How to Evolve Beyond “Actionable Content”

The problem with “actionable content” is that it’s a commodity.

It often requires little subject matter expertise and lacks specificity. Actionable content is not a substitute for a cohesive content strategy. This isn’t to say that none of your content should be actionable, but if all of it is, it’s sure to be ineffective.

Before we go any further, let’s clarify what exactly we mean by actionable content. It’s a style of writing that shows readers how to accomplish a task. It’s very tactical and includes step-by-step directions. It’s usually created within a content strategy that (1) demands high volume and (2) is focused primarily on SEO. Think of posts like “5 Ways to Get More Twitter Followers” and “How to Write Subject Lines That Double Your Open Rates.” Imagine lots of screenshots annotated with arrows. You know the type of content we’re talking about.

Content marketing is too often tasked to the people in a company with the least subject matter expertise. When people with little subject matter expertise write content, you end up with a commodity. Any company can get similar work done for a small price. And readers have an abundance of similar content to choose from.

To compound the problem, actionable content is tactical and therefore reaches tactical readers. One of the content marketing tropes we hear over and over again is the desire to reach decision-makers, but this type of writing reaches people on the other end of the spectrum by definition.

To summarize, actionable content reaches a very narrow base of readers. Similar to top-of-funnel content, it should be part of a strategy, but not the strategy.

Here are a few ways to evolve beyond actionable content.

1. Understand the Difference Between Tactical and Strategic Readers

Write for pay scale, not demographics. Tactical readers—the implementors who need instructions on writing email subject lines or growing a Twitter following—benefit from tactical content. The more actionable, the better.

Strategic thinkers—managers and executives running teams and controlling budgets—don’t need step-by-step directions to do their jobs. They need models, frameworks and principles to guide their thinking.

As you build and refine your content strategy, think of your readers on a spectrum from tactical to strategic. You’ll want to address both ends and everything in the middle.

2. Separate “Actionable Content” from Calls to Action

Actionable content and calls to action are two very different things.

Content absolutely should be interesting, useful, entertaining, inspiring or, sometimes, actionable. Just because content is not actionable, however, does not mean that it can’t help you convert readers into customers.

Calls to action are logical segues from content to product. When content and calls to action are paired together thoughtfully, content attracts readers who have a very specific problem, then introduces them to a solution that helps solve it. A good content strategy facilitates the creation of content with plenty of opportunities for seamless calls to action.

3. Understand Your Constraints on Growth

For all the problems we’ve outlined with actionable content in this post, it does have its place in your content strategy. Actionable content can be a good way to drive top-of-funnel traffic and if creating awareness of your business is a constraint on growth, then this can be very useful.

If your product is freemium and targets individual users, actionable content can be hugely effective. Anum Hussain, formerly a growth marketer at HubSpot, used this exact strategy to grow Sidekick, a free product.

The takeaway here is that if actionable content helps you unlock growth, then go for it. But if you’re growing traffic without also growing the business, you may need to reconsider your content strategy. It’s likely that you need more middle and bottom of the content along with more compelling calls to action.

Think Beyond Actionable Content

“Create actionable content” is not a strategy. It could be one piece of a comprehensive approach, but this cliché has gotten a lot of content marketers into trouble over the last few years. Spend time understanding your readers and your business, then make deliberate decisions about exactly what kind of content to create.