Digital Reviewer

#EmptyShelf 2016 #16: Content Rules: How to create killer blogs, podcasts, videos, ebooks, webinars (and more) that engage customers, and ignite your business. (Wiley, 2012)

Ann Handley & C.C.Chapman, Wiley, 2012



The foreword is written by David Meerman Scott, author of The New Rules of Marketing & PR, who highlights that ‘marketing is about publishing great content’, but so often the focus is on the design, and the content is an afterthought. This book is designed to help organisations ‘tell great stories’ to engage their customers – past, present and future. Sadly, he feels, most marketing produced these days is classic propaganda – “here’s our product, here’s some customers who say it’s great, now buy some”, rather than content driven stories as interesting as novels, etc.


Working in content marketing is like having a baby – there’s an ongoing responsibility for any organisation. On pxix, there’s a diagram indicating the benchmarks for 2012 budget spend:

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On pxxii-xxiii we look at the need for ‘some rules’, but not a rigid formula. We look at the struggles to write, at being faced with the blank page, but it is emphasised that there is no rigid formula – just a number of rules on the need to write well.

As content creators, we understand the anxiety surrounding publishing your writing for others to read. We’re in the clarity business, simplifying people’s convoluted ideas and wrestling their wild, out-of-control text into something more civilised and comprehensible.

Text that is used needs to be user-friendly

It’s awesome to have the ability to connect to customers and would-be customers in a language they understand. It’s surprisingly satisfying to spark a direct dialogue with them. It allows you to look at things from your customers’ points of view and inspires you to create content that will resonate with them.

People visiting your site may be confused, nervous, and language that invites and demystifies your products, etc. will all help you connect with visitors.

Chapter 1: The Case for Content

The book starts with a story – practices what it preaches – a direct connection with the reader, as we hear how Ann’s buying process for a camera has changed from magazines, buying guides, shops, to browsing camera makers, consulted friends and followers online, and somehow, the CMO for Kodak spotted the query and invited ‘any questions’. Clearly he can’t reach out to all customers, but rather than waiting to be featured in print mags, people at all levels of the company can connect direct with potential/current consumers.

The need for ‘killer content’ is to convert browsers into buyers, and customers into regular buyers, or even better – fans, ambassadors and advocates. Deepen the relationship over time by “repeatedly and consistently creating content they care about and want to share freely with their friends or colleagues; and by encouraging them to engage with you and to sign up for things you publish (for example, an email newsletter or a webinar) or to download a white paper or an e-book.”

On p11, we make note of ‘Long-tail keyword search’, and the importance of knowing your niche – what exactly will people be searching for – because the closer you can get – the more likely you are to buy.

Chapter 2: The Content Rules

The Content Rules are good, and much of the book goes into detail about what these are, but I’ll just share the summary here:

  1. Embrace that you are a publisher (not just a seller)
  2. Insight inspires originality (get your brand story straight, know what your customers care about)
  3. Build momentum (Understand the objective for each piece of content à what action should it lead to)
  4. Speak human (use the language of your customers, conversationally – kill corporate speak)
  5. Reimagine, don’t recycle (when first creating content imagine different ways of using it, rather than recycling as an afterthought)
  6. Share or solve, don’t shill (don’t try to sell – create value in sharing, make yourself a go-to for quality information)
  7. Show, don’t just tell (no preaching or hard-sell – demonstrates through case studies or client narratives – explains in human times how adds value to their lives – don’t make it up – tell a true story well)
  8. Do something unexpected (surprises drive viral sharing, and enhance organisation’s personality)
  9. Stoke the campfire (encourage conversations between customers and yourself/customers)
  10. Create wings & roots (ground your content solidly in brand values, but allow it to spread across the web without restrictions)
  11. Play to your strengths (You don’t have to do everything, but do at least one thing, really, really well)

Chapter 3: Insight Inspires Originality

Good content strategy is like good journalism. Focus on the why (goals), who (are they/you), what (want to achieve), when/how (develop content) and where (to publish).

Think about what success looks like, and see whether that can be quantified in some way (whether numerical or subjective).

Chapter 4: Who are You?

Understand yourself, then focus on content first, THEN design. The design/flow of anything should be driven by the content, and the goals of the content – this is something we summarised in a 2001/2 research project.

The book look at the ‘The Incredibly Boring Web Content Challenge’ that was (last) run in 2010, and noted that most of these sites were devoid of personality and tone-of voice.

Recognise that you are dealing with a range of users – don’t lump them all into one. Think about the range of users and potential users, e.g. a library (p43):

  • Access collections online/in person
  • People who live in neighbouring communities
  • Other libraries that borrow from collection
  • Supporters/Friends/donators
  • Local community groups
  • Public school teachers
  • Genealogy researchers
  • Nonprofits that use rooms
  • Parents of those whose children visit the library
  • Teenagers who hang out and participate in activities
  • Other locals who live in the community.

On pp51-54, we are encouraged to be human, and to avoid over-used or mis-used words, because “they make you sound like a tool” (e.g. leverage, synergy, revolutionary, etc.)

Chapter 5: Reimagine: Don’t Recycle

View all content as part of a bigger whole, think about how you are going to schedule content, think about how you can re-use existing materials, but ensure that they are fit for purpose.

Chapter 6: Share or Solve: Don’t Shill

Create value – be a valuable source of information that customers want to know. Look for that information to be ‘brand conscious’. Find content and take responsibility for sharing it.

Chapter 7: Stoke the Campfire

Create shareable content and join conversations. Remember that ‘less is more’, we want engagement, but preferably (even if long-term), a sale.

Chapter 10: Attention B2B Companies

The content rules apply across the board, but B2B is a unique challenge. There are team buyers, who are research focused, and tend to approach you late in the buying cycle. They need to be able to find the information they want WHEN they need it. Understand the nuances of your audience and their questions – what keeps them awake at night?

Think about whether you need people to register for content. What will put people off? How much will you actually follow up? How much understanding do you have/need of the downloadee?

Chapter 12: Webinars, Why do most of them suck?

P157 highlights how webinars could be good, and why they so often go wrong. They offer the opportunity to feel more ‘alive’ than papers, because the speaker can be seen, they can be interactive and social, are less pressurised than a call from the sales team, are affordable, are broad-reaching, are geographically neutral, can be part of the wider mix, are effective (coming second only to referrals), and open the doors to new prospects.

They often go wrong when they are focused too much on lead-generation, rather than giving valuable content, or speakers don’t understand the difference between presenting online and giving a live speech, and risk-assessments (inc technological failure) are not assessed.

Chapter 13: What’s the difference between an e-book and a white paper?

See p172 for diagram, and p173 for reasons why these might be useful:

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If you haven’t got a story to tell, depend upon impulse buys, compete on price rather than quality, sell material that doesn’t require customer research, or won’t promote the finished product – then these deep materials won’t work for you.

Chapter 14: Creating a compelling customer success story

Give some fundamental facts, highlight the challenge focusing on the human story, demonstrate how you offer the solution, and show how the client lived happily ever after. Imagine your content in a range of media – instead of or in addition to straight text.

Chapter 15: From Dumpy to Sexy

On p189 we are reminded not to forget

The .. FAQs pages are the unsung heroes of your company website. Often unappreciated and undervalued, they can nevertheless play an essential role. What’s more, they can often help easily and succinctly communicate your brand value to would-be buyers, enticing them to take a close look at what you have to offer.

If people are already looking for the answers on your company’s website, then chances are they are already thinking of doing business with your company – FAQs can help build trust, educate customers, and build a relationship. It is key to write answers, not fall into the trap of product descriptions. Don’t be afraid to answer the tough questions, e.g. questions about price!

There’s lots of real-world examples and case studies in this book, and much of the information is still relevant, even four years later. Consider buying the book.