Fixing the avalanche of crap UX in content marketing The mega-post that'll make your content too legit to quit

content marketing crap

Most content marketing is spectacular garbage. You know it and I know it because it’s impossible to avoid the non-stop stream of content pollution online.

The spammy links. The click-baity, vacuous articles. The all-round pathetic excuses for “content marketing” clogging up the arteries of the Internet.

And the problem with this spectacular garbage is that it has no content at all. It’s a collection of containers which contain nothing. Most of our industry is in denial – experts keep telling us to create more content, faster and promote it everywhere. 

What are we to do?

Firstly, we need to recognise that content *is not* the thing you create (that’s the format or medium) – content is the value (emotional or practical) in the thing you create.

If I were to create an infographic with shallow, incorrect or cliché information, then all I’d have is an infographic (format) with little or no value (content). I’d be in the business of spectacular garbage, not content marketing.

Many marketers seem to miss this point and that’s probably why research by Moz and BuzzSumo has thrown up statistics like these:

Most online content is ignored (at best) or despised (at worst).

This article gives how-to explanations, with real-life business examples, of the one process you can’t escape if you want to create content that’s overflowing with value – user research.

What we have here is a 3500-word beast, so you can jump right to any section that catches your eye using these links: 

  1. User research and testing for written content (including tone of voice) – using methodology we’ve applied ourselves
  2. UX testing video content – using Shearings as a real-life case study
  3. Impact of UX on SEO – using guidelines from Big Bad Google and a real-life case study of a charity
  4. Balancing content and design to provide a good UX – using Branded3, a digital agency, as a case study
  5. The story of content – a documentary about the evolution of content by the Content Marketing Institute (CMI) 

Research is the beating heart of all great content – and there’s no escaping that

Whether you’re creating a film, novel or blog post, you will not do it well unless you do deep research.

Robert De Niro became a cabbie and acted powerfully in Taxi Driver. Ernest Hemingway moved to Cuba and wrote powerfully in The Old Man and The Sea.

If you’re writing semi-autobiographical fiction, your research lies in the life you’ve lived. If you’re making a film, your research lies in the characters you’re depicting. If you’re creating marketing content, your research lies in the audience you’re creating it for.

Only when you understand a subject inside out are you equipped to recognise what is most interesting, valuable and unique about it

And that’s how you avoid spectacular garbage.

content shock

Photo credit: Norbert Schoerner

“Can’t someone else do the research, while I create content based on their work?” 

You can’t rely on someone else to do the heavy lifting because the heavy lifting is what makes your content strong.

Ignoring that is like making someone else exercise in the hope that it will make you stronger. Even the few who successfully curate content by others, are able to because their subject matter expertise lets them accurately sort the crème de la crème from run-of-the-mill crap.

The depth, clarity and knowingness that research gives, are all like sturdy sinews running through the body of your words (written or otherwise), and images (moving or otherwise).

That’s not something you can fake or mimic. It’s either there or it isn’t.

User research for great content

Your content will be best equipped to convey the right message, as well as interest people and compel them to act, only if you let users drive its direction and style.

The sections below explain a few ways of doing that.

User experience (UX) testing

User experience (UX) is everything that happens to people when they interact with your your content. It includes everything they see, hear and do, as well as their emotional reactions.

You can improve the experience users have with your content by running UX (or usability) tests – where you observe the spoken thoughts and actions of users, as they interact with your website, app or anything else. It shows you exactly what to keep, improve or ditch.

Even the Content Marketing Institute recommends usability testing to find out whether your content can be easily found and resonates with your audience.

Are people going round in circles trying to find something that’s obvious to you on the page? Is the content sending them on irrelevant, tangential thought processes?

  • The format of a blog or content microsite, and whether or not people find it easy to use
  • The format of blog posts or content pieces, and whether or not people find them easy to scan and digest
  • The obviousness, clarity and persuasiveness of the messages in a post or piece of content
  • The appeal of the images and visuals used within content 

Essentially, you can find out whether or not the content being tested hooks people, even when they aren’t giving it their full attention (which is what happens most of the time).

Here are examples of UX tests you can run on content.

1. UX testing for written content

Testing the effectiveness of your tone of voice

Thanks to the Nielsen Norman Group, one of our partners, we can now say tone of voice impacts the effectiveness of your content (without a shadow of a doubt).

This two-part study by NNg used quantitative and qualitative testing to measure the impact of tone of voice on web content by 4 pairs of businesses (across insurance, healthcare, banking and home security).

The research team categorised each of the businesses using the 4 dimensions of tone of voice:

  • Funny vs. serious
  • Formal vs. casual
  • Respectful vs. irreverent
  • Enthusiastic vs. matter-of-fact

Each pair of writing samples was nearly identical — having the same presentation, industry, topic, context, and details. NNg only changed the tone and name of each company.

The team also removed all design and used stripped-back, text-only wireframes to present the words – so visuals wouldn’t affect the outcome of the study.

During qualitative testing, NNg gave users scenarios – e.g. “Imagine your friend is preparing for minor surgery. You’ve offered to help your friend decide which hospital to visit for the surgery.” Users were then shown wireframes containing sample content and asked to think aloud as they made a decision.

During a quantitative survey of 100 American users over the age of 18, NNg asked readers to rate each sample. Users were to indicate their impressions of each company (based on the writing), rather than of the writing itself.

The 3-tiered results of this extensive study were that:

  • There are quantifiable qualities of tone (like friendliness and formality)
  • These qualities have a measurable impact on users’ impressions of a brand’s personality (like the friendliness and trustworthiness of the brand)
  • These impressions significantly influence users’ willingness to recommend a brand 

You can follow all or some of the methods used by NNg to measure the impact of your business’ tone of voice.

Of course, some of us aren’t research professionals and may need a less comprehensive approach – some of which I cover below. Stay with me!

tone of voice

Make sure your content marketing speaks to your audience

Running an exploratory study on written content

This is where you give users a topic, then ask them to find information about it using their preferred sources. Also, make sure the topic you choose is one your audience is interested in.

Here are example areas to keep an eye on or ask users about while they research a topic:

  • How do they begin their search – with a search engine, in a subject-matter forum or elsewhere?
  • Which terms do they use to search for content?
  • Once presented with multiple sources of content, which ones do they choose and why?
  • As they scan content, how quickly do they find something that catches their eye and what is it that does so?
  • How quickly can they find messages within the content that are most relevant and valuable to them (if at all)? 

Even if users don’t end up consuming your content, you’ll learn enough about the topic being researched to create something compelling for your business.


Running a directed study on written content

On the other hand, you can tell users to research a topic, but only on your blog or website.

Your approach and the type of insights you’ll get won’t differ much from when you’re running an exploratory study – except you won’t learn much about the competition.

Collecting user reviews

I’ve used this to retroactively get feedback on blog posts and to help steer the creation of new content:

  • Identify the audience for which you’re writing (e.g. eCommerce directors in the UK)
  • Ask people from this demographic whether they’d be interested in regularly reading and giving feedback on your content
  • Aim to recruit about 5-10 reviewers, so ask a lot more people. You can incentivise them but I’ve found many are happy to do this for free.
  • Collect all the questions they most desperately want answers for – by noting FAQs from sales calls or visits, or by asking your small community of customer reviewers
  • Pick a topic that you feel you can discuss in a more valuable way than most of your competition – even better if your product or expertise adds a new dimension to that topic, which others can’t copy
  • Write a draft post on that topic, then send it to your customer reviewers for feedback


Feedback to request from reviewers

It’s advisable to leave the floor open to any kind of feedback – even “inaccurate” feedback can tell you something about how readers might perceive your work. However, you can also ask reviewers for thoughts regarding specific issues:

  1. Whether the title of your piece entices them to read more
  2. The kinds of answers they’d expect to find in your piece, based on its title
  3. Whether once they’d read your piece, they felt it provided the value promised in the title
  4. How easy it was to spot and remember insights that were relevant to them 

You can then refine your draft to produce a final piece based on the feedback. You’ll avoid publishing spectacular garbage that no one wants.

You don’t have to do this for every article or piece of content – but it’s probably worth doing periodically by anyone who plans on generating revenue from content. Journalists will often spend months on a good story…

Once you have your customer reviewers in place, it can take about a week to write a piece, get feedback and create a final draft.

Your smartest business move is UX testing.

Try it for yourself – get a free trial showing 3 real people using your website or app, as they speak their thoughts

2. UX Testing for video content

Remote UX testing is done using software that can be downloaded onto phones, computers, tablets and other digital devices. This software allows you to record the actions and spoken thoughts of users.

This means you can use it to improve virtually anything people interact with on a screen – even marketing video content.

Shearings – the UK’s number 1 and Europe’s largest coach holiday tour operator – trebled customer acquisition when it ran remote UX tests on its TV adverts.

video content

Make hypnotic videos instead of sending out static

How Shearings trebled customer acquisition by running remote UX tests on its TV adverts

After a hugely successful 2012 TV advertising campaign, Chris Baker, Shearings’ head of marketing, was faced with a troubling question:

Why did our 2012 TV advert out-perform our 2013 version, even though the latter cost more and was viewed internally as being slicker?”

Considering he was about to spend another chunk of his budget on creating the 2014 ads, Chris needed to confidently answer this question.

So, Chris ran remote UX tests with 20 users who fit Shearings’ target audience (UK-based, 50+ year-old holidaymakers). He got them to watch the 2012 and 2013 adverts, recording their thoughts and actions with the WhatusersDo platform as they did so.

The unbelievably simple problem with Shearings’ video content was made obvious

Shearings hadn’t taken into consideration that many in its target audience didn’t have perfect vision. The images in its newer, 2013 advert changed too quickly – users didn’t get time to process all the information flashing on the screen.

Here’s a sample of what got users giving such unanimous negative feedback:


Users repeatedly said the 2013 advert was too fast and flashy on the screen”:



Or so quick that it was hard to concentrate on what was being said”:



Improvements based on user thoughts and behaviours

It’s sobering to think that something so small could compromise all the good work Shearings did in other areas.

Users gave lots of other positive feedback about the 2013 ad (vs the 2012 one) – like it being more modern, and the voice and music being more appealing.

Even more sobering is that Shearings might have made the same mistake in the 2014 ad, had Chris not done research with users.

The 2014 ad avoided the same pitfalls, so it trebled customer acquisition and halved costs per acquisition.

What this means for you

Even though Shearings ran remote UX tests on its TV adverts, you can use it to improve almost any kind of video content. Videos on your website. Videos on your YouTube channel. Vlogs. Anything.

search engine

WALL-E the search engine

3. Impact of user experience on SEO

First on Google’s list of philosophies is, “Focus on the user and all else will follow.”

Even Google says user experience is the key to winning the approval of its search engine.

SEO is important to content because we want as many (relevant) people as possible to find the content we create. Most (if not all) of those people will be searching for content using a search engine.

According to MOZ, there are 3 main reasons user experience now has a massive influence on how Google sees your site:

  1. Machine learning – since the Panda update, Google’s algorithm has learned to mimic the way humans judge what is and isn’t a good site. This has led to a rearrangement of over 20% of all of Google’s search results.
  2. Engagement metrics – search engines now observe the way you interact with the pages offered in response to your query. They can determine how satisfied (or not) you were with these pages based on your online behaviour.
  3. Linking patterns – search engines use the way websites link to each other as a way of judging which websites are popular and have high-quality content. If we were to think of a backlink as a vote, then who’d want to vote for spectacular garbage? 

What do these 3 factors have in common? They all relate to what other people do with your site (e.g. linking back to your blog), as opposed to what you do with it (e.g. on-page keyword optimisation).

Google also pays close attention to how well-optimised your content is on mobile devices, so your multi-device experience needs to be (at least) good. If mobile users have a hard time with your content, Google shakes its head disappointingly and downvotes you.

This new SEO approach is cyclical, almost karmic – the more people who have a good experience with your content, the more your content will be shown to other people… and vice versa.

If you’re creating content you want people to find, you need to test and improve the experience users have with it.

Here’s a real-life business scenario where a company did just that.

How Brook improved Google rankings and increased organic traffic

Brook is the UK’s leading provider of sexual health services and advice for young people under 25.

Young people on mobile devices make up over 60% of the traffic to Brook’s website.

It was important that people looking for help could find Brook’s content through Google, and the sections most relevant to them once they were on the site.

Brook had sunk effort and resources into areas it felt would improve its content:

  • Key pages had doubled in length
  • Section names for content areas were being re-examined
  • Brook’s clinics (which are called “services”) needed to be easy to find 

The Brook team knew that when it comes to a subject as important as sexual health, content can’t afford to be useless. It also knew the only way to be sure whether all those words and images were helping anyone would be to ask the users the site was built for.

Results of running remote UX tests on Brook’s site content

The team at Brook had users try to perform specific tasks on the website relating to:

  • Content discovery and usefulness
  • First impressions
  • Navigation clarity

Changes made based on the insights from testing led to:

  • Increased organic traffic dramatically – hitting 859,682 sessions between March 2015 and February 2016
  • Improved Google rankings – with the “Find a Service” page claiming the no. 2 spot on their list of top 10 pages
  • Launch of a new website template – which made the site design cleaner and content easier to find 

4. Balancing content and design

It’s important to distinguish between “content” (the insight you wish to convey e.g. UX testing tips for beginners) and the “medium” (the format in which it will be conveyed e.g. short video or listicle).

It’s also important to remember that the content is what you’re trying to give people, not the medium.

Knowing these two things means that you’ll never compromise your content for the sake of the medium in which it’s presented. Your goal is not to create a blog post, it’s to teach beginners how to run UX tests – follow whichever medium best allows you to do that.

That’s what balancing content and design is all about.


Branded3 helped a client avoid incorrectly balancing content and design, and losing money

Branded3 is a search and digital marketing agency with a multifaceted approach that exceeds traditional SEO.

Sometimes, clients will start the process of designing their assets with another agency before realising the necessity of involving user research. That’s when Branded3 steps in to perform a UX audit of the client’s digital asset.

Real-life impact of user research on a Branded3 client

Branded3 assessed a client’s newly designed site by connecting user behaviour insights (gained from remote UX testing) with problem areas revealed in analytics. The team also ran face-to-face lab tests and directed their analysis with usability heuristics.

It became clear that the client’s website was suffering from deep-seated UX issues – lots of design over substance (the site looked good but people found it hard to use).

From an SEO point of view, this meant that certain design choices – e.g. cutting useful content to make pages look prettier – would cause some pages to disappear from rankings altogether.

Branded3 could put a dollar value on the impact of this disappearance, based on the amount of traffic and sales opportunities the client would’ve missed out on.

Your smartest business move is UX testing.

Try it for yourself – get a free trial showing 3 real people using your website or app, as they speak their thoughts

5. “The Story of Content” – a Content Marketing Institute documentary

This is an interesting documentary, if only to see how different businesses with contrasting budgets have applied the concept of content marketing:

  • You can go cheap and practical like “Will it Blend” by Blendtec, or the sales blog by River Pools
  • You can go expensive and aspirational, like Red Bull does by sponsoring and facilitating extreme sports (space jump anyone?)

But two things stuck with me:

  • David Jones, Publications Manager at John Deere said the company created its magazine (The Furrow) because it recognised the need for accurate, unbiased information
  • The conclusion that there is no hack for creating great content – no quick wins, no cheap tricks and no magical secret

 Remember… Accurate. Unbiased. No hack


Timi is a London-based copywriter and full-time marketing sceptic – there are now more unvalidated opinions out there than ever.

He became a UX testing enthusiast after seeing its power while working at TUI – the world’s largest travel, leisure and tourism company. He then joined WhatUsersDo to sharpen his UX knowledge and work side-by-side with the field’s best and brightest.

Leave a Reply