Not long ago, I worked for a popular health and wellness site that prided itself on publishing honest, research-backed content free of the b.s. diet/detox speak that most other brands churn out. Readers looked to us—and to our expert network of physicians, registered dietitians, therapists, and certified personal trainers—for actionable, thoughtful advice on how to get just a bit healthier every day (i.e., no “six-pack abs in six weeks” garbage). 

When I worked with the editors to develop story ideas, there was always one question that led our decision-making process: How can we best serve our audience? It made us examine the purpose of every article and campaign: Are we looking to dispel a popular myth? Make readers feel less alone in their struggles? Provide useful alternatives to bad habits? There always had to be a compelling reason to read.  

In this way, service journalism isn’t all that different from content marketing—despite the areas of focus being light-years apart. You need to understand the needs of a very particular audience and then figure out what to say—as well as how to say it—to establish a connection and inspire trust. Doing so successfully can increase brand awareness, allow you to showcase your expertise, and potentially drive business. 

So how are you going to create valuable content that positions you as a subject matter expert? What sort of free advice or solutions can you provide to gain readers’ trust to the point where they’re willing to make that leap of faith and ultimately invest their time—and possibly their money? 

Define Your Target Audience

Perhaps you’re trying to attract HR professionals in the market for learning and development software. Or maybe it’s IT execs looking to upgrade their company’s digital capabilities. The group you’ve set your sights on should dictate the types that content you’re developing, both in substance and in form. 

In my case, the target audience was women between the ages of 18 and 35 who were looking for judgment-free guidance on how to feel better both physically and mentally. Every story—from time-saving recipe formulas to a deep dive into how gut bacteria affect every aspect of your health—needed to be of value to that group in some way. 

Determine Their Biggest Concerns and Questions—and Help to Solve Them

What specific questions are top of mind for your audience? Use your expertise to provide the clearest, most thoughtful answers that position you as a knowledgeable resource. The more genuinely helpful your content, the greater the chance those readers will become loyal followers (or customers). 

For our site, that meant ensuring the content we produced (especially when it came to science-heavy stories) was better researched, more relatable, and more thoughtfully presented than what was already out there. For instance, could we translate jargon-heavy studies from the National Institute of Health into easy-to-understand concepts that users could apply to their everyday lives—and weren’t bored to death upon reading? (I’d like to think we did.)  

Choose the Best Format to Deliver This Information

Would it be most impactful displayed visually in an infographic? Should you start a blog series to give your quick take on pressing issues within the industry? It might be worth whipping up a whitepaper if you’re looking to go more in-depth on a particular technical issue or choosing an ebook for more of a high-level “how-to.” Throw in podcasts, books, and videos, and the options are nearly endless. Rather than be overwhelmed, get smart about your strategy: Which format will most resonate with your readers?

We made these choices on a regular basis, opting for easy-to-scan list formats for product recommendations and recipe roundups (which played well on Pinterest thanks to artfully constructed banner images), photo-heavy articles for workout suggestions, collection pages for topic-driven miniseries, and long-form articles for in-depth explainers and personal essays.

Taking the time to examine the motivations and needs of your audience and to see who else is attempting to answer their questions—and how you can do it better— is key to being a successful content marketer (and honestly, a good editor).