What are the timeless principles of great content?

Timeless content principles
Image credit: Paul Volkmer/ Unsplash

In 1995 I read Being Digital by Nicholas Negroponte. At this point in my life I had not even used the internet – ever.

It’s one of those books where the words leap off the pages, dazzle your mind and move your heart.

It’s also partly-prophetic in that it forecasts the days of content personalisation and the rise of reading digital books (ebooks).

Nearly ten years later, Facebook was launched the year I graduated as a journalist.

In that time, I’ve witnessed an evolution in digital channels, and the specifications for each one. Heck, I remember when all Facebook posts began ‘[name] is…’ e.g. ‘Andrew is going on holiday.’

But some things never change.

I’m going to be brave like Negroponte was and put forward what I think are seven timeless principles of great content.

What things have consistently made a piece of content great for the user? In other words, what are the ‘constants’ and the ‘universal traits’ of great content?

It doesn’t necessarily have to be evergreen in itself – it may be culturally and contextually specific. But rather what great traits does it have that will always be traits of great content.

What do I mean by ‘content’?

I’m primarily using digital content as my focus. That is: videos, podcasts, blogs, images etc. Content which carries some sort of narrative.

What do I mean by ‘great’?

Great content fulfills both the user needs and the business objectives of the business or organisation. They should be in harmony. But more than just ‘fulfil’ – truly great content exceeds expectations. It takes the consumer to a new and exciting place of discovery, of revelation, of joy.

You get the idea… A bit like how I felt reading Being Digital all those years ago.

So, what are the principles?

These principles are primarily based on my 15-plus years of ‘in-the-field’ experience. I’d love to hear your thoughts on whether you agree or not, or any I’ve missed. Please do comment below.

Here’s my list of seven:

  • Valuable
  • Attractive
  • Compelling
  • Trustworthy
  • Innovative
  • Accurate
  • Adaptable

Valuable

Great content always gives great value to the user. Someone has clicked a link or hit play because they want to obtain some value from it. They might want to be educated, entertained or informed.

Dao Nguyen from Buzzfeed explains this principle in her TED Talk: ‘Don’t just think about the subject matter; think primarily about, the job that your content is doing for the reader or the viewer.’

Attractive

There’s something particularly powerful when a content creator has a strong attention to detail and a desire for the consumer to have a great experience. It means they care, and if they care, the consumer is more likely to care.

Michelangelo spent four years of his life perched on scaffolding with his brush in hand, to paint the ceiling of the Sistine Chapel. Now that is caring about content. Today the chapel attracts around five million visitors a year.

And when it comes to consuming digital content, we know that first impressions count. According to one study we form an opinion of a web page within the first 50 milliseconds of opening it. Attraction is and always has been the start of the journey.

Compelling

Great content makes us want to do something, to share something, to make our lives and the lives of others better. It emotionally connects and irresistibly urges.

Sufi poet, Hamza Yusuf, captures this sense of forward motion beautifully when he writes: ‘Words move hearts and hearts move limbs.’

Trustworthy

Trust is intrinsically linked to ‘truth’. We’re all scanning and searching for what’s true. And if we can’t work out what’s true ourselves, then we lean on others to reveal that truth to us (social proof).

Great content doesn’t have to be factual and logical, it can be fictional and figurative. But it loses its greatness when the fact that it’s fictional isn’t communicated, and we’re duped into believing a false reality. I don’t know many people who liked being duped.

So with trustworthiness also comes integrity. As a content creator your commitment to truth really matters, for you and your brand.

I believe a major driving force behind tech and content innovation in the next decade will be centred on trustworthiness and the increasing savviness of the user. Marketers will need to focus less on constructing clever tactics and more on conveying clear value to users.

Innovative

If it’s true that ‘there’s nothing new under the sun’, then we need to find new ways to communicate universal truths.
Adweek says: ‘You think you’re being all clever and original with your brand storytelling.

‘In fact, you’re not. From Shakespeare to Spielberg to Soderbergh, there are really only seven different types of stories.’

These include tragedy, comedy, journey and return, and overcoming the monster.

That’s why innovation matters so much. Are you saying something that brings something new or better to a conversation? And what is different about what you’re saying which will make you stand out in the toughest of competition – even if it’s not intrinsically unique.

Accurate

Get the little things right (i.e. correct spelling and grammar), or they can become big things. Here’s an example:

In 1631, a printing of the King James Version Bible contained a version of Exodus 20:14 which reads ‘Thou shalt commit adultery.’ Oops.

King Charles 1 and the Archbishop of Canterbury weren’t happy. Most copies of what was dubbed the ‘Wicked Bible’ were burned. According to the Christian Science Monitor: ‘The printers were fined 300 pounds (a large sum at the time) and lost their printing license.’

Do you have a proofreader? Have you ‘fact-checked’ any contentious statements one last time?

Also under the banner of accuracy is making sure you use reputable sources of information to make fair representations of people, places, events etc. Did someone say ‘fake news’?

Adaptable

Finally, great content needs to be adaptable. By that I mean it needs to be able to cross platforms well and reach new audiences in its different forms. It needs to be able to adapt, flex, and travel into different environments and minds. Great content needs to be ‘fit’ content.

You may have written the best article, or created a video with jaw-dropping cinematography and structure, but if it’s not placed and promoted well it’s akin to a ‘fire-and-forget’ missile. If no one shares it, no one will know about it, and no one cares for what they don’t know about.

How do you make content adaptable? Think about five Ps:

  • Perception
  • Production
  • Placement
  • Promotion
  • Performance

Perceive what your user needs; produce your content through that lens; place it well on the appropriate channels for your intended users, conforming to those channel-specific protocols; promote it with paid ads, SEO, organic social or a healthy combination of all these; and finally, analyse its performance and make it better next time.

To sum up…

I’m sure this is isn’t an exhaustive list of timeless content principles, but I hope they are helpful, perhaps when considering what elements of content production to pursue and invest in.

I’ve also written two blog posts on a similar theme to this which you may be interested in. The first is based on an analogy of how learning to serve great content is like going for a meal at a restaurant. The second is a particular interest of mine, digging down into the psychology of what keeps people reading an article.

And on that note… thanks!

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