Content Types & Formats... Demystified
Diverse content types keep readers engaged...and help you get higher conversion rates!
As a Content Marketer, have you ever done this?
You know you need to consistently publish LOTS of engaging content...but you often default to the same content types and formats repeatedly. They have their purpose and that's fine...IF they are best suited for each content goal!
OR...maybe you're new to Content Marketing and heard that "podcasting is hot right now" & gets "way more traffic"... & you'd much rather talk than write!
If either of these scenarios sound familiar — or are just curious to learn about new content types — read on...
In this article, I explain the various content types and formats, when to use which, and most importantly why it matters!
What's the difference?
And... does it really matter anyway?
Let's dive in!
"Formats" are fewer in number & familiar, so we'll start with these.
Simply put, they are the method of delivery your content takes:
- Text-based, like your 'typical' blog post or tutorial article (like this one!)
- Audio, like a podcast or quick audio bite (such as a soundtrack or album sample)
- Video (any video, regardless of length or purpose)
- Email (like videos, these can serve a variety of needs)
- Are you surprised "email" is included on this list? I had my "aha" moment recently when I re-examined what "Content Marketing..." really means. Perhaps because email is often so "conversational" it's often overlooked???
- But email is definitely a big part of Content Marketing!
- It's used to persuade: to subscribe, to download, to buy products or services, to donate
- It's used to teach: useful tips, how to use a new product feature
- It's used for branding: telling more of "your story" or introducing new team members
- It's definitely used for outreach: personal emails to industry and thought leaders
Email ticks all of the boxes, as you will see when we discuss Content Types below
Formats are few in number but often not interchangeable in ideal usage:
I've seen many cases of content formats misused, resulting in sub-optimal results of both content goals (conversion, education) & the reader experience!
As a Content Creator, it's tempting to use the 'easiest' format type (the one you personally prefer) when considering which to use, but this can seriously degrade the overall quality of your carefully-crafted content, resulting a poor reader experience or not getting read at all.
Let's take an example:
You want to demonstrate something visual to your readers... It could be anything from using software to plant propagation to crochet to how to fix a leaky faucet...
You might think it's easier to write out a description (text-based) and include a few screenshots of some of the steps than it is to create a quick video. After all, a video usually requires a special setup to get ready to shoot and then there's the editing () and voiceover...
But which do you think is a better reader experience?
The video can be much shorter, the reader can replay parts that they need to review, and it's a much better overall experience! Plus, the easier it is to consume and understand, the more your content will get actually read or watched...and importantly get shared with others! This helps your traffic and overall exposure!
So content format definitely matters!
Keys to Content Types:
- Types are determined by your purpose for creating them
- They can — and should — use 'ideal' formats, whichever one is better suited for your message to be both read & understood!
The "types" described below have varying degrees of overlap. After all, we humans need to classify things to understand & discuss them. So consider the "types" as general categories and when we get into the examples, you'll see the differences and how several of the types can, in practice, be a combination (hybrid) of types.
Any content that guides the reader to take an action you specify:
- Subscribe to your list
- Request a quote
- Schedule an appointment
- Order a product or service
- By providing FREE content, you establish your credibility as someone who can help your readers & lets them evaluate your knowledge and skills on their own time and virtually risk-free
- You build your email list in exchange for sending them a free download
- Or you have to opportunity to build your list of qualified prospects who ask for a quote or book a call with you
- Offer a FREE download (commonly referred to as a Lead Magnet) in exchange for a reader's email address
- Offering a low-cost or free Content Upgrade in your posts for sharing on your social channels
- Booking a free discovery call or short consultation with you
- Offering a free lesson from a premium course you offer
- Complete a survey
You'll see several examples right here on my website...like this one from my Home page where I offer a free download:
If you browse around my site, you'll see a number of other examples of conversion-type content.
Any content that tells your unique story...in addition to what you have on your About page. This can include your own why, how and the details about your journey to this point in your business or project. Consider Tom's Shoes & Starbucks... Their branding has created a global understanding of their principles and what they value.
- People love stories, and telling your own story helps to establish both empathy & trust with your readers
- Illustrate — through your "how" — you are qualified to help readers by explaining how you overcame specific obstacles & how that is relevant to helping them do the same
- Continue your story from your About page, detailing your values & ethics... People work with people they like & who share their same values...
- Details on your journey
- Where / when did you start?
- Did you pivot mid-stream because you discovered something…?
- What obstacles have you overcome that make you qualified to help your readers?
- Do you support a global or local cause? (Tom’s Shoes, Starbucks, Bombas Socks, local food banks, etc.)
Here a couple of quite diverse examples...in just how many ways there are to implement branding content.
- Shane Melaugh — founder of Thrive Themes and owner of ActiveGrowth has chosen to use significant branding content on his Home page at ActiveGrowth.com. Now before you think this is a necessity, it's certainly not. Shane is a master at exceptional copywriting and has exquisitely blended his own branding with one ideal formula (of several) for what should go on a HOME page.
- In contrast to this, consider My Manifesto. This continues my story from my About page in far more detail, while also giving readers — and potential clients & customers — a solid idea of what's important to me from a business perspective, including my values.
3. EPIC / Pillar Content
Long-form Content, sometimes referred to as "Ultimate Guides..."
- Long-form content establishes your expert status in your niche / industry
- Research required for this content shows your depth of knowledge & expertise
- Increases reader trust by publishing EPIC content
- It's highly popular for others to link back to, increasing your visibility and traffic
- Ultimate Guides
- "Series" of articles, covering several separate but linked sub-topics
- Personally designed and conducted research or surveys, regularly published annually
- Case Studies from your clients/customers (legitimate stories! don't fake this!)
- Done properly, outshines the competition making you stand out as a thought leader in your niche & industry
- Often range from 10,000 to 40,000 words
- Visual appearance is crucial, frequently requiring a Table of Contents for ease of navigation, & visual clarity is a must! No one wants to read a wall of text!
- It's not for beginners! This is time & labor intensive, as you'll need to do extensive research to pull this off. You also need an intimate understanding of your audience to know what really resonates with them
- This first example is my favorite for a single piece of long-form content. This one is from Thrive Themes, and the author has cleverly created his own term for this type of content — effectively stamping his own "brand" on the content type itself (instead of just calling it what everyone else does: 'pillar posts,' 'redwood content,' 'skyscraper') — while also illustrating just how easy it is to create "hybrid" content, blending both long-form & branding into a single piece! Brad has coined the term "Open PDF" in this excellent example of long-form content.
2. This next example demonstrates how you can create similar long-form content by creating an article "Series." I've used this Series format often as it fits well with the necessarily-broad main topics I cover on this site.
Broad topics will invariably have a number of smaller sub-topics, and are great candidates for Series articles. This is an awesome introduction to "long-form content" if you're not quite ready to take on a 40,000-word single "mega-post!"
This example is on Marketing terminology specifically written for the (non-marketer) website owner who is frequently overwhelmed by the often-confusing terms thrown around by pro online marketers.
In my Series on "Marketing Speak" I introduce & define these terms and explain how & when they are used.
This is a 4-part series and the first part (linked above) begins with definitions and usage. The other 3 installments of the series address some common questions from non-marketers — explaining Sales Funnels, free content, constructing funnels, and more...
For Series content, it's crucial you provide "installment" information to the reader (as shown in the examples below) in each Series article.
Just as important for defining the scope and details of each Series articles is providing links to each earlier installment, as the following example shows:
Foundational Content is anything you refer to repeatedly in the course of producing your other content.
- You can simply link to this type of content from your other articles, instead of re-defining or re-creating the same terms or explanations every time
- It saves time and is way more efficient to link to this content and let the reader become familiar with those foundation elements that are the core of your business philosophy
- Internal links are also a great aid to the Google-bots (algorithms) that crawl your website, increasing them understand the true context of your website!
- Terminology used & defined, especially important in a technical & scientific field
- Your values: what drives you and impacts your business & how you work
- Systems or parts of systems you often refer to in other content
- FAQ: common questions from readers or prospective clients you've already answered
I have several of these "reference" articles on this website and I invite you to check them out:
- My Manifesto — This is actually a great example of hybrid content: the article is one I reference often in other content, because it contains the foundations of my business perspective...making it useful for Branding content: it tells my story and values!
- Own It! — This article is also a hybrid in content type, because is is foundational (Branding) but also referential because I refer to it in many of my other articles.
- Why WordPress? — Another example of hybrid content, it is foundational to explain to new readers why my focus and entire niche is dedicated to WordPress, but it is also a key part of my Branding because it continues my story...
5. Tutorial / Educational
Any content where the goal is to teach your reader. This is your common "how-to" article, but can be so much more!
- It establishes you as an expert in your topic
- Truly helpful & innovative instruction helps your readers...and they will keep coming back for more
- Providing helpful and FREE information establishes trust from your readers
- How to DO something
- How to start something
- How to STOP something (think “bad habits” or “lifestyle change”)
- Resources or tools you personally use to …
- "How to..." become better…faster…stronger
- Workflow recommendations, such as "How to improve productivity..."
- How to use specific software (Word, Canva, graphics software, PowerPoint)
There are so many different examples, since this is by far the most common type of online content.
To illustrate, I'll start with a format we haven't yet examined: a podcast example.
- Chaos to Peace, "Clutter is Unmade Decisions This first example beautifully demonstrates just what you can do with content. It's both hybrid in content format, being a podcast & written text. This means it suitable for those who prefer reading — like me! — and also for "readers" who would prefer to just listen. Because there is a written component, it's also some thing search engines can index (see below for more on SEO). It's also educational in content type, because the purpose is to teach readers something about decluttering, not just physical space but the mental or psychological aspect as well!
2. Pretty much every article on my website is tutorial in type! I'm a WordPress teacher and coach so this makes sense. A great example is this WordPress HUB page, where I outline exactly what the WP beginner needs to learn first!
Content that announces something. This type is closely related to branding and using these "update" opportunities provides another way to keep you and your business front of mind in your readers.
- Continually keeps you and your website/business in front of your readers
- Keeps your readers "in the loop" as far as changes in your business or staff
- Creates the feeling of your readers being in touch with you
- Establishes boundaries regarding scope of your services/products (think working hours/days, new business scope, reduced business scope)
- New staff members with their photos and bios
- New products/services and how these will aid your readers
- New location opening soon, with a map & hours
- Expansion into new niches or audience segments
Thrive Themes is an exemplary example of how one business uses "updates" to the max! At regular intervals (usually every few weeks!), Thrive publishes "what's new" in their flagship product, Thrive Suite. Here are the last few examples:
Thrive Themes recent updates... Taking it "next level," they've even created a specific WP category just for their product updates! Quite impressive!
7. Exclusive / Premium
This content is reserved for exclusivity! It could be gated content for a special subset of your readers — typically clients/customers — or "Insider's" such as subscribers only.
- Exclusivity creates the feeling of being part of an elite or special group among your readers
- Readers in "elite" status are more inclined to open your emails sooner & read them through
- Customer or client email content NOT available to your "general" readers
- Exclusive benefits — in discounts or content — for your "premium" customers/clients. Offering exclusive access to you (in a quick call) is a great way to foster exclusivity.
- A private group with exclusive access to you, in regular video calls
- Don't fake this! If your content is NOT exclusive, don't say it is!
- Be authentic: don't offer gated content — behind a paywall or membership site — then make it available for free elsewhere on your site.
- It may seem like the internet is infinitely vast, but niche audiences are incredibly small and... readers invariably talk to and know each other. News will travel very fast if you try to "fake" things like exclusivity... There is no faster way to lose readers trust and your legitimacy as a valuable and trusted resource. Don't risk it!
What? No Examples!!
Yep! Sorry, but there is a very good reason...
This content type usually takes one of two formats:
- Email to a specific Insider's or customer list (which of course is confidential), or...
- It's behind "gated content" such as in a Membership site...
Both are reserved for those (usually) paying members, so neither is available to the general internet "public..." which is the total point!
NOTE: This content type may also include a private group (think Facebook), which is also not available to the general public. Such exclusive groups are frequently tied to a 'fringe benefit' of a premium online course or coaching program...
Content where the intent is to either (1) establish a new and personal conversation, or (2) to reach a new audience segment.
Note that the format for this content varies considerably with the ultimate goal.
A personal conversation is likely to be a personal email, or personal outreach on someone's social platform (such as LinkedIn or Medium).
For reaching a new audience segment, a different content channel than what is your "normal" will likely be required (if you are mostly publishing written content, this may be adding podcasts or YouTube content).
- Personal outreach (#1 above) is typically to develop collaborative opportunities or partnerships to increase your reach into others' audiences
- New channels (#2 above) are to accomplish something similar, but done on a platform-wide basis instead of individual outreach.
- Note that the processes are different but one is not necessarily favored over the other. It depends on your individual niche, industry, and network.
- Reaching out to individual thought leaders — usually via their social platforms or personal emails — in your industry, inquiring about collaboration opportunities
- Trying new content channels to see if you can reach new and larger audiences. Remember to allow time for these efforts to provide results... The channel makes a difference as well: YouTube gets so much search traffic — and promotes similar content within the platform — that your results may be faster (but the competition may be extremely high); podcasting uses so many different delivery networks, you may find that one or more are required and may take a longer time to gain visibility, but competition may be much lower, so you'll stand out better... Both outreach methods require time and commitment, so remember to allocate time for realizing a payoff.
Real-world Use Cases
Yep! Again, no examples to show here... Here's why:
- Outreach is very specific to each individual (person or business) as is the goal for each case
- The reason for the outreach can vary — as explained above where I discuss trying new channels — just as the goals for the outreach.
- Collaborative requests are necessarily highly confidential, and most likely never become "public knowledge"
- Think of "celebrity endorsements" — we'll likely never know how many celebrities were made offers that never saw the light of day...
- Consider a failed product launch... Probably not making any news feeds!
- How about competition between the BIG players (shhhh..... corporate secrets!)
Outreach can be very successful, but it requires extensive research to see where to invest your time and effort.
It also requires a somewhat "thick skin" since you are more likely to get a series of "rejections" before the first 'maybe...let's talk' response. Still, if you don't try some form of outreach, you'll never know!
One relatively "rejection-free" approach might be to try collaborating with some friends or associates who have niches or audiences that are complimentary to yours. You can usually approach those in your own 'network' with a lot less apprehension than starting at the top and going after the big names in your industry. This approach eases you into how this whole outreach thing works!
Where SEO Fits in Content Marketing
Depending on which content marketer — or self-proclaimed SEO 'guru' — you read, some refer to “SEO” as its own content type…
I take a different approach.
Here’s my take on the integration of SEO into your CM strategy...
Virtually ALL content types could benefit from SEO.
However, for content creators — and not SEO experts — it can become a deep, dark rabbit hole that will consume way too much of your content creation time, disproportionate to any practical benefits you will see!
As a content creator, your work is only ‘doing its job’ if it’s actually published! Devoting hours of KW research — in lieu of publishing — simply makes no practical sense!
Instead, here’s my recommendation:
It's wise to consider some brief KW research to determine where the greatest search volume numbers are for your content.
But...make sure to set hard limits!
- Paid SEO resources can get really expen$ive, and remember that rabbit hole! You can obsess over both KW and search numbers and never get anything published, which is far worse than not finding just the "right" KW! (Hint: perfect doesn't even exist!)
- Complicating this even further, KW popularity is based on real humans doing real searches over time!
- Surprise (not really, I’m sure you’ve already realized this!):
- Humans change constantly!
- What was popular last week or last month may have changed significantly when you are ready to research the topic.
Instead, I recommend using one of the (few & dwindling) free KW tools out there and limit your KW research to a few minutes per content piece...
And, make an initial attempt — remembering to strictly limit your research time — for all or most of the content types in the above list of eight types. The only one type that you simply may not have many KWs to find is the outreach type, but it’s still worth a preliminary & cursory attempt. You might get lucky, so don’t expect that nothing will show up.
Also understand that KWs only apply to the written formats — Google “bots” (algorithms) can only search text — so unless you have transcriptions of non-text content (videos and audio), KWs simply don't apply!” This, BTW, is the reason you see so many written transcripts on podcasts and other audio content.
PLUS…some people — me included — are very fast readers & actually prefer to read the transcript rather than taking time to listen.
It’s also worth mentioning — for those of you who are new to Content Marketing and these concepts of formats and types — KW research does not apply to email…
How could it? It must be published openly on the web — and searchable by Google — in order for SEO to apply. This means “gated content” (behind a paywall or in a course you offer) is not searchable, so there’s no need to even consider SEO.
What new content types are you going to try? Let me hear from you in the Comments below!