Why good content costs serious money

Have you ever done an online search and wanted to read average content?

Me neither.

Everyone appreciates great content. But when it comes to paying for excellence, the marketing industry is in a race to the bottom.

Why? Let’s dive in.

Content that’s designed to rank vs. content that’s written to be read (you must know this)

Before creating content for a website, you generally need to answer a few questions.

  • What do we want this content to do?

The answers will dictate what kind of marketer you are.



Affiliate marketers exist to get the click. They combine two of the core phases of the messy middle of the search. Subject exploration and evaluation of choice. And they then offer a “done for you service.”

“We’ve explored options for you; we’ve narrowed your choices down; click here to find a great price.”

What matters most for this type of marketer is that a human views the content, and the viewer clicks a link.

Detailed reading is not required. Scanning and clicking are all they need and want.

With this type of content, the cost is upfront. The marketer can’t profit until it ranks, so it makes sense to try and generate content as cheaply as possible.

Content written to be read is different.

Because if it’s not read, the content can’t achieve its goals.

You might ask: what do we want the content to achieve?

We write great content so that change can happen.

That change is internal to the reader.

That change might be how they think about your business. That change might be that the reader sees you as the expert and loves your cause or values. They start to desire your products, your expertise, your ideas.

And unless the words get read, the change can’t happen.

Your goal for the content you create matters. If you want them to skim and click, then the price of the content doesn’t matter. The cheaper, the better.

You’re in a race to generate profit, so quality generally means the minimum topic coverage to satisfy the search engine’s AI.

But if you are a business that serves humans? Those humans have a choice.

Then the onus is on you to create content that affects readers.

But what goes into that type of content?

Let’s find out.

What goes into great content? 

Answer: Blood, sweat and tears.

It’s never just a blog post for a business.

It adds value to the web and adds value to the business.

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The problem is that for years, marketers have entered into a race to the bottom for content.

“What’s the minimum price we can get our content for?”

As a result, we see a lot of poor content.

It’s the wrong way to think about content.

Cheap content is rarely top quality.

There’s a cost for great content. And it’s often heavy.

Here’s why.

Great content is built and not written.

And so, content writers are content builders, and every piece of content they create has layers of their blood, sweat and tears embedded within.

The architect’s road to great quality content

If great content is built and not written, it makes sense that skilled labor creates that content.

And skilled labor requires payment that reflects the time spent learning the trade.

The mental model for content should be, “we need to create great content. What does it cost to create great content?”

Breaking the content process down, great content requires:

  • Keyword research
  • Outlining
  • Subject research
  • Knowledge of grammar
  • Writing skill
  • Writing experience
  • Image creation
  • Post optimization
  • Headline creation
  • Editing
  • Design
  • Upload

I’ve probably missed a few areas, but each area above is a skill in its own right.

But when the above come together in the right amounts, magic happens.

That’s the alchemy that lies within the creation of good content. And yes, this might mean that multiple people of varying skill sets work on creating great content.

However, it’s words that will always do the heavy lifting.

When Brian Dean created his famous skyscraper technique post, he made a post designed to be read and not just ranked online.

The result. It’s probably one of the most well-known and well-used content and SEO techniques.

And it generated more than 15,000 backlinks from more than 3,000 domains.

Sure, he could never have predicted how that content would perform.

But using a combination of all the skills we’ve listed above, the content smashed records.

Had he not designed the content, had a great writing style and added images in all the right places, it would have flopped.

But just what should good content cost?

To decide this, we need to look at the science behind what content does.

Content is alchemy. Price accordingly

Attempting to turn any metal into gold was the task of the ancient alchemists.

Today, modern alchemy happens within the mind.

Behavioral science has shown us that humans are often looking for signals so we can make sense of the world.

We eat at a busy restaurant and avoid the quiet one, believing it will serve better food.

We pick the expensive bottle of wine, believing it will taste better.

Nestled within behavioral science is what is called “costly signaling theory.”

“Costly signaling theory – the fact that the meaning and significance attached to something is in direct proportion to the expense in which it is communicated.”

Rory Sutherland, “Alchemy”

And this is part of the alchemy of quality content. At a human level, we all know that writing content at any level consumes a considerable amount of resources.

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Be that writer’s time, uploading, designing images. Even if the reader is unaware of the other intricacies of content creation, there is a mental recognition that “work” goes into the content.

Or, in other words, content is a visible investment in the reputation of your business that the reader can judge.

The content screams at your prospects.

“We’re experts. Choose us. We aren’t going anywhere”.

And when the reader absorbs the content, the change you seek can happen.

That change might be the decision to make a purchase.

It might be to subscribe.

Or it could be that they remember your business when they’re ready to make a purchase.

But it also goes a little deeper.

Because we’re a species of information hunters, and we need feeding.

The content hunger games

In 1990, Peter Pirolli and Stuart Card developed the information foraging theory.

The idea is simple. Information is a resource that we consume, just like food. And we look for high-quality sources of information. This is how, as a species, we evolved through shared knowledge.

Today, the internet handles a large quantity of our shared knowledge. And we are now online hunters, looking for rich patches of information to consume.

As a business, you’ll be judged by the quality of your information. And you’ll be initially judged based on what is known as “information scent.”

“The information scent of a source of information (such as a webpage) relative to an information need represents the user’s imperfect estimate of the value that the source will deliver to the user, derived from a representation of the source.”

Neilson Norman Group

In short, this means that users will judge your content based on how much value they think the content will provide them before they consume it.

Yes, just like a book, your content is judged by the cover, except the cover is a scan read of your content.

Design elements such as typography numbered lists, and interesting H2s play a huge role in the reader deciding to consume your content. And then your words need to keep them on the page, moving line to line through your content.

Your prospects will judge you by the effort you put into your content because they are on the hunt for high-quality information to help them make an intelligent purchase decision.

This is why the quality of your content at all levels is so important.

Great content = large impact. Achieving that impact requires effort, time and skill.

And you should be prepared to pay for this.

But how should you judge what quality content costs?

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Selling the invisible impact of content

If content makes a tangible impact, we should start to charge for that impact.

So, how do you do this?

The old model of content is to price “by the word.”

It’s cheap and it produces content waffle.

Word count should be a guide rope. It helps you to understand the required depth of the content quickly. But it’s not a target.

Content is finished when the content is good. Not because we reach a word count.

Content connects a business to a customer.

It’s a bridge that helps prospects to make intelligent decisions.

It also serves as a costly signal of intention and reliability. It can generate leads and be pushed to the prospect via paid and organic social media.

Or it can pull customers to your website, acting as a door through a good email marketing message or ranking on Google.

And as stated repeatedly, good content showcases expertise.

So, what is that worth?

I know it’s tough, but to make life easier. Don’t think of what content should cost. Think of what your budget for content is.

How to establish the right content budget

Generally speaking, your content budget should come out of your brand marketing budget and can form part of your SEO retainer.

Think about your needs.

Do you need 45 articles to generate traction for your business, or just 12?

But that’s the question.

“What do I need to create for the change we seek to happen?”

You should then seek the budget to make this happen.

But what about individual articles? What should you spend?

This is the wrong question.

Instead, consider this.

  • What are you prepared to pay for the change you seek to happen?
  • What is an article that ranks online and showcases your business worth to you?
  • What is it worth for a person to positively think about your business?

This is the figure you mentally start your inner negotiations with.

From there, you need to find and assemble the people who can help you build great content.

SEO specialists, writers, content designers and editors.

This might be one person. It might be an agency. It might be several skilled people.

And if this sounds expensive, it’s because it’s going to be.

This is why you must establish a significant budget for your content.

Great content is the expensive bottle of wine on the supermarket shelf.

You’re not buying it because you fancy a drink.

You’re buying it because you want to feel the impact of quality wine.

And if you want your content to have a significant impact on your prospects.

You need to invest in the content assets that will have that impact.


Opinions expressed in this article are those of the guest author and not necessarily Search Engine Land. Staff authors are listed here.