Content Creation Lessons from Growing 41,231 Newsletter Subscribers

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Screen Shot 2014-01-02 at 10.20.09 AMGrowing a newsletter for your company blog is tough.

Creating content that drives a ton of traffic is always a lot easier than maintaining a company blog that keeps people coming back. It might work for BuzzFeed, but creating list posts with .gifs won’t work for you if you want to build a loyal group of readers.

Since that’s the case, how can you create content that educates + motivates readers to take action, but still has that viral appeal?

In growing the Help Scout blog to 41k newsletter subscribers, I’ve tried a ton of things to make the admittedly un-sexy topic of “customer service” more appealing, and in the process, I’ve found a few elements that seem to work for every blog post.

Below, I’ll outline some of the techniques we’ve used to add a little rocket fuel to each piece of content we produce.

Don’t Write It, Visualize It

Recently, Rand Fishkin created a great Whiteboard Friday about the importance of visual assets in content in favor of infographics.

I was somewhat surprised at the reaction in the comments—I felt that too many people were focused on Rand’s denouncing of infographics over his far more important point—that visual elements can be an insanely important part of highly shareable content.

Need proof? Here are some examples of blogs with great visual assets.

OKCupid — One of my favorite examples of content marketing of all time, the OKCupid blog has become something of legend for its ability to take online dating data and turn it into incredibly memorable, hilarious, and viral visuals.

Take, for instance, their article on How Your Race Affects The Messages You Get. The team tracked data from OKCupid users to see how each race fared in sending and receiving messages.

While the data itself was interesting, this article turned into one of the most popular in the blog’s history thanks to the visualizations they used to showcase their findings. Here’s an example chart, which shows the response rates males received according to their race:

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This is an example of a great “visual asset” because it allowed readers to see a bunch of information in an easily approachable format.

James Clear — Frequent Buffer contributor James Clear takes a different approach with his visuals given that his topics revolve around habits and personal productivity.

In articles like The 3 R’s of Habit Change, James breaks down information from books like The Power of Habit by creating visuals that explain important process. One such example is this 3R’s graphic which shows the steps of successfully changing a habit.

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Graphics like these are able to succinctly explain systems that might be harder to remember with words alone.

There’s also that “swipe” factor — James has done the grunt work in making a great visual for the 3R school of thought, giving other bloggers an opportunity to swipe his graphic and link back to him, whenever it’s mentioned.

Rafal Tomal — As the lead designer for Copyblogger Media, Rafal knows a thing or two about design. He’s also great at creating useful design content, and one of his strong suits is his ability to take design advice and visualize the outcome.

One of my favorite blog posts from Rafal has to be 5 Tips to Improve Any Blog Design, an article I’ve linked to literally dozens of times thanks to super helpful images like these, which not only explain by show how a blogger can improve their typography/design:

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Rafal could have said “Create more contrast between headlines and body content,” but this graphic shows me why that’s important—I can see how much easier it is to read and browse the left side than the right.

Soundbites and Key Takeaways

Great writers are often able to take ‘big’ ideas and compress them into short, insightful prose. Headlines from folks like Paul Graham—such as Do Things That Don’t Scaleare great examples of this, but applying “soundbites” to your writing is a strategy and any content creator can use.

This strategy originated with Derek Halpern, and recently I decided to put it to the test. In an article called Customer Service is a Two-Way Street, I made an attempt to sum up the majority of my argument in a single sentence:

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By simply highlighting that ‘quoteable’ (with no request to tweet), I noticed that dozens of people began to share the article with that exact quote.

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When I re-published the article on Medium, it was selected for the ‘Editor’s Picks’ and again I noticed people sharing the article with that quote as the context.

Too often, content creators forget to focus on the ‘how’ of their writing—how they are sharing their thoughts, ideas, and arguments. Simple writing is important, but writing a single great sentence can have a huge impact on how memorable an article is.

It’s for that reason that quotes like “Ask not what your country can do for you…” can live on for so long—people might not remember the full speech, but they certainly remember the soundbite.

Use Features the Smart Way

Using “round-up” blog posts is a tried-and-true technique for getting traction—also, it’s totally overdone.

Don’t get me wrong, it works with the right people (and the right question), but there are a few problems with round-up articles that discourage me from ever using them:

  1. You get no voice. Especially important if you’re a solo writer, like I am for the Help Scout blog. With round-up articles, you get no say. You’re simply a medium for other people’s opinions.
  2. Over saturated. These articles are so played out. This is mostly because they will still work (to a point), but also because it’s lazy content creation: why write an original piece if I can just quote 40 people?
  3. Shallow. Frankly, most answers in round-up articles are very shallow and contain no real insight. Most people respond just to get the mention/link, and I can’t list a single time I read a round-up post and had an “Aha!” moment.

So what should you do instead?

I like to use something called the Drip Technique, which involves “dripping” in quotes from experts in key parts of your original article.

In other words, snag quotes when you need them, and place them where they make sense in a blog post of your own creation. In a recent article on the New 4Ps of Marketing, I asked a few experts to add their opinion about the flaws of each “P” in the original 4Ps:

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The questions were catered to each respondent, were totally unique, and related closely to a specific section in my article. This allowed me to discuss new research tearing down the old 4Ps, but also let me include smart, influential entrepreneurs who went on to share the article.

Win-win really, as you get the benefits of including other experts without sacrificing your control of the article. So add a journalistic approach to your content creation, and start grabbing relevant quotes to include in an original piece, instead of doing another “587 Experts Give Social Media Advice” round-up.

Don’t Be Afraid to Get Interactive

Far too often, content marketers stick to blog posts when some extra legwork in creating an interactive piece can really help it take off.

Here’s an example—investor and hedge fund manager John Paulson is widely recognize as the person who made the greatest “trade” of all time by short-selling subprime mortgages back in 2007. In that year, Paulson made nearly $3.7 billion, becoming a billionaire overnight.

With so much money coming it in so little time, it might be interesting (and a tad depressing) to see how we stack up to Paulson’s earning potential. While a blog post certainly could have covered this information, forex trading company MahiFX created a visual page called You vs. John Paulson in which users can input their income, and compare it to how much John Paulson makes.

If we take the average salary in the United States (from the National Average Wage index) of $44,321, we get hilarious bits of information like this:

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Paulsooooooooon!

While ego-crushing, this page is incredibly interesting, and the interactive element makes it unique and very shareable.

The great thing is, this tactic can also be used with ‘words’ instead of data. While doing research on customer service topics, I found that thousands of people were looking for quotes about customer service, each and every month.

The problem was that nobody was providing a useful resource—it was blog posts and eBooks all the way down (who wants to read an eBook with nothing but quotes? Not I).

Instead, we opted to create the Customer Service Quotes Database, which is a searchable index of over 400+ customer service quotes, all of which are embeddable in a single click.

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This is why considering intent is important when brainstorming content ideas or doing keyword research—not every topic is best fulfilled by a blog post.

Our resource focuses on what people search for “customer service quotes” actually want, which is an easy way to find and browse different quotes. Also, it won’t insult your income by comparing it to a ham sandwich :).

Your Turn

I’m sure all of you bloggers out there have a ton of ideas to contribute, so let me know of a few tricks that you keep up your sleeve to make each piece of content interesting!

See you in the comments.

Photo-credit: tMartin

PS: We’ve recently launched the new Buffer for Business for a better way to handle your social media in 2014, I hope it might be useful for you!

PPS: Want to check out some of Greg’s favorite links on customer acquisition? Check out our Customer Acquisition Hub and fire up those bookmarks!