2016 Summer (Speed) Reading List for Content Marketers

12 Days of Summer Speed Reading

All photography by Lynn Langmade

This is a post designed to help keep you mentally stimulated during the summer. In the marketing world, the months between June and August are often referred to as the “Summer Slump.” Sales are down. Web traffic is down. Engagement is down. Everything is down because, let’s face it–we’re all out.  Yup, hopefully we’re all out on a vacation–snorkeling in the pacific islands, climbing up to Machu Picchu, or just snoozing in our beds because, hey, it’s summer and we’re off so we can just . . . lay there and do absolutely nothing.  Zzzzzz :) But even if you’re climbing, you still have to have some down time, so the question really is: what’s the best way to use that time?

I got to thinking: what if you could essentially read a book a day during the two weeks you’re off? Yes, what if you could catch up on all the content marketing thought leadership in just 12 days! I know, sounds crazy right? Wait, hear me out! I’m not telling you to sign up for a speed-reading course or spend the few weeks you have off shackled to some dusty books. Here’s my devious plan. Instead of reading the whole book, what if you just read the introduction to the 12 best books on content marketing, classics included? Yup, I said it. What if you—hacked—continuing education? I’m a firm believer of working smarter, not harder. And here’s the secret that most academics know. The introduction is actually the place in the book where the writer summarizes the entire contents of the book. Having written a few, I know that writing an introduction to a book-length asset is a huge undertaking precisely because your job in the introduction is to actually shine a laser focus on the most critical aspects of the book. In other words, your job is to cut through the fluff and highlight what really matters. Eliminate all the unnecessary verbiage and get right to the point. Okay, sounds good to me. Check. Ultimately the introduction is the place where the writer learns if they actually know what they’re talking about and if they actually have something substantive to say. Seriously. 

Okay, so you’ve got an hour of quiet time each day during your vacation, what should you read if you’re a content marketer? This question would have been easy to answer a few years ago, but it’s not so easy today. I’ve written about the glut of content saturating the market and incidentally, there is no shortage of meta-content about content itself. There are some very brilliant influencers currently writing content marketing thought leadership, so I won’t be able to cover them all here. Rather the goal of the list below is to provide a smorgasbord of theory and practice—esoteric philosophy and practical advice that will help you get inspired as well as get stuff done. This list has both classics and recent arrivals, which I hope will give you an understanding of how this discipline has evolved and provide hints about where it’s heading.  Finally, I’ve included older texts first in the list to provide context for the current thought leadership later on the list, but you don’t have to read them in any particular order.

Without further ado, I give you my 2016 Summer (Speed) Reading List for Content Marketers


 Seth Godin’s Permission Marketing

I hate to say it, but there really is a reason Seth Godin is considered the Godfather of modern marketing. He was the first to truly identify that there was an “attention crisis” in America in terms of traditional marketing and advertising and Permission Marketing was the book that identified the crisis and provided the first real solution to the problem of getting and holding an audience’s attention in a cluttered world. There would be no “content marketing” without Godin or his theory of permission-based marketing. In fact, there really is no “inbound marketing” without Godin. So while this book won’t provide a lot of practical advice, it will really help you to understand how and why content marketing developed, which is essential to truly be able to do it well. Although I’ve suggested in this summer reading list to read the introduction to each book, I’m actually going to make an exception to the rule and suggest you read Chapter Two of Permission Marketing.

Big Idea: Permission Marketing Is Just like Dating

This book essentially identifies traditional mass marketing as interruption marketing, where marketers hopelessly try to cut through the infoglut with irrelevant messages to strangers. But consumers are short in time and marketers are short in attention. Enter permission marketing, which creates a “symbiotic” relationship between consumers/audience and marketers by allowing consumers to “opt-in” to being marketed to with (1) anticipated, (2) personal, and (3) relevant messages. This changes everything. Godin goes one step further and compares interruption marketing to someone who walks into a bar and asks every person in the bar to marry them until someone says “yes.” In contrast, the permission marketer chooses the sane and rational method of getting someone to marry them, i.e., the method that turns strangers into friends and friends into customers. For me, the most valuable aspect of this book is the “Five Steps to Dating” framework Godin provides: (1) offer your prospect an incentive to volunteer; (2) after getting their attention, offer an educational curriculum over time teaching the consumer about your product or service; (3) reinforce the incentive to guarantee permission is maintained; (4) offer additional incentives to get even more permission from the consumer; (5) over time, leverage the permission to change consumer behavior toward profits.

Brian Halligan & Dharmesh Shah's Inbound Marketing

Brian Halligan is the co-founder of HubSpot, an inbound marketing and sales software platform, which primarily serves small and mid-sized businesses. Most marketers already know this. But what they don’t know is that this book essentially launched the “inbound marketing” revolution. Chapter One is highly readable and a great example of storytelling, including a feel-good story about the Grateful Dead. It’s funny, quirky and genuinely helpful. Translation: It’s delightful. What I love so much about this chapter is that it is form mirroring content. Halligan is actually using great storytelling to pull his reader in and delight them so they continue reading. He’s showing, in effect, the power of customer delight. 

Big Idea: Customer Delight

Even a few years ago, Halligan went on record as saying that due to Hubspot’s inbound marketing efforts, the company has never had a PR agency on retainer. Think about that for a minute. I've never seen better proof that content marketing works. The phenomenal content Hubspot produces at the top of the funnel has rendered traditional PR obsolete. So what is so special about HubSpot’s content? Well it’s summed up in the idea of “customer delight.” It sounds a bit geeky, even schmaltzy, but I can assure you it is absolutely essential to doing content marketing right. Halligan basically says that you need to think beyond traditional ways of viewing the relationship with customers or prospects. You need to go beyond satisfaction to delight. The difference between satisfaction and delight is the difference between your customer recommending you to a friend and not recommending you. Likewise, great content—great inbound marketing—needs to go beyond satisfying an audience to truly delight them by entertaining and inspiring them. Delighting your audience through your content is the difference between them not returning and returning. You have to go above and beyond your competition and deliver world-class content. There are tons of other important ideas in this book, but this is a game-changing idea. One that can make or break your content marketing efforts. Heed this lesson and you will benefit with more traffic and subscribers.

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Chris Brogan's Trust Agents

It’s hard to believe this book is now a “classic,” but it is. It’s been reprinted over six times since its original publication in 2008 and for good reason. Where do I begin? Well, I should just say that it’s all about trust these days. Or at least content marketing is about building trust. And you know what? You can’t build trust overnight. It takes time. And guess what? In an online environment, trust is not only crucial, but it also takes an even longer time to build. People will not rush to read or share new sites. You have to earn their trust over time. And the only way you can do that is by consistently building your content brand. 

Big Idea: Transparency Is an Asset

This book has so many rich insights that again, as with other thought leaders on this list, it is difficult to choose. But if I had to choose, I would say this book radically reframed the discussion around transparency. In summary, digital natives, those who are familiar with the digital space, have become accustom to a new level of transparency. Put simply, they wisely operate under the assumption that everything they do will eventually be known online. Instead of trying to hide information, they expropriate the whole concept of transparency and put it to work for themselves. They choose, in other words, not to hide anything. According to Brogan: “Instead, they leverage the way the Web connects us and ties our information together to help turn transparency into an asset for doing business.” That’s right, instead of fighting the era of radical transparency, smart content marketers realize they need to embrace it. If we are currently operating in a communications environment where trust is a deficit, radical transparency is the way you build trust in this environment. So how do you embrace transparency as a content marketer? Simple: you become a “trust agent.” Trust agents are “non-sales oriented, non high-pressure marketers. Instead, they are digital natives using the Web to be genuine and to humanize their business.” The best content marketing exhibits a radical transparency, which builds trust. 

Ann Handley’s Content Marketing Rules

 I need to confess. This is the first book I ever read about content marketing. Ann is currently the CCO (Chief Content Officer) at MarketingProfs. She has written plenty of other useful content, but this book really was ground-breaking when it came out. It put a degree of science and rigor around a practice that felt subjective and chaotic. This book turned the practice of writing content into a discipline in its own right, with rules and formulas that would determine success. I’ve now actually had the pleasure of working with Ann on a few content marketing projects. In fact, she was a featured speaker on my #MKTGPOV Twitter Chat. 

Big Idea: You Are a Publisher! 

If you are engaging in content marketing, guess what: you’re a publisher. According to Ann: “Today, however, every company has become a defacto publisher, creating content that’s valued by those they want to reach. We’re hesitating as we write the word publisher . . . . But when we say that businesses are becoming publishers, we’re referring to the process of putting ink to paper and printing and binding books but also to the notion that creating and delivering relevant, valuable information to people who will drive new business to you. Figuring out what your prospective customers are interested in, creating stuff that meets those needs, and delivering it to them is what you need to do. And that, by the way, is exactly what publishers do.” But I would go one step further. You’re more than a publisher. You’re now a card-carrying member of the media. What does that mean? You're not just a content creator. Your job as a content marketer is to earn the attention of your audience, not demand or expect it. Only by truly grasping your role as publisher, will you start to think like one and your content will start to do what great content does: become valuable.

Jay Baer's Youtility

If you’re in marketing at all, you know this guy. You know, for example, that he’s the president of Convince & Convert, the founder of 5 companies, and a rock star who has worked with over 700 brands. He needs, in other words, no introduction. However, he’s also the author of many marketing books. But if you don’t have a lot of time, which one should you read? It’s a tough call between Youtility and Hug Your Haters, but I’m going to say Youtility because I just think it provides some fundamental advice, if followed, that can dramatically change your content marketing game. 

Big Idea: Don’t Sell; Help!  

In this book, Baer coins a word “youtility” to describe marketing upside down, in which marketing that is needed by companies is replaced by marketing that is wanted by customers. According to Bayer, “There are only two ways for companies to break through in an environment that is unprecedented in its competitiveness and cacophony. They can be ‘amazing’ or they can be useful.” However, Baer notes that being “amazing” is pretty darn hard to do and pretty unreliable. “What if instead,” argues Baer, “you relied on a simple, universal method of marketing and business success . . . . What if instead of trying to be amazing you just focused on being useful? What if you decided to inform, rather than promote? . . . . If you sell something, you make a customer today; if you help someone, you make a customer for life.” In a Youtility-centric paradigm, a content marketer’s job is to provide “massively useful” content for free, which will in turn create long term trust and kinship between you and your customer. In other words, if you help, rather than sell, you can break through all the content noise and provide real, long-lasting value to your prospects and customers that will dramatically impact your bottom line. 

Joe Pulizzi's Content Inc.

Okay, ironically this was probably the toughest write up. My company interviewed Joe for our Podcast. Outside of just being a really cool guy he is . . . how do you say . . .  um, prolific. He writes a lot of content, which is pretty much what you should expect from the guy who co-founded and runs CMI. Of course all of Joe's work is helpful, but I think what so many content marketers need is not more advice on how to make great content, but how to develop a long-lasting audience that will eventually buy what you’re selling. How to literally make content marketing pay off. Not joking. That’s what really matters in the end. In terms of Joe’s Work, this book targets content marketers who are entrepreneurs and really explains how to take content marketing all the way from beginner blogging to a successful business. 

Big Idea: Audience First; Product Second

There are actually a few big ideas in this introduction, but if I had to sum it all up, it would be that you need to take care of your audience first, and then everything else will fall into place. Well, sort of like that. Joe actually spends quite a bit of time outlining his 6-Step Content Inc Model. And like I said, you could read the entire book OR you could be smart and just read this introduction where he provides enough detail about each step to make the rest of the book’s content essentially redundant: (1) Sweet Spot; (2) Content Tilt (differentiator); (3) Building the Base; (4) Harvesting the Audience; (5) Diversification; (6) Monetization. So here it is. First, you’ve got to find a content area that will be the foundation of your business. Hint: It’s something you have a great deal of expertise in and passion for ;) Next you find your niche in that content area—the content segment that will help you differentiate your blog and your content from the rest of the pack. Again, another hint: It’s something nobody else is talking about (Yup, that’s all there is to it). After you’ve established your niche, you will essentially have a “content tilt” and will start getting regular traffic to your blog or site. Once that traffic starts coming in, you’ll want to do something fairly obvious: you’ll want to grow that traffic/audience base. How do you do that? Well, you choose a platform and stick with it—for a while. In other words, you choose a channel and start publishing high quality content regularly on that channel. (A blog, podcast, youtube etc). This will help you grow your audience base. And once the base is established, you can start “harvesting” the audience. I know. Sounds kinda creepy doesn’t it, like harvesting organs. But let’s face it, marketing can be kinda creepy in a certain way. But so are a lot of things, and at least marketers are honest about the creep-factor. In particular, you will start “converting” one-time site visitors into “subscribers.” According to Pulizzi, “It’s almost impossible to monetize and grow your audience without first getting the reader to take action and actually “subscribe to your content.” Once you have a large subscriber base–around 10K or so—then it’s time to start diversification. All that means is that you start leveraging new channels beyond the original content platform you chose. You might start a podcast if you’ve built a blog. You might start running an event after you’ve established your blog and podcast. And finally, once you’ve got your content going on many channels, you’re ready to try to monetize that audience. This is all there is to it. This is how you go from zero to hero. No seriously, that’s how you can start making money doing something you love: creating awesome content.

Jeffrey Rohrs's Audience

Rohrs is now CMO of a startup called Yext, but was also the guy at the helm of the marketing team at ExactTarget, which took the company from 30M revenue to 400M revenue via content marketing. He was also responsible for driving the “orange culture” brand at ExactTarget, which increased retention and loyalty among employees and customers. So he knows a little bit about content marketing. In this book, he talks about the flip side of content marketing—not the content, but the people consuming the content. You know, the audience, silly :) He presents a powerful case that your audience is as important, if not more important, than the content itself. Before you can acquire a customer—before you can build a relationship—there must first be an audience for you to address. And in my opinion, this is where it’s all headed.

Big Idea: Audiences Are Assets

Content is King (or Queen) right? Wrong. Audience is King. I’ve written extensively about why audience is king here. But here’s the cliff notes version of that story. In a content cluttered environment and a subscription economy, it’s becoming more and more difficult for marketers to get and sustain the attention of our audiences. As social continues to move from free to pay-to-play models, we will also receive less engagement from our audiences on social media. In fact, it will soon become clear to us all that the proprietary audiences we thought we were building on social, are really just rented audiences that we have very little control over. Companies who realize that they need to own and develop their own proprietary audiences will have a distinct advantage over those who don’t. Rohrs book discusses three critical components of proprietary audience development: (1) The Audience Imperative; (2) Audience Channels; and (3) Audience Road Map. But all you really need to know is this: If you’re not building, engaging, and activating proprietary audiences of your own, you’re falling behind.

Adele Revella's Buyer Personas

Revella is the CEO of the Buyer Persona Institute and has been educating marketers for the last 20 years on this topic. As a college professor, I used to teach entry level composition. I’d walk my students through a series of lessons around the writing process. We’d discuss the so-called “pre-writing” process. But during my first lecture, I’d ask students a simple question: “When does writing begin?” It was a trick question of course. I had to tell them that writing begins long before they pick up a pen or start typing or swiping. Writing begins with assessing your audience. To write good content, you not only need to know who you’re writing for, but also what their needs are. This is the central concept in Adele Revella’s Buyer Personas

Big Idea: Listen First, Then Speak

Revella opens the introduction with a common question asked by doctors, bankers, lawyers and so on: “So what brings you here to see me?” The customer or client then tells a story about their problem and the doctor, banker, lawyer listens. Revella argues that “listening is an essential part of any first meeting. It’s how professionals learn about their customer’s concerns, goals, and expectations so that they can present a relevant solution. Yet in many organizations this one-to-one communication between marketing professionals and their customers is infrequent, if it happens at all.” In the digital marketing universe, now more than ever, marketers need to hone their listening skills. The more in tune with their customers and prospects they are, the better they will be able to create content that provides value for them. What I love about this book is that Revella explains that the growing interest in buyer personas has actually contributed to confusion about how they are created, how they are used, and their ultimate effectiveness. She suggests you cannot do this with buyer profiling alone, you need to slowly evolve your buyer personas from authentic stories related by actual buyers in the form of interviews. This contention alone merits a whole blog post.

Meghan Casey’s The Content Strategy Toolkit

Meghan Casey is the field marshal at Brain Traffic, one of the best content marketing agencies in the world. I found this book particularly useful because rather than just talking about the “theory” of content, she gives you useful, practical advice on how to develop a robust strategy as well as templates to get things done. So she kinda knows how to do this stuff. The introduction starts with a bang discussing Brain Traffic’s famous Content Strategy Quad. This is not a book that will leave you inspired, but it will leave you feeling confident—confident that you can do this thing called “content marketing.”

Big Idea: The Content Strategy Quad Framework

So here’s the deal. It’s pretty easy to theorize about how to do content marketing well. It’s quite another to actually do it well. Managing a content marketing strategy and a content editorial calendar is very difficult. This is why so many companies are reporting they aren’t getting value from their content marketing efforts. What I love about the Content Strategy Quad Framework is that it helps you to actually manage your content. You know—with the day to day operations of running a content marketing machine. At the core of this Framework is the content strategy—the purpose of the content. It’s surrounded by four quadrants: (1) Substance “defines what content the organization should produce, how it should sound, and why it’s meaningful or relevant to users.” (2) Structure “refers to how content is organized and displayed so users can find and use the content they need.” (3) Workflow “is how content flows through the organization—from ideation to publication to ongoing maintenance.” (4) Governance “details how the organization makes decisions about content to ensure that it’s on-strategy”

Dan Norris’s The Content Machine

Dan Norris is an entrepreneur, so I find his advice particularly helpful because he’s had to learn in the trenches the secrets of great content marketing. Unlike other content marketing influencers who work in marketing departments or have VC funding, he’s had to learn how to do it right because his very livelihood has depended on it. In this book, he showcases a 3-part framework for content marketing success--the framework that has allowed him to build highly-successful 7-figure businesses. Did I mention that it also provides a bunch of frameworks that you can immediately plugin to your business? The book also has a short but very valuable forward by the always-brilliant Neal Patel. 

Big Idea: Quality over Quantity

This sounds obvious, but you would be surprised how many content marketers don’t understand this basic idea. It’s not how much content you put into the world that will make a difference, but how good it is. Again, one quality piece of content isn’t enough to build a business on, but if you never achieve a certain level of quality, no one will care about your content. So while you do need to put out new content regularly, the focus should be on quality. Ultimately, one phenomenal piece of content is worth more than 100 pieces of mediocre content: “Like Neal Patel, I eventually worked out that one spectacularly successful piece of content was infinitely more valuable than 100 pieces of content that go unnoticed.” I see content marketing teams, especially in small businesses and startups struggling to reach a certain quantity of content and the inevitable happens when quantity becomes the goal—quality suffers. And when quality suffers, you find yourself working harder and harder with diminishing returns. Don’t let that happen to you. Don’t fall into that trap. Take your time. Do it right. And you will be rewarded.

Did I mention that this book costs you nothing with Kindle Unlimited?

Matthew Capala's SEO Like I'm 5

Capala runs two businesses, has published 3 books, and is also an adjunct professor at NYU. There is a huge misconception about SEO that it’s rocket science. Well it is in theory, but not so much in practice. As Capala likes to claim “80% is just showing up.” Yup, showing up in search pretty much takes care of 80% of the job you need to do as a marketer. And what this book illustrates is that there are some very simple things you can learn and start doing that will have a massive impact on your SERPs and site traffic. Did I say SERP? One of the key takeaways in this book is that the Hummingbird algorithm update is shifting search away from keyword matching to conversational search. 

Big Idea: The 5 Cs of SEO Success

It was a tough call for me between the Introduction of this book and Chapter 1, but I’m selecting the introduction because I think the summary of the 5 Cs of SEO Success is an easy-to-understand framework that can be implemented just as easily. I also think it’s a great guide for folks just putting their toe in SEO waters. Essentially, Capala makes an analogy between each of the Cs in the framework and an organized football team. Content: Offense; Code: Defense; Credibility: Special Team; Connections: Coaching Staff; Cash: GM. All of these things are connected so you are only as good as your weakest link. But here it is. Content: Good content is the “prerequisite for SEO success” and “without it you will gain no results.” Code: Optimizing your site is as important as quality content, because it promotes the smart SEO that Google and Bing are expecting from you. Credibility: You must learn “how to become worth talking about" so you can "build trusted backlinks to your website.” Connection: Using social media to establish connections with experts and influencers boosts your credibility.  And finally, Cash: You need to figure out your monetization strategy from the outset.

Guy Kawasaki's The Art of Social Media

 Like a few other writers on this list, Kawasaki needs no introduction. Formerly the Chief Evangelist at Apple and now Chief Evangelist at Canva, Kawasaki has established himself as a social media powerhouse. While I could’ve chosen many books on social media, I selected this one because I just think Kawasaki has really established himself in a way no other marketing influencer has on social media. And the best marketers make it look easy. Kawasaki makes social media look easy, and he has some great practical advice to help you make it look easy too. However, he is quick to point out that his advice is useful precisely because he learned how to dominate social media through “experimentation and diligence, not pontification, sophistry and conference attendance.”

Big Idea: Don't Just Create Content; Curate it

I’m choosing to focus on Chapter 2 in The Art of Social Media because I agree with Kawasaki that the “biggest daily challenge of social media is finding enough content to share.” The way to be (and stay) relevant is sending out a regular cadence of content to social media. This regular cadence or posting frequency is what Kawasaki calls “Feeding the Content Monster.”  He calls it a monster for a reason. Tweeting a minimum of 4 times a day is daunting let alone 10 to 15 a day, which is required to really start growing your audience and engagement. But here’s the deal. So many new content marketers on social media fail to realize that you can actually “satiate” the content monster on social media by curating—selectively sharing—the content of others. Curating content is a win-win-win situation, because “you need content to share; blogs and websites need more traffic; and people need filters to reduce the flow of information.” In Chapter 2, Kawasaki gives great, practical advice on how to curate amazing content. But the most useful is to piggyback on Curation and Aggregation Services. It’s impossible to read 20 or 30 blogs a day to discover the best content. But guess what? You don’t have to. You can let others read those blogs and tell you the top content produced on a particular topic. This will save you not only hours of time spent curating content, it will also help you share the most relevant and valuable content possible with your followers on social. 

So there you have it; my 2016 Summer (Speed) Reading List for Content Marketers. I hope you found this list to be a helpful content marketing hack!

Did I miss a book? Would you add another book to this list? If so, leave a comment with your recommendation on which books to add to this list for next year's installment :) 

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