“Is this content really ready for primetime?”

This is the question content creators ask themselves every time they’re about to hit the “Publish” button. It’s a subjective call to make, and so most folks just do a final spell check, a final gut check, and then ship it.

That’s easiest to do when you’re the only one who needs to make the call. But it gets more complicated when more people get involved—which means as a content marketing organization matures, its approach to grading content should mature as well.

This goes for in-house content marketing teams, agencies, and marketing directors across the board. Having a system for evaluating when content is publish-ready allows you to plan, create, prioritize, hire, fire—all of these content-related tasks and more—in smarter ways.

Even small teams (like Overthink Group) have benefitted from this. When we started back in 2015, Jayson and I were the ones producing most of our content deliverables. He and I had shared an office at a previous employer, so we had an organic, mutual, and largely unspoken understanding of what the other believed was “good” content. But as the team grew, the standard for what made content “good enough” came down to a nebulous “What would Jeffrey think?”

Our general manager Zoe and I weren’t fans of this, and we discussed ways to make our standards more, well, standardized. We puzzled on this for a while.

The breakthrough came in a flash last year. We made a framework that everyone in the writing and review process can reference and appeal to. It helps me articulate my expectations for new content pieces. It helps writers explain what they’re aiming for in their execution. It helps editors point out where a piece is strong and how it can be improved. Plus, it’s helped me handle conversations with clients and colleagues about content quality, generative AI, and the shifting nature of SEO.

The Content Value Pyramid: 5 Tiers of Content’s Perceived Value

Overthink Group sorts professional content into five tiers when it comes to the value it provides to its intended audience, with Tier 1 being at the bottom and Tier 5 at the pinnacle.

Content Value Pyramid Overview

Content Value Pyramid

We stacked these tiers intentionally because they line up with how audiences evaluate the daily barrage of content: if a piece is distractingly filled with typos and errors, (i.e., it doesn’t even make Tier 1), people aren’t going to think of it as insightful. Audiences will make a snap decision about whether your content passes Tiers 1, 2, and 3 within the first few seconds of encountering your piece—if it doesn’t apparently pass all three immediately, it’s almost impossible for the reader or viewer to stick around long enough to form a second opinion.

Tier 1: Grammatically and stylistically sound content

This is the bare minimum for any professional piece of content: every piece of content that comes from your organization should at least pass a spelling and grammar check, capitalize branded terms consistently, and adhere to whatever style guide your organization uses. This is the sort of thing that any professional content writer should do by default, even if they’re new to the content game.

For Overthink Group, Tier 1 content looks like this:

While it has the lowest perceived value, there are some types of content at which Tier 1 is just fine, because anything more would be a waste of effort, (e.g., your “Contact us” page probably doesn’t need to be a rhetorical masterpiece).

Tier 2: Logically structured

You know that sense of frustration that you get when you follow a hyperlink and have to ask yourself, “where am I?!” Nobody wants to give their audience that feeling.

That’s why Tier 2 focuses on making sure the content stands up on itself. It should be clear what each piece of content is about, and people should be able to gather the gist of a piece by skimming through it. Whereas Tier 1 content simply does not embarrass itself, Tier 2 content supports itself.

For Overthink Group, that looks like this:

Like Tier 1, this is the kind of thing any skilled content creator should already do. It’s one of the reasons why I believe outlining is one of the first and most important skills a new content strategist should learn.

Tier 3: Compellingly framed

Tiers 1–2 address an audience’s expectations for anything they read, but Tier 3 is especially important for content marketers. Tier 3 content is framed in a way that gets the audience’s attention, keeps them engaged, and gives them something to do with what they’ve consumed.

You might say that Tier 3 is when content becomes “self-aware:” it knows it’s an ebook, a webinar, or a buyer’s guide. It knows it’s competing with the rest of the Internet for the audience’s attention. And so Tier 3 content builds on the structure that Tier 2 content has, making every part of the piece work together to keep the audience from drifting away. Whereas Tier 2 content supports itself, Tier 3 content advocates for itself.

At Overthink Group, Tier 3 content looks like this:

Tier 3 content also takes us beyond what we can reasonably expect generative AI to do an OK job at. While AI can create passably written sentences and follow a structure, it can’t bring the marketing oomf yet. Part of this is due to gen-AI’s black box nature: it can’t tell you why it chose the structure or the words it used. Even if you use a chatbot to write a grammatically error-free, clearly structured piece (i.e., Tier 2), you’ll need a human to go through it in order to bring it up to Tier 3.

Tier 3 is where content starts being “good enough” to publish if it’s being sent to people who are already bought in on you, your brand, your offerings, etc. Tier 3 content is far easier to produce than higher tiers, so it can be super useful for keeping audiences engaged and updated. However, it’s also far less competitive than higher tiers—especially when you’re trying to attract and influence decision-makers.

Tier 4: Connects and develops existing ideas

One of the strongest ways content provides value to its audience is by saving them time. If you’ve ever found a comprehensive overview of a topic that synthesized the important things to know and pointed you to resources that helped you learn more, you know exactly what kind of feeling Tier 4 content gives its audience. This applies to all sorts of topics and pages, especially the big three types of search-traffic–driving pillar pages: “What is X,” “How to Y,” and “Best of Z” pieces. While the “bones” of Tier 4 content aren’t necessarily original, the synthesis of source material should be.

Tier 4 content shows its value by demonstrating that the author has done the work to find the answers and distill them. Content at this level cites sources, gives outbound links for further reading, and assumes that anyone consuming it is going to fact-check them. Whereas Tier 3 content is self-aware enough to know it has to earn and keep attention, Tier 4 content is aware that the highest-value attention is also the hardest to earn. Decision-makers want more than just an engaging read or an entertaining watch: they want content that makes the competing content obsolete.

At Overthink Group, we describe Tier 4 content like this:

However, Tier 4 content can be tricky. Theoretically, any human could still make Tier 4 content, if they put in the work. Not many people have the requisite time to create the omni-summary of the best content out there, but content marketing is mature enough for this kind of content to have an expiration date, too. In emerging verticals (like new product categories), Tier 4 content tends to win. But in content-saturated verticals (like, well, content marketing), Tier 4 content is old news.

But that’s why we have Tier 5.

Tier 5: Contributes original insight

This is the best stuff: Tier 5 content is everything from the lower four tiers, plus it brings a new perspective and insight that would be impossible for people to get on their own.  A Tier 5 piece of content engages, informs, and enlightens your audience—it’s designed to give those big “a-ha!” moments.

Tier 5 content isn’t only difficult to make, but it’s the sort of thing that only a thought leader could produce: someone with a level of subject matter understanding that just drips with what Google calls “EEAT“: Expertise, Experience, Authority, and Trustworthiness.

There are many ways Tier 5 content can manifest, including:

  • Releasing original reports, research, and analyses (e.g., customer surveys and product usage data)
  • Providing non-obvious insights from internal subject matter expert experience
  • Publishing content that cites someone with documented authority as an author or co-author

But every piece of Tier 5 content brings something original and authoritative to bear. It’s not easy to make and it’s usually not quick to make—but it is the kind of thing that only an expert can make. This sort of content commands the attention of even the busiest leaders, helping them navigate big decisions more easily than they otherwise could have.

A grading system improves your content marketing efforts on many fronts

Coming up with a system for grading content like this was not easy—I think Zoe and I discussed the need for this over the course of almost a year before landing on this. But it’s been a huge win for us as a team. You might have a different means of evaluating a piece of content’s perceived value—it’s not like this is the One True Framework.

However, having a system like this can help your content strategy team realize more marketing results, commission stronger content, improve existing content quality, streamline content review processes, and even rank better in search engines.

Tier 4+ content is essential for attracting leaders

As our GM Zoe shared with our team:

How a leader and/or expert thinks about content’s value typically hinges on the presence of tier 4–5 contributions. If the content is tier 4+, leaders usually value the tier 1–3 components in the piece, too. Without tier 4+ contributions, leaders typically do not find value in the content at all—even if it’s error-free, logically structured, and compellingly framed.

Tier 3 is often “good enough,” but if you’re trying to find and develop leads in high places, “good enough” won’t be good enough. Anything written to attract experts’ attention for the first time should weigh in at Tier 4 or higher.

Tier 4+ content signals quality to search engines

If you look at some questions Google tells authors to ask themselves when assessing their content for quality, you’ll see that two-thirds of Google’s questions are asking whether a piece of content sits at Tier 4 or Tier 5:

Publishing Tier 4 content won’t guarantee you search traffic, but it helps your chances.

Tier 4+ content improves sales and customer loyalty

In The Challenger Sale: Taking Control of the Customer Conversation, researchers examined the relationship between 50 different factors and customer loyalty. These were the most impactful:

  • Rep offers unique and valuable perspectives on the market.
  • Rep helps me navigate alternatives.
  • Rep provides ongoing advice or consultation.
  • Rep helps me avoid potential land mines.
  • Rep educates me on new issues and outcomes.

Nowadays, reps aren’t doing all this heavy lifting themselves: a good content team will be setting them up with an arsenal of content that helps them do these things. And content below Tier 4 doesn’t address any of these needs. 

Beyond this, The Challenger Sale found a causal relationship between large sale success and reps who provided the kinds of wins that Tier 4+ content does.

If you’re putting together a dynamite sales force, you can set them up to succeed by creating the kind of content that sets them up to consistently provide these contributions.

A content grading system streamlines the review process

This was what started Overthink Group down this path: not only did we need a way to standardize how we talk about “good” content, we also needed a codified framework for discussing how content should be developed and improved. Since implementing this, our internal outlining, production, and review process has become smoother, with more time spent on developing content and less time spent figuring out how to say, “This seems like it could be better.”

A content grading system elevates your whole library

If you use the Content Value Pyramid framework (or something like it), you’ll find that it opens up a host of opportunities to make your whole content ecosystem stronger:

  • When you next audit your library, you can grade your extant content against this scale and identify pieces that can be improved. (And you’ll save yourself from some redundant effort.)
  • When you contract a content vendor or employee, you can grade their sample work against this scale. A framework like this also works as a way to ask about a potential content creator’s process for creating content—if they’re not bringing up themes of original insight and comprehensive coverage, you might need to give them additional training in order to get Tier 4+ content from them.
  • By focusing on higher quality content, you can let yourself off the content treadmill and explore other approaches to managing an editorial calendar.

How do you grade content?

It was a long journey for Overthink Group to come to something that worked for us—but I can’t imagine we’re the only organization who felt the need to do something like this. I’d love to hear what kind of systems you’ve used, what worked, and what you learned.

“Hey, I wish we had something like this!” We help our clients devise frameworks and models for prioritizing and producing content all the time, and if you’d like to chat about how Overthink Group can help you develop a strong content strategy (and strong content), shoot me an email or connect with me on LinkedIn!