How do you use content marketing to market your classes about content marketing (among other things)? It’s not a riddle, but a way of life for General Assembly’s Head of Content Marketing, Erin Hollingsworth May. Here, Erin shares her experience in inspiring audiences to learn something new by crafting blog posts, status updates and newsletters people actually want to read, plus the importance of balancing data with editorial know-how.
How does General Assembly view content’s place within its overall business vision?
General Assembly’s vision is a global community of individuals empowered to do work they love. Our content is really a way to empower that global community, to connect with them every day, and to grow our community beyond our courses, classes and workshops.
Having so many industries that you create content for, is there a secret to being constantly tapped into all of them?
We do a lot of listening. We’re always reading, we’re always talking to our students, we’re talking to employers—that’s really important to us because, ultimately, we’re trying to connect our students with jobs when they graduate. We’re always asking why we’re doing things, constantly learning, constantly iterating, and our classes are great examples of that. We are always adapting our classes to market changes and to employer needs, to provide the best outcomes for our students and their employers.
Do your content strategies vary for marketing General Assembly as an overall organization, compared to marketing your classes? Or is it a similar approach?
We are definitely trying to cast a really wide net with our content. Our potential audience is huge, particularly when you consider the ultimate vision of a global community of people empowered to pursue work they love. When we create content, we are always thinking about who we’re trying to reach and where they hang out. Our audience includes potential GA teachers and students, current students, alumni, instructors, outcomes partners and more. From a thought leadership perspective, our audience is much larger still. We certainly create different types of content to reach each of these audiences, but the approach is the same: create great content people want to read and make sure they can find it when they want it. That’s where SEO, social media, email, PR and partner syndication come into play.
Do you have different style guides for every subject you cover, or a litmus test for whether something is General Assembly-worthy content?
We have one style guide. While different pieces of content might have a different audience in mind, a different word count or medium, they are all adhering to the same principles of “be useful, be inspiring, be backed by data”. Our brand guidelines are very specific, but at the same time they are very flexible so we’re able to stay true to General Assembly, but also reach the largest audience possible.
To the extent that there is a recipe, you can rest assured that it will change tomorrow. Each of these channels is constantly changing their algorithm, constantly updating their UI and functionality. But there are a few things that remain consistent. On any social media channel, it’s really important to be authentic, to articulate your brand consistently and in a way that works with that channel, which can of course be a challenge. The other key thing is listening to your audience and what they want and what they respond to, and giving them more of what they’re responding to. Experiment and constantly iterate on what types of messages most resonate with your audience. We’re tracking against several different metrics on social media, and engagement metrics are particularly important. We know that quotes are going to get a lot of reach for us, but we also know that a strong headline that puts our community front and center is going to drive traffic.
A lot of brands will take a piece of content and share it in exactly the same way for every one of their social media channels. Can you talk about how you decide what will work best on each platform?
When we create a piece of content, we have in mind what social channels we’re going to syndicate it on from the very beginning. All pieces of content are going to be syndicated on more than one channel and many of them will be syndicated on all of our channels. It becomes a question of optimizing the actual message and the image for the channel and it’s also a question of testing different headlines on that channel and rolling out what’s working. In the case of something like Twitter, I tend to not put up the exact same tweet more than once, but you can, and should, promote the same article more than once if it is resonating with your audience.
General Assembly also has a ton of inspirational content. Would you say that’s one of the best ways for a brand to be memorable?
One-hundred percent. Everyone is a publisher now. Ultimately, people want to be inspired every day, and that is a great way of thinking about being memorable and engaging. In the case of General Assembly, inspiration takes a lot of forms. Inspiring people are not just gold-medal or Oscar winners, but also the people that take their career fates into their own hands, maybe change paths considerably, and emerge with fulfilling careers on the other side. That’s inspiring to me. Going through a General Assembly course and then finding work you love, this is a story we’re seeing over and over again and the variations are incredible. Those stories are what inspire us at General Assembly to work so incredibly hard and we know these stories resonate with a lot of people.
Leading a team and doing content strategy work, is there any advice you have for other companies to get their teams inspired and motivated to create quality content that engages with audiences?
You’ve got to have a great sense of who you are and who your target audience is. What motivates them? What inspires them and how can you tie that to your brand and what you can provide for them? Sometimes it’s going to be really obvious, and other times you have to dig a little deeper and ask “why” a couple more times. But you get there, and once you’ve found it, that’s the story you need to be constantly telling to inspire people.
We’ve had a lot of Content Marketing All-Stars who want to keep their best newsletter secrets under wraps. So without giving away everything, what does it take to build a successful newsletter?
Inboxes, search results and social media feeds are very crowded, but email is still a hugely, hugely rewarding channel if you get it right. The most important thing is to stand out to win the click, to win the open and to have great content to back it up. Every Monday in our newsletter, we do an animated gif. We’ve gotten a ton of feedback from our readers, people tweet about it unprovoked, but I haven’t seen a lot of other brands do it, so that’s something that differentiates us. But again, it’s really on-brand. We’re teaching design, we’re teaching tech, so we are putting our money where our mouth is. Something that’s a huge initiative for us now is to make our emails even better to people—a lot more segmentation and testing to make sure our emails are going beyond being promotional for General Assembly and really being useful and empowering and motivating for people reading them.
Since General Assembly is all about learning, what is the most common question you’re asked by aspiring content marketers?
The thing that I hear the most is about ROI. You are putting money in, [but] what are you getting out? The answer, like so many content marketing answers, isn’t simple, but the process is really important and fun. It really comes down to understanding your business, understanding who you’re trying to reach and then what role content can fill in reaching this in your business. There are a lot of micro-conversions and metrics to track along the way. It’s a longer game, so patience pays, iterating pays, watching the data pays. Track as many things as you can without overwhelming yourself, and track what’s really relevant.
And it can certainly get frustrating when others are only focused on traffic. How do you show that the purpose of content goes beyond that?
More and more, you see in organizations and marketing teams that need for people who have left brain-right brain proclivities, where on the one hand, it’s the creative aspect and the vision for reaching people, and on the other hand, it’s the analytics and really understanding the business. The more people move in that direction of having a more holistic view, that’s a really good thing for the future of business and for people and their career satisfaction.
What do you think about the push toward storytelling within content marketing?
Storytelling is certainly a big buzzword in content marketing and I think it’s a good one. People want stories that are inspirational pieces, but they want stories that are in the format that they want them, when they want them and that are relevant to them. People don’t love stories just because they’re stories, so the data again becomes really important. People will tell you what they want by reading it, sharing it, coming back. Data is obviously really important when it comes to prioritizing which content to create and optimizing the content experience itself. However, it’s also really important to have a give-and-take between looking at the data and having someone with strong editorial experience guiding the vision. You can’t let data control the whole story and tell you what to do. Let the data work for you, not control you.