Ryan Law is the Director of Marketing at Animalz, where he’s worked with companies including Google, GoDaddy, Clearbit, Wistia, and Algolia.
He’s been a writer, content strategist, team lead, marketing director, and agency co-founder. He’s also the author of the post-apocalyptic novel The Green Priest.
Ryan is well known for his thought leadership and strong voice in the content marketing space. Penning articles like Copycat Content and How to Differentiate Your Content in Crowded Spaces. In this episode, Ryan discusses surefire ways to spark your creativity, generate memorable content, and get it in front of the right people.
The Long Game is hosted by Alex Birkett and David Ly Khim who co-founded Omniscient Digital to help companies ranging from early-state to scale-ups with growth strategy, SEO, and content marketing. Allie Decker, Head of Content, joins the conversation as well.
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08:37 – Use your podcast as a way to learn
The Animalz podcast started out as internal team conversations about content. Now, it’s evolved into a collection of thoughtful guest speakers that they can learn from.
“Originally it was conversations between our team members about content. So it was a great way of elaborating on some of the topics we talked about. A way of distilling them down into an audio format. Not everyone wants to read a 1200 word blog post or whatever. [We] stopped doing that because it’s really hard to prove much of a return on that in terms of how did downloads translate into new customers and that kind of thing. And increasingly I’m just trying to connect to people that I think we can learn from. They’re doing very weird niche parts of content marketing. I talked to Blake Emal recently at copy.ai about the role of AI in content, which is fascinating. Talked to Fio Dossetto about product-led content, which was a beautiful framing of a topic I’d heard about, but it didn’t have a nice, concise, defined definition. So just using that as a way to learn from peers and find discrete concepts that we can pull into our marketing as well.”
15:36 – Use your experience to create a personal brand
Marketing writers often don’t get credit for their work. Building a personal brand means work outside of work, but you can use those experiences in your writing.
“The thing I struggled with the most when I was a bit younger is that content marketing in almost all situations, a lot of it, especially agency side, is white label. You are writing wonderful, amazing content that somebody else fundamentally gets the credit for. So if you want to build a personal brand, you have to do that as a separate exercise. Sometimes even outside of work. I’m very lucky to be in the role I am now where I could build the Animalz brand and as a serendipitous side effect of that, I’m also building my personal brand as well, because my face is on this stuff. And it’s true throughout the company. Meta content has been such a staple of what we do and what we write about. Just sharing our experiences and the learnings we have from our entire team and trying to consolidate that down into content. And that’s something that I think even the busiest person can find time to do, is just write a little bit about their experiences and learnings and turn that into personal content.”
17:40 – Let your ideas evolve and improve
Ryan likes to look back on how ideas on the blog evolved, turning into better and better content each time the team approached a subject.
“I really enjoy looking back through the last 50 posts we published on the Animalz blog because you can actually see this evolution of ideas happening throughout that. Because often I’ll have an idea and I’ll write it and it’s interesting and useful. But then you sit with it. You get feedback from the people that read it. You write other content. You actually do some of the things that you detailed in there. And you’re thinking evolves a little bit. Maybe it meshes with another idea you’ve written about. And quite often the articles will be written up and really successful, really resonated. We’ve already written about them 10 times in some kind of earlier, more nascent format, but it’s taken that long to kind of consolidate, sit with, learn from, process, and create that more polished final state version of that idea.”
19:03 – Make connections beyond content
Get new ideas for content work by looking to areas outside of content, and then working backward to make connections.
“Jimmy most famously, he got most of his ideas from sitting in the sales process. He would talk to people as they were buying and hesitations or problems or concerns that would crop up, he would try and answer through content. That was amazing. I’m a really big fan of taking models from other disciplines and thinking, how does that apply to content? Is there something we can learn from that? Some underlying universal principle? So I’ve started nerding out with this tool called Obsidian.md, which is like Roam Research, that kind of vibe, which is a network note-taking tool. So every time I come across a cool model or a framework or a principle, I dump it in there and I try and build as many connections between it as I can. Try and think, how does that apply to content in particular?”
23:46 – Coin a new concept
Come up with memorable terminology to tie to your article. This technique makes ideas catchy and easy to share.
“The most important thing is you’re not trying to labor a term onto an article at the end of the process. It needs to be like some metaphor, some analogy, that is just a really great framing for explaining the topic in the first place. So actually that almost has to be the first thing you come up with. You’ve got a topic like you should have different types of content and they all yield different outcomes. You almost want to start with the barbell, because working that theory throughout the article is so much more convincing than just slapping that in the title tag and that kind of thing. I guess one way you can reduce the risk of picking something that doesn’t work is choose an already popular topic. Everyone loves barbell theory and Nassim Taleb is amazing at coming up with these Black Swan anti-social. So using that, appropriating that, and making a content marketing equivalent of that.”
28:46 – Understand a community’s quirks
Regardless of research, content won’t feel authentic unless you understand a community’s shibboleths — the little quirks, shared values, and ways of communicating that are unique to them.
“Even if you can kind of intellectually grasp the subject you’re writing about, working out what their shibboleths are is so hard. You can’t really do it without being a part of that community. And quite often that’s how a lot of that content fails that sniff test. It doesn’t have those little hallmarks of validity that you should have. Maybe you spend too long talking about something which is just a truism, people just know it to be true. And because it’s an epiphany for you, you overweight that in your writing. I think the way we overcome that is we just talk to the people that are subject matter experts. So much of our research for so many of these companies and customers is just interviewing people and finding people that have been doing this thing for 20 years. Running ideas past them, getting them to review drafts, talking to them about ideas that they think are interesting. And we become the ones that then try and distill that into functional content. In some cases it’s less about learning the subject and more about becoming this conduit for other people’s experience to come through in the article.”
31:17 – Don’t reach a lot of people, reach the right people
Targeted thought leadership distribution can be an efficient way to reach customers.
“You can actually be a lot more efficient with thought leadership content. Because if you talk to people from the select community you want to reach, like VPs or directors of marketing or whatever that is, you’re going to get a much better understanding of where they go for their information. The communities and channels they use and in which they share their content, the newsletters they care about. And quite often that is probably the primary distribution channel we would use for that content. Dark social is really important these days. WhatsApp groups, Telegram, Slack communities, Discords. If an article reaches those groups, maybe it will rack up a hundred views if you’re lucky, but potentially that could be 10 really interested prospects, because that community is just absolutely tailor-made. It’s right for what you’re trying to reach. We’ve always relied as well on owned newsletter channels. I’m a big believer in the idea that it is so hard to reach even one person with your content, that if you’re going to do that, you want to make sure that you do everything you can to keep them around and continue to engage them.”
38:07 – Consider the maturity of your industry
If it’s a saturated content market, you need to be different to stand out. If it’s not, you can stick to simple content and get results.
“There are some industries where, HubSpot is a classic example, it basically popularized content marketing. And the entire marketing automation space is so laden with content now that anything you do has to stand out. Differentiation is an absolute prerequisite to get any results. But the other end of the spectrum, you’ve got these slightly laggard industries. Things where a lot of the buying process is more offline. Maybe there’s compliance issues or legal issues that make it a bit harder to create content in the way you churn out content. A big SaaS company. And actually because content marketing hasn’t been used in those industries, you can do very basic, very foundational things and still get disproportionate results from it. There are some companies, some customers we work with where we don’t practice what we preach, in the sense of we don’t do loads of really contrarian thought leadership. We just do really well-executed SEO, because that’s still the right thing. Don’t over-engineer the solution if you don’t have to.”
53:42 – Create guardrails for writing
Whether it’s content writing or fiction writing, it’s good to give yourself a good balance of milestones and creative freedom.
“Content marketing is trying to be creative on a schedule. And the only thing I’ve found helps people do that predictably and consistently is process. Is outlining content and trying to guardrail what you’re writing as much as possible. But I think the key thing to do is limit just how much you plan and plot. So you want to get the bare bones in. Start point, ending point. Maybe there’s a key thing you want to hit. So that if you do those three things, it is functional. It achieves the basic goal you want to do. But in terms of how you get between those points, the sky’s the limit kind of thing. So that’s how I try and approach all my writing, really. Have a couple of key milestones that you want to hit, but then let yourself have the freedom and creativity amongst that to wander away from it for a little bit, add new stuff in, deviate a little bit. Because otherwise it’s just not fun to do.”
1:04:20 – Good ideas are better than good writing
Content marketers can be great writers and great marketers, but the idea is more important than the writing.
“One of the self-limiting beliefs I see a lot of content marketers have is that they love being writers, and they care about being writers. And they are so reluctant to lose that identity that they don’t embrace the full breadth of skills and abilities and experiences that are necessary to be a great marketer. Because writing is such an important facet of content marketing, but it’s not the only one. And I think as well, what you were saying about Nassim Taleb and things are being too polished. Great ideas can survive bad writing, but bad ideas will not be lifted up by great writing. If the idea is sound and you’ve thought through it, and it’s a great idea, even if you’re a terrible writer you can still get great results from it. But having said that, I know I’m never going to lose that part of me that feels like a writer.”
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