What Are the Traits of Quality Content?
Nov 14, 2016
It’s back: the great debate between quality versus quantity when it comes to content. Orbit Media’s Annual Blogger Survey reintroduced the struggle to find the perfect balance, which begs the question — what actually makes content quality? John Lane takes a look.
Originally published March 29, 2016.
Experts in the marketing space continually list “quality content” as one of the requirements for success in modern marketing, and when you search, you can find that people are trying to define what that really means. Those definitions are usually listings of how Google considers quality – meaning how to handle keywords, and how backlinks and social uptake affect your search engine results pages (SERPs). But there are also attempts to give content creators pointers on making quality content…which more often than not are attempts to bend quantitative points toward keys to success of a truly subjective—qualitative—item. (“Watch your word count!” and the like.)
In a recent ContentTalk* at Centerline, we took on the topic of “quality content” in an attempt to figure out the different aspects that make some content better than others. Not in the sense of figuring out the perfect word count or video length (because, honestly, that’s impossible) but in figuring out all the attributes that form the highly mutable ideas of “quality content” and “context.”
We quickly concluded: There can be no singular paradigm of quality content. Rather, there is a spectrum of what makes something “quality” based on many variables. So we made a list and, as insufferable strategists and designers, we tried to map the spectrum of “What is Quality Content?” in some visual manner.
We tried to make an equation to better understand which variables affect others in the pursuit of quality. We’d love your take on this mix (we’re @Centerline on Twitter)!
The variables – all the different facets of context that make a communication of quality – include:
Timing of Message & Immediacy of Need. If I’m in a leisurely mood to look for information about a subject, I’m going to be more selective in my search. I’m going to take my time. I’m going to be willing to read more, or watch or listen longer, and I’m going to be more attuned to the production quality of the content. But if time is of the essence, my need for—as a matter of fact, my awareness of—production quality is going to decrease. Dramatically.
Here’s an example. My leaf blower recently died. Right when I needed it most—as I was getting ready to crank it—it didn’t work. I turned to the internet, searching for troubleshooting tips. Videos I found were homemade; shaky things shot in portrait orientation on an iPhone with terrible sound. I didn’t care. I hardly noticed the production. If those pieces gave me something new to try, it was of quality. It provided value.
Later, when my leaf blower had not come back to life and a mechanic confirmed it was dead, I went online shopping for another. I can tell you with certainty I paid more attention to the production quality of the pieces I read and watched in that mode, because I was going to equate those pieces as indicative of the quality of the product and trustworthiness of the brand.
Both types of content could’ve been made by the same marketing group or person. Both were of quality, based on my need and their timing of information. But the judgement of “quality” was definitively tied to the immediacy of my need.
Accessibility & Platform. It’s easy to see a related issue to “timing and immediacy” that could be categorized as “accessibility and platform.” Using the same example as above, I was on my phone when searching for help on how to fix my leaf blower “right now.” I wasn’t going to stop, walk to a laptop, and dig in. I needed something that was easily accessible and consumable on my phone. Search + video. When it was time to buy a new leaf blower, I was comfortable on the couch with my laptop (or tablet…I don’t recall which) and browsing for any media findable.
Notice I didn’t focus on the channel. Because while I was “mobile only” at the time of need, and I mentioned video was accessible and favorable, that doesn’t mean Vine or Instagram was the right channel for delivery. Those currently don’t work well as search engines for immediate need. Perhaps, given time, they will be a great spot for instant customer service online.
Relevance of Information Detail. We’ve all been in this situation: We’re looking for something highly specific…highly nuanced. We’re an expert that needs one last piece of information, but what we get is the 101 level content no matter where we look. Sure, the specific detail we’re looking for may come in the third minute of a demo video, but we’re long gone before that, no matter how well the video is written and produced.
Simply put: Relevance trumps design. Every time. But…when multiple options of equal relevance are present, we’re also more likely to choose the better designed (or better written, or conveyed) option. Because in this case, quality (specifically production quality), has become the deciding factor of attraction. All things being equal in relevance, we’re more attuned to the quality of the presentation. But without relevance, the quality is a non factor.
Uniqueness of Situation & Presentation. The denominator of “relevance” is the uniqueness of the situation. In cases where communication is around highly-specific subjects—in cases where there is very little competition—then uniqueness provides quality on it’s own. Someone out there has been smart enough to see a need and present it at the perfect time. There is little need for “high design” in the presentation.
A case study works best to illustrate this idea. Marcus Sheridan wrote a blog post to which he attributes more than $2 million in sales. One blog post. Not a highly produced video or beautiful, metaphor-driven infographic. Just words (and a stock image). But the content was at such a unique spot in the market—a singular outpost on the big, wide web that answered a popular (but niche) question—it didn’t need anything but well written information. It was a blog post that answered the question: “How much does a fiberglass pool cost?”
Brand Perception & Brand Permission. Brand expressions are artfully crafted things. Now, remember that your brand isn’t what you say it is…it’s what “they” say it is. But what’s said about your brand is often at least framed by the expression you start through your products, point of view, tone of voice, stated mission, and all the brand design cues around logos, typography, colors and the like.
So, after the perception has been formed and the true understanding of your brand is out there and commonly accepted, you’ll have to understand that people have given you permission to talk about certain things, and not about others. They’ve decided what realms you’re an authority in, and which ones you are not. So if you’re Crocs, you don’t have the authority to weigh in on fashion…and, by proxy, your statement about David Bowie’s impact on the world and how you’ll miss him, too, will be laughed at or rapidly forgotten.
The ability for users to judge the value of your content based solely on brand recognition far outpaces the quality of the presentation. Understanding that will help you know what content to concentrate on: What are you allowed to speak about with authority? It will also allow you to better understand the quality you must apply to each message. More authority/permission on a subject? Not so high of quality is needed. Less authority/permission on a subject? Higher quality is expected.
Authenticity & Credibility. This is related to brand perception and permission, but it’s not the same. Authenticity and credibility is an additive variable to the previous, because it takes into account the specific speaker (whether someone from within the brand or a third party testimonial) and the specific channel.
Authenticity, much like “quality,” is a completely subjective term. Yet people bandy it about as though everyone has the exact same definition and understanding in mind.
I keep coming back to a quote I only know to attribute to Norm MacDonald: “No one can know if another man is authentic or not… only that they appear to be.” I’d love for everyone to hold this idea in mind. But they don’t. We live in a world in which, more often than not, authenticity is owned by the receiver and not the sender of messages.
With that in mind, authenticity and credibility are big, hard to control facets of quality. But for measurements sake, the touchstones are this: Is the content inline with what people are willing to hear from your point of view (credibility)? And is the content delivered in a way that people can recognize you without you standing next to it (authenticity)?
If either one of those is not true, you’ll be dividing Brand Perception & Brand Permission by zero. And anything divided by zero…results in “error.”
Channel Expectations & Norms. This trait of context and quality is probably one of the hardest to grasp. That’s because, as said above, people have taken great care to craft a look, feel, tone, pace, etc. for their brand communications…and very little of those jive with the look, feel, tone, pace, etc. conventions of modern marketing channels. Believe it or not, in some channels, a highly-polished production is exactly the thing that will turn people away. Think about the finger-letter, emoji-laden style of Snapchat. Think about the “only what you can capture in an instant” style of Vine.
There is no better example of how to get this dichotomy right—from both a brand and channel perspective—than how GE is communicating through Snapchat. GE has found a way to balance their engineering-exactness with the conventions of the channel—emojis and scrawled handwriting—to great effect. In fact, there is a perfect nerdy-wonderfulness to their lo-fi stories that feels both natural in the channel and to the GE brand.
In short: If there’s a choice between the conventions of the brand or the conventions of the channel, people will overwhelmingly choose the conventions of the channel. Therefore, you need to start thinking differently about what visual style and tone of voice express your brand “today.”
Now, finally, we come to Production Quality. This is gonna get complicated, because “production” is about as broad of a subject as you can imagine. For video, production includes: writing, setting (location), lighting, shooting (camera specs and style of capture), editing, motion graphics, color correction…shall I keep going? For a whitepaper, production includes: writing, editing, fact checking, cross referencing, graphic design, etc. For an infographic, production includes… you get the point. The facets of production vary widely based on the medium, but all those facets just get lumped in.
On to the real point: The type of production quality you must try to attain is determined by all the things listed above – from the channel norms to the brand permission to the audience need. But after determining all those things, you still have to hit that mark. Which is always easier said than done. Because we haven’t even brought into account the limiters of production quality…like time, budget, availability of talent and/or equipment, etc.
But let’s assume that unlimited budget and time, and complete access to all the right talent and equipment, are given. You still have to divide that (let’s say 100% perfect execution) by channel expectations and norms…and then multiply that by the rest of the factors of quality.
Yes, multiply. Meaning if either portion of the equation is a “zero” then it’s all a “zero.”
That brings us back to this point made at the start: Quality is subjective and hard to attain. So the next time you see an article saying “all you need to do to succeed with content marketing is to make quality content,” you’ll understand why that advice is so shallow it’s essentially pointless. But you’ll be able to recall this post, and you’ll be able to keep in mind all the facets that go into “quality.” Whether you actually put numbers into the equation or not, that awareness will help you acheive “quality” more often.
This is all simply “thinking out loud,” and it’s begging for your thinking to make the idea bigger and better. What are your thoughts about this quality content equation? Share them with me on Twitter: @johnvlane.
*ContentTalk is a weekly roundtable discussion at Centerline, in which we take apart common marketing terminology and ideas in order to truly understand—and be able to apply—concepts.
Watching TV as a kid, I used to run to the bathroom during the shows so I could make it back for the commercials. Those days launched me down a path that included layout and writing for the college paper; communications strategy for political campaigns; marketing strategy and graphic design for Gensler (a global design and architecture firm); and the implementation of new programming, animation and design techniques for Centerline. Today I specialize in content marketing strategy and building digital deliverables to execute those strategies. But it’s about more than just creating killer digital content. At Centerline, we help clients succeed in the digital marketplace using a three-pronged approach: strategic (message creation, brand strategy), tactical (design, development), and analytical (measurement and adaptation). This experience-tested approach allows me to build campaigns that are both well-designed and effective for clients like IBM, GE and National Instruments.