Content marketing is a hot topic, and a lot has been written about how to optimize for eyeballs—what time to post, when to post, how frequently to post, how many words to use, what keywords to use, etc.

That’s all important stuff, but quality matters too. What is your content saying to the market? What effect does it have on the people who read it?

In other words: once you’ve attracted the eyeballs, how are you engaging the brain?

The social web produces plenty of crap all by itself. It doesn’t need your help. You’re not doing yourself or your buyers any favors by adding to the mountain of bad content that’s already been published online.

If you’re doing content marketing, do us all a favor. Make it quality.

Great content takes many forms. It can be timely or timeless, strategic or tactical, quantitative or qualitative, personal or impersonal. There are as many different ways to write great content as there are to sing a great song or paint a great painting.

Regardless of your industry, your product, or your personal style, however, I find there are three Rules that content marketing MUST follow in order to be truly great:

  • Speak the truth
  • Be interesting
  • Support your company’s value propositions

In my experience, hitting all three of these Rules is easier said than done. It’s ridiculously easy to meet one Rule. Meeting two is pretty easy, too. But hitting all three—and hitting them consistently, with a steady flow of output—is the real challenge of content marketing.

Let me go through them in order.

Rule #1: Speak the truth

Maybe this one’s obvious, but it’s surprising how often it’s ignored. As a profession, we marketers have a tendency to say things that sound good to our ears, without asking ourselves whether it’s really true. (It’s what Princeton philosophy professor Harry Frankfurt describes in his classic essay “On Bullshit”.)

“When in doubt, tell the truth,” Mark Twain once wrote. “It will confound your enemies and astound your friends.” Today’s buyers are smart—probably smarter than you are. They’re surfing the web, gathering perspectives, absorbing information. If you’re not telling the truth, they’ll sniff you out.

So tell the truth in your content marketing. It will astound your customers and confound your competitors.

Rule #2: Be interesting

Whether a piece is provocative, personal, beautifully written, data-intensive, there are lots of ways to make your content interesting. Find your way.

If you only follow Rule #1 and publish true (but boring) content, then nobody will want to read it. Find a slant, find an angle, find the data, find the story, find the “something” that makes your true points stand out from everybody else’s.

Your points don’t need to be original. Shakespeare took his best plot lines from other sources, and Verdi took his best plot lines from Shakespeare. It’s perfectly acceptable to present familiar concepts and data, as long as you put your own spin on them:

  • Tell a personal story that puts color behind data your readers have seen
  • Publish data that puts quantitative rigor behind personal stories that your readers have heard
  • Create an infographic to tell a story readers have already heard in words
  • Write out in words your commentary on an infographic readers have already seen
  • Take a timeless principle and ground it in recent events
  • Take a recent event your readers are talking about and tie it to timeless principles

I could go on all day, but you get the point. Make your content interesting, or you’ll just be camouflage in the overgrown jungle of content that is the web.

Rule #3: Support your company’s value propositions

This rule puts the “marketing” in content marketing.

True, interesting content is great. But if you’re not supporting your company’s value propositions, then you’re indulging your personal passion for writing on the company’s dime. Write that stuff in your free time and put it on your personal blog.

Notice I didn’t say “Write about your company” or even “Write about what you do.” The connection. Often the best way to support your company’s value proposition is by not mentioning your company at all.

Rather than talk ad nauseam about yourself, shift your focus to the principles you espouse, the problems you solve, the techniques you support, the opportunities you create.

Don’t talk about yourself at all.

Your content should support the worldview of your happiest, most successful customers.

To borrow from Gandhi, your content marketing should reflect the change you wish to see in the world.

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Most of the content marketing that shows up on the web these days follow two of my three Rules. The most common pattern I see is content that meets Rules #1 and #3—it’s true and it supports the company’s value proposition, but it’s boooooring. We’ve all heard it before. Many times. (I wish I had a dollar for every boilerplate Top 10 list on the web.)

When you hit all three Content Marketing Rules, you hit a home run. It’s the best and surest way to advance the public dialogue in a way that attracts buyers to your brand. 

That’s real thought leadership, and it’s the best content marketing there is.