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The urge to talk about how good your products or services are is real, which is why too many marketers are “selling” in their content. It takes discipline to stop this habit, but it’s crucial if you want to do good content marketing. Instead of selling, you need to tell the right stories to bring people into what you and your brand are doing (your experience, your expertise). But what does that really look like? Here are the 9 elements of truly good content. Stick to these, and people will feel personally connected to your brand—not pushed to buy.

1) It Spotlights Benefits (Not Features)

If you’re hoping to engage people with your content, you want to frame your stories in the most enticing way possible. It’s not about what you offer people but how it helps educate, improve their lives, or solve their problems. Keep content focused on those types of benefits—not the features.

2) It Tells a Story that Hits the Sweet Spot

Your sweet spot is the thematic overlap between what your brand has earned the right to have a perspective on and what your audience cares about. It is the big idea that you and your audience can bond over.

Your sweet spot stories are those that:

  1. Your brand can tell well.
  2. Your customers want (or need) to hear.

If you stray outside this zone, your stuff may be too broad or too uninteresting. (Learn more about how to stay inside your zone.)

3) It’s Designed for Good Experiences

Most marketers aren’t trained in visual design. They’re not thinking about what the brand looks and feels like from the customer perspective. But good design is vital to good content because designers are always thinking about the end-user experience. They care deeply about brands and brand integrity, and they understand better than others what it means to be off brand and on brand. Most importantly, good designers care about the “why.” (Here are 4 ways to train yourself to start thinking like a designer.)

4) It Knows When to Market and When to Sell

What’s the difference between marketing and sales content? Marketing shows who you are and why you’re unique—without you having to come out and say it.

Sales, however, includes an articulation of why people should ultimately give you—not your competitors—their business. It helps people make their purchasing decisions more easily. For marketers, it’s important to know when and where to introduce people to each type of content.

5) It’s Bullshit-Free

Wouldn’t the world of content marketing be a better place if marketers eliminated the BS and valued other people’s time as much as they valued their own time? Is that even possible? It absolutely is.

We’ve been greatly inspired by Josh Bernoff’s book Writing Without Bullshit, which is a refreshing kick in the backside and a good reminder that we don’t have to write the same bad shit as everyone else. (To apply this mentality your own stuff, here are 5 simple ways to take the BS out of your content marketing.)

6) It’s Shaped by Culture

A lot of marketers are slave to the editorial calendar, which is understandable to a point. Editorial calendars provide a documented plan for ownership, process, what you’re working on, and in what sequence. But building out a thriving content practice isn’t just about what’s on the calendar; it starts from within your organization.

Great comes from a creative environment that encourages ideas and experimentation, so it’s important to cultivate a culture of content at every level.

7) It’s Made for People, Not Brands

People don’t care that you’re “doing” marketing. They care that you’re thinking about them. To make sure you are, you should regularly review your strategy, including what you’re creating and why. Above all, you need to produce content that provides value to the people you’re trying to reach.

That means vetting your ideas, refining concepts, finding the right angle, and writing headlines that will communicate that value.

8) It Uses Personas

Pursuing content marketing without having clear personas in mind is a waste of time. In that case, you’re just making shit up with the blind hope that someone, somewhere will come across what you’ve created and maybe like it.

If you want people to connect to your stuff, you need to get inside their minds and identify the problems they deal with, their frustrations, desires, etc. You need well-crafted personas that include this information so that you can come up with the right content ideas to address the things they care about.

9) It’s Shaped by Empathy

Empathy is the opposite of talking about yourself, your services, your pricing, and how great you are.

How do you create empathetic content?

  1. Decrease the amount of selling.
  2. Increase the amount of time listening to and thinking about your customers.

This doesn’t mean you can’t ever ask your audience to sign up for a newsletter, download an e-book, etc. It just means that the selling approach is minimized so that customer-centered content can be integrated into your marketing strategy.

While these tips are all useful, the most important thing you can do to create good content is stay educated. Keep on top of industry trends, have open conversations with your team, and do as much legwork as you can to get inside the minds’ of the people you’re trying to reach.