Mastering Content Marketing: 7 Required Principles for Success
If you’re not thrilled with the results you’re getting from content marketing, you might be missing a piece of the puzzle.
As long as you’re doing some of the key aspects of content marketing right, you’ll get some good results.
However, you’ll also get some bad ones, and overall that will lead to slow growth and minimal success.
This is very common.
And that’s because marketers rely too much on tactics.
You probably know a few good tactics to create content for your readers and promote it.
But you’ve also probably noticed that when you use the same tactics over and over again, many stop working or work only some of the time.
In fact, that’s the whole point of tactics in the first place: a specific approach to a specific situation.
And you won’t be in the same situation all that often.
Despite the fact that most marketers read the same blog posts about tactics and strategies, only 30% of them find content marketing effective.
Many marketers understand what to do—but not why they should do it.
And this seems like a small thing, but in reality, it’s crucial.
If you don’t understand why you should use a particular tactic, you won’t know when to use it. This means you’re playing a guessing game, and the results will be all over the place.
I want to clear up as much of this as possible in this post.
We’re going to look at the 7 most important principles of content marketing and how you should apply them.
Once you understand how these principles affect your overall content strategy, you should be able to get a better grip on when you need to use specific tactics.
Principle #1: All effective content provides this…
This is something that every single marketer needs to understand.
Content marketing is based on providing value to your target audience.
No matter which type of content you create, every decision you make about it should be to maximize the value for the reader.
Notice that I said “value for the reader.”
One of the most common mistakes is defining value based on your own preferences and opinions.
But your readers don’t necessarily find the same things valuable or interesting as you do.
It’s important that you remember that value is always defined by your audience.
If you’re not seeing any traction with your content, there’s a disconnect. Traffic growth, shares, positive comments, emails, etc. are all signs that you are delivering value to your readers.
In general, the more value you give, the more you get in return.
Signs of high value content: I can’t tell you exactly what your specific audience values. You’ll have to determine that yourself, if you haven’t already.
However, I can point you towards four characteristics of high value content. These aspects remain true in almost any niche:
- It’s actionable – Your audience comes away from the content knowing how to implement something you covered. This is why you often see me break things down into step-by-step procedures.
2. New stuff – There is some value in repeating your message on certain topics because not all readers understand it or implement it the first time. However, every piece of content should have at least one or two new key facts, findings, tactics, etc. Most audiences put a high value on learning new things.
3. Impressive design/Highly readable – You should make all blog content highly readable. Pick a large font, minimize distractions, format it clearly, and include lots of images. When you’re creating content for other websites, do the best you can (even if their layout isn’t great).
4. Backed up with data and sources – Most audiences need to be convinced that your way is the best way. In order to do that, you need to cite research and experts.
Examples of high value content: One of the toughest parts of becoming a great content creator is distinguishing what is and isn’t high value content.
After all, content comes in many forms.
The best way to learn about it is to see it.
You’ll be able to tell whether you are looking at good content by the high number of social shares and comments it has.
Some high value content, like Seth Godin’s, is very short:
His readers value being challenged into growing as people and marketers.
My content, on the other hand, is extremely long, yet it gets about the same number of shares as Seth’s.
You should also look at other forms of content.
For example, “MinutePhysics” is an extremely popular YouTube channel. Their audience loves the short videos that break down complex topics in simple ways (with attractive drawings):
That audience doesn’t want to know every single detail (which would take days or weeks to learn); they just want to learn something neat in a minute or two.
Or maybe you’re considering repurposing content as slideshows. You should take a look at the top slideshows on Slideshare in order to see what those audiences appreciate:
For the most part, they want high quality images with easy to read text that breaks down large topics into digestible bites.
You’ll also notice that high value content in your niche may not seem that impressive compared to other niches. If you find a situation like this, it will be easy to get traction if you just implement this one principle.
The easiest ways to improve the value of your content: Chances are you’re already creating content but might not be getting the results you crave.
There are three simple changes you can make to improve the quality of your content.
The first, and most important, is to cut down on quantity.
There’s no point in posting a ton until you’re sure that you can produce content that your audience considers high value.
It’s better to create less content of high quality than more content of lesser quality, so spend more time and resources making your content as good as possible.
You can always scale up later.
The second thing you can do is bring in other experts to help you create better content.
You’ll notice that most of the advanced guides on Quick Sprout were written with the help of an expert in that topic:
This helped me create more complete content in areas where I’m not as experienced as I would like to be, which made the content more valuable.
Yes, this will cost you money, but it’s often a good investment.
Finally, if you’re not very good at a particular part of content creation, like design, editing, formatting, etc., bring in an expert freelancer.
In the past, I’ve published a lot of infographics. I could create an okay one, but instead, I found an amazing designer who created infographics my audience loved.
Principle #2: It has personality
Content marketing is all about providing value in order to establish a relationship and trust with the audience.
But value alone isn’t enough in most cases.
If you’re going to create the next Wikipedia, then it’s fine to have purely objective content.
But if you’re blogging, it just doesn’t work.
That doesn’t mean you have to be incredibly biased when you create content, but you should always take a stance on a topic.
And then you explain why you think that something is either good or bad for the reader.
You’ll be wrong sometimes, and that’s okay. But the majority of your readers want to know that behind the content they’re consuming, there’s an actual person who cares about them and the topic, and not just someone who is simply copying and pasting from Wikipedia.
How personality shines through in content: Your personality and opinions show up in your content based on the language you use and the way you write.
Ideally, you should sound the same as you would if you were having a conversation in real life.
For example, Brian Dean is one of the bloggers I know who often says “I’m PUMPED” in his content in various situations:
I think it works really well because anyone who’s ever heard Brian speak could easily picture him saying this in real life.
Compare these two tweets:
- “I’m PUMPED to be speaking at #LAC2022.”
- “I’ll be speaking at #LAC2022; I’m excited.”
Real people typically focus on their feelings first, which is why the second tweet would sound pretty robotic.
In real life, most people would at least say, “I’m so excited for this opportunity!”
While being concise is important in content creation, don’t shorten content at the expense of emotion. Emotional connections build relationships.
Be authentic: The crucial takeaway is to create content that reflects who you are. If another blogger started using the “I’m PUMPED” expression, it might not work for them.
It’s very difficult to create a likable persona from scratch.
It’s much easier to create content based on the likable traits that you already have.
What if you’re not that likable? It’s a common and perfectly reasonable concern.
Very few people are liked by everyone. But here’s the good news: very few people are not liked by everyone.
There are extremely popular writers who use offensive language, i.e., swear words, in their content on a regular basis:
It’s just who they are.
And guess what? It does turn some readers off their content.
However, this is more than made up for by those readers who love them. That’s because they also don’t believe in censoring themselves in real life or online.
Don’t worry about pleasing everyone. Be authentic, and you will build strong relationships with a small group of readers who will be crucial in your long-term success.
How to be more genuine in your content: At first, being authentic is very difficult.
One technique that I recommend to help you with this is to create your content and then record yourself reading it out loud.
Most phones have a built-in recorder. Otherwise, find an app, or use a free online recorder if you have a microphone.
When you listen to the recording, you’ll notice that you speak in a certain way and even insert words to make your speech more natural.
Add these other words (when they make sense), and add punctuation and formatting such as commas, bold type, italics, and capital letters to add emphasis or change the way the audience reads your content.
Principle #3: It convinces the reader that your viewpoint is correct
I touched on it quickly when I explained the first principle. Being persuasive not only adds value to your content but also serves as an important part of effective content marketing.
If you’re not persuasive, how are you going to get readers to come back to you over and over again and trust you?
By the way, being persuasive means that you back up your opinions and claims with credible sources—and not try to manipulate your readers in some way.
If you write an article saying that bicycling is the best form of exercise, all readers will leave if your whole argument is “I rode a bicycle once and got really tired.”
That’s an extremely bad example, but it illustrates the point.
To make your content convincing, you need:
- a clear stance on a topic
- research that backs it up or
- experts who back it up
Examples of convincing content: Backing up your content with credible resources and research isn’t particularly difficult, but it can take a lot of time.
It’s a matter of how much effort you’re willing to put into your content.
But it makes a huge difference even if it’s difficult to see the results right away.
I try to back up all my claims with data when possible. You will often see me link to studies and analysis reports in Quick Sprout posts:
Another completely valid and convincing way to support your viewpoint is by quoting experts or even getting them to contribute unique content:
When possible, I’d rather cite a study.
However, some topics are purely opinion based. How are you going to statistically identify the best SEO tool? It can’t be done.
To take your content even further, provide examples of reputable people and brands using the techniques and strategies you mention in your content.
Readers see that successful people and brands practice what you’re saying, and that adds a lot of credibility to your points.
How to persuade readers with your content: This is simple but very easy to mess up if you do things in the wrong order.
You want to research your topic first, find supporting data, and then create content.
The worst thing you can do is to simply write a huge post about a new topic and then find out that there’s no credible data to support your viewpoint.
This is less of a risk if you have a lot of content creation experience in your niche, but it’s still good to plan ahead.
First of all, find your statistics, and add them to your content outline.
For most topics, you can Google “(topic)+statistics”:
Then, spend 5-10 minutes looking through the results, and pick out any that help strengthen your main view on the topic.
Next, read what thought leaders in the niche have written about similar topics.
You can either read the first page of Google results when you search for your exact topic, or you could search for something like:
Alternatively, you can email a particular expert and ask them to answer a specific question. Then, feature the answer in your content.
This alternative takes more time but can get you unique content, and the influencer will likely help you promote the content.
Finally, whenever you’re finished explaining a concept, get in the habit of writing the phrase “For example…”
Add examples whenever possible to clarify things for your audience. I’ve already used that exact phrase three times in this post (you can use others, of course).
Principle #4: Content needs to deliver on its promises
It’s why people will continue to return to you instead of any other blogger in your niche.
It’s also why when you sell a product, your audience will know that it’s a legitimate offer that will add even more value to their lives.
Just like in real life, you have to earn trust.
You need to deliver great content over and over again.
However, trust is also really easy to lose.
If you don’t deliver on a promise, you lose that trust. If your audience ever feels tricked, you lose that trust.
And it’s very difficult to win it back.
Making promises in your content: All content creators make promises to their readers in multiple ways.
The most obvious and common one is in a headline.
Your headline often claims a benefit. For example:
Do (this) and you’ll earn $1,000 per month
That’s a promise. You’re saying that the reader can find a high quality answer in your content that will allow them to get that result.
But if within your post, you offer the “get a job and work an extra 50 hours a month” solution to your headline promise, most readers will feel tricked.
Lofty headline claims help you get more clicks and traffic—that’s why we make them.
Just be aware that you need to deliver on your headline.
I’ve created content such as “The Complete Guide to Building Your Blog Audience”:
That’s a big claim.
A complete guide needs to cover everything and do it in a way that’s useful:
If you check out that guide, you’ll notice that not only is it custom designed but it’s also in-depth.
I feel like I’ve delivered on my initial promise in the headline, and judging by the number of links to its main page, I think my audience agrees:
If you ever want to see a site that doesn’t really care about building trust with its audience, check out BuzzFeed.
It routinely uses “clickbait headlines” to attract extra clicks and shares:
Often, it’s about something small that will change your life.
Spoiler: it probably won’t change your life.
And it’s for this reason that BuzzFeed can’t sell products to its audience effectively. The vast majority of the audience doesn’t trust it.
Instead, it generates revenue through advertising, which is one of the least effective types of monetization.
You need to remember this principle for all your content. If you’re telling your subscribers about a product you’re selling, you need to make sure that the product is every bit as amazing as you say it is.
Trust is the most valuable resource you have. Don’t throw it away.
Principle #5: Content is not a one-off occurrence
All great content marketers know one thing:
To be successful with content marketing, you need to be consistent.
It is extremely rare for one piece of content to be enough to generate leads on a regular basis.
The only types of content that can do that are mammoth pieces of content such as full-blown novels and films.
And those are risky.
It pays off for some, but most never see a significant return on their investment.
Online content is a bit different. We don’t typically release huge pieces of content like novels.
Instead, we focus on smaller, focused pieces of content.
The most important thing to realize is that what’s a “big” piece of content to you might not actually be that big.
My posts are typically over 4,000 words long, and they really aren’t “big.”
That’s why it’s a bit silly when bloggers complain that they’re not growing fast when all they’re doing is posting one or two 500-word articles a week.
It seems like a lot because they might not be used to it, but it’s really not.
At least not immediately…
But if they stayed consistent for a few years, they’d amass 200-300 posts that would probably drive a fair amount of reliable traffic.
It’s too bad most bloggers give up before then.
Examples of consistency: Consistently giving value to your audience is how you build a relationship and trust.
There are no shortcuts; it takes time.
I’ve been blogging on Quick Sprout since 2007. I didn’t get hundreds of shares on each piece of content overnight.
If you look in the archives, you’ll see I’ve been posting three times a week for a long time.
I publish a new post every Monday, Wednesday, and Friday:
Another great example of consistency is James Clear. He’s a writer who has grown an audience from zero to 200,000 subscribers in just three years.
He did it by posting an article on his site every Monday and Thursday during those three years:
Are you willing to make that sort of commitment? That’s what effective content marketing requires.
How to stay consistent and avoid burnout: On top of correctly setting your expectations, there are four things you can do to increase your chances of being able to maintain consistency.
The first, and most important, thing you need to do is create a content schedule.
Plan your content ahead of time so there’s no chance of something coming up and preventing you from posting. As soon as you skip posting once or twice, it becomes easier to forget about it.
It doesn’t need to be complicated. You can even set up a simple schedule using a spreadsheet:
Any type of calendar schedule will work. If you’ve never used any before, consider Google Calendar, which is simple to get started with:
The second thing you need to do is produce a reasonable amount of content.
You may not have the time or experience to post three times a week like I do.
You might grow a bit slower, but you’ll still grow as long as you’re consistent.
Start on the low side, and then up your frequency when you feel you can. It’s always better to scale up than down.
Thirdly, you need to make content a priority.
Have enough time carved out specifically for content creation so that even if there’s an emergency somewhere else in the business, you still create the content you need.
Every single piece of content is important even if you can’t see the growth on a post-by-post basis.
Finally, write about topics you care about. That’s the easiest way to stay motivated.
There’s no way I could have written about marketing for over eight years if I didn’t love it.
Principle #6: It outshines everything else out there
The specific content needed for effectiveness will always be changing.
Years ago, you could post basic 500-word articles and still get decent results.
Now, you won’t even get a second look.
For content marketing to work, your content needs to be much better than the competition’s. That’s the only way you stand out, and it’s one of the main reasons why a reader would follow you over someone else.
Examples of next level content: People have written on just about every topic.
When you search for a main keyword, you can see most of the best content around it (Google doesn’t always rank newer content right away).
For example, I could look at the competition for this post by searching for:
Principles of Effective Content Marketing
My next step would be to take a look at the top results.
Here’s what the #1 result looks like:
The information is pretty good, but it’s a very plain and shallow article.
The next few search results are similar, with short, brief lists:
Just by making my post more in-depth and including a lot of examples, I am making it to stand out.
Hopefully, I will outrank these other posts in the future.
Let’s look at another piece of content that stands out…
Tons of SEO bloggers make lists of great tools to use (including me).
However, most only have a few dozen tools at the most.
Brian Dean took a different angle. He personally tested and put together a list of over 150 SEO tools.
He even created custom filtering buttons.
In my posts, I tend to cover the main features of tools in detail, whereas Brian went for quantity.
They’re both examples of next level content, and each will attract different types of readers.
How to ensure that your content is the best: You need to do your best to make each piece of content as strong as possible.
To do this, follow this simple 4-step process:
- Find your competition – Use Google and tools like BuzzSumo to find the most popular content for a topic.
- Research your competition – Write down the strengths and weaknesses of all your competition.
- Match the strengths – If they did something really well, try to match or exceed them in those areas.
- Fix the weaknesses – Your biggest opportunity to stand out is to improve on weaknesses your competition has.
Principle #7: Your content marketing strategy should always evolve
The final principle is one of the most important:
Your content marketing strategy should never stay static.
If you ever feel like you have it “all figured out,” think again.
Tactics become less effective over time, and adopting (or inventing) new ones is what will keep you successful.
If you go back a few years, you’ll see that many Quick Sprout posts were very short.
As I noticed that longer content performed better in many aspects, I shifted my focus to producing more in-depth content on a regular basis.
Another example is creating infographics.
They were the main way that we were able to get the KISSmetrics blog an impressive 2,512,596 visitors and 41,142 backlinks.
I started using them on Quick Sprout a few years later but saw much tamer results.
Content marketing will always be evolving, so make sure you and your tactics are evolving as well.
Tactics are important for successful content marketing.
But even more important are the 7 underlying principles I’ve shown you in this post.
If you understand these principles, not only will you be able to apply tactics more effectively but you’ll also be able to stay on top of content marketing for years to come.
My challenge for you now is to evaluate if you understand these principles and to apply them on a regular basis.
If you already use these principles, let me know how you do it in a comment below. If not, let me know which ones you need to work on and how you plan to attack them.
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