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How to Use Research to Take Content From Flimsy to Fabulous
Posted on April 25th 2014
We’ve all encountered blog posts that lure us in with an enticing headline but fail to deliver anything of substance. These posts aren’t worth the five seconds they take to skim.
The same holds true with some eBooks, white papers, case studies, and emails. They can come across as insightful on the outside, but the content inside lacks depth.
As a content marketing writer and someone who does a good amount of editing, I have low tolerance for content churned out like a commodity on an assembly line. It clutters the communications pipelines and leaves out a crucial but often overlooked element of content writing: thorough research.
Research in content marketing doesn’t mean regurgitating what you learn from the first source that comes up in a search. It involves weighing and consulting a variety of sources — and taking the time to reflect on and make sense of what you learn so you can write something of value for your readers.
The kind of research you conduct affects the content you create, yet writers gloss over or stumble through the research phase all the time, publishing content that comes across as unpolished or even inaccurate. How, then, can you round out your research and write more remarkable, substantive content that stands out from the crowd? For starters, consider these tricks of the trade.
Consult credible sources
You’d be surprised at the number of professional writers who cite or link to sites like Wikipedia in their content. These sites serve a purpose, and that purpose is to provide background knowledge. Consult them to build your understanding of a subject, but then turn to more specialized, reliable sources.
Nearly every industry has go-to sources. Start by finding out what industry experts (or clients or colleagues) read, and assemble a list of sources you can turn to time and again. Choose those that speak your language and provide an appropriate level of information for your audience.
Show your knowledge
There are many ways to come across as knowledgeable, and one is to show what you know by referencing or linking out to relevant stories. If you’re writing content about college retention rates, for instance, you can show that you know about related issues (soaring tuition costs, the lousy job market, etc.) simply by referencing and linking to credible articles that explore those topics.
Try to weave in your reference seamlessly, without disrupting the flow of your narrative. If you want to mention Tom Friedman’s New York Times op-ed about massive open online courses (MOOCs), then work it in to your paragraph, as I’ve done. Don’t tack it on the end with something like, “For more information, read Tom Friedman’s New York Times article, “Revolution Hits the Universities.” This disrupts your story.
Linking to external sources is great, but don’t overdo it. Your goal is to keep people reading your story, while giving your readers an option to learn more. Too many invitations to leave your content raise the risk of your readers wandering off and not returning. While there’s no hard and fast number of articles you can link to in a given post, I tend to think of anything over five or six as excessive.
Over-linking can be distracting. It can undermine your credibility and make your readers think you lack your own expertise.
Mind your dates
It’s a simple but often forgotten rule: pay attention to the dates of the publications you reference. We live in a world of constant change, and what may have been true four years ago might not apply today. When you refer to an article as “recent,” make sure it really is recent, which means no older than four to six months (depending on your field).
If you need to reference an article or study that’s 10 years old, explain why it’s still relevant and credible: “The most recent study on the topic, now a decade old, shows candy consumption among U.S. children rising steadily each year.” When possible, link to that study within your text.
Back your claims with numbers
You can say all you want that the majority of people use smartphones today. But far more compelling is to say that the use of smartphones grew from just five percent of the global population in 2009 to 22 percent (or one in five people) in 2013, according to a study by Business Insider Intelligence.
Numbers tell a story. They add interesting detail and back up your claims. But they do take time to gather and decipher.
One of the biggest mistakes I see writers make is featuring stats they themselves don’t understand. As a rule of thumb: don’t lift stats you can’t wrap your head around. If you’re like me (blonde and a former English major), that might happen on occasion. When it does, turn to tools like percentage calculators, or get help from a colleague.
Also make sure you tell the right story. Does the Content Marketing Institute stat really say that 84 percent of marketers have no content marketing plan, or that 84 percent of marketers who consider themselves ineffective at content marketing have no documented strategy? It can be tempting to alter a statistic to make it into a better sound bite, but don’t do it. People will check, and ultimately, inaccuracies reflect badly on you and your company.
Choose primary over secondary sources
Just because you learned about that major study you want to mention in your post from a secondary source doesn’t mean you have to credit that source. When possible, track down and reference the primary source.
If the study was conducted by the Pew Research Center, link to the specific study on Pew’s website and credit the Pew Research Center in the text. If you can’t find or access the study online, then link to Pew’s description of it. Pew conducted the research. It is, in this example, the primary source.
If you’re quoting what someone else said about the study, such as a journalist’s opinion that the data analysis was flawed or the variables confounded, then that is a different matter. Link to the place you found the quote.
When done well, research can make a real difference in how you come across to your audiences. But it takes time and work, and can feel overwhelming in a field you don’t know your way around.
Read credible sources, observe, listen, pay attention to how others do it, and your content will be better for it.
Know some other good research tricks? Share them with us below.