Great Content Is Like Pornography

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"I know it when I see it."

Recently, someone asked me if I could teach them how to create great content. At first glance, a statement like that seems plausible. There are some core pillars of what makes certain pieces of content compelling in relation to the content that stiffs. On second glance, it’s like asking someone to teach you how to write a hit song. That’s where things get a little bit fuzzy. While the notion of content as media is nothing new (it’s something I was Blogging about back in 2003 and a topic I tackled extensively in my first business book, Six Pixels of Separation), it’s amazing how new and fresh this all still is for Marketers who – traditionally – have not had to focus on the role of content creator as a core pillar of their day-to-day business.

What does great content look like?

  • Great content is contextual. It’s less about how long or short the piece of content is (I often argue that a great piece of content is as long or as short as it needs to be for it to be great) and it’s much more about how relevant it is to the consumer’s life. Contextual content is completely relevant in the now. In order to achieve this, it’s important to think about whether or not you are producing this content to be contextual and relevant or if you’re producing this content to sell something. If it’s the latter, please understand that it’s contextual to you, but probably not so much to the consumer of the content.
  • Great content is based on frequency. There is an ongoing debate about how often you update your Blog, Podcast, tweet, post to Facebook, etc… The smart folks will tell you to only post when you have something relevant and contextual to say (note my first bulletpoint above ;). While this is – without question, the best strategy, the truth is that if you don’t have something interesting to say on a frequent basis, you may want to reconsider publishing content on your own. Instead, offer up your more infrequent pieces of genius to a place that accepts guest contributors. Heresy, you say? Optically, if someone comes to your space for the first time and sees that the content hasn’t been updated in months, it hardly matters how relevant that last piece of content was as it gives off the perception that things are not new and fresh.
  • Great content is based on a schedule. There is a big lesson that New Media content producers can learn from traditional media outlets: publish on a schedule. How would you feel if every morning before you woke up, I snuck into your kitchen and moved your coffee maker to a different location… every single day. Something tells me that by day three, you would be making statements like the ones we hear from Michael Corleone when someone crosses him. Publishing relevant content on a frequent basis can only work if you publish on a regular schedule. Always remember this: nobody like to be irregular and human beings are creatures of habit.
  • Great content has a voice. What’s better: to be the only one covering your space in the industry or to be a unique voice in your space? In a perfect world, it would be to have both of those positions, but the majority of us do not. Is this the only Blog looking at how New Media is changing business and marketing? No. Is this the only Blog covering how New Media is changing business and marketing with my perspective? Yup. Is my "voice" something that is defined? No. It is iterative and evolving. The more I Blog (or Podcast), the more I’m able to find a unique voice and perspective that (hopefully) gains an audience and builds a community over time.
  • Great content gets shared. I love Social Media because it keeps me very humble. Prior to Blogging, I would pitch an Editor on a story idea. If they bought it, the article would get published in a brand name magazine. Regardless of the quality of the content, my job was done. By simply having a byline in that magazine, the content was immediately given a level of credibility. With a Blog? Not so much. There are times where I will write a Blog post that makes me smile from ear to ear. I hit the publish button, I tweet about it and all I get back is the digital equivalent of tumbleweeds. Nothing happens. There are other times, when a post gets published and it gets tweeted about, garners a lot of comments, gets Blogged about and beyond. The bottom line: great content gets shared. Even with a small audience, it’s possible for a piece of content to go "viral." And the best stuff does get linked to, tweeted about and shared in places like Facebook and Google +. It’s humbling to know (in near-real-time) what people truly like and don’t connect with based on how it gets shared.
  • Great content is open to discourse. Great content is the subject of discourse (I Blogged about this recently here: The Me Media). Great content acts as either the place where discourse can be held or the catalyst that brings the discourse to the masses. The best content is not the pieces of content with a lot of comments. The best content is the one that acts like a mother giving birth to many other different and varied pieces of opinions that proliferate throughout the online channels in many different formats and in many different places. This doesn’t mean that one should create content simply to create discourse, but it does mean that great content will, inherently, be something that people will want to discuss, debate and dissect.

With all of that, always remember that there are exceptions to every rule.

Some of the most compelling content doesn’t come out frequently or regularly. Some of the best content doesn’t brim to the top of the online zeitgeist. Those exceptions are gems, but they do happen even if they are rare. If you’re still struggling with content and what this all means in the context of your business and how it works within these New Media channels, you may want to read the book, Content Rules, by C.C. Chapman and Ann Handley for more of a deep-dive (the book came out in late 2010 and is still very-much relevant to how businesses can create compelling content in New Media).

In the meantime, what do you think it takes to create great content?


  1. I think you definitely outlined the essentials. Perhaps this is the advertising producer in me speaking, but I feel like great content doesn’t fully achieve its “greatness” if it’s not visually compelling. Whether a blog, a photograph, or a video… if the presentation is poor the content instantly loses value. In such an image saturated culture, the presentation and the ‘look’ of content defines its success. This might sound extremely shallow or vain, but it’s true. Think of a video that you recently watched and found interesting? It probably had a strong visual component. Sometimes I cannot finish a blog post because the font or the layout is poor and therefore distracting.
    Content needs to seduce, or else its “greatness” will never be realized.

  2. Hi Mitch, good article.
    I call it getting unborified.
    Being unborified is sort of the opposite of being boring.
    And I agree – it doesn’t have to be frequent (although that’s dreamy if it is).
    Example – this past Friday in London Ontario, a marketing graduate in dire need to get a job started the hashtag, #hirejamie.
    It started to trend heavy locally. On Monday, Metro London picked the story up and put it on their front cover here:–self-promotion-2-0
    This to me, is an example of unborified (great) content.
    Jamie, in this example, got to be unborified. If “John Twiddlethumbs” tomorrow starts #hirejohn, he gets to be boring.

  3. Not always true. TED videos are not particularly visually exciting, but are some of the most influential, informative and shared pieces of content on the web.

  4. Great point. But a lot of TED talks contain supplementary content (I.e graphs, photographs, videos) for visual variety so that the content that is being presented doesn’t stale and keeps the viewer’s attention.
    For that matter, TED content isn’t necessarily created for video consumption. It’s presented live — and images can’t compete with “live action” because it offers connection and authenticity.

  5. Mitch, I am so glad you wrote this. Defining great content to the extent it is possible, is so important. Everyone knows they need it but many people are not sure how to make it happen. I’d like to add something. Great content comes from emotion. It could be anger, joy, passion–doesn’t matter which but I believe this is what elevates content from good to great.

  6. I would add that great content “makes you think” and is memorable. You touch on this, but I would go further. It may challenge an accepted notion or take a unique angle that causes a reader to look at a subject differently…and think about it. Stories and anecdotes are a very powerful tool for this. Review Steve Jobs’ Stanford commencement speech (which I recently blogged about) and you’ll see what I mean- personal, gritty, engaging, memorable.

  7. Practice. And not letting fear that your content might not be great stop you from practicing.

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