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6 Steps to Help You Decide Whether to Optimize Your Failed Content

Updated May 3, 2021

So your content failed. You’re not alone. In between those pieces that clearly hit the mark, we’ve all published a few – or more than a few – that missed.

There’s plenty of advice on content optimization techniques to apply to articles that are already pretty good. And there’s even more on how to reuse, republish, or repurpose your highest-performing content. It’s a sure-win tactic to include in your content marketing strategy, we’ve run many articles about how to do it.

This popular one from a few years ago covers how to use data you can find in Google Analytics to decide which articles or site pages are worth spending time to improve. Michele Linn, who led CMI’s editorial team at the time, described the five categories of posts to spend time on, including those with:

  • High total traffic + high conversions + high search traffic
  • High total traffic + high conversions + low search traffic
  • High total traffic + low conversions + high search traffic
  • High traffic + low conversions + low search traffic
  • Low traffic + high conversions

All five scenarios have this in common: at least one signal the piece resonated with your target audience. You know it’s worth spending time optimizing these pages because the content already earned at least one “high” rating. A few tweaks could pay off with even more traffic or conversions.

But what about blog posts or articles that bring in little traffic and few conversions? Is it ever worth spending more time on content that didn’t connect the first time?

Should you try to optimize failed content?

The answer is everyone’s favorite: It depends.

When you’re trying to decide what to do with a project that didn’t turn out as planned, give it a hard, honest look. Put yourself in your audience’s shoes and read (or watch or listen to) the piece. Then walk through the following steps.

1. Check for the content marketing sweet spot


  • Is the content about something truly important, useful, and relevant to your audience?
  • Is it about something your organization has unique knowledge, skills, or expertise in?

If you answered no to either question, this content isn’t worth optimizing. Move on.

If you answer yes to both questions, then the topic is in your content sweet spot – the overlap between what your audience cares about and what your organization has the skills and expertise to educate them about. That’s enough to keep the content in the running for optimization. (If you need help figuring out your sweet spot, try this exercise.)

2. Browse your own library

Before you spend more time on the failed content, make sure you don’t have something similar that’s performing well. If you do have something similar, you can stop your evaluation here and focus on updating or optimizing the content piece that performs instead.

3. Set your content tilt

If you’ve decided the content is in your sweet spot and you don’t have similar content, you now need to understand why this piece didn’t perform. One likely reason is that it plays it too straight – in other words, your content lacks a tilt.

What is content tilt? Here’s the definition from CMI Founder Joe Pulizzi:

Content tilt is that area of little to no competition on the web that actually gives you a fighter’s chance of breaking through and becoming relevant. It’s not only what makes you different, it’s so different that you get noticed by your audience. That audience rewards you with their attention.

When you simply write what everyone else writes on a topic, you’re begging to be ignored. When we asked marketers why some content “sucks,” one answer perfectly summed up what happens when you fail to find your content tilt:

Not only has the topic been dealt with, but even the angle taken is too familiar … I don’t need to read what’s already been published 300 times. I am not saying invent something new, just don’t share the same 10 tips that everyone is sharing. – Youness Bermime, content writer,

If you suspect your content failed because it’s the same as what everyone else is publishing, see if you can reframe it with a tilt. Look for gaps in what competitors are writing on the topic and adjust your piece to tackle a different angle. Look for long-tail search queries and make sure the article provides thorough answers.

If you can’t find a tilt, then go back to the first step and question whether your organization is uniquely positioned to provide value on this topic. If you still think the answer is yes, keep looking for that unique angle.

4. Raise the visibility

Once you’ve confirmed or adjusted your tilt, address the possible challenge of your audience to find the content.

SEO plays a big part in discoverability; now that you’re committed to saving the piece, put in the time to optimize it. These resources can help:

But SEO isn’t everything. Your audience may find the piece while browsing your website, on social media, via backlinks, or from your email newsletter. Try the ideas in these articles to help get the word out:

5. Sweat the headline and the lede

You know that old saying: You never get a second chance to make a first impression. You probably rolled your eyes when your parents said it for the umpteenth time. But it rings especially true when it comes to content. Your headline and lede are that first impression.

When optimizing content that underperformed on its first time out, work harder on the lede – and especially the headline. Try the advice and ideas in these articles:

6. Optimize the CTAs

If the content gets little traffic, the number of conversions will likely be low. But if the percentage of people who convert from the content is low, you have some work to do on your calls to action and other conversion triggers.

Start by exploring the ideas in these articles:

No sweet spot, no tilt, no use?

If you couldn’t find a sweet spot or a tilt, do some (content) soul searching. Ask the scary question Joe Pulizzi has posed about what would happen if your content disappeared: “Would anyone miss it?”

If not, then consider removing it from your site (and redirecting the link to something more valuable).

Is it redundant, outdated, or trivial? Some brands have experienced a lift in traffic after getting rid of that ROT. Is the old content harmful to your brand? Eliminate it.

Andy Crestodina at Orbit Media wrote a thorough piece exploring different perspectives on if and when to get rid of old content. Study it for clues about what to do with underperformers that don’t meet the “worth-it” test described here.

How do you approach your less-than-stellar content pieces? Do you try to save them? Do you delete and redirect? Or do you save your energy for more promising prospects? Let me know in the comments.

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Cover image by Joseph Kalinowski/Content Marketing Institute