So what is good content anyway?

    Last updated: June 7, 2024

    Content. It’s one of those terms we hear so often that it stops sounding like a word. Content was king. Content was a gateway. Now that everyone’s got their own Substack, content’s spawned its own economy.

    And all that hype is justified. According to our recent State of Audience Report, content is the best way to engage and drive first-party data about your audience. 

    But that raises an important question: What is good content anyway? Most likely, you know it when you see it. The industry research that reshaped your field might qualify, but so does that meme you just sent your group chat. 

    Stay ahead and read our Q1 2024 email engagement report to uncover trends & best practices for success:

    With so much on the line, we figure it’s about time we settle on a more formal, accessible definition. 

    That definition’s changed over time, as anyone who grew up on YouTube videos will tell you. For a while, “good content” was viral stuff that got clicks and sparked conversation. Case in point: the blue — or was it black? — dress that broke the Internet in 2015 

    But as we’ve become more online, creators, companies, and audiences all have become more sophisticated. Content has spawned its own economy, and each party’s incentives have shifted accordingly. The flush of money sparked competition, which has raised our collective expectations for the content we create and consume. 

    As the media business model shifts away from traffic toward engagement, what criteria should you use to separate valuable content from the fluff? What standards do you need to ensure you’re connecting with your audience — and actually teaching them something of value? 

    So we turned to an expert: Adam Ryan, who recently spoke at our annual conference on building a creator-led content business. (Check out the full session here.) 

    Among the highlights: he presented five pillars of consumer trust that influence the way we assess and evaluate content. Use them to create content that piques your audience’s interest, earns their loyalty, and grows your business. 

    Editor’s note: We’ve adapted this piece from part of Adam’s session at our OX7 conference in May 2024. Select quotes have been slightly edited for conciseness and clarity. Reach out to with any questions or concerns. 

    What is good content? 5 pillars to incorporate into your strategy 

    1. Be transparent

    60 years ago, Americans depended on Walter Cronkite’s reporting to tell us what was really happening in Vietnam. Backed by oversight from editorial boards, reporters like Cronkite were seen as bias-free of truth. They were responsible for finding the truth we couldn’t access on our own. 

    But now, audiences can serve as their own judge and jury. If they don’t trust a news source, they can find different opinions and coverage in just a few Google searches. They can find a TikTok direct from the ground that instantly disproves false or biased reporting. 

    With all this information at the fingertips, audiences expect even more transparency from their content, regardless of the industry. 

    “People want to see beyond the walled garden, the democratization of information,” Ryan says. “Whether it’s conspiracy theories on YouTube, journalists that have better sources and more information, people just sharing more information within your company. It’s caused this consumer behavior of people demanding more transparency in how you create content.”

    The idea that our brand has existed for 100 years and we have a deep editorial staff that has great experience? That’s not enough anymore,” he added.  

    2. Establish credibility with expert voices 

    This one’s pretty easy: Source your content from credible, trustworthy experts. 

    The logic here is self-evident. For many companies, though, the problem isn’t desire, but execution (or maybe their boardrooms). They only have so much money for content. And why blow your whole budget on one expert when you can hire 10 freelancers for 60% of the price — and get 10x more output to boot?

    Just looking at the numbers, this might make sense. But presumably, you’re not talking to newcomers. You’re talking to insiders in your covered industry — people who have spent years of their waking lives perfecting their chosen craft. So they’re savvy enough to know when someone doesn’t know what they’re talking about. And they can prove it too. 

    Ryan mentions reading an article that, in his words, “sucked.” So he looked up the writer on LinkedIn and, sure enough, they graduated from college that May. 

    There’s some nuance here: Those 22-year-old editors need to get their start somewhere. And one bad article won’t kill you. 

    But if you can’t balance new blood with experienced voices, your publication will lose credibility over time. And that disadvantage will compound over time: Your audience sees through the non-speak, they stop trusting you, and they start elsewhere for the expertise you promised. 

    There’s only one solution here — invest in talent. No shortcuts here. 

    “It’s not easy to find credible people,” Ryan says. “It’s a scarce asset. That’s what makes competition great. We have to figure out as a room, how do we win those people over?” 

    3. Create a habitual product

    The shift to digital  and the rise of SEO incentivized media teams to prioritize quantity over quality. But in the process, they lost sight of the real prize — creating a product and experience that audiences will love so much that they’ll incorporate it into their routines. 

    “The newspaper industry had such a habit with their audience,” Ryan says. “And everyone in the digital era said,’ Well, I’m gonna send seven newsletters per week at 8am and that’s a habit. Wrong. Consistency is not a habit. A habit is a product. It’s an emotion. It’s something that people crave and look forward to.”

    It can be as simple as creating a crossword, injecting some personality into your coverage. When Ryan ran The Hustle, the team would add a funny fake sign off to the bottom of their crossword every day. Audiences started looking forward to the fake signature, and that became part of their identity.  

    But you can’t reverse engineer “surprise and delight” experiences. It takes experimentation — and a healthy dose of failure, Ryan says. 

    “You have to fail at it. You have to try new things. You have to invest in product if you want an audience to trust you.” 

     “Think about the things you do habitually,” he adds. “It’s normally the things you trust the most. Your favorite coffee shop. You know exactly what you’re going to get. This is how you build trust with your audience — by thinking about a product through the habit.”

    4. Build trust by using relevant language

    Language is an equalizer — it’s a bridge to understanding one another and breeding trust. So if you’re outsourcing your writing to Chat-GPT, or hiring freelancers who don’t know your audience? You’ll only go so far. 

    “How many people can be like, ‘I have no idea what that person’s saying, but I really trust them?’” Ryan says. “This speaks to AI, this speaks to people who don’t know your audience, and this speaks to you understanding who your audience is.”

    “That compounds over time, your readers, your subscribers, your audience recognizes language. The more that you’re aligned with the language your audience speaks, the content you create, the more inherent trust you have.”

    That’s great in theory. But besides editing your drafts for jargon, how can you put this in practice? Ryan recommends leaning into your writers’ personalities.  

    “How many of you on the content side, every now and then, throw in a little aside, like, ‘Hey guess what I did last weekend?”” Ryan says. “Am I more or less likely to want to get to know you more the more I get to know you? Language and relatability matters. It’s overlooked today because we’re seeking quantity.” 

    Some good places to start: 

    • So you can’t always hire someone with 15-20 years of experience in their field. No worries. As part of the onboarding process, have new editors conduct informational interviews with industry influencers and experts. In addition to sourcing content ideas, have your new editors ask them to explain key industry trends and research in their own words.
    • Invest in continuing education and skill development. Empower your writers to learn more about their beat, whether that’s by sending them to industry conferences, upleveling their skills, or flying them out to interview industry insiders.
    • Preface your weekly newsletters with a quick weekend update. If a narrative approach doesn’t make sense for your brand, recruit industry experts or internal stakeholders to provide quotes in each addition. For instance, when we released our State of Audience Report, we had our VP of Client Experience introduce the research in our newsletter in his own words, so we could present more context and tell readers we had their audience development concerns in mind.

    5. Provide tangible value through specificity 

    It’s every Californian’s worst nightmare: You’re on the side of the 405 at midnight with a flat. And despite your father’s frequent nagging, you never learned how to change a tire (this may or may not be based on personal experience).

    So like any good Millennial, you search a YouTube tutorial to help you out. 

    One video tells you to remove the tire, then prop up the tire. But there are no visuals, so you can’t tell what to put where. And turns out the narrator’s tailoring his advice for sports cars, but you’re still driving a 25-year-old Ford Explorer (ok fine, it’s a true story). 

    But another video provides step-by-step instructions, along with visuals, that are tailored to your car’s specific make and model. 

    Only one of those videos is getting you home — and it’s the second, much more specific one. 

    My highway horror story illustrates the importance of specificity. 

    Your audience depends on you for advice, insights and coverage about your covered topic. So the more specific you are, the more value you provide — and the more likely your audience is to come back for more. 

    “When you think about your home run products, the things that your advertisers are dying to get into, how specific are they?” Ryan says. “Are your journalists asking not just that top level question but, ‘Wow, you asked that question no one else would.’ 

    “Or if you’re writing an editorial piece around trends and takeaways, do you have real audience data that you collected to back that up? Or are you using Chat GPT to get hallucination data that everyone ends up finding out isn’t right? Specificity matters because when you take these building blocks of content and you make them specific, it turns into something bigger… This is how you build that expectation with your audience.” 

    Since we’re talking about specificity, let’s shout out someone who’s doing it right. Ryan points to Jacob Donnelly, who interviews hundreds of media business operators about how they’ve grown and developed their businesses in his A Media Operator newsletter. 

    “Jacob Donnelly is so specific with his newsletter that every time you read his newsletter you know he’s going to have the numbers,” Ryan says. “He’s gonna ask about revenue, and he’s gonna ask the question that makes the subject feel a little uncomfortable.”

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