I spend a lot of time talking with people about what makes writing good. Depending on who you ask, good writing might be exciting and illustrative. It might be simple and efficient. If you ask someone who works in marketing, good writing translates to whatever helps a marketing strategy generate more leads, or more sales, or more of whatever a business is looking to gain.
Though I fully respect and agree with this results-oriented perspective on content, in practice it can be incredibly challenging for a marketing professional to defend their creative decisions. Those of us who do creative work often have a long list of rules to follow when producing the content that will end up getting approved, from ever-shifting SEO best practices to arbitrary style standards to all the jargon and industry lingo that comes with writing under a brand’s broader voice.
I’ve been at the helm of countless content marketing campaigns, and I respect the rules I’m given by clients and project stakeholders. But if you want to produce content that’s good by any marketer’s standards, there’s one key rule to hold above all others: Break the rules.
Rule #1: Forget SEO, Write for Humans
Search engine optimization (SEO) has been an important tactic for marketers in every industry for over a decade. If you want to increase your site’s organic reach and drive potential customers to your brand, it’s important to write and publish content that plays nice with Google’s army of search spiders. Otherwise, next time someone searches for something you can offer, they may find a competitor instead.
Maybe it’s a familiar experience: You’re working on a fresh content campaign, and someone hands you a long list of keywords. They want you to put a dozen or more in an article that’s only 800 words long. Working to get the copy to flow and make any sense is a tall order.
In recent years, Google cares less and less about little tricks like using a lot of keywords or stuffing links throughout your content and is instead working harder to watch how real readers interact with your content. Keyword research is important because it helps you to understand what your readers are looking for and can inform the final shape your content takes. But it’s a tool, not a goal. Don’t stress yourself out trying to get everything perfect from an SEO standpoint. Instead, focus on writing content that your users will enjoy and share, and your SEO rankings will increase alongside your audience engagement.
Rule #2: Forget Style, Focus on Clarity
Did you know that the Oxford comma—that extra comma that appears before the word “and” in a list of three or more items—is frowned upon in AP style because all those extra commas cost a lot more money to print in newspapers? It’s true. AP Style, which is utilized by journalists everywhere, claims its purpose is to make writing as uniform and therefore clear as possible. But removing commas can result in all kinds of unclear writing.
It’s a standard practice for companies to adopt AP style for all of their content, and the spirit of this decision is admirable. Consistency makes for a better reading experience for readers and a more cohesive brand voice. But I’d argue that blogging should be more personal, quite the opposite of the reporting style associated with journalism. What do your readers really value? How can you resonate with their emotional state when they need your brand the most? Ultimately: What do you want from your reader?
Rule #3: Forget Brand, Make People Care
It’s always great to start a new content campaign with the support of solid marketing direction. If you’re going to speak the language of your customers and truly appeal to them, you need to know who they are, what challenges they face, and what they value. But how often does this marketing direction get in the way of building a real connection through content?
Let’s assume your brand prides itself on its low cost compared to your competition. That’s a value proposition that’s present in every creative brief you deal with, and after a while you find yourself using some flowery language to fit it into every blog: “We can provide better service than the other guys, and at a better cost, too.”
But what if your reader isn’t concerned with cost? In an article that’s offering some practical advice and answers a common customer question your sales team fields, maybe focusing on low cost prevents you from focusing on another value proposition your readers care more about: Relief.
Ultimately, you should consider every piece of content your brand puts out there as a piece of persuasive writing. Assume your reader who is just looking for a quick answer doesn’t care about your value propositions at all—because they probably don’t. No amount of SEO tweaking or AP style or brand jargon will make them care. Focus on writing content that appeals to your readers on an emotional level and provides immediate relief to some pain they’re feeling, and they’ll find the value they’re looking for.