By Brad Shorr published April 12, 2013

What Quality Content Is, and How to Help Your Clients Create It

quality contentWe all know how essential quality website content is. However, continually producing content that meets high quality standards while still meeting performance goals can become an overwhelming challenge when working with clients who haven’t yet jumped on the content marketing bandwagon.

Here are three major problems that must be overcome before your clients can create content that not only captures attention, but also holds that attention and uses this engagement to convert customers. 

  1. An unclear definition of quality: If I had a dime for every blog post that advised firms to create quality content, I could outspend the federal government. But, if I had a dime for every post that defines quality content and clearly explains how  to create it… well, I’d have trouble affording a daily cup of coffee. If we don’t understand what quality is, how can we produce it?
  2. Content indifference: For the vast majority of small and midsize firms, it’s all they can do to keep up with the day-to-day work flow. Few have the luxury of on-staff writers. On top of that, many such firms are sales-driven, so coaxing a marketing story out of them can be like pulling teeth — and at times, more painful.
  3. Poor content creation processes: Agencies like to complain about clients in regard to this point; but truth be told, we don’t always do a very good job of helping clients through the content production process.

Our agency has been working hard on our own efforts to overcome these barriers to quality, so here I’ll share what we’ve learned, as well as a few techniques that have been helping us improve our results. 

What is quality content? 

I’m sure those of you in the CMI community have many insights on this question (and I hope you will share them in the comments section, below), but for the purposes of this post, here’s my simple, three-part definition.

1. Quality content is user-oriented and engaging: Brands like to talk about themselves, but customers mainly want to know how firms can solve their problems and make their lives easier. It’s not enough to stress benefits over features; the business must show that it has a thorough understanding of its customers’ needs by developing the ability to “write in their shoes.” Critical corollaries of this principle include content that…

  • is jargon-free: Since customers aren’t necessarily in your industry, they don’t want to decipher your lingo in order to understand your offerings.
  • is written in an appropriate style and voice: If your customers are large financial investors, a certain degree of elegance is required in your communications, while if you are looking to reach people who work in more of a blue-collar industry, straightforward and to-the-point language is likely the way to go.
  • stimulates a response: When you overhear someone speaking about one of your favorite hobbies, it’s likely that your first impulse is to engage in the conversation — or at least feel like you could. The discussion has struck a chord and piqued your curiosity, making the interaction more personally relevant and potentially rewarding to you.
  • is properly structured: It’s not just what you say; it’s what you display. Key, high-level points should be stated briefly at the beginning of your content, and supporting details should be added below (or on lower-hierarchy pages) for customers who are interested enough to get the whole story. (For more tips on structuring your content, I recommend you follow best practices for web typography and usability.)

2. Quality content has a business purpose: A popular theme in content marketing is storytelling. I’m all for telling stories, but every story needs one thing: a point. The point of a business story is to persuade a customer to take action. It might be a hard action, like placing an order, or a soft action, like downloading a PDF. But, on the whole, customers visiting a business site have a business purpose in mind, and they expect to be engaged in a business conversation. If your clients fail to meet that expectation in favor of simply creating content for entertainment value, consumers may get the joke, but they certainly won’t take them seriously when it comes to becoming customers. 

3. Quality content is easy to find and share: More customers will see the great content you’ve written on behalf of your client if they are able to run across it on Google or on one of their social networks. So be aware that there’s a basket-full of writing techniques out there that can increase the reach of your client’s content.

These basically fall into two categories: 

  • SEO: By optimizing content your client has created, you make it easier for Google to find it, rank it, and display it in customers’ relevant searches. Don’t let anybody fool you into thinking SEO is no longer important in our social media-focused world — it is essential, now more than ever.
  • Social optimization: Speaking of social media… when it comes to SEO, content marketers are likely familiar with meta tags — title tags, html header tags (H1, H2, etc.), description tags, etc. — written elements that are not seen in your content itself, but that can have a major impact on its popularity and findability. Think of the composition of tweets, Facebook shares, Google+ shares, and the like as social media equivalents of SEO meta elements — off-page content that enhances your ability to get your quality content in the hands of those who want it. 

How to overcome content indifference 

As an agency or service provider, you probably aren’t in a position to demand that your client hire a professional writer or take a class in marketing. However, before you dive into your next project, you can offer a bit of coaching to set the wheels of quality content creation in motion.

For starters, walk the client through the above definition and parameters of quality content. As content marketers, we should never assume that what we know is common knowledge. If clients are unsure what quality content is, or have a faulty understanding, they won’t know what information to supply so you can write the right stuff.

In terms of process, start by laying out a definition up front that establishes a standard against which all draft content can be evaluated. The extra work you do in advance here will prove invaluable as the project unfolds by speeding up edits and revisions, and by keeping edits focused on issues that matter — rather than tangential problems that do nothing but cause delays.

A second preparatory step is to communicate the business value of quality content. It’s not enough for clients to understand what quality content is; they must understand why it’s necessary to invest time and money in creating it. Here are some points you can use to convince your clients that quality content will help them communicate their business’ value:

  • It elevates the brand: Great content gives people a great impression of your company. It contributes to a prospect’s decision on whether or not to do business with you.
  • It increases brand awareness: SEO-friendly and social-friendly content gets seen by more people who may interested in what you sell.
  • It helps generate leads and referrals: With more people able to find your content, and with your content designed to stimulate action, you’ll have more opportunities to make sales. Plus, your sales team can use your site content to assist in the sales process, which can sometimes make the difference.
  • It increases customer loyalty: When your content conveys that you understand your customers and appreciate their problems, you build trust and confidence. More importantly, you make it harder for a competitor to lure your customers away.
  • It differentiates your business in a powerful way: Customers and prospects continually check you — and your competitors — out online. If your site content is comparatively lame, what does that do to your lead generation and customer retention? People naturally gravitate to businesses that offer superior content experiences. 

Tips for a better content creation process 

We’re always tweaking our web development process; on the content front, we’ve implemented several things that are making our content creation tasks easier — and our outcomes stronger. Here are three content creation tips that have helped our efforts tremendously:

1. Interview managers, sales reps, and client customers: As a writer, I love talking to managers because they give me context and perspective. I love talking to sales reps because they give me pitching points that work. And I love talking to clients’ customers because they show me the gaps between what a firm thinks it’s selling and what people are actually buying. A lot of work? Perhaps, but quality content is like quality anything: You get out what you put in. Taking this step accomplishes two things: First, you are able to write with great confidence; second, you have a strong position from which to rebut negative feedback, such as, “My brother-in-law tried your product and didn’t like it. 

2. Give content creators everything they need to get started: Whether a project will feature 10 pages of content or 300, we try to give writers the thorough guidance they need to produce meaningful messages. Much of the information we provide requires input from the client, but gathering it should not be overly burdensome. That information includes: 

  • Meta titles for each page
  • Primary and secondary keyword phrases for each page
  • A wireframe that outlines the word count and layout for every page of content — for both regular text and conversion elements
  • A description of the target audience segment for each page or section of content
  • Two or three key points for every piece of content being developed
  • Links to source materials for each page of content (wherever possible), so that writers can spend their time writing rather than researching
  • A sketched-out story narrative (where relevant) 

3. Prep clients for edits and keep editorial conversations focused: The worst way to start the editing process is to dump 100 pages of content on the client and wait for a reaction. One problem is that clients wait until the last minute: A day before the content is set to launch, they finally get around to reviewing everything and become hysterical when it isn’t to their liking. Another thing that often happens is that they edit the wrong things for the wrong reasons, such as taking out customer-oriented keywords and replacing them with industry jargon. To avoid these train wrecks: 

  • Give clients three to five pages of content to review early in the project. This gives you and the client a chance to feel each other out on how the editing will flow, and enables you and the client to get comfortable with the writing style before you proceed with creating content for the full project.
  • Let your customers know exactly what type of feedback you are looking to receive from them. For instance: 
  1.  Is the content factually correct?
  2.  Does the style suit your customers?
  3.  If not, why not?
  4.  What do you like most about this page?
  • Let customers know what type of feedback you do not want to receive. In particular, we like to remind customers why keyword phrases are used in certain ways, and why typography and layouts were structured the way they were.

Three examples of quality content technique in action 

1. Social optimization: The Google+ post below, from CMI, illustrates effective social optimization:

quality content-cmi Notice CMI tags various Google+ community members to get this post on their radar and encourage them to share it across their own networks. It also uses a meta description and post description that build interest and give people a reason to read the post.

2. Wireframing for writers: Here’s part of a wireframe that our writers have used when composing quality site content. (Note that we had our client approve this wireframe before it went to the writer.)

quality content-wireframe

Writers should be given some latitude in adhering to the wireframe, but even so, having this as a reference point allows them to focus on writing rather than agonizing over structure. In addition, wireframes make it much easier to write consistently across the many sections of a content project.

3. Spectacular content: For an outstanding example of engaging, user-oriented website content, check out Duluth Trading Co. Here’s its page on Buck Naked Underwear (be sure to check out the Learn More links):

quality content-duluth trading

The amazing thing about this site is that after a quick scan, you easily picture the type of customer who loves Duluth Trading — the high-quality, high value content makes it crystal clear. 

Over to you

We want to hear your thoughts on this topic. Feel free to post a comment below with your answers to these questions (or with questions of your own):

  • What’s your definition of quality site content?
  • What are your recommendations for working with clients to produce quality site content?
  • What examples do you have of site content done right? (Feel free to give yourself a plug!)

Learn more processes you can use to promote quality content creation among your clients by joining the conversations taking place at Content Marketing World 2013.

Author: Brad Shorr

Brad Shorr is Director of B2B Marketing for Straight North, an internet marketing agency headquartered in Chicago. He is an experienced content strategist, respected blogger, and SEO copywriter. Connect with him on Twitter @bradshorr.

Other posts by Brad Shorr

  • RhondaHurwitz

    What say you to a client who want’s to sell their product in the content?

    • http://twitter.com/bradshorr bradshorr

      Could you elaborate on that issue, Rhonda?

      • RhondaHurwitz

        Brad, how do you help clients resist the urge to sell in content marketing, and take a more educational approach … sometimes clients want to make sure that they get their product message in. What’s your approach? PS love the Buck Naked example

        • http://twitter.com/bradshorr bradshorr

          Hi Rhonda, I see what you mean now … sometimes I’ll show clients examples of educational content marketed by competitors, or from firms in a related industry. Another approach is to ask the client to think about themselves when they’re online: as customers, do they like to be sold when they’re looking for information? Probably not. A third option might be to survey their customers. If there’s doubt or disagreement between the agency and the client about what type of content customers want, ask them directly!

  • http://www.rocketmedia.com/blog Bryce Propheter

    Brad, while I agree with about 95% of what you’re saying here and will use some of it to help improve our own processes, I don’t like providing a writer with a design (or wireframe) they must fit the content into. That’s backwards.

    Design should be created around the content, not the other way around. Each piece of content will have different information that needs to be communicating and I think locking your writers into a structure will limit the effectiveness of their copy (even if given some “leeway.”) It seems to flow contrary to everything else you are saying about quality content.

    • http://twitter.com/bradshorr bradshorr

      Hi Bryce, You bring up an excellent point. As a matter of fact we are tackling that very issue now with our wireframes. On our last few projects we’ve had designers work with someone on the content team (the writer or a manager) to figure out how to bring the design and content together conceptually. It’s definitely more sensible than dumping a wireframe on a writer.

    • http://twitter.com/kayross Kay Ross

      I agree with Bryce. I’m a copywriter, and I hate being told by a client (usually very late in the website development process) to write a certain amount of content to fit into pre-defined empty boxes in pre-defined places on the page.

  • SuzanneDelzio

    Brad: great post about the real nuts and bolts of QUALITY CONTENT. The wireframe is great and I think I’ll make some of my own, depending on whether the content piece answers a question, is a list, case study, opinion piece, etc. I learned raising kids that the best way to get them over their fear of writing is to write up a bunch of examples and then let them have a go at it while you sit beside them feeding them Tootsie Rolls & Skittles. Writing is torture. It needs candy!

    I find clients really tentative at first–almost as if some 5th grade English teach is going to come out of the close with a red marker the minute they put pen to paper–but it just takes a couple of solid examples modeling quality content writing best practices and two or three coached attempts on their part (you may even have to sit beside them or Skype with them) before they’re off and running. I’ve even had some clients get quite cocky about their writing skills within a few months. Of course, making the case that these skills will get them further in other areas of business doesn’t hurt either! Happy writing everybody. Suzanne

    • http://twitter.com/bradshorr bradshorr

      Hi Suzanne, Your training and coaching skills will be in great demand, I think, as more and more companies realize they need to produce content, and that they have to be actively involved in the creative process. In the past, a lot of companies could completely dish off writing to a third party, but thanks to Panda and Penguin and the need for authentic and informative content, those days are gone.

      • SuzanneDelzio

        Thanks Brad. Just when I think about taking a corporate job again . . .

  • http://www.giftsspace.com/blog Online Strategies

    I think quality content can be produced only be people who knows something about what he or she is writing. It’s not just writing skills, but to produce superior content one should be a subject matter expertise.

    • Jeff Sararas

      And that was treated nicely in point #1 under “Tips for a better content creation process”. Replies to articles like these are *also* part of your ‘content marketing’. If you’re going to reply, make sure you’ve read the article and have something relevant to share. To me, it seems like you skimmed the article, and left a generic comment in order to link to you own blog. In my eyes, this hurts your brand. 2) Grammar and sentence structure errors immediately raise questions about competency as a content marketer.

  • Michael Gocia

    I totally agree with you and i believe that quality content is the major thing which gives good links and drives traffic to your website . we need to take care when writing some content to provide with best information which attracts visitors.

  • http://www.seobooklab.com/ Ram Babu SEO

    thanks brad for informative guide !

  • http://www.facebook.com/evanjpoe Evan Poe

    Man Brad this is great stuff. This article details a ton of what we are dealing with as an agency that has committed to a full shift in quality content as a foundation of what we do. I was especially drawn in with the aspects of writers being proactive to engage internal team members (sales, managers, techs, etc.). I think that the team environment is what makes agencies successful so why would the content process be any different … my feelings at least.

    I will say that one of our biggest challenges has been balancing clients who want us to produce 100% of the onsite content but won’t give us much to work with. It’s a challenge mainly because our goal is to be able to provide that all inclusive aspect, but we have found that even with a team that is committed to taking the time and effort to become knowledgeable about multiple different expertise, we HAVE to have their input in the beginning to get understandings of strategy, voice, culture, target, etc. We are seeing a gradual shift in their thinking, but this is still an area I am excited to see shift as clients begin to really “get” the aspect of success through true partnership.

    Thanks again … this has been forwarded out to our team and I’m sure it will be discussed quite a bit in the days to come.

    • http://twitter.com/bradshorr bradshorr

      Hi Evan, Thank you for your supportive comment. I had to chuckle reading your second paragraph, because I feel your pain! If it makes you feel any better, I’ve been talking to a lot of PR pros recently and they all say the same thing: getting clients to provide ideas, information and strategic input is always a challenge. When our agency started the shift to content-focused marketing, it was new to our clients and we got very little input. Now, clients are starting to get into the rhythm of what we’re trying to accomplish and the situation is improving, albeit gradually. I think at this point agencies and marketers in general are way ahead of clients.

  • K. Russell

    Great suggestions, though I wonder about a formatted structure. Each client is unique and should be treated accordingly.
    As for quality content that engages readers, as a writer, I always ask myself what brought the reader to the site in the first place: what is their problem/need/interest? Why are they seeking outside help? Then, it becomes easy to speak directly to a solution they can use, in words they can relate to easily.

    • http://twitter.com/bradshorr bradshorr

      We wrestle with creativity versus structure all the time — it’s a valid concern to be sure. The creative side of me would like a blank canvas for every client. The management side of me recognizes the need for efficiency, especially for large scale projects. It’s that concern that has led us to work with templates and other standard forms … and yet we need to continually look for efficient ways to customize them around the unique needs of individual clients.

  • guptaabhijit318

    Great list and article – very comprehensive and easy to understand. This is excellent advice. You are already effectively covering the bases for the goals of this blog. I know that quality content is the most important thing which provides good links and drives traffic to your website.