How to Create How-To Content That Doesn’t SuckBy David DeMille February 24th, 2016
A few weeks ago, my bathtub faucet started spraying water all over the bathroom. I’m a pretty handy guy, so I decided to search for practical advice on Google and buy the parts to fix the problem on Amazon. That way, I could save a few bucks avoiding the plumber.
However, despite all the articles that offered five easy steps to fix a faucet or vowed to tell me everything one needs to know about tubs, the information I came across rarely lived up to the promise of the titles. The instructions didn’t quite make sense, and I still don’t know what tools I need. I think there’s some special type of wrench?
Unfortunately, I don’t think my faucet despair is an isolated case. The Internet is full of how-to content, and a lot of it misses the mark. Not everyone is qualified to give advice. But regardless of whether you’re selling tubs or B2B software, you can offer sound expertise by paying attention to a few important factors.
Let’s dig in.
Understand the value add
Understanding what you bring to the table should be your first step when thinking about a how-to story.
Let’s say you want to educate people on how to plant roses. Can you add more to the discussion than just the obvious? How about insider tips and tricks? What’s your unique angle?
If you’re unsure of where to start, ask yourself these questions:
- Are you aware of any pitfalls that readers should know about?
- Are you aware of any shortcuts or tips that would help the reader?
- Can you describe common use cases that apply to the instructions?
- Can you provide context or history on the topic?
- Can you compile your own research or data that proves one technique is better than another?
- Can you create your piece of content in a more intuitive medium?
Once you’ve answered these questions, then you can move on to evaluate what content about your topic already exists.
Research the competition
For every piece you want to publish, set aside some time to do a quick competitive audit; it should take 15 minutes. You can perform your audit using a number of different methods depending on your goals. If you’re looking for organic traffic, I’d recommend a quick search engine results page (SERP) analysis; if you’re curious about social distribution and engagement, a tool like BuzzSumo works best.
I include three components when conducting an audit: format, intent, and average word count. These variables will help you quickly identify what’s already been done as well as your opportunity to stand out.
To give you an example, here’s an audit I did for the search term “planting roses”:
The format, structure, and elements that you include in each how-to piece will influence whether or not users want to share, like, and link to your article. If you already have an engaged audience, start by thinking about what they’d respond to the most. Do they want step-by-step instructions? Videos? Printable lists?
Once you know your value add and what competitors have previously published, you should have a solid understanding of the best format for your topic.
This part can be subjective, but it’s also the most important of the three. Auditing competitors for user intent lets you perform a pre-production sanity check on both the keywords you’re optimizing and the overall direction of your thesis.
In the roses audit above, you can see how one broad topic becomes an umbrella for multiple intents. Some results only covered initial planting practices; others went into more depth to explain how to maintain roses after they’re first planted. You don’t want to be too granular when scoping out your advice because you want to maximize your appeal, but it can often help to specify your target upfront so you’ll stand out.
Word count is arguably the trickiest part of the audit. You want to be aware of the data, but writing to a word count can hurt your end product if someone adds too much fluff to hit a number or, conversely, turns in a draft with incomplete advice to keep the content digestible.
I’ve found that monitoring word counts is most helpful for recognizing when stories tend to lose engagement for being too long or too short.
In my experience, higher word count tends to correlate to more organic search traffic—which could be why the longer articles on planting roses had better search exposure. In the fall of 2014, Buffer suggested 1,600 words as the ideal length of a blog post.
Ultimately, however, the ideal length depends on your topic. if you’re creating content that addresses pain points, answers questions, and fulfills the needs of your readers, then don’t stress about hitting a certain word count. Just be aware of what the competition is doing,
Explain why, not just how
As a reader, I really appreciate sites that help me understand the reasoning behind instructions, why some techniques are better than others, and why certain elements are important.
As a content marketer, I believe there’s value in addressing the needs of my readers beyond the search query at hand. If readers are looking for instructions on how to plant roses, chances are they’re going to need general care instructions as well. Maybe they’ll need details on fertilizer or other products down the road. Either way, there’s an opportunity to to build trust with the user by going beyond bare bones advice.
Don’t dumb it down
This one is a personal pet peeve, but to be fair, it’s a challenge (especially with how-to content) to find a balance between being helpful, clear, and concise and treating the reader like an idiot.
If someone searches “how to plant roses,” you don’t need to explain what roses are. You don’t need to define rain or sunshine. You don’t need to fill space by writing, “Roses are one of the most beautiful, traditional, and flagrant flowers that you can plant in your garden.”
Try approaching your content with the assumption that your reader knows the basics, which frees you up to focus more on the value add.
Visualize the process
It’s tempting to ignore multimedia assets since creating them requires a lot of time and, in a lot of cases, money. But don’t underestimate the value of using visuals to illustrate your story. Case in point: BuzzFeed’s “Tasty” video series:
BuzzFeed has taken a how-to medium that’s been around for hundreds of years—recipes—and reinvented how we share them. If you’re on Facebook, you know how popular these clips are. I’m not exaggerating when I say that they make up half of my News Feed.
When you visualize your content, you’re not only creating a better user experience, you’re creating shareable assets. Experiment with visuals until you find the right combination for your site.
GIFs, for instance, are great for illustrating motion-based tutorials, like how to swing a golf club. Pull quotes pair well with tools like ClicktoTweet that encourage organic social promotion. Screenshots are great for tutorials that involve showing users where to click, what a multi-step process entails, or what that spreadsheet should look like. Infographics can be good investments if you break them up into blocks so readers can share one stat or section that resonates with them.
In terms of video, clips that don’t require sound thrive on social networks, where they often auto-play. Whiteboard tutorials, meanwhile, can be an easy and cost-effective way to break into video since they succeed at quickly breaking down complex issues.
Leverage your audience
If you’re sincerely interested in learning from your content mistakes and successes, skip the traditional post-mortem and opt for a content refresh 30, 60, or 90 days out from the publish date. At this point, you should read through comments (if you have them) and social media feedback, then tweak the content accordingly. Updating the piece will not only increase the quality, but should also please the Google gods and improve your SEO. Additionally, user feedback can also fuel ideation for future stories.
Understanding the products and services your audience need is also a critical part of addressing feedback. When users ask if you sell ancillary products or services, they’re telling you that they assume you would offer them—and that they’d be willing to purchase them from you instead of a competitor.
Companies are willing to pay big bucks for user research and testing, but why bother when you have direct access to people who actually use your service and visit your site?
Yes, there’s a lot of how-to content out there, but that doesn’t mean all of it is good. As I sit here writing this with my clawfoot tub torn apart and strewn across the dining room floor, I’m thinking about how much time I might have saved if thorough, illustrated, and useful content had been available. Be the guide your readers need.