In this issue:

  • Johnathan Dane shares how to stand out
  • How add depth to B2B Content
  • I’m holding a one-day writing workshop
  • AI’s & customer retention in 2024

…and more.

Let’s do this

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How to stand out w/ Johnathan Dane of KlientBoost

video preview

I met Johnathan when he was just starting KlientBoost.

He had pitched me an idea I had never heard of before called a gifographic – an animated infographic that’d breathe life into a format that was typically static and dull.

Standing out, I learned, wasn’t always doing something big and explosive and new, but sometimes just a small twist on an established medium.

Flash forward 7 years, and KlientBoost has been named GlassDoor’s #1 place to work, and touts a client roster that includes NPR, AirBNB, UpWork, SAP, and many, many more.

In our conversation, Johnathan and I will discuss:

👉 Creating a wildly differentiated brand
👉 Strategic distribution and outreach
👉 Using experimental formats

If your goal is to create standout work in the second half of 2024, you should take a listen to Johnathan

Catch the Replay

Top of mind:

It’s the middle of the afternoon and you’re finally ready to write.

You’re staring at the monitor dead-eyed, rubbing your temples, cursing the cursor while you wander the void in search of opening words that haven’t fully formed yet.

You look at the brief. You look at the topic. You look at the search results.


Now you have two options.

Option 1: You write another uninspired opening or…

Option 2: You stop and ask yourself, “What is this thing really about?”

If you want it to be good, to stand out and be memorable, it’s best if what it’s actually about is not what the topic says it’s about.

I’ll explain.

What is this really about?

If we want to create work with meaning, we must eliminate the notion that topics = ideas.

For years now, B2B blog content calendars have been filled with perfunctory, search optimized content with topics the business thinks prospects are searching for. They go through the motions but offer little beyond the absolute basics.

It was time consuming to put together but at least there was a human touch to it.

Then, quite literally, everything changed overnight.

Now hundreds of topics can be sourced in minutes and dozens of perfunctory search-optimized content pieces can be written within an hour.

What’s worse, a large population of creators know the AI does a better job than them. Their fear of being replaced isn’t unfounded, and that. is. terrifying.

But there’s the thing writers, strategists, and quite frankly most people in B2B forget… the thing the visitor is looking for isn’t necessarily the thing they’re looking for.

Someone searching for “how to build a landing page” doesn’t really want to build a landing page; they want to save their business, or prove their boss wrong, or deliver on a promise to a client.

The topic is just the means to an end.

Topics are the “what” that gets them through the door and promises to give them what they want.

The idea however is the end.

It is the “why” that nails them to their seat, gives them what they didn’t know they needed, and compels them to come back for more.

Fortunately, doing this well on the execution level can be taught, and as of right now, can not be done by an AI.

The Controlling Idea

The Controlling Idea is what a piece is really about.

It’s the heart and soul and ultimately what distinguishes one piece of work from another.

It’s why there are multiple movies covering similar topics, but take on completely different meanings.

Consider for a second the movies “The Godfather” and “Road to Perdition”

The topic of both movies is the cycle of violence and retribution of being in a mafia family.

Both share themes of loyalty, betrayal, and consequences, however, where The Controlling Idea of The Godfather is about how power corrupts, Road to Perdition is about redemption.

The Controlling Idea is what all of the plot points are set to reveal, central to the decisions the characters make, what sets the tone for everything else, and is what guides you on what to cut later (more on that in another issue).

Robert McKee says this about The Controlling Idea:

“[It] may be expressed in a single sentence describing how and why life undergoes change from one condition of existence at the beginning to another at the end.”

Now, let’s look at an example on the topic of landing pages written by my dear friend Aaron Orendorff, VP of Marketing at Férmat:

Sure, the hook in this intro uses a reversal to draw you in, but the reason why it works is that it is directly connected to The Controlling Idea that landing pages are about communicating “The thing you’ve got (product) is worth more than the thing they’ve got (price).”

“The more beautifully you shape your work around one clear idea, the more meanings audiences will discover in your film as they take your idea and follow its implications into every aspect of their lives. Conversely, the more ideas you try to pack into a story, the more they implode upon themselves, until the work collapses into a rubble of tangential notions, saying nothing.” – Robert McKee

That last part, “until the work collapses into a rubble of tangential notions, saying nothing,” is a big part of the reason people are tired of reading and creating B2B content.

I don’t blame the individual creators however, at least not entirely.

The “more ideas packed into a story” is, I think, a three-fold problem:

  • Too many content teams are subject to the bureaucracy of the rest of the company
  • Because of this, the content program itself lacks a Controlling Idea at a macro-level
  • If they have a Controlling Idea, it hasn’t been presented or defended well.

The first part is out of our control but we can do something about the other two.

It’s bigger than the individual topic

When I was at Shopify Plus, The Controlling Idea for the entire content program boiled down to a single line:

“What can you do when technology gets out of the way?”

From that spawned The Code, a manifesto containing 10 rules that guided every aspect of how we were to create content.

This was inspired by another manifesto our GM Loren Padleford wrote called “Burning down the enterprise” which went into great detail about why enterprise ecommerce software was broken and how we were going to fix it.

It was an invigorating document, quite similar to what he wrote for the blog, designed to help everyone in our division understand what we were up against.

Consider just these first two sentences:

“What if everything we’ve been led to believe about enterprise software was a well-constructed lie?
If you look closely at how the enterprise software market is set up, you will see that over the last 50 years a “syndicate” of the largest software companies in the world, names we all know well, have worked tirelessly to architect a business model where their customers pay billions of dollars but receive little in return except frustration and promises.”

These were not just ideas that came from the top of our heads, they were all a result of deep research.

For Loren’s part, he understood the market and its dynamics on a macro level, and for my part, it was a deep dissection of what other companies in and around our field were doing as part of their content program.

For 3 months, I consumed everything.

I’d spend 8 hour days immersed in competitor’s content.

  • What did the most shared articles have in common?
  • What were the discussions like around them?
  • What questions were people asking?
  • What were the commonalities of the most linked articles?
  • Who was linking to them? What were the commonalities of their articles that got the most search traffic?
  • How did they structure their headlines?
  • What kinds of literary devices did they use?
  • How were they driving people to their transactional pages? What about their white papers?
  • How did they do their webinars?

On average, I would read roughly 200 blog posts of each competitor, watch every webinar, read every ebook, and take handwritten notes for everything.

I had roughly two dozen notebooks filled from cover to cover about my thoughts on how everyone approached the market.

I didn’t stop at competitors either, I’d do this for product adjacent companies like apps and agencies, and also news outlets and influencers.

All to arrive at a single sentence.

“What can you do when technology gets out of the way?”

But this guided every topic we would cover.

  • What could you do if building landing pages was easier?
  • Could you afford a better third-party logistics platform if you didn’t have other costs?
  • How much more could you make if you divert part of your tech budget toward gift wrapping?

With each topic, I wanted us to have a Controlling Idea, because with that, we could also sow seeds of discourse.

I wanted my reader to think “Wait, a minute, I can’t do this the way things are right now.” or “Man, I’m missing a huge opportunity.”

The reader wasn’t just walking away with what they thought they were going to get, they were walking away with something to think about.

This led to deeper scroll depth, more clicks to internal pages, and 50-60% return rates. (Which, btw, return visitors are critical if you ever want to be in the consideration set.)

Now, I didn’t realize how rare of a leader Loren was, because he was the type who would set a clear direction and trust his hires to do what they did best.

He’d also take a genuine interest in how and why people approached their work the way they did. My boss and mentor before that, Peep Laja, was very similar. I did not know how spoiled I was.

It wasn’t until my next company that I had to learn that most people don’t care about how you get there, just whether or not it brings results.

I think I’ll save that for another next issue because it veers too far from The Controlling Idea of this piece, but let’s just say, it was a hard lesson to learn.

How do you find The Controlling Idea on a single topic?

There are two schools of thought.

Robert McKee, who regular readers know I admire greatly, says it’s impossible to dictate The Controlling Idea before the first draft.

I often don’t find mine until I’m part way through so I get that.

But, I think it’s possible, necessary even, to have a sense of what The Controlling Idea is before writing anything in B2B.

I don’t like being prescriptive because it downplays how much work needs to go in, but if you want a starting point, here are some suggestions:

Research the topic thoroughly

“Research” isn’t skimming the top ten results and throwing in interesting (though useless if nothing can be done with it) stats.

It’s about thinking critically about why stats exist and making meaning of the behavior behind the number. It’s about seeing the questions people are asking and inferring their motivations for doing so. It’s about asking experts and finding conflicting perspectives, because somewhere in there lies the capital T “Truth”.

When I blogged for dollars, I’d research and process information to the point where my brain couldn’t fit anything else. I’d often omit 30-40% of what I researched in a final draft because it wasn’t relevant to The Controlling Idea that would emerge.

Look for recurring themes

What ideas, themes, or motifs come up when researching the topic?

What are the topical heuristics that must be discussed? How many people are parroting the same talking points? Can even tiny bits of those be challenged?

What amazes me is that when we look at a search result, we think that just because everyone is talking about the same topic, it has to be talked about the same way.

Personally, I think content is far more interesting if it confidently counters the common themes without feeling contrived. That only comes from a well researched Controlling Idea.

Find the common conflicts and issues

Are there common conflicts, complaints, or clarifications that always emerge?

Loren’s “Burning down the enterprise” shined a light into a dingy corner of enterprise ecommerce that everyone resigned themselves to accepting as the only way forward.

Imagine searching for something like, “enterprise ecommerce solution” and being confronted with “Everything you know is a lie.”

Conflicts, complaints, and clarifications are great sources of inspiration for finding Controlling Ideas on a topic.

Emotional responses

What are the emotional extremes that come up as it relates to a topic?

“How to build a landing page” can range from desperation and frustration from the user’s inexperience to elation and confidence from being able to build one successfully.

When considering the topic, no matter how mundane, ask if there is an emotional quality to the topic itself.

“How to do your taxes,” is infinitely more compelling if The Controlling Idea is, “Here’s how to stay out of prison.”

This is how you add depth and stay relevant

To reiterate, The Controlling Idea should be wrapped up into a single line that makes the topic interesting to your ideal reader.

“How to build a landing page” might become:

“We’ll show you how to navigate office politics so you can create the highest converting page possible.” (Copywriter) or…
“The best talent is necessary to nail each component of a landing page, so here’s what to look for.” (Content Manager), or…
“Landing page software makes the mechanics easy, but there’s no substitute for knowing what makes for good design.” (Designer)

Our jobs as creators and strategists is not just to understand the topics our audiences might be interested in, but the ideas that will keep them engaged.

So if you’re still sitting there, rubbing your temples, wonder what to write, hopefully this gives you something to think about.

If you’d like to talk about it in person, I’ll be hosting an 2 hour-long workshop where we can walk through it together.

More info on that below.

Finding The Controlling Idea

Join me in this one day, hands-on workshop where I will walk through different methodologies to find The Controlling Idea and get hands-on with your content to help tighten up the work.

Only $99 for Studio Insiders.

Use the code Insider100

Register here

What’s on our radar?

😲 Google leaks 2k+ docs on how search works
🤓 Mike King goes deep on exploring the leak

🤖 AI’s impact on customer retention

🕵🏻‍♂️ Why unmeasurable channels work best

Studio Insider Spotlight

Content isn’t as misunderstood as some of us might believe.

This report from Beam interviewed both GTM specialists and content marketers, and found that more people “get it” than we give them credit for.

Here’s just one of the key insights.

“Only 8% of content marketers think the wider GTM org has an excellent understanding of content marketing. But 19% of non-content marketers think they have an excellent understanding. This 11% gap reveals that the broader GTM org thinks they understand content marketing better than the content team gives them credit for.”

Maybe it’s time we reevaluate our assumptions?

Let’s get social

For years I’ve been touting engagement metrics above all, and have been saying Chrome data in particular has had to play a huge role.

I’ve got a few other theories in this post that I know if you follow, will help you create better content that ranks better and makes more sales.

See you in the next one ✌️

P.S. This newsletter took 15 hours to put together. If you would be so kind, I would be forever grateful if you could forward it to a friend .

Thanks a bunch!

Tommy Walker | The Content Studio

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