a tone that speaks directly to consumers at a basic level. This direction has really helped Dignity separate itself from the pack; while there is certainly a wealth of health information available online, Health Matters translates complicated health information by honing in on the everyday battles that people—and their loved ones—face due to health issues. By leaning on a person-to-person tone rather than speaking from a distantly authoritative perspective, the blog is far better equipped to connect with its readers. It’s not a medical encyclopedia; it’s a person-to-person dialogue, and it’s no surprise that this approach engages readers more successfully.
Tell It Three Different Ways
Ulysses is famous for encapsulating the modernist movement in literature. Simply put, modernism encouraged writers to experiment with literary form, and no one took this further than Joyce, who applied a different approach to storytelling in every chapter of Ulysses. For a few examples, the seventh chapter is broken into segments headed by newspaper-style headlines, while the fifteenth is written in the form of a play script. Most famously, the final chapter of the novel is written in stream-of-consciousness form and dispenses with punctuation entirely.
How do we translate this seemingly haphazard approach to our content marketing efforts? Rather than focusing on the experimental nature of this idea, think about it in terms of variety. Most content has an overarching audience to address and a specific topic area to cover. Sometimes, the ideation process hits a brick wall when we run out of ways to approach that area and audience—as well as different ways to speak to that area/audience. The answer to this dilemma is to spice up your storytelling: Take the Joyce approach, and use different formats. There’s more to content than short-form articles: make it a series of pieces about one big, multifaceted topic. Or dispense with articles altogether; different types of media might resonate better with your audience. Simply providing that level of variety will keep loyal readers coming back for more.
Anthem, Inc. has a health care reform blog that is a great example of what multiple formats of content can do within one topic area. While the site leans heavily on short-form articles to discuss Affordable Care Act requirements and the nuances of employee health plans, there’s also great variety on show: longer-form pieces and more visually oriented content types such as infographics and videos. The blog’s main topic area is complicated, dense material, but by making use of different formats, there’s a far better chance that readers seeking expertise on health care reform topics will find the explanation they need through a medium that works best for their understanding.
Perhaps more than any novel ever written, Ulysses is inextricably linked to its setting, as Joyce takes the concept of setting to a whole other level. Yes, most people are aware that the story takes place in Dublin on a specific day, but Joyce goes beyond the basic elements of setting by packing his work to the brim with details—big and small—of what it means to live in that time and place. Life in Dublin, life in Ireland (particularly the country’s relationship with the British), and life in Europe is revealed through countless historical minutia. Furthermore, religion—addressed through the predominant faith of Catholicism, as contrasted with the protagonist’s Jewish ancestry—reverberates throughout. The accumulation of these numerous facts and allusions creates an unmistakably clear vision of the world Joyce created.
Content works the same way. Just as we want to link original content to an audience’s everyday experiences, we also want to keep up with what people are thinking about in their world. This is easier said than done when addressing a large audience, but by focusing on the hot news stories of the day and the ongoing debates and trends that dominate common discourse, you’re attaching heightened relevancy to the material you’re putting out there. The means of identifying those hot stories, debates, and trends are as accessible as they’ve ever been thanks to search engine data. What are people searching for in your space, and what has people talking? If you can tie your content to what’s gluing eyeballs to screens across the Internet, you’ll draw your own fair share of those views.
Another Skyword client, IBM’s Security Intelligence news stream leads the way in its topic area by offering insight and analysis that’s tied to relevant news stories. Information security is an evolving landscape, with many new developments occurring weekly that affect best practices and techniques. What better way to link information to what’s relevant today than by using news as a launching point for further analysis? In an area where things are fluid, Security Intelligence positions itself as an up-to-date resource that goes beyond simply curating news content; instead, it takes that content and draws lessons and insights from it to add further value to readers.
Fighting Content Drought
Content never rests, and to keep readers coming back to your site, you need to keep it coming. But we can’t always rely on inspiration. Sure, those moments are valuable, but they’re also fleeting, and when you’re running a blog that publishes on a regular basis, you have to work hard to find relevant topics and approaches. Where can you turn when ideas are running dry?
To again lean on the literary world, let’s think about a quote from another great, T.S. Eliot: “Good writers borrow, great writers steal.” In the world of online content, you don’t have to worry so much about plagiarism. Your industry/topic area will set you apart from other sites, but what you should aim to borrow or steal isn’t their actual original content—it’s their approach. How are sites connecting and engaging with their respective audiences? Whether you draw upon their format types, publishing cadence, or specific design elements, you can take a specific approach and apply it in a different way for your own blog without being a copycat. You’re already differentiating yourself from others by your focus and intended audience, so rather than cribbing content, you’re deriving inspiration from another site that excels at reaching its own specific readers.
No matter what inspires you—what you read or watch or hear, what you experience, what sites you visit—the beauty of content marketing is how you can apply all that inspiration to work specifically for your blog. The versatility within this industry is what makes it always feel new and relevant. So get out there, do what you love, and let that inspiration come to you. Don’t be ashamed when your mind turns to work during your free time; in a world where content can mean literally anything, you never know when you’ll be hit with a content epiphany. Embrace those moments, and your readers will embrace it with you.
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About the Author
BiographyMore Content by Sam Bartlett