The problem with your content

Here is a sentence I would like to never hear again: “My content is not performing.” Whenever I hear this sentence, I instantly picture a very unhappy seal dropping the same ball, again and again.

But there’s a bigger problem — which is that you think that your content is the seal. It’s not. You are.

Good content is hard to make. For a long time, my entire life’s work was to sit around, making content. Articles, features, restaurant reviews, music reviews, sales letters, blog posts, tweets, profiles…you name it, I made it (often with someone else’s name on it). And I tried hard to make it good, even when it wasn’t easy, because I believed in The Principle of the Thing. Later, as a business editor and ghostwriter, I carried on fighting the good fight by saying things like, “I strongly prefer not to run this, it’s too advertorial” or more to the point, “God, please don’t make me write that there.” A lot of this happened before everyone said “content” (the word marketing is silent) and still used totally clear words like “articles” and even “blogs.”

But the funny thing is, my naive desire to keep it real was not such a bad thing. Because good content is still good and bad content is still offensive to everyone. So if you’re in the business of making it — particularly as a marketing exercise with some sort of measurable business objective — I have a few thoughts about what you’re probably missing. Which balls you’re dropping, so to speak.

Three, to be specific:

  1. Focus. What is your thesis statement? What challenge is your piece of content going to solve? Test your theory about your focus by writing sample headlines.
  2. Action. What action will the reader learn how to take? This might be, “Set up a Facebook Page.” It might be, “Talk candidly with a problem employee.” It might be, “Laugh.” It might also be, “Buy something from me.” Or it might be more subtle, like “Understand a difficult new concept” or “See a political issue in a new light.” But “it” definitely starts with a verb, and “it” is, hopefully, a very short sentence. Action is the same idea as “goal.” What’s the goal of this piece? I say that a lot. But the problem with the word “goal” is people tend to talk about “goals” in terms of themselves — traffic, hits, sales, conversions — and not about the people they are marketing to. So let’s use the word “action.”
  3. Conversation. Barring a very well-timed intersection of good luck, human boredom, SEO manna and editorial finesse, you are going to have to figure out a way to turn this inanimate content into a human conversation. Start by thinking less about numbers, keywords and click-through rates and more about actual people: namely, who is interested in #2? That’s who you want to get this in front of. (Some will be actual customers; others will be what Sonia Simone calls “second customers.”) And yes, this third point is also where “optimization” comes into play. But without getting #1 and #2 right, optimization, sharing, paid advertising and so on are just empty exercises. They might work temporarily, of course, and I welcome you to test that theory. But if I click on your link and have no idea what I learned except that you are selling me stuff, well, you dropped the ball. Again.

Obviously, as a writer first and businessperson second, I’m biased. I’m always going to advocate for quality and focus above all else. But why would you settle for less?

One Comment

  • Well said. Hear, hear!

    My mantra:
    * People first.
    * Words second.
    * Numbers last.

    ..Subscribing to your blog…. now! :)

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