The 2017 Content Excellence Challenge: Your January Assignments

New Year, New You? Or Nah?

Woot! This is our first “official” pair of prompts for the 2017 Content Excellence Challenge. (In December we were just getting warmed up …)

The January Prompts

  • Creative: Brainstorm 20-30 headlines for possible content. Incorporate as many ideas as you can from the ebook and articles below. Every day in January, try to come up with 2-3 more headline ideas.
  • Habit: Every day, plan your next day’s “important first thing” task. This should be something you can work on for about one “pomodoro,” or about 25 minutes.

In this 23-minute episode, I talk about:

  • Why I’m not a fan of “New Year, New You” messages
  • Why smart, ethical content creators need to get very good at marketing
  • 5 rules of thumb to keep in mind when you’re crafting your headlines
  • A sure way to get your headlines to bomb, and where to use those skills instead
  • Our first official “rule” of the challenge (and no, it’s definitely not “Don’t talk about content challenge”)
  • What to do if you forget to work on your prompts for a few days (or more)

The Show Notes

The 2017 Content Excellence Challenge: Your January Assignments

Voiceover: Rainmaker FM.

Sonia Simone: Copyblogger FM is brought to you by StudioPress, the industry standard for premium WordPress themes and plugins. Built on the Genesis Framework, StudioPress delivers state-of-the-art SEO tools, beautiful and fully responsive design, airtight security, instant updates, and much more.

If you’re ready to take your WordPress site to the next level, see for yourself why more than 190,000 website owners trust StudioPress. Go to Rainmaker.FM/StudioPress.

Well, hey there. It is excellent to see you again. Welcome back to Copyblogger FM, the content marketing podcast. Copyblogger FM is about emerging content marketing trends, interesting disasters, and enduring best practices, along with the occasional rant.

My name is Sonia Simone. I am the chief content officer for Rainmaker Digital, and I like to hang out with the folks who do the heavy lifting over on the Copyblogger blog. You can always pick up extra links, resources, and show notes by going to Copyblogger.FM in your browser. That will also get you to the complete archive for the show.

Welcome back after the Christmas break. It is excellent to see you again. I missed you madly. I hope you had a great little break during the time away.

Why Sonia’s Not a Fan of “New Year, New You” Messages

Today, of course, it’s a New Year episode. So we’re going to talk about ‘new year, new you’ resolutions, all that stuff. This is the time of year when we all decide collectively that we’re going to be entirely different people.

We are no longer going to eat any sugar, and we are no longer going to dribble our lives away, getting into fights with racist people’s uncles on Facebook. We’re going to floss every day, we’re going to exercise, and we’re going to think charitable thoughts. And we’re going to be completely different, more shiny and virtuous human beings.

Except as you know and I know: Yeah, no, we won’t. I’m not saying that we never get to recreate ourselves or that we never do create a new you; we never recreate ourselves, reimagine ourselves. It does happen.

It happens gradually. It happens cell by cell. It happens over time. Sudden change is typically associated with trauma, and your brain normally, actually correctly, is terrified of it.

Real change, lasting change, true deep change very rarely comes from these New Year–style resolutions, these all-or-nothing promises we make to ourselves. And we’re breaking them sometime around January 3rd, January 4th. It certainly has been known to happen that we make big changes all at once, but it’s rare and often it’s not by choice. And that’s really not what we’re about.

The other thing I happen to dislike about this whole ‘new year, new you’ kind of message is that it rests on an assumption that the old you just ain’t cutting it. And in 2017, I really think that for most of us, it’s exactly the wrong approach.

So do be useful, do be interesting, and do respect your fellow human beings. Get the bases covered, and then from there, let go of all this nonsense about trying to be some kind of plastic, perfect human being. Because not only are you not going to get there, but nobody actually wants it anyway.

I hereby give you permission to quit trying to fix everything that’s wrong with you. If you’re not useful, interesting, or you don’t respect your fellow humans, fix one of those three. Other than that, let’s work with what you’ve got and try and make it better.

Introducing the Content Excellence Prompts

You might remember, middle last month I kicked off something on the Copyblogger blog that I grandiosely called the 2017 Content Excellence Challenge. This is a combination of writing prompts and then habit prompts.

The design here is to get all of us with a better skill set for 2017 and a better set of habits or practices, so that we can produce more work, get more done, and just be happier with how things are going.

This week we’re going to start our first official prompts. In December, we had some to play with, noodle around with. Because it was December, and December is nuts for most of us.

This week we’re going to start our first official prompts for January. Our writing prompts for this month are going to be around headlines.

Now you probably already know this, even if you’re never seen any official stats, but most content on the web, on social media, etc., is shared without being read.

On one hand, this is horrible. But on the other hand, it’s not as horrible as you think it is. What happens when content gets shared without being read is somebody looks at it, they make a snap judgment: “This looks useful. It looks like it will probably be kind of interesting.” And they share it.

They might share it with a friend. They might email it to a friend, or more typically they share it on social media. They might even read a sentence or two, but a lot of times that’s all they do.

What that allows is it allows your content to surf along from slightly interested person to slightly interested person until it finds your perfect person. It’s only depressing if you’re counting on every single person that shares it, having read it thoughtfully and carefully and perhaps made a few notes. We know that’s not really happening.

But it does find the perfect person for that piece of content. It is actually a pretty good way to locate that person who is really resonating with what you have to say. Really resonating with the kind of problem that you solve.

It seems depressing at first, but it’s actually a cool way the content pinballs around the web until it finds the person that it’s meant for. But that will not happen if you suck at headlines.

Good headlines are essential to allowing this to happen, to allowing that content to surf along until it finds the exact perfect person. It also does cool things, like it makes it more likely that somebody will click on your article if they’re doing a Google search. And you end up on the page, but maybe not at the top of the page.

It makes it easier if you wanted to run some advertising to your content. People are more likely to click on it. In 2017, we need decent headlines on our content.

The Importance of Avoiding Cheap, Weak Headlines

I’ve got a couple of don’ts before we get to the dos. The first don’t is don’t create misleading headlines. Don’t create clickbait, fake news baloney. Do not write headlines that are not supported by the actual content. Because it’s lame, it’s cheap, and it’s weak.

Also related to this, don’t actually write fake news. Don’t write lies. Don’t say things that are false. We are in enough trouble as it is. So, please everybody, let’s respect reality.

But when you are writing something that’s worth reading or creating a podcast that’s worth listening to, I want you to put a really solid, interesting, compelling headline on it. Because good work should get a wider audience. It deserves it.

Fact-based work should drive action. It should be what people share, and it should be what people read. Being incompetent at marketing doesn’t make you virtuous, it just makes you ineffective. And we need good people to be effective.

By the way, lest you think that I am letting one side of the other off the hook here, both sides of the political spectrum in the United States — and also in the UK and also in Europe, and also everywhere else on the planet — share stupid baloney. This is not something one set of people does and the other set of people are way too smart.

Why Smart, Ethical Content Creators Need to Get Very Good at Marketing

Everybody shares nonsense. We need to knock it off. Which means that good stuff and people like you who are creating real content that’s ethical and tells the truth need to step up our marketing game. We need to put our big-person underpants on, and we need to learn how to compete in the marketplace of attention.

It’s actually really important. It’s important to us individually, and it’s important to your audience.

Copyblogger is known for headlines. We have a lot of materials to help you out with headlines. We have a very cool ebook. It is free. You just go sign up for it, and you get immediate access to it in our content marketing library.

We also have lots of articles, so I will share all kinds of links with you. All you have to do is put Copyblogger.FM in your browser, and you’ll be zoomed automatically by virtue of the Internet to the right page to get all those links. You can also just go over to, look at the blog, and find my blog post there, and I’ll put the links for you there also.

5 Rules of Thumb to Keep in Mind When You’re Crafting Your Headlines

I’ll give you a couple of rules of thumb, just to get your engines going. The first thing, the first technique if you will, that you want to do with headlines is you just want to learn. You want to get ideas for good headline structures by looking at what’s working already.

It’s really useful if when you look at a headline that does get good traction, try and figure out why it’s working. Is it really making a big promise to the reader? Is it commanding attention with maybe an unusual word choice? Try and figure out why it might be working.

If you have a decent idea, a lot of times you can just take that headline and swap in your own information. In fact, there’s a technique that copywriters use. Brian Clark wrote about it ages ago.

Sometimes called the Cosmo technique, where you just pick up a popular magazine that’s good at headlines. Find one that jumps out at you. And then you put your topic and your information into that headline structure, and then write a piece around it.

This is also incidentally a great way to come up with a post idea, if you’re just really dying for one this week and you haven’t come up with anything good.

Back in the day, when I was publishing my personal blog, Remarkable Communication, I wrote a post called 50 Things Your Customers Wish You Knew. It was just ripped off right from a Cosmo headline. It was like ‘50 Things Guys Wish You Knew.’ It was a tremendous post. Actually, it was great fun to write, to come up with all these things. It was a real exercise in creativity. It also just went crazy, that post did so well.

That’s something you can do. You can take a strong headline that’s working, that you find interesting, and then you can shape a good piece of content to fit the headline. There’s nothing wrong with that. Writing the headline first — time-honored copywriting technique and works really well.

The second principle of good headlines is you always have to be able to back it up. You don’t want to run thin, weak content under a powerful headline, because all that does is get the word out really quickly about how crummy your content is. Make sure that your headline is not writing a check that your content can’t cash.

Third good headline principle is to experiment with how strongly you word it. Sometimes, with some audiences and some markets, it’s useful to actually step back the hype one or two clicks. You also want to be careful about the new clichés, like ‘You won’t believe what happened next.’ It worked really well for three weeks, and then it became a self-mocking statement.

A Sure Way to Get Your Headlines to Bomb, and Where to Use Those Skills Instead

Related to that: Fourth headline principle is to avoid doing things just because they’re clever, because they’re an in-joke, or because you’re being ironic. Like running headlines saying ‘You won’t believe what happened next.’

All of these things — cleverness, in-jokes, and irony — can work really well in content. They can work beautifully in content. But they usually bomb in headlines, unless you know your audience very well.

Typically headlines want to be clear, and you want to promise something that actually matters to the person reading the article or listening to the podcast.

Then the fifth principle of good headlines is you watch what works for your situation. Not in my situation, or BuzzFeed or ProBlog, or anything else, but what’s working well for you.

Take a look at your email platform — which messages are getting opened, which blog posts are getting more traction, more traffic, more comments, more shares — and do more of what works. Do less of what doesn’t work for you.

We can give you all kinds of starting points, and we can give you all kinds of general ideas of best practices. But everybody has to establish our own best practices for our own specific set of circumstances.

It does definitely happen that what works well for you might not work well for me, and vice versa. That’s the background on headlines.

In January’s writing prompt, first thing that I would love for you to do is to come up with 20 headlines for the next thing you want to write. Could be the thing you’re writing right now, could be the next piece. Maybe more than 20 headlines.

Feel free to use that Cosmo technique to come up with some ideas. You can actually just go to a site like and just look at issues of popular magazines for interesting headline structures. And then think of what really good pieces of content could you create that would fulfill the promise of those headlines.

Do go ahead and pick up our headline ebook, because that will also give you some good structures, some good principles you can use. And just brainstorm 20, 30 headlines. Then every day this month, every day in January, I would really recommend just brainstorm a couple more — two, three, four a day. Just keep a big long list of headline ideas.

Some of them can be silly or crazy. Actually, sometimes the crazy ones end up working really well. Try and incorporate all the headline techniques you learn from the Copyblogger posts, from the headline ebook. Try and incorporate those techniques. I will get you those links again at Copyblogger.FM, or you can pick them up at the Copyblogger blog.

That is our writing prompt. It might not seem creative, but it absolutely is creative. Working on headlines is an interesting blend of art and craft. More to the point, if you are wonderful at headlines, your content is going to do better.

Copyblogger is really marked by how many gifted, talented content creators listen to the podcast and read the blog. I want you guys to get more eyes and ears on your content, because it’s worth the attention. I want you to get amazingly great headlines so that your content can get more of the attention that it deserves.

Every month, in addition to a writing prompt, we’re going to do monthly habit prompts. These are tweaks and little changes that you can make with the intention of creating more, producing more, and again just being happier with how your professional life is going.

This month’s habit prompt: Today, after you finished listening to this podcast, so that might be in five or six minutes. I want you to find whatever you use for your calendar to plan out your day, and I want you to mark your highest-priority, first-thing task for tomorrow.

I also want you to set some kind of a timer, probably on your phone or your laptop or whatever, to do that every day this month. Try and get it done by lunchtime every day.

You might have an 8 a.m. meeting tomorrow, or a 7 a.m. meeting or a 6 a.m. meeting. You might be doing the school run, or you might have the dog to walk. I’m not necessarily saying that you need to do this as soon as your eyes open in the morning.

You might need to define ‘first thing.’ It’s possible that that will have different shapes depending on what day it is. Like when you have your Monday morning 8 a.m. meeting, then ‘first thing’ is first thing after the meeting. But the rest of the week, you can go ahead and do your first-thing task as the first part of your work day.

Frankly, you know yourself better than I do. If your best first-thing moment is ‘first thing after I put my kids to bed,’ I am not going to judge you. You know what works for you.

Most of us actually do well to attack one important weighty project first thing in our professional day. You can make a commitment to do this five times a week, or you might prefer to do it six times a week or seven times a week. If you can, try and make that decision today, which way you want to approach it.

Sonia’s First Official “Rule” of the Challenge (and No, It’s Definitely Not “Don’t Talk about Content Challenge”)

I’m going to introduce a challenge rule. And this rule will obtain for the entire 2017 Content Excellence Challenge, and it applies to both your writing prompt and your habit prompts.

The rule is no beating yourself up, because it really doesn’t help. If you mess up a day, if you decide “Yes, I’m going to do this,” then you do it three times, and then you forget the rest of the week and you don’t remember again until the middle of next week, just get your first-thing task identified as soon as you remember.

And then jump on it tomorrow and define what is your first-thing time. What’s the time frame you’re going to do it in? In other words, first thing after what? First thing after my first coffee? First thing after what? Then make sure you’ve got all the stuff you need.

Do you need certain reference materials? Do you need to run a session that shuts down Facebook so you can’t sneak onto Facebook. Get yourself ready for it. But get yourself ready for it the day before.

What to Do If You Forget to Work on Your Prompts for a Few Days (or More)

That’s the habit for this month, is identifying the task the day before. It would be wonderful if you do the task. That’s really good, do your best. But the habit is to prep the task the day before. If you mess up a couple of days in a row, you just get right back on it and do it again.

Sometimes you might need to reframe it. You might say, “This doesn’t seem to be working, so I’m going to have to reframe it,” “I’m going to have to rethink it,” or “I’m going to have to restructure it.”

Your habit prompt for this month is that every day, you’re going to decide what is your first-thing task for the following day. And you’re going to try hard to do that by lunch time and set up any reminders or timers that you need to do, so that you remember to do that.

Your writing prompt is to sit down, write out 20 or 30 draft headlines. Some of them will be great. Some of them will be dopey. Use all of the materials that we have to help you come up with ideas, and then every day brainstorm a couple. Brainstorm two or three, four, or five, if you’re feeling super ambitious.

If you’re into it, either right here at Copyblogger.FM or over at on the blog, you can let us know what kind of amazing headline ideas you come up with. We’d be happy to see them and hear from them.

We would also love to hear how is that going for you, identifying your first-thing task for tomorrow. By the way, when I say ‘task,’ I think sometimes we get too big with it and we think, “Well, my first thing tomorrow is going to be spend four hours cleaning the garage” or something crazy like that.

Try and make it something that can be contained within one, let’s say, 20-minute session. A Pomodoro Technique session.

I’m going to give you guys a link to a nice article I found taking exactly that approach. And he calls it ‘frog legs in a tomato reduction,’ and you’ll see why when you read the article. Very nicely done. Just a good little frame, if you need a frame or you need a little bit of productivity motivation to get you rolling.

So that’s it for your January prompts. Please do drop by. Let us know how they’re going. Let us know on the blog or the podcast how it’s working for you, and I’ll catch you next week. Take care.