Richard Honiball

Outstanding is not a word that I use lightly. For years, I volunteered with a non-profit organization called HOBY, dedicated to youth leadership (Hugh O’Brian Youth Leadership). Founded in 1958, the goal of the organization is to develop a new breed of leaders, capable of facing the challenges of today and tomorrow in an empathetic manner through mentoring and service. The word OUTSTANDING is one of significance to the organization because to refer to someone as OUTSTANDING is to place them in the highest regard, to award them the highest standing. There is a cheer that follows, one that I will spare you for now, but will be happy to show you in person. Suffice it to say, OUTSTANDING to me has tremendous meaning.

I won’t quote the myriad of stats on how many brands are engaged in content marketing, and how important it is to a brand’s marketing strategy. If you are reading this article, most likely you already know that. What you also know is that for as many brands that have a content marketing campaign, many fail to produce an acceptable ROI or value. Why? Because with as many brands that have jumped on the content bandwagon, if you don’t STAND OUT, if your content isn’t OUTSTANDING, you simply aren’t going to see a return that makes the effort worthwhile. So how can you stand apart with your content marketing?

What is YOUR story and how can the content help you tell it.

It amazes me how many brands start a content marketing strategy without a strong perspective of what story they are trying to tell. It is the equivalent of an author writing a book with no idea of the plot, the main characters, or what he or she is hoping to accomplish. Brands that start posting content without being guided by the “true north” of their brand run the risk of simply wasting time, space, starting on a foundation that is most likely destined to crumble.

It is also essential that every piece of content be a building block, a chapter in the broader story. That each piece be great on its own, but also make sense as part of the summation of what you are doing. A great piece of content that isn’t related to the broader view of the brand is like buying an expensive piece of modern art and trying to make it fit in a traditional home with classic decor. It simply won’t fit. And ends up being a waste of money.

Make sure that all of your content is worthy of someone’s time.

As a former boss used to say to me, this is a case of “says easy, does hard.” And it is very hard, especially when you invest time and energy into a specific story or broader content and upon further review, it doesn’t make the cut.

A while back, I was working with a client to launch an online magazine/blog, leading the effort between a couple of agencies and our internal team. When it came together, I hit the button to send it out into the online universe. Ten minutes later, I pulled it back. When I took a second look at it, it was good, but not GREAT. I couldn’t see someone saying “WOW” after reviewing it, and though it was progress for the brand, I felt like when we put ourselves out there, especially with the story that we were trying to tell, our content needed to stand out more dramatically. It was a very difficult decision to pull the plug and go back to the drawing board, but ultimately it was a better decision than putting out a product that we were less than satisfied with.

Even with something as simple as a LinkedIn or blog post, I have others review it and give me feedback. A woman, who is in the publishing industry, takes a look at most of what I am going to post before I post it. She not only edits my work, but also gives me an honest opinion as to whether or not the content is worthy of publishing. Sometimes, she tells me “it sucks, you need to rethink this”. (Ok, she doesn’t actually say “it sucks”, but that is what criticism can feel like). The last article that she told me to rework, once I did, it became one of my most popular posts.

Journalists have now found their way into content marketing and have raised the bar.

Years ago, if you were at a party or an event and someone introduced themselves as a journalist, you probably couldn’t help but look at them with that look of “oh, I’m sorry.” As newspapers and magazines continued to decline and as more and more amateur bloggers gained traction, it seemed as if though the professional of “journalism” might fall the way of other long gone professions. Today, this is shifting dramatically. Journalists have become highly sought after as agencies have built more professional content organizations, and as some brands have brought their editorial content in house.

This speaks to the need to have experts generating your content. Whether you are using an agency or building an in house team, you can’t just rely on “royalty free” photos, or someone with an iPhone to take pictures if you expect to get attention. You can’t just go tell an intern “give me 500 words on this” and expect that the final result is going to be shared by those who should be your brand ambassadors. You can’t just schedule a half hour meeting and throw “that will be good enough” stories out there. To get great content, you have to make the investment, both in terms of time and expertise.

Make it personal and connect with people on an emotional level. And don’t be afraid to take calculated risks.

Millennials, and now Generation Z (do we have a name for them yet), are less loyal to brands than previous generations. These new consumers are motivated by stories, authenticity, and experiences. They are willing to try new services, new products, and new brands as long as you connect with them on a personal and on an emotional level. This means that your content shouldn’t just be from the brand’s perspective, but from the perspective of those who serve the brand, who build the brand, who live the brand on a daily basis. Real live people.

I once tried to convince a brand to let their interns and trainees blog about the experience of trying to succeed in design. The brand’s training program was intense, and it served to elevate how important design and development was to this particular brand. The decision was made that it would be too risky; what if one of the trainees said something that they shouldn’t? It could hurt the brand, and that is a real fear. But strong brands are willing to take that risk and let real people be part of their social content story. These brands are a step ahead of the rest.

Are you allowing your customers to be part of the experience and share their stories? 

I love experiential marketing. Let me say that again. . . I LOVE EXPERIENTAL MARKETING! Not easy to do, but when done right, it is one of the best ways to show your brand in a new light, to attract new customers that might not otherwise give you a look. Here is a comparison that I would make: if you only see someone in a business setting, you develop a professional opinion of them. Good, bad, indifferent, but it is fairly one-dimensional. Go to happy hour with someone, attend a party at their house, connect with them on a personal level, and you are more likely to get to know them as a person, and likely, you could working with them more enjoyable. Great experiential marketing can have the same impact. If customers only see you through your products and services, they will form an opinion; good, bad, or indifferent. Allow them to connect with your brand on a more personal level, experience your brand’s values and interests, and they are more likely to connect with your brand on an emotional level and become brand advocates.

From a content perspective, these experiences, whether music, sports or other events, can be pure gold when told through the eyes of a customer. If a brand tells you how cool their event was, would you trust it? But when your customers post how great an event was, that is the connection that you are trying to make though experiences and strong content marketing. And when they get used to sharing content about your brand? That’s the gold that we all strive for.

If a picture is worth 1000 words, then a video is worth 1000 pictures.

A few years ago, many e-commerce/digital experts would tell you that video simply slowed down the process. Truth be told, most videos published were long, boring and not well executed. Today, it is a completely different story. The right video can drive upwards of a thirty percent increase in online sales. The right video can connect a customer in more emotional way to your brand’s experience. We have become a very visual culture, and the more stories that you can tell through video, the more engaging your content will be.

A couple of points to consider however. First, the right content strategy has an effective mix of written and visual, both photography and video. Using one exclusively can be too one-dimensional and can turn away a percentage of your audience. Second, you need to make sure that what you post for written content, for photography, and for video, connects from a design and thematic perspective. If your writing is “expert driven” and your are videos “irreverent” and done in a completely different tone, they won’t flow well together and will hinder you from building an effective audience of brand advocates.

Don’t be vain, don’t make every story about you.

Most of us have been at a party and met THAT person. The person who engages you, taking the opportunity to tell you all about themselves, and as soon as the subject changes, he or she is off to find someone else who unwittingly falls victim to “let’s talk about me”. We rarely connect with these people afterwards, learning our lesson quickly because we know in advance what we are going to get. Instead, we seek out those who are willing to share, willing to listen, willing to engage. No, brands are not our “friends”, nor should they be, but those that make the content only about themselves, well, they won’t earn our loyalty.

My team posted a story once that had nothing to do with our product, but was an interesting story. A senior executive came to me and asked, “What did that have to do with the brand? How did this help us sell our product?” My answer? The post had to do with our customers, our followers, and it was a subject that they found very interesting (they had told us so) and when we posted this well thought-out story, we were rewarded with “shares”, “likes”, and “reposts”. Did it drive sales on that particular day? No. But it gained us new eyes, new followers, and they trusted that we were going to share content with them that was worth their time. It signaled that we were going to earn their trust and respect and over time, this does translate to sales.

Stay committed, stay focused, strive to improve every day.

Building an effective content strategy is not for the faint of heart. The web is littered with those that started with vigor, only to whimper away because their initial posts didn’t gain traction, the stories & content became harder to think of, and my favorite, because the finance department prematurely tried to measure the direct ROI of the strategy and yanked the budget. Candidly, this is the equivalent of walking into a fast food restaurant, and near the front counter, spotting the “Employee of the Month” plaque that has no names past April, 2013. Really? You haven’t had anyone worthy of winning this award in the last couple of years?? Someone should really just take down the sign, or shouldn’t have started up the program in the first place if they weren’t going to be consistent with it.

Effective content strategies work. They invite new followers to your brand, encourage brand advocates to support you, and connect you with “influencers”. The right strategy can also engage your internal team and offer them a chance to put more “skin in the game” when it comes to developing and promoting the brand. To succeed though, you have to invest in the right talent, build the right narrative, effectively connect the dots between the various pieces of content, and accept nothing less than OUTSTANDING!

Really, why should you accept anything less? I doubt your customers will.

About me: My career has taken me from retail to wholesale, specialty to department store, national to private brand, luxury to moderate. Willingly. I am inspired by watching the customer fall in love with a concept or brand. Storytelling. The creative journey. Finding the intersection where impossible becomes possible & discovering trends & innovations that can change perceptions and behaviors. Being part of an organizational transformation. And helping someone reach beyond what he or she thought they were capable of. Most importantly, I am inspired by seeing my daughter smile and seeing the world through her eyes.

I’d love it if you’d follow me, and comment along the way, whether you agree or disagree. And connect with me on Twitter as well @rhoniball. I may say something intelligent from time to time. More likely, I’ll retweet something from someone much smarter than me!

This story originally appeared on LinkedIn