How important is content strategy in the context of digital transformation?

It’s very important, in two ways: 

The first is more tactical. Changes in SEO mean that Google has achieved what it set out to do, which is to create an index based on reputation, rather than how well brands and sites can ‘scam’ its algorithm. 

Genuine reputation building through content is the key to successful SEO. So the scamming has been replaced by SEO strategies based on quality content.

Second is that the focus on content has led to deeper thinking, if brands are smart, about what reputation they can portray, asking questions like:

  • What kind of brand am I?
  • How do I portray that through content?
  • How can I get people interested in my product or service through content? 

Creating great content is a very important tactic for SEO but to be successful, you need to back this up with a strong content strategy which deals with the three questions above. 

What are the challenges when making a business case for an investment in content? 

It’s a split, some get it and some don’t.

Some organisations, which have always used PR and carried out brand building are conscious of the benefits of content.

Others, perhaps with more of a ‘pile it high, sell it cheap’ mentality, can be harder to convince. It’s a bigger step for them as they are less used to communication channels, like display, which don’t always offer precise ROI. 

More brands are getting it now, and SEO is a big eye opener here. They have to accept the new reality that good search rankings are achievable mainly through content.

With this acceptance of the value of content for SEO, is there a danger that people will just pump out content merely to satisfy SEO goals? 

They may be some who think all you need to do is write 3,000 words per week, but an effective content strategy for SEO needs to be:

  • Planned
  • Focused
  • Fit with a set of values or message.   

You won’t get anywhere if you produce five pieces of content with mild appeal, you want to engage your audience and give them reasons to come back.

I come from an ecommerce background and understand the importance of retention, and the same principle applies to content.

If you keep having to acquire an audience again and again it’s an inefficient use of content.

In the guide, you mention different content types and the roles they play, can you explain this? 

Most people think of content as the wonderful engaging stuff that evokes emotions, the kind of high profile pieces that people share and talk about. 

Other branches of content can be overlooked, but are no less important. These are the small pieces of micro-content (or micro-copy as we have called it before) which help people to complete forms, sign up for white papers and other goals, as well as the language used on calls to action.

People don’t necessarily think of this when they consider content, but it performs a vitally important role. This is what I call transactional content in the report. 

Next is transitional content, the content that brands can use to move customers from one stage to the next.

It’s about a very specific proposition, what is needed to make people enquire further?

Relationship building content is about how to present the brand, the tone of voice to use, the style, and the context in which content is used.

Is the brand a little bit dangerous and groundbreaking, or perhaps more safe? The content needs to reflect the chosen image. 

There’s an interesting quote in the report from Hubspot’s Joe Chernov, which refers to the danger of spoiling relationships with an audience built through content by using it to sell too hard. What is the right balance?

It’s tricky, and something I spend a lot of time talking to clients about. Balance isn’t easy to find and it isn’t the same for everyone. 

For example, if you have a world changing product which is worthy and will help people, then you shouldn’t be too afraid to sell hard.

However, for more utilitarian products and services, you need to be more careful to engage with your potential customers. It’s a more considered process, and thought has to be given to the story being told around the product. 

It’s important to build a story around the product, rather than rushing to sell it. At the end of this storytelling, you can talk about the features which relate to the story, or the needs that customers have which your product or service can help with. 

It’s not about selling the product overtly, but subtly hinting that your product will enable readers to acquire that thing or solve the problem the content deals with.

Further down the line, once customers are interested, you can start to sell the benefits. 

To simplify, it’s a three step transition:

  1. Talk about issues related to the product that attracts the audience, without the sell.
  2. At the end of that, you can look how the product can help them. 
  3. Then you can transition to the ecommerce site (or whatever the goal is) to sell the benefits and features of your products. 

It’s very important not to sell too hard, too early.

How important is keyword strategy when planning content? 

It’s certainly something to be aware of when planning your content strategy, though we are in a transitional phase in terms of SEO.

Google is attributing significance to the meaning of the words, not just the words themselves. As this semantic indexing emerges, then there will be less emphasis on a precise keyword targeting strategy.

However, it’s not clear exactly where we are in that transition right now. Google wants us to think that they’re putting more importance on meaning, rather than precise keywords, but research from SEO bloggers and others suggest that precise keywords are still very important. This will diminish in time though.

As things stand, keyword research is still important if improving SEO performance is one of the goals of your content strategy. You have to be clear about the kinds of terms you want to rank for.

It’s important to understands keywords, and not to do any research would be foolish.

Which tools do you use to research keywords?

I use a bunch of tools, and Moz is the main one for me.

I think Google has damaged its own keyword tools and they’re not nearly as useful as they used to be. They seem to be designed more for planning ad campaigns then research keyword opportunities.

There are some useful new tools coming through, but I’d recommend anyone starting out to look at the old ones first. 

How should businesses measure and prove the value of content? 

It can be relatively easy if content leads directly to an event, such as a sale, a newsletter signup or whitepaper download. In this case, it’s about measuring click-throughs to a product page or a form. 

Some clients do despair when such direct methods of measurement aren’t available. However, you can measure engagement with content: is it driving repeat visits? Is it playing a part in acquiring new visitors? 

You can also carry out customer analysis, to find out how much more valuable customers that engaged with content area to the business.

In my experience, those engaged customers tend to be the much more valuable. 

Can you explain the stock and flow content types you refer to? 

Stock is that evergreen content that an audience will return to sites for, and will remain relevant over time.

It may be in-depth articles, regularly updated stats which provide a resource people came back for, or things like whitepapers. 

This is the content that should be re-used and will be re-accessible by your audience. It should also to a lot to define the brand and help with its goals. It’s very important.

Flow content includes things like news, tweets, images, things that are more disposable yet attract attention for a short period of time.

Its goal is to amplify and refer to the stock content.

To use an analogy, stock content is the bonfire, and flow is the fireworks. They draw attention to the bonfire, but the bonfire is the thing.

You mention the 70/20/10 rule in the report: how does it relate to content strategy?

It’s a rule that comes up again and again, and it applies to content, in two ways: 

The first one has to do with the ratio of content production. For example, the BBC wants its reporters to be able to produce 70% of their content without the need for any technical help (from IT etc), so this is self-published.

20% of content may need some input and help from IT and other departments, while 10% would need to involve a full IT project.

The numbers don’t matter so much, but the principle is important. If the majority of content can be predicted without outside help, excepting things like editorial checks and input, then this liberates the content producers.

The next way to apply the rule is innovation. The notion here is that 70% of content should support the core business, engaging customers, creating evergreen content etc. 

20% should be pushing new boundaries in terms of themes, topics and distribution channels.

That leaves 10%, which should be based around looking at how content and formats will change in the next 12 months, and what content teams can do to keep themselves ahead of the competition and remain relevant.

Our new Implementing Content Strategy: Digital Best Practice report, written by Dr Mike Baxter, provides a framework for evaluating your current content strategy and content planning processes, helping you make the most of your content in the future.