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Book Review: What I Learned from Content Rules

I was fortunate to have the opportunity to meet Ann Handley earlier this year at her Content Rules book tour in Arlington, VA. I’d been following her on Twitter and reading MarketingProfs for several months when I became convinced she was emerging as one of the most influential voices in online marketing.

So it was a great joy to meet her, pose for a picture together and leave with one of my now favorite marketing books ever – Content Rules.

This book blew my mind.  For one, I had not yet made the connection between social media and content marketing – I was still treating them as two separate entities. Reading this book was for me the moment the clouds parted and the angels sang – it was then that I understood social media is impotent without content marketing.

And that’s why this book is so important.  I believe it has something for everyone. Whether you’re new in the game or you’ve been marketing all your life, Content Rules is packed with value and wisdom and is a resource that simply cannot be ignored.

So without further ado, here’s a comprehensive review of Content Rules.


Authors’ purpose

The purpose of the book is to equip businesses for success in content creation and marketing. It also shares and inspires through case studies the successes of companies that are already publishing great content.

Given the fact that virtually every company has become a de facto publisher, the authors’ intention is to demystify the publishing process and share the secrets of creating remarkable contentblogs, videos, podcasts, e-books and other web content. They believe that even businesses with no publishing experience can create and deliver relevant and valuable content to attract new business opportunities.

What to expect

The book begins with a ‘big fat overview’ (literally!) explaining what great content is really about and how content marketing is shaping business today. Everyone knows the rules (of marketing that is) have changed. But the book is not designed to sing to this chorus because the underlying assumption is that you already get that. Instead, the book focuses on three areas:

  • The new rules for creating great content
  • How to create different types of great content
  • Case studies (success stories) that show companies that are creating great content

Here’s a summary of the most interesting ‘how-to’ chapters in the book:

A Blog as a Hub of Your Online Content (Chapter 11)

This is a significant chapter because a blog is the logical first step for brands that want to create and publish content. For those who want to go down this path it explains how to create great blog content by applying the ‘12 Blogging Guidelines.’ Some of the guidelines are standard, i.e. write killer headlines, consider comment moderation, and categorize and tag your blog post.  The most insightful guidelines are:

Design is important
Bloggers tend to focus more on the text rather than the design element of their blog platforms. This guideline explains why design is important: The idea that your blog should have its own personality and style cannot be overemphasized since these are the qualities that make it unique and exceptional.

For those who don’t have the resources to hire a professional designer, the guideline shows the must-have features in a generic template:

  • A clearly visible RSS icon for subscription feeds
  • A search box
  • A clear way for others to contact you
  • Social sharing icons (Twitter, Facebook, LinkedIn, Digg and so on)
  • An archive for recent posts (by topic or title).

Write the way you speak
Even as a corporate blogger you can (and should) adopt a casual, informal tone when speaking to your audience. Why? Because your readers are people too. Don’t use buzzwords, jargon and corporate-speak. It makes you sound like a tool not a person.

However, that doesn’t mean you can be sloppy or careless about grammar and typos.  Even veteran writers need an editor to check the small stuff. Blogging is an opportunity to communicate your brand in simple terms using the kind of language that you would normally use with your clients. Rule of thumb: Be specific enough to be believable and universal enough to be relevant.

Don’t over think
I think this is one insight that all bloggers will appreciate. This guideline takes off the pressure that we heap upon ourselves when we approach a blog post as if it were a science project. The idea is to relax and not feel compelled to “tell the whole, balanced story.” Bloggers are advised to leave a little room for the opinion of others. Remember, it’s OK to leave things unsaid.

Video: Show Me a Story (Chapter 16)

This is another compelling chapter that confirms what we’ve been hearing all along — that “video is hot!’ Not too long ago, Google and Bing introduced a new search concept called blended search. It enables search results to display not only as web pages but also as videos, images, news stories, maps and even tweets. In order to take advantage of this latest opportunity, the chapter explains how to create great video content that shows an intriguing story. Some of Handley and Chapman’s tips include:

Start with the right equipment
Video content can be accomplished with some of the tools you already have such as your webcam or your smart-phone (although you may need a tripod so that the camera doesn’t move around). There are some expensive, more sophisticated options as well. Here is a post from Nate Riggs that reviews some of the video camera options available.

Create your story
According to new-media maven Thomas Clifford, the difference between a drab video and one that truly engages is a true story. In other words, the best way to go about creating great video content is to create a mini-documentary that has three qualities:

  • It features a true story about your company
  • It stars real people that shows their personalities, i.e. real words from real people
  • It includes outside sources such as vendors, customers, and stakholders to add credibility

Shooting and scripting
This book does not claim to be an authority in filming. The authors recommend that you pick up a copy of Get Seen by Steve Garfield if you’re serious about video creation. However, they illustrate ten things that make for successful video content creation. These include good knowledge of your equipment, good lighting, being aware of shadows, staying away from background noise, stability of the camera, use of built-in microphone, perspective and framing.

Photographs: The Power of Pictures (Chapter 18)

This chapter is powerful because it shows how easy it is to create great photographs that add visual interest to your content mix.

Pictures are important because they put a human face on your business. Nevertheless, the authors advise not to rely exclusively on headshots, but to capture moments around the company that add personality and excitement to your brand such as holiday parties, summer picnics, company meetings or even pictures showing customers using your product. A good example is, which encourages fans to upload photos of themselves wearing T-shirts the company sells. These shots enable them to show off a fun and passionate side of the brand, which wouldn’t be possible with a typical product picture.

I like that the authors also explain:

  • How sharing and tagging on photo-sharing sites such as Flickr and Facebook can be an effective strategy to broaden a brand’s reach beyond its immediate customers and fans
  • How to use descriptive tags in your photos so that they show up in a larger number of organic search results
  • When to bring in a professional photographer

Case studies

The third section of the book is a collection of inspiring success stories (case studies) that show how other organizations have succeeded in creating great content. It also explains how you can ‘steal’ these ideas and make them work for you.

My favorite case study is Reynolds Golf Academy, Greensboro, Georgia. It’s the story of a resourceful businessman – Charlie King – who becomes the director of a golf academy, and his primary goal is to bring in hordes of new students. But with a very limited budget, he has to figure out a smart, affordable approach to spread the word about the academy. Most of us can relate to this story.

After reading David Meerman Scott’s The New Rules of Marketing & PR (the forerunner of Content Rules), Charlie sets out to create content that will hopefully appeal to golfers looking to improve their game.

He launches a blog called “New Rules of Golf Instruction” in which he shares free golf tips and techniques through blog posts and videos. Then he writes a free e-book (with the same name as the blog) in which he challenges the old rules of golf and suggests a new, less-rigid approach. But the a-ha moment doesn’t happen for Charlie until a film crew for Golf magazine films him in an ad-hoc tutorial as he is demonstrating the proper way to angrily throw your club into the water. The video is posted on the magazine’s website and quickly goes viral registering more than 1.8 million viewings.

The results are phenomenal.  Since implementing the content marketing strategy, the golf academy has thrived, bringing in hordes of students and allowing steady business during a difficult economy.

You’ll have to pick up the book to read the actual ideas you can steal from this case study.

Personal Impression

The book is compelling, consistent and well organized. It speaks to a very broad audience (which is a difficult task to accomplish) and adopts a casual and friendly tone. Each chapter is comprehensive enough to stand alone as its own complete resource, yet the whole book is cleverly connected to allow continuity.

However, I would have liked to see the authors discuss how to measure content marketing. I think they missed an opportunity to shed some light on a pretty mysterious piece of content strategy. Being a fairly new concept, most businesses are still unsure of how to track and measure their content marketing efforts. Perhaps this omission was the tradeoff for reaching a broader audience.

In any case, I think the authors have been quite successful in their goal of “demystifying publishing” and equipping brands to create compelling content. Whether you’re a novice or an expert in content marketing, this is a book that belongs in your library. Just follow Handley and Chapman’s advice and you could become a success story as well.