The 7 kinds of content marketing articles and what they’re good for

20 August 2018

Think of all the millions of pieces of content that have been posted online. Now realise that almost all of them can be broadly classified into just a few major types. By and large, these article types evolved from styles discovered and refined through some 200 years of magazine publishing.

Yes, writing for the internet is different from writing for the printed page. Reading behaviours are different and audiences are different too. But it’s also not going too far to say that digital content creation owes much to magazines, just as online video owes much to TV.

In this article, we’re going to look at some descendants of magazine publishing: the main kinds of content marketing articles and then go into what they’re good for.

1. Listicle

One of the most common of all content marketing article types, the list article (or listicle) is a good, safe option in almost any content campaign. Either as a grab-bag collection, a pro-and-con or a ranked countdown, the listicle is easy to digest and naturally provokes audience engagement. They essentially underpin the entire publishing model of Cracked. Listicles are fairly easy to produce because there is no need for a ‘throughline’ that advances an idea from beginning to end. All you need to do is pick a topic and find a few facts or controversial points. Some topics, especially overall run-downs (such as this very article you’re reading), are a natural fit for a listicle.

  • Immediate traffic impact: Fair to high
  • Evergreen rating: Fair to low
  • Cost or difficulty of production: Low
  • Research requirement: Fair

2. Case studies

We human beings are suckers for stories with characters we can get to know. We love following these people through problems and solutions. Stories with a clear beginning, middle and end are just how we best absorb detailed information. A case study is such a story, just presented in a way that foregrounds how and why the solution was applied. It demonstrates the capability of the solver and gives context to the whole subject. Plus, a case study uses the fact that readers want to know what people like them are doing and turns this towards business ends. Case studies can be very revealing (in a good way) and, at their longest, can run to hundreds of pages. That said, we’ve seen case studies done effectively in just a couple of paragraphs.

  • Immediate traffic: Low
  • Evergreen rating: Very high
  • Cost or difficulty of production: High to very high
  • Research requirement: High to very high

3. Explainers and features

Wrapping in feature articles, slice-of-life and education, the explainer article’s job is to teach the reader about a topic. Where a news article must nail, who, what, when and where, the explainer is all about the how and why. Yes, the explainer still needs to include a lot of facts, but it will also have a lot of opinion and interpretation. As it is all about giving context for a topic and putting its various parts into neat categories, the explainer often touches on history and counter-arguments too. The goal is to turn curious readers into informed readers.

  • Immediate traffic: Fair
  • Evergreen rating: Fair to very high
  • Cost or difficulty of production: Fair to very high
  • Research requirement: High

4. News

What’s happening? When and where did it happen? Who was involved? News just gets the important facts about a new event out quickly. Straight-up news articles on the right topics can get big traffic. They also have a limited shelf life because there’s always new news and facts change as issues evolve anyway. Because news articles don’t say much about how events fits into the broader topic, they have a complementary relationship with explainers. Think of it like this: if each news article is a dot on a chart, then an explainer article is the line joining them up. The old adages from the newspaper days still hold for online news articles too: if you can give the most riveting news before anyone else, you win. This however encouraged sensationalism and sloppiness back in the day – the tendency is even more pronounced online.

  • Immediate traffic: High
  • Evergreen rating: Low
  • Cost or difficulty of production: Low to fair
  • Research requirement: Fair to very high

5. Q&As

Sometimes the easiest pieces to produce, the question and answer article also gets good traffic and tends to last for a while. So why don’t you see more of them? There are a few reasons. They can take a little time. They can be seen as low quality. Many businesses publishing content quickly run out of interesting people their readers want to know about. If you do have a knowledgeable and enthusiastic speaker, then a Q&A can be golden. Even easier, you can conduct the question and answer part via email. However, if your speaker is hard to get to, can’t stay on topic or wants veto rights, the difficulties of producing one of these articles can completely blow out the ROI. Near-complete Q&As are routinely buried when speakers decide they no longer want to cooperate after the draft is written. All that said, if you set expectations early and prepare well, then things shouldn’t go pear-shaped.

  • Immediate traffic: Fair to high
  • Evergreen rating: Depends on speaker
  • Cost or difficulty of production: Depends on speaker
  • Research requirement: Low

6. How-to guides

The godsend of a reader with a problem, the how-to guide is a detailed and logical sequence of facts or instructions that enables the audience to do something new or in a better way. More than any other kind of article, this one requires a deep understanding of the reader. Because a how-to guide is quite specific, you need to know the situation your reader is in and the precise problem they’re facing. To get them to try your how-to guide, you must know the result they want, establish your credibility and then demonstrate your expertise in clear and simple steps. There can be a lot of crossover with technical writing, but you’ll be writing for a non-technical audience, so avoid jargon.

  • Immediate traffic: Low
  • Evergreen rating: Very high
  • Cost or difficulty of production: High
  • Research requirement: Very high

7. Opinion and curation

Because they are based on subjects that are so personal and the events being discussed so varied, the opinion and curation article type is a wildcard. Some curators and opinion writers are among the world’s foremost internet personalities, such as Seth Godin. Alongside these superstars, are millions of abandoned and unread blogs filled with opinion and curation. Depending on approach and existing knowledge base, an article advancing your take on a topic or critique of a certain piece of source material can be dashed off as fast as you can type, or, in the case of more academic work, can take years of in-depth thinking and investigation. Your approach will depend on who is going to listen. If you don’t already have an audience primed to receive your thoughts, it’s unlikely that your opinions will find an audience at all. If you do have an audience already, then the odd opinion piece can become timeless; the rest are just ripples in a Google ocean.

  • Immediate traffic: Variable
  • Evergreen rating: Variable
  • Cost or difficulty of production: Variable
  • Research requirement: Variable

Write for your reader

This blog post has spoken about the most common kinds of online articles. They aren’t all created equal. A news article proves you are at the forefront of your field, but says little about your business persona. A case study can go in-depth on what happened, but makes no predictions of what’s to come. A listicle will rarely have an actual point to make.

You can see that matching the right mix of articles to what your audience wants is as much a keystone of content campaign ROI as finding and choosing the right keywords.

Do it right and your content will continue to perform, both in terms of reader engagement and SEO performance over the long term. Do it poorly and you might not see any results. We’ve even seen research where the combined effect of 38 cheap and quick articles was blown away by a single high-quality piece: 597 page views versus 161,000.

That’s not a typical case, but is an excellent example of what happens when you invest in the right type of article, written in the right way and put in the right place.

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