The Simple 5-Step Formula for
Effective Online Content

image of model of a molecule

When I was preparing for my panel earlier this month at South by Southwest, I thought a lot about what I wanted the audience to take away.

Of course, there’s always the First Rule of Copyblogger, which I preach to anyone who will listen. But telling people “don’t publish content that sucks” tends to need a little more explanation if it’s going to be helpful.

So what could I give content marketing newbies that would give them the right foundation? And how could I help content marketing veterans who weren’t finding the success they wanted? Was there a “formula” they could use that would start them on the right foot?

What makes some content marketing succeed, while other writers work and work and never seem to get anywhere?

Like any formula, this one can be stated simply. Actually executing it is going to be more complicated. But if you use this framework, you’ll avoid the pitfalls that bring down most content marketing.

The formula: Effective Content = Education + Personality

1. Effective content educates

We have a mantra at Copyblogger Media: Don’t sell, teach.

Content that sells (whether you’re in the premium content business or you’re using content to sell another product or service) is content that makes itself useful.

Effective content teaches your audience something they want to know more about.

It might be fitness tips, parenting skills, or career advice. But it answers pressing questions and makes your readers’ lives better in some key way.

2. Effective content has personality

I was talking with tablet computing blogger Shane Ketterman about this the other day.

What made his blog climb to more than 10,000 unique viewers a day, faced with a sea of hundreds of jump-on-the-trend competing blogs?

We came up with a number of answers (I’ll have an MP3 of that conversation for you soon, as a matter of fact), but one of the most important is that Shane doesn’t just report iPad and tablet news — he creates a site that has personality, that’s reader-friendly, and that’s written to both educate and entertain.

There are plenty of junk blogs out there that scrape and remix real content to earn a couple of Adsense pennies. Bringing a consistent voice and personality to your content is a lot more work — but it’s also a lot more rewarding, both personally and professionally.

3. Effective content has a great headline

We’ve said it before, and we’ll keep saying it until we turn the lights off for good.

If you’re going to put the work in to create strong content that educates in a reader-friendly way, please don’t bury it with a lousy headline.

Great headlines make it easy for readers to share your content. They attract more links, more social media sharing, more readers, and more customers.

Put the time in to learn to write better headlines. It really does pay off.

4. Effective content keeps SEO in mind

One great benefit to creating content that’s both educational and reader-friendly is you get a big jump on SEO (search engine optimization). The content you’re creating is exactly the content that Google wants to serve.

Just remember, effective content works for human readers first and search engines second. If balancing those two still seems mysterious to you, take a look at our special report on SEO Copywriting.

5. Effective content puts the reader first

All of the “rules” of great content marketing come from one rule: put your audience first.

It’s not about how much money you need to make with this launch, where you want to rank on Google, or what your cat had for breakfast this morning.

It’s about them — the readers, prospects, and customers — not you.

That doesn’t mean that you can’t have goals for your business and your content. But when you create content that both benefits your readers and makes them feel good, you’ll find that your marketing goals become a lot more achievable.

About the Author: Sonia Simone is co-founder and CMO of Copyblogger Media. Share your own secret formulas with Sonia on twitter.

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  1. Sonia:
    Glad you covered the educate and personality emphasize. It also helps for good headlines and SEO. Good food for thought.
    Randy

  2. I agree wholeheartedly. In fact, my philosophy is that if you make #5 your priority, the rest of the steps just happen–almost like magic–and you don’t have to over analyze the situation.

    • Absolutely — get that right and the rest tends to fall into place, especially if you spend a little time to understand how to convert those relationships into sales. #5 will tend to take the bulk of your time for most businesses.

      • I’d like to clarify one thing… You don’t need to put your reader first. You need to put the RIGHT reader first.

        Now I know you know this Sonia, but I wanted to point this out because I see a lot of people falling into this same trap.

        For example, earlier this morning I had a conversation with @btannebaum about lawyers who blog. It seems a lot of them are saying that blogging is ineffective for lead generation.

        Here’s the problem: Most of these lawyers blog about legal news, and other topics that interest other lawyers.

        Are they putting their reader first? Yep. They’re sharing insight about the latest changes in the legal world. However, are they putting the right reader first? Nope. Lawyers wont hire other lawyers.

        • That is an excellent point. Realtors & copywriters fall into this trap all the time as well.

          • There’s a local realtor who writes posts about how new developments will benefit the community. The post that brought her to my attention is here: http://activerain.com/blogsview/674307/barrow-crossing-development-coming-soon-

            You can tell she’s aiming right at the people who will be shopping at that development, not the people trying to rent the space.

          • @ Derek & @Sonia –

            I completely agree. I have seen a lot of Realtors blogging on how this is a great time to buy a home. Duh! With prices so low, this is just stating the obvious.

            It seems like they miss the boat entirely. They are not addressing the fact that people are afraid to move forward and purchase because they might not have a job to pay for this house that was a ‘great’ price.

            They miss point #5 entirely. And point #1 now that I think about it.

            Thank you Sonia.

        • That’s a great pint Derek. The best content in the world doesn’t do anyone any good if the audience is wrong. You have to be realistic about how your audience is, then figure out what kind of content is going to appeal to them.

        • Great point Derek. This is a good reason to start out a content strategy by building content that addresses FAQ’s and sales objections coming from existing customers and prospects.

        • Derek,

          That’s basic Marketing 101. You have to target the right audience for your product or service. Marketing messages have to be tailored to the specific needs of your prospects. They are not going to wade through the legal terms and discussions that only other lawyers care about searching for something useful to them. There are plenty of other places to get that information. So give it to them quickly and clearly or they will be gone.

          By the way, it wouldn’t necessarily hurt to have a separate blog to reach other lawyers IF other lawyers are referring clients to you. Many times lawyers specialize in one or a few practice areas (or are licensed in only 1 state) and when they get requests outside of those areas or their state they refer prospects to other lawyers or law firms.

          But lawyers need to be careful who they recommend because those recommendations reflect on their own reputation. So, many lawyers will want to make sure you are competent to handle a client’s needs before they send someone your way. A blog may be one way to for lawyers to “vet’ you. They’re not going to make a recommendation solely on your blog, but it is a start and it could help make other lawyers aware of your existence and what you can do. If that is one of your goals, then you might want to start a separate blog just for this purpose. It can be tricky trying to maintain only 1 blog to reach such a diverse audience as lawyers and those seeking legal help. If you have the time and resources to do so, create and maintain 2 individual blogs targeted to each audience.

  3. Effective Content Builds a Relationship!

    That’s the most important part in my mind and the purpose behind writing effective content in the first place.

  4. Thanks for the great tips. I still struggle with the balance between a good headline – and including the title of the children’s book that I am reviewing.

    I feel that for a book review blog, I need to put the name of the book in the title of the post. Yet, then it doesn’t make the title so exciting.

    I’m still struggling with this issue. Any thoughts.. welcome!

    Read Aloud Dad

    • [Fancy eye-grabber root title]: [Book title] [maybe something over here to supplement it]

    • Obviously, this is HIGHLY dependent on the book title, but I imagine it’d be possible to hint at your thoughts on the book using some play on its content, no? I see this done frequently for movie reviews. I’ll make some quick ones up for example:

      “The Cat in the Hat” Will Purr His Way Into Your Heart
      “Big Red Lollipop” is a Delicious Treat
      “Goodnight, Moon” Puts Me to Sleep
      “A Strong Recommendation for “…a Wimpy Kid” (Diary of a Wimpy Kid)

      Obviously, some of these are exceptionally hokey, but don’t write book reviews, so I’m sure you could blow them out of the water!

      • Deanna Kastrinos :

        I think sometimes hokey works best. There’s something warm and familiar about hokey.

    • Or for a more solid example:
      “Seuss does it again: Horton Hears a Who! will Blow your Kid’s Mind”

  5. I’ve never heard it put more clearly:

    Effective Content = Education + Personality

    Know your art, and ship art unique to yourself. Looks really simple on the screen, but it’s surprising how easy it is to slip off the rails a bit.

    No, the real reason Ketterman gets all that traffic is because he’s using the Genesis Framework. ;)

    Funny. I don’t think a single blogger who goes to SXSW can refrain from writing about it. That’s probably a good thing, but it means I’m going to have to attend some time. I’ll wait until I’m rich and pretty and famous.

    Thanks Sonia.

    • How ya ever gonna get rich and pretty and famous if you don’t go to SXSW? :)

      Nah, the real reason to go is just that so many bloggers do, so you get the chance to meet lots of folks. Which is really a great experience, which is why we all come home and write about it.

    • Although it’s fast approaching Yogi Berra territory: “no one goes to SXSW any more, it’s too crowded.”

      • Haha that’s so sad.

        No, if I go to SXSW I’ll probably pull a Godin/Ferriss/Dunford stunt and just hang out with cool people in the lounge and watch the presentations in Chrome from the safety of my Air a few weeks later…

        But that’s just me.

  6. Gets to the bigger problem. One that I recently gave up solving (for now).

    A lot of people are earnest, sincere, kind and good.

    But they lack personality. They are trying hard to be of service to others, and they will. have. your back. But they lack personality.

    How does THAT get fixed? There’s no “ecourse” that can solve 20 years of daddy issues, 5 years of an abusive boss and the scars of a bad mentor.

    Yet, these are the very people that you want doing your taxes, planning your events, and running things.

    How do we infuse moxie into good people that never had to think this way?

    • That is tricky. The thing I’ve seen work best so far is to work with a good business coach who can help you deal with all the invisibility issues.

      Also, though, it’s not like Brian Clark was Dooceing it up in Copyblogger and going on and on about his personal life. But his copy had personality. It was lively and reader-friendly. So the “personality” in good content doesn’t necessarily have to be an individual expression of your life’s details — it can just be a commitment to good writing that’s interesting.

      • You got the formula for effective content marketing down pat here Sonia, I love it – although I’d rate online text formatting more important than SE0 skills. It’s one thing I see being ignored time and time again which is so easy to fix. Blog post formatting will make a huge difference to if a blog post is ever read and shared.

        But no worries, I just have a bee in my bonnet about that:)

        I’m SO interested in the personal blogging aspect you raise. It’s fascinating me at the moment and I’m focusing on understanding and telling other people about how powerful it is too.

        Being personal is the one way to make your blog stand out and make you become a real person who people actually want to do business with, not just one of those boring “experts” we try to avoid at parties.

        I like the way you differentiate between showing your personality in your writing and personal writing. I think there’s room for both on a business blog but every writer will need to experiment with that and work out what feels comfortable to them.

        It’s taken me a few years to really find my voice and strike a balance and reading blog posts by you or Brian helps see what works and what doesn’t.

        Chris, that’s my only hint there, just that it takes time and writing practice to get good at it. No one does it overnight:)

        I certainly don’t want my life to be a soap opera but the business connections I’ve made through blogging have happened because I wrote personal stories.

        What’s amazed me about blogging is that, despite the fact that I avoided all business topics to begin with (because I didn’t want to bore my readers with online marketing tips!), they sought to work with me, not because of my qualifications and experience, but because of the personal experiences I shared with them.

        In my case it seems people would rather work with someone with one sticky out ear and a misspent hippy youth than someone with an MA and 16 years experience. Yawn…. See what I mean?!

        Anyway, it’s a great lesson my readers taught me and which you share here so well. Oh, if only I’d had you as my mentor earlier!

        Thanks for another interesting, insightful and inspiring read:)

  7. Makes a lot of sense Sonia.

    I align particularly with giving your posts personality!

    Heck, I give my comments personality! What would the world be like if we were all the same?

    My God, I don’t want to think about that. AHH too late, I already see a bunch of droid pictures in my head.

    But seriously, great post as usual, very practical and executable.

  8. Whenever I create a website for a new client who has never heard of content marketing, I always introduce them to the concept and it’s fun to see the lightbulb go off in their head. They get excited about creating resources for their new site.

    Sonia, this post is has just joined the links I send with my “this is what I was talking about when we met, here’s how to do it effectively” email.

  9. These are all great tips and I love your educational slant. But the problem with most companies is they have no editorial framework to make these stick. To drive these best practices across a corporation (yes, executing it is very difficult), there needs to be a publishing framework to keep the trains rolling, starting with this type of training/education but also research, editorial guidance, editorial calendars, regular meetings..in other words, something like the old publishing model (I recently outlined in a post in more detail).; I know this isn’t your focus here but I think it needs to be mentioned. I’ve been going through this with giant high-tech co’s the last few years and found that education and a support framework is critical.

  10. For me Sonia, I certainly agree with your formula and would try it. Thanks

  11. I like the company mantra: “Don’t sell, teach.”

    You’ve all done a great job of it! I ask myself two questions before publishing something:

    – Is this useful? How so?
    – Is it relevant to my readers?
    – Is it fun?

    The last bit is about learning to write better. In my newsletters, I’ve gotten much more conversational. I write like I speak sorta thing. Instead of having stiff, boring copy, I try to make it fun and conversational. And really, since I’ve started doing that, I get much better responses/interactions with my subscribers than before. So I try to impart that on all of my content not just the newsletter.

    Anyway, great process and list of tips to follow Sonia!

  12. I love that SEO is only to be “kept in mind” according to these rules. SEO’s only purpose is to bring people to your site. It won’t keep people there. So many site throw tons of buzz words into their posts, only to write content with almost no value. The truth is, of course, it doesn’t matter if a billion people come to your site… if they show up and come to find that all of your content sucks… they won’t come back and they’ll NEVER spend money with you.

    I’m psyched to see someone with their priorities in order like this! Thanks for sharing.

    • SEO’s only purpose is to bring people to your site. It won’t keep people there.

      Such an important point. Unfortunately many not-too-good SEOs don’t understand it, so they give advice to their clients that leads away from their business goals.

      (I’m not dissing all SEOs by any means, there are some great ones out there — but there are a lot of jokers who give crap advice.)

      • “WWMCD?”

        If someone would e-mail Matt Cutts to complain about it not being higher in search results, it’s probably good for robots and people.

      • Well said Sonia. Along with SEO we certainly need to show some quality in the site’s design. Need to think from a reader’s view of perceiving the site.

      • As some random smart person once wrote, “SEO is people.” I don’t pretend to be a whiz at SEO, but when I see random acts of bold type, the same phrases repeated over and over, and unnatural titles (train cats how to), I want to yell at the screen. Robots don’t read, and robots don’t buy anything. People do.

  13. That formula reminds me of David Mamet’s memo to The Unit writing staff: “The audience will not tune in to watch information. You wouldn’t, I wouldn’t. No one would or will. The audience will only tune in and stay tuned in to watch drama.”

    http://www.copyblogger.com/mamet-storytelling/

    Replace the word drama with personality or entertainment. Nobody tunes in for education, but everybody loves getting some education with their entertainment.

    • Agreed. And the corollary to that is while it’s relatively easy to build an audience for pure entertainment, it’s hard to monetize. You can do ads, and if your traffic is huge (LOLcats, eg) that can be worthwhile, but it’s a very difficult game.

      Useful + reader-friendly won’t pack in the numbers as well as celebrity gossip or straight humor, but it’s much easier to build a business around. It goes back up to Derek’s point about the right reader.

  14. Hi Sonia,

    As always, I loved your post. I’m also curious: have you ever read Writing with Style by John R Trimble? He’s a professor at UT (which is local for your, I believe).

    In his book he says that the difference between average writing and great writing is that average writing is for the writer and great writing serves the reader. It goes really well with your last point today.

    If you haven’t read the book yet, I think you’d really like it.

    Joseph

  15. Great article — surprisingly simple. I think the reason this works is because it keep the long term outcome in mind rather than the short term. From what I’ve seen, the guys who make it big are the ones who practiced sharing quality content from day one, or at least went through a learning curve of learning that hype usually is not effective to gain a following. Content is king, even if the results aren’t instantaneous.

    Good article.

  16. With the recent algorithm changes, it isn’t just copyblogger preaching good content. Google is indirectly saying it too!

  17. Sonia, I agree it’s important to have personality, a great headline and helpful educating content in your article. I also believe it’s important to have good grammar, text neatly divided into sections and not big blocks and a friendly attitude. I try to be warm and helpful in all my articles. I believe it’s important for the reader to know they are welcome to leave a comment as well. So I always add at the end of my articles that they are welcome to leave a comment and that I enjoy reading them!

    I have read in another article before that there are readers that don’t leave comments because they are not asked to. So I’m using that information and putting it into use. I always ask my readers now to leave comments. My blog is new, so right now I’m focusing on content and building up a reader base.

  18. Great post, Sonia. I loved all the points especially the readers first. Well, the problem with is, I am still trying to figure out a way which will put my readers first along with keeping SEO in mind. Hope I will find a way soon, so that I can produce effective content for my blog.

  19. Hi Sonia,
    Thanks for the great post… I used to never understand why i dind’t get any success with my content – article marketing. At some point I gave up…but then I stubled on various info how content writing really should be done…with the reader in mind…certainly helped the effectiveness of my content.

  20. Thanks for this article – short, sweet and practical advice. Learning to incorporate these things into our new website and blog. I think the most important thing to remember is “effective content works for human readers first and search engines second”. If it’s not interesting, people won’t read it– simple as that. Cheers!

  21. I like…really like the whole “content that sells is content that makes itself useful” part. It just makes sense to me that you would want to educate as you go. And, we all get a little smarter this way don’t we? Your efforts at Copyblogger Media are a great example, Sonia. So glad you practice what you preach!

  22. Like most things in life….there’s to much of it and not enough time to consume it all. So, your job is to make it matter – that’s how you deliver value in cyberspace! Sonia has it right – deliver great content and Make It Matter!

  23. Love the simplicity and depth to this. Totally resonates with me. Here’s to not sucking!

  24. You make it sound so easy! I love these points and they are a great guide. I have posted them on my wall. What most businesses lack though is a compelling value proposition and an understanding of content that is useful, not product hype. This is the secret ingredient to making it all work.

  25. RE: “Don’t sell, teach.”

    Great concept and I’ve seen it work in several mediums…but what about for a musician/artist? What do you “teach” your fans?

    Example: Part of my audience plays the same instrument I do. To them, I see the benefit of teaching. But I feel weird blogging about music (in an educational manner) to my fans who are just listeners, not players.

    Does that make sense?

    • Find well-received documentaries on musician/groups and figure out why those documentaries succeeded. Then compare those to the ones that didn’t get out of the indie film circuit.

      Write posts on the stuff that seems to be interesting to people, check the results, and see if you were right. Also look at reviews of those documentaries, comments from other musicians, and stuff like that.

    • Art (whether it’s music, fiction, painting, etc.) is a different ball game and one I’m not as qualified to speak on.

      I would check out what John Unger is doing (http://blog.johntunger.com/) and also a painter named James Barnett who came up with a fascinating idea that got picked up by some video gaming blogs (http://jamesbarnett.net/).

  26. Great formula. Thanks for sharing

  27. Thanks Sonia for this amazing article…and here I am a day late to the party….this head cold has me reeling….I also think effective content is epic content. Julien Smith does an amazing job at what I would consider “epic” content. It’s that article you read where you sit back and literally get chills because it moves you or inspires you to take action where you would not have otherwise :-)

    P.S. Great content also does not include anything about naked mole rats…that’s just boring ;)

  28. I love the idea of put the readers first. Why?

    They are our valuable audience = prospects!

    In simple words, the content is nearly nothing without readers!

  29. Excellent reminder of quality content writing and I really like your formula. It is something I really need to look at when I feel bored with no content ideas. It can be useful to make go back on the right track, especially with new Google changes.

  30. Hi Sonia,

    Good tips! I’m a huge advocate of putting the reader before anything else and showing your audience that you truly care – you’re not just out to get their cash.

    When you’re genuine, your audience will know it, and they’re more likely to spread the word about your brand. I’m of the opinion that word-of-mouth marketing is a lot more valuable (and effective) in the long run than any other type of marketing that you can do yourself because other people won’t be as biased about your stuff as you are – so you have a greater chance to turn heads and expand your reach.

    Of course, valuable content plays an important role as well; after all, without it, you have a scarce chance that anyone will talk about it.

    By the way, I just joined the Third Tribe, and I love it so far! While I’ve only been a member for a few days, I’m simply amazed at the wealth of information available. I look forward to learning from, giving back, and growing with the community, and thanks for giving us such an amazing opportunity!

    Christina

  31. Very nice blog post you got here! I have to agree with number 1. Don’t sell, teach. That is very true. I know when I’m reading, I don’t want to be reading something about someone trying to make me buy something. I’d like to learn something from that post…teach me something I don’t already know.

  32. As a newbie to blogging, Sonia, but having built 4 affiliate sites in the last 3 years, I finally got the message about your point of putting readers first. This was rammed home to me by my new mentor, Alex Jeffreys who told me to start a blog and just keep posting good quality content and make as much good “free stuff” available as possible. Build up a relationship and then your list and your subscribers will follow your recommendations…that is what he teaches. So, no more “quick fixes” for me. A good post, by the way, Sonia.