“Every day, there is more and more to manage and get right and learn.”
Who said that? It’s definitely someone in content marketing, web strategy, or digital communications, right?
It may surprise you that the quote is from Dr. Atul Gawande who wrote The Checklist Manifesto: How to Get Things Right. Gawande is a general surgeon who suggests that applying simple checklists to both complicated and routine medical procedures can affect overall success rates and reduce infection and mortality.
What does his quote have to do with content marketing? A lot.
Great content strategy is all about taking the guesswork out of execution, so that creative content can flourish. To help get all of the details straight, we developed the Creating Valuable Content™ Checklist. We also updated it since its 2011 debut.Great #contentstrategy is taking the guesswork out of execution so creative content can flourish says @ahaval. Click To Tweet
As Gawande explains, most professions resist checklists because “we believe our jobs are too complicated to reduce to a checklist.” But if doctors, project managers, and the World Health Organization are convinced of the power of checklists, then why shouldn’t we be?
An overview of valuable content
The checklist is designed for digital content creators and marketing teams. It defines valuable content using five benchmarks:
Hat tip to Colleen Jones, founder and principal at Content Science, who inspired some of these benchmarks.
Get decision-makers in same room
Before you start using this checklist, it’s important to understand how to use it. The first thing is to get the right people involved.
One of the most persuasive stories Gawande tells is about how some of the most run-down hospitals in Detroit instituted a checklist for inserting a central line, also known as an injection port, which is used to minimize the number of times a patient needs to be stuck with a needle. However, these lines can often become infected.
To reduce the probability of infection, a Johns Hopkins Hospital physician created a central-line checklist and persuaded the Detroit hospitals to participate in a study to see if the checklist was effective. Each hospital was assigned a senior project manager as well as an executive who would visit at least once a month to hear the staff’s complaints and help them solve problems.
Why did the executive need to be involved in something considered tactical? Some of the staff’s issues were things that only the executives could solve, such as supplying the right kind of antiseptic soap and proper size drapes. By capturing the attention and action of the executives, these hospitals in Detroit brought down central line infections by 66%.
In content marketing, your executives may be the people who can effect changes in your resources, influence your company’s policy toward social media, or become champions for the voice of your brand. By educating your key executives about the content marketing challenges facing your team and proposing solutions, you have an opportunity to make a difference.
Share the checklist with your team
Our company’s internal checklist identifies what needs to happen to keep readers interested in our content. We also know that we control only part of the process. What will keep you reading to the end of this article (I hope!) is visual design, information architecture, and usability.
To use the checklist properly, get all the members of the digital strategy team working through the checklist together and make changes as needed. If team members have their own checklists, combine them for maximum effectiveness.
I hope you will print the checklist and use it often. To learn more, check out the post where we look at the benchmarks in more detail to help you understand what each point means and what you can do to make your content more valuable.
We all want our content to sparkle.
For that to happen, we need something to guide us. That’s why we created the Creating Valuable Content Checklist, which helps marketers deliver valuable content to readers. Let’s dive into it.
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When creating content, remember that unless something is sent directly to users, they probably will need to find it (and even when you email, things can get lost in an inbox). Make sure you’re using SEO guidelines to write or create findable content.
These steps assume that you have done the keyword research — selected based on your goals and user research.
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For web page text
- Use only one H1 and multiple H2 tags on your web pages because they help search-engine ranking and break up text on a page. Make sure you highlight them in the copy deck (or whatever system you use to move content from creation into production) so that the person posting the content understands how to code it. Use H3 tags if necessary, but understand that they won’t get you the same bang for your buck in terms of SEO results that H1 and H2 tags will.
- Customize the metadata (title, keywords, and description tag) so that it describes the content on the page according to your keyword research.
- Include links to other pages on the site to increase the content value that search-engine spiders assign to your pages. (Spiders are the robots that crawl through your site to find relevant content.)
- Include alt tags on your photos and other images so they appear in image searches. Describe the picture in the image (because alt tags were first designed for the visually impaired), and use these tags to highlight your content. For instance, if you have a picture of doctors performing surgery, the alt tag could be, “The doctors at Sweet Valley Hospital in Sweet Valley, Calif., are experts in separating identical twins in a surgery known as identical separation as shown in this photo.”
- Post your video on YouTube or Facebook to increase the likelihood that it will be seen. We like using YouTube because it allows us to accurately count the views. Whichever platform you use, tag the content so that it can be found:
- Include possible keywords in your title.
- Provide a detailed, keyword-rich summary.
- Distribute in different formats, such as MP3, WAV, and WIFF, so it’s available to different audiences. If a potential customer doesn’t have the required format to listen to the audio file, then your goal of creating and distributing the content has been stymied.
- Create a detailed summary and title where the content will be downloaded. For some delivery vehicles, that’s the system it’s stored in, such as iTunes. For others, it might be the page where you post the file.
- House each audio clip on a relevant content page so that the text and audio support each other in SEO efforts by demonstrating relevant content to the search engines.
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After users find your content, do they consider it to be readable? While this question applies to written content, text is the primary way people consume information, so it’s an important category.
When considering readability, remember that users scan until they find the content they need. Any great web article respects the person’s time. Therefore, consider using the following:When considering readability, users scan until they find #content they need says @ahaval. Click To Tweet
- Inverted pyramid style of writing: The most important facts should be at the top. For an example, the image above was produced using eye-tracking software. You can see where the user’s eyes scanned on the page: See how that shape follows an inverted pyramid?
- Chunking: Keep paragraphs short. We follow the rule of three: no more than three sentences in a paragraph, and no more than three paragraphs under one heading.
- Bullets and numbered lists: When people want to consume information quickly, lists and bullets are helpful.
- Consistent language: Avoid confusing your readers. For example, how do you refer to your business, company, or institution on a page? If you keep switching back and forth from your name to the use of the term “us,” it’s going to confuse your audience. Use a style guide to help everyone get on the same page.
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Creating content that users understand is challenging when topics are complex. In health care, where my agency does a lot of consulting and content creation, we’re aware of this. Many times, we write on an eighth-grade reading level. Even that might be too elevated for some readers.
How can you create understandable content no matter what industry you are in?
- Choose the right content type. For example, if users have an “aha” moment when seeing something sketched, use a video or a slideshow instead of written text.
- Create personas for your different user audiences, and match the level of the content’s complexity to the user’s ability to understand it.
- Always provide context. Even if you think it might sound condescending, consider explaining even the most basic concepts to your users. You never know where someone is jumping in on the conversation.
- Apply a standard reading level to your content for each project and stick to it. This should be based on your users’ personas and market research. There is a function in Microsoft Word for testing reading levels — you may want to experiment with that scoring.
- Provide valuable information to the user. This could be new information or a new way of articulating an existing idea. Sometimes metaphors help people understand better.
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You are creating content because you want readers to take action. How can you make sure this happens?
- Include an obvious call to action.
- Make it easy for users to comment and ask questions, both publicly and privately. For instance, allow blog comments or direct people to your company’s Facebook page. If you accept comments through your Contact Us page, make this page easy to find and easy to use.
- Provide links to relevant content or program your content management system (CMS) to provide options to other content that users have liked.
- Include a list of actionable items at the top if the content is long. For example, if you are writing about diabetes care, at the top of the story give three bullets that define diabetes and explain how to control it.
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People trust peers more than brands. How can you get users to share your content with their friends?
- Provoke an emotional response with your readers. When I first started writing articles on content marketing, one of my editors told me, “People are more likely to share controversial.”
- Provide a reason to share. For example, you may tell a story about how sharing health information with each other helped one family increase its exercise efforts.
- Ask your audience. For example, ask your users to share the content by saying, “Please share this content with those you think might enjoy it” at the end of each article.
- Make sharing easy. Work with your IT staff to research and decide which sharing widget is best for your organization.
- Allow users to personalize the share. For instance, when Aha Media Group retweets things, we like to add hashtags or reference other sources.
Do you have experience using checklists in your content marketing? I’d love to see your examples. Or let me know what you would change in this checklist.
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Cover image by Joseph Kalinowski/Content Marketing Institute