Yes, I know. “Great content” – everybody says you must have it, everybody says it’s essential for SEO and brand reputation.
Everybody talks about great content, but does anyone know what it is?
Most of us recognize content quality the way Justice Potter Stewart evaluated obscenity: “I know it when I see it.”
But “I know it when I see it” won’t cut it in the competitive world of brand marketing. Content is not free; it takes time and resources to produce and distribute. To justify that expenditure, content marketers need to feel assured that what they are creating will be perceived as high quality by both consumers of the content and the search engines.
Of Posts and Pudding
Some might want to apply another aphorism to content quality assessment: “The proof is in the pudding.” In other words, we’ll know it was great content if it gets great results. Did it get shared a lot? Is it bringing traffic? Is that traffic converting? Are sites linking to it?
Certainly, measuring success after content is published is important, and we can learn a lot from it. But again, wouldn’t it be even better if we had some reasonable sense that what we’re creating has a high chance of being perceived as quality before we publish it?
I believe pre-qualifying quality content is possible. We now have tons of “proof is in the pudding” data and experience with content that achieves its goals, and we can back-engineer that into new content we create.
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We could include dozens of factors in our quality content profile, but I propose that they can all be boiled down to just three marks of great content (click on each to jump to that section in this post):
- Is it useful?
- Is it aligned (with both reader needs and business goals)?
- Is it unique?
N.B. – I believe that truly great content always has all three of these marks. Having just one or two might make it “above average,” but that’s not what we’re shooting for here.
A Note on the Target
While these three marks can apply to any content, my focus is primarily on content at the top of the funnel, (content meant to create brand awareness, trust, and reputation).
Let’s dig into the three marks of great content.
Mark 1: Great Content Is Useful
First, we need to define “useful.” Content is useful to users (I’ll call consumers of content “users”) for different reasons in different situations. Here are a few scenarios:
- User has a question – Useful content provides the most complete and accurate answer.
- User wants to buy something – Useful content thoroughly explains how the product fits their need (and anticipates other needs they might have).
- User needs to do something – Useful content shows how with clear instructions.
- User likes to learn – Useful content teaches something new.
- User is bored – Useful content entertains.
Now let’s look at some of the characteristics of truly useful content.
1. Useful content earns the right to market
Usefulness is the catalyst for content effectiveness. If users don’t find the content useful, if it doesn’t meet some need of theirs, then they won’t stay around long enough for the content to fulfill whatever goal you had for it. But if they do find it useful, it can be the start of a marketing relationship.
Jay Baer came up with the pithy neologism “youtility” to describe this. He defines youtility as “marketing so useful, people would gladly pay for it.” It might seem odd to expect that anyone would ever pay to be marketed to, but Jay isn’t really saying people would buy marketing; they would be willing to pay for what the marketing does if it is truly useful.
In other words, useful content earns the right to market. By that I don’t mean just exposure to marketing messages (such as seeing ads alongside the useful content), but also the creation of a positive disposition toward the brand that can make the content user more likely to become a customer, if not at the moment, then in the future.
One brand that gets the usefulness catalyst is Seventh Generation, producers of green household products. Their site is loaded with practical, actionable content that speaks directly to the interests and needs of consumers concerned with healthy living and environmental protection.
Consistently publishing and sharing this kind of content has earned Seventh Generation a devoted fan base (nearly 1.5 million on Facebook alone) who avidly engage with and share their content with their friends. As a result, Seventh Generation became wildly profitable, far beyond the expectations for such a niche company, and in 2016 was acquired by Unilever for an estimated $6-700 million purchase price.
2. Useful content is credible content
Show your site’s credibility by using original research, citations, links, reviews and testimonials. An author biography or testimonials from real customers can help boost your site’s trustworthiness and reputation.
Content is only useful to the user if the information it contains is accurate and reliable. This is a great reason to do a regular review of your older content and update where necessary. We’ve all had that frustrating experience of clicking on a how-to or “nifty solution” post or video, only to find it is from three years ago and doesn’t match up with the current version of whatever it addresses.
Make sure you’ve done your homework, and that the sources of information you’re using are reliable. If you’re using your own data, check it carefully for errors, make sure your analysis follows accepted procedures, and have other knowledgeable people check it over before publishing.
At Perficient Digital, we once had to rally a group of employees to spend their weekend re-asking thousands of questions to smartphones when we found out, right before scheduled publication, that there was a serious flaw in our data collection. That was painful, but it was worth it to get it right. As it happened, the study went viral and was covered in numerous major media. Almost certainly someone would have spotted our flaw, and not only would the study have been discredited, but more importantly, our credibility for any future studies would be reduced.
Integrity, credibility, and accuracy are indispensable foundations to useful content.
3. Useful content is interesting and engaging
I can think of numerous times when I’ve seen a piece of content that should have had a big impact, but never took off because the presentation was lame. Users have tons of content to choose from and limited time, so they won’t tolerate being bored.
Boring content is not useful, because it never gets the chance to become useful.
There are plenty of great resources out there about how to make your content more engaging; how to keep people interested enough that they keep reading, listening, or viewing; and how to make them care enough to share and link to it. I won’t try to cover the topic comprehensively, but here are a few suggestions:
- Be memorable: If anyone ever asks me the content marketing post I’ve most recommended over the years, I don’t even have to think about it. It’s AJ Kohn’s Content Recall. AJ makes a strong case for the most effective content being memorable content. If users don’t recall the content later, if it doesn’t spring to mind whenever the topic of the content comes up, then how much impact did it really have?
You should read AJ’s post to find out more about what he thinks constitutes memorable content (and how you can create it). One of the recommendations he makes in the post is to track spontaneous mentions of your brand online that are about the topics of your content. If you’re seeing lots of that, you’re being memorable.
It’s been gratifying over the years to find conversations where people mention Eric Enge or me or Perficient Digital as “the people to listen to” about topics we write about or make videos about. That leads to real business value, as we will be top of mind when they are looking for the solutions we offer.
- Tell a story: Storytelling has become such a mainstay of “how to improve your content” articles these days that I hesitate to mention it. But I will because it works. My advice is to always have storytelling in mind as you create content, but don’t overthink it.
This doesn’t mean you must turn every content piece into The Odyssey. However, you’ll increase the chances that a user will actually read or view your content, and that it will be more memorable if you include these basic storytelling elements:
- Start with a plight, a problem the user can relate to. This is the problem that your content is going to solve. Even if the user didn’t come to your content with a specific problem or need in mind, the plight can draw them in and make them want to read on. “Yeah, you know, I wonder how you would solve that.” (By the way, the plight of this article is “yeah, I’m supposed to create quality content, but how do I know what that is?”)
- Take the user on a journey to your solution. Don’t just drop it on her. Help her to walk through the steps to the answer along with you. She’ll be more personally invested in the resolution, and more likely to buy into it.
- Relate the resolution to the user. Once the basic problem is solved, the plight resolved, be sure that the user can easily see how to apply it to his own situation.
See “Storytelling 301: Site Content as Story” on the Moz blog for much more on how to use storytelling in your content.
- Get hooked on The Hook: The Hook is the thing in a piece of content that resonates with a user. To quote Hannah Smith in her excellent Slideshare presentation, “hooks provide intense emotional responses. (They get you right in the feels).” The trick is that the Hook isn’t always explicit in the content. It lies underneath it. In fact, if it works, the user isn’t even aware of it.
Think of the last time you cried during a TV ad (come on, I’ll admit it if you will!). What was the ad actually about? Chances are it was selling insurance or a credit card or beer, not things you’d normally cry over. (Well, you might cry in your beer, but that’s a different story!). But the ad appealed to something very human inside you. And that allowed the advertising message to get past your normal defenses.
Now I’m not saying all your blog posts need to bring people to tears! The main point is to be aware that people are moved to action much more by emotions than by rational thoughts. The Hook is something you should have in mind as you create your content. Again, you don’t have to express it explicitly in the content; in fact, it’s probably more effective if you don’t.
It may be hard to see how you could build an emotional hook into content about seemingly mundane topics, but it can be done.
Let’s say you’re writing about a more efficient industrial process you’ve developed. You could humanize the concept by including a story about a fictional manager that you keep coming back to throughout your piece. In the beginning, he worries about being passed over for a promotion because of dismal output numbers. But because of your better process, he raises his numbers and gets promoted. The story wouldn’t be the whole piece, but it would cause anyone in a similar position to your fictitious manager to deeply connect with why they might want to investigate your solution.
- Keep up appearances: It’s no secret that the rise in the number of content choices available has been accompanied by a raising of user expectations, not only for the substance of the content but also for its appearance.
Some factors that used to be “nice to haves” are now minimum requirements for people to even bother with a piece of content. For text posts, these include:
- the prolific use of images
- shorter paragraphs
- breaking up walls of text with subheadings and bullet lists.
- something to grab attention at the beginning (especially for social platforms that auto-play videos)
- captions for those who don’t use sound
- attention-keeping visual devices like jump cuts and inserted graphics.
Learn More! Is Longer Content Better Quality Content?
4. Useful content provides a great user experience
Just as a user will never pay attention to the content if it’s boring or not well-formatted, so a poor user experience on the site or page can be a content killer.
Make sure your content pages comply with all the following:
- Fast page load speed
- Correct grammar and reading level
- Ads kept to a minimum and not in the way of the content
- Helpful links to related information
5. Useful Content Is Useful for Media and Influencers Too!
It isn’t just your customers and prospects who seek out and love useful content. Influencers and media writers are hungry for it too.
Influencers know that to build their influence, audience, and thought leadership, they need to be sharing a constant flow of highly useful content, more than they could produce themselves. So they are constantly on the prowl for great content relevant to their audiences that they can share. Influencers understand that even if that content wasn’t created by them, sharing it contributes to their usefulness to their followers.
Media Writers and journalists also seek out useful content in their niches. They are required to be production lines of content, and one of the easiest ways to produce that content is to write about and link to other useful content. For us here at Perficient Digital, one of the payoffs of our regular digital marketing research studies is the high level of media coverage they attract, exposing our brand and expertise to whole new audiences.
As you build an audience around your brand and your content, pay particular attention to cultivating relationships with influencers and journalists relevant to what you do, and develop effective outreach strategies to get your content in front of them.
Mark 2: Great Content Is Aligned
By aligned, I mean the content aligns your company’s business goals with actual needs of prospects and customers. In other words, it’s a two-way street.
Some content strategists put too much emphasis on one at the expense of the other. They either spend all their energy on content that lines up with the business goals, or on content that appeals to (or attempts to appeal to) an external audience.
Out of balance on the business side
Content strategy that overemphasizes business goals tends to be salesy and self-referential. It centers around the company’s products or services, and their great features and benefits.
There are several problems with this.
- People aren’t likely to find or want to see this content unless they are already interested in the company.
- From an SEO standpoint, it misses out on a lot of keyword opportunities that cover real needs and interests of the company’s target market.
- Sales copy is boring and non-memorable (unless you’re already interested in what’s being sold).
Now there is a time and place for such content. It can be useful for those who are further down the sales funnel and as a tool for your sales and customer retention teams. But it should never be your sole or primary content.
Out of balance on the user side
Content strategy that overemphasizes the reader can tend to be click-baity. It may be shallower in an attempt to draw in many and disinterest none. At its worst, it has little or nothing to do with the business that publishes it.
It sacrifices substance and relevance for “just please click me, OK?”
You can attract a lot of readers and social shares with “10 Best Ways to Start Every Morning,” but unless you’re Kellog’s or Starbucks, it probably has little to do with your business, and readers won’t make the right association with your brand. At best, you’ve amused them for a few minutes, but they are unlikely to be interested in what you really do.
It’s vital to serve your audience. But you must not forget that the first goal of your content is to serve and grow your business.
Bringing your content planets into alignment
Your goal should be to create content that both appeals to your target audience, meeting their needs, helping and informing them, and has a real connection to what your business does and is about. How can you do that?
Conventional wisdom for marketing is “start with the prospect in mind.” I agree with that approach in nearly everything…except for content strategy. For developing effective well-aligned content, I recommend starting with your business goals. Here’s why.
Start from your business goals to find customer opportunities. Yes, ultimately you want to be helping your potential customers with things they want to know and needs they have, but answering those questions and meeting those needs won’t achieve your marketing objectives if those answers don’t associate in some way with what your business is about.
That doesn’t mean “ignore the prospect.” Far from it. Remember, this section is about bringing your business aims and the prospect’s needs into alignment. But you must start somewhere, and I think starting with your business goals helps you to focus and eliminate wasted content efforts from the start.
Here’s the process we follow, step-by-step:
- Define your business identity. Why do you exist? What do you bring to the marketplace that’s unique? What problems do you solve (or needs do you meet) that no one else does in quite the same way?
- From that establish your business goals. What do you want to sell? What do you want prospects to do as they become customers? What do you want to be known for in your marketplace?
- Ask how do people become our customers? Understanding that process is key to developing content that helps people move along their journey from initial brand awareness to buying from you.
- Find out what people want to know and what help they need at every stage of their journey toward becoming customers.
Notice the transition there? The process moves from who we are and what we need (as a business) to who our prospects/customers are and what they need.
But the essential key to creating truly well-aligned content is understanding the bridges. The most important question is ‘what are the bridges between what we need and what our prospects need?’
When you find those bridges, that common ground, the Venn diagram crossover, where your business goals intersect with what real people are looking for, you’ve found your content marketing sweet spot. Now your content marketing plan almost writes itself: just keep developing topics that interest and help people who are asking questions and expressing needs about problems your business solves.
By the way, that does not mean “content that promotes our products/services that people want to buy,” at least not at the earlier stages of the buyer journey. At the early attraction, awareness, and relationship-building stages, the content needs to be more directly serving the prospect’s needs, while still topically relevant to what your business does.
Here’s an example of that from our own experience. At Perficient Digital we offer services centered around SEO, content marketing, and social media marketing. But aside from the services pages on our site, you’ll be hard pressed to find any content from us that talks directly about our provision of those services. Instead, we publish hundreds of blog posts, studies, videos, webinars, interviews, etc., all of which are about educating and helping our audience.
How we achieve what I’m calling “alignment” though is by making sure that the vast majority of that content is about topics and areas where our business has particular expertise. Even though none of that content is direct selling content, it has been a very effective sales tool for us. Why? Because qualified prospects who are continually exposed to our company-goals-aligned content, when they do come into our sales process, are already convinced of our expertise in the services for which they might engage us.
In summary, when planning your content, start with a clear definition of your business and its goals, then find the real needs and questions of prospects that relate to those goals, and produce content that bridges the two.
Mark 3: Great Content Is Unique
If you’re like me, few things (other than bad customer experience) leave a more bitter taste in my mouth for a brand than content that wastes my time. You know the experience: you clicked through because the title or social promo promised you something great. But a few paragraphs in you realize this is just the same old, same old. Just another rehashing of conventional wisdom or the same tips you’ve seen in 37 other posts just like it.
As Eric Enge likes to say, “Be an expert or go home!” I’d like to propose a variation of that for content marketing: “Be unique or go home!”
Why does your content need to be unique?
Remember what AJ Kohn said about being memorable? (See what I did there?) Since the only content that is valuable is content that sticks in the user’s mind, then knowing how to create memorable content is imperative. Uniqueness is a key factor in becoming memorable.
Think about the last time you attended a trade show or conference and walked through the exhibit hall. If you stopped to chat with several vendors, you probably came away with a bag full of swag. Most of it was disposable and forgettable: the typical pens, beer can cozies, and mouse pads with vendor logos proudly displayed. But if you (and the vendor) were lucky, there’s probably been at least one piece of swag you got that was so unique, it still comes up in your conversations today.
For me, it’s the smartphone cardholder I got from the folks at SEO Alarms. It was different from any other swag I was given at the conference. because unlike most of it, it was immensely useful. I finally have a handy place to keep my business cards, on the phone that is always with me. (I’d almost swear when I bought my first iPhone, Siri said to me, “Behold, I am with you always.”) I love to show it to other people, and every time I do, BOOM, someone else gets exposed to the SEO Alarms brand.
Getting that phone card holder at a conference booth is a micro example of experiential or engagement marketing, the creation of experiences (whether IRL or online) that so engage the participant that they are moved to get involved and add to the experience (whether by adding their own content, sharing the experience as I did here, or otherwise). The point is that the uniqueness of the experience makes it memorable.
I hope the moral of my story is clear: for your content to make an impression for your brand, for it to be memorable, it has to be unique.
Unique doesn’t have to mean one-of-a-kind
By the way, “unique” does not mean everything about it must be something no one ever heard or saw before. SEO Alarms didn’t invent the stick-on card holder, and I’ve seen several vendors giving them out since I got theirs. But they were unique for me, in this case, because they were first.
So being first with something is one way to be unique, but it’s not the only way. You can talk about a common subject but still bring a unique take on it. I hope the article you’re reading now is an example of that. I won’t pretend for a moment that there aren’t a lot of other “what makes quality content” posts out there. One of the best is by my friend Ronell Smith on the Copyblogger blog. But I hope that you found my “3 marks” approach a little different and that either that approach or something I’ve shared here was unique enough to become memorable to you.
How to create unique content
Here are some things you can do to ensure that your content is unique:
- Research what has recently been published on the topic. Do Google searches using several variations of your main keyword, and with the time parameter of the search (found under the “Tools” menu in desktop Google) set to “past year.” Read the first page results. Also use BuzzSumo to check the most-shared content on your topic.
- Concentrate on making your main approach unique. Don’t sweat every detail having to be “never-before-seen.” As I was planning this post, I’d done enough research to know my “3 marks” were a unique take on the topic of content quality.
- Use my content mashup technique. I first talked about this in my “I See Content Everywhere” Whiteboard Friday video. The idea is to research existing content on a topic and then create a “mashup,” an intersection of two or more ideas from different sources that becomes a never-before-seen synthesis. For example, you might take interviews with famous fashion designers along with data on how fashions change, and mash them up into a piece on whether those designers are driving the changes or vice versa.
- Find a unique voice. As important as the uniqueness of the content itself is your way of presenting it. For example, AJ Kohn (mentioned before in connection with memorable content) was using memes to illustrate his serious content long before that became popular. At the time, it made his content not only stand out from the crowd, but made even mundane subjects fun, so his posts were more likely to get read and shared.
Summing Up the Three Marks of Great Content
Are you one of those who skips to the end first to evaluate whether a long piece of content has any benefit for you? Congratulations, that’s a great reading comprehension hack. So here’s your reward: a quick summary of my Three Marks of Great Content. Each main section links back up to its location in this article so you can dig in deeper.
- Great Content Is Useful: Content users want to know what’s in it for them. Make sure you deliver. Useful content earns the right to market, is credible, is interesting and engaging, and provides a great user experience.
- Great Content Is Aligned: It aligns your business goals with the questions and needs of your target audience and creates a bridge between the two. It starts with your business goals (because you have to know what you want to achieve) and then looks for ways to serve the needs and questions of your target audience that connect with those business objectives.
- Great Content Is Unique: It doesn’t have to completely reinvent the wheel, but it should add at least one new spoke. Don’t bother creating a piece of content unless you can bring a fresh perspective to the topic. And remember that you should strive to make your “voice,” your way of presenting content, as unique as the content itself.
I hope that reducing the highly-subjective concept of “great content” to these three marks has given you a useful framework for evaluating your own content. If you forget all my specific tips, and just ask yourself before hitting publish, “Is it useful? Does it align my business with my target audience? Is it unique?” then you’ll be way down the road to creating something others might actually remember and value beyond their click on the next article in their feed.
- Wake Up Your Sleeping Beauty Content – How to get more out of your past content by identifying and improving your “Sleeping Beauties,” content that should have performed better than it did.
- Short Form vs Long Form Content: Which Is Better?
Mark Traphagen is Content Strategy Director for Perficient Digital (formerly Stone Temple Consulting). He has been named one of the most influential content and social media authors in numerous industry listings.