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Does Your Content Suck? Here's How to Tell

According to Twitter's co-founders, the Web is awash in bad content. Are you part of the problem?
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I'm a professional writer. I make my living creating, well, stuff like this. I'm also the president of a national organization of people who do the same thing. And I spend an absurdly huge amount of time reading. (At one summer camp I was mercilessly dubbed "Professor" for the large stack of books I kept in my cabin.) So you could say I'm deeply committed to the idea that content is king.

When Twitter co-founders Evan Williams and Biz Stone announced Tuesday they are "rethinking publishing" and creating an online medium (named Medium) dedicated to the idea that the quality of content matters, I took notice. "Lots of services have successfully lowered the bar for sharing information, but there's been less progress toward raising the quality of what's produced," Williams writes in his opening Medium post.

It's a shot across the bow for sucky content.

Bad content is everywhere, and it's Google's fault. Its algorithm that rewards most frequently updated content has inspired "news" sites that pay writers less than $10 per article, forcing them to write each one in half an hour or less. On Twitter, you disappear if you don't tweet often enough and some software will automatically un-follow you. So people tweet... whatever. I got a fair amount of attention for my piece last week on why people unfollow you on Twitter: One of my complaints was the use of foreign languages; the rest all amounted to sucky content.

A year ago PR exec and prolific blogger Steve Rubel moved his blogs to Tumblr which, as he put it, sits in the center of the "media cloverleaf"--meaning, the platform effectively engages old media, new media, branded media, and social media. (Flipboard does this too, and both have taken off.)

Medium ups the social ante by allowing users to collaborate on curated collections and vote various content up or down in prominence. Williams says contributors "don't have to worry about developing an audience." Presumably that's because if they contribute quality content, the site itself will do it for them. And if they don't... who needs them?

I have no idea whether Medium will make it in a world already crowded with competing social platforms. But the writing is on the wall: If you're using bad content to promote your business on social platforms--and, frankly, most of you are--the time is now to start creating quality content, or the increasingly voted-on and curated world of social media will push you below the fold.

How can you tell if your content sucks? Be brutally honest when answering the following:

1. Would I spend time on a Sunday afternoon reading or viewing this (blog post/Facebook update/tweet/video, etc.) if I didn't know the creator? If the answer is no, your content probably sucks.

2. Will people reading or viewing this information learn something that will either help them solve a problem or engage their emotions? And that useful information had better not be about your new product or feature, at least not most of the time. If all your content is a product or feature announcement, it officially sucks.

3. Is the content intended to benefit the reader/viewer or someone else? Thank yous, acknowledgements, featuring someone in your blog because you owe them a favor, asking people to vote for your pet project... all these things qualify as sucky content. They have relationship-building value too, so I'm not saying you should never do any of these things. But be very selective when you do. And make sure you're also providing a lot of quality content that will reward your reader/viewers for their attention.

What can you do if you want to improve the quality of your content? One simple way is to start paying attention to other people's content. Retweeting a great tweet takes about a second, or maybe 30 seconds if you want to add a comment of your own. Posting a link to a fascinating article or photo or video that someone else uploaded doesn't take much longer. Actually creating quality content from scratch is certainly more of an investment, but if you do it in the spirit of generosity to your audience, that audience will reward your effort and your business will benefit. Try it. You'll see.

Last updated: Aug 16, 2012

MINDA ZETLIN | Columnist | Co-author, The Geek Gap

Minda Zetlin is a business technology writer and speaker, co-author of The Geek Gap, and president of the American Society of Journalists and Authors.

The opinions expressed here by Inc.com columnists are their own, not those of Inc.com.



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