5 Content Marketing Lessons from David Ogilvy

Maybe content marketing isn’t as trendy as we thought. Here are 5 timeless gems of advice from the Father of Advertising, David Ogilvy.
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David Ogilvy (1911­–1999) was a seminal figure in 20th century advertising. British born and educated, he joined Mather & Crowther, a London ad firm run by his brother, before going on to be a researcher for Gallup, a solider, and a farmer. In 1948 he opened a New York firm, Hewitt, Ogilvy, Benson & Mather (which eventually became Ogilvy & Mather).

David Ogilvy held that the function of advertising is to sell and that successful advertising for any product is based on information about its consumer. He also believed that advertisers should respect the intelligence of the customer; in 1955, he coined the phrase, “The customer is not a moron; she’s your wife.”

Ogilvy was called the “father of advertising” and in 1962, Time magazine called him “the most sought-after wizard in today’s advertising industry.” Years later, not only does Ogilvy remain relevant, but his advice is (still) like gold.

Ogilvy was the pioneer of soft sell ads that educated and entertained buyers. In fact, the first ad he conceived when he started his eponymous agency was the “Guinness Guide to Oysters” (Peter Geer was the copywriter.)

It was advertising, but they’d have called it content marketing then, if anyone had been using the term in 1950.

Five content marketing lessons from David Ogilvy:

1. Create amazing headlines.

“On the average, five times as many people read the headline as read the body copy. When you have written your headline, you have spent eighty cents out of your dollar.” – David Ogilvy

As Ogilvy points out, your headline is the first (and sometimes the only) thing that your audience will read. So if your headline is weak, nothing else that you’ve written matters. Here are a few tips for creating higher-performing headlines.

  • Offer up evidence to support a claim. For example, this post from Inc.com, “10 Productivity Strategies Backed by Science,” captured over 1,100 shares. The headline does a great job of proving to readers that the article is worth their time. (And it begins with a number, which is notes a few paragraphs below.)
  • Share a lesson. Share experience through a headline to capture attention and illustrate a lesson. For example, use a “What I Learned” format. Entrepreneur magazine used this strategy with the headline, “What I Learned from Being a Broke, Unemployed Graduate,” which captured over 1,600 shares.
  • Use numbers in your headline. Our brains love lists. Moreover, it appears that the number that you select for your list can affect content performance. In fact, many marketers claim that odd-length list articles are preferred — and they might be right. Research evaluating 10,000 published listicles over a period of three months found a significant difference between the performance of odd-length listicles and even-length ones. So when you have a choice, always select an odd-numbered list.
  • Use stats in your headline. And finally, use a compelling stat in your headline (especially if the stat is difficult to believe). For example, Co-Schedule recently used this headline in their article: “This Is the Social Media Posting Schedule That Will Boost Your Traffic By 192 Percent,” which captured 409 shares.

David Ogilvy used this tactic decades ago, when he wrote “Now Puerto Rico Offers 100 Percent Tax Exemption to New Industry.”

2. Make your content funny.

“The best ideas come as jokes. Make your thinking as funny as possible.”
David Ogilvy

Content should be fun. So take Ogilvy’s advice and remember that the best ideas come in a package that makes you laugh. You can take these ideas, infuse them into your content and make it more fun to consume. Here are a few tips.

  • Use the low-hanging fruit. The easiest (and most strategic) place to make content entertaining is in the introduction. Tell a story or crack a joke. This will give you a strong start, but don’t lose your momentum — continue to weave personality and wit throughout the piece.
  • Get creative with images. The majority of your readers are visual learners (in fact, about 64 percent). Add life to your content by selecting images that are entertaining and funny, and that move your reader easily through the piece.
  • Don’t overlook the mundane. Things that are routine and mundane are funny. Take, for example, Jerry Seinfeld. He uses the common example of airplane seatbelts here.

Use examples your readers can relate to in their daily lives. Most people have heard a safety presentation on a plane, so the video above resonates.

3. Test, test and test some more.

“Never stop testing, and your advertising will never stop improving.”
David Ogilvy

Ogilvy knew that to understand whether you were capturing maximum impact from each dollar spent – you had to test. So don’t rely on intuition alone with your content marketing efforts; instead, develop strategies for testing and measuring each piece of content that you release. Here are a few steps for getting started:

  • Use A/B tests for a variety of factors. For example, you may want to play with elements on the page, such as the “suggested posts” at the end of a blog. You may find that changing this one element keeps readers on the page longer and generates greater results.
  • Test headlines. You should test different headlines styles to determine which resonates best with your target audience. Do list articles perform better, or do “how to” formats? Find out.
  • Test graphics. Marketers often think to split test headlines or other elements, but as mentioned before, the bulk of readers are visual learners. So don’t forget to consider graphic elements, such as visuals. For example, SAP used A/B testing to determine if using thumbnail pictures would boost interest in its company news spotlight. Testing revealed that it boosted engagement by 62 percent.

So take Ogilvy’s advice and continue to test different elements of your content marketing to ensure that each and every piece is achieving optimal performance.

4. Create content that engages.

“Do not … address your readers as though they were gathered together in a stadium. When people read your copy, they are alone. Pretend you are writing to each of them a letter on behalf of your client.” – David Ogilvy

Your audience is inundated with massive amounts of content each day. They are in shock … content shock. And if you want to make an impact, you need to make your content feel more personal. Each person must feel like you are speaking to them on an individual level. Here are a few tips for accomplishing this.

  • Tell a story. For example, Dove does a good example of this. In the past, they have focused on telling stories about beauty, usually targeted toward women. But recently, they started telling men’s stories as well, such as the one below of a dad coming home from the service to see his child. Find the stories that will resonate best with your target audience.
  • Use visual aids. Add infographics, videos and other visual elements to your content marketing to boost engagement. Or even better, repurpose some of your existing content to create visuals. For example, transform a SlideShare into an infographic.
  • Create content that is longer. Although it’s counterintuitive, content that is longer actually performs better. Yet 85 percent of content is less than 1,000 words. If you check out popular sites such as QuickSprout, Unbounce and Copy Hackers, you’ll find that all their content is longer (and generally performs well).

5. Relate to customers … be conversational.

“If you’re trying to persuade people to do something, or buy something, it seems to me you should use their language, the language they use every day, the language in which they think.” – David Ogilvy

Nothing is worse than reading content that says, “At XYZ Company, the leading (something-or-other), we strive to provide our customers with (insert adjectives and verbs here).” Instead, relate to your target audience. But how do you know what language your audience is using?

  • Interview your customers. A great type of content to create is a case study; also, this type of content helps you listen to customers and understand the language used to describe their problems. Then you can integrate this language into your content marketing efforts. Get permission to record the interview, so you can listen to it later, and listen specifically for language.
  • Social listening. Many of your customers are spending time online, but where are they hanging out? Maybe it’s a targeted LinkedIn group or Twitter. Spend time where they’re at and take note of the language they’re using in those places.
  • Studying the competition. Who is doing well in your niche? Check out how they’re engaging and speaking to customers through content marketing. Are their efforts working?

If you take the time to understand your customers’ challenges, listen to their problems, learn their language, and create content that adds value and makes their lives easier, then you will naturally create deeper and more engaging relationships with your customers.

Moving Forward Differently

It’s helpful to look at what other brands and people are doing to find inspiration. But as Ogilvy also said, “Talent, I believe, is most likely to be found among nonconformists, dissenters and rebels.” So don’t be afraid to try something new, do something different and discover new strategies that help your content marketing reach new heights.

Do you have any Ogilvy-inspired lessons in content marketing? If so, please share below.

Photo of David MacKenzie Ogilvy courtesy of the Advertising Hall of Fame, used under a Creative Commons license.

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