Understanding Content Formats for content marketing
As you are reading this, some team somewhere is coming up with an entirely new content format for content marketing in 2018. With so much innovation happening around us, the content space is equal parts exciting and challenging these days. For content managers, it means that we can never get too used to a given format that we would not be able to shift gears to try a new one.
For content creators, it means constantly researching what is new and how much it is trending within the target audience. For both groups, it means activating research mode 24/7.
This blog reviews some of the most popular content formats available for content marketing in 2018. Aside from defining them, we also look at the types of content that are best conveyed by each format, the kind of audience it appeals to, and how you can tap into this information to diversify your editorial calendar.
These are the content formats for content marketing
Articles, both owned and sponsored
Infographics and other forms of data visualization
Video (including live, long-form, short-form, quick animations, and 360°)
Images (including 360° images, memes, humor graphics, and quote cards)
Landing pages and microsites
Quizzes, questions, and polls
Ebooks, whitepapers, case studies, and industry reports
Other emerging formats like Snapchat’s Stories and Facebook’s Instant Articles
All of these formats can be potentially repurposed. An article can turn into a presentation, an infographic can become a video, and key lessons from a long whitepaper can be extracted to come up with a quick social image to share. I will introduce a few methods for content repurposing at the end of the blog.
Primarily text-based, articles are the most commonly used format to spearhead content marketing strategies. Many brands see content marketing as synonymous with their blog. It is important to prioritize one channel for the main content hub. For most brands, the blog becomes a natural home where all other content efforts are directed. A blog also has the capacity to host many of the other content formats described in this blog
Having said that, it becomes clear why so many brands have made blog articles the cornerstone of their content strategy. Keep in mind that when I use the term blog, I am referring, quite literally, to a log of web content (weblog, or blog for short) placed in chronological order. It might be the case that your brand decides to name this content hub otherwise. You have probably seen terms like a journal, inside x, log, stories, and many other custom names used to describe what is, essentially, a blog.
Moving forward, I will use the word blog to encompass all these types of hubs. As a final note on vocabulary, I will also use the words article, entry, and post interchangeably. There is no substantial, set-in-stone rule to classify what makes an article different from a post, so I will stay away from those kinds of impractical debates.
With time, you will find that not all blog articles are created equal. Let’s look at some of the most common types of articles that you might find along the way:
These are created by your team of internal and external writers, and make part of the editorial calendar.
Guest articles or guest posts
These pieces are created by other individuals or brands that want to partner with you. The arrangement is usually an exchange that involves both brands guest posting in each other’s blogs, but there are other forms of currency. It is also common to see brands exchanging guest articles or posts for email placement or some other form of exposure. The common thread in this type of article is that there is no money going back and forth — it is merely an exchange of content currency, a payment in kind.
These emerge from placement campaigns for which another brand has paid you to include a certain piece in your calendar. In these scenarios, money is part of the transaction. You might decide that your blog — or whatever name you have selected for your content hub — won’t engage in these kinds of negotiations. That is perfectly fine.
For the purposes of this blog, we will understand a presentation as a series of interconnected slides that tell a story. The first thing that comes to mind when you hear the word slide is probably PowerPoint or Keynote, depending on whether you are a Windows or Mac user. I do, however, want to point out that the concept of a presentation goes far beyond what these software packages can do.
Think of presentations as a specific type of content format that allows for a step-by-step knowledge transfer. Presentations are not meant to provide all the information at once. In that, they are completely different from most blog articles and infographics. Instead, they have a certain flow and organization that allows for progressive learning. Although viewers can definitely hop back and forth between slides, there is an assumption that ideas are being built up as the presentation progresses.
One of the easiest ways to determine whether a specific Core Content Product (benefit offered by the piece, remember?) is suitable for a presentation is to ask the following questions:
Could this topic be explained by a person in a room full of people? If so, how?
Can I explain this topic using a certain narrative? Are there ideas that need to come first, second, last?
Can I divide this topic into smaller ideas that make full sense of standing on their own?
After you have answered these questions, the overall structure of the presentation will appear right before your eyes. Understanding how the topic would be explained in a room full of people forces you to think of slide visuals. Figuring out the right order to shape this narrative makes you think of structure, and therefore slide flow. Lastly, dividing the topic into smaller yet complete ideas will help you to determine how to break up slide content.
Perhaps no other content format is as digestible as this one. Infographics use data visualization principles to summarize dense, complex data into an easily consumable graphic. Although we have been trained to recognize an infographic as a long visual, the term originally points to any kind of visual synthesis of a particular topic. This synthesis makes it easy for a viewer to understand essential information without spending too much time filtering out words.
Infographic design has become a recognized field in and of itself because there is a learning curve and some very specific best practices. Please remember that not every graphic designer will automatically be equipped to create an infographic.
Even though a designer might have the competencies to learn how to build infographics, it will take some research, time, and experience to dominate the field.
That being said, I will share some of the key elements of a successful infographic, defining success as the number of views it garners. Simply put, the audience found it to be helpful and worth amplifying. My team and I analyzed the top 100 infographics on a platform called Premium Content Creation for Better Marketing, the largest aggregator of these kinds of content pieces online. Here are the most popular types of infographics that we found based on the number of views they attracted (in no particular order):
These are diagrams that assist people as they make decisions about whether they should do something or which option they should select among many.
Example: “Should I Text Him? Flowchart” by Becca Clason
These are thorough depictions of the evolution of a topic, product, or service over the years.
Example: “The Evolution of the Geek” by Flowtown
These are groups of tips summarized in an easily digestible graphic.
Example: “12 Creative Ways to Decorate a Small Space Apartment” by Lincoln Property Company
These are groups of science-based facts summarized for easy reference.
Example: “50 Incredible Facts About Skin” by Beautyflash
This type uses illustration to show the differences between X and Y.
Example: “The Health Benefits of Coffee vs. Tea” by PolicyExpert
These quick one-pagers compile shortcuts, definitions, processes, or factoids that people otherwise have a difficult time remembering.
Example: “Manual Photography Cheatsheet” by Miguel Yatco
Halls of fame
These are roundups of the top-performing products, services, or individuals in a certain space.
Example: “Tallest Buildings in the World” a TIME diagram by Joe Lertola
These are pseudo-psychological explorations of what a given object/trait means in a general sense or what it indicates about you/your brand.
Example: “What Does Your Handwriting Say About You?” by National Pen Company
These are how-to instructions that are visually summarized.
Example: “How to Get a Six-Pack” by Fightshop
Begin by asking yourself what you want to show in relation to the data. Is it how the data evolves, compares, relates, or breaks down? Are you trying to show how a process works? Table 7-1 provides a synopsis; feel free to refer to it as much as you need to. With experience, you will internalize these ideas and develop a more advanced visual vocabulary to draw from.
Of all the content formats outlined here, podcasts are the only pieces that rely exclusively on audition. Videos offer a combination of visual and auditory stimuli, but podcasts are all about listening. It is precisely this characteristic that makes them such interesting vehicles for content.
In an increasingly busy, hyper-connected world, they are some of the least intrusive forms of storytelling. Think about it: you can tune into a podcast while you are working out, commuting, or walking — some people even listen to them as they fall asleep!
Voice and tone become real, material experiences when we consider podcasts. The previous blog explains how important it is to define our brand’s voice from the onset, as part of a solid content marketing plan. Podcasts go one step further and enact those decisions in a truly palpable format. You can actually listen to the voice and appreciate the tone when there is a human voice behind the microphone.
As with other content formats, this one has its own particular best practices. My team and I looked at the top 200 podcast episodes in the business category (as ranked by iTunes) to find commonalities among the most successful approaches:
Especially if coming from authoritative figures whose success has been quantified in numbers, these are motivational and have the potential to inspire listeners as they face everyday challenges.
These types of podcasts help listeners shape their own opinions on pertinent topics via coverage and discussion.
This type uncovers advantages and disadvantages. Listeners trust their podcast host’s opinion on tools, books, and resources that are relevant for the space they are in.
These podcasts share how someone overcame severe hardship and learned from it.
Routines, habits, and systems
These are characteristics shared by thought leaders in specific industries.
These episodes illustrate a complex process in simple steps.
These episodes revolve around answering listeners’ frequent doubts.
These are roundups that optimize the way listeners currently do something.
These walk listeners through the process of increasing their earnings. Many of these episodes are targeted to entrepreneurs, but others are directed at employees interested in generating a side income.
These podcasts summarize compelling new data and insights in a certain industry.
If there is a format that requires some serious, diligent planning, it is video. Even the most “improvised” of them are not as spontaneous when it comes down to the storyline and tech involved. There is an undeniable learning curve in the video space, and some say it is so steep that you are better off partnering with an external supplier that has accumulated the experience required.
Personally, I believe in tools that close the gap between professionals and beginners, understanding that — when push comes to shove — this is a world of beginners. Video shouldn’t intimidate you to the point of inaction. Granted, there are different levels of sophistication when dealing with video production, but not attaining perfection in your first attempt shouldn’t deter your brand’s interest in pursuing this format.
As you shape this strategy, remember that there are different types of videos you can produce:
These run anywhere from a few seconds to a few minutes. The following are examples of what you can achieve with short-form video:
Quick animations for social media
GIFs or MP4s to be inserted in the body of articles
Simple product demos
Succinct calls to action
These run closer to an hour in length and allow for more detailed explanations. They are ideal for in-depth content explorations such as the following:
Extended tutorials on a given topic
Recordings of long in-person workshops, speeches, or conferences
360° degree videos
This is a relatively new format that provides a more encompassing perspective of what is happening. These are best suited for the following content pieces:
Topic explorations in virtual reality
In this specific subformat, you will find that there is little or no editing, higher spontaneity, and no real post-production. Everything goes live as it is being recorded, which presents both opportunities and challenges. Live video has particularly useful applications:
Real-time event coverage
Live interviews during which the audience is expected to interact
Ultra-realistic, raw tutorials with no edition
We looked at the 50 most subscribed YouTube channels and zoomed into their top 10 videos in terms of views. These videos spanned categories as diverse as entertainment, beauty and fashion, animation, tech, science and education, cooking and health, and news and politics. All in all, we analyzed 500 videos. Here are the most successful approaches we found and an example of each:
A thorough description of the habits that can help you accomplish a specific goal or enact the desired role. Whereas some videos approach routines from a time-based perspective (e.g., what to do every day), others define them in terms of processes (e.g., what to do every time you X).
Example: “My Realistic Morning Routine,” MyLifeAsEva
A discussion of common fails and errors to avoid in specific fields of knowledge, processes, or industries.
Example: “6 Fruits You’re Eating Wrong,” BuzzFeed Blue
Roundups of unbelievable, little-known, surprising, or otherwise mind-blowing facts around a specific theme.
Example: “6 Unbelievable Body Modifications,” Good Mythical Morning
A dare in which viewers or other video creators are invited to complete a task under certain constraints.
Example: “The Smoothie Challenge,” Rosanna Pansino
Reviews of the top products, services, or ideas in a certain space.
Example: “Top 10 Craziest Events Caught Live on TV,” http://WatchMojo.com
Detailed, hands-on commentary on the usefulness of a certain product or service. These work best when the reviewer projects credibility.
Example: “SodaStream: Does This Thing Really Work?” Graveyard girl
In-depth tutorials that explain how to create/do something from scratch. Successful variations include tutorials using materials people already own, tutorials that expedite an otherwise long process, and those that show viewers how to do something exactly like an influential figure.
Example: “How to Speak so That People Want to Listen,” TED Talks
As visual creators, we often find that images can capture our attention in ways that words cannot. Even though you would think that video is simply a multiplication of an image’s impact, this isn’t always the case. Playing video (unless it is in Autoplay mode) implies a commitment that looking at an image does not. Images are simply served as you go, and appear on the page to be immediately consumed.
That is how they become our best allies: as attention hooks. Consider your own browsing behavior. How many times have you stopped to look at a content piece because of some striking visual that suddenly stood out? A well-designed image can cut through all of the noise we are continually exposed to. It is up to us to take advantage of their power to amplify our content’s reach.
There are many creative ways to bring images into your content mix. Using graphic design apps like Canva or Adobe Photoshop, you can create layouts for the following:
Witty visuals that portray some kind of quick joke, usually about a trending topic.
Other forms of funny imagery like cartoons, puns, and sentences with a punch line, among others.
Simple images that include overlay text with a question that the audience should answer.
Inspirational images that provide a phrase to guide behaviors, attitudes, or lifestyles.
Images were taken as fully surrounding, 360° overviews of a given space.
To speed up the design process, you can also purchase ready-to-use templates from online marketplaces like Creative Market. Many sellers provide pre-designed graphics for content like quotes, promotions, and questions.
BUSTLE: CREATING VIRAL HUMOR GRAPHICS
To understand some of the key success factors behind humor graphics, I interviewed Caroline Wurtzel, the talented designer behind Bustle’s social media illustrations. Founded in 2013, Bustle is a news, entertainment, lifestyle, and fashion website that caters to more than 20 million users every month. Where do you get inspiration for the awesome graphics you create?
Since the basis of our humor on Instagram is being relatable, we are always thinking about what everyday experiences our readers and followers can identify with. To do that, we look at our own experiences. Bustle is all about reality and approachability. We are definitely the “drinking red wine, watching Netflix/TV on your couch” kind of girls. Believe it or not, there are endless illustrations we can make about staying in on a Saturday night.
In your experience, what kind of humor resonates best with your audience?
Quick, fun, and relatable humor absolutely resonates best with our audience. We are your daydream doodles about pizza and wine that you are scribbling during that endless meeting at work. We are the jokes you send to your best friend and say, “That’s so us!” or the illustrations you double-tap during your commute because you, too, would rather Netflix and Chill than go on that awkward first date tonight.
However, we are not just about sitting on the couch. We are smart, strong, and all about empowerment. We believe that young women are independent, powerful, and capable. That angle is very important to us as a female-driven publication.
What does your workflow look like in general terms?
Every week I meet with the Bustle social media editors and we have a meme brainstorm. We talk about funny things that have happened to us over the past week or funny things we have noticed in our everyday lives. We will talk about anything from the endless cycle of checking social media before bed until it is 2 am, to being awkwardly ticklish during a pedicure, to anything happening in current news and culture.
Then, throughout the rest of the week, I will draw the memes and work with the social media editors on any edits until they are ready to be posted. The whole process truly is a collaboration.
Anything else you would like to suggest to content creators getting started with humor graphics?
I think what makes our illustrations so successful is the combination of relatable humor, originality, and collaboration. We strive to be relatable both visually and topically. It is important for someone to connect to a joke not just by its topic but by how it looks. We aim to be as diverse as possible in our illustrations of women because our readership is diverse and real. When you look at a comic and think “that’s so me,” it has to reflect all different types of awesome women.
Originality is so important on social media these days. Meme-heavy accounts tend to report from each other a lot, so you want to stand out with original content when someone is scrolling through their feed. Finally, collaboration is huge. Collaboration helps round out the entire process by using all of our strengths to create a great final product. These memes would just be scribbles without the whole team!
Landing Pages and Microsites
You have probably heard about landing pages within the context of startup launches or list building. But have you ever considered a landing page’s potential to boost the way your content is discovered and explored? Some time ago, I wrote an article for Design School, a content site run by Canva.
The article contained thorough explanations of the main concepts behind brand development, tools to build your own brand guidelines, pointers about logo design, and a fairly comprehensive overview on brand identity.
With time, the team realized that this in-depth piece was better off standing “on its own,” as a place where someone coming in from search could find everything he needed to know about branding. These category pages can have a great impact on your content site’s ability to bring in organic traffic.
On the other hand, you might find that a certain group of content pieces is best experienced together. Maybe you spotted a great combination of videos, infographics, and articles in your catalog that complement each other extremely well. Someone wanting to learn about a given topic would find great value in looking at everything on the same page. That is when you might want to consider creating a microsite to cover this specific topic comprehensively.
No matter if or how you decide to use content microsites, consider the viewer’s experience as they consume your pieces and how that can be further improved.
Quizzes, Questions, and Polls
Design enough quizzes for your audience and you will eventually realize their single most effective share trigger: ego. When I first heard of quizzes as a worthwhile content investment, I will admit I was skeptical. How could those gimmicky sets of questions bring in traffic, engagement, or conversions? Did people really spend time filling those out?
Yes, they did. Unlike other content formats on this list, quizzes introduce an element that is essential to human nature: competitiveness. Unbeknownst to me, allowing people to test their knowledge about something or rediscover themselves in some way was a truly compelling content strategy. Quizzes present an opportunity to prove our worth, surpass others in our circle, and boost our ego upon seeing positive results.
The reason why I could not find the logic behind quizzes at first has to do with a flawed vision of content consumption. Realize it or not, many of us just assume that people are highly involved when our content is served. We tend to think that they are evaluating every detail, or fully conscious of why they are clicking through.
A high percentage of the viewers who you are trying to reach will be busy completing other tasks and not the least concerned about what is being presented to them. This light level of engagement with content consumption is the typical environment most of us have to win in — quizzes give us a great shot at doing so.
In my experience, these are the types of quizzes that work best to generate views, completes, and shares:
Quizzes that test (and prove) your ability
These question sets achieve shares insofar as they can make people feel incredibly good about their results. The ego boost factor is in full effect here.
Quizzes that reveal something about you Learn how certain choices or preferences define your personality. These questions bring in psychology notions to help people discover who they are or what their style is.
“The Hardest Quiz You Will Ever Take”
This formula is virtually infallible. People are drawn to quizzes that threaten to be ludicrously difficult. Being the challenge seekers we are, we cannot help but dive right into the threat and hopefully come out triumphant.
Quizzes that suggest a future course of action
Is there anything you need to change? Should you consider moving to a different city? Sometimes, people are looking for direction, and certain quizzes can provide it. No one is expecting a short list of questions to define their future, but they can occasionally soothe the anxiety in decision making.
Sometimes, you need to summon your audience for some real-time knowledge sharing. This is when webinars come in handy. Sure, allowing people to view your content in their own time is convenient, but it might also be in your best interest to concentrate their attention sometimes. Because webinars require scheduling, signing up, and sitting in, they imply a higher level of commitment with you and the content you have to offer.
Unlike with other content formats, people set aside time in their schedule to interact with you. That is why webinars require additional efforts during the prelaunch phase. Even more so than other formats, you need to build up excitement around the date on which it is going live.
Like video production, webinars also impose a slightly steep learning curve while you find the right tech and platform to support your sessions. The ideal webinar platform will provide a solution for the prelaunch, launch, and post-launch phases. It will also allow you to share your screen, video, and audio with the number of attendees you are expecting. Ideally, look out for a webinar solution that does not ask too much of your attendees in terms of signup time or heavy file downloads. You want to make the experience as seamless and as fast as possible.
Here are some examples of topics that are ideally suited for webinars:
A preparation session for something that is coming up for attendees
A live demonstration showing how to use or do something
A presentation of recently released data or information
An introduction of a series of tips or hacks that are not readily available
Advice coming straight from the source in the form of a conversation
Ebooks and Other Long-Form Pieces
You can add value to your audience by packaging the knowledge available about a specific topic in longer pieces like ebooks. The advantage of expanding on information this way is that it can help you establish your brand’s thought leadership in a certain space. After all, you are creating exhaustive resource kits that explain everything there is to know about something. Why would we not trust you?
Depending on the type of data you want to compile and the length of the package you are willing (and able!) to produce, we can look at the following:
Documents that summarize the basic aspects of a given topic. Whitepapers usually target evergreen topics instead of going for more time-sensitive trends. The intention is to produce an asset with a long shelf life.
A document presenting the results obtained by a brand that has experienced your product(s) or service(s). It is a persuasive piece aimed at establishing your authority in the industry, especially in comparison with competitors.
Thorough and timely descriptions of emerging data points that are relevant to people in your industry. Add your own comments and insights to build thought leadership.
Outlining an ebook involves creating a pleasurable, useful reading experience for viewers. They should be able to find answers for the overarching questions around a given topic. Unlike with print books, you can update ebooks easily by uploading a new file. This feature allows you to add links to emerging tools and trends without aging the material. If you were to do the same in a print book, there is a high risk that it would quickly become outdated.
All of these more-invested content formats can be produced in conjunction with other brands. Cobranded, cocreated ebooks are not uncommon. The high costs and significant resources involved in producing these pieces call for teamwork in case your brand cannot assume them on its own.
UXPIN: THE VALUE OF EBOOKS
I talked to Jerry Cao, content strategist at UXPin, to learn from his experience creating long-form guides that fit the needs of the company’s audience.
Why is your ebook publishing strategy important to UXPin?
Our ebooks helped grow our lead database, feed prospects for inside sales, and establish our authority on all things UX. Design is an industry ripe for written and visual content, so our strategy works well for our audience. In fact, much of our growth in the early years of the company (2012 through 2013) was through guest blogs and ebooks. We would see a visible spike in signups and sales each time new content was released.
As we have matured, our content marketing is more focused on capturing and nurturing leads rather than immediate signups and sales. As a UX platform, we have always believed marketing needs to add user value. In this case, content marketing strikes the perfect balance between business needs and user needs.
How do you publish many ebooks? Any particular workflow tips?
A content strategist is a product manager of content. They own the vision, execution, and metrics. I maintain a spreadsheet of content ideas based on audience. To generate ideas, I check three major design news sites every day. I will run quick user interviews through Zoom to generate and validate ideas with people from my audience.
Once we have homed in on the right topic, we will work with outside contributors (some of whom are happy to participate for free since they know our body of work). We collaborate on the outline, then dive into multiple rounds of revisions. We try to stay within 4,000–7,500 words per ebook, so we do not lose people’s attention.
We treat our ebooks as repurposable “pillars” of content. For instance, one ebook can be divided into a multipart course. Each blog of an ebook is also a blog article you can guest post or host yourself. When the content strategist acts as a “hub” rather than the sole creator (director instead of the actor), you create more content more quickly. Triangulate your ideas against user interviews, Buzzsumo, and industry blogs, and you stand a greater chance of success for each ebook.
How do ebooks generate a return on investment?
They generate a large volume of leads, product signups, and eventual sales. They also earn us natural links, which of course strengthens SEO. On the intangible side, our massive 100+ UX ebooks (largest free library on the web) establishes immediate trust and credibility. If you hit the right topic, promote it thoroughly, and target the right keywords, you create a source of long-term residual leads. With marketing automation in play, that content becomes fuel for qualifying and driving leads to purchase.
You can learn more about UXPin’s ebook program at e-Books.
After these documents are ready, you can also use them to trigger desired behaviors by “gating” their download. The way this works is that you ask for some action in exchange for the document in question. The ebook, whitepaper, report, or case study would then become what we call a piece of “gated content.”
Email is far from dead. If anything, it is becoming more and more relevant as emerging social networks dilute our online attention. The one thing online users seem to be keen on maintaining is an email address at which others can contact them.
This presents a unique opportunity for brands and individuals to build long-term lists of audiences that are interested in receiving their content. Much like in blogs, you are in control of what the email looks like and how the content is served. The only platform changes you need to worry about are those that could cause your messages to go into the Spam folder.
After a user has positively interacted with your emails, clicked through, or even responded, there is little to worry about with regard to drowning in Spam Land.
All of the previous content formats also can be sourced from users themselves, with their respective permission. If you see an opportunity to feature your followers’ videos, image, or text, or user-generated content (UGC), kindly ask them to allow you to reshare. In most cases, a simple attribution will suffice.
This is particularly true if your channels have amassed a significant following. Most users will recognize that allowing you to share brings added exposure for their work. Cover your bases and ensure that is the case before you publish something that you will be forced to remove later.
Other Emerging Formats
Finally, stay on the lookout for new content formats brought about by feature rollouts and platform changes. Snapchat content, and the temporary “stories” it has inspired in other networks is a great example of such emerging formats.
Snapchat’s introduction of a real-time, unedited content format offers us a sneak peek into a user’s everyday activities: the snap. For brands, this format offers the opportunity to share interactive content with users who are already chatting with their friends and family.
Basics of Repurposing Content
When you have detected that a particular content piece has been successful, there is a natural desire to extend that success by recreating it in a different format. Repurposing is all about finding new ways to convey notoriously high-performing content. As you think about your next repurposing initiative, answer these two essential questions:
Extract: what are the key messages behind the original piece of content?
What did you intend for the audience to do after interacting with it?
What are the main takeaways?
Export: what kind of learning experience is the new content format (you want to repurpose to) uniquely equipped to provide?
Does the format offer any special features that you could use to explain the takeaways in A?
Does this format appeal to a particular subset of your audience? Do you need to adopt a different tone (consistent with your voice) to resonate with them?
After you have answered these questions, you will notice that virtually any piece of content can be adapted to a different form. It all comes down to extracting the main ideas and adapting those to a new medium that offers its own advantages. Let us discuss some of the most popular content repurposing flows:
Flow 1: blog post to infographic
Blog posts can provide great insight into a complex topic, but sometimes they fail to synthesize takeaways for visual learners. To repurpose a blog post to an infographic, consider how each of the text’s main messages could be represented graphically. Then, tie these representations in a long image that can be read top to bottom, but also easily understood on a section-by-section basis. Divide the infographic into digestible sections that make full sense when pulled apart.
Flow 2: blog post to the presentation
Reformatting a blog post to fit the structure of a presentation makes you think of the content as an interactive narrative. To begin, split your blog post’s themes into slides. Which paragraphs relate to the same topic and could share a slide? How would you go about explaining this to an audience? What would come first, second, and third? Reduce the amount of text to a minimum (that still makes full sense) and consider what kinds of visuals can complement those messages.
Flow 3: video to a blog post
You have done a great job of creating a thorough video demonstration of a topic. Sometimes, your audience will need a text-based account of what you said, whether that is to remember the steps, resources, or materials involved in what you showed. Repurpose your video content into a supplementary blog post that people can use as a reference.
Aside from clarifying information that might be more difficult to locate in video format, having a text-based version also helps with search engine crawlability.
Flow 4: infographic to video
Suppose that you have a pretty informative graphic that boils down a complex topic into a series of digestible concepts. That is usually what an infographic is used for, and it is also what makes this repurposing flow a very natural transition: videos share that explanatory nature. They guide you through otherwise static information and present it in a way that you can easily consume and understand it.
The key here is figuring out how to animate the concepts you have statically laid out in the infographic. Turn sections into scenes as you try to preserve the thread of the narrative.
Flow 5: video to social media graphic
Is there a particular skill or set of skills that you could extract from a video to explain it to skimmers who might not have the time to play it? Time is currency in our society, and whatever you can do to optimize how your audience deals with that reality is something they will be grateful for. Follow the two-step approach outlined earlier: first, extract the video’s core messages and, second, design an appealing graphics that makes sense when viewed separately.
If you want to use this graphic to bring traffic to your video, create a desire for additional information to be found exclusively there. Introduce a curiosity gap that your audience can resolve only by looking at the video material.
Before you begin any of these repurposing initiatives or an entirely different one, ensure that you own the rights to modify the content in such a way. We discussed contracts earlier in this blog, and it cannot be overemphasized just how crucial they become when dealing with repackaging new formats based on original content.
1 We used SocialBlade’s Top 500 YouTube channel ranking as a data source. In our analysis, we excluded channels that dealt exclusively with music videos, lifestyle vlogging, gaming screencasts, censored or inappropriate content, channels that merely replicated content distributed mainly in film or TV, and users with questionable content practices.
We did include lifestyle vloggers who dealt with topics outside of their day-to-day happenings and provided value via targeted advice. These exclusion criteria respond to our intention to make these recommendations suitable and realistically applicable for both individual and corporate brands that want to produce content within a business setting.
2 1-Year-Old Startup Bustle Hits 20 Million Uniques And Raises $15.5 Million: 'It's Been A Watershed Year For Digital Media'
3 The Australian company behind a popular online design app. You can find the article mentioned here at Branding & Corporate Identity – Learn.
Content Success Formulas
The blank page is a content creator’s worst enemy. That is why every time someone asks me how to face a blank slate, my answer is one and the same: don’t. You are perfectly capable of putting systems and templates in place that set you up for success instead of confusion. Based on what has worked before, you have the ability to create a toolbox that facilitates everyday content creation.
This blog is the best possible suite of tools I could share with you: a strong compilation of the best headlines, words, phrases, and structures to use when you are creating content for the web.
Let’s break down these templates a bit further:
Successful headline types and patterns
These are title structures that have worked for other brands in the past. I will explain how I went about researching these templates in the first place in just a moment.
Content power words
These are expressions, actions, and descriptors that carry weight for readers/viewers and draw their eye directly to what you have to say or show.
These are long blocks of words that become helpful sentence and paragraph building blocks. Have you ever felt like you do not quite know how to kickstart that next idea? These phrases will help soften transitions and enable you to elaborate further on ideas whenever more discussion is required.
To build this reference guide, I studied a year’s worth of pieces published by 100 top content players in each of 16 topic areas.1 Extracting content successes from other industries is a smart way to innovate. when we discuss brainstorming techniques. If our analysis was limited to a single topic area, we would be missing out on potential opportunities to inspire you to transform your own in novel ways.
To carry out this analysis, my team and I looked at the aforementioned content players’ top-performing pieces in terms of shares — which meant manually coding more than 771,889 links. The underlying idea is that their audience felt so enticed by the content presented that they deemed it worthy of further distribution — so they did it themselves. Using their own networks, these individuals amplified brand messages in an act that has become the ultimate goal for many content marketers: hands-on, organic recommendation.
Think about it for a second: how engaged do you need to be with something you just found on the internet in order to share it with your own contacts? Friends, family, colleagues? This level of commitment is much higher than a click, positive reaction (for instance, a five-star rating, or however else these are tracked), or even a comment. You are effectively becoming a promoter. And promoters, my friends, are some of the most valuable people your content will ever be able to attract.
Creating Successful Headlines
Have you ever played Mad Libs? That is exactly how these templates work. You simply replace the missing term in each sentence with the idea, action, concept, or descriptor that best suits your storyline. Before you give these a try, also consider the importance of in-text headings. Page/article titles are clearly important hooks to gather attention and engagement, but your section titles also must be appealing enough to foster longer interactions with your content. On to the examples:
(Number)(Things) That Will Change/Improve/Transform You're (Thing) in (Number) Days/Hours or Less
A Step-by-Step Process/Guide to (Action)
(General Topic): (Number) Techniques/Tactics/Hacks You Should Know
(Number) Effective Ways to (Action)
(Goal You Want to Accomplish): (Number) Techniques/Tactics/Hacks You Should Know
(Number) Unconventional/Little-Known/Surprising Tips to (Goal)
(Number) Tools/Books/Products That You Need to Know/Use/Read/Try Before You (Action)
(Number) Reasons Your (Thing) Isn’t Getting (Result) and How to Fix It
(Number) Tools/Books/Products That Will Save You Time with (Activity)
The Exact (Items) Your (Asset) Needs to Have to (Perform) Like (Brand)
Should You (Do Something)? Here’s Why or Why Not
The Future of (Topic)
(Number) Ways to Improve Your (Goal)
(Number) (Field) Tools You Can’t Live Without
How to Improve Your (Goal) Using (Tool)
How to Apply (New/Foreign Methodology) to Your (Activity)
The Complete Guide to (Topic)
Want Better (Thing)? Do (Action)
Want Better (Thing)? Use (Tool)
Achieve (Goal) With (Number) Simple Steps
(Number) Psychological Principles to/That’ll (Achieve) (Goal)
(Thing) Reimagined As (Different Thing)
What (Thing) Can Teach Us About (Unrelated Topic)
Why the Future of (Field/Space) Is (Idea)
How to (Action) the Perfect (Thing)
The Ideal Size/Length/Width/Price/Place for (Thing)
The Science of (Topic): How (Action)
(Number) Little-Known Features of (Product)
A Scientific Guide to (Topic)
(Number) Recent/New Changes/Tools (Group of People) Need to Know
(Field/Product) Tips for Beginners
(Number) Surprising (Field) Stats/Facts You Need to Know
(Number) Unusual Ways to (Goal)
Top (Number) Trends for (Profession)
(Number) Trends That Will Change How You (Action) in (Year)
The (Profession)’s Glossary/Dictionary
Common (Field/Product) Mistakes (Group of People) Should Avoid
How to Create a (Product) in (Number) Steps
(Number) (Field) Tips/Hacks/Tools You Wish You Knew Years Ago
How (Field/Product/Topic) Works
(Number) (Product) Features You Didn’t Know Existed
The ABCs of (Topic)
(Number) Smart/Clever Ways to (Action)
The Formula for a Perfect (Thing)
The Ultimate (Field) Checklist: (Number) Questions to Ask
The Surprising (Actions/Things) That Get (Goal)
(Number) Creative Ways to (Action)
(Number) (Field) Tips from The Pros
How I (Amazing Feat)
(Number) Signs You Are a (Descriptor)
Never-Before Seen (Things) Are (Superlative Descriptor)
The (Descriptor) (Profession)’s Guide to (Topic)
People Who (Action) All Have One Thing in Common: (Thing)
Effective Power words
To help you construct more compelling copy, I have grouped descriptive words into banks you can pull from according to the general message you want to convey: size, novelty, scarcity, quality, accessibility, reliability, practicality, an oddity. This is by no means an exhaustive list, and you can always expand it by searching for synonyms and variants. Before you begin using them, I would like to share some scenarios in which these might come in handy:
You are writing a headline for a new content piece.
You are crafting social copy to promote a content piece.
You are pitching your content piece to a third party.
You are choosing a title for your next gated-content piece.
Let’s take a closer look at each of the banks:
Big – biggest
Massive – supermassive
Never before seen
Real – very real
Coming up with inventive copy ideas is as much of a science as it is an art. The art side of it implies using your imagination, divergent thinking, and ideation to arrive at compelling ideas that deserve to be spread. The science side of it involves replicating the models that have worked successfully, coming up with optimal templates, and tracking performance consistently.
With so much on your plate, a list of transition helpers can make the difference between writer’s block and a state of total creative flow. Sometimes, all you need is that extra push to carry ideas forward, and that is exactly what these phrases aim to do. I have classified them according to the role they can play in your content piece’s structure.
There are copy helpers to introduce ideas, wrap them up, link to other pieces, quote influencers, get specific, and get general. Feel free to adapt these templates to your brand’s voice and tone and to explore endless variations.
Table Introducing ideas
(idea) is an important part of (space)
(idea) is a (descriptor) subject to talk about
Do you know how to (action)?
Have you ever (action)?
Many (a group of people) think that (misconception), but (how it really is)
You’ve just (action). Now what?
We’ve all (problematic or frustrating action). Here’s a (solution).
The biggest problem (a group of people) have is (problem)
(Action) is like (another action)
(Person) once said that
(Action) is not just about (preconception)
What do you think of (idea)?
(Idea) is one of the ways to (goal)
(Group of people) always (problem)
There are two types/kinds of (a group of people): those that (action) and those that (action)
If you want (goal), you need (action)
(Problem) is one of the biggest challenges when it comes down to (topic)
You’re doing (action) when you notice: (problem)
There are two sides to (topic):
As a (profession), you’ve always wanted to (goal)
You can’t achieve (goal) without (action)
Do you ever feel that (problematic situation)?
When it comes down to (topic), (statement/truth)
You’ve probably seen it/noticed it: (idea)
Table Wrapping up ideas
If you know of an (idea) that wasn’t shared, please leave it in the comments below
A final point:
Does (idea) need to be considered an essential part of the (process)? Yes.
Keep in mind:
(Topic) has great potential
Now that you know (idea), it’s your turn to (action)
(Topic) is important, and you should now be able to (action)
Once you start (action), amazing things will happen to your (entity)
Have you found any other (ideas) that weren’t covered here? Comment below this post
(Topic) is all about (idea)
(Techniques) are just a few of the many ways you can (action)
As you apply the following templates for internal and external linking, make sure to spend some time deciding what is the most effective visible (anchor) text for each link. Ideally, anchor text should be descriptive of the content where you are leading viewers.
Link to other resources (internal or external)
(Idea) is also explained here (link to source)
Learn more about (idea) here (link to source)
Head on over to (another link) to learn how to (idea)
For more inspiration on how to (action), check out (resource name) (link to a resource)
We’ve explained some of those (ideas) here (link to source)
We recently wrote about (topic) (link to a resource)
Take a look at our take on (topic) (link to a resource)
Here’s a great article on (topic) (link to a resource)
We recently discussed (idea) here (link to source)
In this (content type), we covered (topic) (link to a resource)
We’ve previously shared an awesome (resource) that’ll help you (goal)
A lot has been said about (topic) (link to resource)
Table Quote influencers
(Idea) is also explained here (link to source)
Learn more about (idea) here (link to source)
Head on over to (another link) to learn how to (idea)
For more inspiration on how to (action), check out (resource name) (link to a resource)
We’ve explained some of those (ideas) here (link to source)
We recently wrote about (topic) (link to a resource), and today
Take a look at our take on (topic) (link to a resource)
Here’s a great article on (topic) (link to a resource)
We recently discussed (idea) here (link to source)
In this (content type), we covered (topic) (link to a resource)
We’ve previously shared an awesome (resource) that’ll help you (goal)
A lot has been said about (topic) (link to a resource)
The whole purpose of
The whole purpose of templates (see what I did there?) is to allow for clarity and inspiration. They provide a foundation upon which to build up concepts and diminish the anxiety of the blank canvas. Add your own transition phrases to this library, expand your content creation toolkit, and watch your efficiency soar.
Exercise: Create Your Own Template Bank
For this practical exercise, I suggest that you open an online spreadsheet that you can share with other team members as well as update on the go.
1. Create three tabs (individual sheets within the spreadsheet) following the structure we have outlined throughout this blog:
2. In each of these tabs, create three columns:
The template or formula
The link where you first found it
A couple of words describing the main success factor. You can start your own conventions or refer to the 14 success factors we introduced at the beginning of this blog: Hope, Hype, Hacks, Humor, Hyperbole, Hints, Hazard, Heroism, Hoax, Habits, Hotshot, How To, Heat, and Hurry.
3. Bookmark this spreadsheet on your browser and download any necessary apps on your phone. Google Sheets and Airtable are both great alternatives to seamless mobile experiences.
4. Encourage your team members to update this bank continuously and refer to it as needed.
Becoming a More Efficient Writer
I like to ask fellow copywriters about their best tips to complete articles and ebooks more efficiently. Time and time again, this one trick keeps coming up: begin with an outline. I cannot overemphasize what a dramatic difference it makes to face a writing project when you have a detailed outline guiding you.
If you have ever tried your hand at coloring books, this will immediately ring a bell: it is much easier to fill in shapes after you have outlined the edges to make sure you stay within them.
We know this, and yet some of us still start out with the evasive blank slate. Not anymore. In the following exercise, you will learn how to work your way through an article with the copy templates and headline patterns in this blog.
Exercise: Agile Article Writing
Agile article writing is all about process. This exercise will show you how to execute an efficient, replicable series of steps to become a more productive writer.
1. To begin, you will need a topic idea for your article. For this exercise, make your article a roundup of handy tools for your audience.
2. Knowing the type of story you are trying to share, go back to the list of headline patterns provided earlier in this blog. Here, we will work with this formula: (Number) (Field) Tools You Can’t Live Without
3. Replace the number of tools and your field in the pattern. Here is what it would look like for my example: 10 Writing Tools You Can’t Live Without
4. Choose a template. For this example, we are going with this: If you want (goal), you need (action)
5. Then, replace the goal and action fields with words that describe the tools you are introducing. You can always complement the first statement with a couple of additional sentences that describe the tools in general.
If you want to become an agile writer, you need to find tools that extend your productivity. There are many desktop and mobile-friendly apps that facilitate everything from brainstorming to copywriting to actual publishing.
6. Proceed to describe each of the tools you will list in the article. Include pricing information if it is relevant. In explaining each tool, you can grab copy snippets from Tables.
7. Choose one or two templates. Again, replace the original placeholders with words that reflect the content you are sharing.
Once you start (action), amazing things will happen to your (entity). Have you found any other (ideas) that weren’t covered here? Comment below this post.
Replace it with the following:
Once you start building a writing toolkit, amazing things will happen to your productivity, speed, and ability to deliver. Have you found any other tools that weren’t covered here? Comment below this post.
8. All in all, the outline that follows shows how you can put together this entire article using text snippets as helpers:
1. “Introducing Ideas” snippet
2. Tool descriptions using snippets to “quote influencers,” “get specific,” “get general,” or “link to other resources”
3. “Wrapping up ideas” snippet
See how writing that piece was not painful at all? Working with a structure and filling it in as you go is a much better strategy than staring at a blank page for what seems to be hours. If you work on adding new templates and patterns to your own library — like we saw in one of this blog’s exercises — you will soon find that rather than restrictive or repetitive, these snippets are incredible timesavers. Templates won’t hurt your creativity; instead, they will allow it to thrive with smart prompts.
Optimizing the Content Experience with Design
You can create the most compelling content in the world. Yet, if people cannot see it while they’re multitasking their hearts out, it is invisible. And so is your brand. The day I understood online users are only loosely committed to content consumption turned my entire strategy upside down — and it might just do the same for yours.
The design is your silent storyteller. The visual aesthetic you share with the world tells a story about the values you uphold. When your audience isn’t ready or willing to listen, a strong visual can capture even the most evasive of minds. The design isn’t ornamental or secondary: it can propel your stories far beyond the spaces you initially planned.
The design is about clear, cohesive aesthetics. But it is also about good construction and organization — looks and user-friendliness, feel and clarity. Good design is a transcendental part of the reading experience, the video or presentation flow, and the structure of the content hub. The design is, in Steve Jobs’s words, not just how something looks and feels — design is how it works.
In the upcoming pages, we will explore how design can affect the frequency and intensity with which your content is consumed by others. I will share a few essential principles to make your content scannable — and therefore ready for twenty-first-century users.
How to Design Scannable Content
We are faced with the incredible challenge of creating high-quality content for an audience of skimmers. The faster you understand this, the more effective your content tactics will become. There is ample evidence to suggest that most online users spend mere seconds on a page before they jump to something else, hence capturing only a fraction of the words you have so carefully crafted.
The Nielsen Norman Group ran a study on how users read online and concluded that, on the average web page, users have time to read at most 28 percent of the words. Chartbeat looked at two billion online visits over the course of a month and found that 55 percent of all users spent less than 15 seconds appreciating the content on the page. So, here we are: investing valuable resources in pieces that are barely read by users who are barely there. The solution? Design.
The following design choices can make your content pieces significantly more scannable for an audience of skimmers:
Use clearly identifiable subheadings for your content sections
Many users will read only these as they scroll down the page. Consider adding numbers to these subheadings to help readers understand the general sequence.
Use bulleted or numbered lists and indentation
This gives the eye a break from long paragraphs. The list you are reading, for example, uses indentation to help the eye capture and the brain interpret each list item as a separate idea.
Keep your paragraphs as concise as possible without losing depth
Choose words that convey meaning accurately versus more generic terms that need more elaboration. The word indentation, for example, is more specific than spacing. I used it on purpose to provide a more actionable takeaway in the preceding list item. When you are scanning the page to decide whether you will read or share, feeling like it is consumable and friendly is very important. Shorter paragraphs allow for more white space on the content page, which relaxes the eye and avoids being visually overwhelming.
Combine text and images strategically
I try to add at least three images in every article to ensure that visual learners who land on the page can immediately connect to the content.
Include clearly distinguishable callouts or blockquotes
Use these to highlight important insights. Some content hubs also integrate “Click to Tweet” features to allow readers to immediately share what they consider important as they skim through the content. It isn’t uncommon for online readers to actually share a content piece before they are done reading it in full.
Watch your page loading speed
Users on a time crunch will have little or no tolerance for slow pages. In addition, a slow loading speed hurts your indexation in search engines.
While you might see this as a general piece of writing advice, it affects how scannable your content is in a particular way: online skimmers read signals like typos extremely fast and discard what is in front of them based on initial impressions.
Use bold and italics to highlight important points
Throughout this blog, I styled specific words in italic so that you could quickly detect key insights.
Summarize key takeaways visually if possible
Infographics and images are incredibly valuable tools in a culture of skimming: they can be bookmarked, read, and shared quickly.
Creating Compelling Graphics
How many times has a graphic stopped you in your tracks as a result of a mere color choice? When you create supporting graphics to go along with your content or integrate a design element in your multimedia piece, consider if there is enough contrast to give the message a competitive advantage in the channel in which you are dropping it. Users are exposed to thousands of messages surrounding yours, and your visuals need to stand out within that saturated space.
As social platforms and search engines evolve, so do their algorithms. Many of them place a premium on user engagement. In other words, there is a tendency to show more of what people are most engaged with — a virtuous cycle, if you will. Create content that makes users stop/click/like/share, and in turn, it will be served to more users who can stop/click/like/share.
Contrast is what will allow a content piece to stand out in any context or platform:
if the content is king, contrast is crown.
There are many ways to create contrast. For example, typography can generate tension with different sizes, weights, and styles. Color appeals to an even more basic human instinct that is triggered regardless of the language you speak or the topics you are interested in. For more details about the meanings behind certain color choices.
How Typography Affects the Content Experience
Scientists working in the user experience field have been fascinated with the consequences of certain type choices in the reading experience. We have now spent enough time around screens to make human-computer interaction a worthwhile academic pursuit, and there are entire labs devoted to understanding how we engage with different kinds of monitors and displays.
The following are some valuable typography insights derived from academic studies:
The left-justified text has proven faster to read
Studies reveal that full or fill-justified text makes it more difficult for readers to thread sentences together, as it often comes with odd spacing between words. You can identify fully justified text because it is aligned with both the left and right margins. With left-aligned text, the right margin looks ragged, but words preserve an even spacing.
Optimal line length is around 50 characters
Although studies differ, most agree that lines should comprise around 50 to 60 characters. Whenever lines exceed 60 characters, increase the leading (the spacing between lines).
You should use bold, italics, and caps carefully
All three styles indicate importance. Used excessively, they can make your content confusing or overwhelming. The idea of creating visual hierarchy will be very important as you think about the typefaces you will be used for content creation: some ideas are more important than others, and specific fonts (styles and sizes) can help you convey that. Use bold, italics, and uppercase styles in different combinations to build out guidelines for your content’s headings and emphasized body copy.
In classic studies, slow reading speed and lowered comprehension scores were connected to the use of all uppercase letters. Intuitively, we understand that LOOKING AT ALL CAPS CAN MAKE THE READING EXPERIENCE SLIGHTLY PAINFUL.
It becomes more difficult to thread words together and you find your eye going back to reread. Keep in mind that these studies were performed with reading tests dealing with long copy. The use of all uppercase letters is still appropriate for shorter copy formats like headlines and calls to action.
Bold type is indicative of an idea’s strength. In fact, the HTML tag to apply bold is the <strong> tag. As a content creator, you often will need to work with HTML code. Essentially, it is just a way to tag your text so that browsers understand how you would like visitors to see it. Bold type can be your best ally when trying to make text stand out, either from a large amount of copy or from a busy background. It will, however, quickly overwhelm users when used repeatedly.
Finally, italicized text conveys emphasis. Like here, you see? The eye must lean in slightly to understand what is being said. The words or phrases that have been italicized stand out in the middle of other expressions.
The serif versus sans-serif font debate has changed
It used to be the case that poor screen resolutions and browser aliasing issues made serif fonts look fuzzy around the edges, resulting in visual fatigue. (“Aliasing” is just a techie way to say that there is some kind of distortion in the way your text is shown.) That is why sans-serif fonts like Helvetica and Verdana became so important for online content.
You would see, and still, see, many sites going for serif headings and sans-serif body copy. Today, however, we have advanced browsers with font smoothing, high-resolution screens that make the experience of screen reading much closer to that of paper, and optimized serif fonts with incredibly sharp rendering even at small sizes.
Serif fonts are making a comeback for long-form web content, and they are no longer relegated to large headings. Typefaces like Georgia were actually designed to remain legible when displayed on low-resolution screens. In addition, the new generation of online readers has grown up surrounded by all kinds of digital devices.
The youngest users might not be exposed to serif fonts as the default anymore. The effect of familiarity is therefore lost: we are becoming equally comfortable with both types of fonts from a very young age.
When you choose between one font and another, test out how effective each type actually is for your target audience. To do so, you can expose users within your target audience to two alternative versions of the same copy: one typed with a serif font and the other one in a sans serif. You can ask questions like these:
Which text seems easier to read? Why?
In 1943, readability expert Rudolph Flesch published a formula to measure reading ease. In his formula, Flesch included two factors: the average sentence length in words, and the average word length in syllables. Since then, his readability score (Flesch Reading Ease) has been incorporated in many text processing programs, including Microsoft Word.
How to Design Mobile-Friendly Content
It comes as no surprise, then, that many companies have decided on a mobile-first strategy for everything related to web design. Search engines such as Google are officially penalizing sites that are not mobile-friendly, and are using device responsiveness as a ranking signal. Put simply, users’ content experiences are now largely shaped by the capabilities of the mobile device they are able to carry with them. This scenario has many important implications for content creators. Here are some recommendations:
Avoid ads that interrupt or otherwise ruin the mobile experience.
Ensure that interactive content types like slideshows are easily accessible from a mobile device.
Put a responsive, adaptive, or fluid web design strategy in place to ensure that your content hub is optimized for mobile devices. A web designer will be able to point you in the right direction with regard to the best option to make your site flexible enough to cater to different users’ devices.
Along the same lines, consider font size adaptations for certain screen sizes. This is true for headings as well as body copy. Keep your images and other media files lightweight enough to load or stream quickly. For video, for example, this will involve making sure that the player works properly for mobile devices without Flash.
Facilitate mobile reading with a clear text hierarchy. Use resources like headings, lists, styling, and summaries. Luckily for us, the ubiquitous character of mobile devices has led the companies behind popular Content Management Systems to implement responsive features out of the box. Most of the templates available for WordPress, Joomla, and Drupal adapt to mobile devices in some way. Look out for mobile friendliness when you are selecting a template for your content hub.
The CLEAR Design Framework
Designing compelling content is, first and foremost, a communication challenge. Even before you get your hands dirty with software, tools, and specifications, there are general ideas that should dictate the types of design decisions that will benefit your content the most. In working with design teams over the years, I have found the following principles to be a solid starting point for any kind of content design work. Together, these characteristics spell out CLEAR:
Does this content’s design play well with our existing guidelines? Do the voice and tone used here reflect those we have defined for the brand?
Is this piece timeless? Do we see this design as having a long shelf life — close to evergreen? Did we effectively avoid including information that would expire? Think about dates, URLs, and facts that will no longer work or be true in the near future.
Are we using contrast, repetition, alignment, and proximity to create tension? Bland, unemotional designs won’t advance your content pieces — it’s important for content to convey information vibrantly.
Would I feel compelled to click, read, and share this piece if it showed up on my feed? Is there a clear action path being supported by our design decisions here? Great content design isn’t really great unless it springboards someone into action.
Although it’s an important factor for copy, readability also applies to any kind of asset (graphic, video, photo) that includes text. Can you read the piece’s article when looking from afar? Is the spacing, font, and size of the text easy to read? Does it invite your audience to stick around or read for extended periods of time?
Common Mistakes in Content Design
Take a hard, deep look at your current design pieces. Check for the following common mistakes:
Emphasizing the wrong ideas
Check for places where you have bolded, italicized, enlarged, or otherwise highlighted words/ideas that shouldn’t be prominent.
Not creating enough type–background contrast
Evaluate how distinguishable your overlay text is when compared to its background image or pattern.
Not uploading optimized images for social platforms
Attempt to share one of your content links in any major social media platform and see which supporting graphic is being pulled. Many social networks are now automatically building cards based on special markup in your content pages. Make sure it fits the specifications of the platform and is ideally positioned to engage viewers.
Optimizing your designs for print instead of screen rendering
Ensure that the typefaces and color you are using are suitable for screens. Font family and size play a role in how readable your content is when presented in a monitor. Similarly, some color palettes only translate well when printed, not when rendered digitally.
Content creators run out of steam. It is painful, unfortunate, and very, very real. No matter whether you are producing a video, writing a blog post, designing a social media graphic, or even writing a book, burnout is the only thing you can count on 100 percent as you embark on this journey. Fortunately, there are many ways to break out of that funk and into a space of limitless creativity that captivates your audience.
However, to break the blocks that hold back content production, you need to be able to recognize in which of two categories they fall. Although it is entirely possible that both issues are present, there is always one that is prevalent:
Lack of novel content ideas to pursue
Lack of energy and motivation to execute
Throughout this blog, I share tools to help you overcome each of these obstacles and thrive as a content creator.
SOS: I Can’t Think of New Ideas
First off, yes you can. You always can, and this is perhaps a content creator’s most important mantra. There is always something out there you have not explored, an approach you have not tried, a source of inspiration that you have not even found yet. I am here to help you navigate a stage known as content curation — the act of spotting, filtering, and shaping content ideas for production.
Content curation is, essentially, an act of innovation management. You face the challenge of providing helpful, fresh, shareable content with your audience while preserving differentiation. If you value original content, which you should, you will have a difficult time copying content ideas that competitors have tackled before. Instead, the magic of content curation is our ability to recombine, extrapolate, and experiment with existing ideas to conceive others that seem compelling.
That said, many creators fail at generating new, effective content ideas because they can’t recognize the difference between a frail, incomplete fragment and a full-bodied, robust concept. When brainstorming, we try to force what is just one piece of the puzzle to fill the entire thing. Let’s look at this crucial distinction first.
Content Idea Fragments Versus Concepts
Idea fragments are valuable, yet we run the risk of dismissing them because they feel incomplete. Have you ever sat down to brainstorm content and arrived at a few short words or phrases that you would like to pursue? After some time thinking about content ideas, we tend to reject those that don’t look fully thought-out, whereas we should actually be storing them in an idea fragment bank to merge and expand on later.
Consider a blog about gardening. Suppose that you have been sitting down jotting possible article topics for next month:
Perhaps you took note of these words because they are trending topics in your space, or maybe you looked at a similar site’s blogroll — we will look at content curation sources in the next few pages. Alone, these topics are (incomplete) idea fragments. However, when you combine them with a separate, equally incomplete list of structure formulas, more robust concepts begin taking shape:
Now, at a minimum, combining these three topics and structure formulas leaves us with nine different article ideas.
How Exactly Do You Develop Lots of Useful Idea Fragments?
In the last few years, I have found myself going back to the same four curation buckets. Every piece of inspiration I have found that is somehow worth looking into or replicating in the future falls into one of these four categories:
Topics are general content areas that are currently getting attention or for which we would like to generate attention in the future. The next part of this blog introduces a method to find attractive topic areas from various sources. Structure formulas are ways of introducing information that come off as interesting. They vary by medium. Sample structure formulas for text-based content include listicles, essential guides, challenges, and recipes. Some popular structure formulas for videos include step-by-step tutorials, stop-motion animations, and interviews.
Also keep an eye out for effective supporting visuals, graphics resources that make certain content pieces much more compelling and shareable. Perhaps you ran into a long graphic that caught your attention on Pinterest or a great visual summary of the content within a larger piece. Take note of these graphics devices that strengthen a content piece’s potential. Lastly, collect headline formulas that have had great results for related audiences. Look at other industries, close competitors, and your own past performance for inspiration.
Maintaining a catalog of interesting topics, structures, visuals, and headlines will guarantee higher-quality content brainstorming sessions.
Curating Content Topics: Your Daily Routine
I find routines essential for content creators. Without the right practices and habits in place, your job can become pretty chaotic, pretty fast. As just mentioned, one of our most important responsibilities as creators is to determine which topics deserve our attention and resources. Finding topics for the sake of coming up with something isn’t just wasteful, it’s the fastest road to burnout.
Instead of becoming tied up in a volume game, focus your energies on the effectiveness game. Maintaining a certain number of pieces in production and fulfilling your cadence is important, but not at the cost of performance. Would you rather have one incredibly outstanding piece of content or three nonperforming ones? The answer seems simple. Why, then, do we spend so much time aiming for quantity versus quality?
A daily routine helps us refocus those efforts into more profitable avenues. Throughout the past five years, I have found a very specific strategy that helps me to optimize time and stay on top of my content brainstorming game. It has also made it incredibly easy to avoid “me too” topics, while finding innovative ways to replicate what works. Ready? Here we go.
Revamp old pieces that need improvement. There are various reasons why a past piece might have flopped. One thing, however, is true: failures can always be tweaked. How can you turn this piece around? Consider bringing it back after modifying any of these components:
Let’s look at an example. Imagine that you looked at data for the past 30 days and found that this article was your worst-performing piece of the month:
50 Brilliant Keynote Templates to Present Like a Pro
Brainstorm as many headlines as possible and consider resharing the piece after switching it to something like the following:
The 50 Best Keynote Templates of 2016
50 Stunning Presentation Templates You Won’t Believe Are Keynote
50 Creative Keynote Templates That Totally Stand Out
Sometimes, you will find that a title change isn’t necessary. For these cases, look at the article’s supporting images and detect opportunities for a longer recap graphic to serve to a more visual-driven audience (think Pinterest). You could also modify your distribution strategy by reaching out to the creators whose work you are featuring in the piece. They might be willing to share it with their own audience because you are highlighting the quality of their product. This last approach works for many different industries.
What you will need for this activity
You’ll need a continuously updated list of your all-time underperforming articles. Even though the definition of “underperforming” can vary, content consumption metrics like low page views, sessions, or users can point to recycling opportunities. You also can decide, for example, that a low Page Authority (largely an SEO-related metric) is the main indicator of underperformance. In this case, the recycling priority could be to fix the article’s internal structure in a way that favors bot crawlability and the page’s chances at ranking better in search engines.
Serialize your past successes. Find top-performing pieces within your own catalog and think of novel ways to scale what worked there. Consider reviewing the section “Basics of Repurposing Content”. Although figuring out the one success factor behind a piece might be difficult, looking at groups of content pieces can provide a better picture. Are all of your review pieces getting significantly more attention than the rest? How about your trend roundups? Is it worth creating a series out of these structures?
As an example, imagine that this your most successful piece in the last 30 days:
How to Get Rid of Impostor Syndrome Once and For All
Analyze the piece and look for potential success factors. As pointed out earlier, looking at a single article might not give you enough evidence to move forward. Look at your top 10 or 20 list of star performers and find commonalities. Suppose that this article sat at number five:
How to Take Care of a Burned-Out Designer
If you begin connecting the dots, something will soon become evident: impostor syndrome and burnout are both psychological phenomena that affect one’s creative ability. Why not extend the first article’s success by creating a series to help readers remove all kinds of blocks? How to Get Rid of X Once and For All could be a great structure and headline formula to target many issues affecting your audience.
Having a routine for content extensions is particularly important when you work with a very limited list of topics and must produce many related pieces. If you manage a fitness blog that supports supplement product sales, for instance, you might find yourself having to produce five articles that deal with the same subtheme: “Weight Loss Supplements.” The Extension routine will help you to consistently spin different pieces from a single “core” article.
Now, many content managers see the world series and immediately picture some kind of persistent branding, tagline, and cadence. Even though those kinds of series are effective and might be just the right thing for you, extending your success does not need to be that complex at all. You can turn a successful concept into a series that fulfills a merely editorial planning purpose: you and your team know what the common thread is that’s holding all these articles together, but that does not necessarily need to be apparent for your audience, too.
What you will need for this activity
You’ll need a continuously updated list of your all-time top-performing articles. As with bad performance, great performance depends on the eye of the beholder. Some popular approaches include listing articles with the most page views, sessions, or users. You also could watch out for pieces succeeding at engagement metrics like shares, comments, time on page, or referral traffic.
Extrapolate the successes from other industries. In this scenario, extrapolation is just importing something that works in one space to a different one. By extrapolating, you are assuming that a certain “foreign” success factor will also apply to your industry.
If you are in the fitness space, for instance, consider how something that has worked in fashion or parenting might work for your audience. As risky as this might sound, the potential gains are equally unpredictable. Create a list of content creators in different spaces whose traction you admire.
Think about the brands behind the pieces that are winning the shares, traffic, or comments game. Whatever your core goal is, come up with a list of those who have mastered it. Look at top website rankings by category, and focus on those that steer away from your comfort zone. Follow them and consider how their approach could come to life in your own space. Who knows, you might end up pioneering a content trend in your industry!
Suppose that you have been following content creators in industries like fashion and food, but your space is productivity. Imagine that you detected that this was an extremely popular piece for the last month:
17 Unconventional Wedding Bands to Try
Put your own spin on it and consider what 17 Unconventional Planners to Try might look like. As you can imagine, this technique works for various kinds of text, audio, image, and video-based content pieces. Picture a situation in which the following is the most popular video for a certain brand’s channel outside your space:
5 Amazing Food Life Hacks Everyone Must Know
Again, analyze how you can import this concept into your own content space.
Amazing Productivity Hacks Everyone Must Know would be a solid first step.
There are, however, other innovative approaches you could take to adapt it:
Enlarge it: 20 Amazing Productivity Hacks Everyone Must Know
Shrink it: The One Amazing Productivity Hack Everyone Must Know
Segment it: 5 Amazing Productivity Hacks Every Entrepreneur Must Know
Mystify it: 5 Amazing Productivity Secrets Everyone Must Know
Exaggerate it: 5 Mind-Blowing Productivity Hacks Everyone Must Know
Give extrapolation a try and see where this method takes you. In adapting effective techniques from industries outside yours, you are using combinatorial creativity in your favor. With time, your ability to create new content combinations from existing pieces will prove an essential asset to maintain an innovative editorial calendar.
What you will need for this activity
You’ll need a continuously curated list of interesting topics, headline formulas, structures, and supporting visuals from brands in other spaces. For a description of these items, go back to the beginning of this blog. Interestingly enough, there are tools to detect how successful these third-party pieces are, despite not being able to access those brands’ analytics. Content analysis tools like Buzzsumo and Ahrefs shed some light into other sites’ performance.
Replicate competitors’ or similar brands’ successes with an added layer of depth. Perhaps you have seen something truly worth replicating coming from brands in your same space. This activity is, by far, the trickiest of them all. Pulling off adaptation without yelling “me too” is challenging. Finding the right angle to share your own take on something is the first step in any successful content replication.
On one hand, you do not want to sacrifice that unique voice your audience knows and loves you for, nor do you want to project a lack of originality. Nobody likes a copycat. On the other hand, it is smart to take note of bets that have worked for others to avoid assuming the risk yourself. Every time a brand invests time and resources in a piece of content, there is a chance it will fail entirely.
When you monitor successful approaches among competitors or somewhat similar sites, you are actually hoping to learn from their mistakes. Behind every successful piece they share, there was some trial and error required to arrive at that concept. You are looking at the final result, not how this content piece came about.
That said, replicate with caution, add a twist, and — whenever possible — experiment with headlines, imagery, structure, channels, or distribution tactics.
Let’s look at an example. You sell marketing automation software and have been following your competitor’s content for a while now. Suddenly, you find out that its top performer last week was this:
Why Some Things Go Viral — And Others Don’t
Establish what your area of expertise is and then you could narrow this concept down:
Why Some Tweets Go Viral — And Others Flop
Even though this is already slightly different from your competitor’s approach, we can be much more creative. Use these prompts to help you adapt its success in a way that works for you:
Segment it: Why Some DIY Pins Go Viral — And Others Don’t
Quantify it: 10 Reasons Why Tweets Go Viral
Mystify it: The Surprising Reason Why Some Tweets Go Viral
Shrink it: The ONE Difference Between Tweets That Go Viral and Those That Don’t
Exaggerate it: Why Some Videos Go Crazy Viral — And Others Flop
What you will need for this activity
You’ll need a continuously curated list of interesting topics, headline formulas, structures, and supporting visuals from brands in your space. These can be direct competitors, brands offering substitute products, or even companies that target your same audience with a different product/service. Again, there are many tools to look behind the scenes of what is happening with this “list of brands to keep an eye on.”
Your Daily Brainstorming Routine
Let’s break down this daily method into a simple list of steps:
1. Create a list of your all-time top-performing content pieces. Alternatively, use your analytics package to design an automatically updated report.
2. Create a list of your all-time underperforming content pieces. Again, alternatively, use your analytics package to design an automatically updated report.
3. Create a file or digital bookmark folder (Pinterest board, Evernote notebook, Pocket tag, you name it). Save interesting topics, headline formulas, structures, and supporting visuals from brands in other spaces. To select these brands, consider their success in the specific performance metrics for which you are aiming.
4. Use a different tag, board, or folder in your bookmarking service to save interesting topics, headlines, structures, and visuals from brands in your same space. These can be competitors or brands that sell something different to the same audience.
5. Make sure you update these idea sources continuously.
6. Check them out every day for:
a. 1 to 2 pieces worth recycling
b. 1 to 2 pieces worth turning into a series or extending
c. 1 to 2 pieces worth adopting from other industries
d. 1 to 2 pieces worth replicating and dissecting with more depth
The number of pieces you are able to tackle every day logically depends on your availability. One is a healthy minimum to work with, but feel free to further spread out these activities in a way that fits your work schedule.
Lots of Ideas, No Motivation
At the beginning of this blog, I shared how content blocks fall into two main categories:
Lack of novel content ideas to pursue
Lack of energy and motivation to execute
We have already looked at techniques to generate increasingly innovative ideas, but that leaves us at a point at which we have a ton of pending tasks that require execution. Great content ideas are nothing without equally great production.
Although some of us enjoy ideation, the actual doing (writing, editing, publishing, coding, illustrating) can be the most challenging piece of the puzzle.
To begin with, the mindset required to brainstorm tons of ideas seems entirely different from the kind of mentality that allows someone to sit down and follow through. Whereas the first is about divergent thinking and going all over the place, the second is about focusing and executing. This is precisely why I suggest that you either a) assign these tasks to different team members or b) make sure these tasks are performed on different dates.
Let me explain that further: brainstorming and producing content require wearing two different hats. When coming up with ideas and idea fragments, acting controlled and single-minded can only hurt. You need to give your mind some serious breathing space: the time and resources to wander and return with imperfect concepts. Quality and performance are not relevant at this point.
Producing content, on the other hand, requires a unique type of focus that is closer to control than freedom. Granted, content creators still need to preserve a sense of openness to new ideas during the execution phase. This openness, however, isn’t nearly as prevalent as it is in the brainstorming stage. Ask any prolific content producer and they will confirm this: writing/illustrating/producing is about putting in the hours — even if you don’t feel like it. Even Picasso, a fine artist, confessed that “inspiration exists, but it has to find you working.”
So, let’s focus on that “working” mindset next.
Finding the Motivation to Produce Content
Perhaps you are going through the best moment in your entire career. Perhaps this motivation slump has not hit you yet. Maybe you are skimming through this section thinking, “Ehh, this does not really apply to me…nope.” That is okay. It’s more than okay. I would just invite you to bookmark the next few pages because it will eventually dawn on you: content production is inevitably full of ups and downs.
You have a great list of topics to tackle, the team to make it happen, and an audience waiting to watch. The only barrier between you and successful content is that little voice in your head that keeps distracting you. Throughout my career, I have found that motivation isn’t something that can be forced, drunk, or bought.
You won’t find it by talking about it, and you certainly won’t find it watching TV. It is the kind of thing you need to train for every single day. If you truly value your motivation — which you should — it is going to take a few life decisions to make it stay on as long as possible.
Avoiding Motivation Sinkholes
In this section, we isolate and analyze a content creator’s main motivation drainers and how we can make smarter decisions to avoid them.
Impossibly High Expectations
Ever faced unattainable goals? Extremely tight deadlines and unrealistic workloads can drain motivation out of anyone. Sure, we have all felt the slight rush of completing something despite severe time constraints, the adrenaline of delivering more than was humanly expected of us. There is nothing wrong with those sporadic stretches.
The real problem comes when they go from occasional to the routine. When every day feels like a heavy sprint, and at the end you are not 100 percent lucid enough to realize that your abilities are deteriorating. Mental and physical strain often come without warning and hit us as a result of long periods during which we have abused our own ability to deliver. Watch out for unhealthy practices that might not hurt you today, but will deplete your motivation if assumed in the long run.
I can’t stress this enough: content creators need to avoid comparing their work with that of total strangers. Furthermore, we must not see ourselves as content consumers and realize that, as producers, we need time and distance from what is already out there in order to create truly innovative work. If you are always exposing your mind to others’ work, when will you gain the strength to create your own?
Find a balance between inspiration and creation, and make sure that the first is indeed inspiring. What might begin as a journey to gather ideas can quickly become a shortcut to discouragement. Know when to stop.
So, you have been writing, speaking, or designing pieces about the same topic for the past 10 years. It is only natural that, at some point, you feel like you have run out of ideas to elaborate on. In these cases, the best recommendation I can share is to tune out of your main topic area for some time. Explore related, novel topics that your audience might still find fascinating.
If the burnout becomes serious, you even can go completely outside your space and experiment with creating content for a different brand or channel. Resetting your brain that way can bring the renewed energies and much-needed motivation to thrive in your space again.
Fights, disagreements, and tough words are unquestionable motivation killers. Surrounding yourself with nontoxic environments is 100 percent your responsibility. If the people with whom you work or space in which you are working is hurting the quality of your content, it is up to you to switch.
Even if you work at an office from nine to five, there are ways to make your space unique and establish limits that empower your work. When in doubt, remember that what you allow is what will continue. Focus on building a healthy creative environment that supports you and your team’s ambitions.
Routines, when properly designed, are smart. You figure out a workflow that makes you extra efficient and follows it every single day, week, or month. You know what everyone hates, though? Repeating the unnecessary.
We will discuss content automation further along, but at this point, I want to share how engaging in avoidable repetition can drain your motivation. There are tasks naturally suited for humans, and there are tasks we are better off assigning to machines.
We are uniquely equipped to generate insights and complete projects that require intuition, empathy, listening, imagination, and emotional intelligence. Machines, robots, and automation tools can take on routine tasks that free up our time to commit to those other creative endeavors.
Whenever I find that a trivial task is taking up the time that I could be devoted to a more impactful initiative, I ask myself: Is there a tool that could facilitate this? Keep an eye out for solutions that allow you to save precious time and resources. Here are some examples of tasks that can now be fully automated:
Content report generation
Granted, you need to set up the software properly. Google Analytics, for example, offers a feature with which you can send weekly emails attaching any given custom report.
Supporting image exports at different sizes
Canva, for instance, has a “Magic Resize” feature to automatically export graphics that are ideally suited for various social media sites.
Project management software task creation based on triggers
Zapier is an example of a workflow automation app that can help you connect, for instance, a Slack message with the creation of an Asana task. Someone on your team could send an instant message about the need to fix an issue, and you could turn it into an Asana task just by starring it.
If you are having to go through purposeless data processing over and over again, there might be room for process improvement. In the meantime, all your creative and execution energy is going to boring, stale, tedious places.
We can all agree that proper delegating can take the weight off your shoulders. However, this is useful only if you can fully trust your team members or external collaborators to deliver quality work. I have seen this happen most frequently when dealing with freelance creators: you submit clear instructions for a content piece and receive back middle-school-level work. This is true for text, image, and audiovisual deliverables. Not trusting those who create for you is a drag.
If, on top of that, you are under severe time constraints, this means that you will take on a massive load of extra work. And you know what everyone hates? Extra work. Yet there you are, sitting with a pile of to-do’s that someone else was supposed to complete. You do it, once, twice, and then you begin falling into a certain habit — the dangerous habit of reworking every single stage of production, slowly burning out, one edit at a time.
Assess whether the team member you can’t fully trust has the ability to learn from mistakes, take critique in stride, and incorporate feedback in every new task. The desire and skill it takes to iterate is a valuable asset for your team; it can become more important than talent itself under certain circumstances.
Much too often, I stop working with brilliant writers because they can’t adjust to editorial requirements, or improve their work based on negative audience feedback. The talent is there, but the will to grow is not. Such disdain for the tasks at hand can decimate your motivation as a manager, and that is when you know it is time to find another collaborator. Indeed, I have found that content creators with relentless determination to improve end up being more valuable contributors to the production process.
What is this article/video/image doing for the company again? Somewhere along the way, you have lost track of how your daily tasks connect with the brand’s mission. And when you forget that, it is impossible to articulate your work’s importance in front of others — and even yourself! It becomes increasingly difficult to see the value in your everyday goals.
To avoid falling into the trap of small-picture thinking, write down clearly how your content production efforts tie back to the brand’s larger vision. Hang it somewhere close to you, stick it to your laptop, get a tattoo if you have to. Just don’t lose sight of it, because understanding your larger impact is one of the keys to ongoing motivation.
Lack of Personal Engagement
How does this tie back to my goals? If you are creating content for a personal brand, the answer to this question might be crystal clear. I say might because I have seen enough cases for which it is not. People and companies create brands and use content to share those brands’ stories, yet they somehow forget that connection along the way. People join companies to create content strategies because, at some point, they identified some kind of career alignment with the job. Is that you?
In any case, it is crucial to reconnect your personal goals with everyday content activities. How is this getting me any closer to the professional point where I want to be? For some more insight into this, take a look at the upcoming sidebar.
I left this one for last because it demands the toughest life decisions. If you have come this far but feel discontent with the way things work in your space, maybe it is time to experiment with moving into new areas. Perhaps you have dedicated the last few years to the travel content industry but realized that you will never be comfortable with certain aspects.
Maybe airports and flights bore you, or expensive meals are just not your thing to cover. You can do one of two things to regain your motivation to create: transform your space or completely exit it. That is how new budget travel and local travel content creators are emerging, and it is also how some successful travel influencers switch to lifestyle content. The possibilities are endless as long as you are engaged with the type of content you are producing.