1 June 2022
With Content DNA, leading LinkedIn practitioner John Espirian gave us something distinctive and, dare I say it, unique.
As a content marketer, I’m pretty well informed. But most of the resources in the field are enterprise-scale, in my experience, targeting companies with budgets not just for the eye-watering annual subscriptions of inbound marketing platforms such as HubSpot and Pardot, but also for the resourcing it takes to keep their marketing funnel full to the brim with attractive assets such as lead magnets.
But content is for everyone. As Espirian points out, content differs from advertising in being a “time machine” that keeps on working long after you’ve paid for it. So content is something everyone – including SMEs, partnerships, one-man bands, and even enterprise employees who are marketing themselves as individuals – can benefit from.
Content DNA brings together content marketing, social media and brand management into a unified approach for small businesses and individuals “so you can be noticed, remembered and preferred in your industry”.
Espirian is, of course, an acknowledged master of personal brand management. He puts his tagline, “relentlessly helpful” at the centre of everything he does and if he wasn’t true to this value 100% of the time, he’d have been exposed by now. As he says:
“People are better than ever at sniffing out fakes and businesses who don’t live up to their stated goals and missions.”
Indeed, everything he writes about in Content DNA (and the book is deceptively broad in scope) is underpinned by the need to be true to your business identity. Espirian says that the two themes that run through the book are congruence and consistency (more of them later). But truth is its core value.
This is how Espirian defines Content DNA:
“Content DNA is the set of building blocks that defines your business identity. It’s what you’re all about: the truth distilled and encoded in a few simple messages.”
Much of this is underpinned by self-awareness. Your identity – once defined and understood – will provide a robust foundation for your brand, the content you produce, your tone of voice (“your personality put into words”) and the prospective customers you attract.
Espirian also insists on the need for consistency and congruence: “showing up for a long time on a regular basis and being the same ‘shape’ every time when you do”. This applies both to your brand and any content you create.
Easier said than done? I would say so. Thankfully, Espirian, in his “relentlessly helpful” way, provides practical steps to defining your Content DNA, showing how to distil your identity down to one anchor value and approximately four building blocks, which are your essential values. Among the benefits of this exercise are the fact that it’s much easier to devise your brand tagline once these are in place.
Not only does he show you ways of achieving this, some quite imaginative, he even provides some default building blocks to work with until you’ve defined your own. He also points to the most common pitfall, which is to fall back on basic values that could apply to everyone, such as “professional and “approachable”. These are “hygiene values”, he says, that can never differentiate your business.
This takes us to another important point he emphasises. Which is the need to be distinctive. “Boring is the new risky,” he says. Harking back to the DNA metaphor, he argues that no two businesses are exactly alike. And in the attention economy, we all need to be remembered.
“A tagline and brand message should be like the hook of a great song. Once you hear it, it should stay with you and play back in your head.”
Being memorable depends on keeping it simple, Espirian argues. So he advises his readers to focus on one main product service, one content creation channel and one social media platform. His own breakthrough came when he realised that LinkedIn was the right space for him to become known. And it just happened to be where his prospective B2B clients were likely to hang out.
This focus is crucial, not least because you can expect the process of becoming known for your content to be a long one.
“It takes a lot of time to be known in your industry, perhaps as long as 30 months. Avoid thinking in the short term and get ready to be consistent in the long term. You can win with focus, consistency and grit.”
It’s not enough to commission a handful of blog posts and expect the sales leads to follow. “The internet doesn’t work like that,” he says. It takes time to establish the right audience for your business, and you need to act strategically, rather than in short bursts.
Once he’s covered the basics of Content DNA, Espirian moves on to content creation and stays there. To experienced content practitioners like me, this can feel like a mish-mash. That was certainly my impression – until, that is, I realised that I’m only a small part of the target audience of Content DNA.
Because the book isn’t just for content marketers and copywriters like me. What Espirian is doing with Content DNA is to democratise content marketing so anyone in any line of business can do it. So keyword research is reframed, not as part of search engine optimisation (SEO) but as a tool to help people work out what to write about. This is a valid and refreshing approach. Although the book might have benefited from some tips on SEO.
To achieve this, he runs through some of the basics of content marketing, without assuming any prior knowledge, so non-marketers can understand it. This is how he discusses what I’d call the customer journey:
“So, you need to create content that serves them at all stages, from the “something’s annoying me” stage through to the “I know exactly what I need and now I’m checking specs and prices” stage.”
He offers useful tips on key areas like images, video production, captions, headlines and hashtags. And he shares some great ideas for content generation, such as thinking about how you explain your products and services to people on sales calls and in meetings. When I was working for a content marketing agency, a colleague visited the call centre of one of her clients and found the change of perspective illuminating.
Personally, I loved his section on content length and how long it should take to write. On copywriting forums, freelancers often boast that it takes them one hour to research and one hour to write a blog post. Can such a piece be worth reading? Really? Espirian seems as sceptical as me on that one, describing the vast majority of online content as “craptacular”. I myself have experienced the disappointment of downloading a lead magnet with a promising title only to scroll through screens of text that barely makes sense.
Whatever the answer to that question is, Espirian presents some interesting data:
“In 2019, respondents to the Orbit survey took an average of 3 hours 57 minutes to write each blog post. In 2015, it was a mere 2 hours 35 minutes. So, the time taken to produce blog content has ballooned by more than 50% in just the last four years.”
I am a seasoned copywriter. It’s something I’ve been doing for a long time. But there’s always scope to learn more about your own craft. In the next long-form piece I write, I’m going to consider including an executive summary at the beginning (up to now, this is something I’ve only seen in very long reports). And recording yourself talking about a topic is another excellent tip.
The section that whispered the truth I really needed to hear though was “Not everyone will like you”. I’m coming to terms with being a people pleaser. I haven’t always been like this; I was quite abrasive when I was younger. And then one day a close friend laughed in my face when I suggested she might be a people-pleaser. So somehow I’ve ended up, like Espirian, in the people-pleasing camp.
Espirian has some valuable messages for any people-pleaser ready to hear them. Like…
“Be your own distinctive shape and attract the customers who are nuts about your style. They’ll pay you more, be more loyal and spread the word about you. That small proportion of the room is powerful. Speak to them and stop worrying about the rest.”
And more baldly:
“Some people just won’t like you. Make peace with that fact as soon as you can.”
So in summary, I got a lot out of reading this. But not nearly as much as I’d have got if this book had been around when I first became a freelance writer in 2011. I’d have achieved success more quickly and easily had I thought really carefully about my identity at that early stage.
Self-employment forced me to become more of a doer – who else was going to fix my printer? – and that’s been genuinely enriching for a bookish type like me. But a bit of introspection can also go a long way when you’re working out how to present yourself, your brand and content to the world at large. And that’s what Content DNA is all about.
“I hope readers of Content DNA will see that there’s great value in being known for one thing. This makes it far easier for people to remember you and to refer you – and that’s more than half the battle in becoming the preferred person in your industry. Above all, keep in mind that none of this happens quickly. Showing up consistently is an essential part of winning.”