What Makes Good Content Good? 11 Experts Share Their Insights on Content Resonance
February 7, 2018 | Dan Trefethen
When you think of successful content, what first comes to mind? Is it a case study example where there are a bunch of impressive numbers and results linking to revenue increase? Or is it campaign you recently saw or experienced that just jumped out at you, made you lean forward, and put down your phone for the duration? Maybe it even lingered in your mind for some time afterwards.
The former, of course, is a necessary measurement of “success,” but I’d imagine the latter is what actually leaps out on initial reaction. Given the amount of content an individual is exposed to on a daily basis (the average social media user sees roughly 285 content pieces per day), a truly strong piece of content is one that actually stands out, one that strikes a chord with a person.
The increasingly difficult challenge for content marketers is, of course, how do we make that content? What are the ingredients to resonating with an audience?
We decided to collect the insights and opinions of 11 different marketers who have had extensive experience in creating content that resonates – who think about it everyday, including how it works, where it’s going, what does it mean, and how to measure it.
Experts tapped for this particular subject include:
- Ann Handley
- Jay Acunzo
- Samantha Stone
- Ardath Albee
- Jessica Mehring
- Emily Popson
- Liana Patch
- Matt Heinz
- John Bonini
- Doug Kessler
- Neil Patel
MarketingProfs | Chief Content Officer
Ann Handley is the Chief Content Officer at MarketingProfs and author of the bestsellers, Content Rules and Everybody Writes. Forbes Magazine named her one of the 10 most influential people in Social Media, and she is recognized as one of the top blogging voices when it comes to writing for business.
Is resonance something you think marketers can achieve? That it’s not just a buzzword, that marketing can do this?
Absolutely. I think it’s hard, but in some ways, it kind of represents the Holy Grail, doesn’t it? When I think about the most successful content pieces that I’ve seen of late, the ones that I most react to are the ones that really resonate with me. I’ll just give you a B2C example right now. I don’t know if you guys saw this, but what Barbie did recently – I guess it was a commercial, but it was like a minute long. I think it was called “Imagine the Possibilities.”
It’s a commercial where a bunch of little girls are suddenly finding themselves as the boss. So for one, this little girl is a soccer coach, and she’s coaching this soccer team to raise their knees high – “like a unicorn,” I think is her quote. Super cute. The reason why it works is because it’s sort of this theory about little girls playing these various roles, and then at the end, it pulls back on this little girl who’s sitting there with all of her Barbie dolls. The whole message is empowering your kids – or, your girls, specifically – and giving them leadership qualities through Barbies.
It was really brilliant because it sort of reframed Barbie in a whole different way. It’s away from the bimbo Barbie which I think our generation associates with her, and more towards something that has real resonance with parents and things that they want for their children.
Do you think that B2B campaigns can achieve that kind of reaction? Can they get away from the “boring” reputation?
Yeah, I think it’s possible in B2B. I don’t think of B2B as boring at all. I think that even in B2B, the products of B2B ultimately do touch people in some way. I think the challenge for B2B marketers is to draw that connection. And there’s a bunch of brands who I think do it well, and there are various ways that I think that they can do it.
One of the brands who I think does it really well is GE. I don’t know if you follow their GE Reports at all. It’s probably what I think of as the best brand journalism site out there. It’s really amazing. It’s on my mind because I spoke this week to a group of, essentially, science marketers. I took a lot of time on that site. I was so blown away by all the things they do there. Because GE, to me, really do frame all of their B2B products in a much different way. They actually show how they improve the lives of the people – ultimately how this technology, or this solution, or whatever, helps.
Unthinkable | Keynote Speaker & Podcast Host
What comes to mind for you when you think of resonance?
I think resonance is the depth of intellectual or emotional response that you get from someone else. That’s what resonance is. It’s a little counter-cultural to lots of what’s happening to marketing right now, but the people that have latched onto it are the clear winners already. You don’t often see a brand or a marketing team that has a history of success doing cheap tricks, hacks, and shortcuts. That seems like the definitional opposite of resonance, right?
If you look at a Red Bull or a Coke or American Express or all these brands that we idolize, what they’re great at doing is making us feel something or think differently. And that really is what it’s all about. That should always be the underpinnings of good marketing – because you’re not just going for reach, you are going for resonance. You don’t want to just get in front of somebody, you need to trigger an action.
What is content marketing? It’s just solving the same problem or triggering the same emotion as your product. That’s all it’s supposed to be. But we clutter it with so many tactics and trends and all this noise about “thought leadership” instead of keeping it simple.
Why do you think marketers have such a hard time getting out of their heads or brand messaging and into a place where they can resonate?
I think they believe too often that they can still talk about themselves in any way, shape, or form. I talked to a startup once and they were really hot for content marketing. And they thought: “We totally get we should educate the market. And we need to be entertaining – people are struggling to understand this bot that we created, this automated solution that we have a name for. So, because it’s a named product, we are going to have a byline on our blog that is the product, talking about its features and its process and about how we developed it. And that will be fun and interesting and resonant because it’s almost like a person writing about this stuff.”
To me, that sounds like playing outside the box but pressed right up against it. That is not at all what people are going to like. You’re still thinking too close to home; you’re trying to bolt on this idea like, “Oh people like reading people. Let’s make our product into a person.”
The problem is that doesn’t go far enough away from your product, and shows you’re not trying to delve more deeply into psychology. You actually want to ask, “why do people like reading people?” They like reading what a person wrote because they don’t feel like they’re being sold to: because it’s authentic, and because there’s real human personality involved. It works because you’ve started with the audience first, not the product. But it’s scary for a lot of businesses to do that.
Marketing Advisory Network | Chief Marketing Officer
Samantha Stone is the founder and CMO of The Marketing Advisory Network and author of Unleash Possible: A Marketing Playbook that Drives Sales.
What comes to mind for you when you think of the word resonance?
Resonance is a lot more than just being relevant – it’s inspiring action. As marketers we have an obligation to engage our audience in a way that entices them. Because of how much content is being produced, the diversity of our community, and the variety of places our assets are read and watched – we have to create experiences that are not only relevant, but that our audience recognizes themselves in the material. In effect, we want to create content that is playing off of what the audience is experiencing.
My son just started at RIT in upstate New York. When we went to his Accepted Student Open House a few months ago, there was a gentleman walking up and down the aisles playing the violin. And I thought, this is a rather unusual thing for a technology school. But they explained later that he was only playing a small number of notes, and that the instrument had been programmed to take a cue from the notes that were played and to create the rest of the song. Only every once in awhile, would he redirect it by playing a few notes, and the instrument would redirect itself.
For me, that’s the perfect analogy for content marketing. We want to create a rhythm that kicks somebody off, but then we want them to pick that up and make it their own. We want interaction that evolves back and forth with their input and feedback.
What role does personalization play in content resonance?
There is no way to build content that resonates without personalization. But I want to be really clear on the definition of personalization. To me, personalization does not require that I know everything about you as an individual. Nor is it replacing (First Name) with my name. It’s not personal to me that suddenly this video has my name in it, or my logo appears on the screen. It does uplift response rates to do those things. But that’s not really the heart of personalization.
To me, the heart of personalization is using everything I happen to know about you. Whether it be an order you placed in the past, some content you consumed in the past, or a conversation you had with my sales team – whatever it is about you that I’ve learned. When I use that insight to direct our content exchange we are likely to experience true, interactive resonance.
Marketing Interactions | Chief Executive Officer
What do you think is the difference between relevance and resonance? Do they overlap?
Relevance, of course, has to be there, or something’s never going to resonate. That step between “okay, it’s relevant to me – but does it resonate?” There’s a step in there that has to happen. So for example, I can know my vegetables are good for me, and I’ll eat them, but I’m not going to take a picture of them and share them. That doesn’t resonate with me. But it’s relevant, because I want to live a healthy life. Do you know what I mean? So there’s this difference there between relevance and resonance, but without relevance, you don’t have a shot.
Do you think there’s a resonance metric – a way we could think about the metrical impact of resonance?
Emotion trumps logic. You could actually do an A/B test, and write something with some relevance, that doesn’t have any emotional quality to it at all, and put it up against something that is really tied into the persona and the emotion or the passion they have about solving the problem, or whatever – and see which one will get more response.
Horizon Peak Consulting | Copywriter & Strategist
Jessica Mehring is a copywriter and content marketing expert at Horizon Peak Consulting. She is also the creator of The Content Lab, which trains copywriters and marketers how to write more effective, resonant content for IT, software, and tech companies.
How do you work with clients to help them get there? What’s the pathway toward that emotional connection?
I listen to them. That’s the first thing I do, because the people that I work with are so smart. It’s almost intimidating talking to some of these startup founders and tech marketers and people that are in the tech space, because they are so incredibly brilliant. And what they’re bringing to the world is just so life-changing. I want to know where that comes from.
So I ask something, and I just listen. And they always have stories to tell me, whether that’s why they came up with the technology that they built or some way that their customer is using their product or service today that is so inspiring to them.
I listen to them for those stories, and those stories guide so much of the content that I write for them.
What is the content that really resonates with you personally?
So there’s one post that I have been actually referring people to a lot lately, because it got me really excited. It’s by Ann Handley. She does some really amazing stuff. And she published something – it was a blog post called “Calling B.S. On Facebook’s Edict that Writing Is Dead.” I loved it! I mean, I love everything that she writes. But this one really deeply resonated with me as a content writer.
And you know what? She’s a great example of how quality matters more than quantity in content these days. She doesn’t publish every single day. She publishes when she has something valuable to say.
When I see one of her emails pop up in my inbox alerting me that she’s got a new blog post, I rush to read that. All of her posts are so valuable to me. There’s always something in there that gets me excited, or changes my opinion on something, or gives me a new tool or mindset shift.
Blackbaud | Senior Marketing Manager
Where do you think brands go wrong with creating content their audience cares about?
I think brands go wrong when they try to address everyone in every piece of content, instead of speaking to very specific pains or gaps.
I think brands also go wrong when they let their end goal dictate every piece of content. Sometimes it’s more important to create relevant content that resonates with your audience segment than it is to create content with direct ties to what you’re offering. For example, I’m much more likely to gush over a flipbook of older doggies playing with young pups than I am to read a blog post on the different ingredients used in adult pet food.
Brands also miss the mark because they forget to ask – and when they do ask, they don’t always listen.
Customers will tell you what they need if you ask them. Then it’s up to you to really hear them. Sometimes, brands don’t make concepts real for people. They don’t bring concepts to life. I have found some of my most successful content hasn’t been the 30 page eBook of stats. It’s been the interactive self-assessment that encourages people to be honest with themselves, asking the right questions, looking at issues from a different angle. It’s been the simple time saving calculator that shows them make efficiencies real and tangible for them and leaves them wondering, “How can I achieve that?”
Why is it so hard to create resonant content?
I guess because it feels a lot easier to create one watered down magic pill piece of content, than it does to create more personal content that doesn’t always clearly map back to a product offer.
It requires risk, for sure. We recently took a risk in creating a new program that carries the tagline “always honest, always real” and promises a filter-off approach to topics and questions submitted by our customers. In our tip sheets, blog posts, webinars and podcasts we address real, specific issues and sometimes that has meant recommending solutions that have nothing to do with our SKU list.
But it is resonating. People are emailing us and thanking us, telling us this was exactly what they needed, and sending us photos of our content’s words printed out and hung up at their desks. In this case, the risk has most certainly been worth the reward. And it’s turning into revenue without ever mentioning a product name.
Punchline Conversion Copywriting | Copywriter & Strategist
Lianna Patch is the owner of Punchline Conversion Copywriting, where she, according to her website, specializes in both SaaS and sass. She takes a business’ drab, boring, faceless online presence and produces unforgettable copy using well-placed humor to grab visitors right from the start.
Are there words that you would consider synonymous with resonance, or the idea of resonating?
I was thinking about that, and I came up with “heartfelt” and “intuitive” – and then, more on the action-oriented side of things, to be “struck” by something, to be “gripped.” I was thinking of it musically, like tones resonating – like, a bell rings, and we say, “this rings true to me, this resonates with me.” There’s like a whole language around resonance.
Do you think that there’s anything that marketers do specifically that prevents a piece of content they might be working on from being authentically resonant?
You’re not going to resonate unless you know your audience really well, so if you don’t know your audience, you need to do your research. I think the other thing is just the time crunch. Because you want to get something out – you just write it, and you don’t think about whether it’s the right way to say it, and then you’re disappointed when it doesn’t land. Also, any potential resonance you might have, you could kill that with stock photos. It’s not just the writing on the page, but the design & layout.
If you get to a page that looks untrustworthy, like it was built in 1995 – you automatically don’t want to identify with that page because you feel more modern. You feel like you’re looking for something very reputable. Layout and design, in that way, can kill any potential impact in your copy.
Is it artisanal content quality? That you want to feel like it was hand-crafted, or that it was hard, or something?
I haven’t heard that before. I like that, “Artisanal Content.” Organically Raised in Brooklyn.
Heinz Marketing | President
Matt Heinz is the president of Heinz Marketing, an organization that focuses on strategic customer acquisition and retention strategy and execution. Basically, if you need to grow, this is the guy to know.
When you encounter resonant content out there in the world, do you see it as having a certain set of characteristics or a certain quantity of ingredients?
I think there are some foundational building blocks that make it a lot easier. Very few people take the time to build personas in a way that meaningfully articulate the challenges and pressures and needs of an audience in addition to the benefits of using your product.
Operationalizing that understanding inside your organization is step two – making sure that your marketing represents it. It’s built into their templates. It’s built into their training so that they’re seeing it; they are practicing it; they’re comfortable with it. They sound natural with it. A third piece I think is just the ongoing education, the ongoing training, the ongoing research, the ongoing exposure to your customers directly.
Is this something that you think about day to day? Creating content that’s going to resonate?
Absolutely. We create a lot of content. We blog almost every day. And we do have an editorial calendar, we have themes that we care about, but I would say that fairly quickly we will adjust our editorial calendar based on something that we’re observing in the market, something we are seeing as a priority among our customers.
That means listening to what they are challenged with, listening to their questions, understanding where they’re roadblocks are. Not in general, not three years ago, not based on what I learned in MBA school, but based on what they’re saying right now. So for me to be able to create content that’s truly achieved that objective, it means I have to have that regular input from customers.
Databox | Director of Marketing
Do you look at your content metrics when you think about future content you’re going to produce?
For sure. You have to draw it all back to what’s leading people to sign up for our tool. There’s a ton of ways to measure the effectiveness of content. Some content we create is simply talking about content just to give people who have never heard of Litmus to our ecosystem. So we’re measuring content in that regard by how many views it gets.
But then there’s other content that we’re creating, and it’s more for funnel engagement. So getting people in, getting them to sign up for our tool, getting in there to get a free trial, whatever it is, and we’re measuring it in that way. So I think that’s an issue that a lot of content marketers face is, “How do I measure?” and “How do I record on it?”
Your funnel is not just one track. You’re going to have content that’s just trying to drive people and get attention for your company. That’s it. Not every piece of content is going to contribute to a sale. But that doesn’t mean that every piece of content is a failure, or it’s not valuable. So I think you have to have content that really nurtures each part of the funnel in different ways. So there’s a ton of different things that we’re measuring.
Do you think these metrics can be misleading sometimes?
It’s really addicting to create a piece of content that gets shared a bunch of times, that gets 1,000 views, and other content marketers are talking about it. And all of a sudden, you have this false result in your head that you think you did well on that post. You could have, but it also could have resonated with the completely wrong audience. Attention is a dopamine boost, and I think a lot of marketers end up creating content for the applause.
But it’s a really widespread issue that prevents people from doing the truly great work that’s going to resonate with their audience and not with other content marketers, or influencers, or the Twitter sphere.
Really doing truly great, resonant work sometimes isn’t going to show up in the Tweet count. It’s not going to show up all over Facebook, or it’s not going to go “viral” which is the word I hate most in marketing.
So sometimes resonating is not really something that looks sexy from an industry standpoint. It’s not going to be something that blows up, but it’s going to be something that’s insanely helpful for your audience, and it’s going to go viral among the right people. Maybe you won’t get 1,000 views, but you’re going to get 150 that are super, super appreciative of the content, and could mean more for your business profit-wise than 1,000 bullshit views mean.
Velocity Partners Ltd | Creative Director
Doug Kessler is the Creative Director and Co-Founder of Velocity Partners Ltd, which won Content Marketing Agency of the Year in 2016. Reader’s might still know Doug’s famous SlideShare titled “Crap” with a subtitle of “Why the Single Biggest Threat to Content Marketing Is Content Marketing.”
In your famous SlideShare presentation, “Crap,” you described successful content as intelligent, useful, and entertaining. Do you think that resonance needs to hit on all three of those? Or can there just be one or two of those traits?
I think that you probably need at least two out of the three – to some degree. Like utility doesn’t actually have to be there. For instance, in B2C markets, or even in some B2B, it can all be about an idea, a feeling, or a thought. And it doesn’t have to be particularly helpful or useful. I do feel like, in a consumer market, simply entertaining could be absolute. If it’s just super entertaining, it can be super effective and resonate in that way.
But it’s hard to get around intelligence. Certainly in B2B you want it to be smart. You want people to feel that you’re sharing something that is incisive and that really encapsulates the issue really well. And then of course, utility – what’s in it for me, the reader? Now if you can dial all those up for something useful, smart, and fun to read, easy to consume – it’ll have some real momentum. Put all of those together and it’s not a bad formula for resonance.
For marketers in more of a demand gen role who run and plan campaigns, but are not necessarily the main creators of the content, how can they best guide or articulate the urgency for resonance to their team?
The most important thing I think a person can do is to set the ambition ceiling and set it really, really high. Inject ambition right up front and say, “I want this to be the best thing on the Internet for this topic. I want this to blow people away!” The creators of the content have to care the most, you know?
And I also think there needs to be a little bit of a hardass element to the process. We’re all very kind. Marketers are nice people, generally, a few assholes just like anywhere else, but mainly nice people. And sometimes, we don’t say the hard things to each other – the candor of saying “not good enough,” or “Nice try but it’s just not resonating with me.” So don’t let it go if it’s not resonating with you. Send it back. You’re not going to make instant friends, but over time, people will respect you more and not give in to, “I don’t want Bob to have to do draft seven. He’s struggling. Let’s just publish.”
Quick Sprout | Founder
Was there a trigger for you in thinking about the power and value of engagement?
I saw that other people were creating engaging content and their content was going viral. And I was like wow, creating something more engaging does way better than just trying to shove things down people’s throats.
What’s so great about a specifically interactive experience?
If it’s interactive in a visual format, especially – for example, there are animated infographics or gifographics in which you click and it changes and it can explain, let’s say, how a car engine works. The animated information, especially in content form, ones that you can interact with, helps people understand your core message in a much simpler way.
Think about a college lecture. When you’re in a college class and the teacher talks at you, there’s no engagement. They’re talking to a class full of 200 people.
What’s going to happen to a percentage of those people?
Some are going to pay attention. Another portion will be really attentive, taking notes, highlighting stuff, then you’ll get another portion that are daydreaming, thinking about other stuff. Then you’ll get another portion of people who are actually sleeping. But when you engage and you interact, they’re much more likely to learn, do something, versus just pushing stuff down their throat. And that’s the beautiful part about content. When you make the content interactive, whether it’s text format or image format or anything like that, people will start learning more. Because they’re engaging. And that’s the key to helping people: it’s to make sure that they’re engaged.
And if your content isn’t engaging, yeah, sure, some people will learn and some people will love it, but a decent portion is just going to bounce off or ignore you or fall asleep.