“High Quality Content” is the Most Useless Phrase in Marketing; We Can Do Better

Did you watch the television program Ted Lasso? You probably did; it has the ubiquity of the 1980s’ The Golden Girls in an era of deeply fragmented viewership. I enjoyed the first season quite a bit, but after watching the second season, was so repulsed by the folksy, smarmy, saccharine shallowness that I stopped. Season 2 somehow made me feel embarrassed for having liked the first 10 episodes. The exception, S2 E9: Beard After Hours, felt like a truly creative, even revelatory piece of television script-writing and direction. I loved every minute. It almost made up for other 11 episodes.

(Stay with me, I promise we’re going somewhere important.)

My incredibly talented cofounder, Casey, conversely loved Season 2 just as much or more than Season 1. On a recent call, he told me his only quarrel was with Episode 9: Beard After Hours, which he hated.

Is one of us right and the other wrong?

Nope. We simply have different tastes. We’re compelled by different things. What’s “quality content” to Casey is unwatchable drek to me, and the inverse.

Does describing Season 2 of Ted Lasso as “quality content” mean anything (other than that you, personally, liked it)? By copying the sound design, visual FX, cinematography, script writing, acting, or show concept of Ted Lasso, can other show creators get the same results? Almost certainly not.

One might reference aspects of Ted Lasso as an example of what to do or to avoid, but “quality” lacks the required specificity. TV producers, executives, and Apple shareholders would far prefer “heavily watched” or “high ROI” or even “reaches the target demographic we wanted” over “quality content.”

Yet, somehow in the fields of content, search, and social media marketing, “quality,” has reigned on the throne of adjectives for 20 unquestioned years. Let’s put a stop to that.

What Do Creators Truly Want from Content?

We want to accomplish business goals. We want our brand to have more awareness among a group of people, or want to earn more subscribers to our email list, or we’re trying to promote a new product in the hope of attracting sales directly. Content goals should tie to business goals. Otherwise, we’re just making art for its own sake (which is a beautiful and noble pursuit in its own right, but an entirely different universe).

Sometimes, raw quality can accomplish goals. Usually that’s more by accident than intention.

More often, the adjective “high quality” is so reductive and subjective as to inhibit content creators from doing goal-accomplishing work. Or, worse, it’s used by lazy marketing leaders (or agency clients) to describe something they think they want in a way that can never be achieved.

Client: “Make it higher quality.”
Marketer: “I’m not sure what you mean by that, can you specify?”
Client: “It’s too low quality. I want high quality content. 10X content. Like Ted Lasso.”
Marketer: “Umm…OK. We’ll try to make this content piece more Ted-Lasso-y. 🙄”
Client: “Thank you.”

When you’re creating content in the digital marketing universe, your goals probably include one or more of these:

  • Reach a particular group of people with a message
  • Drive traffic to a particular website (or page)
  • Build awareness about a brand, person, event, product, or problem
  • Get direct sales (or sales inquiries)
  • Inspire actions like email signups, social follows, petition support, data-gathering, etc.

The real question is not “How do I make high quality content?” The real questions are:

  1. What should I produce to give me the best chance of accomplishing my marketing goal(s)?
  2. Where and how should I distribute that content to reach the right people?
  3. How do I measure progress and improve for next time so I can build a marketing flywheel?

Rubrics exist that can help establish if a content effort is more or less likely to achieve its goals. The problem is that, over decades of endless repetition, “quality” has burrowed its way into our minds as not only the measuring stick, but the goal itself.

10X Content Is Not a Goal

I’m guilty of coining this phrase. And I mostly regret it now.

Via Lauren Christiansen’s LinkedIn comment

Nick and Lauren are smart, talented folks. And when they talk about swinging for the fences with “10X Content,” they’re doing so with the best of intent. But that phrase, much less “quality content,” doesn’t have specific criteria. 100 content creators would give 100 different definitions. With no consistent system of measurement, nor even a broadly-agreed-upon way of saying what is and isn’t “10X,” it’s no surprise content marketing has a problematic reputation.

If you want company leadership to spring for a marketing investment: wild variance in definition, cost, measurement, effectiveness, and ROI is a recipe for failure.

Can We At Least Agree on What’s Low vs. High Quality?

As my Ted Lasso example shows, probably not.

Smart, reasonable, consumers of content disagree all the time on what’s awesome, terrible, and in-between. The same holds for managers and execs on the hunt for content that brings in leads or grows their brand: two reasonable, talented, effective leaders could easily disagree on whether a piece of content is 10X, -5X, high quality or low.

The only solution is to throw out these phrases entirely and move to something else.

Funny enough, it doesn’t really matter what you, your boss, team, execs, or client think about a content’s quality. The only opinion that matters is the one belonging to the audience you’re aiming to influence.

Once again, we see why “high quality,” is such a useless phrase. Even if every input to quality could be perfectly codified, we’d still be stuck in a world where audience relevance, beliefs, intents, and desires dictate whether content achieves its goals.

Get Specific About What You Want From Your Content

Instead of nebulously targeting amorphous adjectives, I’m urging every content creator to define what they want their content to accomplish and work backward from there.

Don’t aim for 10X. Aim for accomplishing a list of 10 criteria.

For example, say I’m running a content marketing sprint for my friend Courtland Allen’s company, IndieHackers. They’ve recently gone independent, out from under the Stripe umbrella, and have a renewed mission to make the most useful, engaging, welcoming community on the web for indie entrepreneurs and software builders.

That organization could have a lot of different content marketing goals, e.g.

  1. Get on the radar of their target audience that’s never heard of the site before
  2. Get back in front of fans who used the site years ago, but haven’t engaged recently
  3. Increase the conversion rate of existing visitors to become email subscribers to their daily and weekly digests
  4. Reach out to new audiences of software/tech world folks who haven’t considered starting indie-hacker-style projects but want to learn more about what that takes
  5. Attract folks to their in-person meetup events
  6. Get more founders to post threads on the site about their experiences

This list could have 60+ potential items on it, and each one would be served well by different kinds of content, with different foci, and different definitions of “quality.”

Thankfully, once we know the business goal, we can do high quality work like:

  • Research the audience we’re trying to reach (e.g. if I were going after #2 I might search SparkToro for something like My audience follows the social account: @IndieHackers, whereas if I’m going after #6, I’d look at My audience uses the hashtag: #BuildInPublic)
  • Find the topics they’re talking about, have interest in, look at the accounts they follow and what’s working for them, do some search keyword research, etc.
  • Brainstorm a list of subjects that are likely to attract attention from the right group, and earn amplification from the people and publications that reach them
  • Consider the format(s) most likely to reach this crowd (blog post? article? free mini-tool? video? webinar?) and tie those to the topic brainstorm
  • Make a list of features and attributes the content needs to have to be a “high quality” match for the audience and goals

No one can give you a roadmap to do this for every audience or every content piece, because every organization and every creator should do it differently and every unique audience will be drawn to different features.

What I can promise is this: business-goal-accomplishing content > high quality content.



Next time someone asks you to make some “high quality content,” send ’em here. Or, if they’re your competition, don’t. Knowledge like this is a serious competitive advantage (and it’ll save you a ton of time and heartache).