The No-BS Cliché-Free Guide To Creating Engaging Content For Your Social Media Marketing

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“Create engaging content.”

If I hear that one more time, I’m going to punch someone in their repetitive little mouth.

How many times and in how many ways have you heard the experts, gurus, and even those who are neither expert nor guru tell you that the key/secret/trick to a winning marketing plan is to create engaging content?

That the only way to master/rock/kill your marketing is to create engaging content?

How many blog posts insist that the single most effective way to rule the day on Facebook, Twitter, Google+, [insert marketing channel here] is to create engaging content?

At least it’s good advice, because just this morning I woke up and thought to myself, “I am going to spend every moment of the day trying to be as irrelevant and boring as I possibly can, so that all of my customers and prospects will ignore me!”

But I’m not about to tell you they’re wrong, either. If “content” is king then “engaging content” is a full-fledged deity. Instead, I’m going to give you the thing that is usually missing from the content equation, and that’s the what and the how.

If you can forgive my mini rant, let’s proceed!

What The Heck Is “Engaging Content” Anyway?

Let’s step away from the 21st century marketing jargon and stop calling it “engaging” content for a moment. Instead let’s call it what it is.

Interesting. Exciting. Thoughtful. Sad (yes, sad). Scary. Funny.

There are many ways to describe what I will refer to from now on as good content but it can be summed up in one very simple concept: good (and thus “engaging”) content appeals to us emotionally.

Good content makes us feel.

In order to understand what engaging content is, you have to become a human being in the real world and forget what you think you know or what’s been browbeaten into you about “social media”. At the end of the day social media is people, so let’s start there.

And I want you to start by remembering what it’s like to talk with (“engage”) an actual human being.

I’m going to tell you two (short, I promise!) stories so we can get to the root of engaging.

Story 1: There was once a woman who lived in my neighborhood who loved to talk. If she so much as glimpsed another human being on the street, she’d waddle on over and start a long diatribe about what every other neighbor was doing, who was getting married, what was happening at the local high school, how many times someone’s car alarm went off last Tuesday and generally update everyone on everyone else’s doings.

This was neither gossipy nor malicious. She simply loved to talk.

My neighbor spent a lot of time creating content and giving everyone status updates! They never made their way into a comment box but that’s exactly what they were.

Do you know what else they were? Boring. Not engaging. I learned to recognize that waddle from six blocks away and suddenly remember I’d left a roast burning in the oven.

Story 2: I have a business colleague who occasionally shares his client horror stories with me. He’s in a super techie industry so most of what he does is over my head. But when he tells a story, instead of giving me a dull play-by-play, he emphasizes the absurdities and points out the silliness and makes fun of the banalities. I laugh, groan, shake my head and roll my eyes at just the right times even though I don’t always understand the nuances of his job.

Sorry for my colleague, but I almost wish he had more horrible clients. I could use the stories.

The difference between Mrs. Status Update and my storytelling colleague is that his stories appealed to me emotionally. They made me mad, they made me laugh, they surprised, disgusted and amused me.

There’s a reason that pharmaceutical commercials have lovely images of happy people in boats and hammocks. They’re not selling you drugs, they’re selling you a feeling. They’re selling you that lifestyle and that happiness. It’s why geckos talk to us about car insurance (amusing) and tire companies exploit chubby little babies (safety and that aw-how-cute touching feeling). We buy based on emotion. We react based on emotion. And we read, listen and engage based on emotion.

You don’t need to be a comedian or a writer or a brilliant storyteller to engage. You simply need to remember that there is another human being that wants to be engaged – not talked at, talked to or status-updated.

Make Me Happy. Make Me Sad. Piss Me Off. Just Don’t Bore Me.

Good content evokes an emotion. In order to do that, it has to be something that people can relate to.

If you think people can’t relate to your business or conversational style, remember my colleague who told a good story even though I had no idea what it was about. I certainly had no problem understanding Mrs. Status Update. I understood quite well what she meant as she detailed the minutia of whose son just took a trip to Spain and whose father needed a hip replacement. Snore.

The story is not in the details, it’s in the telling.

To engage people, take an otherwise ordinary detail and tell it in a way that amuses, annoys, challenges or gives your audience a reason to perk up their ears, so to speak.

Instead of: “Jimbob got married on Saturday,” how about, “Jimbob looked like a fat penguin at his wedding last week.”

That may not be the kindest thing to say but hey, if the flipper fits…

In spite of Mrs. Status Update, I’ve met very few truly boring people in my life. Some people are shy, some are reserved, some are awkward, but not too many are flat out boring. I bet this applies to you, too. I bet you’re not even a little boring. It’s up to you to find the energy within yourself so that you can share it with others.

I didn’t say it was going to be simple! If this comes naturally to you, great. If not, you’ll have to practice and work on your delivery. The best way to do that is to pretend you’re talking to a friend. How would you say something, describe something, ask something of a friend?

Start writing down snippets of your speech patterns and the phrases that pop into to your head, even if they have nothing to do with your business or social audience. You’ll start to get a feel for how you “engage” in real life and you can use that as inspiration to do more than simply status-update your audience to death.

Remember, take the ordinary and make it engaging by making it emotional. There are a lot of emotions to work with. You can make people laugh or grin, you can make them frown or scowl. You can intrigue or surprise them. You can annoy them if you really want to get a reaction. You can make them sad. You can give them hope. Make a nice long list of possibilities and then create your content around evoking one of them.

We’ve Got The ‘Engaging’ Part, Now How About The ‘Creating’ Part?

Now that I’ve hopefully removed some of the mystery surrounding the less-than-actionable advice to simply “create engaging content”, let’s talk about how to actually create.

Blog. Period.

Shall I assume that you have a blog? If not, getting one should be your number one priority. There are two kinds of people in the world: the kind who are blogging, have always been blogging and barely know life without blogging; and the kind who would rather stick a hot poker in their eye than let the word blog cross their mind.

If you don’t have a blog, stop making this hard on yourself and just get one. If something like a WordPress blog is too much, at least get a Tumblr blog. It’s free, it’s simple and it requires almost zero effort beyond thinking up something to post and clicking “post”.

Yes, there is going to be some creating involved! But it doesn’t have to be complicated. I’m one of those people who can write for hours (as your bleeding eyes may attest if you last long enough…) but if that’s not you, then think in ones:

Write one paragraph. Answer one question. Tell one anecdote. Make one list of things you want people to know/do/remember/think about. In the interest of saving your eyeballs, I won’t go into the many possibilities here but I beg you to have a blog that you post to regularly – at least once per week. Write it, speak it, video it. Get your ideas, stories and words of wisdom out into the world. This will be a goldmine of content for you.

Mine Your Own Content

One excellent reason to have a blog is because a post is much more than the sum of its words. After you’ve shared your blog post with your audience you should start sharing it in pieces.

Every sentence, every bullet point, every snippet of wisdom that you write in a blog post is another bit of content that you can share with your audience.

Do you know what I’m going to do with that sentence tomorrow? I’m going to post it to Facebook and Twitter!

If you take the time to write a blog post that’s interesting and appeals to people as we’ve already talked about, then you can use every bit of that post to engage people.

Once you’ve built up a bit of a library, you should be re-posting your blogs to social channels and reusing some of your best quotes. Believe me, none of your 21,000 Twitter followers will remember that you posted the same quote today that you posted six months ago.

Create once, engage repeatedly!

Reuse, Repurpose, Recycle

One of the best ways to create content is simply to be observant. There are 2 things I’m never without; one is my cell phone and the other is a pen. Whether I’m at the grocery store, the movie theater, a client meeting, the dinner table – even when I’m in bed – I have someplace to record whatever thought or idea pops into my head.

Ideas are not cooperative things. They don’t come when you call, they show up when they’re least expected and they vanish without warning. Don’t fight it, use it.

I’ve gotten ideas from watching movies, listening to my clients, even drinking a cup of tea. Not every idea is groundbreaking and many aren’t even original. But I put my spin on them and voilà! Content.

Instead of wracking your brain trying to think of something interesting, clever, funny, touching or surprising, just watch, listen, and let the content create itself.

Copying someone’s blog post is bad form on the internet. Quoting something you heard someone say while you stood in line to pick up your dry cleaning is perfectly ok.

Start thinking like a content creator: next time you’re annoyed by a salesperson, bored at a movie, amused by a conversation, make notes and use those experiences to evoke the same emotion in others.

Gimme Eye Candy

Here’s another thing you’ve probably heard ad nauseum: photos increase engagement! That may be true, but unless you pilfer borrow them from the internet, can afford a stock photo account or are a whip with a camera, you may be frustrated by this advice.

I have a solution.

Instead of spending money buying or endless time finding someone else’s photos, I want you to use two things that I bet 99% of us already have: your cell phone camera and that old shoebox of Polaroids you’ve been keeping on a closet shelf for “someday” when you get in the mood for scrapbooking.

Even if you don’t, I bet your mother has those somewhere. Find a family member older than 20 and drag out the box of photos.

Now start taking photos of your photos.

Here’s why this is the best advice you’ll hear all day:

  1. Looking through your old photos is going to bring up a lot of emotions. If you’ve got your pen handy, you just cracked open a content-writing slot machine. If you can connect those thoughts and emotions to your audience and business, you’ve got engaging content. Take my Mother’s Day post for example. A photo of my mom in hot pink shorts brought on an entire lesson in marketing. People who speak to me perhaps three times a year wrote to let me know they had enjoyed that post. Find ways to make that idea work for you.
  2. It’s personal, and people love personal. Posting stock photos and other shared photos is great, but posting real photos that can give your audience a glimpse into you is what’s going to make you stand out. According to a recent AdAge study, nearly 99% of a brand’s Facebook fans never engage. That means if you’ve got 100 fans, only one will ever like, share or comment on your posts. But we know better. As small businesses we can get dozens of interactions on any given post, even with only a few hundred fans, because we are not “brands”. We are people. And people talk to people. The more people-ish you can be the more engaging you’re going to be, and that’s all there is to it!

Forget ‘Creating Content’. Make It Come To You.

Along with the rest of the 987 million things you have to do in a day to keep your business running, you may be wondering where all this creating time is going to come from.

Here’s an idea: someone else.

There are two really easy ways to do this.

Mine The News

There’s so much information out there it’s hard to know when to shut the spigot off. In this case, just keep it running. Subscribe for email updates for every blog and news site you can find. Set up Google alerts on a subject that would interest your audience. (If you’ve followed my advice to create email filters then you can segment these into their own folders and deal with them stress-free.)

Set yourself up with an RSS reader and subscribe to blogs and other sites via their feeds. So few people use RSS but it’s one of the simplest ways to get content delivered to you and keep it organized and accessible. I use Google Reader, and since I use so many other Google services, I can be logged in and reading-ready any time.

If the only thing that’s keeping you from using RSS is that you don’t know how, then seriously let me know and I will personally help you get set up in about six seconds.

Once you’ve got other blogs and news at your disposal, start looking for nuggets of information there. Sometimes it’s sufficient to simply link to another site if it’s something you think your audience will enjoy. Sometimes you can add your own spin or commentary. Let the story lead and follow it where it goes.

Ask Your Audience

We’ve talked about this before but asking questions of your audience is a great way to engage AND get them to create the content.

Remember to follow the same “rules of engagement”, namely, make sure your questions appeal on an emotional level.

Someone I follow on Facebook recently asked, “What’s the scariest movie you ever saw?”

What makes that question so brilliant is that it doesn’t take three hours to write, is immediately relatable, and evokes the emotion of fear right in the question. I bet you wouldn’t be surprised to find out that she had dozens of responses.

That question might not be relevant to your business, but use the concept. What scares you the most about… [insert your thing here].

When you ask questions, ask where, when, would and should. Those are the ones that have been shown to get the most response, primarily because they require a short, simple answer that is immediately relevant to the person answering.

Should teachers be friends with their students on Facebook? (A recently hot topic!)

You can answer easily with one word and it evokes a pretty strong emotion in a lot of people.

On the other hand, avoid how and why questions. They might be interesting but they are not likely to get people to engage, because they require too much time to think about and answer.

How should schools handle social media policies for students and teachers?

Pft. I may have an opinion on that, but I sure don’t have time to formulate it right now!

You can see the difference in those two questions pretty easily, so be mindful when you write yours.

Asking what questions is open to debate. Studies have shown that they don’t get much engagement, but if you use the scary movie example, you can see that that’s not always the case. Use what questions carefully and make sure they’re easy to answer and… you guessed it… emotional.

You’ve Got The Ammo. Now Start Creating.

I hope that I’ve made this post a cliché-free zone for you today and that you’ll walk away with at least one good idea to try out.

Now do me a favor, and try that idea out. Right now! Instead of planning, thinking and wondering, I want you to start creating. When you’re done – whether it’s an essay, a paragraph or a single question – I’d love for you to send me a link so I can engage with you!

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Carol Lynn Rivera

Carol Lynn Rivera

Carol Lynn is a content creator and marketer who has been in the business of digital marketing since 1999. Along with her husband and business partner Ralph, she owns and operates both {Web.Search.Social}, a consulting and marketing services business, and Rahvalor Interactive, a web and creative services production studio. On any given day Carol Lynn will wear the hat of project manager, consultant, social media manager and content marketer. Her true passion is writing, whether it’s web content, a blog post, email campaign or social status update. When she's not writing for customers, {Web.Search.Social}, or her own blog, she's planning her early retirement to Barcelona as a famous and wealthy novelist.
Carol Lynn Rivera
Carol Lynn Rivera
  • http://www.donnamerrilltribe.com/ Donna Merrill

    Carol Lynn, you just knocked my socks off!  What a grand post.  Engagement:  People say it, but don’t really put it into action.  Your explanation of engagement is awesome.  I certainly don’t have the time to sit around all day and engage on Facebook and other social sites.  Rather, if something catches my eye and is important to me, I will engage.  There has to be limits on social media platforms.  Pick one or two that you resonate with and engage…But always keep in mind that you are engaging with the content.

    I too, carry something around with me all the time because of the inspiration I may receive in a day.  It can be 10 blog posts.  But when I’m stuck I do use ‘Google Alerts.”
    What a fantastic way to get information.  I’ve done it myself, just recycle it in your own words.

    But most importantly, evoke that warm fuzzy feeling of just being You.  Like this post for example, It starts off with a bit of a rant which pulls me in, then teaches me all the how to’s.  Excellent my friend.
    Donna

    • http://twitter.com/CarolLynnRivera Carol Lynn Rivera

      Donna, I’m so glad that my rants are good for something :) I can definitely get into the “emotional” side of engaging because it’s usually something emotional that inspires me to write in the first place.

      Carrying something around to record your inspiration is great, and I’m glad you do that, too. I have read many grand, inspiring posts you’ve written so it must work!

      I get so many Google alerts that I usually ignore them but they’re handy when you want to browse for some ideas.

      Thanks for your thoughts and I appreciate the compliment.

  • http://adriennesmith.net/ Adrienne

    I agree with Donna Carol, what a great post.  

    I love stories and I love especially when people share their own experiences in their blog posts or even through their videos.  I’m much more entertained and I guess in reality that’s what it’s mostly all about.  Enjoying what you read or hear and really getting into what’s been shared.

    Your posts sure are long but you never disappoint.   I always learn something from you or get a different perspective everything I walk away.  This one was another one of those.  Okay, I’ll never say engaging ever again.  

    Excellent post indeed Carol, excellent.

    ~Adrienne

    • http://twitter.com/CarolLynnRivera Carol Lynn Rivera

      Adrienne, you’re funny, I always get a good chuckle out of you. You are allowed to say “engaging”, lol… I promise I won’t punch you :)

      I don’t mind that itself, it’s just that people say it so much but never tell you how to do it. What does it mean? So I hope I helped out a little when it comes to that part of the equation.

      I’m glad you get all the way to the end, I know sometimes I tend to go on and on… there’s a lot of stuff in my brain and hopefully it’s good for other people who read it! Thanks for the kind words.

  • http://www.johannlohrmann.com/ Johannlohrmann

    Please, oh please tell me a story. I love stories. When I was a kid the biggest excitement in my little day was when a teacher would read to us. And we’d all fall asleep for our naps. 

  • Jesse

    Hey, Carol, great post. I couldn’t agree more. You have to spark an emotional response to get people to keep reading. 

    • http://twitter.com/CarolLynnRivera Carol Lynn Rivera

      Thanks, Jesse, hope my mini-rant got you to keep reading all the way to the end ;)

  • http://twitter.com/LifeCoachingPro Sylviane Nuccio

    Hi Carol,

    Every time I read an article of yours, I think this is the best one so far.

    You are so right. The most “engaging” action is to bring up the “emotion” in people.  Emotion is the BEST seller. That’s why copy writers play the emotion card more than anything else, and it has been proven that people buy more what they “want” than what they “need” because of this dear emotion factor again.

    I am like you, I always walk around with something to take notes because ideas come and go like a draft. Don’t count on remembering them when you get home, they will be gone!

    Thanks again for those great points you are making here :)

    • http://twitter.com/CarolLynnRivera Carol Lynn Rivera

      Thanks, Sylviane, I appreciate your encouragement, it keeps me on the right track and hopefully continuing to post useful stuff. I’m glad I’m not the only one who walks around with a pen all the time. But something interesting always happens and I never remember it for more than five minutes. Sometimes when I can’t write it down I repeat it to myself over and over but it’s no use – by the time I get home it’s gone, then I wrack my brain trying to figure out what I wanted to say. Keep taking notes, your inspiration is also much appreciated!

  • http://idealsoftware.co.za/ Ian Said

    Thanks Carol. Software development for the restaurant industry is hardly a very sexy industry to be in, but you’ve given me some excellent tips here for dare I say it ‘creating engaging content’.

    Thank you!
    Ian

    • Carol Lynn Rivera

      All industries can create engaging content for the people who are interested! It’s just a matter of tapping into what those people want and then giving it to them in an interesting way. I hope you get to try some of these ideas!

  • Narayan

    Hey Carol,
    I was just hired by a web design and development company and part of my job is writing blog posts. I’m so glad I stumbled into this brilliant site and have been taking tips from you ever since.

    How would you like to read a piece of content I wrote immediately wrote after I went through this post. I’d be privileged if you would comment on it.

    http://softnep.com/blog/musings-new-guy-at-work/

    • Carol Lynn Rivera

      Your new job sounds great! I’m happy to hear you’re enjoying it. Good luck!