Content marketing is still a hot topic, but when I first heard of it, (don’t ask how many years ago, I was hiding in a corporate marketing job, we didn’t only use jargon, we invented more of the stuff.) I groaned inside. Why? Because every marketer started repeating parrot fashion:
Content is the way to sell.
No, no, no, it’s not.
The way to sell technology and complex services is to meet people, understand people, call them back, find out what their pains are and solve them. Or make their dreams come true. But how do you that? And more importantly, how do you show your ideal customers that you’re capable of making their problems go away?
Bottom line, before anyone will buy from you, your brand has to instinctively ‘feel right’ for them. You have to share stuff: values, style, life-experience, conversations, time – oh, and your marketing (whatever you use) has to appeal to them, not repel them. But so many businesses are missing the mark by making these six mistakes with their content. What are they? And how can you avoid them?
1. Your content doesn’t resonate with your audience
The first is obvious. Your client doesn’t recognise themselves in what you wrote. Nothing about the article convinced them you understand their problem. So spend more time understanding them. Find out how you can serve them. A customer avatar, or customer persona, or profile is not a work of fiction. Ask your existing customers, ask your customer-facing teams, get third party perspectives, but fill your customer profile with facts. Lots of them.
2. It doesn’t reflect your real values
The second is easy to avoid when you’re Nike or Apple. But smaller businesses don’t have the budget to refine, create, build and share advertising and consumer content where every word is synonymous with the brand values. What happens when you’re busy, you don’t take time to reflect on the business values at all, the company grows organically, people working there like their jobs, but the leaders don’t or can’t articulate ‘why’ they will continue to like it and why customers can be proud to buy from them.
Get together, take time out, figure out what you want your potential clients to see. Then put ‘that’ into your articles – or if you haven’t got time to write them, brief your copywriter properly. Adam Brooks reminded us of this in his Customer Lifetime Value talk, thanks sir. And yes, one of my favourite books is “Start with Why.” If you don’t share enough content about the business values, why it was formed and what you want to help people with, they won’t feel anything at all. Guess what, we buy with feelings. Which vary at different times of the day, week, month, year.
3. Your content isn’t shared often or widely enough
Thirdly, if you’re a sole trader or freelancer, you might have heard that bit about including your values in your blogs, so you’re busy writing them every week and sharing ‘behind the scenes’ information about yourself. Phew, it’s hard to keep that up. Perhaps one a month will do? Some statistics tell us companies who blog get more leads than those who don’t. But read Hubspot’s detailed analysis: for business to business audiences, it talks about blogging 11 or more times per month to generate more traffic and having a back catalogue of over 400 posts. I’m not suggesting give up, but instead, share a story when you’ve got something valuable or important to say. And share it everywhere, not just on your website. Don’t write a rubbish article because you’ve been told consistency is key.
4. It isn’t consistent
Oh wait. The fourth mistake – consistency IS key. Sticking to a content plan or schedule does work better than publishing random content for most businesses. But there’s a bigger problem for small and medium sized businesses. Most marketing content doesn’t flow well because they haven’t thought through an overarching set of themes, topics and events which all fit together. The reader doesn’t come back to read your blog again because they don’t know what to expect.
5. It isn’t about them – it’s about you
Fifth. Avoid oversharing, it becomes boring fast. I may know you, trust you and like you already, so don’t blow it. Your email newsletter doesn’t need to ‘chat to me’ about all your internal workings. Yes, I’m happy to read your news and customer success stories, but only if I can see what I’ll get out of it. You’ve got a new team member: great, tell me how they’re going to improve your services because they’re an awesome hire. Educating me works better, especially if you’ve figured out exactly what I’m struggling with or want to learn more about.
6. It isn’t really your voice they hear
The sixth mistake is more subtle. I’ve written this blog today under the influence of hearing some brilliant speakers at StroudNet and Dent recently. But does this article sound like me? The same Debra who shows up at networking and smiles quietly when you show much you care about your customers?
Being congruent with who you are, what you stand for and how you want people to feel after they’ve bought your service is a challenge when you’ve got other people writing on your behalf. What I’m learning, is how important it is for a business to have a separate personality from the founder, even in infancy while you’re a sole trader. I’m not suggesting the managing director HAS to write every blog or marketing article, but the leaders do need to take an interest and make sure the ‘company’ personality is clearly represented. We call it ‘tone of voice’ and it matters because your ideal clients can spot BS a mile off. They’re human, they have strong instincts too.
Good news, all these mistakes can be fixed quickly:
Treat your content marketing plan like a jigsaw. Look at the big picture before you start.
Bring other people in to explore your plan. Your perspective might be wonky.
Know who you are you writing it for. Or read about mistake one again and go do your research.
Pick three key adjectives for your business or go back to your values and include those within every single one of your articles.
Storytelling in your content works – but make it easy for the readers to take the next step.
Call to action, terrible piece of jargon. Here is mine: I offer a free consultation to help businesses diagnose whether their content is hitting the mark with their customers and how case studies can help reach more of them. I spend a lot of time calling other people’s customers and my filter is ready. Sadly, sometimes I get a brief and I have to write what the client wants. Don’t be that client. Ask me what I really think, and I’ll tell you.
Footnote: Did you spot me using words like ‘instinctively’ and ‘feeling’ and ‘client’ instead of customer? I want my clients to know I’m here to help them grow, but also to support them longer term to make their marketing resonate more. I’m developing my superpower, empathy. What’s yours?
Case studies are a great way of using storytelling to promote your business. They offer the classic story format of starting with a person facing a challenge or desirable goals, a middle plot to share what happened next and ending with the results you delivered for the customer. A well-researched case study goes a step further than a standard testimonial by revealing your unique approach in enough detail to prompt the reader into action. The full story will resonate with people struggling with similar challenges because it shows how well you understand the pains and where you can help others.
To prove the value your products or services offer, you’ll want to share case studies which help convert potential customers into actual customers. These planning steps make case studies simple to create and strong enough to sell:
Identifying a great case study
Select the ‘best’ customers to feature in your case studies. This means identifying those who fit well with your brand values and sit in markets where you already sell or want to sell in future. When shared on popular platforms, a relevant case study will increase your brand awareness, credibility and authority. Only choose the stories where you can demonstrate measurable change because we, as readers, all care about results.
Matching the story with your target audience
Review it afresh: who are your ideal audience? What do you know about the specific people you’d like to help and therefore, have to sell to? It’s no good guessing what your average customer looks like. Whoever they are, it matters whether the problem you’re covering in the story is well-defined enough, so that those people recognise themselves and relate to it.
Doing the research before writing your case studies
Book time in to talk to the person in your organisation that knows the client best. Spend time discovering more about the customer as a person and research the company they work for. Having a clear understanding of the relationship history and the industry will save you time. When you’re ready to talk to the customer for their testimonial, you can get straight to the heart of the story.
Interviewing the customer
Many businesses write their case studies without talking to the customer. I always recommend interviewing them, to seek the truth behind the service delivered. I find it saves time for getting the story approved for sharing it publicly. Be open and honest about how the case study will be used and what you hope the results will be. Being more transparent helps the customer feel more comfortable, which in turn gets you detailed and honest answers.
Adapting the interview questionnaire
Effective interviewing comes with practice, but an easy first step is to plan and adapt your questions. Plan beforehand based on the information you want to get, but be prepared to adapt it on the call to gain deeper insight. I design a custom questionnaire for each of my case study clients, to make sure the practical results and emotional impact are covered. Using prompts to explore the interviewee’s answers will get more honest feedback to create a compelling story.
Demonstrating the impact of working with you
To be strong enough to sell your services, case studies have to prove why it’s worth spending money with your business. The most powerful case studies feature measurable results. Instead of tailing off the story with anecdotal feedback, aim to showcase impressive outcomes – the more numbers, the better. To uncover these, your questions would include:
What differences have you seen since buying this service?
How is the product or service helping you save time?
What £ costs or revenue impact has there been from using this service?
How does it enhance your competitive advantage?
A final note: before you define what makes a great case study for your business, it’s critical to consider, what are you trying to achieve? Case studies can certainly help you sell, but if your challenge is gaining greater brand awareness, you could choose a different range of case studies to feature – and make them wider-reaching instead of detailed stories.
Identifying a baseline before you start helps you track the effectiveness and marketing metrics of each case study you share – to see how many people engage with it and goal conversions. Then you can see what’s working well and what isn’t. Use this data to tweak your plans; move on by testing different approaches or find ways to inject a little humour! Contact me if you’d like more help to plan the right case studies for your business.
Loyal customers can get forgotten if you’re “busy” and they’re busy. Looking back, I know I’ve made mistakes with my client relationships – which is easy to do when we are in a rush to move fast. The good news is, the new year is ahead to improve. A highlight of 2017 for me was playing scrabble with the visitors at South West Expo – watching business owners come up with a word to describe their tone of voice, their values or their brand. Some really took time to decide on their words. It made me notice that we sometimes don’t take enough time on important things, this includes keeping our existing customers happy. To sum up a few ideas, here are 6 easy steps to help you build mutually profitable relationships with loyal customers from the start:
1. Your customers help shape and fund the business you have; treat them like royalty
Yes, it’s important to win new business. Yet retaining your loyal customers by offering products and services which they need and buy again from you saves time. Businesses often give new clients discounts, offers and bonuses for buying our service. (It even annoys us when the large brands do it – like a discount offer to switch to Sky!) So surely our existing customers deserve a similar gift in return for their loyalty? For existing clients this doesn’t have to be a financial discount. Adding more value into the service can encourage repeat purchases and strengthen your relationship because you are helping them more.
2. Good first impressions help relationships last longer; make it easy for new customers to buy
Confusion causes misunderstandings and hesitation – you absolutely don’t want customers to regret buying from you. When you start working with a new customer, they need to understand how your service works and what value it will deliver. Even as a small business it’s important to make the on-boarding process welcoming, professional and hassle-free. The way to achieve this? Have clear communications for each step in your process, which you can send via a series of welcome emails. Automation may sound costly and complex, but is designed to make life easier. It ensures that no matter how busy you are, your customers feel like you are taking care of them. If you’re repeating the same step for every customer, get an expert in to help map out the process and support it with an email series for staying in touch with existing customers. And there are lots of inexpensive cloud apps to help small businesses, either via your CRM or an email system like MailChimp or Campaign Monitor. It’s one of the points of improvement which I’ve started for my business – to keep my customers informed when I’ve spoken to their clients while developing their case studies.
3. Clear pricing builds trust; additional charges and hidden fees destroy it
Businesses can and do lose customers because they’ve added additional charges in and the customer pays, but doesn’t buy from them again. Both your client and their finance directors will be extremely grateful for complete transparency – they want to know what value they’re getting in return. (see Measures) There are several models for building pricing which small businesses can use – most of us will be looking at market rate and costs plus a mark-up pricing. As business owners, we have the freedom of pricing services at a level which fits the market and reflects our model. This means that on occasion we go through awkward periods of change to adjust our prices. One thing to bear in mind is that new customers don’t need to know that; your key responsibility is to clarify how much you are charging before you start any work or meetings with them. And keep your loyal customers informed when changes affect them. Having a standard tariff or example pricing on your website resolves the first hurdle of your customer not knowing what to expect.
4. Show customers the value – measure it and deliver on the promise
Before you start work with any new client, ensure they understand what your services will achieve for them and measure where you are starting from. That way, you can assess as you go along and be clear of the difference you’ve made at the end. Services like marketing consultancy and human resources expertise can be tricky to measure – especially if the business you’re working with doesn’t track key performance indicators closely. It’s your job to help here too, by starting with the end in mind. For me, my clients are always interested in using content marketing to drive sales – through enquiries, awareness, and engagement. It’s been a big shift this year with the help of my business coach to look at the measures for how case studies make a difference.
5. Loyal customers generate word of mouth referrals; keep in touch
No matter how long you’ve been working with them, or what stage your customer is at, keep in touch. It seems obvious, but in the hubbub of business activities, it can be easily missed. In my corporate life, we spent a lot of time designing a contact strategy to form part of the customer service proposition – with triggers for three-month and six-month calls. Setting a strategy is helpful for small businesses too – to remind you to contact them after sending the invoice and check results and feedback. Using your Customer Relationship Management system helps if you have several staff in contact with the same customer, because they can all see the most recent notes. Managing relationships centrally will help avoid mistakes and keep you in the customer’s mind – so they may recommend you to others.
6. Staying in touch enables you to listen out for areas to improve; seek feedback
Asking your loyal customers for feedback may take extra time or seem daunting, but it’s vital for maintaining great relationships as well as improving your service. The simplest measure is your NPS (net promotor score) which is one question to ask how likely they are to recommend you – and is a recognised measure of customer experience. Or you can use a simple survey using a free tool like Survey Monkey or GoogleDocs to capture more information. The purpose is to take time out to review what you offer; yet it’s another positive way to stay in touch with your customer in between projects.
There are so many aspects to creating positive customer relationships, I would love to hear what you would add to the list? Contact me here. Once you get in the habit of asking for direct feedback, it’s easier to ask your customers whether you can use their story in your marketing. A case study is a win-win if your clients are selling to other businesses because you can help promote them too.
When you’ve made the effort to write up your client case studies, it is important to get the most out of each story, without boring your regular readers by repeatedly sharing the same posts! If you’re regularly producing newsletter content and articles or blogs for other channels, it helps to keep your efforts focused on a few key priorities for your business:
Before you develop a new case study, plan who it’s for:
Stats show that sharing content works best for businesses to pull in more website traffic when you’re sharing more than four blogs a month. (See Hubspot Blogging Frequency Benchmark Data) However, if none of your blogs or case studies are relevant to the people you want to reach – what’s the point? Before you start, get a clear and specific idea of who you are writing for and what will be most relevant to them. A helpful tip for profiling who you want to reach is to use the customer avatar sheet from Digital Marketer. It looks at all the aspects – location, career, interests, sources of information plus their role in the purchase process for your services.
Set themes for all your content – blogs, case studies, and event talks
To make the most of writing up a case study, it needs to fit within a range of blogs and content for social media, where you are sharing your expertise for free. This helps potential clients realise what you’re capable of – and realise how they would benefit from working with you. If you are speaking at an event, you can plan which topics will support what you’re saying on the day, and which client case studies would be relevant.
For a service business, you can share a blog or video about the process of design and build, and link it to a case study. The follow up content could cover maintenance and repair or updates – and still link to the same case study, or a different one.
Align case studies with your most profitable products and services
Be aware: even though your client case studies are one of your most valuable sales tools, they should NOT be full of product information and blatant sales messages. The main body of the story should showcase what was happening for the customer before they met you. Then you can and should mention which of your services that client is using, and how your services solve the customer’s pain. A credible case study will talk about the impact on their situation, and measure any improvements and success they’ve achieved. By including a personal testimonial direct from the client, you can bring the story to life – and use that in a considered way on your social media posts.
Share your client case studies with the press
Finding time to contact journalists and share your expertise with them is tricky, however, once you include it in the flow of your marketing, it becomes easier. Select a limited number of media contacts who are really interested in your subject matter and take time to build the relationships. When you’ve got a great story, they will be more receptive to publishing it.
My top tip for making sure your case study efforts aren’t wasted (sitting on your website with no traffic!) is to have a half day media training with a local PR agent. That way, you can learn a lot about the local press network, learn how to pitch your stories and get more confident for telephone interviews with journalists. It’s a positive halfway step towards selecting a PR agent and outsourcing the whole plan.
If half a day is too much time out on a single day, you could try a PR coach who offers online support and regular tips to grow the number of articles your business is mentioned in. You’ll need to schedule 45-90 minutes every week to stay on track with your plan, even if you’re only aiming for coverage once every few months. Once your content gets out there, you’ll find the momentum builds – the important thing is to make a plan and keep going!
I’m a Partner Writer with case study creation service, Case Study Ninja – where PR placement and social media support is part of the premium Marketing Case Study offer. Do contact me if you’d like a 30-minutes case study review call on how to do more with yours.
When I started working freelance in 2014, I had one client who needed my help and was happy to pay for my marketing expertise.
Finding my voice began by talking openly and positively about case studies, blogs and communications for that client, in a networking group with other small businesses. What I was saying must have resonated well, because I began to get enquiries from other businesses. At that point, I didn’t imagine it would last! There are so many marketing consultants and agencies, yet I followed the marketing process to figure out who to work with and what to offer.
I’ve received a lot of generous help while launching 27 Marketing, which will help you when starting a new business and creating a unique voice for yours:
Seek local business support and go along to networking groups
The first marketing tip for start-ups is to find your local small business events and start networking. Attend at least one of the local business or financial planning courses for start-ups. It’s a great way to grow your network of contacts and hear more about the local business environment, so I’d recommend going along, even if you know the workshop or course topic.
There are many organisations who support new businesses and freelancers: Enterprise Nation, IPSE, Institute of Directors, Federation of Small Business, and local services like Business West. You’ll hear about other local events where you can build new contacts, and one of your ideal customers may even be in the room. Networking can be a challenge, but get out there, and be ready to adapt what you say about your business as you develop.
Launch and test your services, stay flexible about refining them
A bit obvious: your first customers are the key for any business – you need revenue to get started. However, these early customers also have the power to help you shape your products and services, so be open and ask for their feedback.
I quickly found that I could offer two distinct types of services ‘marketing done for you’ where I write regular news, blogs and communications, and ‘marketing planning help to change direction’ which evolved into a Marketing Booster for micro-businesses. Looking at my competitors also helped me shape my services and differentiate them. There are many other marketing consultants out there who are extremely adept at analysing strategy and data to allocate marketing campaign budgets. Whereas my clients trust me with their most valued relationships – calling their customers to write up their case studies.
After testing, the next step is to define your services clearly, so they are easy to understand and buy.
Set your pricing in line with the market, yet high enough to re-invest
When setting your prices, look at what your customer needs, what value your service offers, and what they are willing to pay for it. Defining a set of ideal customer profiles will help you figure out more about them. However, in the early days it’s essential to be clear on why you want to reach that type of customer and which part of the service they benefit from most.
One client came to me to discuss her services, where we spent a half day reviewing how the needs of her customers unfold. We soon spotted her business wasn’t charging for the most valuable part of her service – the aftercare they receive and post-event assistance to achieve their objectives. Her business provides a unique service, because she researches and adapts it for every organisation she serves, and repeated work with those clients proves the value. Implementing a price increase to cover the extra preparation work and follow up, means she has room to re-invest and grow the business.
Note any recommended business books, plan to read them over time
I love reading, so it’s a pleasure to discover interesting books, but with a new business, you’re short of time and reading may be on your list of distractions! When starting a business, you’ll hear many different book recommendations, so it’s easy to get swamped and feel like you’re not learning quickly enough.
Remember though, your business will have a unique way of operating – it’s up to you which tried and tested methods to include in your plan – and if you’re starting small, you need a realistic timeline for studying books and implementing actions. Recognising that is an important part of finding the flow of your marketing, and a voice which genuinely reflects your business.
To help you refine your products and services and fast track your marketing, I highly recommend reading Watertight Marketing, by Bryony Thomas. And if you are near London or Bristol, make plans to attend the Lunch and Learn sessions at least once. Watertight Marketing covers the whole process for marketing in such a practical way, anyone can understand it and more importantly, act upon it.
Write your website content, but use professional photographs and web designer
In the early days for a micro business, it’s expensive to hire a professional copywriter. Unless you’re aiming for perfection, (or can find a writer who will advise you on your marketing at the same time) you can go live with your own words on the site. Once you’ve launched and tested it for a few months, then look to improve it – focusing on the key words and phrases which will help your ideal clients find you.
However, do bear in mind, the images, fonts and design on the site matter a great deal to your new brand. After attempting to create my own website by learning WordPress, I’d strongly recommend hiring a web designer to develop it, and investing in some professional headshots and brand photography. Note: My photos are all taken by Lidia from Visuable.
Get your publicity working for you, with a plan to amplify your voice
The fastest way to generate publicity is to build direct contacts with journalists who are interested in your field of expertise. You can amplify published articles through your blogs and social media, and by speaking publicly at events. Before you set out, plan your tone of voice and how you are going to keep your publicity working because it takes time to create new stories and pitch them to journalists.
Don’t sweat too much about the flow of your social media. While it can be very effective, plenty of businesses operate without social networks, although it’s easy to believe otherwise! Once you have a story to share, you can outsource or schedule most of the work to engage with your clients. I took part in some great local training courses with Sarah Cook Social Media to understand the different platforms and decide which suited my business. These also helped me grow my local network.
People buy from people, and the people who love you most will help!
When you first start a business, it’s easy to forget that your friends and family can help you grow. I relied on my local business networks and didn’t ask for much help from my existing connections. I quickly changed that approach, when a chance conversation got me back in touch with a former school friend. She runs another small business, and we’ve spent many hours working on our plans together. Recommendations can and do come from the people who know you and love you. Or they come from the school playground, your sports club, and your local community. It’s all about making sure people understand what you do and can explain it in their own words.
This became much easier for me once I switched from saying I was a marketing planner, to highlighting that I could ring other people’s customers and write up their case studies. I do get enquiries via friends from businesses where I know they need a different type of marketing resource. I usually try to help these find the right person, explaining that my focus is on businesses who sell services to other businesses.
In the face of ominous statistics that 1 in 3 small businesses fail within 3 years, it is worth planning your business around the time you have, the approach you want to take and the activities you want to do. If you want to lead a larger organisation, you need clear goals in the plan and good mentors along the way. Every business started out as a name on a notebook at one point, and your success will come from measuring the things which matter most to you.