Content Marketers: Ask “Why?” Before You Write a Single Word

“Why?” is one of the most powerful questions a content marketer can ask.

I first learned how to wield “why” almost 10 years ago, when I took a job as a marketing manager for a local ecommerce business. Content marketing was just starting to be recognized as a valid and effective form of marketing, so we’d started a blog and published a few posts and customer stories.

My boss (the CEO) would occasionally stroll over to my desk with a huge smile on his face and announce that he had a brilliant idea for a blog post, often about a specific product. And every time, I’d turn around in my chair, look up at him, and ask, “Okay, but why?”

He usually stopped smiling pretty fast.

The responses were typically along the lines of “It’s selling well,” or “We’ve never written about it before,” and even sometimes just “Well, why not?” Not great reasons for writing a post, as you might guess, so I usually didn’t follow through on his ideas.

I challenged him not because I wanted to discourage him but because I wanted our content to have meaning.

The Power of “Why”

A decade later, I’m here at Animalz, where we think “why” is so powerful that it’s one of the questions our content managers answer before writing a single word for their customers.

We use Airtable and Zapier to automate the creation of new documents for each article we write. Each document includes a series of questions, including the all-important “why?”

  1. Who is the target audience for this article?
  2. Is this article a refresh? If yes, include link to the original article.
  3. Is this article written for a keyword?
  4. What keyword is it optimized for and what is the keyword volume
  5. Along what objective dimension is it better than the currently top-ranking content for that keyword?
  6. Why is this article something people are going to share on social?
  7. Why does this article exist?/What is the point?
  8. What are you going to help people do with this article and how?

This small-but-powerful workflow automation ensures that we are forced to consider “why” before we start writing. We even pin our responses to the top of the document so they continue to help guide the piece as we flesh it out.

These questions make us, both as writers and as people who care deeply about the success of our customers, think critically about each piece. These questions make us do research, ask our customers for more input, and consider extenuating circumstances — all of which help us turn out high-performing pieces of content.

Ask Yourself “Why” At Least Four Times

I use the “why” question to challenge my assumptions about a piece. An idea might seem fantastic at first blush, but it’s only after I dig in a little deeper that I might realize it’s completely the wrong time of year for the content. Or maybe it’s already been done so many times that there’s no point in adding my thoughts to the pile. Or maybe it’s the right topic but the wrong angle.

If I really want to dig into an idea, I take the four questions below and force myself to answer them as completely as I can.

First, why does this need to exist?

  • What’s this piece of content going to do? Educate the readers? Sell a product? Tell a story? Change lives?
  • Does something else already exist along the same lines? If so, how are you going to make your attempt better?
  • Do you know who your audience is?
  • What do you want your audience to do at the end? What’s the call to action?

Next, why would anyone read this piece?

  • What’s going to make this attractive to a potential reader? The title? The content? The website publishing it?
  • Is your audience even interested in this topic? Have they expressed a need for it, asked questions about it, or been searching for it?

Third, why this topic?

  • Is the topic deep enough, or potentially too broad? Beginner’s and “ultimate” guides have been done to death; can you focus a little more on a specific aspect or a confusing area of your topic?
  • Or is it too deep? Could it potentially be too niche to attract readers (or a meaningful amount of them)?
  • Is it one that reasonably connects back to your brand and what you’re trying to do? If you sell shoes, you’re probably going to write about shoes — not zoo animals.

And finally, why now?

  • Is it a matter of seasonality? Is there a holiday or an event coming up that makes this more relevant?
  • Has there been a spike of interest in the topic?
  • Does this content fit together nicely with something else you’ve recently published (or are planning to publish)?
  • Does the post tie in with a new or upcoming product release, updated feature, or other addition that merits attention being drawn to it?
  • Does it take priority over other pieces in your queue?

“Why” is Not a Punishment — It’s a Process Improvement

The key thing to keep in mind as you’re asking yourself “why” over and over again, is that it’s not meant to hurt or upset you. It’s not supposed to make you feel bad for coming up with ideas that aren’t up to par.

If this exercise surfaces some issues with a potential blog post, don’t throw it in the garbage. Refine it.

Sit down with your done-to-death ideas and say, “Okay, how else can I look at this topic?” Take your pitches with vague, undefined audiences and ask, “Who actually wants to learn about this, and can I create something for them?”

If your ideas feel muddy — and mine often do — keep asking yourself questions until you feel like you’ve explained every possible aspect and defined your audience and call to action so clearly that you could recite the pitch in your sleep.

It’ll feel painful the first few times you do it, but once you get a killer idea out of this process, you’ll understand exactly how powerful the question “why” really is.