Matt Zola

I recently ordered a pair of jeans from an online retailer named after a certain South American river and spent too much time hung up on all the wrong things.

It was a tall order for a pair of jeans. They needed to be useful in a variety of situations – formal enough for work, comfortable enough to wear around the house and fashionable enough that I could wear them out on the town.

I made sure to find just the right color, pant cut, fit and brand so that they would be able to meet my high standards, eventually landing on a pair of Navy Wrangler Relaxed Straight Fit Jeans.

Unfortunately, something fell by the wayside during my search: Size.

This is not to say I ignored size entirely – only that I assumed waist measurements were the same across brands. When I went to enter my width and length, I plugged in the same size that I’ve been trying on at department stores for years. After eagerly waiting the expected 3 to 5 business days for shipping, I tore through the packaging like a six year-old on Christmas morning only to come to a devastating discovery – the pants were far too big for me and thus, the item I had so eagerly waited for was rendered useless.

To this day, that pair of pants is still sitting in its original box in my bedroom.

upsidedown blue underline

What do pants have to do with engaging content?

The package I received had all the appearances of something I could use, but because its contents were too large, I effectively received a box full of nothing

Unfortunately, this is a trend that I’ve been noticing far too often in today’s content marketing climate – the features of a piece are becoming more important than the content itself:

  • Will this headline generate clicks?
  • Is this piece shareable?
  • Does it contain a visual?
  • Is there a dynamic call to action?

These are all questions that, while worthwhile, are distracting the conversation surrounding the composition of useful content.

When selecting my new jeans, I spent far too much time on the design features and not enough with their most essential function – being a fitting pair of pants. Similarly, marketers get too hung up on the nonessentials of content marketing. Unless there is something useful in the content, these features contribute nothing to your inbound marketing efforts. In other words, putting a box around nothing, doesn’t make it something.

Why you should think inside the box

In the English language, content means both “something contained” and “meaning or significance.” Both of these definitions are vital when it comes to how we think about the creation and curation of marketing content – that which is contained should have meaning and significance to the reader.

In other words, the piece needs to be useful (I wish the same could be said for my jeans!). While this may seem obvious, marketers get lost in the excitement of more clicks, traffic and shares. However, many of these ideas stem from a rather outdated practice – marketing above the fold.

What’s inside the metaphorical package of content needs to be useful.

When newspapers were things people read (rather than barbeque fuel), the phrase “above the fold” referred to the most visible part of the paper – the top, outward facing half, located above the publication’s crease.

It was standard to put articles and headlines that were sure to grab the reader’s attention above the fold to sell copies. Because a company’s content marketing efforts function in many ways like a publication, these practices have carried over into the digital marketing space – the eye-catching headlines of old are today’s “click bait.”

However, there are many issues with this practice and how it applies to the web. Diana Huff at the Content Marketing Institute points out these concepts are rather outdated. What’s above the fold on a website means far less than it did during the print era because people can now easily scroll down “below the fold” to find what they are looking for.

Because your title generates clicks or is “shareable” doesn’t mean your content will be engaging or offer clear value and use. In fact, research from Chartbeat indicated that nearly 66 percent of all reader engagement occurs below the fold of a website.

Chartbeat engagement data

Your site visitors will actually scroll down  if it means they will find what they are looking for. Readers are filtering through the gimmicks – “This writer THOUGHT he was getting a pair of pants… You won’t believe what happened next!” – to content that is true to its promise and provides significance and meaning.

What’s inside the metaphorical package of content needs to be useful.

What do we consider useful?

Whether you’re publishing a blog, infographic, video or another piece of digital content, it needs to provide the reader a reason to read, comment, click or otherwise engage in some meaningful way.

Content doesn’t necessarily need to be a how-to guide to be useful, (though this is certainly a good strategy). It only needs to provide the reader a reason to view your content.

The Pew Internet and American Life Project conducted a study about internet behaviors and examined why people read online:

  • 80 percent of Americans read for pleasure
  • 78 percent read to keep up with current events
  • 74 percent read to research topics that are of particular interest to them

Write with substance

This information should be taken with a grain of salt. What’s pleasurable, topical and interesting changes from reader to reader, but by keeping these motivations in mind, you can begin to tailor your content so it’s useful to your visitors.

1. If people are reading for pleasure, they may be looking to connect with your content on a personal or emotional level.

Cropped arrowTell a compelling story with characters, challenges and triumph similar to what you would find in a piece of literature. The reader will come away from your content feeling satisfied with your narrative.

2. If the reader wants to stay up to date, they want exclusive news.

Cropped arrowDelve into the underlying issues affecting your industry to offer exclusive research. Go beyond reporting the facts and provide analysis on different trends that influence how you and your peers conduct business.

3. Those who are coming to your site to conduct research are looking for in-depth information about your industry, products and services.

Cropped arrowProvide how-to guides, webinars and other educational materials to share your team’s insights and educate your prospects.

There is no one answer to creating useful, substantive content

Conventional headlines like “3 Ways to Make Sure Your Pants Fit” could very well provide the reader with information he needs, but only if those three suggestions are actually useful.

If I opened that article during my jeans search to find that it offered vague advice on measuring your waist in three different ways, I would have clicked away. Boring. Not useful. However, if it explained how pant sizes might differ between brands, it would have been an immensely helpful resource.

At the end of the day, reader engagement doesn’t come from any one headline, strapline, CTA or in-line image, it comes from compelling and useful information. In the same way that my pants need(ed) to fit, content needs to provide a service to the reader. These accessories can certainly help your content accomplish those goals but the fact still remains: The success of your content hinges on its ability to help the reader.