20 Mar The Complete Guide to Content Writing: How to Create High-Performing Blog Posts
In order to succeed in content marketing, you need great content writing.
According to eMarketer, 84.5% of US businesses (with at least 100 employees) said they’ll be relying on content marketing in 2019:
The problem is, only 54% of marketers are using content to “delight” and build loyalty with customers (CMI & MarketingProfs).
So, how do you create content that delights customers while converting them into leads and customers?
Create the best piece of content available on a topic.
In this guide, you’ll learn how to do just that. I’ll show you how to become a top performing content writer, the anatomy of a high-performing blog post and how to distribute your content to attract new readers.
Part 1: 6 Skills to Effective Content Writing
Top performing writers have several traits in common.
For some, these come naturally. But these skills can be acquired over time.
Level up your content writing game by practicing these skillsets:
1. Thoroughly Research Your Topic
Before writing a word, you must make sure you’re covering your topic in a comprehensive manner.
This means researching influencer content, industry publications, social media and all the data behind it.
Start by looking at industry publications. For example, when planning this guide, I searched Content Marketing Institute for articles related to content writing:
Here are the two ways to find relevant content published by industry leaders:
- Head to Google and search site:domain.com “keyword”
- Use BuzzSumo to find the most popular pieces of content by searching domain + “keyword”
Do the same thing with influencers in your space. Getting influencers involved in your content will help you get their attention. We’ll cover this in part 4.
2. Be Data-Driven
As well as industry trends, it’s important you collect data to back you up.
These usually come in the form of statistics and third-party stories. You can also include your own experiences if they’re relevant.
An easy way to do this is simply searching for your keyword + statistics:
Here, you’ll see a list of articles which curate relevant statistics for you:
You can use these stats in two ways:
- To inform your content and outline, as well as the information you include
- To back-up key points with credible data
Data-driven content builds your credibility, eases skeptical minds and adds more value to your readers.
3. Master Several Writing Styles
This is an underrated skill.
As a content marketer, it’s key to find your own voice to differentiate yourself.
It also helps you connect with your audience on a personal level.
But sometimes you should strategically adjust your voice based on the audience you’re writing for.
- When writing for senior decision makers, use short, to-the-point sentences that add value and makes a solid argument.
- For guest blogging, tailor your voice to the publication’s audience if you want to get accepted.
You should always have the freedom to be yourself. But be prepared to have the flexibility to achieve your goals.
For example, if you’re looking to get a guest post published, look at your target publication’s top performing articles. What do they all have in common?
Research the language of your audience and adapt to it.
4. Understand SEO & Keyword Research
When promoting your content, referral traffic will only go so far.
If you promote your content well, you’ll get an initial spike in traffic…
… but that will quickly normalize over the course of a few days.
Great writers “get” the following SEO principles:
- User intent: What are searchers looking for? What kind of content has Google deemed appropriate for this topic?
- Technical SEO: Page speed, HTML formatting, meta titles and URLs must all be optimized.
- Focus keyword: Your content must have a single, primary target keyword.
- Secondary & LSI keywords: On top of this, you must include secondary and “latent-semantic indexing” keywords to help build context around your content.
These factors, among many others, will help increase the chance of your content outranking the competition on Google.
5. Value, Narrative and Arguments
As well as a clear direction, content writers know how to inject the following elements into their articles and blog posts:
- Value: In the form of education and entertainment. After reading your content, the reader should know exactly what to do to achieve their goals or solve a problem.
- Arguments: Understand the disagreements and objections your ideas will raise. Aim to resolve these within the content itself. In other words, answer objections before readers even think about them.
- Narrative: Lead your reader from A to B. Provide a clear roadmap by showing them the path and then guiding them through it, step-by-step.
Including these elements will help you build clarity, deliver value and establish authority in your content.
6. Become an Effective Storyteller
This is the most important skill you should cultivate as a writer:
Telling engaging and compelling stories.
When writing how-to blog posts, it’s easy to focus on the technical side of achieving a particular goal.
But this doesn’t engage readers.
Stories, however, grabs their attention and compels them to read further.
The best way to use stories within value-driven blog posts are:
- The introduction: Start by outlining the challenge you (or a third-party) faced. Then, guide the reader through the journey of how you solved it, including setbacks, redemption and the end result. Hook readers in and set up what you’re about to teach.
- Examples: When presenting ideas, use third-party examples to demonstrate how it’s done.
- Case studies: Make your entire piece of content a story in itself. Case studies are one of the best formats for telling relevant stories.
Remember, you don’t have to tell your own story. Share the experiences of your peers, thought leaders or other brands. Talk about how they achieved what you’re teaching.
Part 2: 5 Steps to Topic Research & Ideation
Now you know the skillset to develop as a content writer.
It’s time to get to work. And where do you begin?
With solid, comprehensive research.
Here’s a five-step research process for creating a world-class piece of content on any topic.
Step 1: Interview Your Customers and Audience
At Grizzle, we don’t work with “generalist” writers.
Instead, we look for capable writers who are subject matter experts in a specific field.
Why? Because they understand their audiences pains and goals better than anyone.
When writing for a specific audience, it’s important to provide technical and practical knowledge. But if you can’t connect with readers on a personal level, then you’ll struggle to drive results.
Your audience wants to be heard and understood. They want to read a piece of content and think “YES, this person gets me”.
And you can’t do that without fully understanding them.
So, how do you get to know your audience like a trusted friend?
This means meeting with them, or jumping on a call, and having a conversation about their goals and challenges.
The questions you ask shouldn’t just be about your product. Non-product related challenges and goals provide the best topic opportunities to capture a wider audience.
When talking with customers, ask broad questions and dig deeper into their responses. Use follow-up questions to understand the true motivations behind their answers.
This not only provides you with high-level topics, but the exact language they use to articulate their pain-points.
Here are a few questions we asked a client’s customer base during the research phase:
- What is the primary benefit that you have received from [product]?
- What’s the biggest challenge you currently face in your role?
- What are your 3-6 months goals in your role?
- What are the biggest obstacles to achieving those goals?
- Where do you go for advice on x industry?
- What other blogs do you read in this space?
- Are you active in any LinkedIn groups, Facebook groups or other online communities?
These questions give you all the insights you need to create and promote content your audience will love.
Step 2: Read & Study Your Influencers
If you don’t know who the movers-and-shakers in your industry are, now’s the time to find out.
One of the easiest ways of doing this is search for phrases such as top “keyword” influencers:
Find a list of influencers to research and add them to a spreadsheet.
For each influencer, check out which topics they’re passionate about. For example, Jay Baer creates a lot of content on word-of-mouth marketing:
For any content marketing or customer success related content, this would make a great sub-topic to include.
This requires some manual effort. But it’s worth it.
Not only does it mean enhancing your content, but also provides an opportunity to connect with industry thought leaders and expand your network.
Step 3: Generating Insight from Social Media & Search Data
This next step has two great benefits:
It allows you to uncover new sub-topics and see how much demand there is for them.
At Grizzle, we use two primary tools for this purpose:
In BuzzSumo, search for your chosen topic:
Look at the most shared content. Which subtopics do they cover? How do they introduce the challenge and what format does the content come in?
In Ahrefs, head to the Keyword Explorer and enter the topic you’re writing on:
Use this data to see how many monthly searches there are, as well as ranking difficulty.
You’ll also have a fresh batch of relevant keyword ideas. Use these to inform your content outline and optimize your content for on-page SEO:
It will also provide competitive SEO insights:
Use this data to inform your SEO strategy. Remember, you don’t always need to generate more backlinks. Just make sure your content is better than the content currently ranking on page 1.
This is exactly how we outranked brands like Marketo and HubSpot for a competitive keyword. Even with fewer backlinks, we secured the #1 spot by outcompeting on content quality:
Step 4: Inspect Industry & Competitor Publications
Business publications such as Forbes, as well as industry-specific publications, are great resources to uncover new trends.
They attract writers who are at the forefront of their field. This includes thought leaders who are on the pulse of changes in your industry.
Start with top business publications such as Forbes, Inc., Fast Company and Business Insider. Search for the topic you’re writing about:
Do the same for industry-related publications. For example, here’s what I get when researching the topic of “content writing” on Content Marketing Institute:
You can also use advanced Google searches to find relevant content and trends. Just follow this process:
- Search for site:www.domain.com “your keyword” like so:
- In the SERPs, click Tools and under the “Any Time” dropdown, select “Past month:”
- If you don’t see many results, select “Custom range…” and choose a period over the last 6 months:
By applying a date range to your search, you’ll get the latest content and trends.
Step 5: Transforming Insight into Content
You’ve spoken to your customers to understand their pains. But where else can you go for insights?
Subject matter experts.
These people often include:
- Industry influencers
- Internal experts (product designers, founders, c-suite executives etc.)
- Journalists and other writers
Identify these people and reach out to them. You can do this on Twitter, LinkedIn or even email outreach.
Ask questions related to your content. Demonstrate value up front by showing them where the content will be published, and the audience they’ll be exposed to.
For example, when writing content on the topic of “side project marketing,” I reached out to Sujan Patel about his experiences when growing Contentmarketer.io (now known as MailShake):
These third-party experiences enhanced the content while expanding my network with other successful marketers:
Interview subject matter experts to get their take on your topic. Turn their insights into quotes and third-party stories. Translate those insights into actionable steps.
Part 3: The Anatomy of an Effective Blog Post
You’ve got everything you need to write a fantastic blog post.
Now it’s time to bring data, insight and storytelling together.
Read on and learn how to create engaging and high-performing content.
1. Introduction-to-Acquisition Fit
Before writing your introduction, you need to think carefully from a user-acquisition perspective:
How will my readers discover my content?
Typically, it’s going to be one of four sources:
- Search engines
- Social media
- Paid media
- Communities and other direct channels
The way you structure your introduction will greatly depend on the primary acquisition channel.
For example, when driving traffic from Facebook Groups, you should use your intro to build credibility and thought leadership. This means a longer introduction may be necessary.
However, if search traffic is the end-game, then searchers already get what the topic is about. They don’t want to read through paragraphs on basic concepts behind what you’re about to teach.
So, how do you create engaging content writing for readers arriving from search engines?
Get to the point.
For example, in “The Definitive Guide to Content Distribution,” search traffic was our primary acquisition channel.
Which is why we kept the introduction short:
This comes down to putting yourself in your reader’s shoes.
Why are they coming to learn more about your content? Who is the audience and how sophisticated is their knowledge on this topic?
It all comes down to empathy. This is created by understanding their challenges and goals. Again, use customer inteviews to acquire this insight.
2. Structure Your Outline Appropriate to Format
The outline for your content will be heavily informed by your chosen format.
Here are some example formats, along with the appropriate structure you should consider using:
- In-depth guides: Use chapters for broad topics and sub-headings to guide the reader through that topic.
- How-to posts: Use a step-by-step format that leads the reader through each step.
- Listicles: Provide a series of tools, strategies or tactics. Present them as individual ideas with enough information to get the reader started.
Here’s an example of what a section looks like in a how-to post:
And here’s a table of contents for a listicle:
Ensure your outline is structured appropriately to the content format. Readers are conditioned to expect a certain format based on what the headline promises.
If you give them a how-to article, you better show them how to do what you’re teaching.
3. Use Imagery to Illustrate & Educate
Looking at a huge wall of text can be an even bigger turn-off.
Adding imagery to your content illustrates key points, breaks up content and makes Google happy.
But you shouldn’t use imagery for the sake of it. It must add value to the content and help the reader visualize what you’re teaching.
For example, here’s a diagram we used to illustrate a concept when writing a breakdown of Netflix’s marketing for SpotRight:
And here’s a screenshot we used when describing Netflix’s social media strategy:
Both images add value in different ways.
They’re also incredibly shareable. Each image can be repurposed into social snippets. Proprietary diagrams and illustrations can also fuel link building.
A good rule of thumb is to add images for every 3 to 5 paragraphs. But don’t just add them for the sake of it. Make sure they add value to the content you’re writing.
4. Sprinkle in Third-Party Data
Referencing credible sources who have conducted comprehensive research will not only boost the credibility of your content, but your entire brand.
It can also be a method to quickly engage readers. Include statistics in your introduction to “turn up the heat” on pain-points and get readers invested in what you’re about to teach them.
For example, here’s a stat from Nielsen we included when writing about co-branded influencer content:
Look through your content and identify areas where statistics can build authority. Here are a few areas to consider:
- In the first three paragraphs of your content
- In the introduction of each sub-section
- When new ideas are presented
And always, always make sure to link back to the original source.
Attribution is a professional courtesy. You also build credibility while improving your on-page SEO. Not to mention, it gives you a good reason to reach out to the third-party during your content distribution efforts.
5. Feature Examples from Other Brands & Influencers
Stories are another great way of borrowing credibility and adding more value to your content.
According to this infographic from OneSpot, information delivered as stories can increase retention:
Inject stories into your content from your own experiences. Borrow success stories where the results you generated for your customers relate to the information you’re providing.
You can also borrow third-party examples. In fact, a simple Google search for keyword + examples usually yields plenty of results:
Here’s how we did this in a recent blog post on listicles:
Remember to link to the brands you’re referencing, as well as the original content you’re referring to.
6. Treat Each Subsection Like an Article In Itself
To create the best content on a topic, you have to go all-in.
Nobody is going to share or link to your content if it’s not jam-packed with value.
A great mindset to get into when writing long-form content is to treat each subsection as a standalone piece of content.
For example, here’s an example article on sales processes:
There’s a glaring problem here:
The content is far too thin.
For readers looking for a comprehensive guide on sales processes, this article is unlikely to deliver.
Contrast this with “The Definitive Guide to Sales Process Creation” from UpLead, which includes a table of contents:
It’s also organized into chapters, each of which provides step-by-step guides on each topic:
When creating the outline for your content, ask yourself: how can I pack in as much value into this subsection?
It won’t always make sense to create a 5,000+ word piece of content. In fact, word count isn’t always the best metric for success.
Instead, focus on creating the most comprehensive piece of content you can.
Leave no stone unturned. Make sure you do your research and cover every angle on a topic. Go all-in for each section of your outline.
7. Write Concise Sentences
Have you ever come across a sentence that seems to go on and on, spiralling into a pit of meaninglessness that increases the reading difficulty while adding absolutely no value to the reader whatsoever?
Yes, the sentence above is an example of “junk content” in action.
They add no value to the reader and have no reason to exist.
Take this paragraph for example:
“That all being said, the fact is one can’t solely pour money into the efforts of promoting his or her business. There is also the priceless cultivation of relationships. This means time and effort put forth in finding those who believe in whatever it is that your company sells, be it products or services.”
Terms like “one can’t solely,” “his or her” and “priceless cultivation” all add little value to the reader.
That paragraph can easily be cut down and simplified:
“You can’t just pour money into ineffective promotion. You must also continuously build strategic relationships. This means putting the effort into finding those who believe what you believe.”
It’s much shorter, and holds a more authoritative tone.
It’s spoken like a true leader, and you can bet that the writer knows what they’re talking about.
If you think a sentence is too long, it probably is…
Cut it down as much as possible. Keep paragraphs a maximum of 1-3 sentences long. This will also improve readability on mobile devices.
8. Inject Your Own Personality
Standing out from the crowd is key. Especially when you’re a writer, blogger or content marketer.
There’s no better way to do this than injecting your personality into your content.
This can be done through tonality, humour or a unique way of telling your story.
Content writer Elise Dopson does a terrific job of injecting her personality into the content she writes:
There are several things I like about the above snippet:
- Phrases such as “tricky” makes the content more conversational. It also gives you an idea of what Elise’s personality is like behind those words.
- Splitting paragraphs into separate lines to make an impact, e.g. “I don’t blame you.”
- The generous use of third-party data.
Which terms and phrases do you use on a day-to-day basis? Inject these into your content where it adds value or makes an impact.
9. Teach People How to Execute
This is possibly the most important content writing principle:
Your content must be actionable.
In other words, people must be able to take action as soon as they’ve finished reading your content.
Do this by using step-by-step instructions, simplifying complex ideas and including screenshots for technical content.
You can use a tool like Skitch to annotate your screenshots. If your content is strategic in nature, use graphs and diagrams to map ideas from a top-down view.
Here’s how we did this for a guide on customer-centric marketing:
Guiding your audience through their challenge means providing step-by-step advice. Structure your content like you would a lecture.
10. Use Double-Readership Paths
Nobody likes looking at a wall of text.
Which means your content shouldn’t look like this:
Instead, break down your content using double readership paths.
Double readership paths are a copywriting technique used to present information in several ways. We use them to retain two types of readers:
- Analytical people who read content (or sales letters) from the very beginning
- Skimmers who scroll around before committing reading from the beginning
According to HubSpot, 43% of people admit to skimming blog posts.
This copywriting principle not only grabs the attention of the second group, but makes your content writing easy and enjoyable to read.
Here are a few ways to create double readership paths:
- Break down paragraphs: Make sure paragraphs contain no more than 2-3 sentences. This also makes it easier to read on mobile devices.
- Bucket brigades: A term borrowed from Brian Dean, start a sentence on one line and finish it on the next one:
- Bullet-points: Group ideas together in a bullet list (just like the one you’re reading now)
- Imagery and screenshots: As mentioned earlier, visual content can grab attention and increase the perceived value of your content.
- Unique formatting: Wrap certain elements, such as quotes, in its own CSS:
Use these as a starting guide to make your content more fun and easier to read.
11. Upgrade UX to Boost Engagement
The double readership paths above can be done on any CMS.
To really stand out, you’ve got to get creative.
This means using custom CSS on your blog posts to make it stand out.
For example, UpLead uses custom styling for subheadings within their content:
For 10x and cornerstone content, you can create a custom design to increase the UX significantly.
For example, MailShake’s Email Outreach Playbook uses custom illustrations and a unique layout to provide a delightful experience:
Of course, content of this magnitude can be expensive. But you can add simple touches to improve the experience of your own content without breaking the bank.
Try formatting areas of text and wrapping sections of your content in custom CSS. These are just two simple ways to quickly “wow” your readers.
Part 4: How to Bake Distribution Into Your Content
You now have everything you need to create an epic blog post.
By creating high quality content, you’re already 80% of the way to generating results.
But without a distribution strategy, that content will fall on deaf ears.
For a comprehensive look at content distribution, check out our definitive guide here. For now, I’ll quickly show you how to bake promotion into your content.
These are “promotion triggers” that you can inject into your content while adding more value. Use them to prepare your promotion activity before and after you hit “publish.”
1. Build Bulletproof Relationships
At Grizzle, we believe that value-driven relationships are the cornerstone of any marketing activity. Our entire promotion process is built on a “relationship-driven distribution” methodology.
To do this, I recommend starting with the following approaches:
- The Influence 100: Who are the top 100 influencers in your industry? Identify them and capture information such as their website, Twitter and the size of their following.
- Community leaders: Facebook Groups and other communities are full of your ideal readers. Identify the most popular movers-and-shakers in your target communities and engage with their content.
- Proven promoters: These are individuals who have already shared your content. Reach out to them to let them know about your upcoming blog post.
- Twitter sharers: Use BuzzSumo to find Twitter users who have shared competing content. Tell them about your updated version and if they’d like to read it once it’s live.
These are four simple ways to get started with relationship-driven content right away.
Provide value by getting them involved in your content, quoting them and finding ways to help them reach their goals.
2. Get Involved With Communities
As mentioned above, there are many communities that exist around your topic and industry.
They make for great distribution channels, but only when done the right way.
Identifying these communities is simple. Just head to LinkedIn, Facebook or Reddit and search for a relevant keyword:
Join communities with a large number of members and active daily discussion. Then, follow this process:
- Spend 1-2 weeks contributing to the community. Comment, answer questions and provide insights to other members’ posts.
- Identify the movers-and-shakers in each community (see above). Make a special effort to comment on their posts.
- Analyze the top performing posts. Does the community prefer case studies, questions or how-to posts?
- Repurpose your content into a native format. For example, if a group enjoys how-to content, write a post that teaches the community something you cover in your article:
- Include a link at the bottom of the post or in the first comment of the post.
The first step here is the most important.
Before sharing your content, you must become a known name within the community. This increases the likelihood of generating engagement when the time comes to share your content.
3. The Power of Repurposing
There are several content repurposing techniques available for your blogging toolkit.
- Medium: Republish your blog post on Medium and submit it to a publication. If accepted, your article may be seen by thousands of hungry readers. Be sure to include a link to your original article.
- LinkedIn: Turn your content into original LinkedIn articles. Take key concepts and quotes, and repurpose them into LinkedIn posts:
- Visual content: Turn your post into a video, infographic or webinar. Simply adapt the outline for the platform and format you’re creating.
- Guest blogging: If you’ve created an in-depth guide, you have a dozen new potential topics available. Pitch these topics to other publications, getting your name and message in front of a wider audience.
This guide should give you a complete step-by-step workflow for writing killer content.
The skills to cultivate, how to research and what to include your blog posts. You should have everything you need to delight your audience while driving critical business results.
I’d love to hear from you:
What content formats are you excited to try this year? How are you currently creating unique and engaging content?
Let me know in the comments below.