Brooke’s Note: Thank you, Kevin Dinino, for pointing out the elephant in the social-media maze. See: Escaping the content bubble: How RIAs can break out of a PR slump. I was going to call your column “Confusion about content” and lead it off with a note with my views. But I decided to stay out of your way and write my own column. Unlike the tricks of the trade for using LinkedIn, Google or WordPress, web content is a 'soft’ subject but it needs a hard look.
When I first started to try to imagine how I was going to turn my journalistic coverage of the RIA business as a staff writer into an online newspaper, I read every scrap of information I could find on the topic. See: Welcome to RIABiz on day one.
There are actually thick books on how to start and build online publications that — were you to take all the advice — would drive you to drink. In a 300-page book there are 299 pages about nuts and bolts and SEO — search engine optimization. There’s maybe one page about content. You’re probably already getting my drift here.
Yes, these books’ content are 99% the inverse of what they should have been. But there’s a silver lining. On that one page about content, they make the astonishing point that some online publishers have succeeded by ignoring the other 299 pages and, by simply plastering good content on a website, achieved success.
For someone like me, it was a plan I could understand, that fit my values and that could differentiate RIABiz from the competition — many of which were seeking to become portals for syndicated content.
For being three and half years into business, I believe we are doing well. I believe our content-first strategy is paying off. See: RIABiz turns three after experiencing big growth and its fair share of growing pains.
We’re all self-publishers now
Should you care?
If so, only because the truth is that today every businessperson is, in fact, in the same business as I am. If we want to have a social- media presence, we are all self-publishers. See: How 25 pieces of web content from 2010 should guide an advisor’s digital approach for 2011.
If you believe that your online presence lays the foundation for success. then I believe I have some valuable knowledge to impart. (Though I’d say there is an argument to be made that if your real-life actions have content, you don’t need to have its virtual equivalent out there in social-media-land and you can go back to doing whatever you’re doing and stop wasting time reading this article.)
But if you are determined to succeed in social media, you need to succeed in providing content. The problem is that nobody bothers to tell you what exactly good content is or where the starting point is to generate it. See: A $17-billion RIA doubles down on a social media strategy that netted it 50 Facebook employees.
When somebody tells you to create 'original content’ or 'good content,’ it’s about as useful as a sales manager suggesting that you “wear out some shoe leather.” It also reminds me of experts on love telling single people to “get out there.”
It’s important that you know that so the next time you’re confused when you hear this advice you know why.
Here are six thoughts to consider as you embark on a career in self-publishing in a crowded field:
1. The average financial advisor is like a human database of 2013 — with data-mining software circa 1990
One of the first pieces of advice we writers get in writing class is to keep a journal. You can write and write and write. The process of writing can generate ideas and connect dots. Then you can distill that overdose of words into something that gets presented in the social-media realm. Whether you call this an exercise in soul-searching or brainstorming, its importance can’t be overstated. Blog is a conflation of web log, which is similar to a journal entry — but it should be a final draft, not a dress rehearsal.
2. Get somebody to interview you, or interview somebody else
Chances are that, like most of my sources, you simply won’t say anything interesting unless it is drawn out of you. Don’t take the first answer. Be like a kid and respond to each answer with “why” until you get a real answer, spoken in real words.
3. Don’t read The Wall Street Journal or any other publication that covers the topic you are going to write about
It’ll infect your thinking. In one writing class I took given by a famous writer, he said that he read only Faulkner before writing because nobody can imitate Faulkner. This is what I’m getting at. Other people’s styles are as counterproductively catchy as a British accent.
4. Subject whatever you write to a cold-blooded reviewer
A spouse or significant other is good. Inevitably they’ll unearth what’s interesting and tell you what you can lose. Sloppy or mindlessly repetitive content suggests sloppy thinking, not something you want to put on public display all over the web.
5. Don’t think any of your readers are stupid
I am amazed how people don’t think other people are media-aware or know anything. Trust me, if information is the least bit stale, readers can smell it a thousand miles away. But it also works the other way. If something is truly juicy — and you tell the story like you’re telling your best buddy — you almost can’t hide it. If you want to obscure good work, BTW, do it by forgetting to add a human element, by burying good information in background fluff or hemming and hawing so long that it becomes old news.
6. Don’t always try to write catchy headlines — unless there’s hot information backing it up
We all read the National Enquirer in the checkout line, but how often have you bought it? The headlines all cry wolf. When I have a dull story, I’ll dull down the headline a bit so that I don’t bait-and-switch my readers.
In conclusion, there is a massive and growing glut of social-media capacity and — believe it or not — a significant and chronic shortage of good content. Sending out lousy content to take advantage of all those free portals will result in you getting what has been invested — zero. Going through a process of content first and asking questions about distribution second will place you in relatively elite company. If you can’t get good response to thoughtful content, your time might be better spent elsewhere. But don’t presume you are getting a bad response until you’ve given it a go for a period measured in years — not weeks or months. Also, don’t presume you’ve wasted time. Anything that you think through so that it’s publishable has morphed from thoughts to something more portable, reusable and storable — intellectual capital — that can be used with clients, colleagues and prospects. In other words, people won’t see you as a suit, empty of content.
Brooke Southall is the editor-in-chief of RIABiz.