The X-Factor that Sets Your Content Apart from the Competition

In the 20 years since Bill Gates declared, “Content is King,” only one thing is certain.

There’s a whole lot of competition to wear the crown.

In 1996, when Gates wrote his prophetic essay on content, only 20 million Americans were online. To give those numbers some context, 271 million Americans are online today.

In those early days of the world wide web, there wasn’t all that much to do online. Creating a website wasn’t half as easy as it is today, and most news sites barely even registered online. Perhaps not-so-coincidentally, 1996 was also the year the New York Times launched their first website.

I’m sharing this, because I always shake my head in wonder when people now go around claiming, “Content is King.”

This is obviously true, which begs the question. Does this claim really give you any clue on how to set your content apart?

I would argue no.  It’s not enough to just put up a blog or publish white papers and ebooks (remember those?). It’s not enough to be insanely useful.

Creating content does little more than meet the bar for entry.

I was listening the other day to a podcast about a lone phone booth in the Mojave desert.

This phone booth, out in the middle of nowhere, should have lived a long, obscure life out in the desert. Instead, it captured the public’s imagination, to the point that it attracted so many visitors that the National Park Service removed all traces of the booth to discourage people from visiting the site.

The Mojave phone booth’s remarkable story starts in 1997, when Godfrey Daniels became fascinated with a report that there was this random phone in the desert. He became obsessed with calling the booth several times a day, wondering if anyone would ever pick up.

After a month of daily dialing, a woman answered.

Because Daniels was an Internet entrepreneur, he created a website for the booth. And to his complete surprise, his obsession spread to people around the globe.

Although the phone booth is no longer there, the fame of the Mojave phone booth begs the question.

Why did it inspire such a devoted following?

The reason people were so attracted to the booth was that it was just so unexpected.

It wasn’t located in a city, like most phone booths. It wasn’t at the side of a major interstate, which might have been understandable.

It was 8 miles from the nearest paved road.

mojave phone booth

Remember 1997? Not only was the Internet not all that populated yet, but also the Nokia was the hottest thing happening in the world of cell phones.

As Daniels said, “When you were out in the desert in those days you were on your own. You couldn’t contact anybody. The idea there was this phone booth just sitting out in an uncontactable place, it was sort of like somebody was on the moon. You could contact somebody on the moon.”

Coming across a story about a phone booth in the middle of Los Angeles would have been unremarkable.

But a booth in the Mojave?


Yet many businesses and organizations model their content on the competition.

It’s natural to look around and see what’s out there. In fact, we generally start client projects this way!

But the goal of this landscape survey isn’t to build just another phone booth.

It’s to figure out what is unexpected about your brand.

This might sound obvious, but I’ve worked with product designers who leave out their company’s commitment to green practices, because they think, “No one cares,” and coaches who can’t articulate what their special sauce is to customers.

This is a big problem, because the way to set your content, and by extension your brand, apart is to drive home that difference.

Consider your audience. When they first find your website, they have a predetermined set of expectations and questions that are all driven by past experiences. You can probably predict exactly what they would ask if you got on the phone with them.

Click here for our audience swipe file, and never wonder again what questions and topics your audience cares about most.

You absolutely should answer their questions (that’s being relevant and useful), but there’s incredible power in subverting expectations.

This is something Brené Brown does beautifully.

Her audience, as do all of us I expect, brings questions like, “What do people think of me? How can I feel more loved? How do I feel less alone?”

Instead of telling her audience that they shouldn’t worry about what people think, or giving them tips on finding a partner, Brown gives an unexpected answer.

“If you want to feel more connected to others, first you must allow yourself to be vulnerable.”

Standing out among the competition isn’t about being the loudest voice or the most controversial. It isn’t even about being the best at self-promotion.

It’s knowing your audience deeply, understanding what their questions, concerns, hopes and dreams are.

It’s taking the time to find out what else they’re being exposed to.

And consciously putting forward the products or ideas that offer an alternative point of view.

When you create your next piece of content, ask yourself:

  • Who does my organization serve?
  • What are they looking for?
  • What do I represent that’s different than everything else they’re finding in the market?

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How to Create a Media Plan You’ll Actually Stick To

“How should I plan out my PR calendar?” is one of the most common questions we get from small businesses who want to do their own PR.

…And it’s the one I dread the most.

I hate planning!

It’s sort of a problem. If you were to ask Maggie what my most difficult traits to work around are, I’m certain that my near-pathological aversion to putting stuff on the calendar would be up at the top of the list.

This is why Maggie leads the client accounts and not me!

So while in years past, I shared how you can create a detailed and focused media plan, today I thought I’d do something different and show you a less structured but equally effective approach to managing your PR program.

The benefits of ditching the calendar.

Coordinated campaigns can be very effective, and they’re incredibly important if you’re trying to influence public opinion around a policy matter or have a big launch that you want to create buzz around.

But the biggest gains from PR come from consistent outreach, not short-term campaigns. This is because PR isn’t just about list-building (at least, it shouldn’t be). PR is a tool for improving your company’s reputation and becoming a go-to leader in your field.

When you position your business in the media outlets (and I define bloggers and podcasters as media) your audience already likes and trusts, your business is more likeable and trustworthy by association.

When you participate in the important conversations happening in your field or are presented as a cutting-edge or sought-after brand, your position as a leader is strengthened.

These kinds of associations don’t happen overnight, however. You know that old marketing maxim that your customer needs to hear your message seven times before they remember it? It’s actually true.

This is why it’s so important to develop an outreach habit that’s easy to maintain.

The more complexity you add to your PR program or barriers to actually doing the outreach you need to do to be successful, the less likely you’ll stick to the program. And the less successful your program will be.

In other words…

Planning is good. Doing is better.

Have I convinced you to try it my way? I knew I could get you over to the dark side!

So here’s how it works.

Instead of trying to create a complex calendar and specific campaigns…simply commit to doing outreach a set number of hours each week.

The Secret of Getting Ahead is Getting Started

Because I know you’re wondering how much time I recommend, I want to suggest you start with 4 hours a week.

There are so many variables that we can consider when deciding how much time you should devote to outreach (how many placements you want…how many relationships you already have), but I’ve found 4 hours a good starting point when PR and outreach isn’t the primary function of your job.

Here’s why.

If you’re just getting started with media outreach, and you don’t have a lot of contacts, 4 hours a week is enough time to find a new media opportunity, research it, draft one pitch and send it out. So for someone totally new to this kind of outreach, 4 hours a week will result in 4 pitches being sent out each month.

Now, let’s say you have experience with media outreach, and you also have some contacts of your own. In this scenario, it can take as little as 1-2 hours to complete the same pitch process. For an individual with some pitching experience, 4 hours a week could result in as many as 8 pitches a month.

How many placements can you expect to get spending 2 days a month on PR?

Before I give you some numbers on this, I have to give you a big, fat caveat. The nature of PR placements is that they’re “earned media,” which means that you’re not buying them and can’t control outcomes.

Ultimately, you have no control of whether your story ideas see the light of day. If your contact at a website goes out on maternity leave, a major international conflict breaks out or a new PEW report is published, even a confirmed placement can fall through.

That’s what makes PR so valuable and so much more trustworthy and influential than advertising — you can’t buy it. You must earn it.

It’s also what makes PR impossible to guarantee.

All that said, with targeted pitches sent to the right people (most of whom aren’t your besties who’ve promised to share anything you send them), you might hope for a 15-20 percent success rate.

At 4 pitches a month, this conservative success rate translates into 7-10 placements in a year.

At 8 pitches a month, it looks like 14-20 placements a year.

For most small businesses, this is a big increase in coverage. And each individual placement can help drive up your SEO, give you new media mastheads to add to your sales pages, and ultimately bring your ideas and products to more people.

How should you spend your 4 hours?

If you’ve been following this site for a while, you know we advocate for writing targeted pitches instead of sending out mass mailings.

The bulk of your time will be spent in writing emails to the people you want to write about your business, or publish a contributed article or guest post. So the basic flows looks like this:

  1. 15 minutes: Pick a media outlet.
  2. 15 minutes: Pick the best person to send your story idea to.
  3. 30 minutes – hour: Research their past work.
  4. 2 hours: Develop an idea for this person and draft an idea sharing your idea.
  5. 15 minutes: Proofread and send your idea.

You’ll also want to spend 15 minutes following up the next week, just before or after you write your next pitch.

There are a lot of ways to come up with story ideas and pitch them, and I’ve written about them pretty extensively. The two resources I’ll point you to here are this list of 7 ways to come up with a news hook and our Content Remix, which is a guide to using the content you already have to come up with pitch ideas.

The Remix also includes a pitch email template. I strongly recommend you consult this free guide as you start your media outreach.

Or, if you want a really detailed walkthrough, my Creative Live course Simple PR for Creatives is on sale right now.

What won’t you be doing?

Unfortunately, there is one area where creating a PR calendar does win the day — and it’s with print media. Any magazines you find in the grocery store are created six-to-nine months before they land on the shelves of your local Whole Foods.

If there’s something you particularly want to go after like holiday coverage, you can put a note on your calendar to pitch it eight months in advance (that’s generally safe), but otherwise this kind of outreach is focused on media with short lead times like online and most broadcast media (your local TV affiliate versus the Ellen show, for example).

The other drawback to this approach is that you will have a hard time coordinating a rush of coverage. So if you want to get a big buzz going around a launch, you might want to try the other approach I’ve shared. But as I said before, if you don’t have help, I don’t recommend this approach for everyone, because it’s hard to keep up on your own.

Is building your reach and influence important to your business goals?

Then it’s worth scheduling your first 4-hour block to work on your PR program.


How To Create Content For Multiple Audiences

When you’re trying to reach more than one audience, it’s exponentially more challenging to create appealing content. In this scenario, writing and outreach can suffer from the strain of balancing competing priorities. On the one hand, you feel that you should be creating an online presence that is welcoming to each of your diverse audience groups, but you’re also wary of turning off one group in an effort to reach another.

This desire to appeal to everyone leads to exactly the opposite effect of what you want. Home pages become cluttered with competing calls-to-action and blog posts start to feel disconnected.

But it is possible to create a content for multiple audiences and maintain a website that’s clear and compelling to all that visit.

The first step is picking a framework.

Audience Framework 1: The Star

In many ways, the Star framework is the easiest to work with, because it makes your priorities crystal clear: One audience needs to get your content more than all the others.

Many, many organizations operate in the Star framework, from Apple to Kickstarter, because it’s typically most effective to create content when you differentiate between your primary audience and the supporting cast.

Take Charity:Water, for example. Charity:Water is a nonprofit organization that brings clean and safe drinking water to people in developing nations. What makes the organization unique, however, is not their mission but how they accomplish it — people like you and me can pledge our birthdays to Charity:Water. All proceeds you raise fund clean water projects, and when a project is complete, you get GPS data on the exact projects you funded.

To accomplish their mission, Charity:Water needs to reach all kinds of individuals and organizations. The success of each project is dependent on local partners. For larger events, they need corporate sponsors.

But none of this would work without individual participation, which is why the Charity:Water home page is wholly focused on helping people like you and me start a campaign.

Charity:Water is an excellent example of the Star audience framework.

For Charity:Water, individual campaigners are the star.

Is there one group upon whom the success and failure of your mission hinges upon?

You can adopt the Star approach by focusing the majority of your time and resources (say…80 percent) on your most important market segment. The Star should be the focus of your website, content marketing and PR.

Then you can devote the remaining 20 percent of your efforts on the supporting cast. You might dedicate a page or two on your home page to this audience, and it’s very effective to use more direct marketing efforts like networking or even cold-calls to reach your supporting cast.

Audience Framework 2: The Ensemble

The second framework, The Ensemble, comes into play when you want or need to reach multiple customer segments to achieve your mission. Often Ensemble-based businesses segment their audiences from a larger, more cohesive group to bring more clarity to their message. We worked with a business this summer who segmented her audience into the entertainer, the wine connoisseur and the chef.

Or, we might look at Chris Guillebeau to see how someone might market to differentiated market segments. Chris is an author, speaker and entrepreneur who brings content and training to two core groups: travel hackers, aka people who want to learn strategies for earning frequent flier miles to travel the world, and microbusinesses learning how to bootstrap their way to success by selling products and services (versus getting investors).

In some cases, Chris markets to each group with a separate web presence or offer, which we’ll talk more about in the third framework. But in others, like his core website and annual conference, Chris appeals to both groups.


The secret to marketing to an Ensemble audience is finding the commonalities among each market group.

For Chris, this meant understanding the core desires of his band of travel hackers and aspiring business owners and putting forth his own world view. Bringing together both groups at the World Domination Summit, Chris puts it this way: both of his audience sets want to live a remarkable life in an unconventional world. They simply accomplish that goal in diverse ways.

See how Chris Guillebeau pulled together diverse audiences under a common umbrella.

Similarly, Chris’s blog profiles individuals who respond to the call to adventure and short personal essays on challenging yourself to break the mold.

Chris Guillebeau's blog brings together an Ensemble audience by unifying them under a common theme.

When you think to the broader purpose of living a life on nonconformity, both the personal essays and travel profile inspire other individuals aspiring to make changes in their own lives, even if the particulars vary.

To market to an Ensemble audience, identify the commonalities between your group.

It’s easy to fall into bad habits when you market to an Ensemble — overemphasizing one group, having too many calls-to-action on your home page and confusing both audiences in an effort to pull them together.

You can transform these challenges into opportunities by identifying what your diverse audience segments have in common.

We like to start with a set of questions and a stack of sticky notes. Designate a space for each audience on an open wall in your office. Work through the prompts for each audience, recording your ideas on sticky notes and putting them in the section for that audience. If you have more than one answer for a prompt, that’s great! Use another sticky and add it in.

Here are the prompts:

  • Based on what I know about this audience, they are most likely to come across my work when they’re looking for:
  • This audience is motivated by a desire to:
  • They are held back by a fear of:
  • I can help this audience segment most by:

If you’re having a hard time, it can help to create a marketing persona to stand in for each customer segment before you get started.

Once finished, bring together the ideas that each customer segment has in common. These are the common ground that you can create content around.

As much as possible, avoid marketing to the outliers — triggers that only speak to one group or another. Tie your communications together with a theme like Chris did with the idea of nonconformity.

Before we move on to the final framework, I’d like to offer one word of caution. Oftentimes, entrepreneurs or nonprofits default to an ensemble cast, because they’re afraid to admit there’s one group they particularly want to serve. There is power in admitting that your organization has a star, and trying to market to an ensemble when your heart isn’t in it often results in your other audiences feeling they’re getting short shift.

Audience Framework 3: The Spin-Off

Sometimes it’s impractical to try to market to your different audience groups with one business or organization.

We started to explore this a little with Chris Guillebeau, who spun off content around leveraging cards for travel from his main web presence. As another example, my friend Megan Auman is a successful metalsmith and jewelry designer with a thriving business selling her collection. When Megan started teaching other designers and artists what she’s learned about wholesaling, marketing and running a business, she created a separate web presence for that work.


Megan has a different mission for each audience group. On, her mission is selling her designs to the public (with a secondary goal of selling wholesale), which is reflected in everything form her design to her site navigation to the home page copy on that site.

Megan Auman's home page is focused on customers of her jewelry business.

Whereas, through Designing An MBA , Megan provides business, brand, and marketing strategy and education for your high-end handmade business.

Megan Auman created a new site for Designing an MBA, because the mission of that work is distinct from her jewelry business.

It’s not just that the audience groups are different, the very purpose behind each business is different. Note the differences between the two sites — and how Megan used a few common elements to tie them together under her brand umbrella.

Running two or more websites is not for everyone, but you know it’s time to spin off an audience segment when you have more than one mission.

Which framework is right for your organization? Are you creating content for a Star, an Ensemble, or is it time to for a spin off?