Make your marketing messages useful

Nancy Duarte

Written by

Nancy Duarte

Marketing messages are for consumption, just like products. Your audience will value your brand and engage with it if you create content that’s more meaningful than all the listicles and other hackneyed advice out there — content that’s worthy of publication in its own right. That’s not to say you should recycle your white papers and expect people to ferret out what’s useful. Good marketing messages meet audiences where they are, and it’s tailored to them.

John Battelle alluded to all this in his 2009 prediction that agencies would become publishers, and vice versa, and I just knew he was right. So I began writing books and digital content to help my firm’s target audience address a pressing need — creating and delivering effective business presentations. That decision transformed my company. Until that point, we had done no formal marketing. In the years since, we have experimented with almost every possible publishing channel.

One of the first things I learned is that readers don’t like it when you try to sell them something. If the content itself isn’t useful, people won’t consume it and your pitch will be lost on them anyway. You can sell more overtly through other avenues, but trust that your readers are smart enough to associate the value of your message with your brand. They’ll know where to look when they need the goods or services you provide.

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For example, take Red Bull, the energy drink maker. Though it uses traditional marketing messages tactics, such as sponsorships and commercials, it also produces The Red Bulletin, a monthly magazine (print and digital) that delivers stories about sports, adventure, music, and other topics its target audience cares about. Whether or not you purchase Red Bull energy drinks, you can connect with the brand and lifestyle.

Offering content like this for free doesn’t mean taking a loss. My firm initially released my book Resonate as a multi-touch digital offering on iTunes for $17.99. When we changed the price to free, people downloaded more books in the first week than we sold the entire previous year. Because it got a lot of traffic, the book was promoted on the iBooks homepage, which exposed it to an even broader audience. And our business saw a huge bump in inbound project queries, which trumped the revenue we would have received from book sales.

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Distributing through channels with analytics is key, though. In the traditional publishing model, the publisher and reseller retain the names of your readers, but when you are the publisher of your message, you get “paid” in loyalty and data — lots of data. Use marketing software to make sense of all that information and to look for patterns in who is consuming your content, which pieces people spend the most time reading, and so on. If the content is compelling enough, readers will willingly give their e-mail addresses to get it. That’s more valuable than cash, because unlike a transaction, ongoing communication creates and strengthens connection.

The more shareable the media, the better. If you create a great slide, for instance, people will pass it around and reuse it. It’s a self-contained, easy-to-copy bit of insight. One of our publishing experiments was to release a full-color, full-length book for free in PowerPoint. The book, Slidedocs, established guidelines for using presentation software as a publishing tool, and the numbers showed that the market was hungry for that information. We offered a piece of useful content, and we were rewarded with an outstanding new community of fans, followers, and friends.

A good book seems to sell itself. Ideally, marketing messages should function the same way. Your material will be read — and spread — if it’s useful to others. So find out what your target customers are craving, and feed it to them.

A version of this article originally appeared in HBR.

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Illustrated by Yann Tong