Only fools depend on educational content to grow their audience.
There. I said it.
What about all the huge sites like WebMD and Moz getting millions of visitors through publishing educational content?
What about all the blog, podcast and video heavyweights who say publishing educational content is key to building a presence online?
And for that matter, what about this blog post? Isn’t this educational content? Aren’t I being a bit of a hypocrite?
All fair questions. In the next few minutes, I’ll answer all of them.
For now though, let me pose another question:
If you’re a beginner, and you’re starting from scratch, what’s the best way to build an audience in 2014?
Ask a dozen popular bloggers that question, and at least half of them will tell you to publish great content. I would be one of them.
It’s a useless answer. Here’s why:
Nobody truly knows what great content is. Not even me.
Let me explain.
Why Advice from Successful People Rarely Works
Let’s say Warren Buffett holds a seminar on how to become a billionaire by buying and selling stocks. It’s invitation only, but for some strange reason, Warren sends you a personal invitation, and you find yourself sitting in the front row, listening to perhaps the greatest investor in history talk about his strategy.
You’re thrilled. Naturally so. To learn from Warren Buffett is the chance of a lifetime.
Or is it?
During the seminar, Warren walks you through exactly what he does in painstaking detail. You learn every step of his process, every criterion of a good investment, everything he can possibly teach you.
After the seminar, you leap into action and start buying stocks. You do everything the way Warren told you.
And what happens?
More than likely, you earn a mediocre return.
Not because you lack his talent. Not because Warren has access to information you don’t. Not because you made a mistake.
It’s because the world catches up.
If you find a strategy that wins today, everyone will copy it tomorrow. As a result, the advantages of the strategy disappear.
When asked to predict the future earnings of Berkshire Hathaway, Buffett said he expects to only slightly out earn the market. Translation: The rest of the world has caught up to me, and I’m no longer special. For now, at least.
What you might not realize though is that the same process applies to everything. Including content.
Why You Should Ignore Most Popular Bloggers
If virtually all popular bloggers say publishing great content is the most fundamental piece of building an audience online, then certainly it must be true, right?
Well… yes and no. Here’s the problem:
How do you define “great content?”
For years, the stock answer was “great content is educational.” You teach your readers something, and they’ll come back for more.
And for a long time, it was true. The vast majority of the popular sites on the web today grew up in a world where educational content was king.
But I’d argue that’s changing.
Now that every Tom, Dick, and Harry are jumping into the content marketing game, the web is flooded with educational content. You can find an articulate, useful article on how to do damn near anything.
The result: educational content isn’t as effective as it used to be for driving traffic.
If all the popular bloggers who started five years ago were forced to start over from scratch today, and they followed the exact same strategies that made them famous, I’m convinced they would only be moderately popular. Not failures by any means, but not the titans they are today.
The great content of yesterday is the mediocre content of today. If you want to succeed, you have to evolve.
And that means redefining “greatness.”
Why Your Content Isn’t As Great As You Think It Is
If you’re struggling to build an audience online, it’s likely you have an outdated perception of what great content is.
Here’s what I mean:
Are you publishing short, witty posts built upon a single insight or story? Kind of like journal entries or letters to a friend?
Well… I’m afraid you’re following a content model from around 2007.
Or maybe you’re doing a series of how-to posts where you break down a large topic into manageable pieces?
I’m sorry to tell you, but you’re stuck in 2009.
Or how about an infographic? Maybe you’re thinking about passing industry data to a graphic designer and having them whip up a nifty little graphic with charts and graphs and whatnot?
It might have worked like gangbusters in 2012, but not today.
That’s not to say any of these strategies are ineffective. On the contrary, they still work. They just produce mediocre results.
If that’s all you’re looking for, then go ahead. Use them.
But if you’re starting from scratch, and you want to be the biggest and best in your space?
Well, you need to study content that’s getting a great response today. Or at the very most, go back no more than one year.
If you do, here’s what I think you’ll find:
4 Ways to Create Great Content in 2014
In my opinion, there are four distinct ways to create great content right now:
If you think back to your best teachers in school, they didn’t just teach you information. They brought the information to life, not only helping you understand it, but helping you feel it.
You can do the same thing online. Instead of just giving your readers a list of steps to accomplish their goals, give them a surge of feeling to go with it.
- Use music and video to spice things up. After traveling the world, Alex Chacon could’ve just posted up a whole bunch of photos like most people do, but instead, he created videos in dozens of exotic locations, stitched them together into a cool video, and overlaid music from the brilliant Tim McMorris. The result: 8 million views and counting.
- Study storytelling, and then tell great stories. For years, I studied to become a professional novelist and screenwriter, but instead of succeeding there, I used those skills to infuse stories into several different posts (like this one) that have been viewed by over one million people each.
- Target a specific emotion for your post. When I was serving as editor of the KISSmetrics blog, I decided to write a blog post deliberately targeting the anger many people in social media feel toward marketers. The result was an extremely popular post titled An Open Letter to Marketers Who Abuse Social Media for Selfish Gain.
And not just any data. Unique data.
- Do a survey and ask questions no one has ever asked before. For instance, when Moz did an industry survey, they asked about gender, salaries, marketing budgets, response to changes in Google, and all sorts of other factors. The results are fascinating.
- Crunch private stats and release your insights. Instead of just reporting on eye tracking studies, for example, Neil Patel implemented some of the suggestions from the studies and published his own results.
- Write a computer program that compiles and analyzes a bunch of data. When Google released a new category of content called “in-depth articles,” for example, Moz didn’t just report the news. They used a sophisticated computer program called Mozcast to analyze the new feature and released an in-depth analysis.
One of the easiest ways to create great content is to just go into greater depth than anyone else has before.
- Pick a topic lots of other people have written about and publish an enormous guide. This is what we did with our Google Authorship Handbook – a 15,000+ word guide telling you everything you need to know about Google Authorship. Lots of other people have written about Google Authorship, but no one has written about it in such detail. It’s the ultimate resource for someone who wants to learn everything they can in one place.
- Gather everyone else’s research on a topic and publish an enormous infographic. For example, Why Your Brain Craves Infographics pulls together a bunch of research about why infographics are successful. Individually, the studies wouldn’t be that interesting, but together, they paint quite a compelling picture.
- Create a video course and give it away for free. Pat Flynn over at Smart Passive Income could easily sell a course on podcasting, but instead, he decided to give away a miniature video course for free, and it’s earned him thousands of links.
If Apple has proved anything, it’s that design matters. A lot.
And content is no exception.
- Create a custom user interface to organize your content. When we created the Google Authorship Handbook, we knew it was a mistake to put all 15,000 words of it on a single page, but we didn’t want to use a regular humdrum table of contents, either. So, Tim Gary, our resident technical wizard, created a custom table of contents widget that floats up and down the page.
- Pay a graphic designer to illustrate your content. Moz must have spent a fortune illustrating The Beginner’s Guide to SEO, but it makes an otherwise dull topic 100 times more interesting.
- Use snazzy PowerPoint and Keynote templates to create slick screencast videos. Over the years, a lot of people have asked what software I used to create the videos over at guestblogging.com, and the answer surprises them: PowerPoint. You can actually create some pretty cool stuff in PowerPoint or Keynote, especially if you use design templates from a company like GraphicRiver.
Isn’t This All a Crazy Amount of Work?
But that’s the point.
The secret to success in anything is doing what other people are unable or unwilling to do.
Most people don’t have the time to write a 15,000 word guide to Google Authorship. That’s why we did it.
And by the way, if you’re a beginner, depth is by far the easiest place to start.
You don’t need talent for connections or a big budget to create the most comprehensive resource ever published on a topic. You just have to put in the hours.
Yes, it takes a ton of time, but if any of these techniques were easy, they wouldn’t work. Everyone would use them, and they would quickly become worthless.
On the contrary, the difficulty of these techniques is precisely what makes them valuable. If you’re crazy hard-working enough to create content like this, you become almost unbeatable in your space.
And getting traffic?
It’s easy. Not because you’re using some magic promotion technique, but because the content you’re publishing is better than everyone else’s.
There are no shortcuts. There are no easy buttons. There are no magic techniques.
You just have to do the work, damn it.
The question is…
Are you going to do it? Or are you going to sit there whining about how hard it all is and let the world pass you by?
The choice is yours.