Last year, I wrote two popular posts.
The first piece required more than 15 hours of my time to research, write, and publish. Those hours were spent answering a single question: what the hell is going on with the music industry? It’s a question with especially strong ramifications for songwriters and producers like myself. Despite the tiny target audience, How One Generation Single-Handedly Killed the Music Industry was shared tens of thousands of times and prompted nearly 30,000 comments on Facebook. I had struck a nerve.
My second piece took less than two hours. Using Evernote (the right way) was a simple productivity hack for a massively popular piece of software; the kind of post that’s almost guaranteed to be successful. And it was, racking up 90,000 views and 600 recommendations en route to #14 on the Medium Top 100. It was surely seen by a greater number of people than my first article, though shared less, and spread more widely across the Internet thanks to Evernote and Lifehacker.
Despite comparable performance in page views and shares, my articles had astonishingly different effects. My 15-hour article provided an in-depth and useful answer to a pressing question. Beyond social shares, this article is single-handedly responsible for nearly every musical opportunity I’ve had over the past 6 months and has allowed me to participate in an important discussion about the future of music.
However, the single benefit I have received from my 2-hour article is exposure. No participation in a powerful conversation, no career opportunities, no wonderful new connections. In fact, the greatest benefit of my productivity article was to introduce more readers to my music article.
As a content marketer, you rarely have enough time to write as many posts as your content strategy demands. When it comes to a decision between writing a 15-hour article for a tiny niche, or writing a 2-hour article for a huge niche, the obvious decision is to write the easy piece and reap the rewards of quick traffic.
But to do so would be to ignore the exceptional difference in the way your articles impact your audience — and what that means for your business.
Sugar vs. Substance
The ‘content’ in content marketing can loosely be grouped into two types: sugar content and substance content.
Sugar content is the addictive quick hit you’ll find on sites like Buzzfeed and Upworthy. These pieces are manufactured for maximum views and shares; for that reason, they’re typically short, deal with hilarious or intriguing topics, and are accompanied by a headline which virtually forces you to click. These posts can achieve astounding traffic counts and share numbers, and Buzzfeed has built nearly a $1 billion empire on a foundation of sugar content.
Substance content is often much longer, and focuses on solving a problem or providing a valuable insight. The potential size of their audience is smaller than sugar content, because the articles are longer and more specific. However, the audience is more targeted, and can still be quite large. The thriving community around Copyblogger is a perfect example.
Sugar content doesn’t have to be clickbait, and substance content doesn’t have to be dreadful. The distinction between these two categories arises more from their purpose than their form. While sugar is manufactured for virality, substance is created for customer success. Both of these types of content have a deserving place in your content strategy.
Building with sugar: Buzzfeed
In early August of last year, Buzzfeed closed a new $50m round of financing at a valuation of $850 million dollars. The site is most widely famous for its liberal use of listicles, GIFs, and clickbait. Buzzfeed articles are so irresistible and pervasive that there’s even a Chrome plugin dedicated to removing their content from your Facebook feed! But the company is perhaps even more famous among content marketers for its near-religious adherence to data. The company uses swathes of data collected from years of publishing to manufacture content almost guaranteed to bring in staggering amounts of shares and unique visitors. This approach helped Buzzfeed become a media darling in 2012 and to achieve its almost $1 billion dollar valuation this year.
In other words, Buzzfeed specializes in sugar content, and they do it better than anyone else — to the tune of nearly 200 million visitors every month.
However, don’t take this approach too far.
Buzzfeed, Upworthy, and Gawker (among others) use traffic and share counts as the defining metrics of their business for a reason: they are media companies. They are businesses which are wholly defined by the size of the readership they can deliver to their advertisers. In order to grow their readership to astounding levels, they have pioneered data-driven techniques for manufacturing what is essentially the fast food of the content industry. And it works.
This is not at all true of the business behind a typical content marketer. Most likely, your business sells a product or service, and your content marketing exists to increase sales, improve branding & awareness, and benefit the customer service team. When you are marketing on behalf of a business, rather than generating content for the benefit of advertisers, then you are no longer playing Buzzfeed’s game. You’re in an entirely different industry.
It’s a bad idea to build a business on sugar content unless you are a media company. This content is wonderful for exposing your brand to more people, and for bringing large traffic numbers in to your website. However, this traffic rarely converts, and once your viral piece has run its course, the traffic will leave. Instead, it’s better to build a foundation with strong, in-depth articles focused on customer success, and then use sugar content to drive more readers towards those articles.
Building with substance: Help Scout
One of the most astonishing examples of why you should focus your content marketing on customer success comes from a blog about the customer service industry. It’s hard to even say “the customer service industry” without feeling drowsy.
That’s why I was so surprised to learn that in its first year, the Help Scout blog grew to 30,000 subscribers and more than 100,000 visitors per month. One year later, they managed to double in size to reach 60,000 subscribers.
How did they do it?
Browsing through the most popular articles on the Help Scout blog reveals the answer right away. An average article on Help Scout will be between 1500 and 3000 words, which is 3–6x the average length of the blog posts run by their competitors. Extra effort is put into high-value downloadable content, top-notch design, and compelling calls to action. It’s clear that the Help Scout team has nailed their targeting; nearly every post focuses on solving a single problem which affects small business owners. Even their social media activity reveals a focus on serving their specific niche; their top article, How Disney Creates Magical Experiences (and a 70% return rate), was shared on Facebook 115 times, but was shared on LinkedIn a whopping 1070 times. Which social network do you think is more valuable for a customer service software provider?
Help Scout spins out some strong numbers, and these numbers have not come from sugar content like Buzzfeed’s. I couldn’t find a hilarious listicle, collection of GIFs, or post under 1000 words anywhere on their site. They’ve managed 60,000 subscribers without that sort of content, which means that their list of 60,000 is most certainly filled to the brim with current and prospective customers. I’d say their profit has risen proportionally with their subscriber count.
Exceptionally few blogs in typically boring industries like customer service can match Help Scout’s numbers. The reason is because Help Scout refuses to compromise on the quality and usefulness of their content. In other words: customer success.
Tying it All Together:
How to Balance Your Content Strategy
There are no rules about how much of each type of content your business should produce. However, these two types serve radically different, but complementary, roles in your content strategy. The holy grail is to find the balance which works most effectively for your company. Here’s how these two types of content work together:
Substance content is your foundation.
Strong, in-depth pieces focused on customer success will establish your credibility and authority, even if they don’t trigger veritable avalanches of traffic. Look over your site’s content right now. Do you have a powerful foundation, or does it need work? Your foundation is the most important part of your content strategy.
Sugar content is your multiplier.
When you have a rock-solid foundation, sugar content can light up your site like a match dropped on gasoline. The goal of sugar content is to attract as many people to your site as possible, in the hopes that they will continue on to consume one of your foundation pieces. Most of your viral traffic will disappear overnight, but with good substance pieces, you can capture the visitors who are relevant to your business. Just be careful not to undermine your credibility with your sugar posts.
Great content blurs the lines between sugar and substance. Don’t be afraid to apply Buzzfeed’s tactics to make your ten-page guide more accessible. Depth of thought does not excuse boring writing. By the same token, make your listicles as useful as possible; borrow from the topics you cover with your foundation.
However, at the beginning of every new article, you must know which type of content you are creating. Your purpose will inform every creative decision you make as you develop the piece. If you don’t know which type of article you’re writing, then you aren’t equipped to make the right decisions. Some sugar tactics work exceptionally well for substance pieces, while others will undermine your impact. A post written without clear purpose is unlikely to be compelling.
There’s a simple question I ask myself before every piece I write. I believe that, as a content marketer, it’s the first decision you should make when considering any new topic:
What is my purpose in creating this piece?