I’m lucky.  I’ve spent the past four years writing for more people than I can count, on subjects that are more diverse than I ever could have imagined.  Interesting projects aside, working as part of so many different content marketing strategies has given me a unique insight into what works — and, more importantly, what doesn’t.

I don’t want you to have to learn the hard way, or to make mistakes that delay your success.  So, I’m passing along the 5 most invaluable lessons I’ve learned from my years of content marketing:

1.  Your book WILL be judged by its cover

In this case, the “book” is any piece of content you publish on the web, and the “cover” can be a few different things.  For example, the headline you come up with is a “cover” because it’s the first thing people will see (just like the cover of a book), and it will determine whether or not they actually bother to read the rest of what you’ve written.  Your headline can either be incredibly compelling or a total buzzkill, and it’s going to set the tone for every other word you’ve written.

The website you publish content on is also a “cover”.  After all, people will get a particular impression about the website before they even see your headline!  You could write the greatest article in the world, but if it’s sitting on a website that’s chock full of keyword-stuffed halfway-coherent English, it’s going to damage your reputation.  Most people probably won’t even bother to read your article, because they’ll assume it’s just as bad as everything else around it!

2.  If you don’t relate to your readers, they’ll never relate to you

If you truly understand what content marketing is all about, then you know that your main goal is to build a relationship with your readers.  After all, if people like you, they’re a whole lot more likely to buy the products you suggest or pay for the services you recommend.

However, this relationship isn’t automatic.  Just like any other relationship, you have to work at it!

In order to get your readers to relate to you (and, eventually, like and trust you), you’ve got to start by speaking their language.  After all, a conversation with a 20-something single mom is probably going to sound much different than a conversation with a 50-something corporate executive!

But simply having the right lingo isn’t good enough.  You also need to understand the specific fears, problems, and limitations that your readers have.  After all, every single web searcher on the planet is looking for information.  If you don’t know what makes your specific readers tick, you’ll never be able to create content that grabs them.  You’ll simply blend in with the rest of the pack!

3.  Crap in = crap out

These days, so many marketers are publishing as much content as they can, simply because they think they’re supposed to.  They’ve heard that content marketing is important, and they’ve become “churner outers” instead of informers.

Having this mindset is the worst possible thing you can do for your content marketing strategy!

If you put nothing but crap into your content, you’ll wind up with nothing but a pile of crap.  Like it or not, you’ve got to take time to do legitimate research, and you’ve got to have a clear focus.  Otherwise, you’re going to wind up with a piece that rambles on and on about nothing.

You also have to be creative.  If you offer up the same ol’ opinions and presentations that everyone else in your niche is offering, that’s a form of crap.  You need to go out of your way to make sure that your content stands out — whether it’s through a unique opinion, humor, sarcasm, or anything else you can think of to grab readers’ attention.  If you don’t take the time to be creative, your content marketing strategy will never succeed.

4.  You can never afford to lose sight of your goals

You created a content strategy in the first place to DO something — whether it was to increase visitors to your website, boost sales, get more email subscribers, or all of the above.  So, keep that goal in mind every single time you publish something.  If you don’t, you’re no different than a train veering off the tracks — and the destruction can be just as bad!

Above all else, you need to make sure that everything you publish makes you look like an expert.  You’ll be much better off in the end if you take some extra time to make sure everything’s perfect.  It’s not the end of the world if your blog sits un-updated for a few days, or if you don’t publish as many guest posts in a week as you’d like.  However, publishing something that doesn’t line up with your goals CAN be the end of the world as your business knows it!

After all, crap in = crap out!  If it takes a little extra time to come up with content that’s truly great, so be it.  Don’t damage your reputation over some arbitrary deadline you’ve got stuck in your head.

5.  People will always be there to offer shortcuts

No matter how long we sit around and talk about the importance of providing value and content that’s chock full of expertise, there will always be someone who wants to offer you a shortcut.  Maybe they sell a tool that promises to automate your content.  Or, maybe they have a technique that claims it can teach you to write a “quality” article in 5 minutes.

Whatever the shortcut is, do yourself a favor and take a cue from Nancy Reagan — just say no!

There is no shortcut to creating great content.  If you want to reap all of the benefits that a successful content marketing strategy has to offer, you have to put the work in (or pay a professional writer to put the work in for you).  The only place success comes before work is in the dictionary!