The cookies are eaten. The stockings are empty. The presents are opened—and some of those gifts aren’t exactly what you had in mind when you wrote your letter to Santa.

Image: Bill S via Flickr

Maybe the sweater’s too small. Maybe you already have the complete first season of Saved by the Bell. Or maybe you just have no idea what Santa was drinking when he brought you that Richard Pryor Chia Pet.

Useless, generic, or thoughtless gifts make terrible presents. If you want your gift to stay out of the exchange bin, you’d better put some serious thought and consideration into each present you give.

Naturally, the same applies to your content.

Free Content = A Gift For Your Audience

Every time you publish a piece of content, you’re offering your readers a gift. Sound cheesy? Stay with me.

You’re not charging anything for that content. You’re offering it up in the hopes that it’ll be useful, relevant, and engaging for the reader. You’re also hoping they’ll share that gift with their friends. Just like there’s that one family member who really “gets” you and always gives awesome presents, your goal is to be an authoritative source online who really “gets” your readers and always gives plenty of awesome content.

Fail to give your readers what they want and you’ll be operating under a different kind of “no return policy” one where your visitors won’t return to your site.

How can you avoid giving your readers a gift they’ll want to return? Like gifts, good content should be all of the following:

  1. Useful
  2. Relevant to the recipient
  3. Timely (or timeless)
  4. Unique (something they can’t easily find elsewhere)

Useful: Give Your Readers Something with Actual Value

The first rule of gift-giving is to give a gift the recipient will actually use. That quesadilla maker might look cool, but will your cousin with the tiny kitchen actually use it? If your readers can’t (or won’t) use your content, why bother giving it? It’s a waste of time and effort for both parties.

Ask yourself: What purpose does this content serve for the reader? How can they use this information in real life?

Relevant: Tailor Your Gift for the Recipient

The New York Times‘ City Room Blog asked their readers to name the most terrible gifts they’d ever received. One read:

“A Harrah’s Casino coffee mug full of quarters given to me by my grandparents. The mug read, ‘Life begins at 21!’ I was 9.”

There is no such thing as a one-gift-fits-all present—and similarly, there’s no one-size-fits-all style of content. Know your audience and consider their unique needs before you develop your content strategy.

Ask yourself:  If I were a member of my audience, what would I want to read? What would I appreciate? What types of content have gotten a warm reception in the past?

Timeless or Timely: Your Content Should Never Be Stale

There are two kinds of amazing presents: those that are the Next Big Thing or those that you can use forever. No one wants an original iPhone when they can have an iPhone 4. Your content should either capitalize on what’s current and fresh (current events, pop culture, or memes, for example) or be evergreen (meaning the information will still be relevant for years to come).

Ask yourself: Will this information still be relevant in a year? Is this story “stale?” Has everybody else already covered it? What content would be most relevant for today—and what content will attract readers for years to come?

Unique: Something They Can’t Find Elsewhere

Truly special gifts aren’t wool socks or a generic sweater: they’re something that the recipient can’t just go out and buy anywhere. Similarly, your content should offer something your readers can’t get anywhere else—meaning they’ll return to you for more.

Ask yourself: Why should my reader come to me for this information? What can I offer that no one else can? What new spin can I put on this content?

In Short: No One Likes Junk

It all comes down to a simple concept: no one has any use for junk. Both the Internet and our closets are already filled with enough clutter—to be a truly great gift, your content and your presents have to stand out from the masses. Work hard to give a thoughtful, useful gift and your content will never end up in the return pile.

Sound Off: What Was the Worst Present You Ever Received?

We’d love to create our own version of Our Readers’ Worst Gifts Ever list! So, CopyPress readers, do tell: what was the worst present you ever received? Share your holiday horror story in the comments!