I recently had the opportunity to review and rank a stack of 24 content pieces with one purpose in mind: to identify the distinctions between great, good, and not-so-good content. In other words, what makes the difference between content that soars versus content that sucks?
I had expected to see a gradient of many shades; instead, there was a black-and-white difference between the losers and the winners. Basic ethics (and a desire not to alienate clients or potential clients) prevents me from citing specific examples. (That absence, by my own standards, prevents this post from being a champion.) I’m forced to summarize the distinctions, but even as abstractions, the following themes may shed some insight on what distinguishes great from grating content.
1. You gotta’ serve somebody – but not yourself.
The weakest pieces were clearly self-serving; I could practically hear product managers and PR people whispering in the writers’ ears as they wrote. Product features, “secret sauces” and obvious political agendas took precedence over audience relevance.
The best work glowed with a laser-like focus on audience concerns, needs, and desires. When I read the champion content, I felt convinced that the authors really knew and understood their audiences, so much so that they could pass as colleagues. They addressed their readers’ hopes and fears without condescension, and presented empathetic solutions to real challenges.
2. Take deep dives instead of throwing in kitchen sinks.
I applaud the ambition of much of the work that I saw. Production values ran high, and most of the content creators took on topics of organic interest to their audiences. The mediocre work, however, took on too much, spreading itself wide and thin: these pieces tended to say familiar things about familiar issues.
Champion content favored concentration, digging deeply to uncover fresh and unfamiliar insights or ideas. Here’s a fictitious example of different approaches: A Homeowner’s Guide to Lawn Care vs. 3 Things Massachusetts Gardeners Must Do Before Winter. The former is too broad to stand out; the latter promises something precise enough to attract urgent interest.
3. Inspired, not tired – champions take risks.
At times I could predict, with dismaying accuracy, the substance of a given piece before I even opened it. It was an awful amount of the same-old, same-old: the same-old tips, the same-old recipes, the same-old human interest tearjerkers – even the same-old pop culture references.
The champions all had something daring and unexpected about them: unusual inspirations, unconventional analogies, and surprising stories. Maybe this should be every creator’s rule of thumb: if an idea doesn’t make you at least a little nervous, it’s probably not worth pursuing. The best ideas inspire some fear: “Can we really get away with this?”
4. Execution goes beyond the basics.
Facts, figures, concrete examples – these are fundamental pillars for good content. But champions go above and beyond the call of duty.
In the best work, the production team used original photography, not royalty-free stock stuff. They commissioned professional illustrators to create graphs and other supporting visuals.
And the writing! My favorite pieces went far beyond the Dragnet “Just the facts, ma’am” style to employ fresh metaphors and apply a fine ear for rhythm and meter. The best writers were never breezy, but often funny and always good humored.
Forgive me for stating the obvious, but it needs to be said (or remembered): if you want to create champion work, you need to work with champion talent.
5. Big money doesn’t always win.
This was perhaps the most encouraging discovery of all: the quality of the work did not directly correspond to the size of the underlying budget. I saw plenty of big-brand work created by big agencies that had obviously been supported with a phalanx of dollar-and-resource firepower, yet still fizzled. On the other hand, I saw extraordinary work created on a shoestring.
What was the difference? Imagination. The mediocre work stuck to conventional paths. But great work blazed new trails. The creators showed a deep understanding of their audiences, and were willing to take inspiring leaps with their creations. The best content made me laugh out loud, want to try out a new idea, or nod my head in empathetic understanding.
Yes, production values matter. Having a core vision and capacity for dogged execution matters more.
Yet even also-rans have real value
Here’s the beautiful thing about content marketing: it’s not a winner-take-all competition. With perhaps one or two exceptions, all the work I reviewed probably made a positive contribution to their organizations’ ambitions.
As marketers, our goal is not to make the “best” content per se but to create relevant content that reinforces bonds and encourages trust. Sure, champions may be rare. But the only chumps are the marketers who don’t seize the opportunities content creation can open for them, and fail to enter the ring at all.