All three of my children were born in under three years (and the last two were less than a year apart). When they were bitty — at one point, I had three in diapers, two on bottles, and one on breathing treatments every four hours — parenting “best practices” like teaching them to sign or creating cute little cartoonish scenes from their lunch ingredients seemed as out of reach as flying to the moon. There was a two- to three-year blur when I considered it a win if everybody was safe and healthy at the end of the day. (Shoes, socks, and crafts were optional.)
I think that’s how small businesses must feel when they read content marketing best practices: “I’m struggling just to get through the day, and you want me to teach three diaper-wearing preschoolers how to sign?” That’s why I’ve written so much about how content marketing best practices (intentionally or not) can make small businesses feel as if only losers try to do the best they can with what they have.
What I haven’t done (and should have) is create an action plan for those times when bare-bones content marketing is the best you can do.
So here you go: I’m going to assume that you already have a basic website and that you want to add a blog. With that in mind, here’s a prioritized list of content marketing essentials, curated by yours truly for those times when bare-bones content marketing really is all you’ve got.
Identify your goals
Since this is bare-bones content marketing, I’m not going to tell you to set goals that are specific, measurable, etc.: “I want to increase web traffic by 50% over the next six months.” My question is much simpler:
What pain point do you think will be resolved by starting a blog?
Are you trying to attract new customers?
If so, are who are they, and what are they doing right now?
- Are they currently doing business with one of your competitors?
- Are they researching products like yours to see what they have to offer?
- Or are they simply aware of a need, desire, pain point, etc., but have no idea if/how it can be resolved?
Are you trying to up-sell existing customers?
If so, are you trying to sell them more of what they’re already buying (more options, more data, more styles and colors, etc.) or additional products or services (a special cleanser to take care of those hand-made boots they just bought from you)?
Are you trying to resolve your own pain points?
Don’t laugh! It’s a legitimate question:
- If you’re getting a lot of returns because your product isn’t what customers expected, your goal is to stop them from buying the wrong thing.
- If you’re getting a lot of damaged returns because customers are trying to use your product improperly, your goal is to keep them from breaking it.
- If your help desk is flooded with customers asking the same questions over and over, your goal is reduce payroll by providing an easy resource customers can use to help themselves.
- If your prices are going up because you’re paying more for source materials or because of expenses related to new regulations, your goal is to keep customers from assuming the higher prices are just another example of greed.
If you only implement one of my tips, let it be this one:
No matter what else you do or don’t do, your blog will be a failure if you don’t know what you want it to accomplish for you.
Write good stuff
You don’t necessarily need to spend money on content that will make customers bask in the glory of your words, but you do need to write well enough that people won’t think you’re unprofessional and/or incompetent. Writing that’s full of grammatical and spelling errors, or that rambles down all sorts of backroads before it gets to the point (if ever), can do serious damage to your credibility.
You don’t want people to spend the first 90% of your blog post trying to figure out where you’re going with it. So follow the simplest, most time-tested structure there is:
- Tell them what you’re going to tell them.
- Tell them.
- Tell them what you told them.
Or, put a bit differently, each piece of content should have an introduction, your core message, and then a conclusion.
I’m not a huge fan of Grammarly because I think it often misses contextual nuances. But this is bare-bones content marketing, so use Grammarly to catch spelling and basic grammatical errors. You can use either the app or one of the browser extensions.
I’ve written for a lot of folks over the past 25 years, and the single most common problem I see is content that doesn’t say what the person who wrote it thinks it says. I’ll read their draft, then ask them to just tell me what they’re trying to get across. More often than you would imagine, the two have nothing in common.
So hand your draft off to someone else to read. Then tell them verbally, and ask if the messages are they same. If not, figure out where you went off track, correct the problem, and try again.
Take care of basic SEO
I tend to poke fun at SEO evangelists, but only because most businesses can’t devote hours upon hours to the detailed, nuanced SEO tasks thought leaders recommend. But that doesn’t mean you should ignore SEO altogether. There are some quick, simple things you can do to help search engines (and, therefore, customers) find your content.
Pick a keyword
Yes, you really do need to pick a keyword. No, you don’t need to spend hours researching things like search volume vs. competition, or which keywords people are using when they wind up on a competitor’s site.
But you do need to know, in broad terms, what you’re talking about. When you’re telling a friend about your business and what your products/services are for, what words do you use over and over again?
Ideally, include a couple of adjectives describing the things that differentiate you from your competitors. If your laptop’s value proposition is that it’s lightweight and fast, consider using keywords like “light, fast laptop” instead of just “laptop.”
Write your headline
A lot of experts say they spend more time on the headline than on the blog post itself, but we don’t do that here in the land of bare-bones content marketing. Go to CoSchedule’s free headline analyzer, and try out various combinations of headlines built around your keyword. The tool will give you a score for each one, and the results page will give you helpful information on why you got the score you did and how you can improve it (if you have the time).
A score of 70 or above will get you a thumbs-up. But don’t spend time you don’t have trying to get from a 68 or 69 to 70 — it won’t make that much difference.
Fill in the keyword-shaped blanks
There are certain places within a blog post where Google looks to find out what you’re talking about. Once you’ve chosen your keyword, use it to go back and fill in the most important blanks. Exactly how and where you do that will vary based on your site platform, but here are the ones to watch for:
The title tag is the headline that shows up in search results. For example, here’s what I get if I Google “reward freelance writers.”
I currently have the top spot on the results page (your mileage may vary), which is amazing, because it’s a good example of what not to do. I never changed the title tag from the headline of the article itself. But I should have, because it’s a long headline. I should have used “Rewards and incentives for freelance writers” as the title tag. It’s easy to read, and you wouldn’t see the ellipses Google added when I ran out of characters.
The lesson here is that the title tag can be the same as your headline, and sometimes it should be. But, if your headline is more than 60 characters, consider shortening it so that nothing gets dropped. (Just make sure you keep your keyword in there.)
A couple of other tips:
- All of your title tags should be unique — no duplicates!
- If there’s room, add your name or your company’s name at the end of your title tag. But it’s more important for the title tag to give an accurate description of what the post is about.
The meta description appears under the title tag in search results. And it’s got a big job: Convincing people to click through to your site rather than one of the others listed on the results page.
Most platforms will automatically generate a meta description from the first paragraph of your blog post. If your first paragraph adequately summarizes what the blog post is about, then you can stick with the auto-generated meta description.
But a lot of blog writers like to start with an anecdote, a quote, etc. In those cases, the auto-generated meta description won’t do a good job of telling searchers what the post is about. I’ll use mine again as an example of what not to do:
The meta description — what comes after “June 3, 2016” — was pulled from my introduction, and it does nothing whatsoever to tell people what to expect if they click on this result. I should have changed the meta description to something along the lines of “7 rewards and incentives that freelance writers actually care about.”
A good meta description clearly and succinctly summarizes your post. The best meta descriptions answer the question that prompted the search, and they do so in a way that piques the interest of the searcher.
A custom URL is what shows up after www.yourwebsite.com/ when you create a new blog post. Most platforms generate one automatically, but not all do it the same way. And some just add a seemingly random string of letters and/or numbers.
There’s no magic formula to choosing a custom URL. Just make sure it contains your keyword and is different from the URLs of any other blog posts you’ve written.
Not customizing the URL for your blog post is like passing up free wine. Or candy. Just…why?
You know your blog post will perform much better if you include images, right? Well, the alt tag is what shows up when the link to the image is broken. Customizing the alt tag is what we called a “gimme” when I was in high school: It’s too easy to not do it
Just type in a few words or a phrase describing your image, and make sure to include your keyword. Preferably, each alt tag should be unique, although that one can be hard to remember when you’re writing the alt tag for your 50th image about “fishing” (or whatever your topic of choice may be).
That sounds like a lot, but honestly — once you figure out the how for your particular platform, making these tweaks is easy as pie and takes no more than a few minutes.
Backlinks carry quite a bit of weight in Google algorithms, but backlink outreach isn’t part of bare-bones content marketing. Internal linking is another matter.
Internal linking is when you link from one of your blog posts to another. Why send readers to a resource on another site if one of your own blog posts will do the job?
Also, internal links help Google crawl your site. They’re like little balloons and fireworks saying, “Yoohoo…great content this way!”
Internal linking is fast and easy, but there’s one thing most people forget. Don’t just link from the blog post you’re writing to older content. Once your new blog post is published, go back and edit your older posts, adding links to the new content. Link love should go both ways!
“Put the hay down where the goats can get at it”
Stealing a quote from a former co-worker, there’s no point in having a blog if you bury it in the footer (like a former retail client who always wondered why they weren’t getting the traffic they expected). If you’re going to have a blog, put it in your main navigation menu so that people can find it.
Write for the right audience
If you did a good job of identifying the purpose of your content, this shouldn’t be a problem. But I’ve seen it too many times to take it for granted.
What’s “it”? Writing for people who do what you do rather than for people who buy what you do. Because everybody says to write about what you’re interested in, right?
Yep. So startups write about being a startup, dog walkers write about their own dogs, etc. But the only people who care about the trials and tribulations of launching a startup are other people launching startups — not the startup’s customers. So make sure you’re writing for the right audience.
Cover your backside
The more the internet becomes enmeshed in our lives, the more governments, regulatory agencies, and other interested parties try to control it. Some of those controls are good and necessary…some not so much. But those controls are very real, and they’re not going away. Even bare-bones content marketers need to take some steps to minimize the risks of their online content:
- Make sure your site meets the ADA’s accessibility requirements.
- Make sure you abide by all laws/regulations regarding data privacy and security.
- Abide by licensing restrictions on any images you use (you can’t just go grab something off of Pinterest). Either choose something with a Creative Commons license or get authorization from the creator.
- Be aware of the risks of user-generated content.
- , but have a game plan in place just in case you do.
- Be a mama bear when it comes to brand trust and credibility. That includes all of the above but also extends to things like using only credible sources and developing a nose for sniffing out the sources that aren’t credible.
Distribute your content
Every “best practices” article talks about content distribution and promotion, and for good reason: There’s just too much content out there to think somebody is going to stumble across yours by accident.
With that said…if you’re starting from ground zero, I’d develop a good foundation of content before I started promoting it. There’s not much point in promoting one lonely blog post. Instead, use that time to build a critical mass of content.
Once you’ve done that, you can move on to the bare-bones approach of content distribution and promotion:
- Share it on your social media accounts.
- Include a link to your blog in your email signature.
- Include links to your best content in your LinkedIn profile.
Moving beyond bare-bones
First, let me emphasize that, depending on you and your business, bare-bones may be all you ever need. If you’ve already got as much business as you can handle, and your focus is on providing better service through customer education, distribution and promotion may never need to be on your radar. The same is true for keyword research: There’s not much point in investing hours of research if your focus is existing customers — presumably, they already know where to find you.