Lean Content

by Steph Hay

This article was originally published on Steph’s website in March 2012.

Lately, I’ve been looking at content through the lean lens. For copywriting, this means testing for messages that make users click before writing a ton of content.

  • If we know that a single user clicked because of something she read, then we know she was intrigued.
  • If a bunch of users like her do the same, then we’ve got an indicator that we’re onto a powerful key message.

And clicks are an awesome starting point for generating truly compelling content—especially for us startups, where clicks-to-conversions-to-repeat-usage is nirvana.

So I wondered, what’s the purpose of traditional marketing content?

Marketing Content = Branding

Marketing content keeps words like “synergy” and “leverage” alive. Ok, this isn’t true.

Marketing content enables established companies to brand their voice… primarily because they already are established companies. They play with words, secure their spots as “thought leaders,” and continually reinforce their credibility as a provider of the product or service you might’ve purchased from them already.

Take, whose content never fails to be hilarious, or Seth Godin, whose content never fails to be honest or insightful. Their marketing content is so consistent that you probably don’t even have to think twice when you buy from them.

Marketing content also enables companies to reinvent themselves. Take Chrystler, which axed its old-fart messaging and blew minds in 2011 with this badass messaging:

But if you’re a startup, you’re probably more concerned with actually just inventing yourself. Also because it’s Step One to conquering the entire universe.

That’s where lean content can help.

Lean Content = Growth

I’m now regularly applying lean principles to content development in my own work with FastCustomer. Seriously, the hardest part has been putting aside my creative journalistic ego. The laser-focus it gives the rest of our efforts is incredible.

I’m also advocating this approach while mentoring via 500 Startups. (Holla!) For example, SafeShepherd was ready to do blogger outreach, but they didn’t yet know which messages were making users come to their site in the first place. This is SO COMMON, but it renders any press or user-acquisition attempts fairly crap-shoot-ish. Which is a bummer, because it’s just not as smart as it can be.

So, lean content is all about writing in smarter ways—by testing messages to find what makes people click.

After all, discovering that hook—for users, press, investors, or buyers—is crucial to our growth as startups. It’s that golden “a-ha!” moment that makes people DO something. Because they instantly *get it.*

Without it, we’re just using words and hoping people understand. Then writing more if they don’t.

3 Steps to Test Your Messaging

  1. Spend 1 hour writing 5+ different sentences that reference a pain your target user probably has. Don’t include product features; keep it user focused. (e.g., “Hate waiting on hold for customer service?” or “Never wait on hold for Comcast again!”)
  2. Run Facebook and/or Google ads using those messages. Use innocuous artwork, and send people to any landing page of your choosing. (Remember, this effort is about CLICKS as a precursor to better conversions later. So don’t fret about making landing pages match perfectly.)
  3. Find out which messages generated the most clicks after a day or two. Feel awesome you now have data on messaging that intrigues users to take a single, important action.

Now you can confidently use the highest-clicked messaging as a starting point for your content (e.g., landing pages, blog posts, emails, tweets, facebook posts, press outreach) to entice more eyeballs.

And this is where an awesome copywriter can truly blow things up.

About the Author

Stephanie Hay leads Capital One’s content strategy team and weekly design sessions for 160 people across 10 locations. She’s a resident mentor at 500 Startups, co-founder of FastCustomer, and co-organizer of the DC Lean Startup Circle.

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