Why we should set higher standards for content production
Most online content feels like stale crackers.
Sure, it hits the spot. If you’re starving, it might help you feel less weak in the knees for a while. But then you will use that cracker-induced burst of energy to get yourself to some good food. As fast as possible.
When the only question we ask ourselves while planning and creating content is, “How do we rank for this search query over the articles already there?” we are settling for the lowest acceptable quality standard.
We are willingly reducing our meals to the equivalent of a disappointingly soft bite into the Ritz that has been left out on the dining table for more than a week.
Why do we treat those soggy content bites as the absolute pinnacle of professional achievement?
We can do much better than replicating our competitors’ stale posts.
Imagine the crunch of properly good content – exploding with the flavor of new ideas, filling our readers’ brains with possibilities and creating a fresh memory that they will return to whenever they feel the hunger of needing the exact solution we provide.
If you want to make content that genuinely stands out, stop trying to create the least stale cracker. Consider creating some actually tasty meals.
To do so, you need to ask:
“Why would readers / listeners / viewers care about what we’re saying? So, what?”
Information alone won’t make anyone care
Too many marketers treat content as a laundry list of facts and claims.
We plan our posts by assembling a couple of statements that, we hope, are unique and relevant, like:
- “50% of SEO professionals are worried about AI”
- “SaaS is undergoing a rapid shift”
- “AI will change how organizations analyze their data”
- “To grow your email list, you should promote it on social media.”
And then… What do we do?
Once we assemble a good enough fact list, we often throw it in a content blender (by sending it to a writer as a “content brief” or pasting it into a content optimization tool) and hope for the best.
But that doesn’t work. You can’t assemble a memorable article by throwing together facts, just as you can’t plan a delicious meal based exclusively on nutritional labels.
Imagine you’re cooking lunch. But all you care about is whether your meal has a good balance of protein (primary keywords), fats (examples), and carbohydrates (long-tail variations).
You check that nutritional content, then throw everything together into an easily digestible shape (formatting) and slap a logo on it at the end. Boom! You’ve made SEO Soylent.
Soylent is not very appetizing unless you are allergic to the very concept of fun.
What’s the difference between a depressing Soylent lunch and a bowl of pesto fettuccine you’ll still dream about two decades later? Flavor.
If you want your content to do more than take up SERP real estate, you need to add flavor to the articles that you publish.
Take those facts and spice them with a focused and targeted research question.
Trying to stuff as many facts as possible will only confuse your readers
I think you’ll agree: most articles on your average search page or corporate blog aren’t particularly good.
I’m not saying this to bring down any brands or individual marketers. We’ve all been there. When time is ticking and our jobs are on the line, we might let our standards drop.
To meet a deadline, we distill the act of writing to its most bare ingredients: keywords, title tags, word count, related questions, etc.
But here’s the problem: none of the features your optimization software can track will make your content memorable or even help the reader understand it.
And while a simple how-to guide or comparison piece might get the job done in some contexts, it’s not always enough.
When we think of content like search engines, we can let the user experience suffer.
For example, look at this piece by Forrester titled “Toward A Greener Marketing Ecosystem”:
When I look at this introduction, I feel like the author is throwing facts at me as fast as possible from every imaginable direction.
The title has told me that we will be talking about “green marketing” and “ecosystems,” but the first sentence is also telling me about all kinds of people (“marketers, agencies, publishers, and adtech vendors”) and how they have had to deal with all kinds of problems not related to sustainability (“consumer privacy, misinformation, viewability, fraud, diversity, and inclusion”).
I’m already thinking about all of those concepts and maybe one of them is actually a relevant pain point for me, so my mind might be drifting toward questions of “misinformation” or “fraud.”
But before I’m even able to take a single breath, the author has thrown three different statistics at me, all without additional context.
I see numbers like “$600 billion,” “10 years” and “2023” and names like “IAB Europe” and “World Federation of Advertisers.” Since I’m not familiar with these organizations or reports, I am completely lost.
I want to beg for the author to slow down and just explain why they were talking about any of those reports in the first place.
But they are already moving on to tell me about how I need to “reduce the marketing and advertising industry’s carbon footprint.”
Right, this was an article about marketing and sustainability. I was too busy feeling overwhelmed to remember that.
I may be painting an exaggerated reader experience here, but honestly, I needed to read that introduction more than three times to understand any of it.
And I read these types of posts for a living! What do you think will happen with professionals or consumers not used to dense corporate blog posts?
How would you know what facts are important?
That Forrester article isn’t unique.
I constantly see authors struggling to balance all the claims they feel they need to make, all hoping to dazzle the reader with as much information as possible.
But when you add detail, you must also help the reader see whether those details are important.
Is the fact that the advertising industry is worth “$600 billion” actually helping us understand why it needs to “fight climate change”?
Why should your reader know that marketers are struggling with “cookieless targeting and measurement” when you’re telling them about sustainability?
When a user clicks on your post and sees countless seemingly irrelevant facts without any indication of why they are useful, that user will click away.
If you’re worried about AI or competitors reducing your CTRs or affecting your sales, why are you shooting yourself in the foot by making users struggle to understand you?
Think like a reader
What makes you care about anything you read on the web?
Any of us on this website probably care about backlinks and meta descriptions more than anything. But what if you weren’t looking things up for SEO?
What would you care about if you were an average internet user looking for a quick read during lunch?
I’d guess that you would probably be looking for something useful, related to your interests, interesting to follow, and new.
If you’re a business reader, you are likely trying to get better at your job.
If you’re a consumer, you might be looking for entertainment or a quick answer to some annoying problem.
Seeing several statistics probably won’t help you with any of those goals.
You need to deliver that extra value, and you can begin by thinking like your readers.
Pretend that you aren’t paid to look at your website. Look at your outline or draft with fresh eyes and ask yourself one simple question, “So, what?”
Why should we care?
You don’t have to learn a thousand frameworks to make good content. You already have a good intuition for what great content looks like as a user. But as marketers, we ignore that intuition.
A lot of content advice sounds like our main job is to trick Google into showing our particular stale cracker over all the other stale crackers ranking on that page.
We tend to assume that if a user took the effort to type a query into the search bar, they owe somebody their attention. And since they’re looking for something to click on, might as well be us, right?
Wrong. Nobody owes you attention.
As search engines display increasingly sophisticated snippets above organic results, social media platforms suppress links, and sites publish more and more content… we cannot assume that being “good enough” will actually get us a conversion.
When you audit competitor content or plan your own, ask yourself, “Why would a reader care about this?”
And here’s the key: don’t accept easy answers. Because your readers definitely won’t.
Look for points where a reader might doubt you
Whenever I analyze any marketing content, I try to get into the headspace of the most skeptical user imaginable.
I read through an article looking for reasons to click off. I look at arguments, waiting for my inner BS detector to start beeping. I wait until my attention starts to drift to something else.
Thinking about your content that way will feel unpleasant. But if you can write for the most skeptical reader, you will be much more likely to win over everyone willing to give you more benefit from the doubt.
Here’s an example. In May, Hopin wrote “Community Is the New Organic GTM Strategy.”
If I’m an organic reader who clicked on this piece, I am expecting to hear about:
- Community as a marketing channel.
- Why we are looking for “new” organic strategies.
- How all of that is relevant for companies who are planning their GTM campaigns.
Keeping all of those expectations in mind, read this introduction and honestly think about how you would perceive it:
If I want to learn about organic marketing through community, I am immediately clicking away from this piece. Why?
Because most of these sentences do not address any of the questions I was trying to answer.
I didn’t come here to talk about Google’s I/O presentation, SEO, or the doomsday impacts of AI.
I’m just trying to put together some events to generate more leads for my organization. All of these claims are irrelevant.
That piece doesn’t properly talk about “community” or what it actually looks like as a marketing channel until halfway through.
We aren’t given a proper justification for why community is the right answer to potentially lower CTRs with AI search results.
We aren’t told why we can’t keep investing in all of our other marketing channels, which might not be affected by Google’s SERP features.
And if we were already planning to use a community for our GTM strategy – we still haven’t been shown why any of our campaigns should be changing for the near future.
If I’m a skeptical reader, I will click away from your piece long before you can walk me through your marketing funnel diagrams, no matter how compelling or interesting they might be.
Add flavor to your content to enhance your claims
Let’s think back to our stale cracker analogy.
Why is the cracker so disappointing?
Because it doesn’t have much taste and the texture doesn’t match our expectations.
Even if we love crackers, we were hoping for a satisfying crunch. A soggy mouthful of bread immediately feels like a mistake.
But if we go back to our kitchen and look past those easily accessible crackers, we can find much more exciting options to satisfy our hunger.
We can look at our fridge and open our spice cabinet, trusting our senses to answer, “What looks good?”
“So, what?” isn’t a useful question because of those particular words.
It’s a guidepost to remind you that just because something you made might technically be decent enough, it won’t win over buyers when they can go to a restaurant next door.
Bonus: Content POV planning template
Ready to elevate your content campaigns with a compelling point of view?
This free content planning template can help you:
- Audit content by digging deeper than word counts, pillars, or funnel stages.
- Ask better questions to develop a unique and compelling point of view systematically.
- Plan and research content campaigns by embracing approaches your competitors are too afraid to try.
Opinions expressed in this article are those of the guest author and not necessarily Search Engine Land. Staff authors are listed here.