Here’s a 6-chapter sample of Content DNA, my book on defining the elements of your personal brand so that you can be the same “shape” everywhere.
This is your guidebook on how to be noticed, remembered and preferred.
- 0. Foreword by Mark Schaefer
- 1. Introduction
- 2. What is Content DNA?
- 3. My relentlessly helpful story
- 4. What is congruence and why does it matter?
- 5. Be known for one thing
- 6. The 30-month mindset
- Let’s wrap up
0. Foreword by Mark Schaefer.
I’ve read plenty of business books and plenty of forewords. Most of them suck because they are airy platitudes for the author or a breathless advocacy for the book.
Why do we need that? The book, and its author, will stand on its own. You are the judge and jury. I honour that!
Instead, I thought I would take advantage of this invitation to set the stage. Why should you read yet another book about content and content marketing?
All of these statements are true:
- Content marketing budgets are skyrocketing.
- Almost nobody can measure it to know if it is doing any good.
- Content marketing is one of the most important innovations in business history.
- Content marketing is grotesquely misunderstood.
- Content marketing is the foundation of my business – I have not spent a dime on paid advertising and neither do most of my customers.
- It is exceedingly rare for most business content to be seen today, and even rarer for it to have a measurable impact on a bottom line. More often than not, it is a waste of money.
So, we need some clear guidance, don’t we?
For the last decade, I have devoted much of my professional life to figuring out how we can navigate this marketing minefield and unravel the intoxicating promise of business content. Through hundreds of blog posts, seven years of podcasting, and eight books, I brought many friends along on my long journey.
I needed to discover how to practically make content work for any business, how to find practical success, and the single-most important question in business today: How to stand out in this world of overwhelming Content Shock?
A few people have even listened to me … and one of them is John Espirian.
John has been a faithful student.
As I pontificated, he has practised.
As I theorised, he has created actionable plans for his own business and beyond.
As I published my books, he absorbed the lessons and created measurable success.
In short, John represents the cutting edge of content marketing reality … and has developed a few theories of his own.
It is a very proud moment when the student becomes the teacher, and this is one of those moments. It’s time to turn over the keys to the next line of thought leaders.
Show us the way, John.
Get to the point.
Each chapter starts with the main takeaway.
If you’re busy or need something to jog your memory, this is where to look.
No one reads the intro anyway so let’s get on with it, shall we?
This book’s for you if you’re a business owner who wants better control over your brand identity and marketing, so that you can be noticed, remembered and preferred in your industry. Even if you hire someone else to implement the tactics to make this happen, you’ll understand the underlying lessons involved.
The two big things in Content DNA are the ideas of consistency and congruence: showing up for a long time on a regular basis and being the same “shape” every time when you do.
We’ll see how a chance moment led to the creation of a congruent brand for me, and how a considered view of what you want to be known for can mean that you won’t need to rely on the same good fortune I did.
You’ll define the values that form the building blocks of your brand and come up with content that helps you be noticed, remembered and preferred – to be the voice of trust in your industry.
We’ll round off with some of the wisdom shared by many of the smart business owners I interviewed when researching this book.
Content DNA is based on the advice I give to my private copywriting clients, to help them create the right footprint in their industry and to remain relevant and superior for years to come. My hope is that it can do the same for you.
So, let’s get started. What is Content DNA anyway?
2. What is Content DNA?
Get to the point.
Content DNA is the truth of your business identity.
It sets you up for creating content that has its own memorable “shape”.
It exists to serve businesses that think and act with their long-term interests at heart.
Content DNA is the set of building blocks that defines your business identity. It’s what you’re all about: the truth distilled and encoded in a few simple messages.
Real DNA is made from just four building blocks, called nucleobases:
- adenine (A)
- cytosine (C)
- guanine (G)
- thymine (T)
The right combination of these makes you and me and earthworms and bananas. In fact, it makes around ten million different species of living things on this planet. Humans are just one of those species. And yet we show huge variations in what makes us us. That’s also true for business. No two businesses are exactly alike.
Getting clear on your brand values means finding good ways to express the truth about you and your business. To show to the world how you’re unique. To show that you have a different “shape” from everyone else.
We don’t want to be just another grey car sitting in a faceless queue of traffic, moving slowly in the same direction as everyone else. And yet this is the boring, safe way that many of us run our businesses. Well, guess what? No one’s going to remember or care about that sort of business. Boring is the new risky.
Content DNA is about discovering and embracing the truth about what you stand for and how you’re seen. It’s about creating and sharing helpful material that has a recognisable shape. It’s about being patient and building a long-term presence. And it’s about doing it all in an honest, ethical way, avoiding the practices that turn so many people off modern marketing.
Why not just use ads?
Sounds like a lot of effort, doesn’t it? Building a brand identity, creating content and playing the long game. I don’t blame you for wanting to take shortcuts.
One of those shortcuts is to place ads, the straight exchange of cash money for exposure. Now, this wouldn’t be my book if I didn’t make clear that I really can’t stand ads. I don’t watch them on TV (thanks, Sky+). I don’t watch them when streaming (thanks, Netflix). I don’t watch them on YouTube (thanks, Skip button).
The well-respected Edelman Trust Barometer says trust in ads is down year on year over the last decade. It also reports that 73% of people surveyed worry about false information or fake news being used as a weapon. Ads that are often “here today, gone tomorrow” in their nature seem to be particularly good vehicles for mistruth.
Here’s the fundamental difference between ads and content, and the reason why I put the latter at the heart of my business. Ads are a cost but content is an asset. In fact, content is your time machine: it lets you talk to your prospects long into the future.
Content works for you from the moment you publish it, night and day. Ads work for you, too – but only while you keep paying for them. So, do you want the ongoing cost of ads or the growing asset of content?
When you search on Google, do you pay close attention to the search results marked “Ad” at the top of the page? Or do you scroll past them to get to the useful information you were actually looking for?
Advertising platforms are getting better at allowing you to run targeted ads, which means you can display your ads only to the sorts of people who are likely to be interested in your product or service. That’s clearly a good thing, but as this sort of advertising intelligence grows, so does the need to learn how the ad platforms work. Wouldn’t it be better to spend that time learning how content could work for you instead?
Ads will help you make a quick impact if you don’t have any content to promote yourself. I’d suggest you consider them to help get the ball rolling, but the best long-term strategy is to invest your time, money and energy in producing content that will answer your customers’ questions and bring new business to your door.
If you create a good body of content, it will keep working for you forever, even if you take a break. On the other hand, if you use ads and then stop, it’ll be like turning off the tap: the traffic to your website will dry up immediately.
The State of Inbound 2015 report by HubSpot stated that content-driven marketing “increases leads by 54% when compared with traditional methods, and reduces costs per lead by 13%.” Compare this with the growing apathy for traditional ads and you’ll see that a content-driven approach to marketing is the sensible way forward.
Good content encourages people to engage with you. And while good ads can get people talking too, they tend to be associated less with helping and interacting and more with broadcasting and selling. Ads drive traffic back to your content. If your content doesn’t tell the right story, people won’t want to buy from you. The best ad in the world won’t be effective for long unless it leads to a strong piece of content. So, whether you use ads or not, you still need good content.
For many businesses just getting started, ads are a good idea. Without an established presence and following, it might take a long time to get any market penetration. Ads can speed up that process. So, I’m not saying never to use ads. But I do think that if your business relies mainly or solely on ads, you’re going to be at risk from other businesses who do things a smarter way.
Content DNA: the smarter way.
Why bother with Content DNA? Because when you have a clear idea of who you are and what you stand for, that makes everything easier – for you and your customers. Clear Content DNA reduces friction: it helps more relevant people slide into view – and helps everyone else slide out of the way.
Finding the right Content DNA and then showing it off to the world means you’ll attract more of the type of clients you want. They’ll like you more than your average customer would. They’ll tell more people. They’ll complain less. They’ll be nicer to deal with. You’ll be less stressed when the phone rings.
Do you want all that good stuff for your business? Jolly good. Let’s make that happen then. Onwards.
3. My relentlessly helpful story.
Mark Schaefer: How are you fighting to be superior and create that emotional connection in a world with a lot of options?
John Espirian: Relentlessly helpful content. – Talk at CMA Live 2017 conference
Get to the point.
Your brand identity is like the hook of a great song.
Get it right and people will echo it back to you.
Being “relentlessly helpful” is at the core of my personal brand. How I stumbled on that label was pure luck. Part of my motivation for writing this book is so that you don’t need to rely on similar good fortune.
“Helping your ideas grow.”
Back in early 2017, that was my tagline. It was bloody awful.
About a year before then, I’d started studying a topic called content marketing. Through my membership of a UK-based content marketing association, I had a chance to learn about the work of a respected US marketer and author, Mark Schaefer. At that time, Mark was doing research for his book KNOWN. His idea revolved around the power of being known in your industry, and it led him to ask a simple question: “Can anyone become known?”
As Mark was looking to interview business owners from all walks of life, he came across me and invited me to chat on a video call. During our conversation, he most bluntly – and helpfully – confirmed that my “helping your ideas grow” tagline was terrible. It was undifferentiated and said nothing about my writing business. The feedback was tough to hear but Mark was right.
The rest of the interview was good and Mark felt there was enough value to him in our chat that he asked to keep in contact and to include me as a case study in his book. I wasn’t used to talking with big, important people with decades of marketing experience, so this was a big personal moment for me. To be mentioned in the pages of an actual paper book – imagine. My case study ended up spanning four pages of KNOWN.
And it got better: Mark had been invited to speak at a conference in Edinburgh in June 2017, and, as he knew I was attending, he asked whether I and a colleague, personal finance expert Pete Matthew, who was also featured in the book, would be willing to join him onstage. That was another first for me, and I was over the moon to have been asked.
So, there we were, listening to Mark sharing wisdom from his then-new KNOWN book and answering some interview-style questions onstage.
Just before we wrapped up, Mark asked me a question that we hadn’t planned and that I certainly wasn’t ready for.
He asked, “How are you fighting to be superior and create that emotional connection in a world with a lot of options?” Without thinking, I replied, “By creating relentlessly helpful content.”
And that was it. That moment was in large part responsible for why you’re now reading this book.
A day or two after I got home to South Wales, a photo popped through my letterbox. Karen Reyburn, a fellow attendee at the conference, had taken a picture of the notes she’d written during the talk with Mark. She’d highlighted “relentlessly helpful content” as her favourite expression, and thought I’d like to see the evidence. I did – and it made me think that maybe there was something interesting in this chance utterance.
I started to use “relentlessly helpful” in some of my marketing materials. Then something unexpected happened: people started to echo the phrase back to me.
In eight years of being in business, not one person had ever echoed my “helping your ideas grow” tagline back to me. I’d never thought about that before, but in hindsight it was a clear sign that those old words weren’t wowing anyone.
Since getting a reality check on my initial video call with Mark, I’ve learned a useful marketing lesson: unless your branding is remembered and echoed, it’s not good enough. A tagline and brand message should be like the hook of a great song. Once you hear it, it should stay with you and play back in your head.
Without a good hook for your brand, there’s little chance that your clients will listen to the rest of your song. And they certainly won’t sing it back to you or others.
Putting “relentlessly helpful” into my marketing was like flicking a switch to turn my microphone on. It meant that people were ready to hear my song, and they’ve been hearing it regularly ever since.
Now, I was lucky to hit on “relentlessly helpful”. Not only did it have something different about it but also it spoke truth to the way I am and how I run my business. When I worked in-house as a software tester and quality assurance manager, I was the guy with the long queue of questioners at my desk. (Perhaps it would have been different had Google been in full swing back then.)
Putting this sense of helpfulness in focus has been transformative for my business. Without that moment onstage and my understanding of its power, I wouldn’t be where I am now.
The good news is that you don’t need to be onstage in front of hundreds of people to find the right shape for your brand and your business. This book will help you. Once you’ve found your shape, you’ll learn how to create content that catches the attention of the right people.
On we go.
4. What is congruence and why does it matter?
Get to the point.
Create a recognisable shape for your business and stay true to it.
Beware of saying, supporting and doing things that give people reason to question your motives.
These days, people can sniff a fake from a mile off.
The two key ideas to remember from this book are the need for consistency and congruence. This applies to the way you create content and the way you run your business in general. You probably already have a good idea what consistency means. We’ll get to that a bit later. But what about congruence?
You might have a vague recollection of your maths teacher talking about “congruent triangles”. That’s when two triangles have the same size, shape and internal angles. If they were made of paper or card, you could stack them perfectly with no sticky-out bits. It’s as though they were all drawn from the same stencil or made from the same mould.
So, while the word congruence might not be a word you come across often, you know what it means. It’s a defined shape that’s always the same. And that’s where I want you to direct your efforts – to create a congruent business that is always the same “shape”.
Makes sense, right? Except that the shape a business promises to provide quite often isn’t the same as the one its customers experience. What’s the use of having a load of pretty words and pictures that bear no relation to what a product or service delivers? All this does is set people up for disappointment. If you do that to your prospective and existing customers, you take a big risk. We’re ever less likely to tolerate an experience that doesn’t match up with what was promised.
So, it’s important – I would argue essential – that the core product or service you’ve promised to deliver are in line with the aspirations set by your brand. Now, “brand” might sound like a term that ought to be used only by multi-million-pound businesses only, but guess what: your business also has a brand identity, even if you’re a one-person operation and your Chief Entertainment Officer is the cat.
Your brand exists in the minds and mouths of everyone who comes into contact with you. What we go through in this book will help you steer people’s thinking, through a conscious definition of what you stand for and a commitment to be faithful to it in every nook and cranny of your business.
That’s what a congruent business is all about. It goes far deeper than giving your website a fancy lick of paint or tinkering with other surface-level changes. DNA is in the title of the book because I want to get to the root of everything that controls how you operate, the same way that real DNA does.
So, here’s the harsh reality: a branding exercise on its own won’t achieve anything unless it speaks some truth to what’s at the core of your business. And even then, it will work only if you apply it as a daily practice. A glossy printout of your brand values is worthless if it’s filed away in a drawer and forgotten about.
A congruent brand takes a small handful of truths and demonstrates them all the time and everywhere.
The rise of “cause marketing”.
Your principal concern is to create a brand that represents your core business and that serves your customers. You don’t need to add to your to-do list by being an eco warrior or social-justice campaigner. It’s the large corporations that tend to walk in this “cause marketing” aisle. It makes sense for them: they have a lot of fans and can influence the way society thinks – and taking a stand can be a real difference-maker.
The scope for your own brand doesn’t need to be this broad or world-changing. If there are causes outside your core business that are important enough to you for you to weave them into your brand identity, all well and good.
But don’t be suckered into jumping on a “brandwagon” just because you see other businesses doing the same. Draping rainbow colours over your logo doesn’t suddenly make you an ally of the LGBT community. I think people are tiring of such virtue signalling.
So, there’s your warning: everything in your brand must be part of your DNA. If it’s not in your core, show it the door.
Being congruent leads to being known.
Content marketing works best when you have a relentless pursuit of being known for one thing. The brand values you come up with through this book, and the content you create as a result of defining those values, are what are going to help you achieve that.
Being known is a key step to being preferred. And that’s where all the success happens. So, let’s look next at what you want to be known for.
5. Be known for one thing.
Get to the point.
Focus on one main product or service, one main content creation channel and one main social media channel.
Have you ever been victim of Shiny Red Ball syndrome? It’s where something new and apparently interesting comes along and sweeps your attention away from whatever it is you were doing before. It’s affected me in the past. It’s probably messed with you, too.
Putting a memorable shape into the world means keeping things simple, not trying to do and be too many different things. Your social media presence is a case in point. It’s so easy to get excited about the possibility of reaching potential customers that you steam ahead and try to be everywhere.
Before 2017, that’s exactly what I was trying to do. Twitter looked cool. Hmm, let’s be on there. Facebook was popular. Well, everyone needs a Facebook presence. People were getting excited about Instagram. Oh, I need to try that. The kids were using Snapchat. Better understand what’s happening there.
This is the exhausting way to do social media marketing, and it smacks of having no clear strategy. Indeed, that used to be me. I was simply following the herd instead of thinking strategically. Well, I can tell you from experience that trying every new thing definitely isn’t the right thing to do.
Having dabbled with every social media platform out there, I realised that I’d never stand out unless I picked a platform and went deep on it. As I work in business to business copywriting, it made most sense to try to be known in a space where most potential B2B clients were likely to congregate. That place was LinkedIn.
I was lucky with the timing of my decision. Microsoft had just bought LinkedIn for $26 billion, and changes to the LinkedIn feed helped transform the site from being a place to go only when you needed to change jobs to being a fully fledged social network.
I found myself in a good place. There was a relatively small user base populated by potential clients, plus excellent reach for the right sort of content. For me, that was written posts. I am, after all, a writer. So, rather than diving into being a podcaster or a YouTuber, I doubled down on writing my blog on my website and sharing the most relevant snippets on LinkedIn.
Despite the favourable conditions for my content on LinkedIn, not a whole lot happened straight away. That’s because I was going from a standing start, and it takes time to become known. I’ll go into that in the next chapter, when we look at the 30-month mindset.
Jump forward a few years and these days I am indeed known on LinkedIn. Of the time I spend on social media, 90% of it is devoted to LinkedIn. The other 10% – my bit on the side for dabbling and experimenting – is Twitter.
That 90:10 split of primary and secondary social networks is one of many useful tips I’ve picked up from my marketing buddies Andrew and Pete. Look out for them on Twitter (@AndrewAndPete) and YouTube – they’re fun and smart.
The lesson I’ve learned from my time in going deep on LinkedIn is that being the same shape everywhere doesn’t mean you need to be everywhere. One channel done well is much better than a handful done poorly.
The same is true for content creation in general. Why try to cover all of the bases of writing blog posts, recording audio podcasts, making live & recorded videos for YouTube and creating augmented reality or virtual reality content?
This isn’t a sustainable approach unless your business has a proper media arm. And yet I almost fell into the Shiny Red Ball trap again a couple of years ago when I had a chance to take over a technical writing podcast. It sounded like a great opportunity: an existing content channel that had the potential to reach some of my ideal customers. But I didn’t have any podcasting experience, and I knew that taking this on would add a lot to my workload. My marketing mentor, Mark Schaefer, was again to the rescue. I asked him for advice on what to do, and he reminded me to focus on what I was good at. That meant saying no to the podcasting opportunity and staying true to my core value: creating written content. It was a wise decision.
So, I advise you now to pick a content creation channel that you can stick at and that will best serve your ideal audience. It can be easy to flinch when the results of your efforts don’t come immediately, but they will if you can be consistent and congruent for long enough. Mark’s 2017 book, KNOWN, has scores of examples of how this has worked out for people in many different lines of business.
If you do eventually branch out, great. But that should happen only after you’re already known in one place or for one thing. Have you ever seen someone turn up on a platform and suddenly get loads of followers? There’s a good chance that they were already known somewhere else first. They told their existing engaged audience that they were going to be on a new channel and – boom – a large proportion of that audience start following them there. On the other hand, had that person been trying to build audiences on all of the channels from day one … well, that’s a heck of a grind.
So, here’s what you want to aim for:
- Be known for one thing: your core product or service.
- Use one main publishing format: blog, podcast, video or other medium.
- Use one main social media channel: Twitter, Facebook, LinkedIn or whatever suits you and your audience.
You may have heard the regular refrain of not building your house on borrowed land. I think social media is so pervasive that it’s hard to avoid, but don’t forget that your social media presence doesn’t belong to you. If you want to protect your communications with your audience, it’s best to create an email list that supplements whatever public messages you put out. That way, should there ever be a meltdown in your social media presence, you can at least fall back on a communications channel over which you have much better control.
Think of your business less like a supermarket and more like a one-dish restaurant. Focus on serving the best dish you can. Stick at it for long enough and you’ll become known for it.
How long is long enough? The answer’s in the next chapter title.
6. The 30-month mindset.
Get to the point.
It takes a lot of time to be known in your industry, perhaps as long as 30 months.
Avoid thinking in the short term and get ready to be consistent in the long term.
You can win with focus, consistency and grit.
As with anything, diligent practice gives you the best chance of getting results. I’m pretty handy in the kitchen but am not a good baker. Still, if I committed to baking a cake every day for a year, you can be damn sure that I’d make something delicious in 12 months’ time.
My early efforts would probably be like tough bricks that even the birds would think twice about before they started pecking. Thing is, the delicious version of the cake has the inedible brick as its necessary ancestor. Before you can be good, you have to be bad. It’s a phase that all content creators have to go through.
If you can’t accept the idea of ever producing an inedible cake, you might have some mindset work to do around overcoming perfectionism and imposter syndrome. That’s not what this book is about, but thankfully lots of clever people have written plenty on such subjects. Try Ditching Imposter Syndrome by Clare Josa, for example.
Mark Schaefer’s book KNOWN showed that it can take 30 months to become known in the right place and space for your industry. I was one of dozens of case studies included in that book, and by following Mark’s teachings I’ve managed to carve out a successful and sustainable business for myself. And, in line with what’s set out in KNOWN, it did indeed take me around 30 months of hard effort to start seeing the kind of results I was after. I’m telling you this now because I want to put to bed any notion of there being some quick route to success. There is no “easy” button for your marketing.
And yet, a common problem I see with a lot of my copywriting clients is that of impatience: they commission the writing of a few blog posts and then assume that this will magically get them to the top of Google, with plenty of juicy leads to match. Or they commission a whole new website and treat it as though it’s a one-off project that gets done and then forgotten about.
The internet doesn’t work like that. Any positive effect that comes from a short-term action such as the creation of a new website or small set of blog posts won’t last long unless you also have an ongoing strategy for adding new and valuable content for your audience.
Search ranking results come from building a content footprint on your website, fostering a community who will share that material and then getting links back to your site from other places on the web. This takes effort and time – and most businesses aren’t ready for it. We’ll look later about the kind of content you can create to make sure that your business remains relevant and superior for your ideal audience.
I blogged inconsistently between 2014 and 2016. It got me little in the way of website traffic and almost nothing in the way of leads for my business. It’s only when I discovered content marketing in 2016 that I started to buck up my ideas and understand that combining consistency and congruence was the route to success.
Although I focused on writing as my strong suit, it became clear to me that the need for long-term commitment applied to all formats of content. Take podcasts, for example. For the uninitiated, they’re digital audio shows, the equivalent of on-demand radio series. Often, people get a bright idea, leap in … and then quietly bail out. The average number of episodes published across all podcasts is a paltry seven. Yes, just seven! This means that most podcasts barely get off the ground before they crash and burn, and that smacks of little or no strategic thinking.
In contrast, the podcast creators who push through into the triple digits of episodes are the ones who win. My colleagues Pete Matthew and Janet Murray have each had more than a million downloads of the episodes of their respective podcasts. Did they start off with thousands of listeners? Of course not. But they stuck at it. And now, wouldn’t you trust that they probably know what they’re talking about given that they’ve published hundreds of episodes between them? Of course you would.
The story is repeated with YouTube video creators, Facebook live-streamers and all other content creators. Consistency is at the heart of all good things worth achieving, whether it’s baking a knockout cake or publishing helpful information that serves your audience’s needs.
Whatever your aim, you need to make consistency a habit.
Mark’s analysis in KNOWN showed that everyone he interviewed had demonstrated a few key characteristics: focus, consistency and grit. I found the last of those words interesting, and it led me to the work of writer Angela Duckworth, who, conveniently, has a book of the same name: Grit.
Here’s a summary of Angela’s recommendations. If you can put these into your business, you’ll stand a good chance of being around for the long haul:
- Find love in your work: isn’t it great to see a small business with excitement and enthusiasm for what they do? We spend much of our waking lives trying to earn a crust. We need to find ways for it to fulfil us.
- Find capacity to practise: the best businesses are excellent at execution. You need a way to keep sharpening your blade, not only in the content you create but also in the core service you deliver. Don’t just be good: strive to be great.
- Find your purpose: think about what’s driving you at the root. Money alone probably isn’t it. Why are you doing any of this stuff anyway? Clarity on your “why” doesn’t matter as much to your customers as some people suggest it does, but it should certainly matter to you. Have a reason to leap out of bed in the morning.
- Don’t lose hope: business is never plain sailing. Keep afloat. If you’ve plotted the right course, those choppy waters won’t last forever.
We’re going to move on soon to define the Content DNA for your business. Before we do, let’s see what you can learn from the building blocks I’ve defined for my business. It’s time to check out my Content DNA.
Let’s wrap up.
I hope you enjoyed that 6-chapter sample of Content DNA.
The whole book is 32 chapters and is available in paperback, ebook and audiobook on Amazon.