Build How-To Material to Grow Relationships

Inbound Marketing Summit San Francisco 09 I’m at the Inbound Marketing Summit where we’ve heard from lots of great speakers. One constant that keeps coming up is that people want to know how to do some of the cool new things in online marketing and business communications. Actually, there are two threads that I’m seeing from my conference audience in how they relate to our speakers.

People want “how-to” information, and they want it to be entertaining.

Is this any different than you’d imagine?

Think about this with the content you’re creating. Are your blogs thought pieces or are they how-to pieces? The first (like this post) make you think a bit, or think differently, or confirm (or disavow) your opinion. But can you do something with this? No, not really.

So the trick is this: create “how-to” information that people want, and that people will want to share. The goal of this information is to be helpful, but subgoals include getting the information spread out to more people, and also getting more people interested in a business relationship with you.

Want some examples? Here are a few of mine:

50 Ways to Take Your Blog to the Next Level

27 Blogging Secrets to Power Your Community

In both cases, these are how-to pages. They both reached big audiences. They both drove traffic through sharing, re-sharing, bookmarking, and more. But they also created goodwill by being free and helpful pieces of information.

I find this works very well, both as a professional speaker, as well as when you create good blogging (or podcasting or video or otherwise) media. Giving people tools and ideas and actionable next steps for their own value is a powerful differentiator.

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  • Andi Narvaez

    I agree. Particularly with the “actionable” part. Some How-To posts are more on the “let me tease you with this idea and then leave you with nothing” but a How-To post done right can go a long way for all involved.

  • Evelyn So

    Definitely find that there is a huge demand for how-to info. People like to have take-aways (from blog or events) that they can apply right away. The key is to make sure the level of how-to fits the audience. Sometimes it may not be possible to gauge their level of knowledge before you blog/give a talk. Making sure the topic is clear is important, so people know if they will be reading/attending 101, advanced, etc…

    Good post as always, Chris.

  • Jenna Boller


    I couldn't agree more and it's great to hear from you and the crowd at IMS that “how-to's” are in high demand. When I blogged about “5 Things You Need to Know About Social Media Marketing and PR,” the post was 400% more successful than other posts I've written with a case study view of a successful social media campaign. Tips rock!

  • tara

    great post and a great reminder! i just finished a series of “how-to” posts on blogging for handmade sellers.

    it was very well received and created lots of opportunities for me as a freelancer – exactly what i wanted!

  • dshan

    I could not agree more. I've been back and forth with a very smart friend of mine, who's in real estate. The RE scene is froth with 'experts' who are telling RE Agents to drive traffic…SEO, linkbait, blog rings. In my mind, it's wasted effort because it's inherently dishonest…in the old Google world the authority was established with technical trickery. In the new economy, relevance and usefulness are kind; give people something they can use and your brand and ability to ask for tangible business is inherently enhanced.

    I don't even work in real estate, but I'm telling my friend to be a thought leader in providing useful tools and tips to potential buyers; help buyers BE BETTER BUYERS. everyone wants to feel like they got the best deal…help people be better buyers and they will BUY FROM YOU.

  • Jill

    Thanks for this Chris – A “how-to” post or article certainly is the easiest way to lead into a “call to action”.

    As some of the comments before me have already pointed out, when writing a “how to”, don't assume your reader already knows the basics. I have often made that mistake.

    Just because certain steps of a how to topic may seem so simple to me that “everyone should know”, does not necessarily mean they do. If they are reading a “How To” article or post, it is usually because they don't yet know.

    It is also a great idea to offer a series of how-to articles on a subject, starting with the very basic and then adding an intermediate and advanced. This could actually be a great way to end up with a complete book.

  • @jenhalloran

    Agreed! Most folks like to try before they buy (product, service, expertise, etc.) — and providing useful how-to info does just that.

    Case in point — I recently downloaded a free eBook that I found tremendously useful. The author made a point of saying it was completely free, no strings attached, but gave a few Paypal options if you were so inclined. When I'd finished the book, I went back to the site and paid for it, not out of guilt but because I definitely got as much from her book as I'd have gotten at a similarly themed conference (where I'd no doubt have paid a LOT more).

    But admittedly, I would not have paid at the outset –then we'd BOTH have lost.

  • Rhishja Larson

    I agree 100%. I really enjoy sharing how-tos.

    An odd side benefit: I just had a client ask me to write a custom toolkit for her, because she liked the simple tips I post in my blog every now and again.

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  • John Moore

    Thanks for sharing another great post, Chris. I continue to learn about how to improve my blog and your words of wisdom always play a part in moving it forward. During my short time blogging I have seen the following types of post always be well viewed:

    - Anything to do about Twitter. I started a survey to choose the best Twitter client and have been hammered with views and a decent level of voting:

    However, anything on this topic is a hit.

    - Somewhat detailed how-tos, mostly focused on SharePoint and CRM, people always spend a lot of time review. These hows tos are in my focus area.

    - Any information on hiring or interviewing. The economy is tough and these focused how-tos fit with my target topic area of management.

    I have also seen, to your point, how poorly articles do when you stray from your main message. When I have written anything that is off-topic I tend to be one of the few readers. :-)

    Thank you for the lessons.

    John Moore

  • @JoshHurlock

    The key is to add value. If this is with how-to information then so be it. At the same time, one has to check into the credibility of this how-to information. Does this person really know what he or she is talking about? If so, then build and form a solid relationship of giving and taking value- which is the key to making a splash on the social media scene.

  • Karen Chaffee

    I agree…people want more than opinions and stationary information. They want to know “how.”

  • seamuswalsh

    Chris, many already have a ton of materials online/offline out there, here is a short assessment tool that can measure “how well” your existing content stacks up.

  • derekshowerman

    Chris, I have found making goals to be useful. Then as I learn, share what I have learned. Thus the “how-to” articles sort of come organically from my own professional goals.

  • williamarruda

    Hello Chris, I have found that my 'how to' personal branding presentations are requested 4 times out of five over my motivational speeches – and this is across all kinds of organizations in all countries. The speed of change and innovation has made people/businesses painfully aware that they need to learn and grow every day or they will become obsolete.


  • MrGoogleAlerts

    People want more than just How To posts, they want it to be highly specific for their needs. I've written general purpose tutorials on marketing with Google Alerts, but I find that it is the highly targeted posts that get the best response. For example, when I wrote a post that gave detailed instructions on <a href=:“>reputation management for hospitals, it got retweeted widely among health care marketers. So my advice is to be industry specific whenever possible.

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  • Angela Connor

    I held a session at the High Point Furniture Market in High Point, NC on Tuesday called “Making Social Media Work for You”and my audience was captivated with the “how-to” advice I offered. You are so right about this. It seemed that whenever I gave specific examples on how to do something I'd just suggested, everyone started taking notes and so many questions came after. I would say “Stop depending on traditional media” and then offer ways they could uses social media to decrease that dependency and that seemed to be the value. I've done these types of posts on my blog but not nearly enough. I will post more of this, because I find that I gravitate to those types of posts myself. Good post, Chris. Thanks.
    Angela Connor | @communitygirl

  • Greg

    I know personally that I am much more likely to read a post if it is going to teach me something. If someone is just giving their opinion on something I tend to ignore it unless it affects me directly. But if there is a “How To” post or a list post I am much more likely to stop and read it.

  • Don Lafferty

    I don't usually like to come here just to kiss your…bald head, but on this, I couldn't agree more. This is exactly what I spend my time doing because no matter what conversation I have regarding social media, it always comes back to nuts and bolts.

    There's no denying an airplane is the best way to travel cross country, but I'm glad somebody takes the time to teach pilots how to fly them.

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  • EH

    Thanks for the post, I totally agree for the need for “how-to's.” People want to feel like they are receiving value, something that will help them with what they are trying to do and how to articles are the perfect way of delivering that.

  • Dr. V

    Wow, I see everyone here agrees with you (what's new?) but on this one, I disagree.

    I do see that people want “how-to” information. Easy recipes for success.

    However, sometimes what they need is different from what they want.

    I'm an academic, so I frustrate these expectations, because I don't believe in easy recipes – just because something worked in one case, it doesn't necessarily mean it will work in another one. The thirst for “how-to” information often leads to oversimplification and overgeneralization. Communication is complex. There are no easy recipes, rules, and formulas. We have to learn to think through ambiguity, uncertainty, and unpredictability.

    So instead of “how-to” I give people frameworks for thinking, making sense of their own situations – frameworks that can help them decide what's the best thing to do given their situation, their client, their audiences. Sometimes these frameworks are … (gasp!) communication theories.

    So the point is? Think twice. The thirst and unquestioned enthusiasm for “how-to” information does have its downsides. Sometimes information that makes you think & gives you a headache might be (also) useful, even if it's not an easy entertaining recipe.

  • Stuartfoster

    Thanks Chris! I was struggling to figure out a topic today and a “How To” just seemed to be the best way to go. Thanks for the inspiration.

  • Fabulous Photo Gifts

    Hi Chris.

    Your point about giving people the tools to help themselves…. That's exactly what I do with our photo gifts blog.

    What started as another place to shout about our products and service quickly diversified into general gift gossip and news. In addition, I like to write what I hope are useful seo articles based on our own experiences and results to help other (small businesses in particular) but anyone really.

    I've also, as I've expanded the customisation of our blog and website shared these 'how-to's' with the general audience.

    At first I was uncertain about this strategy as after all, I may be giving potential competitors the same tools that i'd spent ages searching for an implementing.

    However, it's pleasing to note that one of our most visited articles is one we wrote – not about photo gifts but about adding social bookmarking icons to your blog footer.

    So yes, it does help you overall if you're willing to share.

    Jonathan. (our blog).

  • jtreadway

    This is a good post. People often want more “how do I do this?” info. Sometimes it's important to give them what they need, not necessarily what they want.

    For example – there are hundreds of books, blogs, magazines, etc. about how to start a business, write PHP code, build a better blog, etc. One result is that people spend all of their time reading when they could learn so much more by doing. I got my MBA in Entrepreneurship, but nothing I learned in those two years came close to what I learned in the first two months in a startup.

    Instead of “learning” how to be an entrepreneur, someone should have given me the confidence – the motivation – to just do it. Instead, I learned, delayed, gained experience inside other companies. Listening to a “How To” talk is nice, but just getting out there and doing it is 10x more valuable.

  • Jamie Favreau

    I will say my very young blog seems to do better when I am trying to teach something.

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  • frank barry

    How to be engaging, entertaining and give useful 'how-to' information … that's what preachers have been trying to figure out for years :)

    Tougher to talk about than to actually do it though. I'm starting to speak more and i find my self continually trying to figure out what is the best way to engage the audience and leave them feeling like they got what they wanted/needed out of my presentation/talk. tough!

    @Chris … i would LOVE to see some examples of good 'how-to' slides, talks, etc… or see a follow up post about what you noticed.

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  • Jared O'Toole

    Agreed. How-to's are the way to go to get people talking. But it can be tough to make them entertaining. I think a 1st step is to start making the how-tos then once you get good at that start shaping them into more entertaining and truly eye catching posts

  • Veronica

    Please God, don't ever make me have to read 50 ways to take your blog to the next level.
    10 would be my limit at one sitting.

  • Erik Folgate

    I try to do a balance of “thought” pieces and “how-to” pieces, because I believe that google searchers are looking for an article to teach them something and your core group of readers are looking for your opinion or thoughts on a certain subject or area of interest.

  • MandyStepheny

    Your article is very good.I have the same belief with you.

  • MandyStepheny

    Your article is very good.I have the same belief with you.

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