If you’re like most content marketers, your days are filled with keyword research, spreadsheets and metrics overload. And we’re not here to say you never have to do any of that anymore, but one thing’s for sure: Making certain the consumer is at the center of your content marketing strategy should be your No. 1 goal.

Search engines may be the gatekeepers to readers, but it’s better, and easier in many ways, to get inside the mind of a consumer than it is to spend your days playing the numbers game. Many of the major algorithm changes Google has made over the years were aimed at tweaking the technology to more effectively approximate how the human mind works, and you just happen to have one of those.

A decade ago, a site could get reasonable traffic with spammy content. That’s not the case today, and it’s because Google is paying better attention to what readers want. That means you have to, too.

Producing content that is consumer-centric and puts readers first will be rewarded by search engines precisely because it’s what people want. More than 8 in 10 people expect brands to provide solutions, entertain, tell stories and create experiences.

So how can you do that? How can you regularly produce content that gives people what they want? Find your audience. Focus on them. And solve their problems. Simple, right? Maybe not so much, but there are some easy-to-implement tricks and tactics that can help you get inside the mind of your consumer.

Walk a Mile in Their Shoes

The single most important person in your content marketing efforts isn’t you, your SEO specialist or your company’s CMO. It’s your reader; the person on the other end of that device who will ultimately consume whatever it is you’re producing.

So before you take a single step in any direction, the first thing you must do is develop a deep understanding of your target audience. This means knowing demographic information about them, understanding their daily lives and the problems or issues they face, and learning about what motivates them or who might influence them.

Depending on your organization and various audience segments, here’s some information you need to know:

  • Age
  • Sex
  • Location
  • Occupation
  • Income
  • Education
  • Interests
  • Hobbies
  • Opinions/attitudes
  • Habits
  • Budget
  • Previous purchases
  • Search history

Now, your reader is not going to walk up to you and just tell you all of this, so you will need to dig to get it. You could conduct surveys, track your social mentions or use tools like Google Analytics or Facebook Pixel to learn about potential audience members.

Think of this as creating not a buyer’s journey but a reader’s journey. Who are they? What do they want? How will they consume this content? And, crucially, what action should they take once they’ve consumed it?

Thinking of this process as developing a reader’s journey instead of a buyer’s journey helps you fully embrace the power of content marketing because it ever so slightly shifts your mind-set from a commercial one to a personal one. Yes, your job is to get and nurture leads that eventually become customers. But if you can’t think of them first and foremost as people, you won’t be able to appeal to them on an emotional level, which is what the best content marketing does.

Writing for Humans

There isn’t an objective point where you’ll know when you have enough information, and the truth is you can never have too much information about your readers. But if you know who they are and what their problems are, the rest is a matter of understanding human nature. And, as a human yourself, that shouldn’t be too hard.

While there are some technical SEO issues you will need to make sure are on-point, 99 percent of the difficult work of content marketing is writing for and speaking to people.

Think about the kind of writing that appeals to you. What makes you take action? Putting yourself in your reader’s shoes, how can you write in a way that makes them take action? And remember, taking action doesn’t always mean buying something; it could simply mean reading some more content or thinking differently about a topic.

It’s helpful to develop a voice and style in your writing, but most good content marketing writing will have several things in common:

  1. It answers a question or solves a problem: Some questions are easy and some are more complex, but at the heart of every piece of content you produce, there must be a question, problem or issue you’re trying to solve. (Read about how one company basically saved its own life by answering questions, lots of them.)
  2. It understands how people search: Most people use a combination of question-based queries any keyword searches. So while you’re answering readers’ questions, make sure you’re also appealing to the segment of people who aren’t literally asking a question in their search.
  3. It’s easy on the eyes: Write short sentences that are organized into brief paragraphs. Think about how your copy will look on a website. The human eye craves negative space.
  4. It has an interesting but honest title: The first thing readers see is the title, so it should be interesting enough to make them read but not so over-the-top that it comes off as clickbait.
  5. It includes helpful links: Your readers don’t expect you to know every single piece of information in the world, so when you’re reporting a piece of data, link directly to the source.
  6. It holds attention: Successful content will add to the conversation and be constructed in such a way that it maintains readers’ interest all the way through. That means including subheadings, lists like this one, images and other design elements to keep people reading.
  7. It’s well-edited: Good content marketing writing is as brief as possible and has few, if any, errors.
  8. It puts people first: Use person-centric language, and say “you” more than “I.” Utilize the wisdom of the crowd, like user-generated content.
  9. It’s fun and engaging: Readers are busy, and their lives are challenging. They don’t want to feel like they’re going to school.
  10. It’s not overtly commercial: This is marketing, not advertising, so don’t act like a salesperson.

Over time, you’ll experiment with writing across platforms for different reader segments up and down your sales funnel. No one path will appeal to every single person you’re trying to reach.

You may find breaking these rules works for much of your audience. But only through understanding why breaking the rules worked can you use that knowledge effectively. And that always comes back to putting people first.

ABC: Always Be Closing

We’re not talking about Alec Baldwin’s expletive-laden rant from “Glengarry Glen Ross.” For content marketers, always be closing means every piece of content you publish should have unmistakable calls to action.

When readers get to the end, there should be no question about what you want them to do. That could mean clicking on a download button, sharing or retweeting, commenting or even making a purchase. But it also could mean reading more content or simply thinking more deeply about an issue.

The style and substance of the CTA will depend on the topic as well as the reader’s journey, but it’s also important that the content itself, outside of the CTA, is focused and leaves no doubt as to the reader’s next step. Here are a few tips about optimizing calls to action throughout your content:

  1. Be specific. Don’t just say “click”; explain what clicking will do, whether that’s taking them to more content or downloading a white paper.
  2. Make it easy. Give readers multiple avenues to the same place, so put sharing buttons at the top, middle and bottom.
  3. Offer value. Whether it’s a limited offer, free consultation or resource guide, effective CTAs should feel almost like bribes. Give them something they can’t get elsewhere and they may feel indebted to you.
  4. Be positive. For readers who opt-out of your CTA, whether by clicking off the page or closing the window, avoid overly snarky language. “No, thanks, I don’t want to make more money” might seem funny to you, but associating your brand with something negative likely will backfire.
  5. Don’t hard-sell. Readers don’t want an obligation. Continued engagement with your content is your reward, not theirs. Make it clear that it’s their choice to continue.

If your content is focused and well-edited, at every turn readers will know exactly what you want them to do, and if your writing is authoritative and accessible, they’ll grow to believe that whatever it is you want them to do will end up benefitting them. This is the path to creating trust and credibility among your readers.

Conclusion

Successful content marketing isn’t about SEO or search engine algorithms. It isn’t about you and your metrics, either. It’s about people, the people you need to reach. Content marketing lets you create a bond with readers that eventually places your organization at the top of their minds when it comes to making purchasing decisions.

It may seem counter-intuitive, but readers want to trust someone. They want to find answers, and they want to believe. Content marketing has become the thing in part because people don’t trust advertising.

River Pools and Spas, a Virginia-based pool company, focused its content marketing strategy around a simple proposition: We’ll answer any question about pools. So that’s what they did. They produced dozens of posts answering the questions they got most frequently from customers, and they scoured the internet for even more questions. The results have been breathtaking. From one single article, answering a common question about how much pools cost, the company estimated it’s gotten more than $1.7 million in sales — from a single article.

So if you want to make sure your content marketing efforts are fruitful, don’t act like an advertiser. Act like a publisher. Write for human eyes. Tell readers the things they need to know. Give them advice and help. Be a solution, even if they never give your company a dime.