I constantly hear SEOs and internet marketers evangelizing good content, suggesting that brands "create high quality content," or "build link-worthy content." Content has definitely become a trend word, with many people, including Bill Gates, proclaiming "content is king."
Don't get me wrong, I'm all for great content, but I think all too often brands find themselves unable to define and create “awesome content.”
So, I'm going to break down steps to creating high quality written content. I'm focusing on written content, because that's what I see brands trying to create most often—but obviously there are many types of web content.
Before You Start Writing
Unfortunately, many brands try to start writing web content before they identify why they’re writing it, and what purpose it will serve their readers.
1. Identify Your Audience and What They Want
Your content strategy cannot be “build it and they will come” (more here on how to create a content strategy). If your goal is to create content that people will read and share, then you have to figure out who your audience is and what types of content they already read and share. Here are a few ways you can identify your audience:
- Ask for reader feedback in blog articles/blog comments and through your social media platforms
- Send out surveys (old school but still effective)
- Hang out with your target audience by going to networking events or conferences they are likely to attend
- Check out case study reports your competitors publish on their audiences
If you already know who your audience is, identify them in the following ways:
- What are the general demographics?
- What/who influences them?
- What does your audience want/need? (basic information vs. detailed tutorials, etc.)
- What questions are your readers asking and what topics would they like to see covered?
2. Do Your Research
You can’t really create high quality content unless your content is well researched and well supported. Start your research by running through some basic steps:
- Identify and develop your topic: Once you evaluate what your readers want and need, narrow down the specific topic you wish to cover and flesh out the finer points.
- Review what’s already been said: Delve into what industry experts say on this topic--which will provide you with the backbone of your research.
- Identify gaps: Once you figure out what’s already been said on the topic, identify what hasn’t been said. Great content is useful and unique. If you want to contribute something unique, then you need to make sure what you’re writing hasn’t already been said.
The Writing Process
Many brands, bloggers, and web writers make the mistake of writing for the web like they’re writing an essay, but web writing is not like academic writing. There are a whole set of best practices that apply to web writing.
As we all know, anyone can write anything they want on the internet, which is why 65% of web readers find web content “hit or miss” or “unreliable,” according to a study conducted by content strategy company, Content Science. If you’re going to post content online with the hope of people taking you seriously, then you need to qualify yourself appropriately and create credibility.
But, as a brand, web readers are less inclined to trust your content--with endorsements from companies/brands ranking 5th in features that help readers decide whether or not to trust web content, according to the same study referenced above.
If you want to build credibility, you need to write unbiased and non promotional content (if people wanted to hear more about your products, they would would refer to your ads). Web readers are hypersensitive to brands trying to sell them something or endorse a particular product.
In addition to creating non promotional content, here are a few ways to boost your credibility:
- Cite all of your information/facts/statistics. Try to use a primary source whenever possible (in web writing, you can simply link to the source to cite it, but you should still try to use attribution phrases)
- Qualify your experience or expertise
- Link to other industry experts, so your readers have plenty of resources to check out
- Use attribution phrases whenever possible
Tip: make sure the attribution goes after the fact and that the attribution phrase is linked to the original source. (For example: Nicotine can impair a restful night of sleep, according to the CDC)
Make Your Writing Actionable
Like I said earlier, great web content is both unique and useful. The nature of the internet lends itself to web readers hunting for solutions, and they’re looking for actionable content that they can use--the more practical your tips, the better.
For example, it’s not enough to say that the keys to losing weight are eating less and doing more yoga. Those are both difficult things to do, so if you want to create a resource, you need to give readers extremely useful and practical ways of doing those things.
Take a look at the actionable yoga content versus non-actionable yoga content below--you will see that the actionable example has clear step-by-step directions (plus a picture) as to what the reader should do to achieve the end results. The non-actionable example doesn’t give the reader any takeaways.
Actionable Yoga Content:
Non-Actionable Yoga Content:
Tons of people on the internet write about their experiences and observations, but in order for your content to be actionable (and thus, relevant), you need to give your readers something to do with the information you give them.
If you’re having problems identifying what you want your reader to do exactly, use these tips:
- Ask yourself “what do I want the reader to think, feel, and do?”
- Tip: Convert these points into calls to action in your content
- Ask yourself “what do I want to talk about and what are my main points?”
- Tip: Use these points as your subheadings to create an informal outline that guides your reader through your content (this will also prevent your main points from getting buried)
Here are a few questions you can run through to make sure your writing is actionable:
- Are there clear takeaways or points of action readers can get from your content?
- Is there any call to action?
- Are there steps explaining how to do something or where to find more information?
- Does every section of your writing add value to your desired message?
Use a Conversational Style and Standard Grammar/Spelling
A web audience, unlike an academic audience, will expect you to use a conversational tone. While some larger, corporate blogs (Forbes, for example) will still stick to a more business-professional voice, overall readers will expect a more informal tone. Also, make sure to avoid flowery or overdone language.
That said, while you’re writing on the internet, that is not an excuse to throw out all grammatical rules. Quite the opposite, in fact-- readers will immediately think your content and brand lack credibility if you have awful grammar or spelling.
If you need some spelling help, The Oatmeal has a great place for you to start.
How to Structure Your Content
Most noobs to web writing structure their content in traditional essay format--which consists of long blocks of text. This is horribly ineffective, since web users scan instead of read (and in case you didn’t know-- it is very difficult to scan blocks of text). Here are a few ways to make your content scannable:
- Use short paragraphs (between 1-4 sentences is a good range to aim for)
- Bullet point lists are much easier to read and scan than are traditional essay articles
- Use bold or italics to emphasize points
- Use subheadings to guide your readers through the article. Readers should be able to skim subheadings to get an idea of what your main points are
- Get to the point; don’t include a lot of fluff and useless content
- Keep your main points front and center (for example, make each main point a subheading or bolded)
- Keep your content long enough to thoroughly cover the subject, but don’t drag it out (hint: if you feel like you’re done writing, you probably are)
- Use images and visual examples to give your reader a “visual break”
As you can see in the examples below, the scannable content is broken up with a subheading, a bulleted list, short paragraphs, and bolded words. However, the unscannable example has large blocks of text (especially the last paragraph boxed in red), no lists, bolded words, etc.
If you’ve done the work to craft a well written and well researched article, take the take to make it scannable, so you readers are more likely to actually read your content.
Yes, SEOs and internet markets are right--quality content is vital to your SEO/marketing strategy, so take the time to create a high quality piece of writing by:
- Determining who your audience is and what they want to read
- Research your work well and identify gaps in available information you can fill in
- Make your writing actionable and useful
- Use a conversational style and standard grammar
- Make your content easy to scan
Despite all the blogs claiming to have the recipe for the perfect article, web writing is a new medium and it’s not an exact science, so keep your methodology and practices agile and flexible.