Content Marketing 101: Selling with Storytelling

When I was in high school, our neighbors decided to get out of their stinky pig-raising business. Over the course of the next year, they converted their pens of squealing hogs to rows of grapevines. It wasn’t easy, but today, they own one of the most successful, upscale businesses in our local area: a thriving vineyard and winery.

Not really want you’d expect from rural pig farmers, right?

They make a great product, which I believe is always key, but they also have a great Cinderella story that intrigues people. If you were told that the best bottle of wine you can buy in the entire state is produced by former pig farmers who clawed their way to success when no one thought they could do it, wouldn’t you want to stop by for a tour and wine tasting? Everyone loves a good underdog.

Actually, everyone loves a good story, underdog or not. If you have one to tell, you can use it to build deeper relationships with your fans and convert them to customers.

Finding Your Story

I’m a strong believer that everyone has a story to tell. The one thing your business has that none of your competitors have is you. You just need to find what makes you unique and how you can share your story with potential customers.

If you’re drawing a blank, here are a few prompts that can help you find your story:

  • What’s your origin story? In other words, how did you get started and why?
  • Do you have a unique charitable mission that pulls on people’s heartstrings?
  • Did you make a mistake along the way that your potential customers might also be making?
  • Do you live a lifestyle that most people want?
  • Did you face a common fear to get where you are today?
  • What happened along the way to make you successful?

When looking for your story, it is important to always be authentic. People can sniff out a liar pretty easily, and online, they aren’t afraid to call someone out for being phony. So, make sure that story you tell is the unembellished truth. For example, don’t try to tell a rags-to-riches story if you never experienced true rags. Selling with storytelling isn’t about lying to make sales.

Structuring Your Story

Your story will fall flat if not structured properly. Start with the basics, then build on the framework you’ve created to connect with your readers.

The basics, as the name implies, are simple: a beginning, a middle, and an end.

Your story should start in the same way you would start a blog post: by hooking the reader in some way, so they want to read more. This is the most important part of your story. The rest doesn’t matter if no one reads past your first paragraph. Here are some of the best ways to hook your readers:

  • Share something surprising, like the fact that you used to be a pig farmer, but now run an upscale winery. Whatever you share should make your reader think, “Wow, I want to know how that happened.”
  • Make the reader feel some sort of connect to you. You want them to feel like they are in the same situation you were in at the start of your story, so you can lead them on a journey of realizing they can follow you to learn how to be successful.
  • Hold back a vital piece of information that makes a reader need to keep reading to learn more. Just make sure you can deliver; don’t mislead the reader, because it will only make them roll their eyes and click the back button.
  • Write to your readers. Do you know your target audience? If not, now’s the time to figure that out, so you can write a story that will connect with them. You’ll have a hard time selling with storytelling if you don’t know who the buyer is.

Don’t be afraid to get creative with your story lead. Write a few different versions and have some trusted friends evaluate. If you’re feeling stuck, skip the first paragraph and start writing the middle section, the meat of the story. Sometimes, the lead will emerge only after you tell the rest of the story.

The middle of your story should focus on one thing: emotion.

Emotion is how you’ll actually make sales. If you can make a reader laugh or cry, they are your new biggest fan, because it is not easy to evoke such strong emotions from someone – especially someone you don’t know.

No matter what kind of lead you use, during the meat of your story, you need to make the reader feel some kind of connection to you. In our example, the reader might have no idea what it is like to turn a pig farm into a winery, but who among us, at some point in life, hasn’t felt the soul-dragging pain of hating their job? Who among us hasn’t dreamed of starting a business they feel passionate about? Who among us hasn’t been afraid to go for our goals?

Keep in mind, however, that your story might not be relevant to everyone. And that’s okay. You want to touch on the pain points of your target market, but if your story doesn’t resonate with every Joe Schmoe who lands on your website, that’s okay. When you make your message so bland that you try to reach everyone, you end up not being able to instill a sense of excitement in anyone. Again, selling with storytelling is about knowing your target market.

Keep the middle as short as possible, because you want to take readers by the hand and lead them to the end, where you have some kind of call to action (CTA). This is where we are asking someone to do something specific. Sign up for my mailing list. Buy my product. Download this free report. Tweet a message to your friends. Your CTA can change based on where you are using your story.

From One Story to Multiple Stories: Branching Out to Make Sales

Thus far, I’ve been writing about the concept of “your story” as you might use for your About page, but selling with storytelling goes so much farther. Once you’ve told your story (and I do recommend this becoming your About page), you can then go on to tell stories that all connect to the same points.

For example, on Boost Blog Traffic, Jon Morrow’s About page tells his story of being a successful professional blogger and living in paradise, despite having muscular dystrophy. But he also wrote about his mother learning about this disease in a post for Copyblogger about fighting for your ideas and he also wrote in a post for Problogger about using your blog to live the life you want and change the world. These are all expansions of his core story, told on his own blog.

Another great example is Paula Pant, who runs the financial blog Afford Anything. Her About page tells her story, but almost every post she writes builds on her themes of living financially independently with stories. One of her most popular posts tells the story of attending the wedding of some friends, who met because they both were traveling, rather than working conventional jobs and settling for an ordinary life.

Not every story you tell has to be an epic. Sometimes, adding in the story element simply means that you’re including some personal details into your content. If you’re teaching someone on your home improvement blog how to fix a broken toilet, tell the short but hilarious story about a pipe bursting in your home – and how you fixed it. When they go to your About page and read about your mission to learn how to do it yourself instead of hiring yet another unreliable handyman, the first story will serve to strengthen your brand.

Do you tell your story through content? What are your biggest struggles with storytelling? For more advanced information about digital storytelling, check out this post.

How Much to Pay a Blogger: The Answer Might Surprise You

“You’re a professional blogger?”

Earlier this month, I attended ROFcon, a geek convention with panels on cosplay, science fiction, comics, and other awesome nerdy interests. Yes, I dressed up! I was especially interested in the literary track, which included panels on publishing and writing. One panel, early in the morning on the last day of the con, was lightly attended, so it was more of a conversation than a formal presentation. The speaker asked everyone where there were in their writer, and I admitted that I did more blogging than anything else.

One of the other audience members was keen to know if I was actually a professional blogger, if this was how I made a live. Why yes, yes I am. I explained that I both run my own blogs and work with clients to help them with their content marketing efforts.

The question I could all but hear churning in the minds of the other people in the room was this: how much money do you make?

While I don’t post income reports like other bloggers, I will say that when I am paid to write posts for other bloggers, I’m paid anywhere from $15 to $500 per post. That’s a huge range, I know! Here’s what affects the price:

  • Whether or not I get a byline
  • Whether or not I get a bio with a link to my site or social accounts
  • How much research is required
  • Whether or not the topic fits well with what I’m already doing or is a departure
  • The length of the post
  • The “finishing” work required (adding images, formatting, etc.)
  • Whether or not I have to pay an editor
  • The size of the site where it will be published
  • Whether this is a one-time gig or a long-term gig
  • Whether or not the client is a friend
  • Whether or not social promotion is requested
  • Other perks I receive (such as free items to review)

It’s not an exact science. If you want to hire me for a $15 per post gig, I’m probably going to say no unless all of the above points are in your favor (i.e. I get a bio, I have to do little research, the post is short, etc.). On the flip side of things, charging $500 per post is rare! Usually, for a 1000-ish-word post, I change around $100 – $200.

But how much should you pay someone to blog for you? The answer is not $100 to $200 per post. The answer isn’t $15 per post or $500 per post either. The answer, surprisingly enough, is this:

You should pay the least amount possible for the quality you want.

There’s this big movement in the freelance world where people are promoting that writers are paid fairly…but fair is subjective. If I can write a post for you in one hour and you pay me $30, I consider that fair (especially if you have long-term work available for me), because $30 per hour is a pretty good rate in my opinion. That works out to around $60,000 per year salary, if I worked a full 40 hours per week at that rate.

Now, if you’re a freelancer yourself, you know that part of your time will be spent doing unpaid work (searching for jobs, educating yourself, etc.), and most of the time it’s going to take a lot longer than one hour to write a post, but the point here is this: what I think is fair may not be what someone else thinks is fair…and that’s okay.

As someone hiring a freelancer to write for you blog, you have to keep in mind that quality is everything. You won’t entice readers to buy a product, join a mailing list, or even read to the end of the post if your quality sucks. And typically the bloggers who are willing to work for very low fees, the bloggers who think those rates are fair, are not going to turn in high-quality content. So, if you set your price at $5 per post, expect low-quality work, for the most part.

But don’t get sucked into the idea that you have to pay a writer exactly what the blog post is worth, because that’s no way to run a business. There has to be some meat on the bone for you. Otherwise, you’re just throwing money into an abyss.

Test, Track, Analyze

How much money, on average, do you make per blog post? If you don’t know, then you shouldn’t hire a blogger yet because it is impossible to set the right price. You need to test methods to see what converts better, track conversion rates over time, and analyze your results. Only then can you truly understand what a blog post is really worth.

First, find out a few conversion numbers:

  • How many people click a link on your blog and go directly to a pay to make some kind of purchase?
  • How many blog readers sign up for your mailing list, and how many subscribers make a purchase within, say, 3 months?

Let’s say that you sell widgets for $50 each. Over the course of three months, you publish 30 blog posts and make $12,500 in sales (meaning, you sold 250 widgets). 15% of those sales came from your blog and the rest came from other sources. That gives you a base value to your blog of $1875 over three months, or $62.50 per post.

Let’s say also that 50% your email subscribers are from your blog, and you know that over the course of 3 months, about 5% of subscribers buy a widget. If you have about 5,000 subscribers, that adds another $12,500 to your 3-month total, and if half of those sales can be contributed to your blog, that adds another $6250 to your total (or, about $208.30 per post). We’re now up to $270.80 per post.

You could track even more. For example, what percentage of first-time readers go on to follow you on social media, and what percentage of those followers go on to make a purchase? But for now, let’s just assume that you make about $271 per post.

Does that mean you should pay the blogger $271 per post? No freakin’ way.

 So What Should You Pay, if not $271?

Well first, what is the cost of that blog post before the writer even gets involved? Did you pay someone for keyword research? Do you pay a VA to help with blog publishing? Do you purchase images for your posts? What are your hosting and domain name costs?

Even if you do some of this work yourself, think about it in terms of paying yourself. Let’s us a base rate of $30 per hour, which is a nice little income.

  • You do the keyword research yourself and spend about 5 hours per month on this task…15 over the course of 3 months for a total “cost” of $450, or $15 per post.
  • You hire a VA to do finishing work on your posts (tagging, categorizing, formatting, etc.) and pay $1 per post.
  • You purchase images for blog, paying for a $30 per month for a subscription service to a stock site and an average of $100 per month for a photographer to snap images of your products. You also pay around $3 per month for basic photo editing through PicMonkey. That all works out to around $13 per post.
  • You pay about $50 for your blog hosting and domain name, specifically for your blog. That works out to $5 per post.

All of that taken into account, your costs before the writer is $34 per post.

So does that mean you should pay your writer $237 per post? Again, no freakin’ way.

Because, while you might get the customer to spend $50 per widget, that’s not your profit. Widget cost money to make – materials and labor. There are sales reps and marketing staff and other personnel to pay. You have to keep the lights on. Let’s say that your margins are incredible and you make $25 profit per widget, 50%. That means that your profit per post is just over $100 per post.

Is that what you should pay writers?

Well…maybe.

Normally, you’d want to leave some meat on the bone for yourself, but let’s say that a high percentage of your customers end up buying again and again. In that case, it might be okay to break even on first-time buyers, if it’s pure profit going forward. Or, if a high percentage of blog readers become loyal fans who promote your brand to their fans, the word-of-mouth marketing might be worth breaking even on the blog posts.

So $100 might be your magic number.

But…

There’s always a but. And this blog post has a REALLY BIG BUT.

I Like Big Buts and I Cannot Lie

The but in this case is this: You’re a business owner, not a charity.

While I do believe that you have an ethical duty to pay your workers fairly, exactly how much you make per blog post should not necessary dictate how much you pay per blog post. The research you do to figure out how much you make from each blog post can help you ensure you aren’t paying more than you’re bringing in, but it isn’t necessary part of the equation when figuring out what to pay. If it is, your blogger is essentially making a commission.

Now, that might be the best option. If you have a blogger who is bringing in lots of traffic and doing an amazing job coming up with post ideas and executing, you might want to pay a certain percentage. But if that’s how you think about paying for a blog post, then logically, the payment should go down if the blog conversion rate goes down.

Instead, what’s fair is to find out how long the blogging work takes and pay people a fair rate based on their experience and quality of work. This is, in my opinion, anywhere between $15 and $50 per hour.

If you do all of the above tracking and analyzing only to find out that you can only justify paying a lower amount, say $15 per blog post, NEVER compromise on quality. You can teach someone how to use WordPress, and people will, over time, get more Twitter followers. You can even hire a much less expensive VA to do the finishing work on the blog post, like adding images, to cut down on the time your blogger is working. But if the writer turns in crap, you don’t want them. Trust me. You might as well be throwing your $15 per post into a black hole.

I wish I had a more black-and-white answer about payrate for you, but the truth is, that it’s just too subjective of a question. My best advice is to look for someone who cares about their work, and who will continue to improve and grow. Send them to blogging conferences if you can afford to do so. Invest in online education. Reward them for a good job. And when you find a good writer who works hard for you, do what it takes to KEEP THEM! Writers are a dime a dozen online, but the good ones who will actually help you build your business are few and far between.

Get More Long-Term Readers with the Soap Bubble Approach to Blogging

This post was originally published on the NMX blog. It is reposted here with permission.

Traffic spikes can be exciting. It’s fun to watch a post go viral, especially if those new readers are also leaving comments. But when those people leave your blog, they often don’t come back. Getting more long-term readers is a lot harder than getting more traffic.

Ten long-term readers who will become a part of you blog community are better than 100 readers who read one post and never come back, though. It’s hard to grow your blog if you don’t build a solid foundation of readers who are addicted to your posts. One of the techniques I use to convert first-time readers into long-term readers is what I call the soap bubble approach to blogging.

Blog Structure for More Long-Term Readers

The net time you work up a lather in the bathtub or splash some suds on your dirty car, take a close look at structure of the soap bubbles. You’ll notice that it typically isn’t a collection of air pockets that are all the same size. Instead, you’ll see mostly small bubbles that make up the foam with occasional mid-sized and larger bubbles. The small soap bubbles are what creates the sudsy power. Without them, your larger bubbles aren’t very effective.

I find that a lot of bloggers are obsessed with creating epic content. I’m a firm believer that every single post you write should be your best work. However, not every post your write has to be a “big bubble.”

Big bubble content is typically long, evergreen content that is highly sharable and often a comprehensive list or guide to a certain topic. An example of big bubble content is this post: Link Earning: The Ultimate Guide to Link Building in 2014.

But “small bubble” content is just as important. This kind of content is still high quality, but aims to teach a single tip or skill or cover a single topic. An example of small bubble content is this post: Let It Go.

Whenever you write a big bubble type of post, you should be able to link back to at least five other supporting posts on your blog. Think of your big bubble content as a hub for the small bubble content you’ve written in the past.

Why This Leads to More Long-Tem Readers

In general, I’ve found that if someone reads three posts from me, they are likely to come back and read my posts again and again. In many cases, people who read at least three posts are so hooked that they read several posts on your blog. They’ve discovered your content, and they can’t get enough.

Internal linking encourages them to read more content, but this isn’t just about making sure you link to previous posts in every blog post you write. It’s about making sure that you have related posts to support the epic content that is going to get the most attention. Super relevant posts that first-time readers can visit to learn more is going to be extremely enticing.

So, the next time you sit down to write a list post or an ultimate guide or another type of post that you know is going to bring in lots of traffic, ask yourself this question: Do I have enough small bubble content planned on my editorial calendar to support the post?

If not, plan some content before you publish so any post that goes viral encourages people to read more instead of bouncing on to the next website.

This post is part of my personal Year of Blogging challenge. Read about it here!