Now, before you set out to read this feeling like you are about to run into the road and join the group of humans with pitchforks and torches,...
Welcome to the first installment of Ask a Content Strategist, with guest columnist Liz Murphy of Buona Volpe. Each month, Liz will answer your questions about content strategy and content creation. Got a content question for next month's edition? Lemme know!
When George told me that one of the most common questions he gets from his clients is how to properly plan and outline a blog post, I wasn't surprised.
The Big Inbound Marketing Machine 🤖 has spent more than a decade effectively convincing us that creating content that educates and enables sales is the key to achieving growth ... and, to be fair, they're not wrong. Sure, content isn't everything – the best digital marketing strategies are holistic and often involve a blend of strategic activities and tactics – but content is a very, very big something when it comes to driving revenue as a modern business.
Especially now that all of us do everything in our power to avoid talking to people in sales. Seriously, you can buy a car out of a vending machine now, without ever talking to someone in sales. Wild.
There's just one big problem
I find it positively baffling how much education online is devoted to the virtue of creating content ... but there's little to no education for business leaders and marketers like you on how to actually create the dang content you need to drive traffic, generate qualified leads, and close deals.
Well, that ends today. I've spent years as a business content strategist, servicing every industry you could possibly imagine, with millions in revenue results to back my work up. And now I'm going to pass my content know-how savings onto you.
Although I know for most of you, the mere mention of outlining probably triggers nightmare-ish middle school memories of English teachers forcing you to write outlines – which were graded almost on par with the essays themselves. I'm right there with you!
But the good news is that this isn't middle school. And I'm going to teach you a totally agile and customizable method of outlining business blog content (or, heck, any piece of content you create) to guarantee the content you create is as memorable – and profitable! – as possible!
What does a great business blog outline look like?
Honestly, they can look like whatever you need them to look like.
It surprises me how often I have to remind my clients about this fact, but in the content marketing world no one is grading your outlines except for you. So, whatever you need it to look like in order to give you a proper roadmap of what you're writing, that's fine by me!
To show you what I mean, here's an example outline for a blog I'm writing for my company next week:
Looks pretty straightforward, right? I've got a clear introduction and conclusion – and sandwiched in between those blog outline gems are four rockin' sections that covers everything I need to talk about in this piece.
Here's the catch, though:
I created this lean, audience-focused blog outline leveraging a very specific methodology of mine that guarantees that outline I put together isn't like a stuffed kitchen sink an hour after Thanksgiving dinner.
This where most of us go wrong, folks
When we sit down to write or outline a blog article, we just do a big ol' dump of EVERYTHING we need to know about a topic, like we're writing an academic essay, where we need to show off how much we actually know about something. Within minutes, we find ourselves drowning in options.
Then we wonder why we get confused! We wonder why we get stalled out on the first sentence, because we have no idea where to begin, because there are 10,000 different ways you could back into a topic.
It's because we don't take 10 minutes before whipping out the keyboard to think critically about what actually needs to be in a piece of content. For example, by a show of virtual hands, how many of you have felt overwhelmed by a blog article because it's a topic that gets really hairy because your answer depends on which persona you're talking to?
For example, the framing and substance of how I answer the question of, "What is a content strategy?" will be entirely different if depending on whether I'm talking to a seasoned business owner who's new to inbound marketing or a content marketer who's being asked to justify the work they've been doing with an actual strategy.
This cuts to the heart of what I'm about to teach you
This blog outlining process I'm about to share with you will only take 15 minutes, and you will complete it before you actually create your outline. You can do it mentally or you can write your answers down. Regardless of what you choose, this blog outline process will cut your writing time in half, because it will bring you more clarity and focus before you ever touch a keyboard.
You'll never struggle to write an introduction, you'll know exactly what does and doesn't need to be in a piece of content before you get too deep into writing, and you'll radically increase how effective a piece of content is at generating leads and closing deals.
Are you ready? Let's go!
Step 1: Define your audience
If you're like most of the companies I work with, you don't just have one buyer persona – you likely have multiple personas. That's why, before you even think about what you want to talk about in a given blog article, you have to get very clear on who you're talking to first.
But when I say "defining your audience," I don't just mean deciding it's "Susie Sales Team Leader" who's the target for your blog.
Questions to ask about your audience
- When you look at your blog topic, who is the the MOST likely person in your audience who is searching for this topic?
- Why are they likely searching for answers about this topic right now, at this very moment?
- How are they feeling right now? Are they feeling stressed or pressured in any way? Are they goal-oriented and proactive? Are they feeling skeptical?
- Why are they feeling this way?
- If they were sitting in front of you right now, how would they finish this sentence: "Bottom line, I'll consider your blog article on this topic if ..."
What these answers will tell you
- How to define the scope of what you cover; leave anything out that doesn't speak directly to the person you've identified.
- How you need to structure your introduction, for example:
- Based on what you know about how they feel, how do you need to show up? Do you need to demonstrate understanding of why they are where they are right now, empathy if they're stressed, and validation if they're feeling alone? Do you need to share a story or data point that's relevant?
- Based on what you know about what they want, you'll be able to outline those points as topics you'll cover, debunk, or build upon at the end of your introduction, as you tease the rest of the blog article.
- You'll also understand what it will take for them to not only consider your piece of content a success, but also to trust you as a reliable resource.
Step 2: List what they want (on their terms)
Now that you know what you're talking about (your topic) and who you're talking to and what (what you defined in the last step), it's time to dig deeper into the mind of your audience.
But before you do, there's one ground rule for this stage – you cannot, under any circumstances, think about yourself here or your solutions. Nor can you dismiss or reword questions because "you know better" as the expert. Whenever possible, the answers you come up with in this section should be in their words.
OK, let's dig into how this step works.
I want you to imagine the person you did such a great job of defining above is sitting in front of you. Then ...
Ask yourself the following questions
- What are the most common INITIAL questions this person will likely be asking at this stage in their journey?
- What are the most common FOLLOW-UP questions this person will likely have at this stage in their journey, and based upon the answers they'll get to their initial questions?
- What are the most common OBJECTIONS you'd likely hear from this person, either initially or in response to any of the answers you may give them to the questions you know they have?
What these answers will tell you
Great blogs are almost like one-sided conversations where you, the writer, somehow magically are a mind-reader who knows exactly what your audience is thinking and when.
The answers above will provide a clear roadmap of the substance you'll need to cover and in what order. Moreover, they'll keep your blog article well-focused and they'll be more persuasive with your target audience because you're covering all your bases.
Step 3: Get specific on why they should listen to you
Look, blog articles that make money for businesses do a few things really well:
- They're honest, open, and transparent with the answers the audience seeks, without gatekeeping information because it's uncomfortable.
- They empower the reader with an almost selfless amount of education, where it's clear the author is less concerned about a sale and more concerned about creating a genuinely educated buyer with unbiased information.
- And, most of all, they make it clear why the reader should believe and trust the source – in your case, that's you!
So, it's not enough to get clear on who you're talking to and what they want. You need to get very specific – beyond, "It's what we do and sell, duh?" – about what it is you bring to the table is the trusted expert. That's how you make your content more effective and lay the foundation for them potentially buying from you down the road.
Questions to define your domain expertise
- Why are you specifically (or your organization on the whole – or both!) uniquely qualified to be addressing this topic?
- Do you work with people just like them, have you ever been in their shoes, or (once more with feeling!) both?
- Can you think of any specific real-world stories or examples you can include to illustrate your point or make it easier for audience to retain and apply what they're learning – even if you have to anonymize them?
- Are there any case studies or results examples you can share – or even abstractly refer to – that will help you solidify your expertise or answer their question(s)?
- Are you particularly passionate about this topic? If so, why?
What these answers will tell you
- You can extract at least one or two elements from these answers to insert into your introduction to build trust as an expert.
- That's the magic formula of an introduction – show you know who they are, act like a mind-reader about where they are right now and why, lay out what you're going to learn, and then bring it home with why they should listen to you!
- You'll have a bank of stories and examples at the ready to insert into an outline or your final product that are tightly aligned with who you're talking to and what their needs are.
Step 4: Finally, your outline puts itself together
I know that sounds nuts, but think about it. If you've followed the steps above, you now know the following the blog you're about to write:
- Who exactly you're talking to, how they're feeling, and why they are motivated to learn about this topic, at this exact moment.
- How you need to show up to meet that person where they are, beyond the expertise you're going to dish out.
- What precise questions, follow-up questions, and objections you need to address in order for you blog to be considered a success on their terms.
- How to position yourself as an unimpeachable expert in the introduction and throughout your article.
- What stories and examples you have to draw upon to make your new piece of content sing.
In short, you have all of the details you need to outline your blog – or even get right down to the business of writing, if you're feeling plucky enough.
"But Liz, what about the conclusion?"
I am so glad you asked! Conclusions are the absolute worst, right? In school, we were taught great conclusions simply restate the thesis and your points. In a business blog context, that doesn't make a lot of sense because that approach adds zero value.
The problem is that some of you use your conclusion space to do something equally invaluable:
"If you have any more questions about this topic or would like to see a demo of our product, please contact someone from our sales team!"
No no no.
Please do not do this.
I'd rather you follow the strategy we learned in fourth grade instead of that, and that's for two specific reasons. First, they're already on your website, which is likely plastered with offers, demo buttons, and conversion opportunities. You don't need to burn down all of the trust bridges you just built with your expertise by going for the hard sell when someone isn't ready.
That's like saying, "I love you!" on a first date. That doesn't work, no matter how hot you are.
Instead, use your conclusion space to address one of the following three questions, based on what you believe your audience will most likely be wondering at this point:
- "This sounds great, and it sounds like ... a lot. Where do I even start?" Give them a simple next step that makes it easy for them to immediately implement what you've taught them. Even if it's simply challenging them to ask themselves a question (or series of questions), the answers to which will make it clear where they need to focus right now.
- "Why now?" In some cases, people will totally buy into what you're sharing with them. But they won't see the urgency to take action. If that's your audience, make the case for why the time for action is right now. A great way to do this is to talk about the insidious consequences of inaction.
- "So what?" Skepticism can also show up differently than kicking the can down the road, as in the case of the previous bullet point. Sometimes, no matter how well you lay out your case, your reader may get to the end and not see how it applies to them. If that's your audience, point it out:
"With more than X years in the industry, we know how divisive [YOUR TOPIC HERE] can be, so it's not always clear what, if any of what we discussed here applies to you."
From there, depending what you're talking about, you can take a few different tactics – challenge them with self-reflection questions, where the answers will bring the clarity they need or create urgency; bring in some data to really drive your point home (if you didn't already); or share a short anecdote about yourself or someone else who they will identify with that demonstrates relevancy.
Put it into practice
The flexibility of this methodology is both a blessing and a curse. It's a blessing because you can adapt it to how you work best. It's a curse because, well ...
Do you go through the questions above mentally, or do you need to create an outline before the outline?
Do you need to write an outline after this exercise, or can you go straight into writing?
The reality is, I can't answer those questions for you. But here's how I'd recommend you start.
- Set a timer for 20 minutes.
- Open up a Google Doc.
- Write down three questions:
- Who are they?
- What do they want and why?
- Why should they listen to me?
- Let it flow, and don't overthink it.
When the timer goes off, take a look at what you've got in front of you. You'll likely know what you need to do next.
In some cases, the content topic is so complex, I'll take a moment to create an outline (like the one I shared above) to get things in the right order. But then there are times where, this tiny exercise is so inspiring, that's all I need. I can get right down to business of blogging.
Heck, with just a few weeks of practice, you'll be where I am in no time, where you can run this whole exercise in your head in under 5 minutes without even needing to open up a document. From there, the sky's the limit. This is the exact process I use to outline content pillars, podcast episodes, e-books, checklists ... seriously, you name it!
Because, like George always talks about – humans come first.
INBOUND 2023 was more than just a conference; it was an experience that brought our team closer, not only as colleagues but as a family, and yes, I...
Howdy, folks! I am thrilled right now for two reasons. First, I am coming to you live today from center of the HubSpot universe, #INBOUND23 in Boston...