By Jay Acunzo published December 4, 2014

Twitter’s Founder Unintentionally Gave Content Marketers the Best Advice Ever

CMI_TwitterAdvice-01 If there’s one mortal sin content marketers commit way too often, it’s obsessing over tools or tactics instead of customers. When we talk marketing, we love to jump right into a discussion about a given social network, a new tactic hitting the blogosphere, or some other content format we “have to” learn. Instead of asking customers how we can help them, we ask other marketers how many words make up an ideal blog post or which marketing automation tool they use. Important? Sure. Good place to start? Nope.

It’s understandable that we do this. We’re experiencing such rapid change all the time, and the new technology now at our disposal is staggering. We’re like a group of kids furiously attacking an ice cream sundae bar: We gorge ourselves on toppings in a wild rush to get the most or best of it all. (“How about some customers with that bowl of marketing tech, kiddo?”) It’s all so damn irresistible and addicting.

But, unfortunately, we sometimes forget the actual human beings we’re supposed to serve. This is not only backward in theory – it’s bad for business.

So consider this instead: Smart content marketing (and really, smart business overall) is about helping our customers solve problems or fulfill desires. It’s never about a tactic or tool – those are means to the aforementioned end.

Great products solve problems and fulfill desires, whether you sell marketing software or basketball shoes. Great content must do the same.

Don’t listen to me

All that stuff might sound nice, but you can still easily shrug it off, forget about it, or outright ignore it. But I’m not expecting you to take my word for it. Instead, heed the words of someone who is far and away one of the best innovators of our time. Fortunately for us, this innovator handed us a blueprint for being more effective, more creative, and more customer-focused content marketers … and he didn’t even realize it.

The innovator is Ev Williams, founder of Twitter, Blogger, and Medium, and one of the biggest historical influencers on how we create and communicate.

And the blueprint he gave us is this gem of a quote intended for start-up founders:

Here’s the formula if you want to build a billion-dollar internet company. Take a human desire, preferably one that has been around for a really long time … identify that desire and use modern technology to take out steps.

Huh? He’s talking about businesses and tech. What does that have to do with effective content marketing?

In a word: Everything.

Great content removes steps

Williams’ quote appeared in a 2013 Fast Company interview. During the conversation, he told Fast Company that the internet is “a giant machine designed to give people what they want.”

At this point, you should have a light bulb over your head. That’s the perfect way to describe our content marketing work. We are in the business of giving people what they want. We offer value in the form of educational or entertaining content, which enables us to ask for value from our customers in the form of their time, actions, and dollars. We give them what they want, and then they give us what we want.

But we think about those things in reverse. We constantly strive to get better at getting what we want. However, if we think about better ways to give customers what they want, then our agendas are more likely to succeed. Unfortunately, there’s the temptation of the Ice Cream Sundae Syndrome again. We rush toward tech, tactics, and toppings without thinking about customers first. We obsess over what should enhance our focus on solving customer problems – not replace it.

Back to Williams for a second. We can swap two little words from his quote (“modern tech”) for two others (“content marketing”) to get the following:

Take a human desire, preferably one that has been around for a really long time … identify that desire and use [content marketing] to take out steps.

Williams was talking about building great companies and, more specifically, great products. We’re talking about content marketing. But shouldn’t the two always align? If you really think about it, doesn’t great content marketing eventually lead someone to the product? The ease with which we can use Williams’ quote to talk about content marketing or products leads to one conclusion:

Great content marketing is just solving the same problem that your product solves.

Yes, your content solves those problems through different media and perhaps less well than the product (more on that to follow). But ultimately, if we ignore all the noise and start by thinking, “How can I solve this problem for my buyers?” we’re set up for much more success than we are when all our questions center on channels, trends, tactics, and tools. Those things should be attacked in the context of solving a buyer’s problem.

If my product helps you create videos more easily, then my content should too. It should be educational, easy to access, and practically useful for video creators.

If my product helps you train better in the gym, then my content should too. It should help you track your workouts or educate you on proper weightlifting form.

If my product helps you [insert benefit here], then your content should [insert exact same benefit.] You get the idea.

Create content that removes steps

Unfortunately for us and our potential customers, we tend to muddy the waters – or should I say, overload the ice cream – by focusing on the toppings too much.

So instead, the next time you walk into a brainstorming meeting or begin to research content formats and ideas:

  1. Write down a problem facing your buyer. (If you can’t come up with one, you have bigger issues than content marketing. Talk to actual customers and, if you can’t, talk to sales, support, and other customer-facing teams. But mostly, talk to actual customers. Get out – literally, get out of your office and find some customers.)
  1. Next, with that problem written on the board, list every step down to the smallest detail that the buyer must take to overcome that problem.
  1. Finally, think about what content resources you can create to remove a step or make a step easier to complete.

And if you need to kick-start your brainstorming in the final step, try this simple, science-backed brainstorm process.

(It’s important to note that for some B2C companies, the emphasis might shift from solving problems to fulfilling emotional desires. Luxury fashion and entertainment electronics are good examples.)

For a more concrete example, let’s say you sell analytics software and your product helps other marketers make better, more data-driven decisions. Instead of rushing toward the sundae toppings of our industry – “We need SlideShares! We need a LinkedIn strategy!” — start by visualizing your buyers’ steps for completing a task, such as pitching their boss:

Acunzo - Image 1 Customer to Boss

Start generating ideas and creating content based on the above framework.

This process also helps vet whether a type of content would be successful. For example, using Williams’ notion of removing steps to pitch the boss, an eBook or guide (a go-to content format in B2B) is a lousy solution. It actually adds a step – read this big resource.

Instead, why not create a research report or curate industry benchmarks and other data? That removes the first step. Your target buyer now has some valuable data to go pitch her boss.

You can continue this pattern when you need more content too. You could remove step two by offering a reporting spreadsheet and step three with a pre-designed pitch deck ordered correctly to tell a compelling story, requiring only a few tweaks by your buyer to present to her boss.

The “oh-by-the-way” moment

We’ve just taken the buyer’s five-step process and used content to turn it into two steps. And here’s the best part – you then reach this “oh-by-the-way” moment with your buyer. In theory, it would sound something like this: “I see you’re trying to pitch your boss and make data-driven decisions with our content, but – oh by the way – the very best way to do so? Check out our product.” Now, in a very natural way for the buyer, content marketing turns into product marketing and sales. The buyer is already trying to get this stuff done, and you’re able to tell her simply: You’re already doing this and it’s with our content, so why not check out the better solution in our product?

If we visualize this based on how well you’re solving a customer’s problem, it might look like this:

Acunzo - Image 2 Solving Buyer Prob

Not only does this framework of lining up and removing steps yield more ideas for you as a marketer, it ties those ideas directly to what customers actually want and marches them straight toward your product or service.

(And remember, Williams says that the internet is “a giant machine designed to give people what they want.” Done and done, Mr. Williams, sir.)

3 things true content marketing innovators do

We can learn a whole heck of a lot from Williams in business, but in content marketing in particular, these three things stand out, all around the idea of solving customer problems:

1. Content marketing innovators remove steps for their customers.

We worship content marketing influencers and innovators for their abilities to generate unique projects or spot new trends. While many are great at those things, the true innovators are hell-bent on helping their customers solve a problem or fulfill a desire. And they do so with the content they create. That real innovation can lead to massive, industry-altering success, according to Williams.

For proof, just look at some of the most innovative companies of our time, like Google, Uber, and Facebook. They all remove steps for us, whether we’re searching the world’s information, hailing a ride, or connecting with friends.

2. Content marketing innovators attempt to solve the same problems that their products solve for customers.

Our content and our products need to occupy the same emotional and intellectual space in the minds of our buyers. As you continue to add value to your audience by removing steps, you more easily generate highly qualified traffic looking for solutions like yours, all leading up to that oh-by-the-way moment. In doing so, you give away little pieces of the product or service, whether practically (like a guide or workbook) or theoretically (like an inspiring video conveying the same emotional benefits). You’re here to help your customers through your content or your product.

3. Content marketing innovators don’t view themselves as marketers, writers, or creators – they’re problem solvers.

We are problem solvers, not simply creators and distributors of content. It shouldn’t matter how we solve problems (eBooks, blog posts, interactive tools, graphics, SlideShares, etc.) or where (Facebook, Twitter, email, events, etc.) It just matters that we do it successfully, consistently, and better than anyone else. And if a certain tool, tactic, or trend helps us achieve that, then it’s perfectly fine to obsess over those toppings at that point.

So, as content marketers, let’s view ourselves as problem solvers who just so happen to have content and a bunch of related technologies and tactics in our toolbox. And when we obsess over them, it’s done in the context of solving a specific problem for our buyer.

In the end, don’t start with the leads you need or the views you want. Don’t start with the content types you should create. Don’t start with the flavor of the week in the marketing echo chamber or the latest buzzword or the shiniest technology.

Don’t start with any of that.

Start with your customers.

Want to rethink your approach to your content marketing’s “ice cream” or learn more about all the toppings? Learn more from Jay Acunzo and dozens of experts at CMW through our Video on Demand portal.

Cover image courtesy of Joseph Kalinowski/Content Marketing Institute

Author: Jay Acunzo

Jay Acunzo is the VP of platform and content at NextView Ventures, a seed-stage VC firm investing in tech startups. For the firm, he runs the blog the View From Seed and the podcast Traction, among other initiatives dedicated to supporting early-stage entrepreneurship. Jay is also a co-founder of Boston Content, a local community helping over 1,000 content marketers. He's led content at HubSpot (IPO) and Dailybreak Media (acquired) and began as a digital media strategist at Google. Find him @jayacunzo or via SorryForMarketing.com.

Other posts by Jay Acunzo

  • Heikki Matias Luoma

    Great article! Thank you very much Jay.

  • Monica Heymann

    Nicely summed up. Thanks Jay

  • Joe Walton

    That was interesting, well written and long. A rare combo.

    • http://jayacunzo.com/ Jay Acunzo

      I’ll take it! Thanks

  • http://www.movablemedia.com/ aboer

    Yes. The “oh by the way” moment is so critical. This the “gateway” moment…where you explicitly transition a reader relationship into a potential customer relationship – “we hope that was helpful, and oh by the way…”
    You have to earn and ask for the permission to talk about your own solutions.
    I’d love to get your thoughts on this piece: a case study of a company called BellRoy where they explicitly use that approach. We present a slightly different roadmap, but we come to the same basic conclusion.
    http://www.movablemedia.com/solving-branded-contents-top-problem-when-to-sell/

    • http://jayacunzo.com/ Jay Acunzo

      The key word you used was “ask” in my opinion. Lots of marketers generate publisher metrics without asking for the next step, even if that next step is subscribe or download a gated piece of content. They stop at vanity metrics instead. If you want ROI, you need to ask for some kind of conversion IMHO. (I work mainly with startups but I’d wager this occurs across industries and company sizes.)

      • http://www.movablemedia.com/ aboer

        Agreed. You need to create a path to conversions; many marketers fail to ask for the sale.
        But I am also saying something else. In my mind, that dotted line you drew between the “great” solution and your “best” solution — represents something more important that we typically overlook: the readers expectations.
        In the subconscious mind of the reader, that dotted line, that “ask”, represents (or at least pays lip-service to) the notion of an editorial division between “church and state”.
        As readers, we have been trained to expect that line, and as marketers, we need to respect it. If content marketing crosses that line too early or randomly or they don’t make the line explicit, then all of the content can be perceived as a commercial instead of content. And then you fail to gain trust.

        • http://jayacunzo.com/ Jay Acunzo

          Amen!

          • Douglas O’Bryon

            Jay: Thanks for the courage to craft a meaty post longer than 1000 words! In a world of 140-character appetizers, it’s nice to enjoy a satisfying steak every once in a while. I’ve found that ALL of my most popular content (e.g. “Why Executives HATE Social Media” and “The Wizard of Oz: Blueprint for Social Media Content”) have “broken the rules” by being “too long,” so it appears that perhaps more people are hungry for a main course after all! Keep up the great (long) content. In Excellence, Doug

  • Mack Ayash

    Thank you, great article as usual.

  • Keir

    Passionate. Entertaining. Educational. Relevant. Many thanks Jay…as someone here said, both long and good!

  • Alex

    “Great content marketing is just solving the same problem that your product solves.” — That is a brilliant way of summing up content marketing. This was a fantastic read all around. Thank you for sharing.

  • Cindy

    Jay – Thank you for your excellent article with a fresh and helpful idea, not the ususal “pepper with keywords” tactical advice that I receive in my inbox ad-nauseum. I write for a non-profit organization where we work overtime to keep our eye on our customers needs/desires and our mission. Your problem solving approach fits our digital storytelling values. Well done!

    • http://jayacunzo.com/ Jay Acunzo

      Ha, anytime I can be juxtaposed with the keyword stuffing strategies, I’m all for it! Thanks for the kind words.

  • Jayne Reddyhoff

    Excellent advice. Than you!

  • http://getlittlebird.com carmenhill

    One of the most useful, insightful posts I’ve read in a long time! Great job, Jay. Thanks for getting my day off to a thoughtful start.

    • http://jayacunzo.com/ Jay Acunzo

      Thanks Carmen – means a lot coming from you!

  • Michael Karp

    Definitely a refreshing insight. I like to see content marketing as a tool to facilitate an exchange of value between businesses and consumers. I think that if you focus on value first and foremost, everything else will fall into place.

  • http://www.pateasterbrooks.com/ Patrick Easterbrooks

    Yours is the most well-written article I have ever read on “content marketing.” Even for non-believers or those who don’t understand (or care) about content marketing, it makes sense. Excellent!

    • http://jayacunzo.com/ Jay Acunzo

      Copy, paste, save. Thanks so much for the kind words!

  • http://www.linkedin.com/in/josettew Josette Williams

    Great content Jay! Thanks for keeping it real!

  • Troy Sifford

    Great advice! I’m having success with my site, using similar principles, where I aggregated physical stores in my home, tourist town; and I’m now serving up associated content-marketing videos per storefront that informs and entertains. http://www.ifollowfredericksburg.com/

  • http://nz.linkedin.com/pub/aidan-rasmussen/16/49a/931 Aidan Rasmussen

    Hi Jay,

    Thank you for your article. It really resonated with me. Sometimes it feels like the more rapid the technological change the more obsessed we are with keeping up with it to tell our stories or market those stories to the people we want to listen and hopefully convert. Your piece made it very clear – to me anyway- that ultimately it’s about staying human and connected to the people that matter the most, our audience/users/customers.

    Thanks for keeping it simple.

    Look forward to your next piece.

  • Kemya Scott

    This is a gem. I mean, really good. I haven’t read a piece this insightful in a long time Jay. Thank you!

    • http://jayacunzo.com/ Jay Acunzo

      Really appreciate that. Thanks, Kemya

  • David Butler

    Really great message and article Jay thanks! I also like to say: “Start with what the customer thinks when you stand up at the microphone and introduce yourself.” Today’s social-driven customers are an integral part of your positioning. Your story is your positioning. I like to think that social positioning stories are becoming a key technique to designing content outside in and from the customer’s image. Deliverables are critical in marketing. Perhaps a great way to start with the customer is to make STORY a deliverable.

    • http://jayacunzo.com/ Jay Acunzo

      Thanks David! And if I read that correctly, I still think it’s important to make it even more concrete than that (vs theoretical or focused on some new notion of social media-driven customers). Your product does X to make their lives easier, so your content should also do X. Nice and simple (vs. trying to take Capital-S Storytelling to start and turn that into a deliverable that is built for the “social web,” which is still starting with tactics, not customers).

      Hope that all made sense (it’s admittedly past my bedtime here on the east coast). As someone who adores stories and storytelling, I still worry we have this abstract, unattainable notion that we both idolize and try to start with, when in reality, we can do what’s simple and practical to great effect: Identify customer problems, then solve them with our content.

      • David Butler

        +100! It should be super simple to start a customer discussion. Listen to the customers reaction. Respond with some interesting and helpful or even just funny information. Continue the dialogue as long as it is fun, relevant, or interesting. Even share with more interested customers. When the discussion ends, we all remember the discussion with fond and fun memories. If product managers and content marketers really love the specific products they build and market, having customer discussions should be this simple, even if it is on 5 different content/social channels everyday. Our team is striving to make it simple so you can have fun and engage vs strategize. BTW we both stay up too late:)

  • Jaqui Lane

    Jay, terrific article and well-time for us in the Southern Hemisphere as we’re all about to head off for 2-4 weeks holiday. A great time to read, learn, reflect and implement simple yet powerful ideas, just like you’ve outlined. I’m even going to apply it to my own writing business!

  • http://www.socialmediaslant.com Cendrine Marrouat

    Jay, what a spin on the “without an audience you have nothing” idea! This is brilliant.

  • Abhishek Kumar Dubey

    Thanks Jay for this amazing article. Quite often we get enamored by new tools and technologies and forget our target audience.

  • David Carle

    Truely an amazing article. We sometimes get distracted by the number of shares we are aiming for, while in the end, all we need is to really be helpful to our prospects.

  • http://www.integraphix.com/ Advertising Agency

    Love the post, Jay. “take that human desire that’s been around a long time” is great advice, alone. As a Chicago digital marketing firm specialist, that advice has come to be so true.