SEMrush Content Marathon: Let's get our discipline on

Learn a new craft. Hone a specialty. Practice getting focused. Discipline thyself. These are directives I needed to self-impose so I joined SEMrush’s content marathon. One week of daily tutorials and assignments, timed and shared with a group. Feedback optional. It was a good exercise and I’m sharing here.


Day 1: Choosing a topic
The challenge is to find the topic that you care about and will find the enthusiasm to continue. List five broad topics and find confluence for each. Choose whichever sparks your curiosity and makes you want to dive deeper, then pitch it to make sure you’re not mundane or ridiculous (Last three words are mine. They’d never be so negative!). Hey Marathoners! Give me your opinion on which category to pursue.

  1. Identifying creative categories in the commercial environment and helping others find their true title, i.e. brand vs. marketing vs. content producer: who are you?

  2. Travel as a state of mind, i.e. everyone travels whether it is commuting to work observing cars, people, nature or walking through an office corridor looking at things differently as you ponder a solution or stepping of a train in a new place far away, engaging all your senses with fresh stimuli

  3. Gig economy, i.e. this is an age-old concept, except now there is currency exchange and self-promotion on a large scale

  4. Influencer strategy, i.e. how not to sell out even when you’re struggling with compensation, stay true to your beliefs, be vulnerable, when is the right time to reveal sponsor’s name and how to do this

  5. Search marketing, i.e. who is it good for, how to understand it, become a master and seduce the cold-hearted Google algorithm

Day 2: Building a plotline
Now that we’ve learned what is required in a plotline. SEMrush gave an example setup: education is important and seen as more prestigious than entrepreneurship; parents value child’s education, but child wants a different life and is afraid to reveal his true intention to parents; the story is concluded by the parents happy with their child’s endeavors. I wrote mine in around 30-40 minutes. It’s silly and rushed, but this is about discipline for me not perfection. Here’s my practice for Day 2.

Reznick was known as a perfect student all through childhood. His parents worked hard to give him a wholesome life with structure, guidance with a little bit of fun sprinkled in. Victoria, his mother, worked from part-time babysitter to full-time daycare director. A proud achievement in the face of her lack of education. Even with her recent raise, she still took the city bus rather than train to save the $3.50 difference. Neither parent possessed marketable skills after emigrating from Montenegro so they worked incredibly hard to elevate their son’s future in this long-awaited Garden of Eden: America. 

Reznick was respectful and cared for his parents, but couldn’t let go of his passion no matter how much it upset Victoria and Renaldo. Sure, he performed well in math, science and computer technology so he could be the engineer his parents worked so hard for. You see, Reznick was a party boy. A social animal. Needed people around him always. He had friends in every corner. It worked well for him, but a challenging balance to accomplish his studies while tending to all the people who also “needed” him. In college, he became known as a fictitious hero...Reefer Reznick. Reznick worked as a drug dealer to sell marijuana to his fellow students. Kids wouldn’t abuse it, but needed something to relax in parallel with the pressures they have to perform. Everyone has a story about how hard their parents worked to get them there. Reznick was quite talented at running his own business now that medical marijuana was legal in CA. He knew it was a growing industry and he couldn’t lose this opportunity to become big. Engineering was also a solid foundation, however his heart was in people, parties and growing (quite literally. ha!) his marijuana business.

Victoria and Renaldo came to visit during a holiday weekend. They wanted to see his college life and how their hard work had paid off. Renaldo asked for a tour of the chemistry lab where he knew Reznick had spent so many hours. Reznick pulled out all the stops to delay the tour, knowing he couldn’t speak to what his father wanted to see. Maybe he needed a sweater. Maybe the lab would be closed. Better call the dean to get approval for a tour. Dean not answering? Hmmm. Anything to keep away from the tense moment his father learns of Reznick’s failing. Everything. As they approached the door to leave, Reznick broke down and blurted out his thoughts. “Mom, Dad, I know you want me to be an engineer and you’ve worked so hard to get me here, but I must come clean. It is not my dream to be an engineer. I want to be an entrepreneur and today is the day it will become a reality. I’ve pooled investors. I’ve done my research. The laws and opportunities are fresh and on my side, not to mention my long list of contacts and friends. I will begin my own marijuana empire. A branded franchise of retail businesses who deliver, verify and carry only the highest quality product. It is my vision and in my unconventional heart.”

“Oh son! You have an ambitious spirit and we’d never want to take that away. You’re grandfather built his small fortune back home selling betel leaves to the community, then the region and began exporting it globally. You can still find his label in the shops on Murray Hill. His was the best. He knew how to take care of people and protect the quality of his product. Go for it! Utilize that entrepreneurial drive in you and make us proud! Not to mention, we’ll be saving $70,000 a year and now your mother can get that surgery we’ve been wanting. Her breasts were destroyed after bearing you and your brothers and none of us have had a good time ever since.”

Day 3: Developing a character

Write down the features of your main character in their portfolio. 

Traits--insulated, upper middle class, single, insecure
Attributes--late late 30’s, childless, unmarried, creative, attractive, false confidence
Objectives--stability with flexibility, gain more work, become a brand
Motivations--independent survival without lowering your standards
What’s their way of thinking--the harder you work, the more you will succeed 
What does his or her voice sound like--childlike, naive, dedicated, unsure

Character profile: the hardworking individual who believes he/she is doing everything to build a life. It’s an older millennial with a short attention span. Qualified with an education. Not alot of experience. Not sure where to go. She/he knows what everyone else is doing and is going in that same direction.

Once the portrait has been drawn, write a letter from his/her perspective. It can have to do with your plot or today’s news. But the letter has to sound just like the character you created.

Dear my own Instagram feed, 

I love you. I love the way you make me feel. I’m a narcissist, but you are my most reliable vehicle to productivity. Working my way to my own brand. An influencer in this gig economy, you help me thrive in this community. I find energy in surprisingly varied tasks while working with a vast array of people. It all builds character, but am I really getting anywhere? What’s my goal? I’m here to make something of myself. I’ve had moderate success, but it is remarkably inefficient to market yourself all the time without continued payoff. Where does it go? What is your secret algorithm to get me to the top? Why are you demanding money to do this when I know people want to experience my content more than anyone else’s. We are all promoting ourself day in day out for a few bucks here and there. I’m spreading myself thin, making some sort of a living, but when will it get easier? Build relationships, give quality work, keep improving, push yourself, find the energy. Please oh dear IG divinity, show me the guiding light. Take me in your arms, warm me. I’m willing to work, but need encouragement and a larger nugget of success to take the risk. Make me who I think I want to be.  How many likes do I have today, dear Instagram? My future depends on it.

Day 4. Choosing your words & making them resonate emotionally

Day 4 of this content marathon. I can’t say that it is what I was hoping for or expecting, but I still go with it. Perhaps, SEMrush can segment the group or assignments differently. Those who want to pursue fiction vs. those who want to work on a business purpose. What threw me was giving us a plotline to work from that had nothing to do with our chosen subject. Business-driven content writing is meant to communicate helpful, needed information to those searching for it. You will then be known as the expert, but using a plotline about education, parents and romantic relationships most of the time doesn’t make sense in the business of creating meaningful content to SELL something. We still go with it. This content marathon. Day 4 here we come….

Think of an intricate idea or a concept that sparks your curiosity and communicate it clearly so that even a 6-year-old could understand the point you’re trying to make. 

First, word vomit. How do you tell a 6-yr-old to believe in themselves enough to stand up to others and communicate their talents?

You love what you do. You’ve spent alot of time with this subject--friends. The kids around you have been interested in other things. Sure, you may think they know more than you and you can only learn from them, but there is just as much power within you. 

Let’s say this concept in simple caveman terms…

  1. You do good things

  2. Others do not know this

  3. You can help them

  4. How do you know? You tell them! Communication is necessary in anything and everything you do. You can be the best at everything and have all the knowledge, but how will others know what you offer and utilize those services.

Babbling, looking, talking, pointing, yelling, smiling. These are your tools to build a relationship. You have your very own hammer, glue, paper and wood. You--and only you--get to use them in whatever way you want. This is communication. Everybody does this, from the ants that you see making piles of sand on the ground to your teacher teaching your class. Everyone has a different way. If your teacher says your name in a loud voice when you are about to touch something hot, you only hear your name, but she has put a loud, strong sound to this one word and you feel scared and understand that you’re going to hurt yourself so you move your hand away. In a different moment, she may notice you are about to cry and she will say your name in a soft, sweet way because she is concerned about you. You’ll feel loved and comforted and she never said anything but your name. A tone of voice is your way of saying what’s on your mind without saying much.

If you want to make friends with another girl on the playground, do you immediately yell to get her attention or do you walk up to her and look her in the eye? Walk closer to her and look at what she is doing and if she looks like she also wants a friend, you’ll speak softly. Without knowing it, you’ll be showing her love and she will be your friend. 

By moving closer, looking in her eyes having a nice thought in your head and saying just one simple word, you’ve built a friendship. 

Day 5: Finessing first line and getting inspired by other tales

To practice opening with a perfect line and creating suspense, recreate a folk tale you like or know of.
Choose among the four formats -
the Yes, And;
the Yes, But;
the No, But;
and the No, And -
for your first lines, and create suspense. Rewrite it in your own voice, and don’t forget about the previous parts we talked about - look at it with a fresh set of eyes, pick it apart, find parts that don’t make sense and try to rework its structure and plot (because in many folk stories, the logic is very distorted). Feel free to transform it into your own story. Try to make it your own and see what happens!

My chosen topic:

An old fable tells us how the fox complimented the crow on his lovely singing voice only so the crow would open his mouth and drop his cheese to the fox. This story will give turn the tables and tell the story from the fox’s perspective.

Flattery will get you somewhere. Mr. Fox is hungry and lazy. Why work hard scrounging for food getting a bitten nose or a tail full of thorns? Use your wily nature. Like any good salesman (and marketer!), Mr. Fox learns about his subject and then sharpens his tools to attack...err, communicate.

Mr. Fox knows those crows love to cackle and caw. Oh the sound of their own voice...sweet to them, but painfully screechy. Doesn’t matter to this fox; he revels in the sound knowing what it means to his hungry belly. 

Along his flightpath, Mr. Crow sees a tasty hunk of cheese below. He swoops down and scores. Mr. Crow lands on a nearby branch ready to taste his well-earned treat. Mr. Fox strolls by with a plan in mind.
“Hey there, Crow-y! Looks like you did well for yourself this morning. What kind of cheese is that? Fresh from the farm?” says Fox.
Mr. Crow doesn’t have time for this. It doesn’t matter what kind of cheese it is to this guy--it’s mine! Eff off, dude.

Fox tries again. “Well, it surely looks good.
Say, I heard you this earlier this afternoon. You were calling out to your friends: alerting them to some flesh on the carcass. What an observant, helpful friend you are and might I say, what a pleasant way to call them over. The crow’s voice is something that should be appreciated. Not only does the sound ring sweetly in our ears, but knowing your concern for others’ well-being illustrates your generous heart.”

Mr. Crow stops chomping. Hears this new perspective. That’s absolutely true and why do we never get enough credit from our fellow animal kingdom? We are here to contribute--we are not the selfish, dirty creatures we’ve been made out to be.

“I don’t mean to disturb, but would you be so generous as to cast a sweet tune upon my ears? If only for a brief moment?” asks Mr. Fox

Mr. Crow considers. Well, I wouldn’t want to withhold art from someone in my fellow animal kingdom. After all, I’m a generous contributor to this great society. I’ll sing a quick “Thank you.” “ Tha…..Ah! Fuck! Damn! Shit! I just lost my cheese!” 

God damnit that Fox! I dropped it. He caught it. Chews and swallows it down. Walks away with a twinkle in his eye and a dance in his step. 

Well. Mr. Crow did help the animal kingdom after all. And its belly.

Day 6: Adapting your writing to different mediums

This exercise is especially enjoyable--perhaps because it is restrained. One loves to fly off into any topic that comes to mind, never to revisit again. When combing across and reshaping words and earlier expressed ideas, it gets rather boring and leads to distraction. One way to experiment with style and form is to write one story in a few different ways. You don’t need to have an entire story drafted for this exercise. Take a paragraph that you either already have from the previous tasks, or copy it from any book. Then, rewrite it for different channels:

  • A series of Tweets

  • A blog post

  • An email (or, one of the series of emails)

  • A short story

I’ll choose from Day 2’s story about entrepreneurship. 

Tweet exercise:

Tweet 1: Hard-working immigrant parents ditch dreams of son as engineering protégé for reefer rockstar and a boob job #readmystory #contentmarathon

Tweet 2: Passionate people-loving engineer finds his destiny in marijuana entrepreneurship. At college. #readmystory #contentmarathon

Tweet 3: Investing in your son’s college education can lead your family to unexpected places. Marijuana and boob jobs anyone? #readmystory #contentmarathon

Blog post:

Immigrants and billionaires. Drug dealers and college dropouts. Any correlation? Only if their hearts are involved.

What do Bill Gates, Mark Zuckerberg and Oprah Winfrey all have in common? Besides celebrity status, digits in their bank accounts and leading empires?  You can call them dropouts. Failures. Quitters. Started something. Committed to a schedule. Spent the money and then backed out despite a proven success rate after finishing. All of these “losers” decided to quit college. There were dreams to pursue and they trusted the timing of the opportunity they created for themselves and jumped. You’ve heard stories like this in fun listicles or full-blown bios, but plenty exist in the quiet world without the PR and glory attached. 

The second generation immigrant education story is another such news story cliché you’ve heard aplenty. Parents give up their stable, ancestral lifestyle and culture to expand (or disrupt?) a foundation for the next generation. Financial struggle and risk of losing native culture, these determined fathers and mothers log debilitating hours, perform tasks their servants had back home and struggle to learn the language or fit in. Not caring or realizing that fitting in might be the only thing their investment….err….offspring cares about. An unforeseen risk in this life-altering investment, however academia equals success. Hard skills such as medicine, science or mathematics learned by the next generation are all that matter to their legacy.

In one particular case, both stories can be true. Young Reznick, Croatian-born American with traditional immigrant parents, chose to drop out of college. The university his parents learned of when Reznick was just a toddler was their Everest that they will stop at nothing to reach the top. Emotional motivation played a role as well. Wealthy family members who had already “gone global” taunted Reznick’s parents and projected the dismal fate of the family should they remain in Croatia and continue in the traditional way their culture expects. No. They will keep eyes on the university target and give up all they know so Reznick can save the family name. A doctor of chemical engineering working on widely-publicized projects, known globally so these family members can see just how “traditional” this family is. Heave ho we are on our way, young Reznick! Make us proud… 

#readmystory from Day 2 from SEMrush’s #contentmarathon 


Loquacious Tiff
or maybe a new hashtag #tiffquacious