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Content Essentials

Katie Mehas Voice Bureau Creative Director[Hey there, it’s Katie, taking over the blog for today to share a few of my thoughts on content strategy. And grasshoppers. Keep reading, we’ll get there.]

content strategy is business strategy

Last night, my daughter asked me to read “The Ants and the Grasshopper” to her before bed.

If you’re not familiar with the story, pull up a chair.

So basically, there’s this grasshopper, and he’s having an awesome summer. Going swimming, dancing, having margaritas (I may be embellishing a little here). Basically, living the life. Good for him! But all the while, he keeps seeing these ants, working like a bunch of suckers. He manages to convince an ant to call in sick and take a beach day, but he gets caught by the boss and ends up back at work. Rough summer for the ants.

Then autumn comes, and the grasshopper breaks out his favorite sweaters, spends a weekend upstate doing one of those fall foliage walks, drinks some cider, plans a big Halloween party. None of the ants can make it though, because, as usual, they’re working through the weekend. Again.

Then winter shows up. It’s nice at first, I assume, because winter usually is. First snow, nice and white, icicles glistening. But before long, the grasshopper realizes he may have made a mistake. It’s a lot colder than he figured it was going to be, and he forgot to stock up on milk and bread and now the store is out of everything but that weird sprouted stuff that you could build a wolf-proof house out of, if you were in a different fairy tale.

So he goes to see the ants, and they’re having the party of their lives. Huge feast, probably a little too much drinking, big fire going in the ant-sized fireplace. Because this was the Disney version we read, the ants decide to take pity on the grasshopper and let him stay there for a few months in exchange for playing his fiddle and keeping the party going. Aesop is probably spinning in his sarcophagus over the kinder, gentler ending, but I’m glad I don’t have to explain to my daughter what happens to grasshoppers when they freeze to death.

The moral of the story, of course, is simple: If you don’t plan for winter, you’re gonna have a bad time.

Anyone who’s been self-employed for any amount of time knows that business is cyclical. (If you’re new to the party, welcome! Lesson One: Business is cyclical.) Generally speaking, most online businesses, especially service-based businesses, find that the summer is pretty quiet, and things pick up again in the fall.

Maybe it’s because the kids are back in school and you can actually get things done without someone spilling orange juice on your laptop or dangling from your sleeve or asking, “Mom. Mom. Mom. Mom. Can I go [insert the thing they can totally do, later, once you’ve finished sending this one email seriously please go entertain yourself for five minutes]?” Maybe it’s just the natural progression of the year. Either way, summer = quiet, fall = suddenly not (generally speaking).

So why on earth did we choose to launch our new course, Run Your Business Like a Magazine, in mid-April, just as we’re heading into summer?

Good question.

Producing interesting, informative, entertaining content on the regular is an amazing way to connect with your Right Person (that’s the person who loves what you do, who advocates for you, who buys your services and is a joy to work with).

By giving them something worthwhile to read, you’re not just saying, “Here’s something to think about,” you’re saying, “…and think about me every time this crosses your mind.”

Figuring out what YOU love to write about, what interests you and is relevant to your brand conversation, what your Right People readers want to hear — that is how you set yourself up for success. It gives you the foundation and the framework to write and write and write, all year long, without it feeling like work, and it gives your readers something to look forward to. To bookmark. To share online. It creates a bond between you and your audience — a community. And when it’s time for them to dust off their credit card come those first red leaves of fall? You’re the one they’re thinking of — the expert who entertained them all summer as they sat on the beach with their margaritas, the virtual friend they’ve connected with and want to know better.

As a magazine editor, I had to come up with a lot of content every year, and there were days when I definitely felt like an ant with the worst job in the world while my grasshopper friends were relaxing at the beach. Right around press time, I worked a lot of late nights and weekends. I won’t lie, sometimes it sucked.

But in the end, creating a solid editorial calendar allowed me to gather a lot of really amazing content over the course of the year without scrambling every month.

I got great reviews. My sales went up. People started recognizing me at car shows. (Okay, not super exciting as a non-car-person, but still pretty cool.) Friends and relatives all over the country would find my magazines on the racks at Borders (R.I.P.) and text me pictures. I felt like a celebrity. I mean, not Anna Wintour or anything, but still. And I owed it all to putting out really good magazines, month after month, Summer, Autumn, Winter, and Spring.

Creating a content plan is even more important if you’re in the midst of shifting your brand conversation.

This might be tied to a new direction in who you’re serving, how you’re serving them, or how you’re presenting yourself — basically, if you sit down at your computer (or your workbench or your phone) and aren’t jumping for joy at the prospect of another day of work, there’s a pretty good chance a rebrand is churning around in the back of your mind. I’m not telling you anything you don’t know, even if you haven’t admitted it out loud yet. But there is something out there that will light you up again, and figuring out what that is and how to start talking about it is the first step in changing your brand conversation.

Planning how to talk about it regularly is what’s going to build the bridge from where you are now to where you want to be — and make sure your Right People (either the ones who already know you or the ones who are about to discover you) can follow.

Don’t get me wrong, Run Your Business Like a Magazine — or any content strategy planning — takes some effort on your part.

If you want a content plan that you’re going to love in a few months, you need to put some thought into what that will look like. But we’re talking red ink, not blood — this doesn’t have to be painful. And it doesn’t have to keep you from having a nice, relaxing summer. In fact, you’ll probably have a better time if you spend the next few months connecting with your clients over something you really want to be talking about than if you try to muster up enthusiasm for something that’s run its course.

Imagine you’re sitting on your porch, soaking up some sun with a glass of water…but what you really want is an icy-cold glass of mint tea (or that margarita we’ve been talking about — can you tell I’m seven months pregnant and craving something I can’t have?). Yeah, you have to go all the way inside to get some from the fridge, but won’t you be glad you did?

Your content determines your conversation, and your conversation determines your clients. If you want to be intentional about the work you do — whether that’s something new or just more of what you’re doing now — you can’t just put yourself out there and hope for the best.

A content strategy is a business strategy.

I guess if you’re a really great fiddle player and don’t mind low ceilings for a few months, you can cross your fingers and hope the ants have a spare room. But if you want to build your own place, you have to be willing to put in a little work when things are slow and the beach is calling. And right now, heading into the quiet season, is a great time to do it. You can establish what’s really lighting you up, make an easy, actionable plan to talk about it on a regular basis, and build your community. And then, when the cycle shifts, you’re not frantically searching for your next client, because here they are, right here, talking to you on Facebook, checking your site, waiting for your next blog post — or product launch.

Run Your Business Like a Magazine kicks off on Monday, April 18th. We’d love to have you join us. (Margaritas are up to you.)

In the comments, we’d love to hear:

What’s YOUR relationship with content creation — do you wing it or plan ahead? Have you seen a change in your business’s cycle based on how you communicate with your readers?

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how to rebrand or reposition your business through content

Let’s talk about branding or rebranding an existing business.

This is one of my favorite topics within branding because I like starting with what the client already has, rather than starting from scratch.

Fair warning: I’m about to stuff this post with a passel of unrelated metaphors. I often think in wild and elaborate metaphors. I find them immensely useful when explaining a concept that’s unfamiliar to my reader. Hopefully they’ll work for you here!

Is it time to rebrand your business or reposition your brand?

They say all change starts from within and when it comes to branding or rebranding a business, it’s true!

Before you choose a new color palette, commission a new logo design, or start overhauling your service menu, there’s some connective tissue [pulling a metaphor from the hallowed pages of Grey’s Anatomy — the medical tome, not the TV show, though I adore it and Shonda Rhimes, too] that must come into place first to cushion those newly growing bones.

Initiating a rebrand starts, in my view, with shifting your brand conversation.

What is ‘brand conversation’?

The first layer of a rebrand is a shift in the brand conversation. What is a brand conversation? For the purposes of a business that markets itself online (or even offline), brand conversation equals the subject matter your business takes on, the topics you address under the subject umbrella, the motifs you lean on, the themes you use, and generally what the brand is about.

This is the part of branding I find most satisfying. It’s identifying the threads of an ongoing conversation that feel like they have the most electricity in them. The tripwire, so to speak, that cracks everything open. If you haven’t found your tripwire yet, it’s OK. I think that’s, like, a twice in a career type of thing.

If you want to rebrand or reposition your business, start on the level of content — the words on your website, the words in your blog posts, the affect of your video editing (yes, I mean affect with a hard emphasis on the first syllable, like in Ben Affleck, not effect, though the former influences the latter), the styling of your Instagram images.

Rebranding with content allows you to reposition your business from the inside out, rather than visually from the outside in.

When you know that you want to shift your positioning in the marketplace or start talking to a different market or segment of the market, the first best way to do that is to write about it. You can shift your brand quickly or you can unfold the shift slowly over the course of a year. You can accomplish a repositioning in a 3 to 5 blog post series or in a 10 to 20 post series. 

The first step is to find the link or the connection (the connective tissue) between the thing you have been talking about and the new thing you want to talk about.

There is always a connection.

I repeat: there is always a connection.

How do I know? Because these (maybe) seemingly disparate things — your ‘before’ topics and themes and your ‘after’ topics and themes — both originate in you and with you and your experience. It’s not that they have to be personal, and the connection you make for your readers doesn’t have to be a personal one. (You don’t have to write the post that starts, “So I’ve been blogging and teaching about X for the past 3 years, but one day I realized it’s really Y that matters! And so now, I’ll be talking about Y!”)

The connection you explore with your readers through your shifting content might be related by topic, by industry, or even by energetics, by the unseen forces that tie these things together.

You can also start your rebrand by hinting or suggesting on social media. I don’t suggest you be overly quiet about it, though. There’s no need to tease your audience, unless that’s your bona fide style; maybe it is if you have a high Playfulness, Power, or Love Voice Value, all of which could inhabit the energy of teasing, though in very different ways.

The key is to release some minnows into your already well tended pond. (Last metaphor of the post, I promise.) Let them start feeding on your pond’s algae. (Couldn’t resist getting that in there.) Let them adapt to the ecosystem you’ve already created. (Aaaaand there’s that.)

Before you book your designer for a visual rebrand, outline a new service offering, or even change your title, consider what it is you want to SAY through this retooled brand of yours — and let content lead the way. It’s the most organic way to start shifting the brand that speaks for the business that contains the work you do.

Our new 4-week course melds practical content strategy with ephemeral brand voice to help you craft a brand conversation that really sings. (Ooh, one last metaphor.)

In the comments, we’d love to hear:

Have you ever rebranded or repositioned your business? How did you start the process? What did you do, content-wise, to support your brand shift?

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How to run your business like a magazine

In the spirit of our new course, Run Your Business Like a Magazine, I thought I’d lay out 10 observations on how great magazines (paper and digital) get it right, & how you can apply these insights to your own business brand.

How to run your business brand like a magazine — a primer:

  1. Be bold. Notice the trends (or patterns or fresh insights) coming down the pipeline in your industry. Precipitate them. Name them. Show them off. Leverage them. Invite your Right People to try them in the context of what your business does.
  2. Realize that you can’t do it all alone. You may need (you will need, if you scale your business past teeny-tiny) to hire an assistant, a VA, staff, subcontractors, or an intern or two. This is good. This is growth. This is collaboration.
  3. Be true to your vision but make room for other people’s gifts and strengths. In truth, The Voice Bureau probably still wouldn’t be operating today were it not for Katie Mehas. I’m not saying this as mere flattery. Katie came into the business in 2012 and since then, has been like the master.
  4. Get a plan for success. Work the plan. If the plan doesn’t work, get a new plan. Planful endeavors are successful endeavors. Don’t be afraid to reinvent, but do it incrementally.
  5. Get a signature Thing. Be known for something. Be an original. In our business, it’s our Voice Values paradigm for branding.
  6. Know what makes you different. Get clear on what sets you apart from others in your industry and niche. There’s a reason your Right People select your ‘issue’ from the ‘newsstand’ [sorry, couldn’t resist].
  7. Know your reader. Magazines are a great example of a Right Person-focused business. They have to be, because every issue, and every page of every issue, matters. Home in on what piques your Right Person’s interest, and beyond that, understand why it does.
  8. Be about something. Meaning: have a keen focus. You can be a lifestyle magazine or a special interest magazine, but either way, own your subject matter, your take, your strong stance, your point of view. No matter which path you choose — generalist with a POV or specialist — own it.
  9. Have fun. Every magazine has its own sense of zeal, of play, of wonderment, of fascination, of obsession. Whether you’re reading KinfolkScience Magazine, or Elle Decor, you probably read it because their take on their topic lights YOU up in some way. They couldn’t do that to you without their being lit up first.
  10. Embrace your preferred medium while being mindful of multimedia. As major magazines learned in the mid-aughts, when the world changes, you have to change with it. With the ubiquity of social media, no brand can afford to be missing from the online conversation. Find a reason to be there and get on it.

Today’s brands exist on the web through content, and content is the currency of any magazine — paper or digital.

In our new 4-week course, newly minted Creative Director Katie Mehas (yeah, we’re going to announce that officially very soon!) is leading participants through the ins and outs of creating a compelling content strategy that’s both intuitive AND planful. Learn to meld your personal interests and passions in the context of what you do with the needs and curiosities of your Right People. Make a plan, work your plan, and love it, too.

ALL THE DETAILS ON RUN YOUR BUSINESS LIKE A MAGAZINE ARE RIGHT HERE

In the comments, we’d love to hear:

What’s your favorite of these lessons from the world of magazines? 

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How to describe your brand's desired vibe

When I listen to a client’s brand, even before we’ve put words on the page for it or before there’s a website I can look at, I’m listening for two things: voice and vibe.

Though similar in nature and certainly intertwined, they’re not exactly the same things.

I describe vibe as the energy of the abstract qualities that come through a brand in its suite of signals. Vibe shows up in the design choices: color, typography, graphic style, layout. Vibe comes through the content. Vibe is felt in a business’s relationship with its customers, its readers, its supporters.

But describing your own brand’s vibe, or desired vibe, can be slippery. If you have an existing brand, there might be a gap between what the vibe you want and the vibe you’ve got.

You might have told a designer, “I want edgy, feminine, bohemian, and sacred,” and you might have gotten something else back — something that looked to you like ‘trendy, girly, and witchy.’ A different vibe. You might have sent a designer a pinboard full of colors, textures, and images, but what you got back wasn’t the composition you had in your mind’s eye. Therefore, the vibe was off.

Here are 3 exercises you can do to describe your existing brand’s vibe, or to describe your desired brand vibe if you’re in line for a redesign:

1. Focus on Colors. Where do the colors you love come from, in nature, history, design, art, or fashion? Are they linked to an era, like these Art Nouveau-era colors, or this Midcentury Modern palette? Are they inspired by fashion? Maybe built around a hex code resembling Chanel’s cult-classic nail polish Vamp? Did you derive your colors from a photo you took at a favorite spot outdoors, like, say, Washington State’s Cape Flattery? And what do your color choices SAY about what matters to you and your brand?

2. Filter Your Copy. Reread the most important pages of your site. Read your home page, about page, and service/sales page. Read them sentence by sentence and keep a pad of paper next to you as you read. As you read, write down the ONE most important word in each sentence — according to YOU. When you’re done, review your (long) list. Look for patterns in the words. Are there themes and motifs emerging? Are you noticing something about your brand or business you’ve never seen before in quite the same way?

3. Find Your Right People. Think of your 5 favorite clients so far. Write their names down. For each client, think of 5 words to describe them and write those down. Look for patterns in your list of 25. Any recurring words? Synonyms (different words that mean the same thing)? Really interesting juxtapositions that give your brand texture?

It’s a quick trip from vibe to themes and from themes to content. There’s a bit of a hop, skip, and a jump in there, but we know how to get you from Point A to Point B. Inside our new online course, Run Your Business Like a Magazine, we’ll unpack the magic of getting from vibe to voice on the page — in the form of a content strategy you can be proud of that meets your Right Person’s needs and inspires you to keep creating and publishing.

All the details on Run Your Business Like a Magazine are right here.

 

In the comments, we’d love to hear you:

Describe your own brand’s vibe, or desired vibe. We’d love to hear the words you’d choose, especially if you’ve done one or more of the exercises described here!

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photo of a fern sitting on a worn wooden table in front of a blue armchair

What do you do for content when absolutely nothing seems worth writing about?

First of all, know that I have been there many times.

I’m guessing you have, too. It’s as common a problem for writers as any other problem. You might call it writer’s block or ambivalence or perfectionism or resistance.

No matter how you see fit to label it, the problem is getting words on the page. And believing they will matter.

You know that in a business brand that markets itself online, content is essential. Essentially, it’s the lifeblood of operations. Without meaningful content going out on a consistent basis (and I don’t just mean blogging — e-newsletters, podcasts, videos, images and graphics, and social media updates all count as content), a brand’s ability to connect withers and wanes.

When writing fresh, new, meaningful content feels impossible

There are times when you don’t feel inspired, tuned in, or capable of writing content that matters to your Right Person. This is so normal. Life isn’t an endless pipeline of inventive energy. It’s just not always there, or palpable.

But you’ve got a business to run and a brand to build, and if you want to keep going, you have to keep showing up.

For the times you have to push through the sludge to get to the gold (or even just the pyrite, which is still beautiful and worthy), here are 5 suggestions:

  1. REMEMBER WHO YOU ARE. You are a uniquely designed amalgam of gifts, talents, strengths, obsessions, genius, preoccupations, loves, and predilections. (Dark matter, too, of course. That’s what makes us whole.) All that is in you is there for a reason. Make a list so you can see it in front of you, or if you feel more comfy in the visual realm, make a pinboard. Pick something from that list or that board and tie it in to your business and your Right Person’s journey. Write about that.  If you just can’t see who you are (the star stuff, not the dark matter), ask someone who loves you to remind you.
  2. REMEMBER WHY YOU’RE DOING THIS. This work, this business, this brand. This mission, this vision, this Right Person potential reader. Write down 5 sentences you consider to be TRUE that tell the world why your business exists. Or 5 sentences about why your Right Person needs a business like yours to exist. Let each sentence can be a standalone — a one-liner. When you’re done, pick your favorite and write about that. Unpack it. Unfold it.
  3. START WITH WHAT’S RIGHT IN FRONT OF YOU. I truly mean what’s right in front of you. Years ago when we were cohorts in a Master’s program, my friend Kelly and I used to take ourselves out to this place called Ray’s, a local diner. Just off the campus of Kent State University, it was a favorite watering hole for students, profs, alumni, and locals. We were both (are both) aspiring fiction writers as well as English teachers-in-training. We’d sit down over plates of grilled cheese and fries with salt and ketchup. We were there to nosh and talk and also to write. Inevitably, one of us would grab the salt shaker and say, “Write about this salt shaker.” And there we’d start. We’d end up somewhere else entirely.
  4. START WITH THE VERY FIRST THING YOU REMEMBER. Go back to the beginning of your business. What’s the very first thing you remember doing/thinking/feeling? Sitting in your accountant’s office as you filled out paperwork to set up your LLC? Doodling ideas in a notebook in a doctor’s waiting room? Announcing to family at Thanksgiving Dinner that you’d be quitting your job and going out on your own? Tie that memory into something that’s meaningful to your Right Person: a need, an interest, a question, a desire. Write about that.
  5. START ON THE DAY THAT IS DIFFERENT. This is how you start a short story, according to my very first creative writing professor. Don’t start way back at the beginning, when the main character was born or married or got her first job, and then work forward into the action. Start on the day that is different. She wakes up and her living room furniture is gone. She wakes up and the sky is orange. She wakes up and wants to leave the country. Something has changed and now nothing can be the same. For every Right Person customer or client, there is a day on which they decide to hire you or make their first purchase through your shopping cart. What is happening for them on that day? What point have they reached? What decision have they made? What have they perceived differently today than they ever have before? Start there and write something for your Right Person about the day that is different (for them).

Sometimes writing for your brand will feel inspired and glow-y, like a gift from the gods, arriving whole and perfect and able to breathe on its own. Other times, writing will feel pedantic or pathetic, dry or hackneyed or even ridiculous.

We hope these suggestions help you to take a second look at your experience and find a new way to talk about it — even when it’s tough.

If you could use some extra inspiration for developing content that’s meaningful to you and your Right People, check out our 4-week course, Run Your Business Like a Magazine.

In the comments, we’d love to hear:

What do you do when absolutely nothing seems worth writing about but you still want to create something for your brand?

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