How Phenomenal Content Starts by Exploring Hell: An Interview with Aaron Orendorff
In this interview with Aaron Orendorff, we dig deep into what phenomenal content actually means by exploring themes of heaven and hell.
Like most success stories, Aaron Orendorff’s journey to becoming a leading content marketer wasn’t linear. His uniquely meandering career path of vastly unrelated industries (to the naked eye) allowed him to lean in on his greatest strength: effective communication.
He served as a Chaplain Candidate for the National Guard, campus pastor in Portland, OR, spearheaded the content marketing program at Shopify Plus, and has contributed to major publications like Mashable, Copyblogger, and Fast Company.
Today, Orendorff runs his own Content Marketing agency, iconicContent, helping build content marketing systems for brands, and ghostwriting for C-Suite thought leaders.
We sat down with him to learn more about how his diverse career history has shaped his perspective on content marketing.
Let’s dig right in.
Your career journey has been incredible. What in your life led you to content marketing?
The short answer is necessity. About seven years ago, I found myself unemployed and unemployable, at least as per the previous trajectory I thought my life was going to take.
When I found myself in a position where I wasn’t sure how I was going to pay rent and survive, I had no choice but start on a new path. I threw up a website and started consuming blogs all about content. I dug into things like Neil Patel, Copy Hackers, CopyBlogger, and Marketing Profs.
As I began devouring that content, I realized that I was able to communicate well in writing and speaking and thought, “How can I make money doing this online?” That was it.
What did you learn from jumping between multiple career paths?
The first thing I learned is that all communications is sales.
It may sound crass and bottom-line, but the goal is always to get something that’s in your heart and mind into someone else’s heart and mind — in a way that makes them say yes. Or at least gets them closer to yes. Content marketing is never about simply relaying information.
The second thing I learned was the critical importance of crafting content that shows empathy. I push my clients hard to identify what is the hell that their customer or their target market is currently facing: in their niche, in their industry, in their personal life, or in their professional life. Make their hell visceral and real and emotional.
Then, what is the heaven that they're trying to be delivered unto? 90% of the time, it is not buying something. It's uncovering the thing they wanted anyway. What is that thing? What is that experience? What is that outcome? How are they going to measure it quantifiably? What are the metrics and KPI's they use? How do they describe it qualitatively?
Only after that do you insert yourself, your content as the help, to take them from hell and deliver them to heaven, without ever eclipsing them.
You’ve written a lot about your desire to save the world from bad content. What exactly is bad content?
Bad content is explicitly making the product, the brand, or the service, the hero of the content. It mixes copywriting with content instead of just making content about serving the audience.
Great content, on the other hand, serves the audience, saves them from the thing they want to be saved from, unto the thing they wanted to be saved to -- independent of a purchase.
Content marketing is evolving by the day and one of the biggest challenges marketers struggle with is distribution. What should marketers be doing that they aren’t?
Targeting the right keywords and executing excellent SEO strategies is my absolute rock-bottom starting point. I’ve worked with many clients where — when we sit down and evaluate what keywords are important to them — we discovered a lot of low-quality stuff on their sites. Worse, much of that is competing against itself for the same keywords.
This presents an opportunity for you to create higher quality content and reap the rewards. Do the research to find out what content is ranking high for specific keywords that matter most to you and create your content that murders it from a length, quality, UX, and design perspective.
How do you drive quality readers to your site?
What matters more than anything is search intent. You can target high volume keywords all day every day and know a small percentage will convert, but when marketing something to a very narrow, defined audience (think inventory management and warehouse management, for example) search volume and enormous traffic aren’t as meaningful.
As long as the search is specific to the industry you’re in and signals relevance and intent, we know they have a specific, nuanced problem that your business can solve, making them a much more qualified reader than someone who is generally curious about your business.
So it's not always about the traffic, it's about moving the bottom line business results. I’m accountable for traffic if awareness is important, but I primarily have to drive qualified leads who then turn into MQLs and SQLs. It’s way better to be judged by this than some vague metric like “Thou shalt post three times a week.”
What is one “a-ha!” moment that you’ve encountered that helped you take your work to the next level?
If you’re not a practitioner of the topic you’re writing about, it's really easy to lose sight of the truth. My “a-ha” moment was understanding the importance of maintaining a regular cadence of getting to know the people who use the product through case studies and customer surveys. You can’t overstate the importance of building relationships that yield genuine feedback, quotes, and original insights.
Second, enable your readers to easily consume your content and navigate your content quickly. You only have a short amount of time to communicate ideas and get your point across. One way to do this is by building a great reading experience through original visualizations and a table of contents.
A table of contents at the top your blog post or long-form page, with anchor links to each individual sections, is also great for your overall user experience because readers can quickly navigate to the content that they’re most immediately interested in.
Original data visualizations like charts and graphs are also great, even if it’s not your original research. It tremendously improves read times and time-on-page, which are key SEO ranking factors.
How has technology helped you become a more effective content marketer? What are you using today?
Content management: I am madly in love with Airtable for managing content and documents, content strategy, editorial calendar -- everything.
Design: I’m not a designer and Photoshop scares the crap out of me. Sketch, on the other hand, is phenomenal. If you get a designer to set up templates for you with H1, H2, H3, body copy templates, you can just roll with it.
Research and data: I really like Statista and eMarketer for data. If I had to pick, I would go with Statista.
SEO: I love SEMrush for their Google Doc assistant. I feel like a genius. I used to do all of this stuff manually for semantic keywords, just in Google. I also really like Keywordtool.io for keyword research. It makes compiling keyword lists a breeze!
Want to Hear More From Aaron?
Thanks for reading and see you in our next edition of marketing masters!