Content marketing is something that all authors should be embracing – not least because they are already good at it… and don’t even know it.
A classic authorial flub is beating your readers over the head with all that painstaking research you conducted while suffering from Level IX Procrastination. After going to the trouble of boning up on the mating habits of fruit flies – so your supposedly smart entomologist heroine doesn’t say something truly dumb – there’s a real danger of info dumping or otherwise sucking the drama out of any scene.
Like with so many other literary devices, these bloody things are like saffron: a pinch can transform a dish, but two pinches can ruin it. Meanwhile we authors are backing up the saffron truck and dumping it onto the reader’s driveway.
But what if I told you there’s another use for all these writerly offcuts? Let’s talk about content marketing. *blows alpenhorn*
Content marketing 101
This is the perfect palette cleanser if you are sick of the overwhelming focus on ads these days, because content marketing is on the other end of the spectrum. It’s also way more natural to the average author and her typical skillset. Making and distributing content is what we do. And the big buzz word in content marketing right now is… wait for it… storytelling.
“I’ve heard of it,” you might respond.
The actual practice of content marketing is quite old, even if the moniker is more modern in nature. And it has become particularly fashionable in the last few years as the focus switched from outbound marketing – where you go out there in the world and try to find customers, often through advertising – to inbound marketing. Which is basically like Field of Dreams: you build something – namely a Bunch O’Content – that organically and passively attracts customers to you instead.
You might think you’re doing that already. And you are. All of you are probably content marketing in some shape or form, even if you don’t slap that particular label on it.
For example, if you run a regular newsletter, you are engaging in content marketing, most likely. If you have more extensive information on your website beyond the usual basic info about you and your books – like if you have a blog or some other informational resource there – then you are probably committing some acts of content marketing even if that wasn’t your explicit intention. Even using a permafree or having a reader magnet can be viewed as a form of content marketing; it only sounds a bit weird because our primary business is also selling content.
Either way, there’s probably a lot more you could be doing with content marketing, especially if you approach it in a little more organized and structured way.
If you are a non-fiction author, content marketing should be a central part of your strategy. But there’s valuable stuff here for fictionauts too. And if you are one of those authors grimacing at the focus these days on advertising, and all the associated costs and complexity, well then get ready to roll up your sleeves: because content marketing is mostly about sweat rather than seed money. And you already know how to do the hardest part: writing good content.
Examples of content marketing
The first recorded example of content marketing is way back in 1732 when Benjamin Franklin published Poor Richard’s Almanack, which was designed to promote his publishing business. The popularity of this as a marketing strategy really grew in the 19th century, and there are lots of examples of things like bookstores opening reading rooms and printing their own newspapers to attract new customers, or publishers releasing magazines where the idea wasn’t to make a profit from the magazine as such but to subtly promote their authors and books, or medical companies printing informational pamphlets for doctors which were genuinely educational and useful but also pushed their products of course.
That last distinction is pretty crucial and an example will tease it out further: John Deere launched its own magazine in 1895 to promote their range of vehicles. Not a catalog, I really must stress. A magazine with actual content that was interesting to people – specifically, its target market, rural farmers and their families. I guess you could think of it like product placement, but where the manufacturers of the product are also making the content in which they are placing things.
Anyway, now content marketing is everywhere, even if we don’t always realize it. For example, the GI Joe comic was revived in the 1980s to promote the new action figure, rather than the action figure being some kind of spin off merchandise.
To give an even more modern example, you might be Googling the best way to clean your Converse and end up on a site like Cleanipedia – which seems like a typical, independent informational site on the internet, but is actually a vehicle for promoting Unilever’s large range of products. It doesn’t mention competing products and only links to Unilever brands, including places where you can buy them. It’s definitely commercial, but it’s not salesy.
It’s also very different from a typical corporate or retailer site promoting or selling a product, because that’s not what this is. It’s a very focused collection of content, designed to bring customers to them passively and over time via SEO, without being in their face. And without costing the kind of money that ads can cost.
It’s also a long-term approach – with all the pros and cons that entails. You can (in theory) flick on ads like a light switch. Content marketing, like that aforementioned Field of Dreams, must be built. Which takes time. And if that part makes you wary – the necessary time investment – that is the right reaction to have. But we’ll talk about some ways you can adopt a more efficient approach in a moment.
On the plus side, the benefits don’t fade away as quickly as a switched-off light either. As long as the content is relatively evergreen, it will keep attracting potential customers, some of whom turn into actual customers. And if you keep adding content (or refreshing it), then the effect becomes cumulative.
Content marketing For authors
Content marketing is such a huge topic generally that we should drag this corpse back to the literary saloon before it begins to fester.
There are three main channels which authors can use for content marketing: email, your website, and social media. But don’t panic! That doesn’t mean you need to be pumping out Hot Content 24/7 to satisfy three greedy maws. If you are strategic about it, you can take a piece of content and sweat it in multiple ways.
Take the eight-part series of emails I did on BookBub Ads back in 2018, for example. That was the first shot in a content marketing strategy. A lot of this was fleshed out on the fly, but I knew some of what I was doing in advance, and then just layered more stuff on top of it.
The content was My Knowledge of BookBub Ads, to state the obvious, and I started pushing that out occasionally via email. That’s my core audience, and I want them to get the good stuff first, fresh out of the oven. This creates anticipation for a future book, but also acts as a kind of reward as they are getting an exclusive preview.
I have another audience here on this blog/website. While I want to keep a good chunk of stuff exclusive to my list for obvious reasons, I also want to show a bit of leg publicly too. This creates anticipation for a future release too, while also driving sign-ups. And then places like Google will index that (SEO-friendly) post, resulting in some further long-term content marketing benefits over time.
Then there is social media, where I would throw out a morsel or two in the lead-up to publication, designed to create anticipation, drive sign-ups, bring traffic to my site, and/or lead directly to book purchases.
But it’s the same content, being reworked in different ways – some things added, other aspects stripped away. And that’s before you even get to the book, which is obviously the same content, just in a much deeper sense.
The point is you can take a piece of content and work it in different ways depending on your needs and goals, and the inherent strengths of the channel itself (Twitter isn’t a great place to sell a book, but an email isn’t a likely candidate to go viral). This kind of selective recycling massively cuts down on the time invested needed to create whatever content you need.
Does content marketing work for fiction authors?
I know what you’re thinking: you’re hungry and you want a sandwich. But also, how does this apply to fiction in any way? Good question.
I don’t think it’s necessarily the best use of your time to take this strategy wholesale and simply transpose it to fiction. You can do it, and some people do it well, but the ROI on that time investment often doesn’t look great; you might be better off streamlining it a little.
This really goes back to what is most effective in content marketing: giving people solutions to problems. If someone wants to speak Mandarin, learn the Ukelele, explore vegan cooking, or discover what really happened after Columbus arrived in Hispaniola, they are an easily definable person with a problem. Which needs a solution. And your content is that solution.
With non-fiction, those “problems” also map rather neatly onto products you are selling – i.e. your book, which goes deeper into solving that problem.
That mapping is super tricky with fiction. You can have a blog all about Italian food, and write romances set in Tuscany, but what if I’m Googling how to make handmade pasta, and stumble across your site and love it, but don’t read romance because I’m an empty husk of a person? If you had a book on Italian food culture, or a travel guide to Florence, maybe I would have picked that up, but I’m dead inside and don’t read romance so there’s no chance of making that sale to me.
You often end up losing a lot of people along the way with fiction and blogging, so unless you are going to go big, and have a real passion to blog about your topic anyway, then I wouldn’t recommend starting there.
Email and social media is a different matter. This is where a fiction author can adopt a smart content marketing strategy without losing all their precious book-writing time.
One last thing…
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