I used to dislike the phrase “work smarter, not harder”. It seemed to downplay the importance of hard work while promoting taking the “easy way out”… and that didn’t jive with how I was raised by several generations that bettered their situations through honest labor.

Over the years, however, I have come to understand that “the easy way” and “the smart way” aren’t nearly as aligned as I once thought. Thinking differently and taking a less-than-obvious path takes ingenuity. It is generally far from simple. Given that there will always be more to do than could ever be done (thanks, Lion King), working smarter is practically essential in some cases, too.

Practicing content marketing is such a case. We’re often challenged to create major impact with minor investment, and frankly, decision makers frequently question the efficacy of our endeavors altogether. If we’re going to succeed, we’re going to need to be smarter about how we invest the resources we’re given in order to prove that content marketing is worth the time and effort.

We could be more strategic about how we plan up front, developing more targeted and useful content. We could adopt tools and processes that save time with content creation, scheduling and distribution. Or we could go a step further, rethinking how we do everything that we do to maximize impact. Subtle changes can have significant effect.

Where do we start? Consider a few ideas:

#1. Smarter Planning: Think in terms of “high value, low coverage” content opportunities.

Our first impulse is sometimes to see what other thought leaders or competitors are covering, and then create something similar. While this may seem like the safe route, it’s not necessarily the smart one. Consider, rather, those topics which practically no one is discussing… but which might be immensely valuable for a target audience member that can’t seem to find the information they need. Many innovations over time have come from someone recognizing an unmet need and taking the steps to fill it; your content could do the same. Not sure where to start? Consider how you could create value by taking the step no one else has—conducting firsthand research, for example—and packaging it in a way that will please your audience.

#2. Smarter Creation: Consider how to draw upon others’ expertise and influence to stand out.

Rajiv Chandrasakren, a long-time war correspondent for the Washington Post, spoke this year at Content Marketing World about how he had found an exciting new opportunity somewhere he never would have expected: writing for Starbucks. Starbucks CEO Howard Schultz wanted to write a book highlighting stories of military heroes as part of an initiative to support more military families (which included hiring thousands of veterans, building stores near bases and donating huge sums to veterans’ organizations). Schultz (smartly) realized that the best way to do justice to the stories of these brave individuals was to collaborate with one of the best military storytellers around: Mr. Chandrasakren. The result? A better product, more positive perceptions, a loyal partner in Rajiv (who continues to work for the brand on socially conscious storytelling initiatives), and ultimately, a more successful endeavor because Starbucks’ decisions makers took a non-traditional approach.

#3. Smarter Pitching: Gain broader coverage for your content with more clever pitch targeting.

Have you ever heard of the PR “waterfall effect”? I hadn’t until I listened to Andrew Davis talk about it on stage a few months ago. The principle is this: You may think you know what reporters or editors you want to target based on their fame and reach, but unless you have a great relationship with them already, your pitches are likely to be lost in the slew of emails and calls they receive every day. The smarter approach? Realize that many journalists look to see what others are covering, gaining ideas from their peers as much or more than from pitches. A super-busy Today Show reporter may be looking at the Wall Street Journal for story ideas, and you’ll see that in whom he cites. If you go to that WSJ article, you might see that they cited a piece by a Mashable writer a couple of days before. If you go a bit further upstream to check that reporter out, you may see that she is far less famous/far less pitched… and subsequently far more likely to listen to what you have to say. By going to the original sources that journalists are citing, you may find much greater success with much less competition for attention.

#4. Smarter Distribution: Starting a content series from scratch? Choose channels wisely.

When we think of ways to reach our audience, our minds often turn to email, blog posts, articles… the usual. Is there a channel where we could have more success, though? At Content Marketing World, I heard numerous stories about people who completely changed their lives by changing their channels. A quilt maker who had a small shop open only a few days a week ended up owning 17 buildings because she used YouTube to amass 100s of 1,000s of followers to her “quick quilts” videos. A woman who made girls’ dresses started posting them on Instagram and found major sales success. They just had to think differently about channels. Now, at a time where we see Blab combining features of webinars and streaming services like Periscope, Google investing in podcasting again as people turn to audio as a means of learning while multitasking, and YouTube changing video subscription paradigms, it may be time to think differently about where you deliver your content.

#5. Smarter Persuasion: Consider inherent cognitive biases we all have, and how you can benefit.

Psychologists call them “cognitive biases”. Andy Crestodina calls them “Jedi marketing tricks”. You could simply call them “effective”. What am I talking about? The little subconscious biases we all have that influence the decisions we make. There are tons of them, and if you’re interested in understanding them comprehensively, I recommend David McRaney’s book “You Are Not So Smart”. Everything from the position of options in a list to color choice to the direction people in images are looking can make a difference in the decisions we make. There is much to be said about cognitive biases and how you can be more persuasive by accounting for them in your marketing, but for now, consider these examples of how cognitive biases can help you achieve goals:

  • Social proof: Conveying how many others have already chosen a desired outcome (and how much they loved it) compels people to make that same choice.
  • Priming: By creating an anchor point in a target’s mind (e.g., “a good price”), you can direct them towards a desired outcome.
  • Loss aversion: People will assign a higher value to something they have that could be taken away than to something they have never had. Free trials, anyone?

If you want more, you can glean a bit from one of Andy’s presentations here.

Working smarter, not harder may just be what we need as content marketers to convince our audiences to love our brands while convincing the company purse holders to keep funding our efforts. It doesn’t mean we won’t work hard, but it does mean we need to take a moment or two out of our hectic days to really ask ourselves whether the obvious path is the right path. Often, we may find that it is. Sometimes though, there will be a better way, and from one content marketer to another, I hope that you’ll recognize them.

Lukas Treu is Lead, Content Strategy at AKHIA. He’d love to hear your ideas on how to work smarter on Twitter @ltreu