Using creativity in content marketing: how to establish credibility to build a competitive moat
The late futurist Jacques Fresco once said, "Creativity takes known elements and puts them together in different ways.”
Jacques’ work was famous for its creativity. He consistently challenged the status quo in city design, resource management, and social engineering. This reimagination of how we could use modern technology to better our lives was born out of frustration at the lack of industrial innovation.
Our customers can feel that same frustration in how we practice content marketing today.
What was once a form of creative self-expression, blog articles have rapidly lost their zest and originality. As marketers compete for the same keywords, they rely on the same narrative structures as their competitors.
What’s worse, your customers are starting to notice.
Frameworks can provide creative constraints. But they can also suck the creativity from your content.
You can’t avoid pleasing the algorithm for your content to generate search traffic. But that doesn’t mean you can’t differentiate and gain a competitive edge.
Audiences expect boring. It's time to make SEO-driven content a delight to read
Buyers are cluing into the fact that articles on the first page of Google copy each other, undermining their trust in Google as a source of information.
The trouble is, you can’t ignore search intent when planning your content. It won’t rank, and nobody will see it otherwise.
So, how do we alleviate doubt and delight readers? How do we offer an experience that surprises them and helps build trust?
Injecting creativity to make your content unique is the only way. Creativity elevates your content and builds trust with skeptical readers.
This requires exploration, putting “known elements” together in unique ways. Not expressing creativity for the sake of it, but to delight and empower your readers. Surprise them and grab their attention by offering value that nobody else is willing to give.
Use creativity and benevolence to build a content moat
The top articles in the SERPs often simply meet the algorithm’s needs. Adding new forms of value and using storytelling in your content helps you build a competitive moat.
For example, you’re creating an article for the primary target keyword “relationship selling.” While the top results all talk about “giving value” and “solving objections,” your experience tells you about the importance of building intimacy by challenging their beliefs.
This small addition uses your own experiences to offer a unique angle. Embed it into the structure of an SEO-driven article, and you’re bound to surprise your readers.
At this stage, you might be wondering: “Why go through so much trouble for a single piece of content?”
Because it’s the only way you’ll break through your audience’s B.S. barometer.
In their “How People Read Online” report, Nielsen Norman Group found that there are two components to building trust in content:
- Credibility: The user believes you have the ability to provide the information they’re looking for
- Benevolence: The user believes you have good intentions for providing that information
One participant read the Cleveland Clinic article about kombucha completely and nearly linearly but then decided to read more about it on other sites. “It was very pro-kombucha,” she said. “Which is why I was like, I’m going to look somewhere else.” She ended up going to a Healthline article about the negative effects of the health drink.
Benevolence is an often overlooked element of establishing trust. And it’s impossible to do if you’re simply emulating other SEO-driven articles on the SERPs.
I predict that Google will catch up to this way of thinking. Algorithms will favor standout content as they become more advanced.
Providing genuinely unique value will future-proof your content.
“Broaden your inputs”: Finding inspiration for new creative ideas
You can achieve creativity when you broaden your inputs.
By inputs, I mean the things you feed your brain; content, conversations, and experiences. Ideas are everywhere.
Broaden your inputs by exploring new industries. If you’re growing an enterprise solution, what might you find by exploring DTC brands?
The same goes for content formats, channels, and mediums.
For example, I get many of my written content ideas (blog posts, Twitter threads, etc.) from YouTubers.
The way they tell stories and provide visual motifs to illustrate key points and engage viewers is rare in the SaaS and B2B world.
These storytelling devices and visual motifs can be broken down into “nodes.” Each node helps you develop new narrative structures and add depth to your content.
To help drive the possibilities of using inputs and nodes to fuel your content marketing, let’s explore four specific ideas you can swipe to build trust with customers while achieving organic growth.
1. Write an intro that subverts expectations
A good hook will communicate why readers should care and compel them to keep reading.
People have short consideration spans. Failing to pique your reader’s interest will lead them to find another article that does. Sadly, most introductions offer general sweeping statements before vaguely promising what the article offers.
Take this example:
Digital transformation is a global business phenomenon, capturing the attention of enterprises in every industry and spurring major investment.
Learn why digital transformation matters now, what successful initiatives look like, and how to avoid common pitfalls.
I may be eager to learn about digital transformation, but I’m not feeling emotionally invested or driven to continue.
Offering a story or anecdote can be a better way to hook readers. As long as it’s relevant, stories can quickly communicate what’s possible with the advice you promise to provide them. Readers relate to stories and see themselves achieving their goals.
Make this easy on yourself by finding something that you find interesting. Find a story that subverts reader expectations.
Take the introduction of this very article as an example, where I talk about Jacques Fresco.
After reading the title and the introduction, you might have wondered: “Why the heck are you talking about a futurist? Why is this relevant to content marketing?”
These questions pique interest. But I don’t expect you to put up with it for long, so I tie it back to the crux of the article quickly.
Interesting introductions can create a pattern interrupt. I offer a welcome and contextual respite in an industry notorious for introductions that spew stats and technical jargon.
The hardest part of this approach is finding a worthy subject. The most obvious yet interesting subjects fall under the following categories:
- Historical figures and legends: Borrow from the lessons learned by those who paved a new way of doing things. Lay the foundation of a strong argument by blending timeless stories with current issues in your thought leadership content.
- Underdogs: Stop leaning on Apple and Coca Cola as a crutch. There are lessons to be learned from small businesses and startups that have achieved their definition of success. There’s not much we can learn from a billion-dollar brand. But most can learn from the tactics that a micro-SaaS startup used to reach $1M ARR.
- Behemoth backstory: If you must use Fortune 500 brands to make a point, go back to their roots. Nobody talks about Steve Jobs’ time as a video game designer and his Buddhist pilgrimage to India. These are the backstories that built the brands people look up to.
- Individual contributors: If you happen to find a great example from a big brand, get specific with it. Celebrate what the individual contributors built or achieved. Apple might seem like a cliché, but sharing the nuances of their product photography (while celebrating the design team) provides relatable takeaways.
- Reference experience: Never discount your own life experiences. You have a tremendous amount of wisdom to share.
Grab the attention of skimmers by using this same approach in your H2 and H3 introductions. Here’s a good rule of thumb: if you wouldn’t use it as the first line of a social media post, try writing it again.
This philosophy gives your content added distribution power, as you can lift that content and repurpose it for other channels. For example, here’s how CXL does it:
On a personal note, I used to dread writing introductions. Now I enjoy the process. Why? Because I can express my creativity and share a story that I find interesting.
2. Investigate complementary or conflicting data to discover new narratives
“According to…” is a sentence that many writers use to begin data-backed arguments. They look for ways to use stats to back-up ideas after the fact.
But it only works if that data is statistically significant, presented honestly, and adds value to the reader.
We talk all about how to use stats honestly and with integrity in an episode of Demandist, which you can listen to here.
The best journalists are pros at taking an investigative approach to their stories. Take this piece on mushroom intelligence from Psyche:
The entire article is a science-backed exploration into the behavior of mushrooms.
For example, here’s how the writer talks about an experiment involving beechwood:
When researchers followed the transfer of nutrients in the lab, further remarkable discoveries were in store. In a tray of soil, hyphae were observed to make contact with a block of beechwood. [...] The fungus in these experiments showed spatial recognition, memory and intelligence. It’s a conscious organism.
Later, they piece together several studies to posit an interpretation of the data and profile mushroom behavior:
The behavioural complexity of fungi increases when they interact with living trees and shrubs rather than dead wood. Some of these relationships are destructive while others are mutually supportive. Pathogenic fungi can be very cunning in how they feed on plants and evade their defences.
The entire article provides an in-depth analysis of fungi, and has generated over 10,000 shares on social media— a tremendous amount of engagement for a story about mushrooms.
Taking an investigative approach to data-driven storytelling can provide unique angles for your content.
For example, when I wrote this article on the backlink profile of a successful SaaS brand, I had no idea which direction it would take.
My investigative journey looked like this:
- Use seed data: I started my investigation with this SEMrush study, which found that “only 22% of respondents are creating original studies and data-driven content” and “24% say they rely on external publications (digital PR) or guest blogging” for distribution.
- Prod and poke flaws: I thought to myself, “if people aren’t creating data-driven content or getting links, then maybe those two aren’t as important as we thought?”
- Check your assumptions: Many SEO studies have found that links do matter. So why is nobody creating data-driven content, which is proven to get links?
- Ask a better question: Do how-to articles, definitive guides, and other SEO-driven content formats generate enough links alone? From our experience, link building outreach that relies on these formats yields meager response rates.
- Apply your first investigative layer: To answer these questions, I identified data-driven content pieces (studies, benchmarks, etc.) from 10 well-known SaaS brands, using Ahrefs to collect data on their backlink profiles.
- Add a second investigative layer: I found that these data-driven pieces of content generated an average of 847 backlinks. But this still doesn’t answer whether or not editorial and SEO-driven content gets more backlinks.
- Add a third investigative layer: So, I dug into Buffer’s most linked-to pieces of content to find an answer.
- Make your conclusion: Not only does their State of Social report stand out in terms of backlinks, but I found it was “293% faster to generate links to data-driven studies and research than blog content.”
Imagine if I stopped at the “seed”. This article would have looked like every other piece on data-driven content.
Curiosity is the only thing you need to tell exciting narratives. Access to data is democratic.
Allow yourself to be proven wrong. If you find two sources that contradict each other, dig deeper into the parameters of both studies.
Are there differences in sample size or representation of survey respondents? Use these methodologies and share your findings to build a captivating story that helps your customers solve their problems.
3. Establish an expert committee to poke holes in the status quo
If the content on page one of Google looks similar, they’re likely exacerbating the same falsehoods.
Getting subject matter experts (SMEs) involved in your content by interviewing them or sharing their insights can inject it with credibility.
But they can also help us solve the problem of regurgitating information from competing articles by poking holes in what they all get wrong.
Let’s say you’re creating an article for the keyword “relationship selling.” Many blog posts on this topic all oppose the idea of being likable and that it acts as a hurdle to making the sale.
However, after collaborating with one or two internal experts—who have many years of combined experience selling to the c-suite—you find that it is important.
Why? Because senior decision-makers do business with people they trust outside of a commercial relationship, a concept known as “intimacy” in the context of c-suite marketing.
Not only will this angle make your content stand out, it undermines the false narrative that everyone else is following, building trust with skeptical readers.
Jakub Rudnik, Head of Content at Scribe, uses this approach to make his content more original:
As a trained journalist, I look for opportunities to bring in experts wherever possible. Who is the best-case source? What other sources can offer different perspectives? This may not be completely original, but so few content marketers are willing to take these steps.
Getting SMEs to agree to work with you can be tricky unless you make it worth their time. Here’s how:
- Batch conversations into topical themes: Schedule one call a month to discuss topics that share common themes. Gather SME opinions by asking specific and direct questions. Collect overarching themes and opinions to act as your angle for a “content series” (or your hub-and-spoke strategy).
- Communicate asynchronously: Tools like Yac allow you to meet asynchronously. SMEs can review existing articles on a topic as they share their screen, pausing to allow them to collect their thoughts.
- Fuel their personal brand: Many SMEs aim to elevate their message to build awareness. Offer to repurpose your blog content into a LinkedIn post or Twitter thread for SMEs to share with their audience. Better yet, get it featured in a guest post.
This approach has the added benefit of contributing to EAT. Featuring the voice of well-known experts sends a signal to Google that your content is credible.
4. Offer customers insane amounts of utility with tools and resources
There’s a micro-SaaS revolution happening. Many founders are building small products to solve specific problems. Speed of execution is just one attractive benefit.
The tool ranks #1 for the term “grammar checker,” which generates over 1.7M searches each month worldwide. They did this simply by creating a stripped-down version of their existing product.
This harks back to the concept of “engineering as marketing.” Startups would build tools and provide utility to users in the pursuit of awareness, generating new users and subscribers, and, like Writer, capturing search demand.
Building products of this nature doesn’t require month-long scopes. Take a leaf from the micro-SaaS world and solve a specific and relevant problem.
You can even use data and customer stories to embed original resources into your content, which is exactly what Adam Rogers, Senior Content Marketing at Shopify, does:
At Shopify, we make our content stand out in search by showing and not just telling. If we have a blog post on "7 ways to email customers thank you", it becomes much more impactful to include examples of Shopify merchant's thank you emails and provides a mini teardown of why it works.
This allows our current, loyal audience to take actionable steps and allows us to stand out on the SERP. It's a creative approach to SEO-driven content unique to us as they're our customers.
We can segment utility into two categories:
Resources include templates, Google Sheets, quick start guides, and case studies. It transforms the positioning of your content from “here’s how you do something” to “here, we’ve done it for you.”
For example, our blog post on content optimization has a section dedicated to content audits. It’s a foundational step in identifying opportunities and diagnosing issues.
While we talk about each audit component, it doesn’t beat the real thing. So we include a link to the exact template we use for clients.
Then there’s using technology and creating a product to solve a specific problem.
Writer’s grammar checker is a prime example of this, which can be embedded in relevant blog posts.
Another example comes from Michael Alexis, CEO of TeamBuilding, who built a product that helps readers come up with ice breaker questions:
There are two surprisingly simple ways to uncover tool and resource ideas:
- Speak to your customers
- Conduct keyword research to find terms with ample search volume
Fulfill “jobs to be done” (JBTD) with a simple tool or set of resources based on your findings.
To inject our content marketing with creativity, we must start by harvesting new elements in the form of experiences and broadening our horizons with new content formats and narratives.
This is how you pull “known elements together in different ways.”
After all, creativity is suppressed if we drink from the same altar day after day. Our outputs will continue to look the same.
Broaden your inputs. Dissect YouTube videos. Swipe content, copy, and elements from other industries.
Build a moat by doing what nobody else is willing to do. Watch as it provokes thought, influences the conversation, and turns skeptical readers into loyal fans.