Author   |    Speaker   |    Chief Content Officer

What’s the Formula for E-book Success?

One of the tenets of my new book is this: Good writing is like good teaching.

Good writing and (more broadly) good content strives to explain, to make things a little bit clearer, to make sense of our world… even if it’s just a product description or a blog post or a video or a graphic novel.

“A writer always tries…to be part of the solution, to understand a little about life and to pass this on,” says Anne Lamott in her seminal book on writing, Bird by Bird.

Which is why I like a recent series of e-books that Lee Odden and his TopRank team have put together on content marketing.

The two e-books released so far are (in part) a promotion for Content Marketing World. But calling the series a “promotion” is selling it short, because the e-books offer useful advice and guideposts for anyone looking to build a stronger, buffer, more muscled and ripped content marketing program.

The newest installment, released yesterday, features 10 content marketing experts (including me) talking about audience development as part of any successful content program. The contributors include a Trio of Scotts (Scott Monty, Scott Stratten, and Scott Abel) as well as Brian Clark, Adele Revella, Leigh Blaylock, Jeff Rohrs, Heidi Cohen, and Jonathon Colman.

The crux of my contribution is a challenge to marketers to think a little more broadly about their content efforts: Are you merely stuffing a funnel full of leads? Or are you cultivating an audience who will grow to rely on your for information, advice, help… and will seek out your expertise?…  via an Alice in Wonderland/Through the Looking Glass theme.

The Oyster Story

I’m a sucker for both the literary and the retro — my 1972 vintage Alice boxed set is sitting on the shelf behind me as I type this. (That’s an illustration from the edition at the top of this post, too.)

I’m also a sucker for oysters, which is probably why I chose the short oyster story in Looking Glass as a metaphor for the power of story in growing audience. (Spoiler alert: It ends badly for the oysters.)

But as it happens, Alice is also surprising relevant for modern marketing marketing.

“Alice chasing the rabbit down the hole like so many marketers chasing shiny-object marketing tactics was a strong visual,” Lee told me.

And the crazy, trippy tea party with the Mad Hatter, March Hare, and Doormouse “seemed a great, humorous comparison to so many marketing departments’ trying to make sense of their content marketing world!” Lee said.

Substantive, Stylish

Lee has built a reputation over the past few years for creating substantive, stylish e-books — he’s working on one for this fall’s MarketingProfs B2B Forum. (Here’s one he created for a previous Forum, too.)

Which made me wonder: He must have this process down pat… what’s his formula for attracting influencers to contribute, as well as devising a theme for e-book success? What can we learn from it? I asked him how he does it.

Me: You told me once that you follow an “Attract, Engage, Convert model” for your e-books. Tell me what that means?

Lee: Attract, Engage, Convert is an approach to keeping content accountable.

For e-books, Attract means identifying how the content will attract an audience. What about the nature of the content is appropriate for it to be discovered through search, shared on social channels, get picked up in industry publications, or be promoted through various types of advertising? Those insights influence characteristics of the e-book to ensure it gets maximum exposure (with minimal resources to promote).

Engage is awareness of how a target audience will consume the content. E-books hosted on SlideShare, which offers a responsive experience, have been very good for our B2B audience that consumes on laptops, tablets, and smartphones. The messaging and aesthetic also contribute to better engagement.

Convert are the “asks” within the content—whether it’s an embedded link for social sharing or a link to another free e-book or a direct solicitation to attend the conference or to do business with TopRank.

These considerations are applied to every content project, whether it’s an e-book or major blog post during the planning, , and especially performance measurement areas… to ensure we’re optimizing for success.

You also told me that you add “a dollop of opportunism and real time adaptation (AKA performance optimization).” What does that mean in specifics? Side note: People don’t use the word “dollop” often enough.

When you plan something like an e-book with 40 contributors, most of whom are from brands that are not used to contributing quote-friendly sound bites, a lot can happen. It’s important to see opportunities when things go in a different direction, and take advantage by adapting.

For example, with one of our first e-books, we sent out 10 questions and only one person replied.

One of the questions was about a “content marketing secret,” so we followed up with the speakers and asked just that one question as if we were a secret agent. Everyone responded, many in character as a secret agent themselves. That adaptation enabled us to tap into an approach that continues to be successful three years later.

…And performance optimization means what, exactly?

It means we track every single ask, reminder, follow-up reminder, promotion, pre-written tweet… you name it. We track as much as we can in terms of Attract, Engage, Convert metrics and adjust the promotion content when we see certain things improving or working better.

This is especially the case with social media promotion, direct engagement for promotions, and the messaging we may use in a broadcast email or the way we repurpose content on websites outside of our main site.

What’s your best advice for getting influencers involved in your project, and excited about participating?

The starting point matters a great deal. If it was 5 years ago and I asked the same people to participate [in this latest e-book], most would say “And you are…?”

I make a point to create a good experience for influencers when they collaborate on our projects. I try to create significantly more value than effort they put in. Hopefully the result is they remember that I am the creative, clever guy who made them look really good… and how can they get involved with more projects I’m doing?

What’s your recruiting process?

There are many other factors, but essentially there are a few contributors to influencer recruiting:

1. Relevancy-and-effort to ask ratio. It has to be timely and on message with what they stand for. It also has to be easy for them to do. (Popular, smart people are busy!)

2. Clever or humorous. Nothing cuts through the crap like humor, but most of all be a real person when you communicate, not salesy, pushy, or entitled.

3. You are a known entity. Having a reputation in the industry or, better yet, previous personal contact, is very valuable.

4. Vision of the project. Be able to articulate what their involvement will do for them personally, but also how it will help others.

5. Create influencer projects so good and so well known, people compete to be involved.

It comes down to being relevant, interesting, and respectful, and to deliver a great experience that results in a desire for more.

You are known for stylish content. Why is style important to content?

Packaging of content has everything to do with the content experience for readers on several levels.

In a sea of information overload, visual themes, metaphors, and style are also a differentiator for content.

There’s a lot more “sameness” in most people’s feeds, so anything that presents a unique look can stand out more.

Check out Lee’s latest:


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15 Responses to What’s the Formula for E-book Success?

  1. Lee Odden says:

    Thank you for writing and sharing this Ann – it is a pleasure to work with you and be the subject of your shining light 🙂

  2. Hi Ann

    I read this article with so much interest and I love your analogy with Alice, the Mad Hatter etc. As you say, the stories are still incredibly relevant to marketing and the psychology of selling, etc.

    I wrote a blog about landing pages a few months back and used the story of the Mad Hatter, the Hall of Mirrors & the bottle of Magic Potion to explain how marketers should entice their clients / customers into buying from them. I’d be so grateful if you would read my article & let me have your thoughts:

    Kindest regards

  3. Pingback: What’s the Formula for E-book Success? | ...

  4. Imtiaz Ahmed says:

    Hi, Ann, thanks for sharing this nice content. I will follow your formula for e-book Success?

  5. Lenny says:

    Hi Ann! Great article! We also have an ebook for our open source software, and a great part of the success of our ebook is because we donate the benefits to an organisation that offers technology we use. They participate in our proyect, and we offer them the benefits ot the ebook. Everybody wins 🙂

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  7. Kim Hardy says:

    Hi Ann,

    I simply love this post. I’m in the process of kick-starting my blog to optimize my business as a speaker and author, and this was just what I needed to hear.

    Keep up the good work.

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  11. Hi Ann,

    If you are an Alice fan you may like to read my Kindle book: Alice’s Great, Great, Great Grandson, Alic, in Underland. I’ve always liked to make puns, stretch logic and investigate language. This book does it all! I hope you enjoy it. If you do, please spread the news!

    Kind regards

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