Model workmen cutting to the core content of a peanutI have a list of dictates that make my nonfiction writing students hate me. (It’s OK: they eventually stop hating me when their writing improves out of sight and they begin to sell their work. Until then, I can live with it.) Among these dictates, which include shearing off huge chunks of text and asking, “So what? Who cares?” as they write, is this:

Get specific. More specific. More specific. No – more specific than that. Really specific.

When they’re at the point where they’re ready to begin screaming uncontrollably, that usually means they’ve got specific enough. And in the process, have learned the difference between a topic and an article idea.

It’s a difference that can make all the difference in your content marketing strategy and creation.

Big and little, general and specific

So what is the difference between a topic and an article idea?

Essentially, topics are vast and encompass big ideas. They are also very general.

Article ideas, on the other hand, are small and include one small aspect of a much bigger idea. Although they derive from topics, they are highly specific.

Suppose you’ve been a practising psychologist now for many years, and have seen all kinds of human dysfunction. Knowing the depth and breath of human dysfunction, you might well be tempted to write a blog post entitled “How to not be a screwup”. Sure, there are enough people out there who really want to avoid being a screwup at all costs, but what you’ll find when you sit down to write it is that it’s actually a massive subject (see “depth and breath of human dysfunction”, above) and impossible to cover in the ideal 500-1500 words of a blog post, unless it’s in the most general of terms. That’s because it’s a topic, not an article idea.

If you do manage to write an article on this topic, chances are you won’t find an audience for the piece. Why? Because “general of terms” is another way of saying “boring”. As a wise writer once told me, “Nobody wants to read 50 or 50,000 words on a topic”. You need to get specific, and then elaborate on the specifics.

You could narrow “How not to be a screwup” to “How not to screw up your relationships.” Better, but still huge. How about “How not to screw up your marriage”? Now you’re getting somewhere, but it’s still big. You started off with something the size of the Outback, and now you have something the size of Tasmania. What you want is something the size of your cousin Raelene’s cubby house that she had in a backyard in a Tasmanian suburb back in ’75. So you think some more, and remember that a recent study revealed that the “honeymoon period” is a myth, and the most miserable time in a married couple’s life is the first 12 months. And now you have something: “How to not screw up your first 12 months of marriage.” Except you call it something sexy like, “The Honeymoon Myth: how to survive the first 12 months of married life and set up a loving and passionate foundation for a joyous life together.” And the audience goes wild!

But that’s only the start. Because just as importantly, you realise that you could write highly specific variations on “How not to be screwup” for the rest of your life. You needn’t wonder any more what the hell you’re going to write about this week because suddenly you have more ideas than you can handle. What you’ve done, in fact, is discovered the power of core content.

Core content and derivative assets

When most people think of content, they tend to think about blog posts, videos, social media posts, and so on. But that is a small picture view, and one that can get you stuck really quickly, with no great results to show. The big picture view, on the other hand, focuses on core content (also known as foundation, or anchor content) and its derivations. It allows you to plan, create, and manage content that is consistently brilliant, and brilliantly consistent. In other words, the only content that matters.

Core content revolves around your topics. It takes the form of an original piece that comes from primary and secondary research and thought leadership, and includes your values and vision. It’s long form and in-depth, and the kind of thing you would only share with your audience every now and then, if at all. It represents your Big Ideas, and supports corporate objectives and marketing themes.

Just like article ideas come from topics, derivative assets come from core content. Once you have core content, you can mine it, almost indefinitely, for all the derivative assets (eg. blogs, infographics, Slideshares, webinars, presentations, video, podcasts, newsletters) you want and need. And the secret to mining it almost indefinitely? You’ve got it:

Get specific. More specific. More specific. More specific than that. Really specific.

Core Content

Based on resource from

You need both core content and derivative assets

It’s wholly possible to create assets and nothing else. But I’m forewarning you, right here, right now, that it is one of the toughest things you can do.

While it’s a given that you should always strive for excellence in your content marketing, excellence alone isn’t enough. Joe Pulizzi, the godfather of content marketing, says that consistency is the key to the success of content marketing. He also says that most brands fail at it.

The big guns fail at consistency. The small ones fail at consistency. Some of this can (and should) be fixed with planning, but keep in mind that we’re not just talking consistent publishing, but consistency across the board: consistency in quality, consistency in messaging, consistency in voice and tone, consistency in delivery, and so on. Content marketing works like nothing else does, and Seth Godin tells us that “it’s the only kind of marketing left”, but it is also the long, hard get of marketing: it takes between 12 and 18 months for it to work. So think about this. You may have ideas for some great assets, but do you have enough of them for the required level of consistency over the course of 12-18 months? Current statistics say that you probably don’t.

The only thing that will ensure consistency, and therefore your success in content marketing, is having substantial core content from which you create invaluable derivative assets for your audience and market.

Consistency, however, is just the beginning.

The benefits of core content

I’ve already talked about how core content can provide you with almost endless ideas, and the consistency that you need for your content marketing to succeed. As if that weren’t enough, if you dig down a little further, you’ll see that there’s even more to it than that.

Core content saves you time and money. Derivative assets take less time and, if you have a content creator on board, less money to create.

Core content gives you the basis for both the plan and the process. Because your core content includes corporate objectives and marketing themes, it gives you a solid base for the planning and process of your content marketing strategy.

Core content makes incredibly valuable derivative assets. Valuable for your audience and market, because you are providing highly specific information they want and need, and valuable to your business, because they are aligned to your marketing and corporate objectives.

Core content reaches more people. Not only can you repurpose core content to encompass every type of derivative asset and platform that exists, you can also customise it for different market segments and personas (and therefore, voices).

Core content drives people into your database, funnel, or pipeline. Core content can be workmanlike and plain, and strictly reference material. But make it fit for client consumption, and it will become an invaluable piece of gated content that people will clamour to access in exchange for their email address.

Finally, some home truths

Core content is brilliant. It can do so, so much for you and your business. The only problem? It takes a lot of time, effort, planning, and yes, sometimes money investment to create. It isn’t easy. Very little in content marketing, if it’s going to work for you, is.

But if you care about your business, your content marketing, and your clients, you’ll do it. End of.

Hate me for saying that?

Create your content and your derivative assets, and we’ll talk again in a year or so. Until then, I can live with it.


Violeta Balhas is a self described Content and communications boffin | Word wrangler | Inveterate trainer | Teller of tales | Author | Purveyor of brilliant ideas E: P: 0433-905-615

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