We’re drowning in a flood of content. Whatever your interest, there is enough content published every day and vying for your attention that you could never hope to discover it all – let alone consume it. Yet most content marketing struggles to stand out and attract an audience because it often lacks a unique or effective angle.
When planning your content, the goal should be to produce content found nowhere else. Otherwise, what’s the point? If a hundred other brands or content hubs got there before you, how is your generic and derivative listicle going to cut through the noise?
There is always more than one way to tell a story, which is why journalists talk about having an angle. The angle provides a particular perspective, presenting information in a new or more interesting way. It helps shape which story to tell, how to tell that story and highlights what to include or leave out. Choosing the right angle can also give your content a different, ideally unique, perspective – even when every other news outlet or publisher is reporting on the same story.
Hook and line
There are two common meanings for the noun ‘angle’ pertinent here. The first is “to fish with a hook”. This is most likely where the journalistic term originated, as we also talk about articles having a ‘hook’ to catch the reader’s attention. The second definition is “the space between intersecting lines”, which, although a different etymology, presents a more useful way to think of your content.
… [G]ood story ideas seem to come quite literally from nowhere … Two previously unrelated ideas come together and make something new under the sun. Your job isn’t to find these ideas but to recognise them when they show up.
Stephen King: On Writing
Think of two unrelated ideas as intersecting lines. The angle for your content is where those two different ideas meet. The more unrelated the two ideas, the more likely you are to find a fresh and original angle in that intersection.
Unfortunately, the first idea/line is where most content marketing seems to stop.
Walk the line
Hypothetical. A graphic design agency or branding consultancy wants to target bootstrapping small business owners in need of design help with logos, flyers, web design, etc. There are a number of topics mapped out on their editorial calendar and today’s topic is ‘graphic design tools’. So, the writer jots down a number of ideas relevant to small business owners and their most common questions or issues about graphic design tools. Eventually, he or she selects one easy enough to knock out in a morning.
And that’s how the world ends up with yet another blog post on Five Free or Affordable Alternatives to Photoshop. It’s not going to set the internet on fire, but it meets the requirements of the editorial calendar and ticks the right boxes in the content strategy. It’s relevant, useful and targeted. Tell the marketing assistant to start looking for a stock image of a woman in a suit working on a Mac.
I just Googled that title and marvelled at how many posts already exist with extremely similar titles and content. Hundreds.
To be relevant, a content idea has to somehow connect your customer persona to the topic. Imagine drawing a line between those two points: persona and topic. All of your potential content ideas are somewhere along that figurative line. Unfortunately, it is extremely unlikely you are the only brand—or even the only publisher—creating content between those two particular points. That means all of your competitors and many more besides are also walking up and down the same line, creating content from the same ideas. Google is already full of them.
No wonder so much content seems repetitive and unoriginal.
A different perspective
What if we added a third point? If we’ve selected an idea somewhere along the first idea/line, then a third point can give us a second idea/line, producing an angle where they intersect!
This third point can be anything that gives you that fresh, hopefully unique, perspective – the more outlandish the better. There are many ways you can find and use this third point. Here are just three.
I like to use analogies a lot, and they often come about because my brain has just smashed together two completely different ideas. For example, last year I finally read Frankenstein. As I was reading, my mind wandered to the work I had to do that day, and BAM. Suddenly, I’m scribbling down an idea for an article. The target reader would be content marketers. The topic would be repurposing content. And Frankenstein would provide the third point perspective.
The angle: A colourful analogy that uses Mary Shelley’s imagery and a few select quotes from the book to illustrate a point about content repurposing. If you don’t take care when repurposing content – hacking apart old articles and stitching the bits together to form a new e-book, for example – the results can sometimes be ugly, devoid of the life and soul that made the original content wonderful.
Although not strictly an analogy, a great example of using imagery sourced from a cultural reference would be Sungard’s 2013 e-book on the rather bland and technical topic of enterprise IT disaster recovery, The Zombie Apocalypse Survival Guide. The result is anything but bland while still conveying the necessary information and concepts.
2: A personal or brand viewpoint
Illustrate the topic by telling a story that could only have happened to you, or apply your brand’s niche perspective. Instead of simply presenting the facts with clinical, balanced reporting, editorialise by adding your own (or your brand’s) experiences of the issues being discussed. For this approach to work, your story has to be very specific, detailed, and highlight aspects of the topic that aren’t already covered elsewhere, so get your story out first.
For example, maybe there are ramifications about a news story that impacts a niche industry like yours. While others report the news in objective, broad terms, you can explore the niche perspective in greater detail – and possibly with greater authority.
When I worked with Ninefold – an Australian cloud hosting provider – the various IT news sites reported a story about the FBI raiding a US data centre. The news story centred on the legal problems this presented for businesses whose data was on the same seized servers as the business(s) under investigation. We combined this story with our own research into data jurisdiction and the possible legal ramifications for Australian businesses of hosting overseas. Our article was then picked up by the same IT news sites, extending the story and focussing on the new, local angle.
3: Combine two unfinished articles or content ideas
I have a folder on my computer containing all of my unfinished posts, sections cut from articles for length, and any other random ideas and snippets I’ve yet to fully develop. Sometimes, I can create a new article by taking two of these single ideas and mashing them together.
Suddenly, a pedestrian piece about recent Google changes that I couldn’t quite make work is given new life and focus by combining it with an incomplete thought-piece on different attitudes to the value of information. The first piece needed to make an interesting point beyond the purely technical while the latter needed to anchor the philosophy with reality. Each solves problems in the other. Together, they become a much more rounded piece with something to say.
Look for connections or overlaps between your various unfinished content ideas. Sure, instead of two finished pieces you’ll only have one, but it may be a far more interesting and original piece as a result.
Remember your lines …
I know what you’re thinking. Sometimes it’s hard enough to come up with just one idea. Now we have to come up with two? Well, yes. And there is no process for this other than to allow your thoughts to play.
Sometimes, I plough away on an article for two or three drafts until a particular word, phrase or metaphor leaps out at me. Once I settle on this new theme as the third point, creating a more creative angle, I know I finally have a hook for my article and the next rewrite will be easier and much more fun to write.
Other times, angles and ideas will happen unbidden while reading a book, watching a film or just daydreaming. It’s amazing what can happen when your brain relaxes and is allowed to wander.
This is why I prefer to read books outside of the noisy marketing echo chamber, as I find more inspiration elsewhere. As Stephen King says, your job is to recognise these unbidden ideas when they happen.
More importantly, you need to capture both idea/lines and the angle they produce while they’re in your mind. You can convince yourself there’s no way you’d forget such a fantastic idea – but you will. And every time a great idea slips through the cracks of your imagination, it hurts.
A great idea has value; a unique idea even more so. Any miner will tell you that, while it is possible to stumble across the occasional precious stone lying on the surface, you need to work harder and dig deeper to find the biggest and most valuable gems.