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Why Your Free “Content” Sucks (and what to do about it)

by Alessandro Perta

I just read yet another bad article.

You know, the kind of long content that looks like it can bring value…

But after a dozen of minutes reading, you realize it’s just long-winded copy, and you feel like you’ve learned pretty much NOTHING.

your free content sucks

Well, that’s not a feeling, and I’m gonna show you why in this post – and what to do instead.

I’ve seen this trend going on for months (mostly in the digital marketing and copywriting fields), and I can’t stand it anymore!

So here’s what bad and good free content looks like, why you might write bad free content (without knowing it), and how to fix this.

The ugly face of BAD free content (it ain’t pretty)

Let’s take a blog post and tear it to shreds.

Imagine: this blog post is just a long column of words.

I split that column in 4 sections, put them side by side, and color-coded each part of the post to have a better visual representation.

And it looks like this:

free content bad content outline

All those colors! Pretty, right?

What if I told you we’re looking only for the black and orange boxes? (More on this in a minute.)

First, let’s examine the 2 most important box types.

Basic advice (orange boxes)

This advice is useful for beginners.

Unless you’ve never heard of the topic, you probably won’t learn anything new or valuable here.

For example, if we’re talking about the perfect length for an article to rank #1 in Google, basic advice would look like:

“Write long content.”

Well, duh!

The problem is: do you know how many words you need to write long content?

That’s what I thought.

Actionable advice (the black boxes)

It’s the good stuff.

The content from which you actually learn something.

Something that you can implement today and see a difference (sometimes right away).

Put simply, this is what you came for.

If we pick the same example as before, a piece of actionable advice would be:

“To rank in the first 3 positions on Google, write 1,950 word-long posts.”

(source)

Okay so back to our example.

free content bad content outline

I’m not gonna bash hooks and outros. They are needed to grab and keep the readers attention…

(… to serve them with more fluff, in this instance.)

But success stories, REALLY???

I mean, this is a bloody how to article!

Why in the world would the writer put 2 success stories in a how-to post?

(I’ll answer that question later in the post.)

To make sure we’re on the same page:

  • Proof that your technique works with a screenshot and an explanatory sentence: great!
  • 2 freaking success stories, complete with a problematic life situation, a breakthrough, a solution and over-the-top results? Get outta here!

Sneakily boosting your readers’ confidence in you with success stories while confusing them with the rest?

To me, this is black hat content writing.

But don’t let these success stories foul you: the devil is hiding somewhere else.

Here: in those pesky fuzzy examples.

Fuzzy examples show you what the result looks like… but the writer never tells you WHAT specifically to look for in those examples or HOW TO implement them yourself!

So you’re left to your own devices – clueless and confused.

More specifically:

Bad free content leaves you with NO answers and MORE questions.

So how do I know the examples in the post above are fuzzy?

I analyzed a topic I know pretty well myself: freelancing.

Now, I don’t pretend to know everything, but I know damn well that this post was intentionally lacking crucial information.

The kind of Information the reader needs to fully take advantage of that free “content”.

(Don’t ask me what post it is, I’m not here to bash on that particular freelancer – just to bash on bad free content in general.)

So, if we only take the useful stuff (the basic and actionable advice), what are we left with?

free content bad content average value

If it doesn’t look like much, it’s because it’ not: advice only account for 30.27% of this post’s real estate.

But it starts to get real ugly real fast when you only account for the real good stuff:

free content bad content real value

Actionable advice only makes up 12.03% of this post’s real estate.

Given this post has 1,300 words, you only get 156 useful words.

angry panda

My friends… this is not even worthy of the name long-winded content.

It’s just online junk.

GOOD free content to the rescue!

Free content has two main components:

  • FREE: ”given or available without charge”
  • CONTENT: “information made available by a website or other electronic medium”

See that word right there: information?

Check out its definition:

Knowledge obtained from investigation, study, or instruction.

merriam-webster.com

Knowledge my friends.

Free content is knowledge that you give for free.

  • If it’s not free, it’s not free content.
  • If it doesn’t contain knowledge, it’s not free content either.

Now, free content and knowledge can take many forms – including sharing a personal experience, an experiment or… a rant 😉 (with solutions).

So, what does good free content look like?

free content good content outline

This time, I took another blog post from a digital marketer.

Again, about a topic I know pretty well: SEO.

Interestingly, success stories and fuzzy examples shine by their absence.

Free content doesn’t pretend to be good, it just is.

Proof:

free content good content average value

On this post, basic and actionable advice account for 70.90% of the real estate.

That’s quite a difference!

But this is even more shocking:

free content good content real value

Here, actionable advice account for 62.89% of this post’s total real estate.

That’s 5x more than the bad free content! 5 TIMES!

And let’s go back to the full structure: the author made it easy for the readers to go through this 1700 words piece.

In fact, the teal blocks (intro, hooks and outros) keep the readers interested:

free content good content outline

Just like in the bad free content – but this time, for a good reason:

To make sure the readers will get as much value as possible.

Why marketers write free content in the first place? (aka content strategy)

Websites are a source of income.

And we’re talking a few hundreds of dollars every month to 5-7 figures businesses.

If you want to make any website a source of income, all of sudden content strategy will be part of your business model.

There are basically 2 ways you can make money with a website: directly and indirectly.

Deciding which business model you’ll use will in turn shape your content strategy.

Your site would be a direct source of income if you generate money just by displaying ads or offering content subscriptions.

More specifically:

  • If your content is open for everybody to consume, you can put ads on your website and make money that way. Any reader consuming your articles will generate ad revenue from ads being displayed (and sometimes clicked) on your content.
  • Or you can gate your content and make it only available to paid subscribers.

In that case, your content better be stellar.

But many bloggers, content creators and digital marketers use their website (or YouTube channel, by the way) as an indirect source of income.

And it goes a little bit like this:

  1. Find keywords that are relevant to your main topic and that you can rank for
  2. Write SEO-optimized “free” content for said keywords
  3. Wait for Google to index your content and rank it (this is slow) OR promote it via social networks, guest posting, podcasting…
  4. Wait for people to come on your website

At that point, the “trap” is set.

Because before doing all that, the owner of the website:

  • has already written content showing how much they know on said topic / keywords without ever revealing too much information (this is crucial)
  • sprinkled their website with testimonials, success stories and social proof
  • added a newsletter subscription pop up to send you more “free stuff” – and because the website has so many proofs that it’s working, you subscribe

From there on, they will send you some tips by email and include you in an email sequence to sell you a course, product, service or coaching session.

And voilà!

So, is all this a bad thing? Is it a complete scam?

Of course not!

(That’s actually the long-term strategy of this website…)

The ones who do it right make them you WANT to rush to the next enrollment for their course!

Why?

Because they write free content that is so useful and enjoyable to read that you never EVER question their integrity.

  • You get REAL value out of their free content (not bloody success stories)
  • You can get even more value by giving your email address so they can send bonuses like checklists, spreadsheets, exclusive ebooks, …
  • They send send you more free tips by email and let you know about their paying stuff
  • You buy it or not, depending on your money and satisfaction level

That’s all there is to it, really.

When done right, free content is a win-win.

So what’s the problem?

5 reasons digital marketers write BAD free content

Unfortunately, there is a lot of bad free content out there.

I don’t know the particular reasons of every single blogger or marketer to write such useless fluff, but here are a few:

1. Black hat SEO

There is such a thing as bad practice SEO, known as black hat SEO.

These are SEO techniques like using PBNs, keyword stuffing, cloaking, pesky redirects, … and unfortunately, most of them work.

But they are prohibited by Google.

So if you use black hat SEO, you don’t have to write REALLY good content – BAD content does just fine.

(For some time at least, until Google finds it and penalizes you.)

How to spot this kind of content:

  • shady and long domain names
  • weird looking pages
  • gibberish content that doesn’t make much sense
  • links to another commercial website

2. Not respecting the content’s context

Not every content NEEDS to be written with the AIDA (Attention – Interest – Desire – Action), PAS (Problem – Agitation – Solution) template.

Not every line on your website has to “convert” readers – your pop ups are more than enough.

By the way, I’m not saying templates are bad.

I’m just saying:

Understand the context of an article before blindly applying a template.

Just a friendly reminder to my fellow marketers – free content:

  • IS NOT a landing / squeeze page
  • IS NOT a Facebook ad
  • IS NOT a place to put mouth-watering bullet points (aaaah the irony)
  • IS NOT a pop up asking for a reader’s email

So please:

Stop using tired copywriting techniques and start providing real value.

How to spot this kind of content:

  • overly persuasive content, when its role is to answer a question
  • non targeted pop ups
  • filled with personal stories, success stories and social proof indicators (“featured by Forbes”, “I helped 12,465 clients”, …)

3. Not understanding the user’s intent

Consider those 2 Google searches:

  • “adidas nmd r1”
  • “sneaker store soho”

Do you think the user has the same intent for both queries?

This short answer is no, and here’s why:

When a user searches for “adidas nmd r1”, he probably wants to KNOW about that pair of sneakers.

Maybe they want to know about the new colorways and designs.

If they wanted to BUY online, they would probably have searched for “adidas nmd r1 price” or “adidas nmd r1 buy online”.

On the contrary, when they search “sneaker store soho”, they most likely want to GO to a shop.

Possible reasons include:

  • discovering new designs in a brick and mortar store
  • trying a pair before purchase
  • chasing that perfect pair and buy it on the spot

(If you want to know more about user intent, check out this article about micro moments on Think with Google)

When you write content for the “sneaker store soho” keyword, you have to acknowledge what your readers’ intent is.

In this case, it’s probably which stores are the best in the Soho neighborhood, and why.

But if you write that article about the best sneakers of the last 3 months, you’re completely missing the mark (and your content will probably not rank for that particular keyword).

How to spot this kind of content:

  • skimming or reading that content doesn’t seem to answer DIRECTLY your question
  • you go back to Google and try the next article in the search results

4. Lack of knowledge

Sometimes, we online entrepreneur don’t know every thing there is to know on a particular topic.

(Most of the time actually.)

This is the only instance where bad free content is excusable.

Entrepreneurship is a journey, and if you wait to know EVERYTHING there is to know on a topic, well 1/ good luck with that and 2/ you’ll never start.

Content with lack of knowledge arises from a good intention: providing the audience with valuable information.

But it’s just not quite perfect.

How to spot this kind of content:

  • you get answers to your questions, but you feel something is missing
  • you know that the author is wrong on certain points

5. Greediness or fear

If you’re writing free content for the sole purpose of selling something after, you might be afraid to “give away too much information for free”.

But content is information and information is power.

(Or rather money, in this instance.)

So if you have a piece of information (aka a skill, knowledge, …) that’s worth money, then people ALWAYS have to pay for it, right?

Wrong.

  • Not every reader is part of your target audience – some people might be interested in your topic but will never buy anything, from you (or anybody else in your niche)
  • Not every target consumer has money to afford your product or services – even if they want your stuff really bad, they will never be able to get it from you

So, let me break it down for you:

Those 2 user types are not your clients (at least for now.)

In their current situation, there is no way in hell you’re gonna squeeze any money out of their pocket.

It’s just not gonna happen.

So what do you think will happen when they DO have money to spend and WANT to learn about your topic?

  • Will they go to the confusing, bragging guy? Or
  • Will they go to the helpful, straightforward guy?

QED.

Moral of the story:

If you think long term (and you should), write good free content.

Just like Ramit Sethi, you can give away 98% of your good stuff and still make a huge amount of money on the remaining 2%.

Let the shitty free content to shady marketers.

Your branding and reputation is worth way more than a simple $197 course.

How to spot this content:

  • you’re not quite sure you learned something
  • you learned something but you don’t know how to implement it
  • you don’t know what to look in the given examples

How to write GOOD free content

I don’t pretend I know everything about writing good content.

(Especially when this blog post is a rant and kinda has a structure of its own.)

But here is what I do when I want to write good free content:

  1. Find a keyword that is relevant to my niche and useful for the readers
  2. Understand the intent (most of the time, it’s a KNOW intent) and write the content accordingly
  3. Research the topic if I don’t feel comfortable with my level of knowledge
  4. Be as thorough as possible, without leaving anything important and cutting the useless stuff (or moving the advanced stuff in a dedicated article)
  5. Use visual examples when needed, to better show / explain the topic
  6. Make the content visually appealing with short paragraphs, quotes and bolded parts
  7. Include a table of contents if the post is long, to make skimming easy

Remember, it’s always possible to give away most of your good stuff and still sell products and courses.

Because:

Authenticity and helpfulness sell in the long run.

Stop going for a quick buck and ditch this pesky bad free content.

The templates I use to create free content

Here are a few resources that I used to up my writing game:

All of this content is what GOOD free content is all about: clear, actionable, and packed with helpful tips and tactics.

(And it teaches you how you can do the same… how meta.)

In my view, these 4 are the foundation of the non-copywriter content creator textbook for 2020 and beyond.

All that emotion-based copy and social proof galore has it’s place.

Just not in (good) free content.

So join the revolution. And together, let’s eradicate fluff-heavy, long-winded, bad free “content”.

Over to you

  • What bad free content did you stumble upon lastly?
  • Why was it bad?

Let me know by dropping a comment below!

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