Every piece of content should do one of two things: help a reader learn something new or feel a strong emotion. Delete everything else.
Here’s a sad story I see all the time. I see a hellbent content creator commit a ton of time, for the sake of being consistent, only to create so-so content that nobody cares about. How many company blogs do you know publish multiple times a week and receive a total of zero comments and zero shares on their articles? They spend time and money to write a story that nobody reads. It’s sad.
To fix this, I want to give you a framework to help you create outstanding content, the kind of stuff that truly gets noticed and talked about.
Note: for the most part I’ll be referring to blog posts, but this principle applies to nearly any type of content.
Your audience wants one of two things from all of your content: to learn or to be entertained. That’s it. Delete everything else that doesn’t accomplish one of these outcomes.
It might sound simple to you, but if you use this as a filter before you publish anything, the quality of your content will skyrocket, the chances of it taking off will increase, and your audience will grow.
In the paragraphs below, I want to show you why this is true and how to implement it. The takeaway is this: The best content either teaches something new to a reader, or causes them to feel a strong emotion.
If you look at every piece of successful or viral content, you’ll find they do one of these things with masterful excellence.
Option One: Teach Something New
With over 942,000 followers on LinkedIn, Jeff Haden’s columns on Inc.com regularly appear in the top 10 articles of each month, with readership frequently surpassing a total of 500,000/month. He is a prolific blogger and knows what works and what doesn’t.
He said one of the biggest mistakes bloggers make is preaching to the choir. “I already know what I think, and so do you. Readers want to learn new things and take new perspectives. They want to think. Agreeing is nice, but agreeing never makes them think.”
So be careful: If you have trouble coming up with a clear answer to the question “what will my readers learn from this?”, then you should seriously consider reworking the piece. In other words, viral content provides incredible value for the reader. Make sure there are actionable takeaways, sharp insights, nuggets of wisdom, step-by-step processes, helpful resources, and / or efficient tools.
Someone reading this might be thinking, but how do I know if my work is actually providing value?
While I’ve written several top articles on Medium, been paid rates of a dollar per word, and been published at major publications like CNBC, Axios, Thought Catalog, The Next Web, and Business Insider, not everything I write goes viral. Not even close. As much as I improve, I’m still quite adept at writing terrible articles. Some of my worst articles appear on my personal blog daveschools.com. Here are two examples:
What it feels like to finish a novel
I cared more about people, then projects, and now it’s back to people. I think.
These will never go viral for a couple reasons. First, poor headlines. Second, if you start reading them, it will be a matter of seconds before your brain taps you on the shoulder and asks, “Why in the world are you reading this?” Because your brain is picking up on a clear fact: they don’t teach you anything. You won’t learn anything helpful from them. It’s just one person who doesn’t have you in mind blubbering on about their life. These will never, ever be shared on social networks.
Let’s look at an example of an article that did go viral and why:
My most successful Medium article ever, I sat down with a millionaire who operates 10 businesses while sailing around the world with his family, which was the 7th most popular story on Medium in 2015, was syndicated by Business Insider, Quartz, MIT, and Fortune Magazine. It was successful because it gave five helpful, uncommon insights from an expert that taught small business owners new ways to manage their businesses better.
This single sentence was highlighted 528 times:
“TO BE SUCCESSFUL IN BUSINESS DOES NOT MEAN CHANGING THE WORLD. IT MEANS MEETING A NEED (REGARDLESS OF SIZE) WELL AND DEPENDABLY OVER TIME.”
In five minutes, readers learned something new from this article. This should be the utmost goal of anything you write. Teach something new. Unless, of course, you are trying to entertain. This is the second option.
Option Two: Evoke Strong Feelings
Look at this non-educating and almost offensive article: F*** You Startup World.
It’s a bitter beatdown, wild rant, and brutal slamming against modern startup culture.
It teaches you nothing and yet it received 370,000 views in one day, one million views total (and counting), and more than 80,000 shares on Facebook. Why did it do so well? It didn’t really teach anyone anything and it contains 95 f-words! What happened?
This article illustrates the power of emotion.
Readers resonate deeply with the author, relate strongly to his experience, and say, “This is exactly what I’ve been feeling and someone has finally put into the right words.”
Humans are emotional. They read to feel something strong. Your job as the writer is to make them laugh, let them sob, trigger them to righteous anger, or wash away their loneliness. You don’t have to teach them anything, you just have to deeply affect them. Inspire them. The right words have a way of unlocking pent-up emotions we never realized we had.
Your Turn: How to Apply This Filter to Your Content
Remember that there is no formula or single style of content that guarantees success. Your challenge is to find out how to teach or entertain in your own unique and original voice.
Study Gary Vaynerchuk, Tim Ferriss, and Mike Allen for examples of how masters create learning content.
To watch experts create entertaining content, analyze standup comedians and read Mr. Trump’s tweets (joking), but seriously, read novels, even some news articles, and first-person accounts of big events to see writers reach strong feelings.
After you’ve written something, edit it with this test in mind. Does it do a good job teaching a concept? How can it be clearer? Does it do a profound job of moving the reader’s emotions? How can it be more passionate?
Edit, edit, edit until there’s no doubt in your mind that the piece accomplishes one of these two outcomes. Ultimately, if you apply this binary test to your thinking, it will help get you closer to creating wildly successful pieces of content.
Best of luck. Because, in all honesty, you’ll need a little bit of that, too.