No one really likes ads. Everyone avoids them wherever possible. Businesses like Spotify and Hulu even make their money off of people willing to pay to avoid ads. And when you pay for your premium Hulu account and a show insists you still have to watch ads during their program, even marketers and advertisers have to admit it’s annoying.
Content marketing is supposed to be different. Content is supposed to be something that audiences seek out and consume willingly. The problem is, if the content isn’t any good, audiences will flee like they do from a screening of an Uwe Boll film. They effectively “walk out of the theater” on your content. In this scenario, your content is worse than useless: it’s repulsive. Just like ads, people will be frustrated by it, and will do anything they can to avoid it.
I’m not the first marketer to come to this conclusion. That’s why you can find a veritable locust swarm of talking heads extolling the virtues of “high-quality content.” The problem is, most of them tend to waffle a bit when it comes time to offer actionable advice. They claim “quality is subjective,” and tell you to just do better. Or, if they do offer something worthwhile, it’s usually a single piece of the puzzle.
I have never believed that quality is subjective. Even those unfamiliar with art can look the Mona Lisa, or La Pieta, and tell you that it’s a beautiful piece that’s skillfully done. If we can effectively judge the excellence of figure skating and Olympic diving, we should be able to put a finger on content quality.
So here it is, the guide you’ve been looking for. Everything from high-level principles, to nitty-gritty brass tacks that you can apply immediately to improve your content.
Before You Begin Typing: Avoiding Careless Content
While writing better content can be achieved with things like better grammar and improved word choice, writing the best content requires a little bit of groundwork. Below are four things you need to consider or plan for prior to writing the content.
Filling the Function, Meeting the Need
Filling the Function
Like almost anything else, you can’t really judge the quality of content without having a clear idea of what the content is supposed to accomplish. So before you do anything else, you need to decide what the purpose of your content is. Hold on though, because there’s a catch.
While not knowing your content’s purpose is dangerous (for how does one strike a target they aren’t aiming for), equally perilous is using content marketing for the wrong purpose. By this, I’m referring to using content for something it wasn’t designed for. The most common example (and perhaps the most grievous) is using content for shameless self-promotion in a way that resembles advertising.
Content marketing wasn’t designed to advertise. In fact, it’s the least effective when used this way, because (as mentioned above) it produces that repulsion effect that ads are known for today. Either the audience will avoid the content, or turn a blind eye to it, wasting the time and money you sunk into creating the content.
That’s not to say that an ad can’t be effective, or that content shouldn’t be self-promotional at all. But content is most effective as a marketing tool when it doesn’t look like a marketing tool. You’ll see better conversions, and build more trust with your audience that way.
So if the primary purpose of content can’t be to shove people further down the sales funnel, what should it be used for?
The answer is offering something of value to the audience. This is most commonly achieved by “producing, curating and sharing content that is based upon customers’ needs and deliver[ing] visible value.” Or, in the words of Joe Pulizzi, the man who named content marketing: “instead of distracting our audience with advertising that’s not relevant to them, we’re going to create valuable, compelling and relevant content on a consistent basis and build an audience over that time in order to see some profitable customer action.”
Creating valuable and relevant content, that should be the purpose of your content marketing initiative.
Meeting the Need
Here’s the next place you’re liable to trip: the operative word is “relevant.” In order for content to be relevant, you have to know who you’re creating content for, and what those people want or need. And, for it to result in profitable customer action, your audience needs to have at least some overlap with your ideal customer. Either way, you need to narrow your scope so you’re only targeting the people who will benefit from both your content, and your product or service.
Now I know it may seem like crazy-talk for me to suggest that a marketer should ever put limitations on what leads they seek after, but you just can’t try to catch every fish in the sea. The wider the net you cast, the less intimate and relevant your message will be to each lead. Eventually, you find yourself indulging in click-baity tactics, and creating the webcopy equivalent of the next Transformers movie; a lot of people may see it, but no one will be thinking about it a week from now.
As author John Steinbeck wrote, “Forget your generalized audience. In the first place, the nameless, faceless audience will scare you to death and in the second place, unlike the theater, it doesn’t exist. In writing, your audience is one single reader.”
What this means is that for your content to be really effective (like 10,000-clicks-in-a-month effective) you need to have an idea of who your audience is, and what they want to read. Then you need to pass that information on to your writers. A writer that doesn’t know his audience is little like a guy wearing a blindfold trying to drive to a destination he’s never been to before. And if that example sounds ridiculous, so is asking your writer to create content for an audience they know nothing about.
Similarly, your audience is not the Google algorithm. While building contents around keywords—as opposed to topics relevant to your audience—can bring short term SERPs boosts, your content’s rankings will quickly peter and fizzle out. This is, again, related to function; if we build content primarily based around SEO keywords, that means that the content’s purpose is to help us get rankings, and that’s not what content marketing is for.
E-A-T Your Heart Out
Google has quite a bit to say about content quality, and for a company mostly composed of developers and programmers, they sure give some solid guidelines for writing better stuff. One of their most important pieces of advice to marketers that want their content to rank better is the E-A-T abbreviation (Expertise, Authoritativeness, Trustworthiness). While E-A-T definitely deserves its own post [insert link to future blog post about EAT], we’ll cover them briefly here.
The “trustworthiness” part largely has to do with avoiding black hat SEO tactics (which we talk about below), and making your website look reputable (appropriate web design, hosting the site on HTTPS, getting backlinks from trustworthy sources, etc.). So we’re going to skip it for now.
Expertise and authoritativeness, however, are very applicable, so let’s talk about why they’re so important. Google’s advice is to produce content that features expertise. In other words, follow the old fiction adage of “write what you know.” Every business is an expert in something, and odds are there are people out there who can benefit from your insider knowledge. Take advantage of that knowledge, and share it with your audience.
You may be wondering at this point, “Why should I give advice/information away for free?” Well, I have a few answers for you:
- It demonstrates to your audience that you’re an expert, and you know what you’re doing
- It helps people, and as a (hopefully) decent human being, you like helping people
- People who need your knowledge are a built in audience/customer base—as long as you have the content, they will come to you
- It builds trust in your audience
- It makes your brand more likeable
- You can’t get something for nothing, so give your audience something
Once you’ve committed to share your brilliance with the world, you have another hurdle to leap over. Either you’re creating the content yourself (which can be time consuming, and you have other things to do), or you’re giving that honor to a professional writer (whether that’s on staff, through an agency, or a freelancer).
If it’s the former, you’re sinking time into the content that you probably don’t have. If it’s the latter, the writer won’t know the industry as well as you do. So help them out. Just like they need to know who their audience is, they need to be intimately familiar with the company whose voice they are. Teach them the ways of your mystical arts, and watch as your content marketing reaps rich dividends as a result.
Once you have the expertise part down, you need to be authoritative. There’s two parts to that: the content, and the presentation. The content is a matter of making sure you sound like you know what you’re talking about, without being arrogant or elitist.
The presentation is another SEO thing—incorporating the right keywords, getting backlinks that support your authority and trustworthiness, and linking out to valuable resources that back up your insights. Put the two sides together, and your content will seem much more reliable.
The Right Tool for the Job
Thus far, I’ve done a pretty good job of making it sound like textual content is the only kind there is (or the only kind that matters). If that’s what you’ve gathered, I apologize, because it’s absolutely untrue. There are multitudes of content forms, each with their own appropriate application, and in all likelihood you’ll need to incorporate multiple formats to make your content strategy effective.
Here’s a list of the primary forms of content, and where they’re most useful:
- Text Content—the workhorse of content marketing; text content is generally applicable, and favored because it does well SEO-wise, while most other formats don’t
- Video Content—perhaps the most engaging kind of content, it’s the easiest to for your audience to consume; use it show of your brand’s personality, to visually demonstrate complicated concepts, and to punch up textual content that you want to rank better
- Audio Content—this usually comes in the form of podcasts, which means it’s best used when it has a consistent publishing schedule; use it when you have prolific speakers that can serve as a voice for the brand, and who have a wealth of expertise
- Visual Content—these are static images, and frequently can’t stand on their own; photos, art, and other visuals are usually used as a sidekick to other content forms (especially text)
- Infographics—a specific kind of visual, which usually incorporates text and data into the visuals; like other visual and audio content, it won’t rank well unless you pair it with some real value-adding text content, but it’s an engaging way to present facts and data to your audience
- Social Media—a unique application of the above formats in concert; an effective social media strategy utilizes a little bit of everything, and is a powerful tool when appealing to audiences comprised of digital natives
We don’t have the space to dig too deep here, so we’ll save that discussion for a later date [insert link to future post about the various content marketing tools]. Suffice it to say that you should have more than more than one Batarang in your utility belt.
Going to Great Lengths
Once you’ve chosen the appropriate format for your content, the next thing you need to decide is how long it should be. Like different kinds of content, different lengths serve different purposes, and when used correctly, each can be effective. While audio and video have their own scales, discussing those two is a bit outside the scope of this article. For today, we’ll just look at textual content length. Here’s how it breaks down.
This is any content shorter than 300 words. Google’s algorithm isn’t fond of content this thin, and SERPs rankings for the page can suffer as a result. Still, you don’t need 800 words to tell users your business address. Micro-content is just fine if it’s something you know users will be searching for specifically, and you can link to it from pages that do rank well (location pages being the obvious example).
The one exception is if you, like Seth Godin, build your brand around short and pithy posts. If you can fit that much clever into so few words, be my guest, but most of us need a few hundred more words to get it done.
This is content between 300 and about 700 words, and it’s still pretty thin. You might notice that a lot of people post in this range, frequently, and with reckless abandon. This is usually the space that “quantity, not quality” content strategies like to live. That’s because it’s incredibly easy to take a thin topic and B.S. about it for 500 words. Conversely, you can take a complex, juicy topic, and strip it of all the important bits, and spend 500 words saying absolutely nothing about it.
Despite its many proponents, short content is not usually what you want to be producing. It doesn’t rank as well as longer content, and it’s difficult to thoroughly treat an interesting topic in so few words. That said, it does have it’s uses. This range is particularly adept at answering simple questions, or for status updates. It gives you enough room to talk a bit about the topic, without lingering languidly.
If you only have a little bit to say, you should usually say it with this.
Content from 700 to 1,000 words is what I would call medium content. Those that prefer shorter formats will usually call this long-form, but if they do, they’ve clearly never seen 4000+ word monstrosities like the ones I’ve occasionally written. In any case, this medium content is a good middle ground if you can’t afford to spend the time writing something longer.
Any significant subject that adequately displays your expertise, or gives you a chance to demonstrate your brand’s points of differentiation should be addressed with something of at least this length.
Anything beyond 1,000 words is considered “long-form content,” though there’s obviously a difference between something that’s 1,500 words and 5,000 words. The problem with this longer format is that it takes longer to produce, edit, and publish, so if you’re doing this regularly, you’ll be producing less content. On the other hand, Google has frequently proved that their algorithm values quality over quantity, so the “less is more” adage applies here in most cases.
It’s pretty clear from the data that long-form content does really well, when well-crafted. It gives you the room to stretch your literary legs and really dig deep on a topic (like we’re doing right now). You can answer some serious questions, show off what you know, and—if you can hold your audience’s attention—really build a following.
My personal belief is that for any marketing team that sees content as a priority (in any way), you should be producing this length of content at least semi-regularly. It doesn’t have to be every day, obviously. Just be consistent, and write it well.
Speaking of which… To be continued…