For all the things I totally stink at, I can at least write!
I’ve been a professional writer for about a decade. I’ve published over 1,000 monetized articles online. A good chunk of those made money for me (and even more, I’m sorry to say, made money for other people!).
I also worked at a global consulting firm, where I worked on content teams writing all sorts of stuff for some of the biggest brands in the world. We’re talking 7-figure content contracts here. Those are high stakes, man, and if you’re not writing stuff that moves people to action, you aren’t doing your job.
When I started applying those techniques to niche sites, learned a really valuable lesson: great content doesn’t just attract links; it seriously boosts both engagement and conversion.
With my first niche site, aPennyShaved, 40-50% of my overall traffic clicked affiliate links, and some pages had conversion rates that were even higher—up to 70%.
I was also generating shares, comments, likes and tweets. And really, a lot of sites do that, but keep this in mind: my site was small, monetized niche site with affiliate products on every page. Engaging an audience with that type of site ain’t easy, my friends.
I’m not trying to brag here.
Just saying… writing’s my thing. And I wanted to give you guys a small guide for writing killer content that engages and converts.
Really, Perrin? Why should I be THIS worried about content?
Here’s the business case for great content.
Whether you’re outsourcing your content or writing it yourself, getting highly engaging content on your site is one of the highest-value activities for any business.
It’s probably a lot more important than a lot of the things you’re already spending time on.
Most of the time, amazing content that converts visitors into customers will be much, much more valuable than any link, Facebook post, or tweet.
Think of it this way: It’s much more valuable to convert 40% of 100 visitors than it is to convert 5% of 500 visitors. And because it’s much easier get 100 visitors than it is to get 500, great content can drastically strengthen your bottom line, especially at the early stages of a business.
In other words, writing A+ content is one of the best ways to boost your revenue per visitor.
I really can’t stress this enough. I see lots of sites from lots of Niche Pursuits readers. A good chunk of these sites have great traffic but aren’t making much money. With these sites, it’s almost always the case that the content—in some form or another—just isn’t up to par. Bad content is one of the most common reasons sites stagnate.
Why? Because if you have crappy content, people won’t trust you. It’s like going to the doctor’s office and seeing the staff in tank-tops. It’s a massive, loud signal that says, “I’m not a professional.”
So let’s make a long story short here. If you have great content, you’ll convert a lot more visitors, and you’ll probably build a loyal audience at the same time. If you have bad content, people will run away from your site and never come back. Easy choice, eh?
In a nutshell, here’s what a great piece of content looks like…
I’m going to dig into each of these (and more) in detail below, but if you’re a little impatient, and you’re itching to create some stellar articles, here’s a quick checklist you can use.
Good content should…
- Look great
- Be highly skimmable
- Be highly relevant
- Appear ruthlessly professional
- Have a fun casual tone (most of the time)
- Be very visually interesting
- Use data
- Employ calls to action
- Be A/B tested—a LOT
That’s a super quick and dirty version. Feel free to bookmark this page, so you can pull up that list the next time you (or your writers) sit down to draft an article.
Let’s dive into some of these.
LESSON 1: Your content (and website) should look clean and well-designed.
When Niche Pursuits changed its site design, our conversions increased by almost 200%. Seriously.
It bums me out so hard when I see people skipping this. Some people just don’t care how their site looks. Don’t be one of them!
I can’t tell you how many niche sites I’ve seen with the default WordPress theme. I’ve seen even more with green and purple color schemes.
I’m not kidding.
I really want you to take this seriously. If you have an ugly theme, a crappy header from Fiverr, a wackadoo color scheme, a logo done in Microsoft Paint, and a layout that doesn’t make sense… your site might just be ugly. And, while you might make some money, you probably won’t be making the heaps we all dream about. Unbecoming sites are hard to scale.
Why? Same reason as above: people don’t trust ugly sites.
Here’s why it bums me out so hard: there’s just no excuse to have an ugly website in 2014. Buying a premium theme from ThemeForrest is only $47.
Buying an entire suite of incredible, beautiful themes from ThriveThemes is only $120 per year. So even if you don’t have any design expertise, please… either buy a good theme or turn your site over to a qualified Web designer.
I’m not going to show any example of ugly sites, since I don’t want to hurt anyone’s business. But here are some examples of beautiful, functional sites from Thrive:
Nice, huh? These weren’t one-off designs done for some big brand. You can just go buy them right here. There’s no excuse NOT to have a professional site!
LESSON 2: Your content should be highly skimmable and formatted for readers with short attention spans.
As much as I love to think that there are a bunch of people coming to my blog to read my fantastic writing, it’s just not the case. Well, some do. But most don’t. That’s typically not how internet searchers work (depending on the market of course; some audiences love to read all the juicy details).
Most people, when searching for something in Google, are looking for something. When they find it, they’ll click to the next thing and move on. My writing is very low on the list of things they care about.
That’s not to say that the actual writing isn’t important; it is. The point is that you have to be speedy about giving searchers what they want. You do that by making content skimmable.
What does “skimmable” look like? Here’s how I do it.
Skimmable content has a top-down structure with important information up top. If you’ve ever read a newspaper or taken a journalism class, you’ll know the structure I’m talking about.
When you read news pieces at major publications, the most important point of the story is in the first paragraph. You don’t usually need to go that far, but you should definitely be putting your main point in the introduction.
Is your article about using yoga to combat insomnia? Then in the first few paragraphs, you should at some point say something like, “Doing yoga for a long time both exhausts you and releases melatonin, which can help you sleep” (I have no idea if that’s true; this is just an example).
In the article you’re reading right now, I do that in the fourth paragraph, when I say, “great content doesn’t just attract links; it seriously boost both engagement and conversion.” Shortly after (and also near the top), I also provide a checklist for people who don’t want to read this monster.
Skimmable content should tell a story in its headings. When most people skim an article, they’re going to be looking almost entirely at the headings. Then, if they find a heading that catches their eye, they’ll stop and read that section in more detail.
Obviously, for this reason, you need your headings to make sense. Beyond that, though, it’s good if your headings actually tell the story of your article.
I don’t mean this literally. Like, if someone were to only read your headings, they would make a literal miniature story. Not like that. I meant that people should be able to follow your thought process only by reading your headings.
So, as a general rule, I like to make my headings full sentences. You don’t have to, but I usually feel like it creates a better feeling of movement for people reading through an article—and even more of a sense of movement for people skimming it.
Skimmable content has lots of breaks. Readers on the Web have short attention spans, and you have to work around that. The good news is that this is really easy to do. In fact, there are basically three things to keep in mind here.
First, you want to keep most of your sentences short. You don’t want them all to be short, or you’ll end up sounding like a robot. But you want about two thirds of them to be on the sort side.
If possible, it’s a good idea to break content up with visual elements (more on this below). Not only does it help a reader skim, but it also makes your content feel about a thousand times more interesting.
Finally, you want your paragraphs to be short. This is probably the most important one of the group, since some markets aren’t conducive to lots of images, and some markets require detailed, technical sentences. Paragraph length can make up for that. As a general rule, keep them under 5 lines.
You can also add tiny one-sentence paragraphs for emphasis.
Here’s a good example of all this stuff: I’ve always approached formatting from a best-practices standpoint, and these are habits I developed over 10 years of writing for the Web. I’ve never specifically tested formatting and skimmability, though.
If you want to see how drastically formatting can increase the value of a page, go read Gael Breton’s post about formatting on Authority Hacker. He increased the traffic to his page by a whopping 9,275% only by reformatting it.
Here are some more great examples of posts with excellent formatting from people who truly understand it (I just went to their blogs and grabbed random posts):
LESSON 3: Your tone should be casual, friendly and personal.
This is one of the reasons content services aren’t worth it.
It’s very difficult to achieve a truly personal tone unless you (or a great, dedicated writer) are writing the content. It’s also why you should spend time and money hiring a great writer.
And I’ve had plenty of arguments about this. Some people think that different markets require different types of writing. For example, say your site is about plumbing supplies. Don’t you just want to give the facts and get out of there? Who cares how personal your tone is?
In my experience, it absolutely does not matter what you’re talking about. It does not matter what you’re selling. It does not matter how much jargon your audience uses.
Someone talking to you like a friend is always going to be more engaging. I’d rather read a blog about plumbing supplies written by a funny plumber who comes across as genuine, friendly and trustworthy than a plumbing supplies blog written by a faceless, generic Fiverr writer. Wouldn’t you?
This is just sales, guys.
It’s building rapport. It’s empathy. It’s showing your audience there’s a human back here behind the curtain.
Plus, you’ll have a lot more fun writing this way.
Writing in this kind of tone is often just an approach—a feeling—than a bunch of rules. However, you do need to keep in mind that a good tone includes these elements:
- Respects the audience
- Uses the first and second person (“I” and “you”)
Lots of the bloggers you probably already read are doing this, but if you want to see a really amazing example of impeccable tone, read Mr. Money Mustache’s blog. He takes something typically “boring” and makes it an absolute riot to read.
LESSON 4: Your writing should include strong, relevant, interesting visual elements—and especially calls to action.
Visual elements are one of the most important elements in any blog post.
Even in markets in which visual elements don’t seem as important, you should be including them. For example, our new authority site is in an extremely information-heavy market. Lots of data. Lots of dense, technical sources. We still try to pop in a couple great visual elements.
Why? First, great visual elements make you appear much more professional. Just a few elements instantly makes any blog post look like it’s been crafted with a lot more care than a text-only post—and this is especially true for elements that obviously took you time to create. It shows effort, and it makes you look like you do this for a living.
Secondly, it drastically boost engagement and sends quality signals to google. Adding good visual elements improves all kinds of good metrics, but especially time-on-site and bounce rate.
Here’s a list of good visual elements you can use (just make sure they make sense):
- Featured images with text overlays
- Product tables
- Content boxes
- Call outs
- Visual quotes and testimonials
- Charts and graphs
- Image-based section dividers
Usually, unless your site is already making tons of money, no one blog post is going to be important enough to hire a designer. So you should use whichever of these (1) makes sense for your blog and (2) is easy for you to find and create.
For example, to create great featured images, just find buy a good stock image for a few bucks, pop it into PowerPoint, and add a few text boxes. For infographics, use a tool like Piktochart. For charts and graphs, either use Excel (Spencer’s favorite!) or find ones already created and credit the author.
For stuff like content boxes, product tables, visual quotes and testimonials, I usually use Thrive Content Builder. It’s literally drag-and-drop, and you only need one plugin.
Since I'd never be able to do it justice, here a video demo of some of the insane things you can create with Thrive Content Builder:
If you're interested, the guys at Thrive set up a discount for Niche Pursuits readers here.
Before moving on, I want to make a quick note about calls to action. There are lots of different types of calls to action, and I’ve seen plain old links work really well. However, most of my hyper-successful colleagues are using more visual calls to action, like those above.
But you really have to test what works for you blog. For example, plain old text links seem to work really well for aPennyShaved, but pop-ups seem to work really well for sites like Quicksprout. You get the idea. You need them, but it’s something you’ll have to test, which brings us to our next lesson…
LESSON 5: A/B test the crap out of your pages—especially the profitable ones.
Admittedly, this is something I’m just learning about, but it’s already proving to be extremely powerful. I started to think about this way back in the day, when I was first look at all the data I was collecting from aPennyShaved.
I went into that project with all kinds of false assumptions. One small example was that images would produce more clicks than text links. In fact, that assumption was so ingrained into my thinking that I didn’t even consider testing it.
I found out I was wrong totally by accident.
Remember this post from Niche Site Project 2? If you scroll to the bottom, you find an image of a heatmap, which I installed on a total whim and out of complete curiosity. What I saw totally took me off guard…
Who would have thought people were clicking on text links in the tables! It seems stupid, but I was honestly dumbstruck. That was the first time I thought “Holy crap, I have to test this stuff!”
And I did.
I tested several different elements against each other and found what worked for my blog. And I ended up making a lot more money. I probably could have made a bunch more if I had realized the value of A/B testing basically everything on the page.
We’re going to release a podcast with Jock from Digital Exits. Jock makes a living buying or selling high-end sites (hundreds of thousands—or even millions—of dollars). When we were talking to Jock about what he does to improve sites that are already highly profitable, his answer was pretty simple: testing and optimizing for conversions.
In fact, he said that A/B testing and conversion optimizing is one of the highest-value activities you can do for any site.
And that makes sense, right? A/B testing allows you to make more money without adding content, building links or increasing traffic.
It’s a 100% in-house activity, and the ROI can be totally ridiculous.
Again, I’ve seen some great success from my own testing, but I’m not even remotely an expert. So, like a good internet marketer, I’ll just steal from the experts for my own benefit! Here’s a list of best practices from Dan Siroker, CEO of Optimizely, after running 177,000 A/B tests.
- Define quantifiable success metrics (clicks, revenue per visitor, etc.)
- Explore before you refine (basically, try crazy stuff even if you don’t think it will work because you never really know)
- Reduce choices for visitors
- Testing the words in calls to action have big impacts
If you want to watch the video I stole this from, you can do so here. I highly recommend it.
Usually, you want to be focusing your A/B testing on the most profitable pages. First, those pages probably have the most traffic, so you can test them faster and more efficiently. Second, it’s generally easy to build on something that’s already working than to figure out why something isn’t working.
When you do test those pages, you can (and should) test basically everything, including but not limited to this stuff:
- Calls to action
So how do you do it?
You’ll need some tools, of course. One easy tool is Optimizely. The major benefit of Optimizely is that it works for every site. It allows you total freedom in the testing phase, which can be very powerful. However, it’s $17 per month, and it doesn’t integrate with WordPress, since it’s mostly made for businesses who have in-house developers.
And here are some excellent guides from people who know much more about this than I do:
- Brian Dean’s guide on conversion rate optimization
- ”100 Conversion Rate Optimization Case Studies” from KISS Metrics
- “The Definitive Guide to Conversion Optimization” from Quicksprout
LESSON 6: Be interesting at all costs.
I know, I know… I make it sound so easy. But it’s easier said than done, right? What if you’re just selling plumbing supplies.
You’re right. Being interesting is hard. And I’m not just saying that. It’s one of the things that takes the longest to develop as a professional writer.
But there are ways to (1) inherently increase the interesting-ness of any piece of content and (2) test to see if the article you just wrote actually is interesting.
In addition to everything we’ve talked about so far, here are some super simple tips to make any piece of content more interesting:
- Add data. Data is always interesting as long as you’re not heaping it on. How many of you perked up when I mentioned above that Niche Pursuits increased its conversion rate by nearly 200%? That’s the power of data. Whether it’s a super interesting snippet or a big chart, it’s hard to go wrong with data.
- Curate the opinion of experts. Odds are you’re not the foremost expert in blogging niche. None of us are. So go find those experts and quote them! Or link to their resources. Share their videos. Bringing in information from the best sources makes your article much more interesting. You can see I’ve done that a lot with this post.
- Use personal anecdotes. Even if you’re not a true experts, people love to hear how other people think about things. And that’s easiest to get across with personal anecdotes. Anecdotes are tiny, self-contained story-example hybrids. I’ve used those a lot in this post, too. See if you can find them.
- Asking great questions. Maybe you don’t have all the answers. Or maybe you only have some of the answers. You can be highly interesting if you ask a good question, especially if you ask your audience directly. Take a poll. Create a quiz. Ask for opinions. It’s definitely interesting.
If you’ve written a post, and you’ve used a bunch of those things, go back, look it over, and ask yourself: “Would I want to read this?”
A penny for your thoughts…
I’m just one guy, you know. There are plenty of people, especially in this audience, who have a lot more experience making money than I do. So chime in!
What do you guys think? What are your favorite content strategies?