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Content marketing is currently battling ‘big data’ and ‘responsive design’ for the hottest digital marketing phrase of the year. Yet the truth is that while the label has grown in popularity, the notion that content marketing is new is something of a curve ball.
Many brands have been producing regular content for many years, and already appreciate the value of blogs, surveys, whitepapers and videos. They understand the power of content and understand how it can attract the right kind of attention.
But what is new is that content marketing roles are being created, and teams are being restructured. Content is becoming more tactical as a result.
I see content marketing is a kind of umbrella term for five disciplines: editorial, marketing, PR, SEO and social. It is the glue that bonds these things together, and a predefined content marketing strategy can help these teams to focus on long-term goals.
In this article I’m aiming to outline the various factors behind a successful content marketing strategy, partly for our own benefit (we hired our first content marketer last summer), and partly as a thinking out loud exercise so that you can tell me what I’ve missed. Please leave any pointers and ideas in the comments section below.
You might work for a retailer, but you need to think like a publisher to win at content marketing. Think about audiences, rather than customers. Audience comes first. If you do your job well, a percentage of your growing audience should become new leads / customers.
Define your target audience before you start to produce content. Take a look at your best customers, and your most engaged visitors, and try to figure out what kind of content attracts these people. What kind of content transforms a visitor into a lead / customer?
In my mind content marketing should be firmly anchored around moving the brand metrics (e.g. awareness, perception, favourability) in the right direction. Define your brand terms, so you know what to look for (for example your brand name, product names, key people, and if you label content in a unique way then perhaps that too).
Monitor analytics to see how many people visit using these branded search terms. See how things change over time, and look out for any spikes, to see if a piece of content helped to influence visits. Consider the differences between branded search traffic and other traffic. Are these visitors more valuable to you?
The trouble for me is that we use Google Analytics to track web visitors, and the horrific ‘Not Provided’ situation has considerably worsened in 2012. ‘Not Provided’ now accounts for 55% of our search traffic, up from about 33% a year ago (you can see on the chart below when it really started to take hold).
It looks as if branded search is falling, when actually the level of ‘Not Provided’ data is rising. It makes it rather difficult to see a clear picture of what’s happening (a hack would be to put this data into a spreadsheet, factor in the level of 'Not Provided' on a month by month basis, and do a little multiplcation).
The above chart was from ‘Search/Overview’, in the menu on the left. I made the mistake of choosing ‘Search Engine Optimisation / Queries’ and could only see data for the last three months. Unless we’ve screwed something up I guess this is a sucky Webmaster Tools limitation.
The ongoing production of compelling content that appeals to your target audience is what content marketing is all about. Your role as a content marketer is to steer the production of content (and no doubt to produce some yourself).
Content must always be aligned to your brand, your story, and - most importantly - your products and services. You can aim content at beginners or experts. You can target a passive audience, and / or your hardcore fans. Content can be educational, or fun, or shocking, or amusing, or emotional, or sexy.
Content comes in many, many forms, and can be further sub-divided. For example, here are 34 blog post templates that we regularly use. The blog is our content marketing platform, and the kind of content we produce can be sub-divided into templates (interviews, ask the expert posts, reviews, case studies, stats-based posts, and so on). Your business may be very to different to ours, but I'll bet that you’ll be able to use many of these templates.
Note that blogging is just one type of content format. There are at least 20 others I can think of…
- Case studies
- Comics and memes
- Crowdsourced content
- Games and apps
- Linkbait (e.g. your 404 page)
- Own-brand magazines
- Product pages (e.g. J Peterman - attracts links, shares, love)
- Press releases
Clearly there is much to do! What did I miss?
If you produce video then you’d be mad to ignore YouTube. Images and infographics should be added to your Pinterest board. Your blog headlines should automatically populate your Twitter feed. You can curate your best content on your Facebook page. And so on. These content-sharing platforms are used by your current audience - your fans and followers - as well potential new audiences.
You need to optimise your content for these third party platforms. YouTube is the second biggest search engine in the world, but it’s very noisy. How can you stand out? For starters, you can use the YouTube keyword tool to figure out how best to label your video (here are some more tips on how to optimise your YouTube content). Content distribution isn’t about ticking the boxes, it is about making the boxes interesting and painting them with dayglo paint so that they can be easily seen.
Evergreen content never grows old. It is the gift that keeps on giving, and should be a core part to your content production strategy. Content that establishes itself in Google and sticks around for the long-term pays handsome dividends. Avoid dates or anything time-specific. Avoid news hooks. Produce reference material and niche content that appeals to specific needs.
For example, an article I wrote last year on the theme of ‘scrolling websites’ continues to deliver many thousands of page impressions of week. Why? Probably because it is very niche, does what it says on the tin, and the subject continues to grow in popularity. Google Trends is a useful tool for spotting keyphrases that are taking off.
A pre-defined editorial scope is essential. Content should be produced within certain brand parameters, should be created for a reason, and it must be aligned to your long-term goals.
Mining the gaps on Google is something the content marketer should do to a) identify valuable search positions that you do not currently own, and b) steer the content producers in the right direction. Consider the volume of searches for a particular term. Take a look at the competition, to try to figure out the scale of the challenge, and the type of content you should produce. Put any fears you have about using spreadsheets to one side. Spreadsheets are your best friend.
It’s a very good idea to create a style guide, which should be adhered to by your content producers. Consistency of tone and spelling is important. Establish a few guidelines.
SEO lives at the intersection of content and marketing. We’ve always believed that the best way to rank well is to produce lots of unique, high value content, and certainly that seems to pay off.
We’re now trying to generate new content - and therefore new links - in a more targeted way. We are currently working on a new taxonomy for our website: currently there are around 22 top level categories, but we are planning on reducing these to 10. Old categories will become new sub-categories, and there will be other sub-categories to identify. We will then map hundreds of keyphrases to these categories, which will help underpin our gap analysis efforts, and we will produce tactical content to plug the holes.
Avoid it like the plague. Use plain English. Death to PRspeak.
Keep It Real
We live in a social age where authenticity and transparency will always triumph over duplicity and wool-pulling. Old school PR whitewashing campaigns to cover up bad news don’t seem to work so well these days. Be honest, admit mistakes if you need to, and apologise where necessary.
Lead generation remains a primary goal for many content marketers. Leads come in different shapes and sizes: a visitor to your blog is one kind of lead; one that follows you on Twitter is another. Then there are people who sign up to your newsletter (you know their email address, so they’re that bit more valuable). Direct leads in the form of enquiries and applications can arise from your content too.
Consider our blog. I’d define a lead as being anyone who a) doesn’t bounce, and b) undertakes some form of action. The hotness of the lead depends on the level of action. So in our case, the blog serves to:
- direct visitors to key pages (e.g. the reports pages),
- persuade them to sign up to the newsletter, and hopefully
- join / subscribe to Econsultancy (you know it makes sense).
All of these things are more valuable than a simple visit, especially since we’re not reliant on advertising. Measuring success by CPM is ok, and it’s indicative of something, but you need to beware of outliers. For example, last year we had a post with ‘Dancing On Ice’ in the title. It attracted a massive amount of visitors, but the bounce rate was 99.7%. Not exactly our target audience...
Define your metrics and KPIs upfront and get into the habit of tracking them. Links. Mentions. Shares. Followers. Comments. Leads. Sales. There are plenty of others, and they’re very much dependent on your goals.
For example, one of the key goals for our blog is to direct visitors towards our research archive, to deep dive into a subject (a blog post can only cover so much ground, and we have things to sell). The chart below shows how we are increasing the flow of traffic to these product pages (in the past two years the blog has sent more than 200,000 people to our report pages, with half of them classified as ‘new visitors’).
What’s your story? What are your values? What is your brand trying to communicate? Do you have a long-term picture of where you’ve been, where you’re at, and where you’re going? This harks back to branding, and your content should be properly aligned to these things.
Reblogging sucks. Me-too sucks. Scraping sucks. The very best, most powerful content is unique and highly original, as I’m sure you already know. Be creative. Experiment. Take a risk from time to time. Add value. Put things into context. Join up the dots. Try to look beyond the obvious.
Press releases may be on the wane, but they’re still a de facto part of releasing your news to the world. Google isn’t crazy about PR distribution sites, yet they can still help to spread the word. Create multiple versions of a press release to target specific journalists / publications. Consider a revamp of your online press centre.
One of the key tasks for a content marketer is to understand how best to support the business. Stakeholders across the business should be interrogated. Colleagues should be mined for ideas to turn into content. You should know which parts of the business are the most profitable, and prioritise content / themes accordingly.
There are at least 19 content marketing tools that can help you to track your performance, and you should set up some custom reports in Google Analytics.
Build your social networks and they will help you to punch well above your weight. Content marketers should work very closely with their socially-focused colleagues. Scheduling is very important, and social content can be optimised to generate more clicks and shares. Your fans and followers are also a great source of ideas: get into the habit of regularly asking questions and launching surveys (e.g. Twitpoll) to crowdsource content.
Once you have an idea of your workflow processes, you can set up some tools. Create a content schedule, mapped to your business (e.g. product / campaign release dates, SEO strategy). Use Google’s advanced search tool to programme some branded searches, to keep an eye open for new links and mentions (you can bookmark them, or turn them into RSS feeds or email alerts).
Create a broader listening station, plugging in keyword terms relevant to your business, to discover ideas to write about, and find influencers to make friends with. As well as advanced search on Google, Topsy is useful for doing this. The chart below shows all mentions of ‘content marketing’ on Twitter in the past day, with links.
Content marketers should have a deep understanding of their users, and need to figure out how content can extend and enhance the user experience. It needs to be presented in the right way. Consider mobile and tablet users, which now account for about a fifth of total visits to Econsultancy, and we should be doing a better job of improving the user experience for these visitors. Websites should be mobile optimised (ours isn’t, but it is an area that we will hopefully improve this year). Content can take the form of apps, if you have a big enough mobile audience.
The production of highly shareable content is a fundamental, ongoing goal for content marketing professionals. Keep an eye on the best - and worst - social media campaigns. See what branded content attracts the most love on the likes of Twitter and Facebook. Think about the 12 viral triggers that people react to, before you start working on your next piece of content.
You need your website to work for you, to make the most of the content you produce (and existing content too). On-page content remains a major factor for achieving top search rankings. As such you should undertake a website audit. Put your technical hat on.
Now replace your hat for another marked ‘Content’. Audit / benchmark your existing content. See which content templates and formats have been performing well. Take a look at your SEO goals to see how you’re doing, and target areas for improvement (via the production of new content, and the optimisation of existing content).
Finally, you should definitely spend some time benchmarking the competition. This is mainly about the content they produce (and how it is distributed), but should extend to SEO and social. What’s working for them? How frequently are they updating their content, their distribution channels, and their social networks? Can you correlate a competitor’s content marketing campaign with its performance? (e.g. website metrics, social metrics, and trading performance, where available)
Can you see what’s around the corner? A top content marketing professional will be aware of emerging trends, and the nature of the role to some degree requires the wearing of a long-term hat. Reading is probably 20% of your job, and you should be prepared to be agile, changing your approach and tactics in line with audience preferences, or simply making the most of a news story, as Specsavers recently did with a print ad (designed, surely, for maxium love on social channels).
Your Existing Customers / Audience
Digital marketing in the first decade of the new millennium was all about customer acquisition. Mercifully, digital marketing in the second decade seems to be paying more attention to retention, and I think it's crucial to produce the right kind of content for your existing customers / audience. Try to identify your most important customers and think about how you can engage these people with bespoke content. They're more likely than most to enjoy and share it.
“Just because somebody hears something you say, or reads something that you write, doesn’t mean you’ve reached them.” - Frank Zappa