An Argument for Investing in Quality Editorial over Cheap Content — and Why the Difference Matters
Written by Mike Haney, Editorial Director at Levels
Content is no longer a niche tool. Nearly all companies today — from startups to multinationals — produce content. Mostly this takes the form of blogs and social posts, but YouTube channels and podcasts are increasingly common.
The question is, why?
Here’s one answer: Content — particularly long-form (500+ words) — is a way to communicate more information than a slogan or tagline. That additional information can deliver a more robust argument for your product or service (i.e., “The Science Behind …”), or it can deliver information that addresses a need of the potential customer (i.e., “7 Ways to …”), or it can offer a more detailed personal experience or review (i.e., “I tried ____ and here’s what happened”).
Any of these forms should engage an audience to spend more time with your brand than a traditional ad. And solving or empathizing with a consumer’s problem should leave them with a positive impression of your brand so that next time they need a product in your category, they choose you over the competitor. Good content should engender trust.
Is that explanation, in fact, true? Maybe.
I’ve certainly made that argument more than once in my career. But honestly, it’s difficult to measure trust or recall, and these kinds of marketing efforts are typically “top of funnel,” meaning they’re meant to capture interest, not necessarily convince you to click a buy button. ROI is just less explicit.
So here’s another answer: Content doesn’t have to be marketing. Instead, you can think about it the way most content companies (newspapers, magazines, media sites) think about it: as a product or service of its own, intended to educate people about the area in which you have expertise. This is how we think about content at Levels — its job is to help people learn what metabolic health is, why it matters and what they can do about it.
The core differentiator here is intent. If you set out to create content whose primary success metric is education, you’ll end up in a different place than if the primary success metric is a conversion, sale, or click.
Make no mistake, this is hard. It almost definitionally demands a greater emphasis on quality. It requires original reporting, careful synthesis, honing points, and lots of editing and rewriting. That takes time, and it takes the resources to hire seasoned professionals.
It also still requires some of the tools of marketing to ensure that people who could benefit from that content see it.
But I think there’s a case to be made for many brands that upping your content game and investing in that quality is a worthwhile investment.
The Argument for High-Quality Editorial
Before we go any further, I’ll bring a little linguistic policing to this discussion:
- Content = Any information produced for consumption by other people. This can be words, audio or video, marketing, or education.
- Content marketing = Content made with the primary intent of marketing your product or brand.
- Editorial = Content with the primary intent of education, not marketing.
Although the demands of each kind of content tend to incentivize different levels of quality, it’s important to say that not all content marketing is of poor quality — you can read riveting articles about how a product or service changed someone’s life or the incredible innovation that went into creating it. And not all editorial is Pulitzer level; journalists can also fall into bad and lazy habits.
Here are some of the hallmarks of poorly done content (which, unfortunately, are found in a lot of traditional content marketing):
- It focuses more on your problem (you need to sell more widgets) than on the audience’s problem, whatever that is. At Levels, we don’t write much about how incredible continuous glucose monitoring is. Instead, we write about challenges our readers face — mid-morning brain fog, PCOS, finding healthy food for their families, choosing the most valuable form of exercise.
- It’s verbose and rambling. The reader has to wade through way too much to get to the point, usually in a poor attempt to feed the SEO gods. (How many times have you had to read 1,000 words on blueberry pie just to get to a recipe?)
- It’s poorly reported. Regurgitating information easily found with a Google search is not providing value. We can all Google. Nor does finding a single expert who supports your point of view constitute sufficient reporting. I can find a PhD or study to concur with just about anything. Content should be thorough in its curation (finding what’s accurate and valuable) and synthesis (distilling a broad range of views into something useful and understandable) of what’s out there.
- It’s not intellectually honest. Most problems are hard to solve. Few products offer a complete solution. Pretending you have all the answers is a good way to trigger skepticism, which is antithetical to trust. (An example: A standard content marketing format is the comparison chart of your product and similar products — the best ones ensure that the chart acknowledges a few things the competitors do well.)
Consumers have more choices than ever for finding answers to their questions. And few things are more frustrating than clicking a link or a social post based on a promise and then finding that promise unfulfilled. “This article was supposed to tell me how to do X, but all it did was drone on about how great their product was.”
That experience does not win you trust or loyalty nor paint your brand positively. But it has cost your organization both time and money.
I know many businesses (and content agencies) out there who might argue with this perspective. They can show quantitative data that their inexpensively-produced content deeply optimized for SEO has driven traffic, conversions, and revenue. But it is rarely a long game. People might fall for your click once or twice, need your product and convert. And if that’s all you need them to do, fine.
However, if your company’s mission involves building a community or improving people’s lives in some way, editorial — high-quality, reported, curated content — can be a real asset. It’s what brings people back to your site or motivates them to share with others.
Zero’s Fasting app is an excellent example of this. The app’s functionality — a basic timer and health tracker — is helpful but not groundbreaking. Still, people pay $70 a year for it because it’s full of valuable written and video content from people who have built up that trust, like Dr. Peter Attia. Zero isn’t just trying to make a quick buck with a simple app — it’s trying to make people healthier over the long term, and the primary tool it’s using is high-quality editorial. You could argue that its actual product is education, and the app is just a nifty container.
To be clear, this education component of editorial also serves a commerce function. People won’t buy your product (in our case, a metabolic health membership) if they don’t know anything about the problem you’re trying to solve (e.g., what “metabolic health” is).
Another benefit to investing in high-quality editorial is that it scales. Unless you’re creating current-events-driven content (and most companies aren’t), your articles can find utility for years, bringing in new audiences, serving as an asset for potential candidates or partners, or even as a source for more marketing-focused derivative content. The value of the article isn’t just the click. It’s the engagement, the trust, the authority, and the problem solving you’ve offered that can live on.
We frequently hear from prospective candidates that they found us through our blog and were drawn in by seeing how seriously we take our content. We hear similar stories from members — how much they’ve learned about their health from our articles and newsletters. And we constantly send our company and culture content to other founders and investors in our network when they ask how we do something. Just the time we save by not having to jump on a sync call to explain it over and over again justifies the cost of the article.
Understanding those layers of benefits makes it easier to justify the incremental added expense of producing high-quality editorial. When you amortize the cost of your articles, videos, or podcasts over thousands of interactions across a multi-year span, spending $1000 on an article that continues to provide deep value rather than $200 on one that is quickly surpassed by some other SEO-chasing content farm doesn’t seem so crazy. This kind of accounting is one result that comes from thinking about your editorial as a product. You’re investing in something of value, not just making an ad spend with a simple CAC or LTV line.
4 Tips for Creating a Quality Editorial Operation Within Your Company
1. Think About Your Editorial Mission
Just as you have to understand what problem your product is trying to solve before building it, you have to know what mission your content is fulfilling and what problems it is trying to solve. If you’re investing in it, it needs to be valuable to your company.
For example, Levels’ mission is to reverse the metabolic health crisis. So all 250+ articles we’ve created fit somewhere in this framework that advances that mission: To tell people that metabolic health is a thing, that it matters, and that you can do something about it — awareness, education, service. Put more colloquially, if someone walks into a grocery store and makes a wiser decision because of our editorial, we win.
Make sure your editorial is just as critical to your company’s mission. (Note that you may find there are existing editorial or media sites already doing a great job of educating people about your area; or that people already know everything they need to know about your industry, in which case, maybe you don’t need to invest in editorial — it’s not a required department for every company. However, content may still have a role in marketing and is still worth doing well.)
2. Hire Journalists and Editors
The good news is that the collapse of the magazine and newspaper industry over the past 10 years means there are a lot of brilliant, highly trained editors and writers out there looking to work for companies dedicated to producing something good. Content agencies are trickier: many are great at middling quality content that will drive revenue; very few can create high-quality, reported editorial. Be choosy and beware vanity metrics — lots of agencies can whip out an article that ranks highly for a while and drives a quick traffic burst. That may be useful, but it’s not the same as being high-quality, durable, and valuable.
3. Keep Everyone on the Same Page About Goals
If you’re creating content that’s not explicitly for marketing, you want to ensure everyone on the team (leadership included) is aligned on what “successful” content looks like. It may take frequent reminders that the goal is to produce the best content possible on this topic, not to drive near-term revenue.
Is this a squishier KPI? Yes, it is. But you can still judge and measure it. Quantitatively, pay attention to engagement metrics that suggest people find value in the piece: time on page, bounce rate, exit rate, and pages per session. Qualitatively, show it to smart people and ask what they think: this could be other editorial people or experts in your field. We run every piece of content by an expert reviewer — MD, RD, PhD — (after editing and fact-checking) and ask for their candid opinion.
4. Pay Attention to Distribution
It doesn’t matter how excellent your editorial is if no one reads it. Market your content like it was a product. Use all of your digital channels: social media, email, YouTube, SEO, and niche distribution like forums or Reddit to get your content out there. The New York Times and National Geographic have marketing teams for their content — you should too.
These principles are editorial content 101, but you can follow them even if you’re writing content marketing. When I was consulting, I worked with a major auto brand on stories about their safety technology. The intent of these stories was to help consumers understand why their driver-assist features were so awesome and inspire them to want to buy their cars — solidly content marketing. But we still tried to report them with integrity and honesty. We interviewed the engineers, answered questions we thought consumers would have, and explained how they help in real-world scenarios. The articles and posts added a layer of richness that couldn’t be communicated in traditional marketing, and we didn’t settle for bland platitudes.
Whatever type of content you’re creating, be sure to uphold your integrity, align with the needs of your audience, and focus on rigorous reporting and storytelling in every piece you write. You’ll be amazed how far it will take your content operation.