Content Marketing That Actually Works: Part 1 — Persona Development

Trying to sell your business without having first refined your messaging is going to be an uphill battle

Daniel Rosehill
9 min readSep 16, 2021
Trying to figure out content marketing? Welcome to ‘Content Marketing That Actually Works’. In our first installation let’s look at the enormous value in developing really good buyer personas. Photo by Kaboompics .com from Pexels

Anybody who has spent time meeting clients in coworking spaces is likely to have overheard plenty of interesting conversations.

Being magnets for entrepreneurs, startups, and those taking a shot at business for the first time, coworking spaces are great locations to break up the work-from-home monotony, for meeting clients, and for availing yourself of complementary beer while trying to appear suitably “innovative.”

Among the snippets overheard from my last foray:

  • “We’re going to beat Amazon at this bro”
  • “We’re very much into exploring the transformational growth space. That’s going to be a major area of focus for us this quarter”
  • “Marketing’s a waste of money, man. We just do cold calling and stuff.”

I have nothing much to say about the first two except “how interesting” and “do you know where they keep the glasses around here?”

But for number three — as a marketer — let me try to clear up some things.

Startup Marketing On One Foot

Many moons ago, a prospective convert to Judaism approached the famous Talmudic sage Hillel and asked him to teach him the entire Torah — really an entire literature and way of life rather than a text — while standing on one foot. To separate my writings on marketing from my commentary on religion (of which none has been published yet), I’ll leave you to find the answer to that question if interested. But I thought I would share the etymology either way.

What’s inbound marketing on one foot, then?

Especially for hungry startups that want to start bringing in revenue as quickly as possible but who haven’t got the resources for a content department?

You asked. So let me attempt to answer. To do content marketing well you need to:

Figure out who needs your product or service — and what’s motivating them to seek it. Then, find a way to help them solve that pain point while also positioning yourself as the very best possible solution to that problem on the market. And develop a brand identity that honors what you’re about while you’re at it.

But content marketing isn’t the goodie two shoes activity that many believe it to be. You know the story. The one in which we the enlightened content marketers bestow our free and information-dense white papers unto the uninformed masses, thereby enlightening them as to the wisdom of what we do.

That’s rubbish. We’re trying to sell here. To convert interest to business.

We need to instead:

Highlights what’s good about our product. Not what’s noble and virtuous about it. But how it solves real pain points. Gloss over our weaknesses. And try to convey the idea that we’re trustworthy and knowledgable.

Within that paragraph we have a few constituent elements of the marketing mix — at least as it applies to inbound. Let’s look at those.

The Groundwork That Should Already Have Been Done At This Point — A Checklist

Before we even think about marketing to prospects, we need to assume that a few essential pieces of groundwork are already in place.

Let’s forget for a moment the fact that this often isn’t the case and that many startups are engaged in a never-ending bid to create hype about products that nobody wants or cares about. Because that’s a bigger problem than content marketing is typically empowered to fix.

Hopefully you’ve conducted enough feasibility testing and market research to validate the assumption that what you think would be a great product/service for the market actually is something that the market would care about — and fork out enough money for.

Next, let’s assume — again, perhaps naively — that the product is decent. And that your well-directed efforts at marketing aren’t going to be shot down by a tidal wave of bad reviews and negative word of mouth “sharing.” It happens.

If those are in place, let’s go on.

Meeting And Greeting The Potential Audience — And Googling Them Too

If your company is too cheap to ever send the content marketers to meet clients, then your company is too cheap. Photo by Tarik Nachat from Pexels

Figuring out who needs your product or service is the work of market segmentation and audience identification.

Before we go writing encyclopedias worth of content, we need to first understand who we’re trying to talk to — what makes them tick, what their approximate level of patience is, and what’s going to turn them off.

This is really important as otherwise we’ll simply be wasting en enormous amount of time (money too but to a lesser extent; content marketing remains an amazingly cost-effective form of marketing).

If we’re selling a fertilization tool to farmers, then everybody who doesn’t make their living from farming is extremely unlikely to care about whatever you have to say about your fertilization tool — even if by the rather tame standards of what’s been written about fertilizers it’s almost pornographically controversial.

They just don’t care in the slightest way about the subject and all the budget in the world isn’t going to get them interested.

What this means in practice is that we almost always know that we’re starting from a segmented and limited audience. We’re very rarely marketing to “the world” or “any business buyer”-and if we think we are we’re probably mistaken.

Therefore, it makes sense for us to explore the segment who might be interested in buying our product in as much detail as possible.

And to do this, it’s essential to actually go out and talk to your prospective customers.

Now here’s where I need to grumble.

Way too many startups think that all the market research they need to do can be conducted as desk research. This is, for a few reasons, a terrible idea.

In a past life I told a company I was involved with that, having written about the product for over a year, I wanted to actually physically visit an installation site and see how the client was using it. I was willing to wear a hard hat and travel to an obscure part of the country if that was what was required. I was told to look up photos from the site visit in the Google Drive to satisfy my curiosity. Three months later our relationship was ended.

So here’s what you should do instead:

Go out to trade shows — or attend online ones.

Pay people in coffee or beer to tell you about their business — because this is typically about the highest ROI form of research you can possibly do and you get to drink beer and meet people rather than just plugging questions into a search engine or reading Gartner reports.

Of all the activities that startups can be parsimonious about, this — doing persona research well — is actually the one that’s the most likely to drive me crazy (been there, got the shirt- actually I have them in a few sizes).

I like to liken this to intelligence gathering.

Not because I’m a former spy, but rather because I’ve long believed that their process has application far beyond the confines within which it is typically applied (namely gathering state secrets for national security agencies). If you think so too, Andrew Bustamante’s publishing is worth a glance.

Google has its place. Google just can’t be the whole place when it comes to your marketing research. Photo by Torsten Dettlaff from Pexels

In the world of espionage, intelligence agencies gather information from wiretapping (signals intelligence / SIGINT), operating human sources (human intelligence / HUMINT) and increasingly even by perusing open sources (OSINT) like the front page of the New York Times.

Those in the business of collecting data and analyzing it on behalf of policymakers realize that both open and closed sources can have value but that it’s not enough to rely upon any one.

Analysts synthesize this haystack of data until a product is compiled that leverages multiple inputs and which is succinct enough to fit into a short brief.

In the world of journalism — and I actually have experience here, including as a copy ed — major publications pay copy editors to cross-check every single fact.

Did you know what?

Nothing is taken at face value. Everything is validated. Lead stories at respectable broadsheets rarely rely upon a single source — especially if there’s any hint of a defamation risk involved. When publications skimp on copy editing, it’s usually painfully obvious to readers.

If you want to do content marketing superlatively well, approach it with the same jaundiced eye and obsession with detail.

Google and press releases are helpful. But meeting people is too. The most accurate information typically comes from a few inputs distilled down to their very essence.

So to fish for the most useful information, you need to go where the prospects are.

This might require buying airfares. Buying people dinner. Joining professional associations about whose value you may initially be skeptical. You need to understand the industry before you go and blindly market to it. It certainly doesn’t involve skipping out on domestic engagements.

The astute content marketers in the audience should be taking notes the whole time about how the people in the industry talk.

You’ll need this to know what kind of tone of voice is likely to resonate with them.

Are they the slow and thoughtful types or do they want quick answers?

How skeptical do they seem about potential disruptions in their space?

What catches their eye and lights up their attention?

Where do they get most of their information right now? From blogs? YouTubers? All this is hugely important because it tells you where you can interject content that they’re most likely to actually consume.

Take this information and bring it home to build out buyer personas.

Imbue them with as much color and life as possible because otherwise they’re just boring marketing documents that nobody’s going to care about.

The One Foot Version To The One Foot Version

Here’s the shorter version of this post:

Marketing’s not a waste of money but by the time I’m finished with writing this Intro to Content Marketing series I’m hopeful that that will be patently obvious.

Don’t start content marketing — or any type of inbound — until you’ve got the basics in place first.

Within the marketing sphere, this would mean: validating demand and ensuring that you have an at least semi workable product or service to sell.

Jump in too quickly and you risk going to all this trouble only to sell folks on a dud. That tends to come back to haunt people and recovering from a bad reputation is always harder than trying to build a good one.

I can’t emphasize enough how important it is for everybody involved in content marketing to actually leave the office and meet the people they’re trying to content market to.

I’ve seen way too many companies refuse to do this or refuse to do this in all but the cheapest way possible.

You’re saving a ton of money by choosing to leverage content marketing over outbound. Spend a bit of cash to give your content marketers the best possible chance of actually creating content that people care about. If you were there back when your organization was booking TV spots, you’re probably aware of how wide the differential is.

Content marketing should never be an entirely desk-bound job.

Too many companies don’t get that. Or choose not to. They’re wrong. And they pay the price for their cheapness when they shoot their own efforts in the foot.

If it helps, think of yourself as a marketing spy.

The internet’s a big space and if you’re talking into the wrong corner of it, your great content can go entirely unnoticed.

Do they trust videos from YouTubers? If so, you need to be on YouTube. If you have the budget, advertising on Reddit can be a brilliant way to go straight for a young, tech-savvy, Valley-centric demographic. To find these things out for little money, go out and talk to those in the industry.

Desk research has its place too.

But your ultimate goal is to leverage multiple sources and distill everything down to its actionable essence.

Bring your voice recorder with you (really, they’re still great purchases, even though I know you have an app on your smartphone).

Take notes. Go to conferences. Have coffees.

Then bring all your material back to the office. Then you can get behind a computer and whittle down what you’ve learned to its essentials.

The buyer personas you create from this should be vivid and bristling with life — not the dull, two dimensional pictures that we’re accustomed to. They should be engaging enough that the sales folks actually want to read them. And once you have them in place you know exactly who you’re trying to sell on your content marketing.

Don’t forget that industries change. People change. Previously sunny industries cloud over with the dark skies of layovers and the attitudes of those working in them change too.

Update your personas periodically.

But keep them close to you at all times. They’re valuable weapons. In the ferocious battle for winning online attention.



Daniel Rosehill

Daytime: writing for other people. Nighttime: writing for me. Or the other way round. Enjoys: Linux, tech, beer, random things.