As a small agency, we constantly have to evaluate the work that we do and find ways to make it better. At the root of this evolution is a push to always create more value for our readers.
Creating value. That phrase has long since devolved into cliché, which is unfortunate because it precisely describes what we try to do.
We look for ways to increasingly target relevance and usefulness for our clients’ audiences with each new piece of content we create.
This is not a new idea; publishing helpful and valuable information has been a key part of content marketing for years. Most if not all content marketers strive to publish useful stuff.
But it’s a long road between wanting to be useful and actually being useful.
And that road is strewn with distractions: It’s easier, for example, to be clever than it is to be helpful. Falling for that trap results in lots of content that is nice to read but is merely entertaining.
The same goes for chasing virality. A post could get thousands of shares, but if it doesn’t actually do anything useful for its intended audience, it’s no more valuable than skywriting.
Inbound marketing veteran Dan Moyle was teaching this very lesson back in 2013, when he wrote a bulletin board-worthy post on Hubspot.
“Instead of trying to be the next beer commercial, the next Geico camel, or a viral sensation like Psy, work on providing answers to the questions your potential customers are asking,” Moyle wrote. “When a consumer has a problem, and your product or service solves the pain, you gain a fan.”
Still, as important as a useful mindset is, the real difficulty is in actually implementing processes that make any piece of content genuinely useful.
Below are four nuts-and-bolts-level insights we have learned about creating useful, valuable content.
1. Analyzing Whose Voices Lead a Conversation, and Why
With some thoughtfulness and work, you can out-compete other publishers by being more thorough and more useful in the content you publish.
This is not SEO-specific advice, either. Being more thoughtful is a good way for your content to get traction on social channels and in your outreach.
This is what Moz’s Rand Fishkin was talking about in a recent Whiteboard Friday. His argument that “good, unique content” offers no competitive advantage to content marketers crystallized many of our own thoughts here regarding genuine usefulness:
So, to get your content to that 10-times-more-useful threshold Fishkin recommends for unseating a high-ranking piece, you need to return to that keyword you’ve already vetted for its informational intent.
Performing These Keyword Searches
A combination of Google and BuzzSumo searches will reveal what content built around a specific keyword is ranking and getting shared.
Let’s go with the search term from the Whiteboard Friday video, [costa rica ecolodges].
First, as we’re reverse engineering this process, consider why someone might search this term. Most likely, he/she is planning a trip to Costa Rica and is doing some comparison shopping.
What information is important to the user at this stage? Likely the features of each ecolodge — the amenities, how close it is to the beach, whether you wake up to toucans on your balcony.
Price ranges might be important, but perhaps only in terms of $100 per night versus $1,000 per night. The $100 and $150 rooms can fight it out later.
Digging a little deeper, consider why someone would visit Costa Rica in the first place: As a tropical country with some of the richest diversity of wildlife and geography on the planet, Costa Rica tends to wow visitors with the sublimity of its nature.
The ecolodge detail offers a further clue about the user’s intent. Most likely, this person has already been or is in the process of being inspired by Costa Rica’s ecology and wants to experience it up close.
So, here are the first results, at the time of writing, in Google after the ads:
Here are BuzzSumo’s first results at the time of writing (I changed the search slightly to [costa rica eco lodges] in BuzzSumo because it got better results):
The first result in both is a piece in The Guardian from travel writer Sarah Gilbert. Hers is a nice standard for comparison. Take out the rubric Fishkin offered in the video above to see whether you could up the helpfulness factor by an order of magnitude.
Here is a quick analysis based on Fishkin’s rubric:
How is the User Experience?
Load times for The Guardian are pretty good, especially for a news site. There are no popups or particularly intrusive ads. Content is easily accessible without my having to click through anywhere, and it renders well on mobile. Not a huge opportunity for improvement.
How Detailed and Thorough is the Information, and What’s Missing?
The information covers basic details, but certainly much more could be covered. As this is a Guardian post, the piece was most likely limited simply by in-house formatting and conventions.
A Costa Rica travel site, for example, could offer its own list of 10 ecolodges and really dive deeply into each entry: Interviews with the owners could help flesh out some interesting stories about what makes each place special, what inspired the proprietors to open an ecolodge, what memorable guest stories they can share, etc.
Again, the user intent analysis suggests that most people who arrive here via search would respond to inspirational details. News organizations don’t often have the desire or budget to address such targeted reader emotions.
How Compelling are the Images?
They all appear sourced from the ecolodges’ sites or social media profiles. They definitely help the reader get an idea of what each lodge looks like. Two places where improvements could be made: More photos per entry, and a map showing each lodge’s actual location.
What is the Quality of the Writing?
Professional quality writing. The bigger opportunity in the copy lies in whether you have the resources to dig up more details, as mentioned above.
What is the Quality of the Source Material?
Information is direct from a primary source. Cross-referencing with ecolodge guests or anyone else with customer-side experience would be helpful.
Ideally, you would do such an analysis for each piece of content on Google’s first page as well as the top five or 10 results in BuzzSumo. This would give you a comprehensive picture of what’s missing in these conversations; then, you could do the legwork yourself to out-hustle everyone else competing for this keyword.
Sound like a lot of work? That’s because it is.
Fishkin argues that this barrier to entry — this habit of going well out of your way to uncover opportunities to help your audience — almost gives you a super power.
“When your competitors or other folks in the field look and say, ‘Hey, there’s no way that we can scale content quality like this. It’s just too much effort. We can’t keep producing it at this level,’ well, now you have a competitive advantage,” he says in the video.
“You have something that puts you in a category by yourself and that’s very hard for competitors to catch up to. It’s a huge advantage in search, in social, on the web as a whole.”
2. Understanding Why Readers Are Interested in a Topic
One big mistake that rookie content marketers and SEOs make is accepting keywords at face value. They target it without considering why people are searching for a certain term.
Nate Dame at Search Engine Land offers three broad categories that describe why a user searches for a specific phrase or keyword:
- The person wants to know something.
- The person wants to do something.
- The person wants to go somewhere.
Content marketing often works best for informational keywords, i.e. when a user wants to know or learn about something.
Google has since learned to take into account a piece of content’s relevance in relation to a user’s query intent.
To put that another way, it’s forcing publishers to compete for organic traffic largely on the basis of usefulness with each piece of content.
This has consequences that extend far beyond the realm of just SEO. In fact, it actually reflects something we’ve seen in our own social media strategies: People respond better (via shares and Likes) to a genuinely helpful piece of content.
Google SERPs can serve as a decent reflection of what people find useful.
Dame recommends regularly checking your own keywords and your own content against what Google deems valuable:
“It’s valuable to regularly play this Google Jeopardy with your organization’s top keywords. Look at the answers that Google gives you, and infer the questions. Are users looking for products? How-to instructions? General information?
“Take regular notes, and then come back and play again in a month. Tracking user intent for your brand’s keywords over time will help you monitor — and eventually predict — trends in your industry. And it will allow you to provide the specific content that your buyers are looking for.”
3. Letting Feedback Inform Our Process
Comments from readers and the people to whom we’ve reached out have provided some of the richest insights yet as to how we can improve our work.
Scrutinizing the Comments Section
Dennis Seymour at the Phillippines-based agency Leapfroggr coined the phrase “comment scouting” to describe how this can influence keyword research and inform any content you create.
“I would look at my own comments area or the other popular articles in my niche or those ranking for my target keywords and build content around the suggestions or ‘pains’ of the people commenting there,” he says.
Let’s return to that Guardian piece about Costa Rica ecolodges. The comments section here is full of ideas (and a healthy dose of snark):
The top two comments are simply people trolling, but their comments might give some kind of insight as to whether certain Guardian readers find the article irrelevant.
The BuzzSumo share count, however, indicates some kind of relevance and makes me think this is pure trolling. So, the top two comments can be ignored. Moving on.
The next two comments get to the heart of a real irony at work: Inspiring a whole community of readers (largely Brits) to fly to experience pristine nature.
Any attempts to one-up Sarah Gilbert’s piece might want to include at least a nod to that irony. Even better, it could offer more eco-friendly alternatives for readers who would find those tips relevant.
This could include ideas for offsetting the footprint created by simply getting to Costa Rica, or it could even include closer ecolodges in Britain so that those local readers could practice the environmental consciousness they would seek in Costa Rica.
At the heart of this whole discussion is one of the main rules for writers, speakers, filmmakers and many others: Know your audience.
Feedback via Social Media or Email
A core part of our outreach process involves communicating with anyone who might have a personal stake in what we’re writing about, our micro audience. This process frequently opens up revealing conversations.
Take, for example, the post we did about agencies and web developers in San Diego. That city has inspired our team on more than a few occasions, and the post intended to give credit to the people and organizations who contributed to that inspiration.
Their feedback was overwhelmingly positive, but a few people brought up something we might never have considered.
They asked for our criteria for inclusion on that list. Basically, they said a rubric up front would have better contextualized that list.
The same goes for the Guardian post. Even a definition of terms in the post’s intro section would have clarified for readers:
- what The Guardian considers “affordable,”
- what specific criteria make an ecolodge one of “the best,”
- and what expertise the writer or the publisher have with Costa Rica that makes their top 10 more trustworthy than any other site’s.
Don’t take all feedback to heart, of course, but do be mindful of any opportunities to help others when a genuine comment or complaint gets back to you.
4. Maintaining a Precise, Hype-Free Writing Style
Here is a lifelong battle for storytellers, regardless of their medium.
Being able to say what you mean and to mean what you say, and to do this succinctly, is an art form. It requires first a mental clarity that, even on the best days for most of us, comes and goes.
This is also why decent writing is scalable, but the things people actually want to read are so rare.
Copywriter Adrianne Munkacsy has a great post at the Firepole Marketing blog on writing sales or promotional copy that is free of hype. Her tips are directed toward what she calls “quiet brands,” but the same applies to content because it should largely be free of hype.
Munkacsy recommends that quiet brands ask a handful of questions before they begin writing copy; her second and third question get right to the heart of helpful vs. unhelpful content:
- “Does this empower my audience?”
- “Does this speak to what really motivates my audience?”
The best content should do both.
“Many quiet entrepreneurs are naturally empathetic, so they find it easy to put themselves in their clients’ shoes …” Munkacsy writes. “But occasionally they hit the pain points a little too hard. They hammer out words like ‘depressed,’ ‘hopeless,’ ‘anxious,’ and ‘suffering.’
“But, like overacting, piling on the pain comes across as jilting and insincere. Even worse, it can attract clients who are so immersed in their own junk, they stay stuck and are unable to get the most out of your service.”
Again, this is something that any content marketers must work at constantly. We, for example, implement two rounds of edits just to fine-tune our writing, catch any typos or grammar mistakes, and consider potential big-picture issues.
More could always be done, but there are only so many hours in a day.
Recommend Resources for Better Writing
- Strunk and White’s Elements of Style. This book costs less than $10 almost anywhere you find it, and it’s so useful that it might become a permanent fixture on your desk.
- Read good writing. Your ability to think and write clearly are direct results of your information diet. Read sites that curate great writing such as The Browser, and read sites that publish consistently great writing such as Aeon Magazine.
- The Economist’s style guide. We shared this one internally recently because The Economist’s editors make their precise writing style seem so accessible. Everything on the style guide’s front page deals with making prose clearer. Then, there’s the last line, which is something any writer should remember: “Scrupulous writers will also notice that their copy is edited only lightly and is likely to be used. It may even be read.”