This year, nerd circles the world over will blow out virtual candles as the internet as we know it turns 30.

Tim Berners Lee’s invention of the World Wide Web in 1989 brought with it email, America Online, dancing babies, Peanut Butter Jelly Time, and the birth of a global marketplace where anyone could buy and sell anything while still in their pajamas.

As the decades passed, our appetite for content increased. Cell phones became smartphones. Texting replaced conversations. Blogging made everyone Hemingway (or at least believe they were). And social media curated our thought bubbles into a weird, gigantic, public stream of shared consciousness.

Before long, anyone with a pulse and an internet connection could write, create, direct, and publish their own content. (Whether they’re qualified to do so is a very different question.)

Meanwhile, business became increasingly intoxicated with how digital made so many things so much more measurable. Brands saw the commercial advantage of publishing their own content but lacked a financial incentive to care as much about the quality of the writing. And without checks and balances on writing quality, the internet has been flooded with bland, sub-standard content that may rank high for SEO, yet barely offers any real value.

An inconvenient truth

The brutal reality: if your SEO is working, but you’re not getting the engagement you expect, your content — or, more specifically, the actual writing — might just suck. And I’m not just talking about blog posts and articles either. Many videos and podcasts begin with a script. Apps, games, and websites rely on the copy, too.

When audiences aren’t sharing, caring, or acting on the content that you worked so hard at getting seen, it’s important to know why. Yet so many of the metrics and analytics content marketers use can hide the real problem. Changing the time of day you batch your emails or adjusting the keyword strategy won’t lead to much improvement if the writing itself is weak.

Your content should be held to higher standards than the metrics by which success is usually measured. It has to meet and exceed the expectations of the audience and various editorial standards as well.

If you’re the person responsible for commissioning and signing off on the content, you’re responsible for setting that editorial standard, even if you’re not doing the writing yourself. And that means not only developing a keen sense for diagnosing weak or problem writing, but also understanding how to improve or fix it before publication.

So, what can you do?

Start by focusing on people, not clicks. Yes, SEO is important. In fact, it’s more critical than ever. But if you’re playing the long game, embrace the hallmarks of good writing — the kind of writing that puts the needs of the audience first, that stands out in a sea of SEO-driven mediocrity, and that works to make a deeper connection than a listicle that starts with “Five Reasons Why You Should …”

Well-written content is more than a series of facts and data. It goes further to explore ideas or state an opinion. Audiences want to be informed and moved. An effective content marketing strategy will include writing that potentially changes attitudes and drives action. A single article meets that goal incrementally.

It’s easy to understand why the content focus has become function over form. Yet, good writing — exceptional, memorable, and persuasive writing — is a skill, not a commodity, and should not be eroded or overlooked because it doesn’t easily appear on those spreadsheets tracking KPIs and ROI.

Feed the bots, write for humans

The numbers are staggering. Billions of people conduct billions of searches every day. If you’re just getting started on a content program, you’ve probably got a better shot at a well-written article being shared by a thousand people through social media channels than you do a poorly written one being seen by one person on Google. So, while you still need to feed the bots, start with humans in mind. You’ll find the former often follows the latter naturally anyway.

Before the tactics, let’s cover some basic rules of writing etiquette.

1. Check your (brand’s) ego at the door. By focusing outwardly on the needs of an audience, instead of inwardly on your boasts, your audience will likely trust you more.

2. Say what others aren’t saying. Respect someone’s time by attacking problems from different or unusual perspectives. Instead of another “how to hard-boil an egg” piece, give your egg article a facelift and talk about how much money you can save over your lifetime substituting hard-boiled eggs for deli sandwiches once a week.

3. Think story. Since cavemen wrote on walls, humans have made sense of the world through story more easily than complex facts and data. This doesn’t mean every piece of content should eschew data in favor of a narrative, but there are plenty of storytelling techniques writers can use to liven up your content. It’s worth knowing some storytelling basics to inform your briefs and feedback.

A gratuitous guide to great writing

Knowing what to say is one thing; knowing how to say it is another. Your subject matter experts and marketing team manage the former; skilled writers manage the latter. (Sometimes, you may be lucky enough to find a subject matter expert who is also a brilliant writer, but this won’t always be the case.)

In a social world, your audience wants to have a dialogue. Speaking or writing “human” is about being relatable to your audience and showing that you get them. Online, this requires a new skillset of writing for conversation.

Consider a few traits of good conversational writing:

Approachable. People are more likely to buy something from you if they like you. To like you, they need to relate to you. The social mores of cocktail party conversation are the same for writing a brand blog. Your content should exercise humility and keep the focus on the reader.

Speaks at eye level. The writing shouldn’t talk down to the audience. And anytime you spot words that don’t add any real value — like “synergistic tendencies” or “paradigm shift” — cut them.

Uses contractions. They help writing sound conversational and reflect how people truly speak. Read the content out loud and you’ll soon identify where contractions will improve its flow.

Addresses the reader directly. Content that uses “you,” “your,” and “yours” as pronouns makes it seem more one-to-one and conversational — for them.

Uses data and math sparingly. There’s a reason Ronald Reagan famously asked, “Are you better off today than you were four years ago?” He understood the risks of losing half his audience to confusing data. Instead, he painted a simple financial picture everyone could relate to.

Incites emotion. The holy grail of content marketing is when readers share content. They do this when it makes them laugh, cry, fume, or delight. If I’m seeking advice on saving for retirement and the gist of your article is “save early and save often,” you’re dead to me. However, if the content paints a clear picture of what my dystopian future might look like if I wait until 50 to start saving, it has my attention. Pick the emotional response you seek and ensure the writing brings it out.

The takeaway

No audience ever loved content for its keyword density or judged its value by the cost per word on a writer’s invoice. Yet these are often priorities for marketing execs at the expense of good writing.

Yes, you need to make a return on your investment. But if you’re measuring your content in such a way that paying a decent rate for decent writing becomes a drag on your numbers, then you’re missing the point.

Despite conventional wisdom, ROI isn’t about click rates and keyword strategies. And brand loyalties aren’t just built around good client service and low prices. Nurturing your audience’s needs online requires a thoughtful content marketing strategy that begins long before they’re customers.

Arguably, the easy money days in content marketing are behind us. Audiences ignore brands that don’t deliver and seek out those who do. SEO best practices and delivering on KPIs are entry stakes for getting in the game, not the differentiators to win it. The simple practice of good writing and investing in better content will make a meaningful difference to audiences you’re trying to engage, and ultimately, your bottom line.

So, what do you say? Can we fix the internet together, one word at a time?