How to write innovative and competitive longform content

By Briar | Writing

Today, I wanted to talk about content marketing (as in, any article or blog post that is hosted on your website or other content creation sites).

In the early days of the internet, great content was pretty easy to find, and the creators of it were rewarded. As with all things, the market was eventually flooded by every bad writer and their dog who wanted a piece of the pie. Actually, the dog is likely doing it better.

Regardless, content marketing is always going to be a primary method of creating or driving traffic.

Picture of a dog in front of a computer.

Picture of a dog in front of a computer. I should see at least part of this first image without having to scroll.

Because of those bad writers, high-quality content is becoming more difficult to find. It’s still out there, but it has a harder time gaining traction in a market dominated by dubious SEO practices. Basically, the internet sucks at discernment.

To combat the problems of keyword stuffing and link farming, the trend is increasingly longform--we’re talking 2,000-4,000 words or more. With a million screenshots or pictures thrown in, because the longer you’re on a page, the higher it ranks. We call these skyscrapers. Because they’re tall, obviously. (Final count of this post is 3600 words.)

What this means is that the winners of the content wars right now don’t necessarily have to be good. They just have to be long.

But!!! This is great news for you, a respectable business owner/entrepreneur. Because almost anyone can write high-quality longform content that ranks well, without being an SEO expert. You just have to be willing to put in the time.

So, let me show you around deliberately crafted longform content. I want you to see what it looks like when it’s done well, and the steps you can take to do it all by yourself. This isn’t rocket surgery; you just have to understand what works and what doesn’t.

Meme of a cat in scrubs.

Meme of a cat in scrubs.

Step 1: Start with a system

What kind of system you have matters not at all, but your writing and organization will be greatly improved if you can access everything you need all at once.

If you’re totally new to content creation, I highly recommend you check out Airstory or Notion. Both are rich text editors that allow you to save external clippings and notes. If Google Docs and Evernote had a baby, it’d be Airstory, but it’s web-based, not an app, so you can’t use it offline. Notion adds Sheets and is far more feature rich, but will cost you a few bucks if you’re using it to write. Both use blocks, which allow you to edit much more easily than a traditional text editor.

Feel free to use whatever janky system you’ve already cobbled together, but keep your research accessible, because you will use it a lot for this type of content.

Picture of a cat sitting on a pile of binders.

Picture of a cat sitting on a pile of binders.

Step 2: Create a copywriting outline

When you’re crafting deliberate content, you want to look at it from the reader’s perspective. Don’t half-ass this. The longer you spend asking yourself what your reader wants, the more it’s going to feel like you reached into their head, scooped out their brains, and perused them at leisure. You want them to feel like you know them personally. Will you connect with everyone who reads your thing? No. But that’s not the goal. The goal is your ideal reader--so the more you know about them, the more you’re going to be able to answer their actual questions.

For example, if you’re still reading this, it’s likely because you want to write better content, and you want it to rank better in search. You’re frustrated by the sheer amount of bullshit that gets shared on the internet these days, especially when you know that you have actual solutions to actual problems. And if you could just get your stuff in front of people, you know that you could help them. You have a genuine desire to serve your customers or clients, and also, you’d like to be able to pay the bills while doing it.

I’m not a mind reader. But I have done the work.

Now, my absolute favorite tool for a copywriting outline comes from the geniuses over at Fizzle. (I am not affiliated with them, although I do worship from afar.) The 80/20 Copywriting sheet is hands down one of the best tools in my arsenal. Go download it, read the instructions, and use it for everything you write. You won’t regret it.

You should go into this worksheet with a general concept about what you want to write, but it doesn’t have to be super specific yet. Pay special attention to the box on the bottom right, common words and phrases. Because that’s what you’ll be doing next.

Copywriting Outline

My worksheet for this piece.

Step 3: Ask questions

Currently, search algorithms are leaning pretty heavily to questions, because people are using voice interface. Think of how you’d talk to Alexa or Siri. You’re asking a specific question. “How do I do this thing?” “What’s the name of the guy on Brooklyn Nine-Nine who says cool a lot?” “I need a recipe for a no-bake dessert.” “What's the best software to solve my specific problem?” You know, that sort of thing.

What you want to do is reverse engineer your content into these kinds of questions. Just pretend you’re Alex Trebek. If the answer is your content, what’s the question you’d ask to get there?  

Next, you want to go plug it all into Google and see what comes up. There are a number of tools that you can use for this. Ahrefs, Moz, SEMrush, Serpstat, Google Correlate (those last three are free for basic use). But if you’re not already using one of them, you don’t have to panic and start now. Google is more than enough to get you started.

SEO is based on keywords, which is why keyword stuffing is still a thing. But if you can put those keywords into the form of a question, you’ll have a little more leeway with the answers. So, if you ask, “What is the scientific name of a rose?” that exact phrase doesn’t have to be your post title, or even a part of your content at all. Just the keywords, plus the answer. In this case, that’s “scientific name,” “rose,” and “rosa.” If your content has all three of those things, then you’re well on your way to a good SEO ranking.

Before you move on, take a look at the competition. Click on every link on the first page (second and third pages too, if you’re really being diligent) and see what’s there. You’ll use this to form the basis of your outline, while also filing away quality outbound links to be used later. More on this in a minute.

Gif of Andy Samberg.

Gif of Andy Samberg. (Sharing your fandoms almost never hurts you and it gives your audience another way to connect with you and your work.)

Step 4: Create a content outline (or plug into a template)

So, now that you know what questions you’re asking, and what the competition is doing, you should be able to start turning this information into your own very long content. The value of an outline cannot be overstated. Taking ten minutes now will save you a ton of time later, and the more details you have, the easier it’ll be to do the actual writing. Use a bulleted list (or numbering if your topic is technical or especially complex) and come up with basic headings and subheadings.

This allows you to do a number of things. First, you’ll know what additional research you need to gather. The more quality links your content has, the higher it will rank.

Next, you’ll be able to design the flow of your content, especially if your goal is to get the reader to take action on something. Maybe you want them to subscribe to your list. Good content will guide them from the top of the page all the way down to your optin, where they will immediately subscribe because of all the amazing information you just gave them.

Finally, a good outline will help you figure out roughly how long your content is going to be. If you have ten headings and you average 200 words a section, that’s 2,000 words.

My outline for this piece

My outline for this piece.

Step 5: Research outbound links, affiliate links

I mentioned that using quality links will improve your ranking. Here’s how that works. It used to be that any backlinks from any site increased your traffic, and volume was a factor. The more links, the better. This led to a lot of link farming and other dubious SEO strategies, and it brought down the overall quality of searchable content. To combat this problem, search engines started prioritizing higher quality links. The better the site overall, the better the ranking from that site’s links, both inbound and outbound.

What that means, then, is that links in your content that lead to other high-quality content make you look good by virtue of association. If your outbound links are high quality, then your content probably is too, at least as far as the algorithm is concerned.

If you’re using affiliate links (and there’s no reason why you can’t--just make sure you disclose them), this is the time to gather them and any product screenshots. Longform content is often a great place to use affiliate marketing, because the length demonstrates to the reader that some actual effort went into selecting the products. It’s not just a generic listicle or gift guide, it’s a thoughtfully curated addition to your content. Your readers CAN tell the difference.

Step 6: Write post

Now you’re finally ready to write. The good news is, you aren’t starting with a blank page, so you can’t successfully claim writer’s block. You’re just going to plug in a few paragraphs per section to get things going. Remember, this is a rough draft, and you have lots of time to polish this thing up.

Unless you’re writing for an academic crowd, you’re aiming for an 8th grade reading level. The fact is that we love to share longform content because it makes us look smart. But we don’t actually read it. It’s just more noise (and a lot of it) in an already noisy world. So, the easier it is to read, the more likely it is to actually be...read. That’s a painful truth when you’re pouring hours of your time into something, but it’s reality.

On the other hand, that takes some pressure off of you. You don’t have to be a Pulitzer Prize winner here. Just easy to read.

shiba inu GIF by Rover.com

Step 7: Write subheadings, introduction, and conclusion/call to action

I never write my introduction first. I might scratch out a few sentences to get the ball rolling, but it’s nearly always crap, and I nearly always change it. It’s much easier to write a compelling introduction and conclusion once you know the actual contents of your piece.

The same goes for subheadings really--you can write a much snappier section title if you know what’s in there. Your headings matter. Keywords in header tags rank slightly higher than text, so if you can naturally incorporate your keywords here, you should. But ONLY if it’s natural.

Step 8: Write headline

Now for the fun stuff. It’s time to come up with a title. Let’s be crystal clear on this: your title is everything. You want to strike a balance between creative and SEO friendly, which takes some time. Start with keywords and include as many of them as you naturally can. Then, go snag yourself a copy of this printable from CoSchedule, and see if any of these power words will work for you. Make a list of AT LEAST ten possible titles. For extra credit, use this headline analyzer tool. If you can score a 70 or better, you’re in great shape (final score for this headline was a 77). Then sit on it for a day or two.

If there’s no obvious winner when you come back, pick the one that you yourself would be most likely to click on. Your writing is a direct conduit from you to your customers. It’s a safe bet that if they are buying something from you, it’s because they like you. Which means that if YOU like a title, there’s a reasonable chance that your readers will like it too. Don’t overthink it. Just consider if you yourself would click, and pick your favorite.

headline analysis

Screenshot of my last round of headlines. I did three rounds total.

Step 9: Proofread a gazillion times

Next, it’s time for the sweeps. If you’re interested in the technical aspect of copywriting and how to make it better, Jo Wiebe of Copyhackers has a bunch of tutorials about sweeps, and how to use them. There are seven sweeps in all, and if you learn to apply them, it will automatically make you a better writer.

But, if that freaks you out, then print out a physical copy of what you’ve written and read it aloud several times. That will allow you to trim out most of the bad writing and inconsistencies, because the more conversational your writing, the easier it is to read.

Proofreading should make you feel good about what you’ve written. The more you read it, the more you should like it. Most writers spend a lot of time rereading their work and telling themselves how clever and amazing they are, and it’s an important part of the process. Don’t sell yourself short--you’re writing good stuff here.

i am amazing gina linetti

Step 10: Add images

Once your text is all nailed down, go back and add images. The more you have, the better you’ll rank. That’s why recipes have step by step photos and completely inane stories to go with them. All that fluff makes the recipe itself rank higher in search. It adds theoretical value to the content and increases SEO.

Tutorials of any kind should be well documented, with photos for each part of the process. If it’s something that’s not as easily documented, then use photos that are in some way related to the text. Obviously, memes, gifs, and cat pictures work too, or you wouldn’t still be here.

Because I am writing this for Reddit, you’re missing out on the experience of photos as visual breaks. What I’ve tried to demonstrate here is how often photos should appear in between blocks of text. This isn’t an exact science, but try not to stack photos. Break them up with some kind of text in between.

Also make sure you use image tags, and add descriptions if you’re feeling fruity. Descriptions are great for clever asides, but if you go that route, make sure your tags are complete for accessibility purposes.

nobodys perfect nbc GIF by The Good Place

Step 11: Outbound links

Next you want to add your links. There's two types of outbound links. Nofollow and dofollow. Don't overcomplicate this. Dofollow links to sites you know, like, and trust (this is just a normal standard link). Nofollow the ones you don't (this requires an HTML tag, but it’s not hard).

Don't get cute. Links should say what they are, or they should just say here.

google begin GIF

Step 12: Check your formatting

Before you publish, make sure you take a look at your content on mobile. Your content management system probably has a way to do this, but if nothing else, read it through on your own phone. You want easy navigation and lots of white space. Mobile users scroll through the text faster, so make sure that it’s easy to do.

Check that pictures resize automatically, that headers and subheaders don’t break off in unfortunate places, and that everything is visually appealing. In 2015, approximately 70% of users browsed Facebook via a mobile device. In 2018, that number was 95%. You likely know your own numbers, so make sure you look good for the audience and inbound traffic sources that you already have.

 take it sleazy ted danson GIF by The Good Place

Step 13: Publish

Okay. It’s pretty, polished, and as close to perfect as you can get it. Plug it in your CMS, check formatting one last time, add your keywords to Yoast if you use it, and you are ready to go.

In veeeery general terms, the best day of the week to publish content is Tuesday. There’s an insane number of factors that go into that calculation though, so really, do what you want. SEO is a long game. You’re looking to score traffic over time, not create viral content (although if you do, that’s certainly a bonus). Virality is hard to predict though, and carefully optimized content will nearly always do well in the long run.

happy season 2 GIF by The Good Place

Step 14: Social media/email scheduling and other promotion

With content marketing, actually writing the thing is only half the battle, and that’s probably being generous. You have to get eyes on your stuff. Obviously, the first step is to promote it on all of your own social media channels.

If you have an email newsletter, promote it there. With these folks, you can go a step farther and ask them to share it for you, because they already like you. Give them the opportunity to share your message, and you’ll create a fan base that feels like they’re a part of what you’re creating.

Once you’ve done that, head over to your social scheduler and plug it in to be promoted later in the week, later in the month, and then every three to six months, depending on how much content you already have. The more content you create, the easier this becomes, and you’ll get new traffic every time you share, because there will ALWAYS be people who missed it the first time around.

Now, about that scheduler…. You have a LOT of options here, and they run the gamut from free to definitely not free. Hootsuite is a great way to get started, and isn’t so complicated that you’ll be overwhelmed. If you want more features to play with, then Coschedule and Meet Edgar are probably my favorites.

Finally, find yourself some content ambassadors. These are people in your niche or in an adjacent niche who will share your content for you (this is how you get your backlinks, and you’ll have to work for them). Reach out to your network. Ask friends on social media. Mention an influencer by name in your content, and then @ them on social. Guest posts, Slack channels, message boards, relevant subreddits. There’s a ton of ways to get links to your content.

And remember--this is a long game. You don’t have to do it all at once. You can spread this out over several weeks, even months. Mention it organically in conversation. Reach out via email. Make it a part of your regular routine to ask people to share your content--”hey I wrote a thing your people might like, would you please share it?” If you’re not an asshole, you’ve got a good chance.

Step 15: Interlinking

Once you have created a library of content (around 30 pieces), you can and should take every opportunity to link to it. The goal here is to keep your visitor on your site for as long as possible. If you can get them to click around to your other content, and read everything you’ve ever written, your bounce rate will drop, and you’ll rank higher in search.

It also helps you build your authority and reputation. There's a difference between a skilled professional and a bad guru. We can smell it, instinctively. A guru wants to sell you something at all costs. They don't care about you, they care about your money.

But you can make money while genuinely being of service. Your free content is what helps you demonstrate that. A library of free content says that your actual product or service is worth my time.

In conclusion, or your call to action:

We’ve done it! I think. 15 very long steps later, we've reached the end.

A good conclusion should sum up your main thesis without being overly repetitive. You always want to assume the intelligence of your reader, so be clear and concise. If they’ve actually read the entirety of the content and not just skimmed it, they’ve been here for a while.

Finally, this is where you make your ask. For example, you should PM me for quotes on amazing longform content that’s done for you, just like this. That’s it.

Look, you did not do all this work to beat around the bush. Tell people what you want them to do. Just make sure you’re only asking for ONE thing. “Share this and subscribe to my newsletter and leave a comment,” is going to get you exactly none of those things. Be explicit, be nice, and if you’ve done everything right, you’ll get them to do what you’ve asked.

Content marketing is a skill, but it’s one you can learn. And while it’s a time-consuming process, it’s a pretty amazing feeling knowing that you’ve created something that’s both valuable to you as marketing, and to your customers as a resource. Good luck, and happy writing!

content planner

Download my content planner here.

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