When Shelley opened her own marketing agency, she had a lump in her throat.
It wasn’t due to the normal jitters of becoming her own boss or the uncertainty that comes with running a startup. No — her anxiety was due to something far more relevant to all our work in content marketing.
Shelley, you see, is bothered by suck. She’s in marketing, but referring to her own business as a “marketing agency” felt, according to her, “icky.”
She told me in an email, "Marketing agencies have given themselves a bad name because of all the nonsense — farming stuff out and marking it up (which was so obvious to me, when I was on the client side), compromising quality, etc. I get it -- they are trying to scale their processes to be more profitable. But some things just aren’t possible to industrialize. And most people I know who work for agencies end up hating it, which also shows in the end product."
Given that stance, Shelley wanted to know how she should approach creating content to attract clients “without devolving to ‘how to do Twitter’ and ‘4 steps to writing a value prop’ cliche bullshit."
At this point, I was already mentally high-fiving her. But then she officially became my new best friend by concluding her email thusly:
"The struggle to not suck is real." (Amen!)
Shelley, I feel your pain. Every day in my work in venture capital and with startups, I'm surrounded by dozens upon dozens of blog posts written by VCs to startup founders. Most of them are self-serving, ego-driven nonsense. A lot of it is generic advice that solves the same problems over and over and over again. And a very small fraction of it is actually interesting or useful — but even that lacks any sort of personality or tone or uniqueness to cement it as one brand’s and not another’s.
In short, even though much of it is very smart, it's all become generic stuff for VCs to create.
In shorter: It’s a hot mess.
So my advice to Shelley, in a nut-shelley: Find a unique angle on the broad, basic stuff, and cling to it like a mouse on a stick heading over Niagra Falls.
Now, I had a much longer answer to Shelley then the above, and she graciously agreed to let me publish our exchange. So here goes:
How to Figure Out Your Unique Content Angle
Disclaimer: This will get you some percent of the way there. I don’t think anyone living or dead could actually write a post that offers advice about how every single writer can somehow be unique, given that we're discussing uniqueness here. That said, here’s a discussion that will hopefully get you into the ballpark -- a ballpark occupied by far fewer people than "everyone in marketing doing the same generic thing."
Disclaimer #2: Keep in mind that this was me answering Shelley’s specific question for her specific business, so I the exact details may not apply to you. The approach, however, should be near universal. I’ve also tried to add some extra explanation not found in my original email to Shelley.
Okay, with disclaimers out of the way...
1) Determine who you're trying to serve as clients.
Let’s go with product managers since you mentioned that. These are deep thinkers who probably believe firmly in the power of a great product, not necessarily marketing — they may not even buy into the need for marketing.
2) Determine your unique point of view of your clients' reality and how marketing relates to it.
You didn't start an agency to simply be "yet another agency," right? So think about why you felt uniquely qualified to help your clients. What unique point of view or advantage or skills or approach are you offering?
Here’s where creativity matters. This part’s fun.
Taking the product manager role as the example, combine your knowledge/interactions with PMs with your beliefs to land on any number of angles. Let’s take one as an example:
"We believe marketing is about getting GREAT products into the world, not sneak-selling or over-promising."
This can lead to lots of related thoughts and content:
- Directly speaking to the audience through ideas like "The Product Manager’s Guide to Great Marketing” or "How Product Managers Can Better Work with Marketing"
- Helping educate product leaders and operators around the value of marketing in the first place.
- Taking strong stances like, "You Focus on Great Products; We’ll Focus on Great Marketing”
- Going WAY deep into the idea of “content as a product.” The marketing world loves to say this, but nobody has really examined it from all angles or proposed how exactly that’s the case beyond an article or essay or two. You could OWN this.
- You can even make it the agency’s mission to battle terrible products being over-marketed by doing campaign “takedowns” (critiques) when the product is weak or by praising companies with great products and marketing.
3) With those 2 things in hand, craft 1 simple story.
This will be the foundational narrative you use in EVERY piece of content and marketing touchpoint. Sometimes it will be written explicitly, sometimes it serves as a mental filter through which can more easily and quickly decide what to write/create and how to put your angle on very common subjects like marketing tactics.
Your one simple story is just that -- simple.
Every story can be distilled into three parts:
- A status quo
- Some conflict
- A resolution.
Your product is one part of that resolution, but not all of it. And your story is delivered from the point of view of the client, not you. So, your one simple story might be:
STATUS QUO: You've built a great product. You've agonized over the design, the features, and the function. It truly does solve your customers problems or deliver exactly what they need or want.
CONFLICT: But for any great product to get found by customers today, the customer has to make sense of historic amounts of noise and bad marketing. Too often, companies spend wasteful amounts of money just to be loud, hype terrible products, over-promise false benefits, and aggressively shove features nobody wants down consumers’ throats. This is NOT doing justice to your great product or your consumers, but it also prevents great products from simply "getting found" by accident.
RESOLUTION: To succeed, you need to treat marketing AS a product -- marketing that creates value, not simply hype and interruptions. By creating content, side projects, apps, resources, and by being completely transparent, honest, and customer-first in your marketing, great products can still cut through the noise and win.
Now, the goal here is to get someone nodding in agreement. It's to trigger a positive emotional reaction. The goal is also to turn off potential clients who disagree. These would take forever to convince or perhaps never close but instead just bog down your sales process.
Taking a unique angle on something is as much about saying who you WON'T work with as who you will.
The good news is, once someone agrees with your story, it becomes much easier and much more logical to sell yourself. You can get the prospect to this “Oh by the way” moment.
It’s as if you say to them, “This is the story and reality we believe in. And the resolution is X. And, oh by the way, the BEST way to achieve the resolution above? The BEST way to create marketing like a product, to create value and solve problems in your marketing? Work with our agency. In an era of noise, we help great products continue to win."
Great content marketing not only takes a unique angle on what customers care about, but it turns every sell into an upsell.
Hope that helps! :) Good luck with your agency!
PS: If you're reading this blog post, Shelley: You have the exact right mentality already and I know you're gonna KILL IT!