Creating great content is a two-sided equation. There is the art of great content and the science of optimising content for readers and consumers.
The former describes how you come up with content ideas, develop them and bring your idea to the point of completion. The latter describes how you organise and disseminate this content so people find and share it.
In part one of this two-part blog post, I describe the art of great content.
What is Great Content?
Great digital content entertains, educates or informs the reader. It’s digestible and easy to read, and it should never feel like hard work.
A great piece of digital content usually employs one of several methods:
It tells a story: Copyblogger regularly use this method to make a point about content creation and effective marketing.
It solves a problem: Smashing Magazine is a great example of this. The authors regularly write about how to adapt popular web design and development tools for readers.
It reacts to a current topic: In the Economist’ blog section the authors of the latest stories give a commentary on current events.
So, how is content created ?
The Five Stages of Content Creation
Step 1. Generating Ideas
Most SEO gurus will tell you standout content is essential. There is little value in producing shallow content. This doesn’t mean a blog post or an article needs to be thousands of words long. It means doing more than creating an article or webpage for the sake of it.
Here is how I come up with ideas: during the week, I read blogs, news items and industry papers. I make observations about these articles in Simplenote, Evernote, in a Notes app on my iPhone and occasionally with pen and paper.
I review these notes at the end of the week and identify feasible content ideas. The trick is to get into a habit of capturing ideas. This way, I always have a library of information that I can draw on.
Step 2. Brainstorming and Research
Before writing a post, I use pen and paper to develop my feasible ideas into an outline. Sometimes this outline involves provisional headings. On other occasions, I just jot down a sentence or two.
I make a list of key topics I don’t know much about and questions I have. Then, I search the internet, my Kindle library and my RSS feeds for up-to-date information. I also question if I want to write something personal, instructional or entertaining.
I also spend sometime considering how I can apply my personal and professional experiences to a subject and what an original slant on a particular topic would look like.
Step 3. Writing the First Draft
Based on my outline and notes, I spend several hours writing something that resembles a fully formed article. I try to write without making too many judgments or without editing myself. My preference is for a more conversational style of writing.
Many serious business people write in the first person. People like Ryan Holmes of HootSuite sometimes write about a setback, a challenge or a recent success. These authors use examples from their personal or professional lives.
Some of these authors refer to the reader as “you”. However, there is a fine line between advising the reader and coming across as someone who tells “you” what to do or think.
I accept it’s not alway appropriate to use the first-person and many business articles and posts should be written from the third person or at least assume a distance between the author and reader.
If you are finding it hard to develop a digital voice, study the style of content creators you admire. You could also save articles you like in a digital library using Evernote and read them for inspiration. And you can read my blog post with 9 simple but effective writing tips.
Step 4. Rewriting and Editing
I find this step difficult as I have to read my work repeatedly and decide what to cut or expand. I also have to comb my content for errors and check attributions and lay the article out into something people will hopefully enjoy. And it’s hard to pick up every error when you have read a piece a dozen times.
It is worth letting an article sit for a few days before evaluating with a fresh eye. Sometimes, I ask a friend or colleague to read my articles and sometimes I record myself reading them out loud. This way, I can gauge if the tone is appropriate and I can catch stubborn typos.
Step 5. Design
People read content on screens differently to the way they read a book. Digital content is more effective if it’s broken up by sub-headings, lists and proper spacing. Images and videos are another useful way of breaking up text-heavy posts.
And don’t forget to use formatting tricks to draw attention to your key points.
I try to consider the images and videos that will support my content. This typically involves searches for images online on sites like this one. Alternatively, I take pictures with a camera, create something in Photoshop or embed a video from YouTube. I’m not a video or photography guru and I sometimes follow tutorials I read on websites like Tutsplus and see what I can create.
Need Some Inspiration? Consider these Content Case Studies
Lifehacker publishes articles, tips and tricks that add value to the lives of its readers. The website is updated several times a day with articles and blog posts written by staff and guest writers.
These articles are typically conversational in tone and the site’s editors encourage readers to converse with each other and with the authors.
“Yes but Lifehacker is a professional media organisation…I don’t have their resources or expertise.”
When Apple released iOS 7, Lifehacker published a post about how to fix the more common bugs in iOS 7. This is an example of an informational post tied to a current event.
“Yes but Lifehacker is a professional media organisation,” you say. “I don’t have their resources or expertise.”
That’s a fair point.
Leo Babauta’s Zenhabits is another of the internet’s more popular blogs. Zenhabits is a personal website which Babauta updates several times a week. Typically, he blogs about zen, minimalism, productivity and personal challenges. Babauta rarely includes multimedia content and he could hardly be accused of running a website with a lot of resources. Recently, he wrote a rather insightful post about a trip to Pixar with his son. He used this personal story to create a list of creativity lessons for readers.
Babauta’s posts are normally several hundred words and, like many well-written blog posts, they almost always feature:
- a central narrative
- a call to action (like the one at the end of this post )
- a list organised by numbers or bullet points
- well-spaced paragraphs
- site links
Lifehacker and Zenhabits work at opposite ends of the spectrum but both serve as examples of how to produce great content that people return for.
Give it Time
It takes an average writer between four and eight hours to write an eight hundred word article. This varies greatly depending on the subject, the level of research, the scope of the article and the requirements for supporting content and attributions.
The best articles and posts engage us because we can identify with the author, their product, service or message on some level. Or they deepen our understanding of the world somehow.
The next stage involves the science behind content and I cover this in part two of the blog post.
Please let me know about how you create great content in the comments section below or connect with me on Twitter or