By Carl Friesen published March 2, 2012

Create How-to Content that Serves Your Market, and Your Business

One of the core principles of content marketing is that the content must be genuinely helpful to the user. While it should be presented in an engaging way, it’s not about entertainment — it’s about providing a useful service.

One of the most beneficial kinds of content is the “how-to” (you’ll find plenty of great examples, like this one, on the CMI site). Simply, it describes how to do something, and is one of several kinds of content I discussed in an earlier CMI post.

In this article, I’ll use the term “posts” as a general term to describe a piece of content, but the concepts are applicable to any type of content, including text, video, audio, infographics, or a slide show — and any length of content: as short as a tweet or as long as a book.

Two types of how-to content

  1. The process post describes the steps to be taken, in sequence, to complete a task. Make sure to cover these four points:
    • The objective of the process
    • Steps to be followed, in order, with enough information so that someone in the intended market can carry them out
    • Equipment, knowledge, and supplies required to do the job
    • Difficulties the audience may encounter, as well as suggested solutions
  2. Success tips also provide suggestions on how to achieve a good outcome, but they involve topics for which sequence is not as important, so these posts are best created as an unordered, bulleted list. Important information to include:
    • Why it is important to follow the points in the list (e.g., to avoid a problem or to gain a benefit)
    • Your best recommendations on initiatives that will engage someone in your intended market
    • Difficulties they may encounter, with your suggested solutions

The type of post you use will depend on your subject matter. For example, content developed by a bicycle store on how to repair a flat tire would work best as a process post because one step follows another. Content on how to stay safe while riding in traffic would work better as an unordered bulleted list of success tips.

How to make the how-to compelling

Compared to the latest sizzling gossip from Hollywood, Bollywood, or Nollywood (that’s Nigeria’s film industry, FYI), a plodding how-to, well, plods. Three principles can make it more engaging.

1) Make it aspirational. Be sure that you’re writing (or talking) about an outcome that people in your market actually want to achieve. A bicycle store might get plenty of downloads for a video on how to repair a flat tire, which is something that most serious cyclists have to do at least once a season. The store would find fewer takers for content on a more difficult process, such as repacking a bike’s bottom bracket.

As an example from the professional services marketing space where I work, it wouldn’t be wise for a lawyer to write a detailed article about how to cross-examine a witness. Most people would want to leave that to the lawyers.

2) Make it feasible. Your content needs to be on a topic that is reasonably possible for someone in your market to accomplish. Have you ever seen a model airplane kit for children… and the package shows the model assembled and painted to a degree of perfection you just know is beyond the skill of any small child?

Don’t be like that. Once again, the bicycle-tire-repair video passes the test, because fixing a flat is really pretty easy. A bottom-bracket repack is not feasible for most shade-tree bike mechanics.

3) Make it legal. There are some procedures that fall into “Kids, don’t try this at home” territory. While “The latest techniques in root canals” might be morbidly fascinating to a non-dentist, in most jurisdictions one would need to be a fully qualified dentist to actually apply that content.

In many other fields, such as engineering, architecture, law, accounting, and actuarial science, some content will be relevant only to specialists, so try to avoid topics that your audience wouldn’t reasonably try to do on their own.

How-to’s that meet your business objectives

The genius of content marketing lies in developing content that informs, but also persuades — that is, persuades the reader/ viewer/ listener to take action.

It’s the same with a how-to post. Choose topics that are tangential to what you do for your customers or clients, rather than directly related. Going back to the bicycle example, a bike store would do well to present content on how to repair a flat because this will convince more people to buy a bike and ride with the confidence that they could handle a tire problem themselves. Again, the bottom-bracket repack subject would fail, because this is a service the bike store would want to provide to customers.

So, be sure to choose topics that are not core to what your organization does — you don’t want to “help” your audience right out of needing your services.

Providing how-to content can help position your organization as a helpful entity that is interested in achieving good outcomes for its clients or customers. While it may not do much to present the organization as a strategic partner or innovator, it can still be one of the most valuable and shareable kinds of content you can create.

Do you have any stories to share about successful how-to content you’ve created? Let us know in the comments.

Author: Carl Friesen

Carl Friesen uses his background in journalism to dig for “the story” to develop content that will show his clients in their best possible light. Many of his clients are business professionals who need to show their expertise to people in their market. Carl is Principal of Global Reach Communications, based in the Toronto, Canada area. You can follow him on Twitter @CarlFriesen.

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  • http://twitter.com/pcrerar Paula Crerar

    Great post!  When I compare the effectiveness and popularity of our content, “how-to” articles and videos are consistently at the top of the list. When we can, we like to include templates and links to examples related to the “how-to” content.  Anything that helps the reader/viewer get up and running quickly on the project you’re describing is appreciated and more likely to be shared within the relevant community. 

    • http://www.showyourexpertise.com Carl Friesen

       I think that the appropriateness of how-to content depends largely on one’s positioning. Working with professional services firms, I find that some of my clients want to be seen as big-picture thinkers who provide outside perspective. Rather than generating how-to content, they may be better discussing the trends they’ve seen in their clients’ world and what the clients should do as a result. A how-to would be better for a business professional who is seen as a skilled implementer, someone who can take charge of a problem and make it go away.

  • http://www.pugetseo.com/ Seattle SEO

    Great info. Unfortunately a lot of small businesses still don’t get the value this adds to their bottom line.

  • Advertise Your Business

    Man nice to be at your blog again…It has been months for me. Well this article is awesome, and for sure I did not waste my time..
    Advertise Your Business  

  • http://www.brickmarketing.com/ Nick Stamoulis

    No matter what industry you are in, there is something that you can teach your target audience.  How to articles help for SEO purposes too, because people often search for “how to” do something.  The key to these posts is to outline the process in a way that is quick and easy to understand.  

  • http://www.showyourexpertise.com Carl Friesen

    Nick,  Good point. For SEO, it would probably be good to make it standard practice to include the words “How to” in the title.