Can having better conversations make us better content marketers?

Why do some content marketing efforts knock your socks off while most hang out in the land of Meh?

Why does some email marketing practically open and click itself, while most messages pass through unnoticed?

"Personalization" has been a buzzword for a couple of years now, but studies show significant gaps between our Marketer Mind concept of personalization and the general consumers.

Can better conversations lead us to real personalization? In the end, can having better conversations make us better content marketers?

What the heck, right? Our marketing funnels are en pointe. Our landing pages? OPTIMIZED. Our blog posts average 3,000 lovingly search engine optimized words.

Why aren't we – why isn't every brand – just killing it with our content marketing? Why isn't Average Pat desperate to click and share and shower us with cash? It's so personalized, how do they not love it?

Pull your head out of your data points and diagrams for a hot minute, because I think we forgot something major here.

We're still after conversions.

If we're trying to get personal, maybe it's time to go after conversations.

Why Better Conversations Might Help Us Be Better Content Marketers

“Offline marketing is about getting attention. Online marketing is about paying
attention.” - Gerry McGovern

To make personalization work, we need to open up conversations with our customers.

Yes, the marketers need to make conversation with the users. No, not just the sales people.

We have tools for making conversation – chats, emails, SMS, social media accounts, forums, pop-up surveys, and polls.

But do we view them as channels for a back-and-forth? As exchanges? Or do we use them as validation to send the next step in the funnel? A data point?

Is the user who filled out the survey granted anything more than thanks? What if they had more to say?

Personalization – with it's crunchy, hard work exterior and ooey-gooey relationship center – is the natural result of using marketing to make conversation.

Five Ways to Use Better Conversations to Make Better Content Marketing

Straight from the mouth of conversational master Celeste Headlee and her inspiring TED talk on the subject, here're ten ways to have a better conversation.

No worries if you're not into video right now, I break out the five we can most easily modify for better content marketing below:

Conversation Rule #1: Don't multitask.

In day-to-day conversation, as Celeste points out, this is as simple as focusing on the person you're with whom you're conversing. Putting your phone to the side (and maybe upside-down). Turning away from your laptop screen when you're chatting with a colleague.

If you're on the phone, don't use the conversation time to do your laundry, scroll Twitter on your iPad, or flip through your Netflix queue.

Use conversation time to converse.

Marketer's Rule #1: Don't multitask your goal.

Picking a singular goal is one of the core tenets of landing page copy, where we're talking about conversion goals. An Opinionated Guide to Conversion from Unbounce puts it well:

As you create your landing page, step back from time to time, look at it from a distance and see how many things are vying for your attention.
Refine your landing page until the answer is 1.

But avoiding multiple goals applies to content beyond landing page copy.

Wherever you're trying to engage your readers, engage them on a single level.

If the goal of the blog post is to build authority around a topic, stick to that one topic. You don't need to prove to readers that you're an authority on everything in 5,000 words.

If you want Facebook video views, open the video with a finished product or a splashy headline to grab attention. Save your masterpiece extended opening sequence for your devoted YouTube fans.

Got a new app? List one step per screen in your app onboard, if you can. Let it sink in, encourage and ensure use before moving on to the next.

Send the lesser-known or occasional use cases in your email sequences, not as part of the initial feature overview.

Droplr  makes my inbox so cheery!

Droplr makes my inbox so cheery!

True Story: I convinced a less-than-techy buddy to download the wondrous Google Keyboard. I expected a barrage of .gif-laden texts to start any moment, but you know what?

He never got past the four steps on the opening screen.

Pick ONE goal for your content, for your funnel, for your ad copy, for your microcopy, and stick to it.

Which brings me to the next rule:

Conversation Rule #2: Don't pontificate.

Fun fact: Pontificate comes from Pontiff; to preach:

  1. (in the Roman Catholic Church) officiate as bishop, especially at Mass.
  2. express one's opinions in a way considered annoyingly pompous and dogmatic.

As Celeste points out, pundits make for boring guests and terrible conversationalists. You know that friend who just will not accept that you still eat meat? The one who heard you lost your phone at the airport and managed to bring the conversation back to "Veganism is the only sustainable lifestyle!"

That guy's no fun.

The surest way to get what you're looking for from a conversation is assume you have something to learn from it.

Marketer's Rule #2: Learn something about your audience from the content

We just talked about choosing a singular goal for your content and sticking to it – the very essence of being a pundit. But if you want to make the most of your content marketing, don't use it to preach to your audience. Use it as an opportunity to hear back from them.

The most obvious way to learn from your marketing? Preach your way through a blog post, then ask for contrarian comments.

Benji and Devesh at Grow and Convert learned the power of this tactic in conversational marketing when they published Why Marketing Has Become the Hardest Position to Hire For to the tune of 45 comments. The piece also taught them just how special we marketers think we are, and how much we luurrrve an opinion piece that validates our beliefs. The post earned over 2,000 very special snowflake shares.

Here are a few more ways to use content marketing to learn from your audience, not just publish to them:

  • Frame your post or ad copy headline as a question on the topic instead of a blanket statement (maybe you've seen someone do that recently …)
  • Include qualifiers throughout your content. Statements like, "I don't see any reason why…" resonate and encourage users more than, "THERE'S NO REASON WHY…"
  • Actively recruit conversation and/or invite controversy on your social media channels, like Crew here:
  • Post bite-sized versions of your content on forums where it can illicit feedback.
  • Encourage replies to your email sequences. READ THEM.
  • Encourage honest reviews of your app or your podcast – in other content, if necessary. Read these, too. In an email from Brian Clark:

True Story: Reviewing anything in iTunes frustrates me to pieces. Of the 9.82 million apps and podcasts I own, use, and find valuable, this is one of a handful that I swallowed the pain to review. Solely due to conversation.

  • Feeling a little obtuse? Your analytics tool can show you what's engaging your audience on a basic level. If you haven't already, sort your content by its popularity, and stop creating what's missing the mark. Your audience may NOT like videos, or posts over 1,000 words, or infographics, or any number of best practices. Don't force them into content that doesn't fit.

Conversation Rule #3: Ask the Journalistic Questions – Who, What, When, Where, Why, How.

The scene: You finally happened upon some early-AM facetime with the boss. There you are at the coffee pot, mind racing, trying not to ask about the weather…

Your boss: "Ugh, the coffee this morning is > > > > > > horrible> > > > > > ."

You: "Oh. That sounds … like … bad. I won't get any, then."

Your boss looks up, nods at you. Heads to his office, shuts the door.

[end scene]

Does that sound like a worthwhile conversation? Do you want a minute of your life back?

Next time you're at a conversational dead-end, try using a journalistic catalyst to ask an open-ended question.

Your boss: "Ugh, the coffee this morning is > horrible> ."

You: "What would you give for a Stabucks right now?"

Your boss: "Nah, I don't like Starbucks, either."

You: "Really? Where's your favorite coffee spot?"

Your boss: "You wouldn't know it. I'm much cooler than you. But suffice to say, the coffee is expensive and delicious."

You: "Right, of course! Super exclusive. So who do you see when you go there?"

Your boss: "Other awesome people."

You: "Well, when I make a million dollars, I'll have to ask you about it again! Speaking of a million dollars, how did X client respond to their newest campaign?"


This trick has saved my networking tail approximately five times in the last month. So, how do you think it applies to content marketing?

Marketer's Rule #3: Ask yourself these open-ended questions as you write.

You'll recognize some of these from Marketing 101, but how often do you answer all of them, for every bit of content you're publishing?

  1. Who am I writing this for [ideally, a persona]?
  2. What do I want the persona to do (see Rule #1)?
  3. When are they seeing/reading/using this? During a dedicated course? In their morning email dump? On sign up? At unsubscribe?
  4. Where are they seeing/reading/using this? In their Facebook feed? On their super-sized second screen at work? On a subway without wifi?
  5. How will they use this information?
  6. Why will the persona commit to the what?

Conversational Rule #4: Go With the Flow.

Going with the flow avoids the conversational equivalent of calling someone two days after an argument with the perfect comeback.

Celeste uses the example of a journalist asking questions of a guest, then clearly ignoring the answer in favor of the next question or a point they had been meaning to make two minutes ago.

I do it in conference-room disagreements, "going back to the point you made earlier," when no one else needs or wants to go back.

I've done this in client interviews. Referencing a love of big dogs that was mentioned a full question prior, or forcing the fact that we went to the same college into a question about my sample work.

Sometimes, your moment is gone.

As conversationalists and content marketers, it doesn't serve us to wrangle control the flow of the dialogue at the cost of the speaker. Cede your goal to theirs.

Marketer's Rule #4: Create for the conversation users are having.

How often do you create a piece of content because you can? Or because stakeholders want it ("Everyone else has a brand video!")?

How often are you inserting the thing you want to say into the conversation ("Lookit, we won an award! Here's a press release!") of instead of creating content that fits the conversation your user wants to have?

Mikael Cho talks about the issue of creating in a vacuum from the product standpoint, but his point is well-taken from the content side, too.

Just replace the product concept with content, and you'll see what I mean. If the content you're creating isn't answering a question your users are asking, it breaks the flow.

This isn't to say you shouldn't brag a bit when you when an award, for instance – but think about where that announcement would naturally fit:

  • Make a quick video of your team celebrating in the office and post it on your most casual social media channel.
  • When you know your user is comparing your offering to your competitors, send an email mentioning the award, with a very clear section: What This Means For You.
  • Put the award logo in your testimonial section, with a link to an explanation.

When we talk about funnels, we think of them as linear processes with a few pieces of content to go with each step.

Let's stop that.

Instead, let's think about funnels as individual people, no two funnels the same.

Maybe someone's TOFU content is a service subscription from their buddy. That's where their conversation starts. As content marketers, our job is to adapt to that. Does that mean they're ripe for a special price? An introduction to your features?

Why not a custom email where you ask what they're ripe for (although, probably not in those terms)? At that point, you have the opportunity to create something that truly fits the conversation, that goes with the flow.

This is how we get closer to the personalization that consumers expect, love, and trust.

The final rule needs no modification:

Rule #5: Be Brief

When you're done, you're done.

200 more words will not a viral post/healthy conversation make. Testimonial #8 doesn't add anything to the page (unless your users have 8 different objections, all clearly addressed by the variety of testimonials – that's unlikely).

Your users' time is important to them. Don't waste it.