Selling through storytelling: a parable by HN Marketing

At HN, we’re passionate about telling stories when we write. We know from experience that stories resonate with an audience, and using them wisely can greatly boost the success of your marketing campaign or sales pitch. What better way to illustrate that than to tell you a story? So – are you sitting comfortably? Then we’ll begin…

Geoff sat down in the conference hall, still hungry after the pitiful sandwiches that were a staple at these sorts of events. Prospects for the afternoon weren’t good; two hours on some new software that the CEO thought would really help him improve the running of the IT department. Between that and the sandwiches with their unidentifiable filling, he was certain he would be asleep in ten minutes.

The lights dimmed, a projector whirred to life, but instead of the usual presentation, with lists of USPs and dreary bar charts, Geoff found himself watching a short film about one of the company’s customers. They’d faced problems similar to the ones he faced back in the office, from connectivity issues right down to always having to stay late to run maintenance on the company’s machines. He found that he related to the customer in the story, and when the company’s software was brought in to solve the problems, Geoff saw exactly how it could help him out too.

After the video, there was a Q-and-A session, during which the presenter continued referencing the story; and even got a laugh or two for his joke about the tie and the staple gun. Geoff found himself thinking of how much easier the software would make his job – he might leave the office on time some evenings! – and he resolved to call the company the next morning to discuss his situation.

On his way out of the conference, Geoff was given a leaflet which continued to talk about the software through the characters from the film, and though Geoff was privately dubious that anybody smiled that much, or with teeth that white, he found on the drive back to the office that he was already thinking about what he’d have to do to get the software installed on his company’s network. He was, he had to admit, totally sold on the product.

Of course, case studies are not the only form of storytelling with value in marketing. Keep your eyes peeled for more blogs on storytelling in the coming weeks, as we explore how you can use this technique to boost the effectiveness of your marketing materials.

Additionally, we are re-telling this story as an cartoon, to see the difference between a story told in words and one told in pictures.

All content is content marketing: why you should take care with all your content

Quick – what’s the first thing that springs to mind when you read the phrase ‘content marketing’? Perhaps it’s a case study, or a white paper, or one of the many pieces of content that you work on every day.

Things like ‘technical manual’ or ‘internal training materials’ may not have sprung to mind as readily, but they’re still important pieces of content. They all communicate your company’s personality and brand, and they all consequentially have an impact on how your customers view you. A difficult technical manual may give them the impression that you are a difficult company to deal with, and even internal documents are important; if they don’t inspire your staff to represent your company, then your staff won’t inspire your customers to buy from you.

Of course, you don’t have time to go and inspect every piece of content that is produced by your company; there’s just too much there. What are needed are some comprehensive brand guidelines, which everyone in the company can follow, to do the job of keeping your content on-message for you. You might already have brand guidelines, but try reading them from a non-marketing perspective. Would they make sense to you? If not, then they might need some reworking to apply to a wider audience. Perhaps you could even make dedicated guidelines for specific types on non-marketing content, if you produce enough of them.

It might also be a good idea to hold a training day, or a workshop, so that everyone in the business understands the impact their content can have on your brand reputation and perception. Combined with easy-to-follow, well-defined brand guidelines, you can ensure that the content you produce sends a consistently positive message to your customers.

Blogging for business part 6: Guest bloggers

This is the last in our blogging for business series. In our last post we were talking about your blog as a platform for conversations; catch up here. Alternatively, head right back to the beginning of our series here.

In this post, in our blogging for business series, we’ll be talking about guest blogging: asking a guest to write a post that’s published on your blog.

There are two advantages of guest blogging. Firstly, it can offer a fresh and impartial perspective on issues you’ve been discussing on your blog. Secondly, if the guest blogger maintains their own blog, they’ll be likely to promote their guest post to their own audience and network, increasing your reach.

Who should I ask – and how?

There are plenty of places to look for guest bloggers:

• Partner organisations
• Satisfied customers
• Subject matter experts

Asking a customer for a guest blog post is a little like asking for a case study; both are based on mutual goodwill, and can benefit both parties, but have to be done carefully, since you’re asking the guest blogger to give up their time to write your content. That said, a guest post is a great chance for them to showcase their company (and themselves), so if you know that your customer is a keen blogger in their own right, the opportunity to gain exposure through your blog could be a powerful draw for them – especially if your blog has a strong readership.

The same is true for industry experts. When you’re asking someone to write a guest blog for you, mentioning your blog’s readership stats when approaching them could help persuade them of the benefits to them of writing for your blog. It’s also a good idea to offer to link back to their own blog, increasing their blog’s reach.

To ensure that guest blogs are in keeping with your blog’s subject matter, it can be a good idea to give your guest bloggers a high-level summary of the scope of topics that your readers expect from your blog, or even your style and tone guidelines if you deem it appropriate. After that, it’s a simple case of letting them know when you’re going to publish the post.

Any questions?
This is the end of our series about blogging for business. We hope you’ve found it useful, and we’d love to know if you’ve got any questions or comments on what we’ve discussed. If you’re thinking of getting your own blog off the ground but aren’t sure where to start, then we’re just a tweet, comment or phone call away – our details are at the bottom of the page.

Blogging for business part 5: starting conversations

In our last post in our blogging for business series, we looked at the elements of content creation that will elevate your blog above the rest. To catch up, click here – or, to go back to the very first post in the series, click here.

Unlike a white paper or an EDM, blogging is a content format that gives you the opportunity to have a conversation with your audience – in that sense, it’s the original social media platform. In this blog, we’ll be answering the question of how you can foster these conversations.

Why should readers comment?
Since your blog is going to be talking about issues that your audience cares about, it’s only natural that they may have questions or a differing opinion, which they will voice in the comments section. When you respond to them it’s a win-win scenario: they get answers and interaction; you increase interest in your brand and potentially move prospects a step or two further along their buying journey. It might take some time before your commenters turn into prospects, but a comment on your blog is a good sign that someone is interested in what you’re saying.

How can you encourage commenters?
Besides preparing the ground well by covering the topics that your audience is interested in, you can encourage engagement by:

1. Taking a side. There’s nothing wrong with a fully balanced argument, but a strong opinion that provokes a reaction is more likely to get a conversation started. We’re not advocating writing scandalous, hyperbolic clickbait that makes your legal team’s hair fall out, but have an opinion that people can either agree or disagree with. Some will comment to side with you, others may argue against your point – both are welcome, as long as you take care not to treat dissenting opinions disrespectfully.

2. Asking a question. Invite your audience to share their own experiences, to add points to a list, to answer a question or complete a poll.

3. Responding promptly. If a visitor to your blog sees that three others commented last month, and you haven’t replied to them, why would they bother leaving a comment? If someone asks a question, answer it; if they’re agreeing with you, you’ve got mutual ground to start a conversation. Commenters who are disagreeing with you can be trickier to manage, but as long as you keep the debate professional and reasoned, you’ll be ok.

Get social
Blogs may be the original social media platform but they’re not the only one, and you’ll want to use platforms such as Twitter and LinkedIn to help spread the word. Provide regular updates about your latest posts, and consider paid promotion; we’ve seen clients succeed in massively increasing engagement with their posts for a relatively small investment in this way. Of course, your social media channels may well foster the same conversations that your comments section will – so keep an eye on them and be sure to respond.

Any questions?
In our next and final post in our blogging for business series, we’ll be looking at using guest bloggers. In the meantime, if anything we’ve talked about here (or in any of our other blogs) has raised a question for you, why not leave a comment of your own? You can also tweet us or get in touch via LinkedIn, using the links below.

Blogging for business part 4: creating killer content

In last week’s post, we talked about how you could ensure that your content matches the interests of your audience. You can read that post here, or go back to the very beginning of our blogging for business series here.

So far in this series, we’ve talked about the purpose of your blog, getting your schedule in order, and planning content that speaks to your target audience. Now it’s finally time to put pen to paper, to ensure that all of your planning isn’t undone by content that’s not engaging or appropriate for your audience.

Here are HN’s top three things to consider when crafting content for your blog.

1: Set the tone
While your brand’s tone and style guide is there to help give your business a coherent sense of personality (and therefore shouldn’t be ignored), blog posts don’t come from ‘the business’; they’re written by individuals. If your blog sounds like it’s being written by corporate drones, you run the risk of failing to connect with your audience and gain their trust. If your posts communicate the personalities of the people writing them, though, they’ll have immediate credibility – and your audience will respond positively to them. Don’t be afraid of controversy or debate, either – handled properly, both will win respect from your readers.

That said, your blog shouldn’t become a personal platform for your writers to post personal rants or idle musings. It’s still a very good idea to have clear guidelines regarding acceptable subject areas to talk about, and your business messages relating to those areas. Done right, your blog’s tone should complement your corporate materials, while obviously being a more informal and relaxed space.

2: Long or short?
This is a question that’s as hotly contested as the posting frequency debate. Some say that, in the age of Twitter and Vine, longer posts will bore your audience; others point to the fact that search engines are increasingly favouring long content as evidence that longer is better. At HN, we say that your post should be as long as it needs to be. If you’ve made your point in 100 words, why dilute what you’re trying to say to fill some notional wordcount? If you’re 500 words in and there’s more to say, keep going. If your posts are turning into short novels, look at breaking them into multiple parts, but as long as what you’re writing adds value to your point and isn’t just padding, don’t worry about longer content.

3: Get creative with your formats
When you think of a blog, do you think of written copy? Historically blogs have been paragraphs of prose, but there’s no need for things to stay that way. Adding a sprinkling of other formats — infographics, videos, podcasts, cartoons — will add variety to keep your audience engaged. Given that images and videos are more shareable than text alone , sprucing up your blog with visual content formats could help your blog reach a wider audience, too.
What will work best for me?

If some of these tips sound a little vague, it’s because experience has taught us that there isn’t a ‘one-size-fits-all’ policy when it comes to content. It will take some experimenting to see what works for you, and continual finetuning to make sure that your content is still working for your audience. If you keep these three considerations in mind, though, you’re off to a great start.

Any questions?
In our next post, we’ll be talking about how you can foster interaction between you and your blog’s readers. In the meantime, if you’ve got questions on anything we’ve talked about in this blog (or any of out others), then why not leave us a comment, or get in touch with us on social media via the links below?

Blogging for business part 3: connect with your audience

Welcome to part three in our series about blogging for business. In part two, we talked about posting frequency — catch up here . Or, to go back to the beginning of the series, click here.

If you write a personal blog, then as long as you’re getting readers who enjoy what you’re posting and are coming back for more, you probably don’t mind who they are. With business blogging, though, it’s different. You’ve got an objective, and that means you need to attract an audience who are going to help you achieve that objective.

Start with customer insight
It may be gratifying if your blog is getting a lot of attention from athletics coaches or chefs, but if you’re selling managed data centre services then it’s plain that these people aren’t your target audience. It doesn’t matter if some readers aren’t your core audience — and you never know, the junior executives, students or stay-at-home mums reading your blog today may be the IT buyers of tomorrow — but if the majority of your audience aren’t the people who are going to buy your products and services (or who may influence your buyers), you’ll never reach the goals you’ve set for your blog.

That’s why good business blogging starts with customer insight. It’s a bit like dating: you know what you’re looking for; assuming that some good matches are out there, you need to find out what they’re looking for, so that you know what to say. What will make them laugh? What will make them walk away? The more knowledge of your target audience you can bring to your blogging, the better chance you stand of building lasting relationships with them.

If you’re looking for ideas about where and how to gather customer insight, you might enjoy our customer insight ebook.

Your blog as a source of customer insight
As long as you’re reasonably certain that your blog readership matches your target audience, you can use your blog’s analytics to learn more about them and finetune your blogging approach. Which posts attract the most readership (and which the least)? Can you spot patterns that might point to which topics your audience prefers, or to other blog characteristics that are proving to be particularly attractive (short or long copy, for example, or different responses to video vs text)?

If you don’t know which social media platforms your blog readers prefer (or whether they’re using them at all), analytics can help by showing you where your blog readers are coming from. But remember – analytics on existing readers can’t tell you if there’s a massive reservoir of potential customers on a platform or forum where you have no presence; only independent customer research can do that.

Depending on the analytics platform you use, you may also be able to get data on the age, gender and interests of some of your audience (you may need to add code to your blog pages to achieve this). This information can help you confirm that you’re connecting with your target demographic, or even identify a target market for your products and services that you weren’t aware of.

Any questions?
By combining insight about your blog readership with your other customer insight activities, you’ll get a clearer picture of your audience that will help you create content that’s more valuable, relevant and engaging for them. In our next post we’ll get down to the nuts and bolts of blog content creation. In the meantime, if you’ve got any questions about anything we’ve covered in our blogs, feel free to ask them in the comments, tweet us, or message us on LinkedIn — the links are all at the bottom of the page.

Blogging for business part 2: how often should you post?

We’re running a series to help anyone who’s blogging for a business. To see our first post, where we talked about the need to decide what your blog’s objectives are, click here.

There are many mysteries in life: black holes, for example, or the more mundane but no less puzzling question of where missing socks go (we suspect the two might be connected). Here at HN, one of the mysteries we’re most often asked about is: ‘how often should we blog’?

It’s an issue for marketing, PR and brand teams in organisations large and small. Even if responsibility for the content or writing of blogs is shared in the business, it’s usually the job of an individual or small group to ensure that the posts keep coming.

In part two of our ‘blogging for business’ series, we’ll be addressing the issue of blogging frequency, along with the related question of how to maintain your publishing schedule when there sometimes aren’t enough hours in the day to get all your other work done, let alone tend to the company blog.

Consistent regularity is the key to frequency
The most important factor affecting posting frequency is the need for regularity: consistency is the key. Setting a schedule that reflects a rate you can manage alongside your workload, and faithfully sticking to it — say, one post every Tuesday at 10 am — is beneficial to your blog for several reasons:

• It helps your readers know what to expect. Engagement is less likely if readers just don’t know how often to check back for something new. Obviously there is more to engage with if you’re posting more often, but it won’t last if you post daily for two weeks and then nothing for the next two.

• It helps whoever in your organisation is responsible for actually uploading blog content, if that’s not you.

• Search engine spiders like regularly changing content, too; it’s better for search engine optimisation to post once a week for four weeks, than to post daily for four days and then nothing for a month.

By setting up a measured pace that avoids having to rush posts to meet a schedule that’s too much for you, you’ll also find it easier to produce quality content. This, too, will endear you to your readers and to Google’s ranking algorithms.

Why do you blog?
Another factor influencing the frequency with which you publish is the objective of your blog. Are you aiming for lead generation? If so, then you may want a relatively heavy publishing schedule, but with shorter content, to ensure that your audience sees you. If you’re sharing knowledge with an interested audience in order to be recognised as an expert in your industry, then you may want to publish less often but dive into more detail with each post.

Clearly you need to consider your blog’s objective alongside how often you can reasonably manage to post. If your objective calls for daily posting, you’ll need to put in a sound process for getting that done without sacrificing quality. If there’s no way you can post more often than once a month, don’t set an objective for the blog that is doomed to fail with that level of publishing.

How to maintain a steady stream of posts
If you think you’ve got it in you to create a new post every week then, for the first few months at least, we’d recommend posting fortnightly. This will enable you to build up a ‘hopper’ of posts which, if your work schedule suddenly means you can’t spend any time on the blog for a few weeks, can be a real lifesaver. As we’ve said, it’s all about consistency; if your blog ‘goes dark’ for even a few weeks (or months, if you post monthly), your audience may begin to lose interest.

With a hopper of blogs up your sleeve you can schedule posts in advance. This will provide necessary breathing room for busy times, or times when inspiration is thin on the ground. Don’t let the schedule be a dictator, though; be willing to adapt it to respond more immediately to relevant events as they occur (assuming you can make the time to do so).

One way to help fill the hopper and increase the regularity of blogging is to outsource blog writing to an agency, or to guest bloggers such as customers, suppliers or outside experts (there are other benefits to using a guest blogger; keep reading this series to find out what they are).

Any questions?
In our next post we’ll be taking a closer look at understanding your blog audience. In the meantime, if you’ve got questions about how frequently you should publish posts on your blog, why not leave a question in the comments box? Alternatively, drop us a tweet on Twitter, or find us on LinkedIn — the links are at the bottom of the page.

Blogging for business part 1: a tangibly valuable tool

Over the coming weeks, we’ll be talking about an online marketing tool that’s incredibly versatile, engaging, imaginative and practical. It provides tangible value to any organisation’s marketing portfolio, but has a tendency to be misunderstood, misused and overlooked. We are, of course, talking about blogging. Though there are businesses that blog, there are plenty that don’t, and – in our opinion – they’re missing out. Even those who do often can’t give it the attention it deserves as they fit their blogging duties around busy work schedules. In this series we’ll be exploring blogging for business, covering the following topics:

Posting frequency
Connecting with your audience
Content creation
Fostering interaction
Guest blogging

Whether you’re new to the blogosphere, or have been writing for some time now, we aim to give you a few handy tricks and tips that you can use to make your life as a business blogger easier.

Lesson 1: get strategic
As someone in the office quipped the other day, there’s a world of difference between ‘having a blog’ and ‘blogging’. It’s the difference between just chucking out a post each week and crafting a strategic plan to achieve set goals using your blog. Imagine that each blog post is a horse, and that your business is a carriage; if you don’t get them all running in the same direction, they’ll never move your business forward. And the first step in corralling your blog posts (we may be getting mixed up in our metaphors here) is working out where you want them to take you — what the point of your blog is, to be blunt.

What’s your aim?
You can gear your blog towards a wide variety of goals for your business, including:

• Lead generation: turning your readers into leads and then customers with posts that position your services in the context of your target audience’s pain points, with plenty of calls-to-action to promote activity.

• Gathering insight: asking your customers questions, encouraging their participation, and demonstrating that you’re prepared to act on that information to turn your blog into a goldmine of customer insight.

• Positioning: using your blog to demonstrate your company’s expertise, with guest posts from SMEs in your organisation or partner organisations, can help establish your blog as a trusted source of information for your customers.

• Sales enablement: creating a blog for your internal staff, delivering training and notifying them of marketing activity, and help your team get sales-enabled.

You don’t have to pick one and stick with it – you could switch your focus through the year to align with other sales and marketing activities, or even try and achieve two objectives with the same blog (though if you do, then be careful that you don’t dilute the effectiveness of your blog by turning it into a ‘jack of all trades’). Just remember that you do need to have at least one goal to give you enough direction to create engaging content that keeps readers returning week after week. At HN, our blog is designed to provide our audience with the knowledge to help themselves get ahead in the world of B2B marketing, so every post we write has at least one takeaway point that our readers can use. We hope you find it useful!

Any questions?
In our next post, we will be exploring how often you should write a blog post, and how to encourage your readers to read what you write. If you’ve got questions from this blog, why not ask us in the comments section?

Does snackable content leave your audience hungry?

Do we all suffer from an attention deficit?
The human race reportedly now has “the attention span of less than a goldfish”, and long content is about as useful to marketers as a bicycle is to a fish. In today’s permanently connected world, snackable content is regarded as the only type of content that will make it through the barrage of information we experience every day.

But is it really, though?

If our attention spans are so poor, how can I have sat and spent at least 10 minutes on this article already, without wandering away from my desk? How do I regularly drive up to Leeds without getting distracted and missing my junction? How do our customers get through RFP documents, which are often long and complex, without giving up?

The answer is simple: there’s nothing wrong with our attention span. It’s our motivation as consumers of content that’s being affected.

Motivation is the key
Think of it this way: you’ll watch a documentary, or read a book for an evening, because you’re interested in the content you’re consuming, and (especially in the case of fiction) because you’re emotionally invested in it. That interest motivates us to pay attention long after we theoretically should have become distracted and disappeared, and it’s this same motivation (or lack of it) that’s responsible for the rise in snackable content.

By keeping content short, marketers can convey their message to the audience before that audience has lost interest and moved on. There’s no denying that this is a powerful weapon in the marketer’s arsenal, but to say that it’s the only tool that works any more makes the assumption that there’s nothing you can do about your audience’s motivation to pay attention to your organisation. That simply isn’t true. After all, in the B2B world the customer is at some point going to have to sit down and pay attention to someone – they’re spending, in some cases, tens of thousands of pounds on a purchase – so the job of the marketer is to motivate the customer to pay attention to their brand over the competition’s. That’s where snackable content comes in.

Hook, line and sinker
In the same way that the advert for that documentary we were talking about earlier motivated you to sit down and watch the whole thing, snackable content needs to motivate the customer to sit down and take a proper look at your proposition. It’s not about giving them a condensed version of your entire proposition or message, but giving them just enough to pique their interest and pointing them towards your longer content that conveys your message and your proposition in full. A tweet that leads to a webinar; a blog post that links to a white paper; these are examples of how snackable and long-form content can form a powerful one-two punch that entices an unmotivated audience to engage with you.

The trick, as you’ve no doubt guessed, is making that snackable content as juicy and inviting as you can. Though the analogy of a goldfish might not be quite accurate (they have memories of up to three months, according to Wikipedia ), it’s true that your audience are busy people who have information coming at them from all angles. Short content that shines like a diamond is required to get them to notice you – but once they do, don’t feel pressured into saying everything you have to say in a rush. Treat snackable content as a gateway to the wonders of your longer content, and you’ll find that your audience do, too.

The truth about viral content

Have you noticed how many people there are at the minute offering to make your content viral? You might have thought it seemed too good to be true. We at HN did too.

The buzzword

Unless you’re a healthcare professional, the term ‘viral’ probably brings to mind images of dancing babies, well-timed tweets from Oreo , or children biting each other. You’re picturing millions of views on YouTube, and your brand name becoming synonymous with your market. With the rise of social media channels, smartphones, and a growing global community of internet users, it sometimes feels like we’re only one step away from that great campaign that goes viral.

The catch

Here’s the thing, though: going viral on the same scale as those headline-grabbing campaigns takes luck. As this excellent presentation from Upworthy will tell you, you can follow the best ‘how to go viral’ advice and create the most shareable piece of content ever, with a great story, pitched at the right audience and at the most optimal time that your research has indicated, and it may never get past 1,000 views. This isn’t a shortcoming of your content; it just didn’t get lucky. Upworthy goes through the gruelling process of writing 25 headlines for each and every piece of content it posts, to ensure maximum shareability, and still only 12 of their posts have garnered more than 1 million views – just 0.41% of their content. Though many marketers would hate to admit it, you just cannot engineer virality on this scale – and to try will only end in disappointment.

Don’t try to go viral. Aim for shareable

The people telling you ‘how to go viral’ know this, though they don’t always make it clear. What they’re really offering you – and what you should be aiming for – is highly shareable content. Create a piece with a great story that forges an emotional connection, give it an attention-grabbing headline, strategically place buttons to enable easy sharing. Take care when and where you share the content for maximum impact. All of these things will boost the chances of your audience seeing your content and passing it on. Analyse your results and continually refine your process, and you should see positive results.

It’s also important to bear your audience in mind. Human though they may be, B2B buyers are not in the same mindset as consumers, and to get those valuable shares your content will have to work harder. Case in point: B2C campaigns can sometimes be racy or provocative (Dove’s recent beauty patch campaign, for instance, attracted the ire of social commentators around the world ). Employing similar tactics could put your audience off sharing your content for fear of associating their company with controversial opinions (‘I don’t want people who disagree to think that this is what our company believes, so I won’t share it’).

The size of your audience also plays a part; if you’re speaking to a niche market, for example, then it shouldn’t surprise you that your well-crafted video campaign doesn’t get 10,000 hits – and, more importantly, it shouldn’t be seen as a bad thing. The bottom line? Don’t aim to go viral; aim to reach your audience, be they 1,000 or 10,000 people.

Don’t believe the hype

We should stress here: following all the moves outlined in a ‘how to go viral’ article isn’t a bad thing; it’ll help your content stand out and get shared. And viral content can successfully be created in the B2B space: we love this Verisign campaign from 2008. But don’t be drawn into thinking that there’s a formula for breaking the million views barrier, because there isn’t. No doubt there will be a lucky few who get into the right place at the right time to be noticed by the world and go viral. But for the rest of us, let’s just focus on what we set out to do: make great content that our audiences love and share with one another.