Content is king. After three decades of innovation on the web, it is hard to deny. But for anyone who has handed a content plan to another person, I’m certain that you know the difficulty of getting a plan executed. There is something difficult about producing content. People don’t like to do it. I wish I understood why. I know that if I asked 100 people to write an article outside of the context of a college class I would get 0 articles back. Following is a brief synopsis of how I turned my small team at Alarm Grid into amazing content producers. If you’re a small business owner or entrepreneur, this article is for you. It is a story of how I have balanced the competing challenges of supporting customers while growing quickly. To all of you walking business path similar to the one I have been walking, I hope you find this content useful.
Changing Focus from Links to Content
I cringe at the old me. Links used to matter a lot. They were paramount. I’m not saying that they don’t matter anymore. But I’ve been around for enough time to remember the days of link buys where even major brands got into trouble. Needless to say, I was a unfortunate participant in this mentality which emphasized links over content.
These days, I have abandoned most overt link building efforts. I focus on content at the expense of all else. As traffic grows, the content continues. I incorporate on-site optimization, conversion optimization, UX/UI optimizations, shopping cart recovery, site speed. I focus on customer-centric things that I can control. But our central focus is content.
For most industries, the extent of a company’s link building efforts should be fairly minimalistic. If someone mentions you in a blog article and doesn’t link, email the author. Ask them for a link. If someone mentions you on Reddit or asks a question relevant to your business, jump into the fray. Throw a helpful link in about the content they were mentioning. If you don’t have that content on your site, write it. Set up a Google alert that notifies you when you get an online mention.
This is the Google alert I have set up for my own company (I also set up similar alerts for my competitors): -site:alarmgrid.com “Alarm Grid” OR “AlarmGrid” OR “alarmgrid.com”
The goal of all this is to turn your team of specialists into producers of high-quality content. The goal is not to produce professional writers. It’s not easy. Professional writers are experts at content. They are grammarians. They are satirists. Many writers have an expertise. Maybe they are a technical writer that knows a lot about e-cigarettes. They might write amazing Q&As or instruction guides. Or maybe they are a writer with a deep understanding of the hardships of being an immigrant. This sort of experiential knowledge might be turned into a piece of fiction. Specialists, however, are rarely also writers. Specialists make a business go round. And most small businesses can not afford to hire both full-time specialists and full-time writers. Moreover, writers who are not specialists are likely to produce content that misses the nuances that a specialist can write.
Developing a Brand Voice
When I was selling marketing services, I gave my customers a worksheet that let them convey their desires to me. I never wanted to assume anything. While professional, and clear might be de rigueur when it comes to corporate speak, you are the maker of the rules here. You do not need to write like Hemingway. If your customer is a mother lovin’ hick in the heart of Georgia, write in a way that they will find compelling. If your customer is a house mom in Minnesota, it might be humorous to throw in an exclamatory “uff da!” here and there.
Brand voice is a constant exercise in editing. Someone has to be in charge of putting the bumpers up on the side of the bowling lanes of content. That necessitates a sort of standard operating procedure. For my writers, I have built a style guide.
The guide is a living document that changes as problems arise. Plagiarism abounds in all forms. Feel free to use mine as a skeleton for your own. But, you should build it based on what you want your brand’s voice to be. Your team may figure out how to plagiarize creatively, or figure out how to break rules in ways that don’t technically break the rules. As they do, update the document to account for their innovation. My rule here is simple: if it’s not a written rule, it’s my fault, not yours.
If one of my techs plagiarizes in a way that is obvious to me, but in a way that is not covered in the style guide, I add it. Because Alarm Grid has its technicians write, it’s become an important exercise for me to remind myself that they are techs first, writers second. It’s better this way. It’s easy to take a hard line against things that are obvious, like “no plagiarism.” It is clear to me that there is a huge gap between what I think plagiarism is, and what others think plagiarism is. The gap can be managed by defining my expectations in writing. It’s as simple as that.
Running a Content Meeting
Content meetings for us are short. It’s taken me years to figure out how to get my team of specialists producing content on a regular basis. If you’re a small business owner reading this article, you probably struggle to fit content in your schedule. I get it. Your company is growing at a ridiculous clip. That makes adding more content untenable, especially if it will lead to more customers. I am 100% aware of the feeling.
Content is a double-edged sword. If it helps your customer, it will reduce the time your team spends supporting customers. If it reduces time supporting customers it will increase the time you can spend on sales. This will lead to more customers. This will, in turn, lead to more people who need support. If you don’t find time for content, this cycle will continue with no reprieve. Content can be both the cursed engine of growth and the blessed savior of scaling. That’s the reason I think that FAQs are so important. In fact, our FAQs are so important that they are the thing that the content meeting centers on each week.
All content is in support of our product. But a FAQ is a piece of content that will save us so much time in a business where the phones ring off the hook. Our most popular FAQs get more than 10,000 unique visitors each month. Consider what would happen if those people called us? Most of their issues will take 25-60 seconds to fix. Many of those customers are under contract with other companies. So, instead, we let users get free help using the FAQ. If they want more, they call, and we can assist them. But the truth is, we can’t handle helping 10,000 people all at once for menial questions.
I can’t imagine how much more difficult growth would be in a world where users call us to change the time on their security systems. Those one-minute phone calls would kill us. And think of the sales that it would cost. Think of how many of the people we do get calls from that would be frustrated by getting voicemail. In some ways, content lets you give worse service to your customers such that they are happier to get it. I guess these examples should illustrate something to those just beginning to scale.
If you can’t find time to do content now, you’re going to be in a lot of pain when you grow.
Not investing in content today is an insidious and invisible business mistake. You won’t know what you missed. In three years, you’ll simply be wondering why all your phone calls do not lead to sales. You’ll wonder why your customers don’t convert anymore.
Here’s Exactly How the Meetings Look!
Every Friday at 4 PM, this is the message I instill in my team. They are experts. They know alarm systems in and out. Honeywell, 2GIG, whatever it is. They are incredible, smart people with an enormous depth of knowledge about one specific subject. I need them. Moreover, they don’t like answering the same questions again and again and again on the phone. Security systems are built the same way. When a problem crops up in one, it is resolved the exact same way as it was the time before. These sorts of problems are perfect for a FAQ strategy. And the FAQ strategy will help grow a business so that you can turn your small team into a big team without having the impossible scaling issues that other companies run into.
To begin with, I have an enormous repository of questions. I categorize them into different subjects. Some have to do with sensors, some have to do with panels that are malfunctioning, or that are launching. If a new security system is launching, it’s all hands on deck. I set the direction before the meeting. Everyone is instructed to pick three FAQs from the list of titles. They need to complete them during the week – no ifs, ands, or buts. Three is a non-negotiable minimum. Some weeks, the instruction is “Pick any three FAQs from the repository.” Some weeks the instruction is, “The Lyric Security system is coming out, so please pick three FAQs in that particular bucket since we have two weeks to finish all 50 FAQs.” If they want to do more, they can. Some do. But most do the minimum, which is fine. Recognize that for products that you know well, much of the FAQs get a bit recycled. We write every inch of content in a new article. But if users are going to ask, “how do I reset my master code on my L5210?” you can bet they will ask “How do I reset my master code on a Lyric Security System?” So for new systems, I take the knowledge we have acquired from similar products and pre-populate a question bank. This lets us get out ahead of new products.
- I begin my meetings with some stats. This week, I showed them a chart that, I think, shows how effective this strategy is. The chart shows the percentage of users who landed on a page where their question was already answered. On day 1, 0% of people’s questions were answered. And now, years later, as we have built up our Q&A database, about 75% of all questions are answered. In other weeks, I generally give a leader board. I show the FAQs that had the most weekly traffic and congratulate the authors of them. Those FAQs, after all, are likely to be responsible for the most time-saved. Also, they are likely to have generated the happiest customers.
- In the next section of the meeting, I will use Google Analytics to grab the top 10 most trafficked FAQs of the week. The team crawls through them and ensures old data is accurate and that the content is fully fleshed. Generally, this goes to one member of the team who handles all 10 that week. This is important because, as you can imagine, FAQs can become outdated. Moreover, as we grow, our brand voice and image changes. So, FAQs written years ago might not be up to the same standards as the stuff we’re writing now. If they’re popular FAQs, that means they are a huge piece of your brand’s representation. Make sure they’re accurate.
- After we go through the FAQs that need looking at for accuracy, I address each individual team member. We look at how they did the last week, discuss why they didn’t get all their FAQs done or high five because they did. They then select three new pieces of FAQ content for the coming week. Usually, I don’t like to engender competition among the employees. But we do post how many FAQs each person has written in the office.
- I let the FAQ content editor take over at this point. She goes through her notes and discusses common mistakes she saw. She explains changes to FAQs she made and proposes additions to our style guide. A few weeks ago, we added that WIFI is how we were going to write that word in every post. This is not the convention, but it will keep us consistent. It arose out of her seeing us write it 20 different ways. It’s the simple thing for us to standardize, and these stylistic parameters make her job so much easier.
- Once she’s finished, I hand the meeting over to the team lead in charge of product content. He gives updates about the new products we added during the week. He solicits help in creating new products the coming week. Generally, these are a bit more technical and difficult than Q&As. But they are the most important on-site content we have.
- When he completes his segment, I briefly run through all the videos we need. I give updates on recently posted videos. At the moment, we’re taping videos of all the sirens we sell. This will let people see and hear what they sound like before they buy them. This content serves the product. It gives customers an answer to a question they may not have even known they had. The customers appreciate when they discover the content. It enhances their buying experience. Not to mention, the videos are the easiest videos we make.
- I open the floor to anyone to ask questions, make suggestions, and express frustrations. Sometimes they complain about the time-suck that content is. Sometimes they have great ideas for new products they want to see on the site. Sometimes, they volunteer to do content that I have been dreaming of having completed. Usually, this is a bit of homework for me, but it’s the kind of homework I like.
These meetings are between 30 minutes and 45 minutes long. They are the most important meetings of my week. The specter of an impending audit causes content to get finished. About 80% of the content gets edited and finished 15 to 20 minutes before our meeting. I don’t mind that. And since our style guide provides minimum quality standards, the content is always high quality. After years of pushing employees to express their knowledge in writing, this meeting is the only thing that’s worked.
I find it to be motivating for the team as well. As they have produced more content, I’m able to show them the effects on the site traffic.