As a full-scale marketing agency, we love when we get to showcase a wide range of skills for our clients. Creating an eBook is a perfect example — it offers a unique opportunity to get everyone involved in an engaging, in-depth, well-researched, and visually exciting product. Last year our Creative Vice President, Brett Marek, and his team collaborated on one such eBook for our client, PenFed. The resulting piece of content, “The 7 Steps to Home Ownership,” recently won a Financial Content Marketing Award from the Gramercy Institute.

We decided to pick the team’s brains for any tips they might have about creating an eBook. Here’s a collection of their most inspiring insights.

Decide How to Measure Success

Before you even start, it’s important to define how you’re going to measure success. Ask the client, “What do you want this to do for you?”

Ultimately, success will come down to your ability to help the client achieve that goal. But there are key performance indicators that can’t be known before the content is out in the world. That makes it important for the creative team to completely understand the client’s brand and audience, aiming to create content that sparks a connection between the two.

The PenFed brand voice is inclusive, trustworthy, and conversational. Their audience is diverse, financially curious, and proactive. With that information, our creative team had a solid template to work from, making tweaks to design and language as they started to learn more as they went along. Those initial nuances and parameters helped build a cohesive message that carried through every aspect of the book.

To help capture performance metrics, you’ll need to ensure the audience can take action. Include subtle CTAs throughout the piece without making them front and center. You want the audience to be able to act without coming off as “salesy” or “spammy.” Which leads us to our next tip.

Have Empathy for Your Audience

Really, this is the key to all good writing — no matter the project. Throughout the entire process, you need to have empathy for your audience and make decisions based on your reader’s perspective. And when you’re dealing with big financial themes like how to get started with a mortgage, it’s even more important to stay sensitive.

Ask yourself questions like, “If I was in their shoes, how would I feel? Lost? Confused?” or, “How would I want to be spoken to if I were reading this?”

You need to pull together resources to guide your audience through the process while considering their emotions. And most importantly, you do not want to leave the reader with more questions than they had before opening your content.

Keep an Eye on Your SEO Strategy

Having an SEO strategy before you start helps ensure your eBook will be found by your audience. With properly executed keyword research, you can identify which questions your readers are asking, the language they’re using, and how commonly searched these questions are.

Equally important: Competitive research will help you understand how the rest of the field is positioning their content and whether it adequately aligns with the user needs you discovered in your SEO research. You’ll also want to do some SERP (search engine results page) research to get an understanding of how the search engines are serving content related to the topic — video, images, “People Also Ask” snippets, and so on.

Together, these pieces give us a better understanding of the user experience from the customer’s point of view, including pain points in their investigation process. This will help you uncover opportunities to strategically deliver more relevant content.

But it’s essential to balance these findings with human-centered writing. Sometimes it’s hard to add in keywords without sounding robotic. That’s okay — don’t write for the bots. Instead, write content for the users based on the needs identified during the initial research. Search engines are better than ever at identifying language patterns (like keyword stuffing) and prioritizing user experience.

The SEO process should help with the overall “put yourself in their shoes” strategy employed by the creative team — not work against it. The search engines have a similar goal: to deliver the most relevant results to enhance user experience. It all links together.

Maintain a Fluid Schedule

With so many moving parts, a flexible production schedule is key to creating a successful eBook. Being open to shifting timelines makes it easier to adapt to client feedback and update details as you go without following your outline to the letter. Break up the schedule into chunks and remember, nothing is carved in stone.

Keep everyone on the same page — because sometimes changing little details can have much larger domino effects. We’ll get into this more in the sections below.

Consider Content Hierarchy

PenFed eBook Illustration

Compare the hierarchy of your content to a meal. You’ll want to start with an appetizer — something small and digestible. This can take the form of a really catchy lead-in, or maybe an engaging image. Then, move on to something a little more substantial, like a salad. An introduction section, perhaps, that lays the foundation for the rest of the meal.

You’re setting the table for the main course, the bulk of your content-rich eBook. Occasionally, there will be a pause for a brief digestif. This is where you can add in an infographic or chart (just space these out to avoid overwhelming the reader).

You’ll have your dessert and then at the end you’ll need to pay your server. This is where you’ll include a way to have the audience take your desired action.

While planning your outline, you need to remember that sometimes we have guests that come in midway through the meal. Anyone should be able to open it at random and feel like they’re being spoken to.

But like any gourmet meal, your structure needs to reflect the chef’s (or in this case, the brand’s) signature voice and intention. It’s not one size fits all. Depending on your brand guidelines, audience, and objectives, it might be appropriate to start with an infographic, a quote, or something completely different. The way your eBook flows should give the readers consistency and variety at the same time. And it doesn’t have to be linear — if you want to jump right into the main course, bon appetit; if you want to head straight to dessert, you can do that, too!

Prioritize Engagement Through Design

Along with the hierarchy of content, you need to optimize your overall format and design decisions to keep your audience engaged. From graphic treatments to headlines, everything should carry the same look and feel throughout the piece. And every decision you make should ease the reader’s experience.

For example, in our eBook, we had originally outlined 10 steps to a new home. But then we started to consider how much the reader could digest and engage with. Which steps are most important? Should the content be tight and focused? Or do we make things looser and more expansive? Our team eventually decided to consolidate 10 steps into 7 to more effectively maintain the attention of the reader.

Ask yourself how much content should fit on one page, how long sections should be, and how the user is going to experience it all. Once again, have empathy for your audience. Put yourself in their shoes. Things might get boring if every section is two pages long. You want to have variations. You wouldn’t write a story that has all the same-size sentences.

Relate and Balance Photography

PenFed Ebook cover - a man and woman embracing while looking at their new home

An eBook’s cover is key. It needs to evoke emotion, accurately sum up the content inside, and connect with your target audience. Not an easy task! After examining a wide range of images with various models, situations, and settings, our team decided to use the shot you see here. With their faces away from the camera, the subjects serve as stand-ins for our readers. The house is intentionally out of focus, offering a vague, day-dream-friendly space for the audience to project their own ideas. It makes it easier for readers to get excited and think, “Okay, I can do this.”

After you have a cover, you need to carry that tone through every image of the eBook. You wouldn’t want it to feel disjointed or out of step with itself. It’s important to consider the whole piece as a singular, cohesive item. That’s where balance comes into play.

From the cover to the final page of the eBook, choosing the right photography is a balancing act. If your eBook is targeting members of the military, for example, you don’t need to cover every page in camouflage. Too much of the same thing gets exhausting to look at.

You also want to balance the diversity of your models. Include a wide variety of people —different races, body types, genders, and more, so everyone feels welcome. Just remember, everything’s connected. If you change one image, it could affect the content before and after it, too. Swapping out an image on page three might mean you have to rethink the one on page five. You also don’t want your image selection to feel forced or staged in any way. Like we said, it’s a balancing act.

Exercise Brand Flexibility

In the words of our own Brett Marek, “Sometimes it’s important to advocate for your client by defying their expectations.”

The creative team was faced with the challenge of a very strict set of brand guidelines. Now typically, these guidelines are vital elements of any campaign — they’re the underlying note behind every piece of communication. They keep things uniform, understandable, and identifiable.

But when it comes to eBook-development, they could actively work against your objectives. That’s because long-form content is a very different beast than your typical piece of marketing. If these guidelines were followed to a T, surely the eBook would feel inauthentic, salesy, and ad-like — decreasing engagement and usefulness to the reader.

But by working hand-in-hand with our understanding client, we were able to integrate some brand flexibility into the eBook. Changing things up, even ever-so-slightly, can help keep your audience reading the content you’ve put so much time into.

We hope you’ve enjoyed our tips! With empathy, research, and plenty of flexibility, you’re on the path to an award-winning eBook of your own. Just don’t forget: Pulling one thread might seem like a small task, but everything is entwined.