I’ve got a weird little secret that I don’t often tell people in my professional sphere, but I’m sharing it with you now. When I’m not helping clients out with their marketing challenges or developing and growing Helium, the product my Triangle area marketing agency, ClearSketch, developed, I’m a coffee bean artist.
You might be wondering, “What in the world is a coffee bean artist?”
It simply means that I draw fun, funny pictures that incorporate one or more coffee beans in them. I typically select a theme, word or phrase, and try to come up with something witty to match it. Over time, I’ve developed a following of over 14,500 Facebook fans for my Simple Coffee Art project.
I originally started drawing these pictures as a way to exercise my creative muscles, without having to spend a lot of time in production. While I love photography and filmmaking the most as forms of creative expression, it’s extremely time consuming to plan, shoot and edit the projects I want to develop. Because of the complexity of doing those things, I wasn’t doing them at all. But not creating makes me feel antsy and results in a void within me. With my coffee bean art, all I need is paper, a pencil, a pen, and some coffee beans. I come up with one or more ideas, and knock them out in minutes. My creative urge is satisfied, quickly. While my original goal for Simple Coffee Art was to provide an outlet for creative brainstorming and personal expression, the direction I took the project soon changed.
Why did I decide to turn Simple Coffee Art into something more?
I originally posted photos of my drawings on my own Facebook feed, and my friends told me they loved it! A couple of my friends suggested that I start my own public Facebook page for my work, so I did, and it resonated with a lot of people. As my art project evolved and became more popular, I realized that this was the perfect vehicle to test some of my ideas for how to do content marketing better, and to derive learnings that I could then use for my clients’ benefit. So, my coffee bean art provided a triple win - I got to satisfy my creative urge, experiment with content marketing ideas that I have, and provide additional, actionable insights to my clients. I already do content marketing for a product company and a services company (Helium and ClearSketch, respectively), so adding a media company to the mix would round out the skillset and learnings that I can provide our clients.
What are the lessons I’ve learned that you can use right away?
Here they are, in no particular order...
HUMOR IS DIFFICULT TO GET RIGHT, BUT THERE’S NO SUBSTITUTE FOR IT
One of the reasons Simple Coffee Art has been successful has been this - it helps people laugh. The level of engagement for my drawings averages between 5-6%, which is markedly better than the average of 0.29% (1) for pages with a similar number of followers. I’ve had numerous people write me and let me know that it provides some levity during a crappy day, or helps them start their day off right by giving them something to laugh about. Based on my experiences running both “funny” and “serious” posts for various pages I'm responsible for, humorous posts are much more likely to be shared, which increases the potential for viewership and engagement. I took a hiatus for over a year to focus on growing Helium, and even though I barely posted over that period of time, people not only remembered me, but said they missed the work when I revisited the project a month ago!
LESSON: Where possible, use humor-based content in your marketing efforts. People respond well when you can make them laugh, because you make them feel as if you’re addressing them as humans, and in turn, you show your own humanity. As an agency, we’ve used humor successfully to promote hardware firewalls, arguably the most boring product on the planet. If we can do it successfully for that product, you can apply humor to almost any product or service.
PICTURES ARE POWERFUL
One of the things that I’ve discovered about the success of Simple Coffee Art is that people find it easy to consume the content because it is mostly visual. In an age where our attention is at a premium because of the constant barrage of information we’re confronted with, finding a way to get your message across quickly and effectively is critical. Pictures let you do that. An added benefit of using pictures is that it forces you to boil your message down to its most basic form.
LESSON: Pictures can help you convey your message more succinctly and effectively. Regardless of what your message is, you can always refine it and transform it into pictures. The added benefit is that the process of imagining your message in the form of pictures forces you to whittle it down to its essence, and gets rid of anything superfluous.
CONTENT IS (STILL) KING
As of the time of writing this, Simple Coffee Art has almost 14,500 Facebook followers. Many of my coffee bean art’s fans discovered my page through Facebook Ads. In order to maximize my ROI for FB Ads, I did a lot of experimentation with the type of ads that appear in people’s feeds and with the content I used. In the beginning, I started out with a lot of text, and pictures of a wall with my art hanging on it. I made refinements to the text and images, and recently, have settled on a combination that nets me excellent results. What am I showing? A simple line stating that people can expect “Fun coffee bean art to make you smile!” and a sample image showing what people can expect to see if they like my page. As you can see from the image below, my cost per like of 9 cents is less than 95% of similar ad sets, and the iterative testing that I’ve done has shown that the content I share in the ad is the key to my success.
A lower cost per like = a much higher number of likes for the same investment. While it’s nice to have a bunch of likes purely as a vanity metric, the big win for me was the licensing deal and commissioned work that I received from a coffee equipment manufacturer. The high engagement rate, high sharing rate, and large and growing number of likes were positive signals to the company that licensed my artwork and hired ClearSketch to produce content for them.
LESSON: Invest in high quality, original content, whether you do it yourself or hire a partner to help you. “Me too” content marketing is dull and does nothing to help you stand out. While vanity metrics in and of themselves are often just that, for vanity, in conjunction with other signals, they are interpreted as a sign of the effectiveness and attractiveness of your company's products and services. Good content is also much more likely to be shared, which extends your reach organically without the need for paid promotion.
KNOW AND SERVE YOUR AUDIENCE
I believe that one of the reasons that Simple Coffee Art does so well is because I have a very clearly defined audience, and it’s easier to create content for them. 97% of my followers are female, and the majority of them are from the United States and live in major metropolitan areas. That knowledge helps inform the type of content I create and when I publish and promote it. For instance, I know that the image below will resonate with the bulk of my audience, especially when I publish on July 4.
Similarly, the story of the origins of ClearSketch (see below) resonates with my audience because
1. They expect to see me employ stories to market ourselves, and
2. It lends credence to our claims about being artful storytellers.
I also know that many people are skeptical about the claim we make that storytelling is a powerful marketing tool. In response to that, I wrote a blog post that shares scientific evidence of the power of storytelling in motivating emotional responses and actions.
LESSON: Know who your audience is, what matters to them, and what sort of information and knowledge they want to get from you in order to like and develop trust in you. Though this is difficult and time-consuming, it’s effort well spent, as that knowledge allows you to tailor your content accordingly. Unique, customized content resonates much better with your audience than generic content.
CONTENT MARKETING IS A HUNGRY BEAST
I’ve learned the hard way, through my experiences with Simple Coffee Art, and content marketing for both ClearSketch’s clients and Helium, that content marketing can be an extremely hungry beast. In some industries, not publishing regularly is akin to not existing at all in the digital domain. While you don’t have to publish every single day to remain relevant, it’s a good idea to maintain a disciplined, consistent schedule. In order to keep up with the demands of the beast, I’ve utilized a couple of different techniques.
The first is what I call the “Content Blitz” technique - I set aside a small block of time periodically, somewhere between 30 minutes and an hour, during which I just focus on generating ideas for content, without editing myself and without dismissing anything as being appropriate or not. It’s almost like an uninhibited stream of consciousness, and the decision not to edit myself allows the ideas to flow more easily and prolifically. Once I have a decent-sized list of ideas, I cull them, and decide what I actually want to invest effort into. I then look at the edited list and see how the ideas tie into each other. Often, the ideas are related and can overlap, so I combine them and create what some term a “content mountain.” A single content mountain can take the shape of an extended blog post, a case study or white paper (or in the case of my artwork, a bunch of pictures at once). That content can then be reused in shorter blog posts, social media updates, in email newsletters, etc. I also frequently cross-post, repost or re-promote my content, which gives new life to older content.
LESSON: Content marketing is a time-consuming effort. By taking time to plan what you produce, how you develop it, and how to reuse the content you do produce, you can realize the benefits of content marketing, efficiently. The “Content Blitz” technique that I use can help you improve the efficiency of your content creation efforts, which in turn lowers the cost of your content marketing efforts. Reposting older, but still relevant content is another way to help you improve your content marketing efficiency.
AUTHENTICITY IS KEY
There’s been a lot of talk recently about authenticity in marketing, but while the word is bandied about a lot, I don’t think there’s a definition that everyone can easily agree on. For the purposes of this article, I’ll share my understanding of it to help provide context -
“In my quest to develop and grow Simple Coffee Art, I didn't try to be someone else. My strength is in coming up with ideas - lighthearted, irreverent ideas. I’m not a naturally gifted artist, nor have I dedicated my life to achieving technical perfection. My art reflects the acceptance of that limitation - simple line drawings which allow the central idea (and the coffee beans!) to star prominently.”
How did being authentic to who I am help me improve my content marketing?
Once I accepted that my main constraint was my artistic ability, my creativity was allowed to flourish. I stopped trying to be too fancy with my drawings, and instead, hone in on the idea, where my strength is. That translated to better ideas, funnier drawings, and a more entertained and engaged audience.
LESSON: Being authentic to who you are and what you’re reasonably able to do removes the fear of unmet expectations and the burden of being who you’re not, and frees you to do better, more effective work. It helps your customers and audience develop long-lasting trust in you, because your claims will never exceed your ability to deliver.
GREAT CONTENT ALONE ISN’T ENOUGH. PROMOTE IT!
Even if you produce the best content for your industry, does it really matter if nobody sees it? The answer is a painful, sobering, “No!” One of the most overlooked parts of a great content marketing strategy are distribution and promotion. In the case of my coffee bean art, I primarily distributed through a Facebook page, and used Facebook Ads to promote the page and my work. I’ve found that the difference between the size of the audience reached and engaged between promoted posts and non-promoted posts on Facebook, is massive. I’ve done multiple tests to see how they differ, and while it’s difficult to account for the variable that the content itself represents (i.e. I don’t know how people will react to the content, which is very subjective. See note at the bottom to see why this matters and is a big factor), I’ve found that the size of the audience who sees a boosted post is generally at least 2.5x larger than an unboosted post. With Helium and ClearSketch, I promote the content we generate through a combination of social media and content discovery sites (e.g. SlideShare, ScoopIt, LinkedIn, YouTube, Twitter and StumbleUpon) to get the desired outcome.
LESSON: Unlike the philosophical question “If a tree falls in the forest and nobody’s around to hear it, did it really make a sound?”, there’s a clear answer to the question, “If I don’t promote my content, will anyone see it?”, and it’s a negative. At the very least, you should email your mailing list to share it with them, and post a link to it on your social media channels.
I realize that this is an unorthodox approach to learning how to improve content marketing, but these are methods and techniques that I've used successfully, both for Simple Coffee Art, as well as ClearSketch (and our clients) and Helium. Most are simple lessons, but the simple things are the ones people tend to overlook the most, and this is both a lesson and a reminder, depending on your level of knowledge about the topic.
Helium, our product company, has gone from nothing more than an idea to a globally-known and respected company, and shows up on the first page of Google's SERPs for multiple target keywords on the back of basic content marketing. I sincerely believe that these lessons can help you accomplish similar results.
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(1) Source: http://www.michaelleander.me/blog/facebook-engagement-rate-benchmark/