In order for your B2B blog to be successful in its inbound marketing mission, you have to get people to read it. And how do you do that? By providing content that is both readable and useful. And what could be more useful than a "How To" post - a helpful article guiding your readers through a product or process.
So setting aside the imminent danger of becoming incredibly recursive (you’ve seen Inception, right?), here is a How To guide to How To posts.
1. Make it step by step
It’s not a bad idea to number your posts - it makes it easier to refer to a future step, or a previous step, and is especially helpful when some steps need to be skipped in certain situations. Steps should only cover one action. Don’t try and combine a series of actions into one step – create more steps.
Numbered steps are not always appropriate though - for example, when talking about a more strategic issue or "soft" problems - problems that don’t have a straightforward process for solving them. These can still be good subjects for a How To post – but their very nature means that numbering steps is less useful.
2. What topics are suitable for a How To post?
By far the most obvious is a post on how to use your product or service. But this is often not too exciting and should really have been covered already in supplied manuals or by training. Possibly more useful is how to use the product or service in more unusual situations, or for a slightly different purpose. Or perhaps how to solve a common problem with the product or service quickly and in the best possible way.
But you can spread the net wider - you could look at how to specify the product or service, how to order a spare part, how to get help, or how to use the product or service efficiently. You could look at some generic problems facing clients that may or may not be connected with their use of your product or service.
Or you could look at some of the decisions they have to make and offer help with those - although this would be more of a guidance post than a strict How To.
3. How should I pitch it?
Always assume that your audience knows nothing - that way you will cover the widest possible audience. Many people will not admit they don't know things they should - so you cannot assume your audience knows anything. Put yourself in the reader’s shoes - what are they likely to want? What are they likely to know?
So keep the language simple, but avoid at all costs being patronising. There is nothing readers hate more than being patronised, but keep the language matter of fact. If you use jargon, then introduce it by defining the term first.
Make it easy to scan the post, skip sections, find specific steps. Numbered headings are useful here, as is a liberal sprinkling of subheadings throughout. Diagrams, charts, images and bullet points can also help readers find particular information quickly. And don’t forget infographics - some How Tos may work really well as an infographic rather than a written article.
4. How to start?
Always begin with a definition of the problem you are addressing. And try and relate the problem back to your customers' and prospects' experiences. Give examples of different starting situations and how the post will help them with different tasks. Explain the outcome you expect if they follow the How To guide; what the solution will look like.
5. Start at the beginning
Once you’ve defined the problem addressed by the How To, make sure the first step starts from the beginning. This sounds obvious, but it is such a common mistake to assume there is no need to state the very first step or steps. Don’t start from a position where certain things have already happened. Oh, and remember there are two words you never use in a How To (or in life generally): "assume" and "presume". Don’t assume or presume anything - prior knowledge, product set-up, familiarity with the product or service, experience or circumstance.
6. Theory and practice
It is always helpful to explain why you are doing the next action. This approach helps readers to understand the problem and allows them to figure out alternative courses of action if they encounter a situation different to that you are describing. If they know what you are trying to get them to do, they may be able to figure a way around the task in hand to achieve the same result.
7. Explain at least twice
Always offer a couple of explanations of the action you are outlining. This can be done at it simplest and most helpful with a written description and a diagram, (or a series of photographs). That way the reader has two different chances to "get it" and it also helps different types of learners.
The ultimate way to do this is in a video, talking through the action and demonstrating it. However, watching videos takes time, and they are difficult to skip through if you already know what you are doing. A written set of instructions accompanying the video is an ideal way to deal with this type of reader.
8. Oops - cover the unexpected
In the best-selling book Zen and the Art of Motorcycle Maintenance by Robert Pirsig – the author praises a certain brand of motorcycle manual. Instead of taking brand new bikes and running through the steps needed to maintain them, this type takes old, dirty bikes – bikes that have actually been used – and shows the maintenance routines using them as examples.
Furthermore, these manuals show what happens when things go wrong; what happens when following the action does not go smoothly, or does not result in the correct outcome. When maintaining an old bike – a "real" bike - things rarely go as planned. There are often secondary problems – things like rusted bolts or bits that break. Most conventional manuals always assume everything always goes perfectly (there’s that problem word "assume" again).
So, I would encourage you to add the unexpected element to your How To steps – what the common problems are when trying to perform a step and what to do if this happens or that happens. That will make your How To a lot more useful in the real world and will demonstrate that you understand the issues your customers are actually facing.
9. Always add a summary
At the end always restate the problem you were addressing, an overview of the steps taken, and a description of the final result. Remember the old training steps: "Tell, Show, Do." You tell them what they are going to learn, you show them, and then they do it.
10. Offer help
The final paragraph in your How To is the killer blow! Offer them help. This is the best call to action you can have. Let them know that you /your organisation are there to help if need be – that you can be their trusted partner. Getting a client or prospect to pick up the phone and talk to you is always a tough marketing goal.
So write a How To post, then offer to help them and they might well reward you with a call. For example: If you need any advice on blogging or inbound marketing, why not gives us a call here at Equinet and we’d be happy to help.