Posted on Sun 15 March 2015

Raising the bar

This article first appeared in an issue of The List, my short-lived premium newsletter for content marketers.


When you look at stories that are popular on The New York Times or articles that hit the front page of Hacker News, or even just the blog posts that spread like wildfire on Twitter until you've seen them twelve times in two days, the thing they have in common is that they stand out. They're unique stories, well told. Or they're stories that speak to all of us in some way, well told. Or they tell us all how to do something we've been wondering about.

Topics is for another day, but suppose you have your topic already. How can you go above and beyond to make this piece of content shine?

To start with, stop calling it a piece of content. The only people who call it that are the ones marketing it.

Think about your audience. Your reader, listener, viewer. What will they call your work? They certainly won't see it on Twitter and say to themselves, I'll just take a break from work to read this piece of content.

What about when they tell their friends? They won't say, you've got to read this great piece of content I found the other day.

Use their language to put yourself in their shoes. Will they call it an article? A blog post? A story, a slide deck, a photo essay? Thinking about it in these terms helps you get on their level and connect with them, rather than pushing pieces of content at them, and hoping they bite.

Note: because I'm talking about content more generally, I'm going to keep using the term "content". When you think about a specific piece you're working on, that's when you want to focus on what type of content it actually is.

So what about producing your content? How do you make it stand out from the crowded space of everything vying for your audience's attention?

Once you're thinking on their level, the next step is to raise your bar. If you're satisfied with mimicking the quality of everyone else in your industry, guess how your audience will view your content? Just the same as everything else. Moving your quality bar higher will give you a leg up against the competition.

It means hard work, obviously. It means not accepting your content as "done" when you finish the first draft, or the first edit. It means poring over that content multiple times to fix typos and make your words read smoothly. It means adding visuals and making sure to credit the creators of those images. It means spending the time to format your content so it's an enjoyable reading experience. (That could mean an entire overhaul of your blog, but notice that both Crew and Buffer have done this recently. Do you care about your audience as much as they do about theirs?)

It also means asking yourself hard questions. Am I making my points clear? Is it obvious what my argument is? Have I backed up all my points with thorough research? Am I confident in the quality of my research? Most importantly, what will the reader get out of this?

You should be thinking about your audience all the time. They're the people who will decide whether your content is good enough to share with friends or to post on social media. They're the ones who will either remember your brand's name or forget it immediately. They decide.

There's even more you can do to stand out. Take a topic you've recently written a great article or blog post about. Think about that topic and how your audience perceives it. Why do they care? What else do they want to know?

Thinking through these questions, you can find more valuable ways to package up that content and expand on it. If your topic is something they'll refer to over and over again, you could create a one-page "cheat sheet" for them to save and print, or a PDF to download and keep at their desk. If it's just a great story, you could turn it into an eBook with illustrations, and make it a real story experience.

If you're working on a topic that's highly visual, you could create a photo story about it—a blog post or a slide deck would work for this. You could try making an infographic if it's a fun, visual topic.

Here's an example from the Help Scout blog: 10 Things Your Customers Wish You Knew About Them.

Help Scout infographic

They've published this infographic on their blog where it can be shared on social media or saved to a bookmarking site or Pinterest. They've also gone the extra mile and added a convenient "Download PDF" button at the top of the page, so you can save it to refer to later (of course, they've gone the extra mile to help you make their content popular with a big, fat share button, too).

If you want to stick to writing, you could create a whole series of blog posts about that topic, and later bind them together in a PDF or even a mini website dedicated to that topic.

All of these ideas require lots of hard work. Some could potentially require money, too. Don't let that turn you off. Hard work is really, really hard, but the pay-off is so much better than being mediocre.

Think about your audience again. Think about how they feel about your content so far, and all the content vying for their attention. Don't they deserve some stand-out content that makes their day? You can create that! Just think outside the box of what everyone else does, and raise your bar. Don't accept anything mediocre.

P.S. I make some stuff you might like: Exist, a personal analytics app to help you understand your life, and Larder, a bookmarking app for developers.

Image credit: Matthew Wiebe

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