The Simple Way To Produce 10x Better Content

 

Over the last 6 years I’ve published hundreds of stories. They have been read by millions of people and have helped my companies or my customers’ companies generate hundreds of thousands of dollars in recurring revenue. Below I’ve outlined how I run audience research interviews to come up with story ideas.

Traffic analytics for a recent post that we published on Campfire Labs’ blog.

Traffic analytics for a recent post that we published on Campfire Labs’ blog.

When I worked on the marketing team at Highfive there was one meeting every week that I dreaded. The story meeting. It should have been the most exciting meeting of the week, a chance to explore ideas, and think about exciting new stories that we could publish on our blog. But that was never the case.

Each story meeting felt like an exercise in guessing and then trying to meet our customers’ expectations. In hindsight it was absurd. Three marketers sitting in a conference room guessing at what the CIO or VP of IT at a company 100 times our size would want to read. Our goal was to hit the bullseye, to write the story that thousands of IT leaders would share with their network, but our strategy was to put on a blindfold, spin around a few times, and then throw some darts at the wall.

When our Head of Demand Generation, Michael Freeman, joined the company, he suggested a new way to come up with story ideas: “Why don’t we call them up and ask them what they want to read?”

Embarrassingly we had never thought to do this. Sure, we had developed personas based on customer interviews about the pain points our product solved, but we had never asked customers about the problems our content could solve.

Shortly after that we called the CIO of Hubspot, Jim O'Neill. Michael led the call and asked smart questions like, “It’s Sunday afternoon and you’re watching the Patriots game — what are you stressed about?”

Over the course of the next few months we called another dozen customers to ask them similar questions. In doing so we uncovered the cause of our customers’ stress and anxiety and asked questions that revealed their hopes and aspirations. It was a perfect formula for writing content that engaged them emotionally and added real value.

In her AMA on GrowthHackers, Camille Ricketts—the founding editor of First Round Review—explained how simple “Psychologizing your audience” can be:  

“Psychologizing your audience doesn't have to be some big ordeal…I would definitely ask them what kind of information they need. I think that's the key, it's not the content they WANT to see... it's information they feel they NEED to succeed. Where are the gaps they see in front of them, standing between them and their definition of success, or the metrics they want to maximize? How can you help them fill this gap? Really, you're looking to provide utility, utility, utility. I think where a lot of content strategies misstep is providing customer stories, or trying to demonstrate value without considering what their customers' goals are and how they can help with that first.”

After we interviewed our customers at Highfive, we learned that everyone wanted to figure out how to build the best culture on their IT team. With this in mind we launched a new series where we interviewed IT leaders at companies like LinkedIn, Pinterest, and Spotify. In order to write the stories we relayed the questions our customers mentioned in the calls. For example, “We recently talked to Mike at Hubspot and he said he wants to build a culture that can retain the best talent. How have you tried to solve that problem?”

Immediately our website traffic started growing. Whereas our blindfolded strategy netted a couple hundred views per post, our ask-the-customer approach netted as much as 20,000 views on some posts.

A few years after I left Highfive one of my friends, Matt Sornson, called me and asked for help writing a book. As Head of Marketing at Clearbit, he wanted to write about how high growth companies use data to inform their sales strategy. Before ever writing a single word we “psychologized” our audience. In the process we avoided costly mistakes and generated new story ideas.

Customers told us that some of the ideas we had originally brainstormed—like using data to inform email templates—would turn them off the book altogether. We had planned to lead the book with that topic. They also gave us five chapter ideas that we hadn’t considered like using data to coach sales reps or refine a compensation model.

Data-Driven Sales ended up being one of the most popular books in the industry the year that we published it. Hiten Shah, the Founder of Kissmetrics, wrote, “Every chapter shows exactly how a company overcame their challenges and tactical ways you can do the same. Most sales advice in SaaS is generic. This isn’t.” The book generated $30,000 per month in recurring revenue in the first six months.

After seeing the impact of this strategy we started offering to do this research for our customers at Campfire Labs. In every case it has led to important insights and successful stories. In my opinion it’s the best service that we offer our customers. But we realize that we can’t work with every company, so in the interests of transparency and helping people as much as possible, I want to share a simple step-by-step process to run your own audience research interviews.

 
 

Step 1 — Define your audience

The first step is figuring out what kind of readers you want to attract. If you have an already defined Ideal Customer Profile use that. If not, run a report on your best customers (most revenue, highest margin, fastest sales cycle, etc), then look at the buyers’ LinkedIn profile and write down demographic characteristics like their job title, industry, and company size.

Your goal is to interview 10-20 “Look-alike” customers or prospects. Imagine these people as nodes on a graph. You want to interview the nodes closest to your best customers, and this may not necessarily be the highest revenue-generating ones. It is worth considering attributes like sales cycle length, product engagement, NPS score, and margin if you have this information readily available.

Step 2 — Send 10-20 customers an email asking for help

Here’s a template you can use:

Hi {{first_name}},

(insert your version of the standard “Hope you’re doing well” stuff we all write in emails)

We’re working on a new series of stories on our blog that aim to solve our customers’ most pressing problems. In order to figure out how to offer the most value and write something that you actually want to read, we’re asking a couple of our favorite customers for help.

Do you have 20 minutes in the next week or two to jump on a quick call and tell us a bit about what you’d like to read?

If you’ve built good relationships with your customers this should be relatively easy. If you’re having trouble or worry about burdening them too much, offer a $100 Amazon gift card.

Step 3 — Interview your customers

When you hop on the call give your customer context on the project.

“Thanks so much for taking the time to talk with me, {name}. As I mentioned in my email, we’re working on a new series of stories on our blog that aim to solve our customers most pressing problems. To pick our topics, we are asking some of our favorite customers what they want to read.

In this call I’d love to learn what problems keep you up at night, what type of content you’re currently reading, and what you’re trying to learn this quarter. The goal of this interview isn’t to figure out what you want to read; I want to know what you NEED to read.”

Sample interview questions

  • It’s Sunday night and you’re watching Netflix — what are you stressed about? What are you worried about in the upcoming week?

  • What are you trying to learn at the moment?

  • What metrics are you and your team measured on that you’re currently thinking about the most?

  • What do you read in order to solve these problems / learn these things?

  • What are your favorite publications (both for pleasure and business)?

  • Are there articles or ebooks you reference often, or frequently send to friends and peers?

  • What is it about those pieces?

  • Can you send me the links to those pieces?

  • Who are some writers whose work you enjoy reading?

  • What do you read or watch for inspiration?

  • Are there common themes among the writing/content you find compelling? (For example, I like Malcolm Gladwell for his ability to make any topic compelling with story, but I realize some people prefer a writer like Paul Graham who gets straight to the point).

  • What types of topics would you like covered in content created by our company?

  • What types of topics do you not want covered?

It’s important to note that interviewing someone is not the same as having a conversation with them. In a 20-30 minute call it’s important to get as much as possible and sometimes that requires breaking the natural flow of the conversation. A couple things to note:

  1. If someone isn’t answering your question, try to politely interrupt (oxymoron?) them and rephrase the question. It’s always helpful to give an example of what you’re looking for.

  2. If you have everything from a question you need, move on to the next topic. Don’t follow their comment up with something like “Oh that makes me think of X.” Just ask the next question.

  3. Ask people to be specific. Passing comments like “I definitely don’t like this X type of content, but that’s obvious so anyway blah blah blah…” can be illuminating if you press for more detail. Say, “Sorry to interrupt, but can you elaborate on that point.” Or if someone mentions a writer by their first name and you haven’t heard of them ask for their last name so you can research them later. Then ask why they like that writer.

Step 4 — Document your findings

Make sure to record and transcribe your calls. Zoom is good for recording calls and Rev is good for outsourcing the transcription. Then create a folder in Google Drive, Dropbox, or whatever cloud storage service you use with the call notes.

Go through the transcripts and try to distill the insights. Look for common pain points, publications, and topics they want to read about.

Pay close attention to the language they use to describe things. You want to write blog headlines, social copy, and content in their words, not yours.

Create a separate document or spreadsheet and add all the pain points, topics, writers, publications, etc.

Step 5 — Turn your insights into story ideas

By this point your mind should be buzzing with story ideas. But if not, here’s a simple way to turn the insights into blog posts. Take every frequently mentioned problem and fill in these blanks:

How {customer} solved {problem}

Now take every metric your customer mentioned and fill in these blanks:

How {customer} measures {KPI}

or

How {customer} doubled {KPI} in {time period}

Step 6 — Create a style guide and updated persona

In addition to story ideas these interviews will give you more insight into how you should be writing stories. In the publishing world this is referred to as a “style guide.” As you hire more writers and work with people outside your company it becomes more important to document this with examples.

Look at the answers customers gave you to questions like “What type of publications do you like, and why?” or “What do you not want to read?”

I’ve interviewed people who say they want to read engaging narrative stories and people who say they hate Malcolm Gladwell’s storytelling style and prefer writers get to the point. Some readers like lots of data whereas others are overwhelmed by it.

Document these subtleties in a style guide and give examples for writers to reference (ideally stories that your customer gave you in the interview). Make a list of their favorite publications, writers, and stories they’ve bookmarked and aspire to write like that. Writing, like all art forms, is subjective, so figure out what your customer’s idea of a good story is and produce it.

Step 7 — Write stories and ask for feedback

Now that you’ve taken off the blindfold, go and write stories with confidence. Consider using some of the quotes from your customer interviews in stories. Then once you’ve published your stories, send each customer you interviewed an email and ask for two things: feedback and a social share. This follow-up will close the loop and ensure that each story actually solves a real problem.

The above process has helped me and my team write some of our best stories. In aggregate they have been viewed more than a million times and generated hundreds of thousands of dollars in recurring revenue for us and our customers. I believe using the process above anyone with a good product can achieve the same results.

Give it a try and let me know how it goes.

About the author

Hi! I’m Michael Thomas. After selling SimpleData I wrote stories for magazines like The Atlantic, FastCompany and Quartz and helped start a code school for refugees. Now I’m on a mission to fund ambitious social impact projects and help companies tell stories that inspire with new company, Campfire Labs.

 


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