Last week, Content Marketing World (CMW) took downtown Cleveland by storm. Industry movers & shakers congregated in the vast maze of a convention center to learn the latest hacks and findings on the content marketing front. When I wasn’t checking my Fitbit (15,000 steps on Wednesday alone!), I was munching on orange-colored snacks [think: orange-frosted (and sprinkled!) donuts and cheddar cheese spread] and networking with others who share my passion for all things content. The biggest opportunity for both personal and professional growth came from attending the conference keynotes and individual break-out sessions, where we attendees heard fresh insights from content marketing leaders from around the world.

So if you weren’t able to attend CMW, I’m happy to share three key take-aways that you can incorporate into your content marketing:

1. Form a Strategy, Not a Vision

Keynote speaker Kristina Halvorson kicked off day 1 of the conference by making us all question ourselves—but in a good way. She began with a bold assertion that many content marketers struggle with developing a solid content strategy. Why? Simply put, we go about content creation almost haphazardly, producing as much content as we possibly can in a given period. We strive to be everywhere at every given moment. Quantity is the focus.

This approach is the result of us starting out with the assumption that content marketing is for us. This is the end point, she noted—not the starting point. The starting point, she said, was to ask ourselves why we are doing (or are wanting to do) content marketing in the first place. This was the million dollar question that made us momentarily sit back in our chairs and scratch our heads. We need to ask this question first in order to provide the fuel and justification for our content strategy. Otherwise, we’ll succumb to formulating a “strategy” that does not address our primary responsibilities as marketers: business outcomes and customer satisfaction. So, don’t fall into the trap of creating a “strategy” that’s really just a vision (e.g. “We will be the industry leader by delivering content that our customers can’t get enough of”). The main take-away here? Make sure your content strategy fully addresses your goals—not works against them.

2. Make Customers the Heroes of Your Story

With content today being dominated by pictures of babies and kittens…and puppies, it’s harder now than ever to tune out the noise. In fact, every minute, over 204 million emails are sent, 205 million social shares occur, and three days’ worth of video is uploaded to the internet. For content marketers, this is a huge noise barrier to break through.

So, how can we ensure that our content is compelling enough to stand on its own two feet? Speaker Michael Brenner addressed this predicament by honing in on the idea of content marketing as storytelling. The answer, he said, is that we content marketers need to approach marketing like it’s our job to tell stories. At the core, we are storytellers. Content marketing is about attracting people through stories that they love and that speak to them. This is the only type of content that will consistently draw people in.

On that note, it’s important to point out that content marketing should be customer-focused, not brand-focused. Brenner quoted Ann Handley with: “Take your brand out of the story—make your customers the hero.” All content marketers know that it’s easy to fashion our content as a way to promote our brand. But in order to create compelling content that our customers will actually love—and which will break through the noise—we need to whole-heartedly focus on our customers, their wants, and their needs. How? Get to know your customers and use your content to answer their questions. You already have the knowledge and the expertise to answer your customers’ questions, so this should be a walk in the park.

3. Create Ugly

Speaker Jay Acunzo discussed things that prolific content creators do really well…and why you should do them, too. Numero uno? Dive in and create ugly—ugly content, that is. It’s no secret that we content marketers are known for our mission to create perfect content every time from the get-go. But as a result, we seldom allow ourselves to fully unleash our creative minds. Just think—what could you create if you left the formulaic content creation process at the door and instead just let the creative juices flow…wherever they may go? The point here is that it wouldn’t matter what the initial output is (in fact, it’s meant to be ugly)—the only thing that does matter is the fact that as you go through the creative, unrestricted process of shaping your content into a masterpiece, you’ll learn more than if you stuck to your typical structured process and tried to perfect it from the start. Without taking chances with your content (side note: and in life), you won’t improve. Period. We must remember that creativity means giving ourselves permission to make mistakes—and with these mistakes comes the growth we so eagerly desire.

What were your primary learnings at Content Marketing World 2015? Or if you were unable to attend—what content questions would you have wanted the keynotes and sessions to address? Please share your perspective and insights in the comments section below!

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